I’ve finally finished in the Special Collections at Newcastle University. I was looking the their newspaper, Courier, published from 1948. Other than many, many articles on the state of university food (both price and quality) and accommodation issues, there was little directly related to the environment. In fact most students weren’t involved with any activism, at least if not related to food or board. In the 1960s things slowly changed with issues about civil rights, apartheid in South Africa, and lastly CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament).
But there was nothing directed towards the environment. Until, that is, I came to 1972, when issues begin to increase, mostly pertaining to ideas about population growth and sustainability, centred around the publication that year of A Blueprint for Survival (this can be accessed free online on The Ecologist‘s web archive of issues, 1970-1999 here: http://www.theecologist.org/back_archive/19701999/).
There is discussion in one article, not of SOC’EM but of another environmental group locally, TEC – Tyneside Environment Concern. They, together with others (the North East section of the Conservation Society and Clean Air for Teesside) wanted a ‘Blueprint for the North East’. The article is interesting, insofar as it links social justice and environmental justice. TEC was holding a festival ‘Planning for People’ which described current planning in the city as crazy. The festival wanted to tackle issues pertaining to the North East – unemployment, the abandonment of mining communities, pollution and dereliction. It questioned whether tackling one would negatively affect another? All the problems could be tackled, the festival argued, by creating a new, sustainable society, a ‘Blueprint for the North East’.
Is this an early example of social ecology, argued by Murray Bookchin in Our Synthetic Environment, which said you could only solve environmental problems by solving social problems? I’m not sure – I don’t know how the festival was received. TEC do claim they are concerned with the quality of life, but more bothered about rampant materialism on the lives of everyone.
Also today I found there seemed to have been a spilt in October 1973, when several members, including the former Chairman (and founder), his wife and daughter, and a couple of others, all resigned. This was in relation to an incident involving the Chairman – from what I can work out he had the society’s best intentions at heart but he exaggerated the number of members.
I don’t know anything more than that but it was in a local paper I think (this was referred to various times) and I will hopefully get to probe further. Also it is acutely clear that SOC’EM had money issues. A fundraiser held on 10 June 1974 at Balmbra Music Hall, aptly named “SOC’EM at Balmbra’s” included a timetable with times of performers to the minute. The show had a commedian compere, a conjurer, a fire eater, a folk singer, a jazz singer, an organist and an auction. They finished with the national anthem.
They held many jumble sales and sold Christmas cards and the impression is they were often in arrears. But also that their reach was quite long. There are many letters throughout the ten years of the group’s functioning from students and members of the public asking for more information about joining and information on specific issues relating to the group. Letters from students and staff at Newcastle University, Keele University, and Lanchester Polytechnic (now Coventry University) as well as Newcastle Polytechnic (Northumbria University) show the bredth of knowledge this organisation had. They were usually about motorway and urban planning too and less about the natural environment.
Finally today’s visit also touched on tension between different environmental groups – which numbered 7 in the area in the 1970s, including SOC’EM; one member’s letter stated he was in shock why they were at odds with other environmental groups and not in coalition with them. He questioned who the enemy is – the council or the environmental groups!
I came across a mission statement today for SOC’EM. What they stand for – ‘SOC’EM! is an action group devoted to the betterment of Newcastle upon Tyne as an historic [sic], living city’. They opposed motorways, wanted a better transport network, a better bus service and believe people come before cars.
They were anti-empty office blocks and wanted the conservation and continued use of buildings of architectural and historic importance. They wanted more trees and open space and were for a better environment.
They opposed pollution and waste and wanted an ecologically sustainable society. They supported social justice in the allocation of resources and believe the city belonged to the people and not just the planners.
Taken from March 1974, their mission statement is rather vast. I am still working through the papers, today’s boxes mainly concerned with 1978 and 1973. The former offered some information but much of it was not really useful for my research. The latter, however, opened up an interesting question. Last week’s boxes produced much from the late 1970s and early 1980s, and there seemed to be a pronounced shift away from environmental concerns towards building conservation. That is to say, from the natural to the built environment. In their mission statement about they mention both; in the later 1970s and early 1980s, however, there is about 30 or so letters from the Chairman to various organisations – local authorities, the Department for the Environment, the Victorian Society and the Civic Trust about various buildings in the area and what the proposals were for them. Mostly it was to demolish them, which the organisation – or the Chairman – opposed.
