Summer 2020

Gloucestershire Heritage Hub

A Day in the Life of the Community Heritage Development Manager

It is one of my greatest regrets that, at the age of 18, I failed my history A level. History had been my second favourite subject at school, although I had no idea of the sort of career I could make from this interest. At the age of 7, my mother bought me a book on the kings and queens of England. I remember very little about the potted histories of each monarch’s life, but I do remember that it cost 12/6d, which was a significant sum back then. I lost the book very many years ago, but not my interest in history, and what we might now call heritage.

It was over 20 years ago that I first moved to Gloucester, because of work. I had memories of the city from my childhood, as we lived only 40 minutes’ away and would sometimes visit the city for shopping. For much of my time in Gloucester, I have worked as a social worker. I trained in social work and community work in the mid-1980’s. I made a conscious decision to leave social work back in 2002, and was lucky enough to get a job with the library service as a Social Inclusion Development Officer. This involved using easily transferable skills: working with communities, outreach, advising the service on equalities issues and breaking down barriers that some people faced when accessing the service. One of my responsibilities, at that time, was to work with the librarians based in the library at HMP Gloucester, looking at literacy projects for prisoners and their families. It was also at this time that I worked with Health to set up Gloucestershire Books on Prescription, a self-help scheme run by GP’s, to help their patients access books from their local library on managing their mild to moderate mental health issues. It was the first social prescribing project in Gloucestershire, and is still in operation today. But it was my work with communities of interest that really inspired me.

In 2014 I was made redundant from the library service, and this was in the context of reductions in public library budgets across the UK, and quickly found a job with the City Council as a Neighbourhood Manager. This involved working with communities to improve quality of life in their neighbourhoods, and this ranged from dealing with anti-social behaviour, illegal encampments (Travellers), street scene (looking after the built environment, and streetscape issues such as managing fly-tipping), stray dogs (yes, really), monitoring and removal of graffiti, and being, in part, responsible for community efforts to improve Gloucester park, including reducing crime and helping support a new community interest group that was formed to protect and enhance the heritage of the park, as well as helping to organise events held in the park. One of my biggest tasks whilst at the City Council was to oversee some of the improvements in the city in readiness for hosting some of the international rugby matches for the Rugby World Cup 2015.

Three and a half years ago, I started working as the new Community Heritage Development Officer at Gloucestershire Archives. It brought together all the things I was passionate about – history and heritage, working with people and communities, equalities, social inclusion, working with volunteers, project work and outreach.

So what does a typical day look like? It’s fair to say there is no “typical” day. I meet a lot of people, and enjoy the practical side of this – problem solving, communication skills, working in partnership and exploring what is possible. The post was a new post (part of the For the Record project), and this meant I had every opportunity to “make it my own”.

But the very best thing was that, at last, I was working in an area that had everything to do with history and heritage. I read lots of history books, especially on social history; I’m currently reading a book about crime in 1880’s London (the decade, and the century, into which my maternal grandfather was born). And my favourite Christmas present, last year, was a very expensive facsimile edition of Charles Booth’s poverty maps of Victorian London (it more than makes up for my lost copy of the kings and queens of England), where the blackest streets indicated the worst socio-economic conditions. The maps really are works of art, with streets colour-coded as to household income and what we would now call social class – from the palest of pinks, to crimson red, to grey, indigo and black, the very poorest. The poorest, blackest, streets also indicated the most crime-ridden, both in terms of perpetrators and victims. It was probably the first time that any researcher had made a connection between crime and poverty. If you want a sense of what life was like for the working poor in this period, I would highly recommend Henry Mayhew’s book, London Labour and the London Poor, published in 1851 and, of course, Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England. To make that history really come alive, and to taste, hear and smell mid-Victorian London, with its debtors’ prisons, pawn shops, workhouses, street urchins and hardships, try reading any of Charles Dickens’ London novels of the period. One of my first clients, when I was a social worker in the mid-1980’s, was a woman who had been born in the East End in the 1890’s. She will have long since passed away, but it always struck me, as a social worker, sometimes (early in my career) working with people born in the late Victorian period how short a period of time a century really is, certainly within living memory now we have so many people not only reaching, but living beyond, their 100th year. It used to fascinate me, as a very young child, being handed 12 Victorian pennies as my weekly pocket money, in the 1960’s, and wondering who, in all those years, had also handled those coins. Perhaps a famous person, a chimney sweep, a market trader in Petticoat Lane, an artist, a Jewish elder, perhaps even a king or queen.

One of my responsibilities, as the Community Heritage Development Manager, at Gloucestershire Archives, is to work closely with the Gloucestershire Family History Society. I attend their monthly committee meetings, and write a monthly report from the Archives that I present at the meetings. I enjoy working with GHFS, and deal with things like snagging issues arising from the recent building works, preparing for joint events, sharing information about the annual History Festival, dealing with any problems or queries that arise, and sometimes sharing volunteers. The GFHS Treasurer sits on the Heritage Hub User Group, which I chair every quarter, and which is a group of users who feed back any concerns, complaints or compliments about the Heritage Hub.

One of the areas of work I particularly enjoy, in my role, is project work. Last year, I project managed an externally funded, year-long project, called Never Better, culminating in a drama performed at Blackfriars as part of the Gloucester History Festival in September 2019. This was where a group of volunteers, recruited and managed by me, were asked to read and transcribe contemporaneous accounts of patient admissions and treatments in Victorian lunatic asylums. These transcriptions were used as the basis for the performance, brought right up to date alongside contemporary accounts of those living in the city today with their own mental health issues. Once again, I was working with people, dealing with sensitive issues and had to focus on mental health (one of the sectors I had worked in as a social worker). The Never Better project has been the highlight of my career, because I know it made a difference to so many people and because it gave a voice to some of history’s most silent and ignored people.

So, what is a “typical” day like for me? Well. I may be interviewing a couple of volunteers. I could be writing or amending policies on learning and outreach, I may be chairing a meeting with one of our partners (one of my favourite is the partnership we have with Kingsholm Primary School, where we work with the teachers to bring children aged 9-11 years in to the Heritage Hub; this may be on class visits, workshops or our annual children’s take-over day). And I could be looking at issues to do with customer service, or mentoring a colleague. And (another favourite area), dealing with equalities issues (as a Local Authority we have a statutory duty to promote equalities, as enshrined in the Equality Act 2010). But, whatever I do, and whatever I’m working on, it will involve working with people, and working with history. Not so bad for someone who failed her history A level all those years ago!

Sally Middleton

Gloucestershire Archives

April 2020


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