Since November, I have been working as a Gallery Assistant at Bow Arts’ Nunnery Gallery; a free public gallery with a local focus based in east London.
The Nunnery Gallery’s varied exhibition programme uncovers local history and heritage and celebrates the work of emerging artists. My role within the Arts and Events Team has provided me with a fantastic opportunity to expand on my interests in social and local history and get stuck in with some of my own research.
In this blog post, I’ll walk you through some of the projects that I have been involved with and offer some tips to help you engage with your own local history during lockdown.
Lightboxes and Lettering
Towards the start of my internship, our team helped to deliver Lightboxes and Lettering, an exhibition by Rendezvous Projects CIC exploring the history and heritage of East London’s printing industry.
The exhibition, which took place in the Nunnery Gallery was from the 17th of January until the 18th of March. It featured oral history interviews with print workers, images of workshops, details of technical processes and a range of archival prints. Alongside the exhibition, we carried out a programme of talks, tours and hands-on printing workshops led by contemporary artists and printmakers.
Photo by Rob Harris
The exhibition offered me an insight into the printing industry’s key businesses across the boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Waltham Forest and the experiences of those working in them—past and present. As part of their research, Rendezvous Projects mapped the printing companies active in east London in 1985 and for me, it’s been really interesting to see just how many of the ones near me have since disappeared.
The start of the COVID-19 lockdown brought the early closure of the Lightboxes and Lettering exhibition but it’s also given me the chance to engage with another area of the Nunnery Gallery’s local history research.
In 2017, the Nunnery Gallery introduced Raw Materials, an ongoing research project and exhibition series investigating the industrial history of the River Lea Valley through materials including wood, textiles and plastic. Coming towards the end of my internship, I’ve been spending lots of time reading up on the previous Raw Materials exhibitions, maintaining the ever-growing Raw Materials digital archive and carrying out local industrial history research for use in future exhibitions. Through my research, I’ve identified some of the industries historically relevant to east London and objects and documents relating to them across different archives and collections. It’s been a delight to do some digging and in the process, I’ve come across great stories relating to the industries of soap, edible oils, rubber, porcelain and more.
Photo from London Borough of Newham Heritage Service
John Knight’s Royal Primrose Soap Works in Silvertown was remembered by many in the local history Facebook group for its terrible smell.
My experiences over the past few months have reminded me just how rewarding local history can be—it’s an important tool with the potential to contribute to our understanding of the people and places that we encounter every day.
The current moment offers a great opportunity for people who are spending more time at home and in their immediate surroundings to engage with local history. Although many of the spaces we might normally visit to do so including galleries, museums, local studies libraries and archives are closed, there are plenty of lockdown-friendly ways to find out more. If you’re keen to get started, here are my tips for you:
1. Join a local history Facebook group
There are so many local history Facebook pages and they offer a valuable platform for people to share their memories, research and photographs. Some focus on larger areas like all of London, while others look at specific boroughs or neighbourhoods. There’s something really wonderful about the variety of information and personal reflection available in these groups and I’ve turned to them for both research purposes and out of personal curiosity.
2. Check out your local archive/heritage service (online)
While most archives don’t have their entire collection available online, many are working to digitise some of their records and make them more accessible. Several archives in east London offer online resources including:
Hackney Archive – The team have created an extensive online catalogue of books, pamphlets, photographs and maps.
Tower Hamlets Archive – This service runs a digital gallery with over 36,000 images documenting life in Tower Hamlets over the centuries.
Four Corners – This charity has an extensive digital archive documenting the film and photographic heritage of Four Corners, Half Moon Photography Workshop and Camerawork Magazine, all cultural institutions and projects with a shared history in east London.
London Borough of Newham Heritage Service – The service operates a digital photography service called Newham Photos and a sister site called Newham Story, allowing users to share their own photos and memories.
If your local archive doesn’t have any of their resources online, it’s worth checking if their team is still working at this time. Some archives, including the Waltham Forest Archive, are responding to enquiries remotely.
3. Take a walk
Walks are a great way to connect with local history and experience some of the sites for yourself. Although it might be a while until group walking tours are back up and running, there are great guides and audio tours available online that you can enjoy whenever you’re out for a stroll. Here are some of the ones I’ve tried/come across:
Bow Arts’ Raw Materials – As part of the Raw Materials series, Bow Arts has mapped two walking/cycling routes. They explore the industrial impact of wood on the River Lea and the key locations of plastics history in east London.
A Hackney Autobiography – These four immersive audio tours were inspired by the Centerprise bookshop and community centre in Dalston (1971-2012) and plot a course through Hackney’s creative past.
Tower Hamlets History and Culture Walks – Tower Hamlets has partnered with a number of organisations and residents in the borough to develop a series of history and culture walks. The different walks explore Black history, Bengali cultural highlights and Jewish heritage in the area.
Walk East CIC – This group has compiled a list of walking guides, articles and maps for history walks across all of east London.
The Hackney Peace Carnival Mural in Dalston is one of the stops on the Food and Frontlines Audiotour from A Hackney Autobiography.
4. Do some reading!
There are lots of books that engage with local history in fun and innovative ways. They incorporate transcribed oral histories, storytelling, archival and personal photographs and research. Here are some of my favourites relating to the area where I work and live:
If you’d like to find other titles, it’s worth checking out your local bookshop/nearby publishers online. If you live in east London, Hoxton Mini Press and Spitalfields Life publish lots of lovely photobooks and stories relating to the area. AbeBooks, an online marketplace specialising in used and out-of-print books, also has a great search function and makes it easy to find older publications.
An article about the practice of Local History by Ian Willis for the History Workshop Journal
The Local History Online Website – One of the main platforms for local history in the UK
John Knight’s Soap Factory:
An Article about the smells of Silvertown