The story behind our much-loved audio play, now available as a podcast
It is the summer of 2019 (i.e. a lifetime ago!) and we have asked a local scriptwriter, Paul Birch, to come and view a sample of items from York’s civic archives. Laid out on the table are a selection of records, but Paul is drawn almost immediately to two in particular – the 1933 slum clearance plan of Hungate and an early twentieth-century volume of reports from the Nuisance Inspector. Both records form part of the city’s health collections, which were catalogued and conserved between 2016 and 2018 thanks to a generous grant from the Wellcome Trust.
Why have we asked a playwright to come and see these records? Because it was clear to us that the workaday documents that fill the health collections actually offer a unique resource for exploring the stories of York’s past communities. House inspection records, compulsory purchase documents, and Medical Officer of Health reports may not sound awfully thrilling, yet they offer an unparalleled opportunity to see how ordinary people lived. The slum clearance records, in particular, provide an historical link to parts of York that were effectively erased by the clearance programmes of the 1930s onwards. We were just hoping that Paul, as an experienced scriptwriter and director, would also see the storytelling potential in these records.
We were not disappointed, Paul immediately ‘got’ the archives and even in that first session started coming up with ideas for a play. One idea stood out at once: the story of the Hungate clearances. To say that Hungate has undergone profound change is in no way an understatement. The area was completely demolished in the late 1930s and redevelopment scuppered by WWII. Throughout the latter half of the twentieth the site housed light industry, which in turn was swept away to make way for the current high-rise residential development. All that is left of the ‘old’ Hungate, and the community that lived there, are the records in the archive.
After Paul’s initial archive session, I introduced him to the Hungate records in more detail. He then threw himself into the research process, spending hours absorbing the workings of York’s Health Department, which was responsible for the clearances. Early on in this gestation period, Paul hit on the idea of using the Nuisance (or Sanitary) Inspector as a storytelling vehicle. Sanitary Inspectors at this time had an extraordinary range of duties, including the inspection of unhealthy housing. It was a position that reported to the Medical Officer of Health but also interacted with the community. In other words, it was the perfect central character for a play that wanted to explore the policy of the clearances while also looking at the human impact of those policies. Paul now had all the material he needed to develop a script.
Next time: The Nuisance Inspector – from script to performance
You can read more about the records of the Nuisance Inspector in our previous blog post