Text of context, MA Curation Practices LAUMACUP703
Hunslet Grange: An experiment and its victims by Hunslet Grange Heating Action Group (1976)
Hunslet Grange, also known as Leek Street flats, was a huge public housing estate in Leeds of 1200 flats, built 50 years ago and opened in March 1968.
It was built to replace a large area of back-to-back housing in south Leeds. Hunslet Grange was hailed as innovative and modern, because it used new building methods and materials. The new tenants were delighted to move into their flats, with hot and cold running water and indoor toilets. They soon discovered, however, many serious faults resulting from the prefabricated structure, causing severe damp and draughts.
These problems were compounded by the electric heating system that was too expensive for many residents to be able to heat their homes properly. Following a long campaign for improvements to living conditions by its tenants, Hunslet Grange was demolished in 1983 – a mere fifteen years after it was opened by the Lord Mayor.
Why this text?
I discovered a number of interesting documents, along with news cuttings, in the Local History Library within Leeds Central Library. These were in addition to archive material used in Module 704: animating the archive.
From these it became clear what a disastrous project Hunslet Grange had been, not just in terms of the damp and heating problems. The designs of the balconies, stairwells and lifts meant that many people, particularly women, felt unsafe walking there. The view from many of the flats was onto other flats and people found the uniform grey concrete oppressive and depressing. Emergency services had trouble reaching or finding the right flats. Play facilities were small and of poor design. And many have noted that the place stank – urinating in the lifts and stairwells was common practice by some people.
The most pressing issues for tenants however, were the cold and damp and the fact that many were unable to keep their homes warm, or were having to pay extortionate electricity bills.
Hunslet Grange: an experiment and its victims grabbed my attention. Its bright yellow cover with an illustration of a large drip of water enclosing the word ‘DAMP’, plus its title, were designed to catch the eye and to shock. The intention of the report is very clear.
I was also interested in this report because it was written as a result of collective action by tenants. They had been calling for action since 1972 (Hunslet Grange Heating Action Group, 1976 p. 1) and formed a tenants’ association. They also linked up with tenants on other estates in Leeds who were facing similar problems. Later on they met with tenants from other developments build using the same methods under contracts with the Yorkshire Design Group – a partnership between a number of local authorities.
While the title of this text refers to the tenants as ‘victims’, they did not just rollover and accept their unjust situation. They became researchers and experts in construction methods and housing policy. They took action and fought back.
In the course of my own research, I learned that there is a small monument to Hunslet Grange, on what would have been the edge of the development.
The editor of local newspaper South Leeds Life told me he had come across it by chance: a brick plinth with two plaques, on Prosper Street. The first plaque marks the beginning of the building contract in 1967 (although the text is obscured by graffiti). The second, from 1987, notes the traditional housing that was built to replace Hunslet Grange and commemorates cooperation between Leeds City Council and tenants. It bears the names of Councillor Gunnell and other council representatives, along with Ms P. Tallett, Chair of Hunslet Grange Tenants Association.
Prosper Street is a short cul-de-sac off Joseph Street, so very few people pass these plaques. A question to a Facebook group of people who used to live in the flats (‘the leek street flats rocked society’) as well as asking members of Hunslet Remembered, a group that meets monthly in the local branch library, revealed nobody who knew about the memorial. Later, via twitter, I was sent a photograph from a few months ago showing that the monument had been completely obscured by bushes.
By choosing this as my context, I have been able to bring this monument to the attention of a wider audience.
Instances of curation
- Presentation at Heritage Show and Tell, 6 March
Heritage Show and Tell takes place a few times a year in Leeds. It’s open to anyone with an interest in local history and heritage and invites people with an interesting project to give a lightning presentation about it. The format is strict: three slides and three minutes to put over your project – what’s exciting about it, how can people help or get involved?
My presentation’s title clearly referenced the Heating Action Group’s report. I called it ‘Hunslet Grange: a short-lived experiment’. But, rather than characterising the tenants as victims, I emphasised their collective action, their resilience and tenacity. In the end, this got results as Hunslet Grange was finally demolished.
The tenants association and Heating Action Group called for the council to work with them from the beginning. At the time of the report they were still demanding this, and wrote about a lack of cooperation at that stage.
That came later, and the Prosper Street monument recognises the cooperation.
Once the flats were demolished, however, the tenants didn’t let the council off the hook (Leeds Other Paper, 1983 p.3).
- A new plaque
I took a new plaque to add to the monument, along with the report. The new plaque read:
This plaque pays tribute to the tenacity of the Hunslet Grange tenants
in fighting for a better standard of housing – for themselves and other residents’ groups.
In the words of HUNSLET GRANGE HEATING ACTION GROUP in 1976:
We have not jumped on the “Knock-Them-Down” bandwagon, but we do consider it an alternative that must be seriously considered along with others.
We also stress that any solution to the problems of Hunslet Grange must be worked out and implemented in an atmosphere of full co-operation between the Council and residents.
And we want action now.
This act emphasised that it was the tenants who endured the conditions at Hunslet Grange, and who campaigned tirelessly for change.
The dominant narrative about Hunslet Grange is grim. Richard Hoggart (1989) described:
Some of the worst, most crass and inhumane public housing I have seen in any developed country: industrial-unit building in concrete blocks of several stories, much less human than the old back-to-back streets, suggesting an attitude to or vision of those who were expected to live in them like that of a farmer using the cheapest mechanised methods for cattle rearing in uniform units.
And there are many other descriptions of the poor conditions of the flats. However, others have happy memories of living at Hunslet Grange, typified by the Facebook group: the leek street flats rocked society (2018). Many of the members of this group remember playing and growing up in the flats. Others experiences a sense of community where friends were always nearby.
In stark contrast, the report, Hunslet Grange: an experiment and its victims, relates many negative experiences. Yet it is also evidence of tenacity, resilience, and organisation. Tenants groups gained skills: research, negotiation, campaigning, report writing, talking to the press. They learned about their community, local democracy, public finance, construction and engineering. And eventually they were successful in their campaigning, as Hunslet Grange was eventually demolished, and the area reverted to “traditional housing”.
This has been a fascinating project. I was pleased to be able to find an inspiring narrative within the texts.
Hoggart, R. (1989) A Local Habitation: Life and Times Volume One 1918-40. Oxford Paperbacks.
Hunslet Grange Heating Action Group (1976) Hunslet Grange: An experiment and its victims. Leeds: HGHAG.
Leeds Other Paper (1983) ‘Three cheers from tenants’, Leeds Other Paper, 7 January.
The leek street flats rocked society (2018) the leek street flats rocked society [Facebook] Available at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/333104160630/ (Accessed: 6 March 2018).
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