WRITING THE HISTORY OF THE GREENWICH PENINSULA
(this article was written for the OU Journal in 2000)
Writing a history of the industries which preceded the Millennium Dome on the Greenwich Peninsula was, as it turned out, far from easy. The official story was about site pollution with a subtext that the old and bad was to become the new and clean. They didn’t want to know about anything that suggested the past was not, perhaps, all that awful. How does the historian cope with a subject, which ‘authority’ is wary about and which a number of others are likely to be upset by?
Research into the Dome site raises a lot of issues, some in the wide historical context and others of interest only to historians of particular industries. My research at the OU on the waste products of early gas manufacture in the context of surrounding industry gave me a head start with some of the manufacturers who had been on site in Greenwich. Further work produced exciting material, which validated some of my previous conclusions and identified a number of exciting and innovative factories. Any eventual book had to appeal to the widest public, and time constraints would leave much of the research only half-done.
Despite all this activity I had, however, never really been able to address what I felt were the wider issues raised by the research. Tentative attempts to draw attention to some of them had met with a horrified response from several quarters ‘how can you compare the Millennium Dome to the industries which went before it? I was aware, as they should have been, that the construction of the Dome on that particular site in Greenwich was yet another step in the exploitation of the area for economic gain. I also felt it likely that there were some bodies who would not welcome publicity about their activities – albeit that these activities took place over a hundred years ago.
Greenwich Marsh, as the peninsula was once always known, had been embanked and drained in time immemorial and administered by its own management body separately from the rest of the town. Much of it had been in institutional ownership from the seventeenth century and these charitable bodies acted as developers in the nineteenth century to encourage and promote industry. Many sites had harboured manufacturers who had been both ground breaking and important in a very wide context. I could not believe that subjects like the first Atlantic cable, the biggest gas holder in the world and guns for the Confederates in the American Civil War, financed by the opium trade, would not find an audience.
There were a number of points I wanted to make. First was that the Dome is just another stage in the continuum of development in an area which has been home to many industries with a world wide influence – and that the reasons for this are connected to the geographical context, land use and ownership. Publicity represented ‘Royalty and Time’ as the main historical contribution made in Greenwich but it seems very clear that its people have had a much wider impact beyond that. The presence of the Tudor Royal Palace with its military requirements and the consequent need for scientific research, also engendered by the Royal Observatory have been of great significance to local industry. There were a number of important points concerning individual industries and their influence in a wider context- for example, the aspirations of the gas company which encompassed new ideas on public service and industrial partnerships.
There was also a wider, more political, context about the role of the historian in regeneration. In Greenwich, throughout the 1980s, we had watched the development of the London Docklands Area. What had been the greatest port in the world simply disappeared. Many sites of great interest to industrial historians were demolished without the smallest attempt at recording. As they were replaced with new developments an ethos emerged which appeared determined to deny what had been there before. Reference to the past was only made in reference to jolly cockneys or to soured industrial relations. It is remarkable that of all the industrial centres of Britain, London – arguably the greatest of them all, has no industrial museum and this situation seems likely to continue despite brave attempts. Very few people from outside east London have any idea of the extent of this industrial heartland and most people would not believe in it. Why has the history of the vast engine for the economy of Britain simply been written off?
In Greenwich there was already a groundswell about the fate of the site of the Royal Arsenal. This vast armaments factory had been closed to all except those who worked there. Among the army of ex-workers however are a number who have become historians. When the site was eventually opened up to the public much had already been demolished and the only ‘heritage’ input into the site’s future was to be yet another artillery museum – nothing about the technological and scientific skills which allowed the military machine to function. Many ex-arsenal workers were ready to protest and my work on Greenwich marsh found a ready audience with them.
I began to try and get some support for a book about the industries around the Dome. Publishers and booksellers, could not grasp its wider context, but only saw it as, unsellable, local industrial history. I was told that no one would be interested outside a few enthusiasts in the local area. Others, including some local academics, could not see the Dome as part of continuum of development, saying anything that went before it was not of interest and was old and dirty. The official line was that the Dome was a break with the unpleasant past. They have been perfectly happy to promote the past of Greenwich when it is about Henry VIII, or Lord Nelson, – but not, in the most extreme example, to talk about the contribution of one local factory to the development of the Internet. They were also, of course, afraid that something embarrassing might be uncovered.
I published the book myself in June 1999 with some help from my ex-employers, a Docklands ‘community watchdog’ organisation. It was not easy to maintain the integrity of the research while at the same picking my way through the various sensibilities. Initially sales were to friends and locals and, then, increasingly to those who had lived and worked on the Peninsula. The press, except for one national newspaper has taken no interest. No local bookshop would take it and most of their private owners went out of their way to sneer. A number of other books have been produced and an ‘official’ history is on its way. As far as I am aware none of them have taken on the issues of the past of the site in a global context – the ‘old and dirty’ theme remains. The only information about the past which will be available to visitors on site will be the official history of the politics behind the Dome and – I presume – some populist stuff about ‘Royal Greenwich’.
Recently the landscape designer on the Dome site said that in laying out the park area that they would not adhere to the ‘current fashion for industrial heritage’. This comment reveals a great deal about what is wrong with the way that ‘regeneration’ tackles history. Much industrial history has been presented in what has sometimes been a very trivial way. Objects are isolated from their context and used as decorative features. Museums are often set up to present the past in a way which is easy to take in and, frequently very superficial. It is no surprise then that the whole subject is seen as a ‘fashion’ by urban designers – rather than something which was the stuff of so many lives. A similar problems is that it is often very difficult to get decision makers to understand that people researching their family histories are ordinary folk who have become historians through choice and that their search for knowledge will often lead them far beyond the mere names and dates of their ancestors. So sources of information are cut off and destroyed because it is thought they will be of interest only to the few. The desire of people from all walks of life to know about the past needs to be taken in a serious and unpatronising way.
I began by describing the difficulties I knew I would encounter in writing a history of the Dome site – and it has been a minefield – but one I have quite enjoyed finding my way through. Perhaps this article is the first step in saying what I really think about the site and its history. Those who visit the Dome will have no chance to find out about the achievements of its forerunners. I don’t want this to sound like a complaint. – I didn’t and don’t expect anything. What emerges – and this is also a conclusion from my experience as a ‘watchdog’ in London Docklands – is that historians and regenerators each need to keep themselves apart. The regeneration of industrial heartlands all over this country is a political issue and developers will manipulate the background to the site for whatever purpose – often for very good ones. Historians mustn’t be sucked in by this – they need to keep their own integrity and they do need to have an independent and honest stance when meeting the developers. They also need to be kept informed, or to take steps to find and not be afraid to engage in debate. No one will take you seriously if you go along with trivialities but you do need an intelligent appreciation of what the political agenda is.