Launching the West Street Chronical.
By Tom Daldry

Neoliberal political economy and academic research have one thing in common: the non-negotiable need to uncover (and then nail shut) a ‘gap in the market’. Competitive instincts inspire a commodity culture on the one hand, and the pursuit of under-intellectualised phenomena on the other. Emerging capitalists and aspiring academics alike are faced with this chasmal question – from whence will the gap emerge?

But sometimes the gap is not being sought, and it was this kind of gap that presented itself to Lorna Crabbe: a gap in local history. She found herself hard-pressed to find in-depth information on West Street. ‘It’s one of those back streets that are completely overlooked’. But this brings possibility: it is ‘waiting to be rediscovered’.

View of West Street

Lorna initiated this rediscovery, and rendered it a collaborative process. In 2017 the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded her £10,000 to invest in an unearthing, sharing and celebrating of West Street’s history. A community group was formed, replete with residents, business owners and artists – who have been active in conducting research. This will culminate in the publication of ‘The West Street Chronicle’ – launched at a street party on 29th July.

West Street’s reputation doesn’t necessarily equip it to compete with neighbouring All Saints Street’s quaint charm. Lorna notes that many ‘avoid West Street’, and that ‘everybody always mentions the wheelie bins!’ It has been a popular site for fly tipping, blocked drains and occasional anti-social behaviour.

However, its sheer uniqueness and rich history are abundantly clear. Lorna began the project alone, spending hours at a time poring over newspaper archives. She would read about ‘infanticide, people sent to workhouses and lunatic asylums, families crammed in terrible conditions with the children dying, abject poverty, attempted suicides’ in the 1800s and early 1900s. All in one street.

But there are heart-warming and hilarious accounts. Beatrice Cruttenden, at the age of 92, writes about the SS Lugano – which was on fire and out to sea in 1906. Because male hands were manning the lifeboat, no able-bodied men could row out rations. Beatrice’s cousin Agnes could ‘row as well as any man’. Her aunt (Beatrice’s mother) was enlisted to help her row out the boat, so that’s what they did. Lorna notes the ubiquity of masculinised sea escapades; how the above is refreshingly unusual because ‘there is often very little of the women and their involvement’ in nautical affairs.

What has been the effect of exploring a shared narrative with a community? ‘People aren’t machines and memories are complicated and sometimes unreliable,’ says Lorna. Challenges of the project manifest in people contradicting each other, or in offering conflicting experiences. The Queen Adelaide pub is poised as an example: some were ‘relieved it had been shut down’; others were ‘terribly sad’.

These contradictory accounts, though, are reflective of human complexity. Individual perspectives and emotional intricacies cannot always be explained. The production of narrative is just one way to integrate multifarious experience individually and collectively. The West Street Chronicle might just fill a gap in the market.

The West Street Street Party will take place on Sunday 29 July, 2-5pm. For more information go to weststreethastings.co.uk