Memento Mori – Peter Mitchell

Continuing the theme of the changing British urban scene, this book is an in depth study of the ambitious Quarry Hill housing development in the city of Leeds that was designed to provide an alternative to the Victorian slums, photographed by Annan, that still made up much of the housing within industrial cities. Mitchell’s book is a multi-layered approach to documenting the Quarry Hill flats, incorporating personal narrative, historical newspaper reports, archival photos and blueprints, as well as his own medium format photographs, all combined together to produce a comprehensive account of this grandiose scheme to alleviate dire poverty.

Inspired by the Viennese workers apartment blocks built in the late 1920s, the Quarry Hill area of  Leeds, famous for its disease, squalor and crumbling tenements, was the site of an ambitious building scheme in 1935. This huge housing complex was supposed to offer a utopian alternative to the poverty that huge numbers of people endured in the city of Leeds. However, like many schemes that seem to offer a quick-fix to a complicated problem, the optimism soon faded and the unsuccessful Quarry Hill housing complex was finally demolished in the late 1970s.

After the First World War, Britain was struggling to come to terms with the changed social landscape of a country traumatised by four years of brutal war. The 1920s saw the rise of the Labour Party as a voice for the workers who would act in the interests of the common man and alleviate the conditions of poverty that had prevailed since the Industrial Revolution. As well as an increase in the political power of the working class during this time, the 1930s depression meant that tangible measures to pacify discontent found new impetus. The Quarry Hill complex was designed as a modern solution to the old and intractable problem of urban poverty and it was hailed as a model for other cities to follow in the years before the Second World War.

In a country where everybody’s home is still regarded as their castle, some commentators attributed the failure of the complex to the ‘foreign’ and un-English nature of communal living. Certainly the problems caused by huge numbers of people coming from traditional individual houses suddenly having to cope with shared spaces and facilities was a hard nut to crack and should have provided ample warning to the architects planning the high-rise developments of the 1960s. However, it is no coincidence that the late 1970s saw a sea change in terms of the state’s attitude towards the individual that found ultimate expression in the Thatcherite 80s.

The 1970s were a depressing decade in Britain as it struggled with the terminal decline of imperial grandeur, widespread social unrest and the collapse of heavy industries that had once defined its place in the world.  Thatcherism and the triumph of the financial service economy in the 1980s were the reaction to this collapse in traditional British power and the destruction of the flats can also be regarded as a harbinger of the new order to come. During the eleven long years she was in power, the communal social contract and the post-war safety net provided by the state in terms of basic social protections were a prime target for Thatcher and the subject of her most strident attacks.  The state’s obligations to the individual were reduced again and again as they were cast adrift on the choppy waters of the new free market service economy to either sink or swim as best they could in the name of ‘flexibility’ and ‘competitiveness’. Images of the crumbling flats, once hailed as a vision of social and collective harmony, can be read as a metaphor for the changing fortunes of a country that was trying to come to terms with a new world order in which it was no longer a global power.

Mitchell spent a number of years documenting the various stages of the demolition work which are presented throughout the book, detailing the slow process of pulling down this massive structure of concrete and steel that so many people had made their lives in. Interspersed with these images, he also provides interior photographs of the once proud flats still showing the ghostly traces of the hopes and dreams left behind by their former inhabitants.

The book uses newspaper cuttings charting the rise and fall of Quarry Hill to construct a narrative that begins with optimistic projections of communal harmony. Later the first criticisms of life on the complex appear showing that all was not going as planned. Finally, the book culminates with plans to obliterate this development from the urban landscape.

As well as this narrative, Mitchell successfully attempts to give some insight into the multitude of personal stories of the people who lived there and their changing aspirations and dreams.  Black and white archival photographs showing the construction work, birthday parties and ordinary life in the flats are woven in the pages alongside Mitchell’s own images of destruction.

For a nuanced example of the nexus between the official, political and personal narratives that are encoded within all such grand schemes of utopian planning and social engineering, this book is well worth looking at.

Information about Peter Mitchell is hard to come by but an article about the photographer can be found here.