The question this offered up was how far is the built environment an ‘environmental’ concern as we understand it today (ie dealing with pollution, species extinction, climate change etc). Does it have a place in a thesis on environmentalism?
It will factor, only so far as to say SOC’EM moved away from the natural and towards the built environment as time went on. Had SOC’EM been concerned fully with historic building conservation from the outside and have no issues surrounding pollution etc, then it wouldn’t be looked at to the same extent.
Doing archival research can cause a range of emotions – joy when you stumble upon something significant, excitement when you get something unexpected, but useful, irritation when there is much of what you don’t need, but little of what you do, or just not much of anything, to anger, when your camera runs out or you are pushed for time looking atuseful items. Uncatalogued items can be an annoyance too.
At the moment I am going through some papers from SOC’EM, none of which are catalgoued. This is not the archives fault – often they have a huge amount of work and little time or staff, or money to catalogue everything. The staff are always helpful and you get faced with box after box of sources, in which there could be anything. I am limited by my timeframe, in terms of SOC’EM as an organisation lasted for 10 years, 1972 – 1982, but I am only interested in the first four years at most. Many boxes have things from the late 1970s and early 1980s, which might be interesting, but you just have to skip over it.
One thing I am learning (and I have only scratched the surface with the records in the archives) is that SOC’EM seemed to have shifted its focus primarily away from issues more often associated with the environment, like pollution, anti-road protests and so forth, and from 1975 looked more towards historic building conservation. This, whilst important, falls outside my remit of ‘environmental’ activism. There are dozens of letters from the late 1970s, and dozens of records from the council’s planning office, concerning local buildings, either asking for them to be added to conservation lists or detailing which buildings are in danger.
Until I’ve anaylsed all the photos I’ve taken and looked at all the minutes of the meetings, I cannot say for certain that there was this shift and how far that happened but it is interesting how their focus shifts during the 1970s towards more civil and historic building conservation and less towards traditional environmental ideas like pollution. I would’ve thought that their interest in environmental issues would’ve increased over time, not waned. I don’t know either why they folded in 1982. They did charge membership fees and so they might have run out of money. This is, as yet, unclear. Hopefully when I’ve spoken to one of the key people involved with SOC’EM at least in the early days, things will become clear …
Doing historical research can be a little like solving a crime, I imagine. Having never solved a crime, I cannot be sure. In oral history mode, tracking people down to interview and then speaking to them can be akin to finding witnesses and interviewing them after a crime. And like a police investigation sometimes they give you the suspect, virtually all packed and ready to go; sometimes they cannot offer you much. The same goes for oral history. Interviewing people can be a challenge. But you also learn an incredible amount, not just about the topic you have spoken to them about, but wider issues of history. And not just history; you can learn all about family structures, environments. You might get to see old photos or ephemera you would otherwise not get to see.
For my research, I will conduct interviews with various members of the environmental community who were active in the post-war period. Their experiences and personal histories vary enormously, but you also get a wide range of different voices, which can offer a rich world through which you can select different aspects to put into research. Late last year I discovered the history of a local organisation on Tyneside, from the early 1970s, in an alternative North-East periodical, Muther Grumble which appeared between 1971 and 1973.
One local group, SOC’EM (Save Our City from Environmental Mess) is particularly relevant as although it began in 1972, at the very end of the period I’m looking at, it is an example of the kind of organisation – local, community-led – that I am interested in. I was particularly pleased when I discovered that Tyne and Wear Archives, in Newcastle, have the papers of that organisation. One article in Muther Grumble mentioned another organisation, Commitment, which was London/South-East based. This is harder to trace; typing Commitment into a search engine or electronic archive catalogue, even with words like ‘environment’ with it, come up either with no entries or thousands, none of which, at first glance, seem relevant.
Just when all seems lost, however, through the detective work you’ve done, someone surfaces who has connections to that organisation and you can begin to slowly build up a picture of it.