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Britain's working class history is disappearing

3,700 stately homes are being preserved for the nation - but the heritage of the people who actually built the country is being allowed to crumble. Applying for dedicated funding schemes requires expensive expertise, and one in eight applications is rejected. 

April 04 2024, 11.41am

The British countryside is dotted with historic houses and gardens, but while this grandeur tells a story, it certainly doesn’t represent the majority of people who have lived here. This imbalance is especially apparent in Northern England, where so much working class heritage has been lost, destroyed, or allowed to fall to the ground. Worker’s history has never been championed by any large institution - not governments, councils, the museum industry, or even heritage organisations themselves.

Heritage is a complex issue, governed, like everything else, by politics, funding, resources, and interest in a country that prioritises working class stories only sporadically and selectively. What makes it harder is the difficulty of preserving culture when it is about who and what we are, as opposed to a physical object or building. However, fighting to protect this heritage is what helps British people understand their identity in order to provide a legacy to take into the future. It also provides protection against a homogenous nation, where people become divorced from the cultural practices that should form a part of modern Britain.        

According to the government’s Social Mobility Commission, around half of the country now considers themselves to be working class. But there are very few museums and experiences focussed on working class history, which includes old mills like the Helmshore Textile Museum, industrial areas like Wigan Pier and Black Country Living Museum, as well as restored historical sites like the West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village. There is only one museum purely dedicated to activism and worker’s rights in the UK - Manchester’s People’s History Museum. Although there are some smaller collections, libraries, projects, and buildings that serve as monuments to working class history, there is a stark lack of representation. In contrast, there are more than 3,700 stately homes and country houses which have been preserved for future generations.                                                                                                                       

The former director of National Museums Liverpool, David Fleming, wrote that museums have for the most part “failed the working class” in Museums and the Working Class, published in 2021. This is, in part, because groups working to preserve this kind of history often have to rely on what are known as microgrants - which can be both precarious and inaccessible sources of funding.

“Grants could make more of a difference if the application processes were further simplified, with awareness about the grants reaching a wider audience beyond creative organisations.”

Historic England published a new diversity and inclusion strategy in 2020 before unveiling the Everyday Heritage Grant in 2022. While it is not the only heritage grant available, it is aimed at smaller community groups to preserve the “untold stories” of working class history. Their aim is to do that by funding projects that go beyond buildings and museums. They ringfenced £774,000 for the project in total, with £6,000-£25,000 to be awarded per project. 

Out of more than 500 proposals, 57 received funding, with projects including music, sports, clubs, pubs, and working life. One project used the money to celebrate the landladies of Morecambe with oral histories, films, and an exhibition. Another held workshops for young people in Birmingham to learn about traditional blacksmithing. 

In 2023, new funding was released to reopen the scheme for another year. To apply for these grants, organisations are required to submit an application form and budget spreadsheet to demonstrate how they would deliver it and what it would cost. But, while the microgrant system can aid working class communities, the process itself can be exclusionary. 

"It is important that such projects are not just for and about working-class people, but also by working class people," says Dr Leanne Dawson, a diversity and inclusion consultant and academic who was herself raised working class and in poverty. "I don’t mean in the form of volunteering or unpaid community voices, but that working-class people are winning the funding and leading the projects."

"Generally, funding applications are a learned skill," she adds. "They are about knowing which buzzwords to use and how to sell an idea.” Her suggestion is for an “even shorter, clear application process,” such as submitting a three-minute video which would make applying more accessible.

Who actually benefits - and who loses out?

With so many applicants in the first round of funding, many working class organisations missed out. Aftab Rahman, the CEO of Legacy West Midlands which is focussed on Birmingham’s post-war migrant communities, had his application turned down as the grant was oversubscribed. However, he had feedback for them which they duly implemented. 

Rahman noticed that the first publicity images for the application only featured white people: “The publicity around the grant was aimed more at the working class white community. I contacted Historic England and asked them to make the changes to reflect a wider section of the community, and they did,” he says. 

Sean Curran, head of inclusion at Historic England confirmed the organisation had evaluated their processes. They said they made the application form easier, changed the criteria on “wellbeing, health, building friendships and developing skills,” and tried to encourage more local projects. In the second round, Historic England aimed to provide “clearer guidance about how to address barriers to engagement with heritage, and made it clearer what we meant by co-creation to ensure that participants have a meaningful decision-making role in all stages of the projects,” Curran said.

There is, however, no demographic data that shows the diversity of the recipients. Historic England tells us this is because they fund organisations and not individual people. They maintain that their projects are awarded based on the application and how the projects engage with communities. However, without any figures, it is difficult to know how they actually benefit diverse groups whose heritage is much more likely to be overlooked or erased from history than white communities. It also makes it easier for established creative organisations who understand the grant process to get more out of the experience.

Among historians, there is a mixture of relief and cynicism when it comes to grants like these. There is an appetite for preserving as much culture as possible, but also an understanding of the myriad of constraints involved.