Photographs of the Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow – Thomas Annan

Thomas Annan Old Closes of Glasgow

The Victorian era saw an unprecedented urbanisation of society as the draw of factory work (and the promise of supposed riches) lured millions of the young and hopeful away from the backbreaking despair of the countryside. Britain established the model for industrial development that is being used today in China.  Throughout the nineteenth century, industrial cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and Glasgow to name a few became the centres of heavy industry and a source of massive wealth for a small group of people. Most of the unfortunates who actually did the heavy, dangerous and backbreaking toil for a pittance were consigned to slums of shoddily built houses with no sanitation, running water or basic amenities. For the dubious privilege of living there landlords charged massive rents to already exploited people.

Thomas Annan Old Closes of Glasgow

In Victorian society marked by strict hierarchical division based on class and the appearance of outward respectability, the British middle and upper classes, who were benefitting from this new found wealth, were at first quite happy to ignore the nightmare in their midst. However the dangers of having huge numbers of impoverished, desperate people on their doorstep soon became a source of fear. A new-found concern for the welfare of the poor arouse from the 1840s onwards mainly because it became apparent that the overcrowded slums were breeding grounds of revolution and disease. In particular cholera was the great nineteenth century middle-class nightmare because as well as the potential for death, you couldn’t control your bowel movements, which in a society that was based on outward respectability, was especially ‘embarrassing’.

Thomas Annan Old Closes of Glasgow

Into this festering Glaswegian urban mix steps an official local government body, the City Improvement Trust, charged with trying to bring some sort of order to the chaos and provide basic sanitation and living conditions for the urban poor. As part of their work, they intended to knock down and build new houses to replace the overcrowded slums. Obviously the local slum-lords who owned the buildings were not keen on having these meddling do-gooders disturb their very profitable racket and the usual combination of greed, money, politicians, powerful vested interests and bureaucratic red tape made the process of change slow and ultimately futile (clearing the slums didn’t solve the problem – it merely moved it to another area).

As part of their work, the Trust decided to employ a photographer in 1868 to take photographs of some of the most run-down slums in the city that they planned to demolish and for this they chose a middle-class commercial photographer, Thomas Annan.  Annan was employed to provide a visual record of poverty that the Trust could use to convince decision-makers, who would never go into slums, that things needed to change.

The book I have is a 1977 Dover reprint of the original publication which publishes the original 1868 images Annan took as well as additional photographs made in 1877 and images added in 1900 when it was published as a book (which can be bought on Abe if you have a spare $9,700 burning a hole in your pocket). Most of the additional images added in 1900 were picturesque scenes of old town life, indicating to me that nostalgia had already set in when the book was finally published.  The photographs of 1868 were documenting an immediate problem for a bureaucracy; by 1900 they were safely consigned to the past.

It is the original 1868 photographs of the alleyways that really stand out. The photographs are for the most part uniformly gloomy and sinister; the sky is a small muddy grey patch in the corner of the frame. In the Victorian imagination, light is associated with order and progress; dark is backward and dangerous.  The images emphasise the dark, claustrophobic nature of the alleyways and courtyards where thousands of people lived cheek by jowl in absolute poverty. This is the alleyway where we all fear to tread come to life. Disease in the Victorian imagination was thought to be caused by bad air (miasma) and dark unventilated conditions were thought to cause epidemics. Looking at the photographs in this way, what the Victorian viewer saw was the perfect breeding ground for crime, disorder, violence and disease, giving them a personal incentive to buy into slum clearance efforts.

It is important to remember that we are looking at these photographs from a totally different perspective. They are records of a distant past which is alien to us. Middle class viewers of the time would have been horrified and fascinated at the sight of these dangerous spaces. Respectable people did not go anywhere near these areas. The slums were an unknown black hole in the middle of a city. Annan is the original disaster tourist venturing into dangerous places where the ordinary person fears to tread in order to bring back the ‘truth’ of what he sees there to a distant audience. Because of the technology of the day, Annan’s photographs took time to make and in many of them we can see the blurred outlines of people looking curiously at the unusual sight of the photographer. But he is no Riis or Hine concerned with documenting injustice.  Annan is here to photograph the architecture. The buildings are Annan’s focus; the inhabitants who live in them are not his concern.  Although slum-dwellers may appear in his photographs they are as much a part of the scenery as the washing lines that pepper Annan’s images.

The poor, it seems, will always be with us.