Activist Selly Oak walking tours

As part of the School of History and Cultures contribution to Birmingham Heritage WeekDr Chris Moores devised a series of walking tours exploring the findings of his Activist Selly Oak Heritage Lottery Fund, funded project. The tours took place on the afternoons of Saturday 8 September and Saturday 15 September 2018. 

A scene from the walking tour

Tracing a route from the University of Birmingham campus through the fringes of Selly Park, all around Bournbrook and up the Bristol Road as far as Oak Tree Lane, the walking tours stopped at key sites in the history of post-war activism in Selly Oak and gave attendees the chance to hear the project’s findings.

In many regards this made it an unconventional historical walking tour, a gritty suburban area, utterly lacking in grandeur, and despite all of the project’s findings having happened well within living memory, very few traces of what was mentioned in the tour guide’s patter and tales remaining.  Utterly focused on the everyday and the politics of the everyday, attendees were treated to a walk comprising terraces of houses, busy roads, shuttered public spaces like libraries, and shops and pubs that in many cases no longer exist and have been replaced by something new.

This made the tour very much about the stories of individual activists and the ecosystem of frequently ad-hoc groups they formed in their efforts to try and improve their community and the wider world in which they lived. Attendees were treated to inspiring stories of passionate and idealistic staff and students from the university coming together with tenacious and creative campaigners based in the community to identify, confront and overcome every manner of local, national and international problems.

Through walking around the area where much of the activity took place, and discovering key facilities and locations; they discovered that between the 1960s and the 1990s that Selly Oak was a veritable perti-dish of innovation. Radical left-wing and community groups taking direct action over housing, access to council services and against racism in their community. Alongside these actions they and other activists further took matters into their own hands by setting up new services like temporary children’s playgrounds, legal advice centres, benefit claimants unions and a whole raft of DIY publications that enabled them to communicate freely and inform community discussion.

It wasn’t just local issues that activists campaigned on, all kinds of members of the community took part in the mass CND mobilisations against atomic weapons in the late 1950s and early to mid-1980s. Sympathetic locals also put up striking workers travelling to pickets or on other union business during the major industrial disputes that were a hallmark of the period. In the sphere of personal relations and individual rights, several locations in Selly Oak were used by activists and campaigners engaged in the emerging women’s and gay liberation struggles. Looking internationally Selly Oak was a major reception area for refugees fleeing the brutal repression that followed the overthrow of the democratic socialist Allende regime in Chile in 1973, as well as being the home to many anti-Apartheid campaigners.

In addition to hearing stories of activism in decades past and discovering sites connected to them, the walking tour was a participatory and interactive experience. Participants were encouraged to share their own memories and experiences of life and activism in Selly Oak and to discuss and contribute their thoughts about what had changed over time and why. All in all around thirty people took part in the tours over the course of the two Saturdays that they ran.          

“Markers of Activism” Installation 

The walking tours were not all just about the narrative uncovered and developed during the project. In addition to seeing the sites and offering a chance to discuss activism and community past and present, attendees also got the chance to view and discover “Markers of Activism” a site specific sculptural installation devised by local artist Claire Hickey.

Based upon key locations were activists organised in Selly Oak uncovered during the project, Claire Hickey led a workshop session in August for student volunteers to design and cast plaster of Paris plaques to mark these frequently otherwise unremarkable locations. A deliberate parody and minor subversion of the famous blue plaques installed by public authorities to mark august (and frequently rather staid) events and figures all across the land. Claire Hickey’s Activist Selly Oak plaques were deliberately designed to be rough, ready and self-made; mimicking the forms of self-directed voluntary activism they commemorated. 

Markers of activism plaque

Viewable by all passers-by, every plaque was visited on the walking tour and attendees invited to view them as way-markers. Quite a few pictures of them in situ ended up on Instagram and Twitter! 

Photographs by Chloë Lund