Townscape as archive: the case of Leeds

It is of course quite unoriginal to say that we can learn much of the history of a town or city by looking at its buildings, signs, street furniture and the like. But I have had an illustration of this from the buildings of Leeds that is so striking that it is worth some discussion.


SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAThe Headrow, opened in 1930 and replacing the old Upper and Lower Headrows, was promoted by the then leader of the city council, Sir Charles Wilson, as the main street of the city – and no doubt as his own monument. Lettice Cooper, in her 1950 portrait of the West Riding in the Robert Hale “County Books” series, says that the Headrow is “much more like a street in a great city than any other that I know of in a West Riding town.” If this is true I do not know that it is saying much. The buildings lining the Headrow are of a subdued baroque style that was then still all too common. Baroque was popular for some decades from the late nineteenth century, and this did produce one or two masterpieces, for example the city halls of Glasgow and Belfast. But as the twentieth century got into its stride it began to lose the exuberance that it needed if it was to produce great work; and yet it was not uncompromisingly severe in the manner of the modernism which was replacing it by 1930. The result is half-hearted ornamentation, seen above in the balustrades and the flaming urns worked into the Portland stone above the parapets, in otherwise plain frontages with an emphasis on the verticals. What was supposed to be the city’s focal point is caught for ever at this decadent moment.

Turn south into Briggate and you cross a fault line. The effect is like a sharp tilt of the earth towards the sun. For from here on you encounter the best of the city’s Victoriana, where high-spirited ornamentation runs free, unashamed in its eccentricity.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAThe terracotta of Frank Matcham’s County Arcade (right) probably takes this closest to its logical conclusion.  Look also at the view along Albion Place and King Edward Street to see just what a long sweeping perspective ought to be:


And by the time we reach Boar Lane the effect is as intense as it gets:


Whatever the grand ideas for what the Headrow was to be, it is abruptly clear as we walk and gaze that the heart and epitome of Leeds remained elsewhere and had been given to us by the vitality and high spirits of an earlier time.


A three-dimensional archive

I recently visited the museum of the Vintage Carriages Trust, at Ingrow West station on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway in West Yorkshire. The Trust is dedicated to the restoration of old railway carriages to their original condition; some of them when restored may then occasionally run on the railway.

It occurred to me that the collection of carriages constitutes a three-dimensional archive. By showing us not only how old carriages looked but presenting that look in immaculate condition and letting us sit in some of the compartments, as they do, they allow us to get a rather different sense of what travelling in those carriages was actually like than an old photograph gives. Fascinating and indispensable as old photographs are, their technical qualities emphasise the difference of past ages from our own. To sit in one of these carriages emphasises our common humanity: we can get at least a sense of the experience of the original passengers.

I sat in Great Northern Railway no. 589, taking in the tongue and groove panelling, the paint and varnish, the seat moquettes and, in first class, the PVC which has replaced leather, but in the original buttoned design. In an old Metropolitan Railway carriage I took in the luggage racks of wrought iron and plaited string, the wartime posters in Edward Johnston’s celebrated typeface and the engraving on the inside door handles, “Live in Metroland”. But my favourite was one of Oliver Bulleid’s main line carriages for British Railways Southern Region of 1950 with its veneer, plain electric light bulbs, circular mirrors (a very Bulleid touch), chrome fittings and red seat moquette – a replacement, but woven to the original pattern. The appeal of this was that it is only just out of reach of my memory – its working life extended into my own lifetime by a few years but I never travelled on one of its type. So it was enough like carriages I do remember to be familiar, but much was also different. I had the endlessly tantalising sense of drawing on memory and history and trying to reconcile them; and though I made progress towards it I could not quite, and never will quite, “get the feeling”. This is the same sensation I get from examining archives of the more conventional kind, and it is why I constantly return to them.