“No grant system can bring back what has already been demolished or damaged beyond repair.”

Stefan Ramsden is a historian at the University of Manchester working on the ‘Our Heritage, Our Stories’ project, which aims to create a digital archive of UK community history. He welcomes grants that go beyond the usual stately homes but harbours concerns about their sustainability. “The problems for many grassroots heritage organisations are keeping going in the longer term, and the one-off grant funding model doesn't solve that,” Ramsden tells The Lead.

There are also concerns that other heritage organisations aren’t delivering when it comes to working class stories. According to Nick Mansfield, former director of Manchester’s People's History Museum and labour historian at the University of Central Lancashire, the National Trust is “very flaky with working class history.” 

Mansfield points out that working class memories, like oral histories, are often lost when there is nowhere to archive them. The people behind these stories “may be talking to local record offices or libraries that often have local studies or heritage sections, but they've been terribly hit by local authority cuts,” he says. 

Historic England themselves have a large archive filled with working class materials like photographs in Swindon, but Mansfield laments they don’t have the resources to interpret them. He adds that small grants also won’t be enough to save physical heritage that is already in decline. “A small grant like this can’t really preserve buildings. They know how much things cost and what skills and expertise you need for that,” he says.

No grant system can bring back what has already been demolished or damaged beyond repair. As there are few large-scale inventories of what we have now versus what has already been lost, it is difficult to contemplate the scale of it. 

One of the exceptions is Greater Manchester, due to the sheer volume of industrial-era square footage found there, mainly in the form of old factories. Still, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the mills remaining in the region were surveyed by what was then the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England (RCHME). Based on that, they decided to give 90 out of 972 listed status. 

In 2017, Historic England commissioned a University of Salford report which said that almost half of Greater Manchester’s textile mills were demolished in the previous 30 years. Oldham Council then looked at their own real estate in their 2020 Oldham Mills Strategy and indexed the properties they had, as well as the potential to regenerate them. However, if a mill or old structure wasn’t economically viable to save, they expressed that it could be demolished.  

Campaign group Save Britain’s Heritage has recently identified more working class heritage at risk in Manchester. This includes several warehouse buildings, weavers cottages and Charter Street Ragged School which provided a sanctuary for girls at risk. As approximately 100 buildings are added to their register each year, preserving these stories is proving an overwhelming task.

The intangible nature of cultural heritage

While this is England’s bricks-and-mortar heritage, much of what is vital about working class history is cultural. This is something researchers in Scotland have identified, highlighting that several areas of their intangible heritage - such as music, folklore, oral histories and even environmental practices like peat cutting - are at risk. 

“Working class history has suffered from institutional neglect... no one organisation to blame for this, it is all of them: Governments, councils, mainstream museum curators and collectors, and large historic organisations.”

To help address this problem, the Ar Dàimhean is Dualachas (Our Relationships and Heritage) team from the University of the West of Scotland and Historic Environment Scotland believe a UK-wide framework should be put in place to protect any non-physical heritage. 

In the 1970s and 80s, community publishing thrived and was encouraged in state schools - this produced “hundreds” of autobiographies and oral histories, which allowed people to tell their own stories and add to the collective memory of what it is to be working class. However, changes in the curriculum and teaching methods meant initiatives like this fell by the wayside. The government’s training body the Manpower Services Commission also funded a range of oral history projects in the 70s and 80s before it was abolished.

The call for change is also coming from the capital. London’s Museum As Muck support network was set up in 2018 to help working class people in the industry, as well as provide better representation. According to their figures, just  23% of people who work in the museum sector identify as working class. In response, they created the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm to look at better diversity in London’s heritage sites and then made recommendations to improve it. A Museum of London investigation also urged all museums to innovate when it comes to working class stories to “embrace their social responsibility.” 

An example provided by Ramsden of a successful heritage project is the Hull Bullnose Heritage Group, which is run by fishers who work to preserve local history in their centre. They do this effectively by collecting objects and stories to illustrate it, which they put on display. 

In February this year, Historic England announced 56 new projects were being funded out of around 380 applications. With 500+ applications the year before, that’s more than 100 organisations who decided against applying, weren’t aware of the funding, or were otherwise put off. 

When heritage is connected with civic pride and fundamentally tied to our localities, it would make sense that budgets would be readily available to preserve it. As that has never been the case, working class history has suffered from institutional neglect, and there is no one organisation to blame for this, it is all of them. It is governments, councils, mainstream museum curators and collectors, and large historic organisations that never saw the value in working class culture or the stories those now long dead had to tell.

Grants could make more of a difference if the application processes were further simplified, with awareness about the grants reaching a wider audience beyond creative organisations - especially if there could be additional outreach done via trade unions. The most successful projects that celebrate working class history are ones that have real community engagement and capture people’s imagination. While the microgrant system is a great way to set up a project, the way to sustain it is by ensuring people have the space, income, and power to protect places or cultures so they can live on for generations.

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