From William Morris’ Walthamstow, to John Ball’s Colchester: how placemakers are co-opting the dead

The William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow. Image: ProfDEH/Wikimedia Commons.

Heritage has long been a hot topic in the UK, expressed both in the love for old buildings and in the business of regeneration. Less attention has been given to the complicated relationship between historical figures and place, particularly how placemaking makes use of them.

This goes further than the Blue Plaque scheme; the dead both etch their ghostly presences on the character of localities, and can be self-consciously chosen to help retell a story of place.

I want to look at how the dead and place interact through the two case studies – William Morris in Walthamstow, and John Ball in Colchester. I’ll be looking at how the dead intertwined themselves with place, how history becomes contested as they are made use of by placemakers, and what works.

Ghosts of place

The psychogeographical tradition in urban life directs our attention to the relationships between person and place. Prominent individuals leave traces of their selves and their legacy on the local vernacular.

One such relationship is between William Morris (1834-96), socialist and artisan, and Walthamstow in east London.  Morris only spent about seven years of his youth in what is now the William Morris Gallery in Lloyd Park, E17; yet Walthamstow has claimed him as its own.

Both Morris's arts and crafts movement, and his socialism, are now closely aligned to the character of Walthamstow itself, an area of community-based socialism and thriving hipster artisanal businesses. Morris might even be claimed as the first hipster (minus the beard oil, of course), combining radical politics with autonomous entrepreneurialism.


Remaking place

The relationship between the dead and place becomes even more interesting when ghosts are called upon to reshape space. Campaigners in the Essex town of Colchester are currently evoking the long forgotten figure of John Ball (1338-81), radical priest and one of the leaders of the Peasant Revolt 1381, into a symbolic representation of equality and diversity.

The campaign itself began as a result of a press campaign and petition to get a "piece of bronze" representing John Ball erected in Colchester. It has evolved into an interrogation of the town's historic legacy, and its identity today as a nascent zone of feminisation, equality and diversity. It may even seek to become a Sanctuary Town.

The reframing of place in Colchester is something that resonates in its cultural and alternative arts communities. Essex. Colchester and nearby Wivenhoe have seen a sizable “punk poetry” renaissance, all John Cooper Clarke and Martin Newell. The area is also celebrating its historic rebels, with Castle Museum devoting a whole section to Boudica, who led an uprising against the Roman Empire around AD60. More recently, Gee Vaucher, a female artist in Crass, had her own Introspective in Colchester’s Firstsite Gallery.

What gets left out?

Inevitably, calling on the dead to remake place involves some falling away of historical realities. In Walthamstow, the Willam Morris Gallery, renovated in 2011-12, focuses on Morris’s status as an artisan, rather than as a socialist (though there is some representation of “soft socialism”). This mutating focus is also characteristic of a locale which could fall victim to a loss of community cohesion through gentrification. Is Morris shifting uncomfortable in his grave? Perhaps, but he might have been excited by all the craft beer.

Similarly, the figure of John Ball is imbued with very diverse aesthetic and even political values. Will he be carved out in bronze, his religious non-conformity absorbed by the very active Colchester churches? Or will he be etched into the nascent contemporary arts and politics scene of the new Colchester?

That this ground is contested is a point acknowledged by Sally Shaw, the director of Firstsite, the key partner in promoting John Ball Day on 15 July and a plethora of related arts activities in Colchester. “But that’s what makes it interesting,” she says, “and very much representative of the broader cultural struggles facing UK society today.” 

What works?

Placemakers always try and prove historical figures lived in a place, but that link can often be quite incidental – a matter of a few years in the case of both Morris and Ball.

But there is a creative relationship too. In the case of Morris and Walthamstow, there is a natural congruence between the well-processed history of Morris, his ideas and artistic practice, and how the locality has evolved.

Much less is known about John Ball, which makes sketching a pathway to the contemporary values of feminisation, equality and diversity something of a tricky issue. But Shaw suggests that "creating lines of connection between Ball and the present is an ongoing and inclusive creative process, about remaking meaning”.  In other words, the John Ball project will be a way of imaginatively rethinking place, both past and present.

“We are the dead” said McCrae, Bowie, and Orwell before them – referring to the exhaustions of the present. But the dead are also helping us think about our culture and shaping the landscapes of place. We are the dead, but they are us.

Deborah Talbot is an ethnographer and journalist writing about culture, society and all things urban.

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A warped mirror: on gentrification and deprivation on London’s Caledonian Road

The London Overground crosses Caledonian Road. Image: Claude Lynch.

Capital cities are, more often than not, a focal point for the stark divide between rich and poor – places where the most economically deprived meet the most economically empowered. In London, these divides can be more than stark: they can be close, even intimate, and there are districts where crossing the street can be like entering a different world. One such street is the Caledonian Road.

Known local as “the Cally”, Caledonian Road runs for about a mile and a half, from Kings Cross to the Nags Head junction in Holloway, and was built in 1826 to provide a new arterial route to the north from the West End. At first, developments on the road were sparse; among the first notable buildings were the Royal Caledonian Asylum, which gave the road its name, and H.M. Prison Pentonville.

For some time, the northern half of the road was seen as far removed from central London, which stymied development. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century residential development really got going. By the time Caledonian Road station opened on the Piccadilly line in 1906, the area was flush with Victorian terraces.

These, though, mainly lay on the eastern side. To the west, the proximity of King’s Cross prompted the development of heavy industry, particularly the clay kilns that were helping to build Victorian London proper. The divide had begun:  the east side of the street, the area known as Barnsbury, was notably quieter and calmer than the west side. Ever since the 19th century, the ‘V’ formed by Caledonian Road and York Way has been known for a high incidence of gang violence and social problems.

As in many parts of London, the end of the Second World War brought a chance to start from scratch. Many of the slums to the west of the Cally had been bombed to smithereens, and those that remained still lacked gas and hot water.

But this was the era of municipal dreams: Islington council cleared the slums and constructed the Bemerton Estate. Instead of reflecting the industrial history of the area, the estate reflected Barnsbury back at itself, treating Caledonian Road as some sort of warped modernist mirror. The square gardens of Barnsbury were reimagined as the spaces between the highrises of Bemerton, and this time, they were actually square.

The estate was immediately popular, its open design prompting a renewed sense of community in the west. But it didn’t last.

Square gardens on one side, not-so-square on the other. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric

As far back as the 1950s, Islington had already become synonymous with gentrification. Forty years later, before moving to Downing Street, Tony Blair’s London residence was Barnsbury’s leafy Richmond Crescent. House prices in the area have gone through the roof and now Barnsbury is mainly home to a the professional elite.


At the same time, though, Caledonian Road’s warped mirror has given Bemerton the exact opposite: in spite of attempts to rejuvenate it, downward spiral of deprivation and antisocial behaviour have blighted the estate for some time The promise of inviting square gardens and communal living has been inhibited by crime and poverty; the gardens lie empty, while those in Barnsbury thrive.

The disparity of wealth across Caledonian Road is regrettable. That’s not just because it speaks to a wider segregation of London’s rich and poor – a phenomenon exemplified last year by the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington & Chelsea, the richest borough in Britain. It’s also because, in the Bemerton Estate, planners had thought they saw an opportunity to offer more Londoners the idyll of square gardens and leafy streets, often reserved for the richest.

It might be too much to claim the estate as a failure; events such as the Cally Festival aim to bring together both sides of the road, while other council programmes such as Islington Reads help to foster a greater sense of neighbourhood.

Road should never divide us; rather, they should unite those who live on either side. The spirit of Caledonian Road should cross the gap – just like the railway bridge that bears its name.