As a local community, what is our history and how is it created?
This is just one idea being explored in a range of projects involving several Manchester primary schools, in collaboration with Greater Manchester County Record Office, Manchester Archives+ and The English Heritage, Heritage Schools Project.
As part of this project, children at Bowker Vale Primary School in North Manchester are being encouraged to explore and appreciate their local history.
Their focus is Blackley Forest, re-planted by children of the school sixty years ago. This was in April 1953, the year in which we celebrated the Coronation of Elizabeth II. Later that year, an ‘Arbor Week’ was scheduled, when members of the public and local children could plant more trees.
The public planting of Blackley Forest is remembered locally as commemorative of the Coronation, as well as standing as a memorial for the fallen soldiers of WWII. For Bowker Vale Primary School, the history of this forest is intrinsically tied to their own history as a school.
For this reason, I was asked by Daisy Horsley, of English Heritage, Heritage Schools Project, to see what I could find relating to Blackley Forest’s history in Manchester’s archives and records. We wanted to find primary sources relating to its planting, and relating to Blackley’s own Coronation celebrations.
Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation, 1953
Like the Jubilee festivities that took place last year, the Queen’s coronation in 1953 meant a nationwide celebration on a grand scale. Local councils up and down the country planned and budgeted for how their district would honour the important event.
In Manchester, it was partially the responsibility of the Parks and Cemeteries Committee to propose ways in which the city and its surrounding areas would observe the celebration. These suggestions were recorded in the minutes of their meetings; huge, dusty books held at the County Record Office. These meetings detail how the city centre was to be dressed in flowers, how new rose gardens and flower beds were to be planted in the city’s surrounding areas, and how concerts, fireworks and bands were to be arranged in community parks.
However, as I researched the history of the forest (trawling through the pages of the Committee’s books from 1951 – 1954), I didn’t discover any ‘official’ plans to link the re-planting of Blackley Forest to the Coronation, or to the Second World War as a public act of remembrance. Although there were plenty of references to what would form part of the Coronation celebrations, such as these:
‘The Director suggests the conversion of the grass area in front of Platt Hall into a rose garden.’
Instead, the records of the Parks and Cemeteries Committee show that the proposals to re-plant Blackley Forest are inherently linked to plans to develop land for an urgently needed cemetery in the area, which began as early as 1951:
‘The need for the provision of a new cemetery in North Manchester is one of great urgency’
The council purchase the land, some 95.31 acres, but the majority of it – 56.85 acres – is considered too steep to be used for burial. Instead, the minutes state, ‘it can never be utilised for anything except planting trees’:
‘There is land on the south of the River Irk which was purchased for Blackley New Cemetery. The greater portion of this land is not intended to be used for buriel purposes as it is very steep and can never be utilised for anything except planting trees.’
As the developments for the new cemetery rush ahead, the figures are drawn up. ‘Preparation and planting’ of the trees total £834, although some of this cost relates to ‘hired labour’.
‘The above figures are worked out for hired labour. However, the Director wishes to suggest that a request be made for voluntary labour […]’
In light of this, the Director suggests two things:
1. That ‘a request be made for voluntary labour by organising a ‘Tree Week [later called Arbor Week] early in Nov of this year when any member of the public can come along and plant trees’:
2. That an ‘approach be made to the Education Committee to allow School Children to take part in the afforestation of this area’.
Was it simply because of cost that the re-planting of Blackley Forest became a community event?
How did it come to stand as a local symbol of commemoration, for both the Second World War and for the Coronation?
Either way, the archives enable us to challenge how community remembrance works and what are perhaps its elisions.
Who decides how we will celebrate and commemorate ‘significant’ events as a community?
What is the importance of doing so?
How does the city around us influence what remains in our collective consciousness?
And is what we celebrate and remember as a community ever ‘officially’ or authoritatively decided when it comes to events that aim to unite us as a nation or region? Or can it also be a more ad-hoc, often a random or chance process?
It would be interesting to hear if anyone knows how or why Blackley Forest became linked to this public remembrance. Additionally, we’d welcome any testimonies from anyone who perhaps remembers the Coronation celebrations in Blackley, or indeed has any recollections of the area during WWII.
Please contact Daisy Horsley directly at Daisy.Horsley@english-heritage.org.uk .