Dr. Sharon Irish is an historian and grants coordinator at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), USA, with particular interest in community cultural development and urban spatial practices.
Knowle West, an area of south Bristol that was built starting in the 1930s, has a history of women actively working for positive social change. My recent fellowship through the Institute for Advanced Studies culminated with a celebration of a number of these women, and a discussion about future directions for Knowle West and Bristol. As an historian, I wanted to provide some perspective on the hard work that these activists have done over the decades: others came before them, and others will follow, all determined to improve the lives of their families and neighbourhoods.
During my time in Bristol, I interviewed ten of the Knowle West women who have organised against drugs and the de-funding of youth services, and for increased bus service and park improvements. Penny Evans, the assistant director of the Knowle West Media Centre, was an essential partner in my project, introducing me to the women whom she had interviewed for an earlier project, the University of Local Knowledge. I asked them what had prompted their actions, what challenges and successes they had experienced, and what advice they had for future activists.
On 28 April 2014, about 35 people gathered at the Knowle West Media Centre to reflect together on the ‘tips and tricks’ that arose from our conversations, and to express further ideas about needed change. This event was part of the University of Bristol’s Productive Margins research programme with which I was connected this spring. We had an animated evening of exchange! Participants also wrote some suggestions on fabric triangles and Knowle West’s ‘Sew Clever’ group created bunting with the messages.
Why it is important to know about and acknowledge those who have struggled before us? Stories from the past provide a context for our current efforts, and add dimensions to our actions that help us see ourselves as historical agents, as women making history. The first cooperative women’s guild in Bristol formed in winter 1889-90 and was run by the members themselves; a Mrs Layton in about 1900 reported on condescending outsiders who came to their meetings. Her frustrations were very similar to the experiences of Knowle West women, who also were poorly served by officials and experts from outside their community. Mrs Layton noted:
I was not used to working-women managing their meetings. I had attended Mother’s Meetings, where ladies came and lectured on the domestic affairs in the workers’ homes that it was impossible for them to understand. I have boiled over many times at some of the things I have been obliged to listen to, without the chance of asking a question. In the Guild we always had the chance of discussing a subject. (Margaret Llewelyn Davies, ed., Life as We Have Known It, 1977, p. 40)
The Bristol Broadsides publishing cooperative included Pat Dallimore, a Knowle West resident who not only wrote compelling poetry and essays, but also worked in radio and television. She attended Bristol Broadsides editorial meetings, and appeared on television in the mid-seventies under the auspices of Knowle West TV. Women whom I interviewed recalled her with fondness, and discussed her leadership with admiration. These women recognized that media—print, radio, television, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter—were tools for education and publicity, as long as they remained in charge of the messages. Their commitment and hard work—done ‘in plain sight’ but not often visible—has shaped the histories of Knowle West and Bristol.