Now the VCT’s volunteer staff shy away from the idea that they are running an archive; they are clear that it is a museum. Their aim is to attract people who have come for a day out on the railway who are naturally interested in steam engines but have probably never thought about carriages, and arouse in them an interest in carriages. But where do we draw boundaries? I was once shown Samuel Butler’s sheep brand (from his time as a farmer in New Zealand) – in a library, that of St John’s College Cambridge. On the other hand a librarian once suggested to me that an archive holds documents produced for the private use of an organisation: a library is the proper repository only for items which have been published or disseminated, even if on a small scale such as a parish magazine. A railway carriage, intended for public use, obviously was in a sense disseminated, but when the VCT restores a carriage to show how it looked, or how it was made to look, it is a matrix of archival detail on this subject which produces the total effect.

This compares with period-instrument orchestras. These instruments naturally produced the sound of their own era but have survived as tokens of the history of music and of the development of each instrument. This is a kind of archive. But these instruments today also give us, we could well say, oral testimony of the sounds of the past by being used for performance. This is another kind of archive. Period instrument performance has now reached the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This time is contiguous with our own: by then keys had replaced holes and valves had replaced crooks, even if flutes were still of wood and metal strings had not yet replaced gut. So the sound is familiar but not quite our own and is a product of the minutiae of technique and of sound. It is the “archive” which has given us the totality of the effect.

Archives and historical narrative

The recent controversy over history teaching sometimes appeared to turn on whether the syllabus should consist of a chronological narrative of events or of a set of techniques for finding and organising historical data.

I see no point in arguing that narrative should or should not enter into history teaching: whatever anyone intends it is bound to be woven into it. No research technique is learned without being practised; and no research technique is practised without being used to gather material on some historical event which constitutes a narrative. The real question is whether pupils are to be presented with an officially approved narrative which they are expected to learn or whether they are to explore something of the nature of historical narrative. I suggest that historical narrative has two characteristics which make the latter course the only honest one.

First, there are many narratives. Any historical event can be seen from multiple points of view, all of which need to be appreciated. And there are the histories not only of each nation as a whole but of every locality in it, of international relations and of a multitude of human pursuits. All of these are worth studying, and it is not clear that any of them is more fundamental or essential knowledge than any other. Which for example takes precedence, the problems of national government through the ages or the history of the neighbourhood we live in?

Second, narratives are fissile. A narrative as presented by a historian has been assembled from multiple and often fragmentary sources which we can return to. Anyone studying history at any level should be introduced to these sources, and made aware that a narrative constructed from them could take more than one form. Preferably they should attempt to construct a narrative from the sources themselves. Here archives play a proud part in history teaching. A few years ago I was in a party visiting the Lancashire Record Office. Our guide asked how many of us had when at school visited a museum. Everybody had. And how many had visited a library? Again, everybody. And how many an archive? Nobody. But the Lancashire Record Office now regularly hosts school parties who handle the documents and surely learn how a narrative which superficially is a smooth progression of events breaks down into its component parts. This is unquestionably an improvement in the teaching and learning of history since the days when schoolchildren never went near archives, and the educational work of archives and archivists is something we should fiercely defend.

There is another point. Any syllabus in any subject must be negotiated, in the sense that one negotiates a hairpin bend: each pupil must make sense of it and make a pattern from it that is their own. This is something that cannot but happen, human consciousness being what it is, and it is beyond the control of any syllabus designer. The use of archives in history teaching helps to ensure that the study of history is not a frontal advance in a single direction and that it is therefore better suited to the individual mind. From the many and discrete sources we learn to make sense and to judge. This is one way of learning to think. And who will deny that as among the purposes of education?

A short manifesto

On this blog I shall be posting my thoughts on archives, their nature, capabilities and implications, and some of the things I find in them.  It is My Archives in that it is archives as I see them and that it is an archive of my writings on the subject.  There may be some bias towards London, which is where most of my historical research is done, and where I have friends amongst archivists, and especially towards Middlesex in the twentieth century, which is my specialism.  But I hope to range widely beyond this, in particular to the north of England, where I spend a good deal of my time, and to questions of historiography as they relate to archives.  I hope you will enjoy reading it.