Do stories of the elderly deserve more places in our schools and museums?

In 2012, I used to work for the organisation Catch22 in Barking and Dagenham. A UK based voluntary organisation, Catch22 runs services in more than 150 towns and cities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to help vulnerable young people turn chaotic lives around; from steering clear of crime and leaving custody to developing skills for work and playing a full part in their community. One shiny day in May 2012, I was invited by the head-teacher in a primary school to inform their parents’ forum about one of Catch22’s programmes. Funded by Big Lottery, the national programme ‘Community Space Challenge’ was offering opportunities to young people at risk of offending to make local space improvements for the whole community.

When I arrived in the primary school, I realised how excited I was to visit a school. The head-teacher accompanied me to a reading room, where there was a group of roughly 15 female parents seating around a table. After some introductions, it did not take too long to realise that mothers, carers and grandmothers did not share the same mood. On the contrary, they were cautious about what motivated me to be there with them. I felt to be seen as a ‘dangerous’ outsider trying to explain with my Mediterranean temperament how to organise community space improvements in their community. The greatest surprise was received, when I showed them a consultation form and asked their permission to complete it and recommend possible changes in the local environment. It was that time when I received the first reaction from one mother ‘Where are you coming from?’. Her question did not refer to my Greek heritage; she wanted to know in which council department I was employed.

Despite the fact that I was representing a voluntary organisation, parents seem to perceive me as being part of their council. I immediately explained my role and provided more details about the programme (groups of teenagers taking responsibility in actively improving public spaces in the local community). Parents complained that they were familiar with consultations and believed that no change would happen in their everyday lives. I made a strong effort to actively listen to what they were saying without taking notes. I put my pen and forms down to pay attention to their worlds beyond the words. Among the comments, complaints and rounds of questions and answers, these women mentioned many important things about their everyday life in Dagenham. In general, the energy in the room was negative about this specific area in East London, not very negative, but negative. The most worrying issues were related to where to take their children to play, the closures of the children centres due to high costs, one more shutdown of swimming pool, problems with transport, concerns about their safety and youngsters’ antisocial behaviour. I noticed that the majority of the comments were related to the lack of outdoor activities, which was apparently an unavoidable reality for the parents, their children and families.

At a time we were talking about the play areas, the oldest participant of the forum, a lady around eighties with white short hair, started speaking about the time she used to be a mother. In the calm and sad tone of her voice, with her hands trembling and holding a walking stick, someone could hear a glorious past and fortunate days of motherhood when she tend to visit a local park. Her narration was often mixed with observations at present time. The absence of recreation activities in public spaces also appeared to be her constant everyday issue. ‘Today you cannot go to Goresbrook, there are no benches, where to seat, nothing there to do; in my time we used to prepare sandwiches and snacks from the previous night so to have a full day and spend more time in the park’, the lady said disappointedly. She then continued narrating more details about her experiences at the Goresbrook Park, how different and safe life used to be in Dagenham, her easiness to get to green fields, when she used to spend most of her summertime with other families in the park, organising fairs, games, even theatre performances. When that lady, most possibly a grandmother of a child in the school, stirred up her playful memories, I noticed in the room an undisturbed silence in favour of her narration. The rest of the mothers who were attending the forum were so concentrated on her words to the point to be curious about the subject of the performances and ask whether she participated in any of them.

I was inspired by the stories of that lady in the parents’ forum and especially her past days in Dagenham. The beauty of her memories and the attention she received from other parents made me think possible ways to stir local people’s memories of the park and allow diverse ages to learn from each other about their everyday places in contemporary Barking and Dagenham. That visit in the primary school revealed to me the significant heritage of the area that parents possibly were not aware of: one of the biggest housing developments in the world. After doing some search on the Internet, I learned that the Becontree Housing Estate in its early days was designed in a ‘cottage garden style’ with uniform architecture, many parks and wide streets to house the vast majority of Barking and Dagenham’s population in the years to come. In the interwar period, The Housing Act 1919 permitted the London County Council to build housing outside the County of London. Becontree Estate was constructed between 1921 and 1935 in the parishes of Barking, Dagenham and Ilford in Essex. Most people moved to Dagenham from the slums in East End or were soldiers returning from the First World War. In the new place, people had for the first time running water, indoor toilets and private gardens. A centre was never built and there was little commercial development and no social amenities to support the population. Until the opening of the companies May and Baker and Ford Dagenham, parks, pubs and gardens formed a crucial component of community life and were as important as the houses.

Those stories at Goresbrook, one of the parks of the Becontree Estate, led me to apply to the Heritage-lottery and secure funding for a new project at Catch22. It was May 2012 when I visited this primary school in Goresbrook ward in Dagenham. On the 4th of July 2012, I sent an email to Valence House Museum (the local history museum)  expressing my interest in developing  an oral history project that would get young people to record stories from the older ages over community spaces in the Borough, in a hope to deliver visible changes on these spaces based on elderly people’s life stories and memories. Gladly, some days later, young students of this primary school planted all the new flowers after a huge redevelopment outside the only community centre survived in that area in 14 July. Supported by parents, local authorities and corporate volunteers, the students and other young volunteers who joined the initiative made the frontal yard of the centre look nice and clean.

I have to admit that the narration of this old lady whose name I cannot recall after so many years was the catalyst of the HLF project Stories of Becontree. The project engaged local young people with older generations to uncover personal and family stories, while exploring the urbanization and transformation of the Estate’s community spaces along the years. Valence House, the local history museum, was very supporting to my idea to develop a heritage project with young people and record stories about community spaces in the borough. The ‘Stories of Becontree’ was a final outcome of a close and fruitful partnership between Catch22, Borough’s Archives and Local Studies Centre in the Valence House and the ‘Dig Where We Stand’ team at UCL’s Information Studies Department (AHRC’s Connected Communities Research for Community Heritage).

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