Finnian Gleeson (UCL) - 2019-20 Students

The politics of heritage in East London, c.1970- the present

This research explores the public dissemination of popular historical narratives – or ‘heritage’ – in East London, c.1970 to the present. The area was practically and symbolically significant to the political and social upheavals of contemporary British history. ‘Slum’ clearance, urban redevelopment and outward migration – pursued throughout the post-war decades – contributed to the increasing individualisation of leisure patterns. Notions of work in the area were contemporarily transformed as the image of the idealised masculine breadwinner was destabilised by deindustrialisation and the continued growth of women’s paid employment. These developments were central to a much-maligned sense of lost ‘community’ at the centre of local working-class life. The rise in their place of a fragmented, individualistic populace has become a familiar feature of the story of post-war Britain. These developments in the capital’s class structure intersect with another aspect of its contemporary history in ways which are often neglected. With its communities forged around the newly constructed docks and their related industries during the nineteenth-century, the East End played a crucial economic role in the imperial metropole. The loss of protected colonial markets was an important factor in the docks’ inability to compete internationally in the following century, while local hostility toward commonwealth migrants often viewed their presence within the broader context of urban alienation and disharmony. As such the East End offers an insight into the relationship between class and ‘community’, empire and decolonisation. It helps forge an image of what historians have called Britain’s ‘post-war, postcolonial’ history. Heritage offers accounts of a culture’s history which frame understandings of its present. As the industry grew nationally throughout the 1970s and 1980s museums, community groups, collectors and authors – representing distinct constituencies in the capital’s politics – sought to narrate fundamental shifts in the East End’s urban and social landscape. Their efforts to negotiate and narrate the complex interrelations between empire and industry, race and class, provides insight into the capital’s changing politics and the large structural shifts which shaped it. Herein lies insights into the application of heritage to urban politics, and into the tension between the stories told – and lessons derived – by those active in it.

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