New publications from CC4HH research

We’re very proud to announce that we have our first academic publications on our community research projects. Two of these relate to the Cheltenham Lower High Street project, and the latest concerns Cheltenham: Diaspora.

Christian O’Connell’s paper entitled ‘”Poor, Proud and Pretty:” Community History and the Challenge of Heritage in “Darkest” Cheltenham’ was published in International Journal of Regional and Local History. The article discusses a collaborative local history project in Cheltenham Spa’s Lower High Street, an area that has suffered from “symbolic annihilation” through a long history of stigmatisation at the expense the town’s Regency-era heritage. Residents’ testimonies give voice to marginalised experiences that help to establish the area’s distinctive “sense of place,” which is rooted in shared experiences of exclusion, hardship and community cohesion. Through nostalgic recollections, they also reveal a significant grassroots willingness to challenge the exclusionary practices of Cheltenham’s dominant and exclusionary Regency narrative. However, present concerns about ethnic diversity and urban decay also exposed contemporary anxieties that are indicative of the broader context of Britain in the EU referendum era. While offering a “history from below,” the paper also considers how universities operating as “anchor” institutions can help to address contemporary issues of social alienation and spatial inequality by fostering a greater appreciation of the past.

Visitors react to the Cheltenham Lower High Street: Past, Present and Future exhibition at Chapel Arts in Cheltenham, June 2017.

Matthew Kidd who also contributed to the Lower High Street project, published his paper ‘”Us and Them:” exploring social difference in an English Spa town’ in the autumn edition of Oral History. This article draws on interviews with former residents of Cheltenham’s Lower High Street area to explore how ordinary Cheltonians understood their place in the town’s social hierarchy in the post-war period. While the initial findings of the Cheltenham Lower High Street: Past, Present, Future project suggested that residents articulated a working-class identity, this article contends that such an interpretation does not do justice to the ambiguity that characterised their views on social difference. Most struggled to express their feelings about the issue; when they did so, they tended to articulate a populist rather than class-based model of society. By exploring social difference in an atypical English town, this article seeks to contribute to ongoing debates about class in post-war Britain.

Finally, David Howell’s paper ‘Expanding Heritage Horizons through the Cheltenham: A Diaspora Project‘ has just been published in the journal Present Pasts, and can be read free online. This article considers the Cheltenham: Diaspora project, an exploration and promotion of migration heritage narratives in Cheltenham (UK). Cheltenham has a diverse history, but heritage provision in the locality has been consistently concentrated on 18th and 19th century Regency architecture. This has led to a marginalisation of non-elite heritage narratives, with no permanent platform for culturally diverse heritage themes in the region. In addition, informal, online history themed social media groups have, rather than expand heritage narratives, ultimately further narrowed heritage discussions. The Diaspora project looked to challenge the lack of diversity in the authorised heritage discourse, and informal online discourses of Cheltenham’s heritage, while enhancing the democratic nature of research projects coming out of the University of Gloucestershire. This paper considers the difficulties encountered in attempting to democratise heritage research, in a cultural climate that is rigid in its perception of what counts as ‘heritage’ and what is deemed as relevant by more ‘vocal’ local stakeholder groups. Ultimately the project reveals that while social media provides a useful avenue through which diverse heritage narratives can be pursued and promoted, ingrained attitudes regarding authorised forms of heritage are robust and resistant to the introduction of the unfamiliar.

From India to Cheltenham

This post comes for second year undergraduate student Lydia Munn, who has been working as a research assistant on the Cheltenham: Diaspora project.

When I first joined the Cheltenham: Diaspora project I was unsure where my research would lead me. After exploring some of the project’s initial findings, I decided that I wanted to focus on women’s stories as I feel their voices are often overlooked. I noticed one narrative the project had already started looking at was the Ayah’s, who were Indian women brought over to England during the 19th century by British colonial officers in order to look after their children on the long ship journey’s. The officers were supposed to pay for these women’s journey home, but many ended up abandoned and were sent to the Ayahs’ home in London.

Ayahs Home
The Ayahs’ Home in Hackney, 1904. Photo courtesy of the British Library.

Most of these women’s stories have not been written down and are lost to history, but one Cheltenham related name that kept appearing was ‘Ruth’. She was an Ayah in the service of Colonel Rowlandson, and she became the first person from India to be baptised in Cheltenham along with one of the Colonel’s children. What is even more interesting is she was baptised by a different priest to the child, one who could speak her native language: Tamil. Very few records surrounding these women have been saved. With some determination though, I found the record of her baptism on Ancestry. This record revealed her last name, or at least the name she had been given while in England, as Adnitt, a piece of information I had not been able to previously find. I wondered if she had kept the name, so I searched for it on shipping records but found nothing. It was so frustrating as there was so much information about the English family she lived with, but so little about her.

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Ruth’s Baptism certificate obtained from Ancestry.

I have not given up on Ruth and hope to one day find out more about her but I wanted to be of more use to the project. A few weeks before I had helped the Diaspora team set up a pop-up exhibition at the Cheltenham Community Rescource Centre. During this Bernice Thomson, who runs the centre, had mentioned that she ran a group on Monday’s called Sahara Saheli, for women had had emigrated to Cheltenham from other parts of the world. I contacted her and asked if any of the women would like to be interviewed for the project, she suggested I come along to one of the Monday sessions, in order to introduce myself and explain the project. I thought I could be of use to the Diaspora project as many of these women come from traditional cultural backgrounds and would feel more comfortable being interviewed by another woman.

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The Cheltenham: Diaspora exhibition being installed at the Community Resource Centre on Grove Street.

The Sahara Saheli group was really welcoming and some of them seemed genuinely interested in the project. I conducted my first interview in March and heard the powerful story of a woman who came to Cheltenham from India in 1967. Over the next fifty years she watched a town change dramatically whilst dealing with immense loss and the need to support her family back in India. Sadly, due to the current Coronavirus pandemic it is unlikely I will be able to conduct anymore interviews this year, but I am so grateful that I have been able to have even the tiniest glimpse into some of these women’s amazing stories.