Monday, May 9, 2016

Student project investigates Cold War in Sheffield

The City Archives has been home to two university students over the last few months. Sabrina Webster and Chantelle Francis are studying for an MA in Public Humanities at the University of Sheffield. They chose to base themselves in the Archives and Local Studies Library in a quest to find out more about the city’s recent Cold War history. In the fourth of their blogs, they explain what they’ve uncovered so far and reveal details of their forthcoming event...

Our fourth blog post brings exciting news... we have booked a date and venue for our exhibition. Keep your diaries free on Saturday 21 May, 12.30pm-3pm, and head to the Carpenter Room (first floor) at Sheffield City Library. We feel lucky to have booked this large space in this beautiful building to showcase our findings, and we will be making use of this lovely room with information boards and tables displaying a selection of primary material from various archives across the city. What’s more, there’s even a room for complimentary refreshments! Visitors will have the opportunity to explore primary sources relating to the South Yorkshire County Council and Sheffield City Council, as well as nuclear activism in Sheffield from the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. So, with only a few weeks to go, we have been picking up the pace on our research.
I met with Maggie Tyson a few weeks back. Maggie works at both Sheffield City Archives and the Local Studies Library, and she was a part of the activist group Library Workers Against the Bomb. It was lovely hearing stories about Maggie’s trip to Greenham Common and she gave us a personal insight into activism in the 1970s and 1980s. I’d like to share with you this particular excerpt from our interview, where Maggie describes her memories of her trip to Greenham Common:
“I remember there were people trying to cut the perimeter fences with cutters and being arrested and stuff. We weren’t where that happened but I remember we walked miles around that fence looking at everything and talking to people. And there was this song that everybody was singing, and I’ve never forgotten it actually. And it goes: Tall and strong, she goes on and on and on, you can’t kill the spirit, she is like a mountain..."
I left Maggie with a much better understanding of what the Cold War period was like for some people of Sheffield, and I was particularly struck by the reality of civil defence. In short, despite what was officially said, there was no such thing. It is clear today that pamphlets such as Protect and Survive, which advised citizens to hide under their tables with a supply of baked beans and a few buckets of water and come out after a week, were largely futile!
Sheffield City Council and South Yorkshire County Council understood this and went some way to dispel the Government’s ‘survival’ tips, producing leaflets such as You and the Bomb, which was distributed to 500,000 homes in South Yorkshire. This leaflet challenged the Government’s civil defence plans, claiming they “cannot provide proper protection against nuclear attack for the bulk of the population.”
In an interview with Roger Barton, the former Chair of Sheffield City Council’s Nuclear Free Zones Committee during the 1980s, we learnt about the efforts the Council made to inform people of the realities of nuclear war. For example, the City Council sponsored research into what exactly would happen if the UK were to fall victim to a nuclear attack. Through this research it was discovered that a nuclear explosion would cause immense darkness for a considerable length of time, dropping temperatures to sub-zero, and making life on Earth near impossible. To avoid this Nuclear Winter, the Nuclear Free Zones Committee encouraged other local authorities to align themselves with peace projects and endeavour to see another way of dealing with international issues rather than continue with the imbalance of threat and fear.
This issue of civil defence is just one element of our research project, and with just two weeks to go until the exhibition, we are increasingly excited about offering a glimpse of what this city was like thirty years ago.
Sabrina Webster and Chantelle Francis
Public Humanities MA Students
University of Sheffield