Yesterday I attended a digital tools workshop at the University of Warwick, and very worthwhile it was too. Sticking ‘digital’ in front of anything is a recipe for sexy-sounding academia at the mo – digital history, digital humanities etc. – and I think tools like those highlighted at DiRT Directory can offer a fantastic way of thinking beyond traditional historical methodologies, and to open up the sort of questions that historical researchers can think about asking. They are timesavers to minimise massive amounts of work: travel to archives is saved by digitisation, for instance; analysis of large volumes of documents is made much easier by optical character recognition and text-mining tools. In my case they open up sources like maps, directories, censuses or title deeds and make them coherent. What they aren’t, is a comprehensive solution to a bunch of historical problems.
A case in point is a part of the Black Country I visited for the first time this week. It was hardly an interrogatory field trip (more a Freecycle collection trip), but as always I tend to trace my steps via the wonderful collection of old maps at EDINA Digimap. Brockmoor lies Northwest of Brierley Hill town centre and is in many ways entirely unremarkable. The area South of the generously-named High Street is council-built housing the like of which could be found anywhere in the country. Norwood Road leads through that area with branches including Belle Isle and Hulland Place. The housing appears to be mid 50s to early 60s according to the OS maps of the area, and at the time of building the area retained its old name of ‘Hulland’ (see the 1961 OS map for the last time that this features).
The problem of places losing their identities is an old worry. Whether you hold Gramsci-style to globalisation as a hegemonic force for homogeneity, or look to Edward Relph‘s ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ places and non-places as explanation, these old maps demonstrate clearly the decline in hyper-localities. The name Hulland features on all maps from 1890-1967, although it describes a very different type of place. Prior to post-war development, Hulland was a collection of small, well-spaced buildings at the end of Sun Street. Quite different to Brierley Hill proper, some yards to the East over the railway line, which was full of traditional industrial terraces. Apart from the addition of a school on vacant land to the East, Hulland had remained mostly unchanged since at least the first OS plan in 1884, when it was actually recorded as Holland. It’s easy to see the settlement’s purpose when you go back that far – nearby were the small Belleisle Colliery, the larger Cricketfield Colliery and the huge Wallows Colliery complex, as well as a claypit, ironworks and the like. Like most of the settlement for miles around, Hulland appears to have been a scattered mining hamlet. Today, all that remains are commemorative streetnames.
These old maps are wonderful, but what of before 1884? Unless I can spend serious amounts of time trawling in Dudley Archives, it’s unlikely that I can answer some of the most basic questions about Hulland: why is it called that? how long has it been there? who’s in those houses? Google, even Twitter, aren’t much help – aside from the odd personal recollection, mostly there are just genealogical records with no wider context. Residents include Sarah and Edward Skidmore; Elizabeth Wassell of the Herefordshire Inn; Joseph Garbett, a miner; Daniel Lewis, a labourer born over the Welsh border in Radnorshire but now married to a local lass. Online catalogues throw up little but the odd starting point – perhaps I should check out some of the Earl of Dudley’s papers at the archives, which mention the ‘Holland Engine‘. If only I had the time…
So my digital maps have thrown up a question that wouldn’t have come to me; but which can’t be answered without recourse to old-fashioned archival research. Guess that’s the moral of the story. As for Hulland, who knows? In the distant past, what made it distinct enough to be known as a ‘place’? And in the present, should we bemoan the loss of local identities? Or perhaps recognise that large-scale developments like those post-war council estates actually erased any distinction there was. and that an indistinct space doesn’t deserve to be a named place?