Excavating the Great Depression in England

Photo of the Jarrow unemployment march. Image from www.workerspower.co.uk

Photo of the Jarrow unemployment march. Image from www.workerspower.co.uk

Since 2013, Dr. David Petts (Department of Archaeology, Durham University) and I have been building a project to study the landscapes and material remains of the Great Depression in the Northeast of England. One of the defining historical events of the 20th century, the Great Depression is often associated in the US with the stock market crash of 1929, bread lines, shanty towns, and eventually, the New Deal and creation of the modern social welfare state. In the UK, the situation was slightly different. For one thing, parts of England had been in poor economic straits since a slump that followed World War I. Likewise, the Great Depression in the UK was highly regionalized in its effects, with areas like the Northeast seeing extremely high unemployment, while other areas saw only modest drops in unemployment. And responses to the depression were likewise regionalized–there were almost no national policy initiatives on the order of the New Deal in the US.

But there were responses at regional and local levels, and most importantly for our purposes, many of these responses involved changes to the landscape. They involved the construction of work camps, new settlements to house the unemployed, works projects that improved infrastructure, and much more. The Great Depression was a material event, and a record of it is recoverable archaeologically. This has certainly been the case in other parts of the wold, where a growing literature exists from archaeologists who have tackled the Great Depression through sites created in its wake. Much of this literature likewise shows that responses to the Great Depression were neither altruistic nor completely embraced by participants. For example, my colleagues LouAnn Wurst and Christine Ridarsky (2014) have evaluated attempts at farm resettlement in western New York state to improve the lives of “poor” farmers during the 1930s and found that the farmers were not actually that poor to begin with, and that the plan was largely about regional land grabbing. Barker and Lamb (2009) used data from an unemployment camp in Queensland, Australia to complicate the concept of the “undeserving” and “deserving” poor. And St. Denis (2002) showed how, despite the best efforts of the administrators of the Prince Albert logging camp in Saskatchewan, excavations show that workers drank and smoked when they could get away with it, perhaps offsetting anxieties about the larger economy with sociality and revelry.

In the U.K., there has been almost no archaeological study of sites related to the Great Depression, and no systematic accounting of such sites. David and I are hoping to change that with a project that will examine a few case studies where individuals and groups tried to ameliorate the awful conditions of the Depression through changes in the landscape. And when we started looking into the types of sites we could incorporate into our study, we were astounded at their variety and scale. There were proper work camps such as the one at Hamsterley forest, educational settlements and training schemes such as the Spennymoor settlement, resettlement and agricultural schemes such as the Moorhouse Farm settlement in Eaglescliffe (Perley 1985), and much more. Some of these schemes came from national programs and initiatives such as the Special Areas Act of 1934, which designated certain parts of the UK as regions in need of assistance. Others were local, set up by individuals and groups with an interest in curbing the worst excesses of the economic downturn.

We are working on funding a project to examine some of these places, but we have already had some success with an early case study: Heartbreak Hill, near Margrove Park village in the East Cleveland region of North Yorkshire (Chase and Whyman 1991, Chase 2000, Chase 2010). David has written about the history of this site, as have other bloggers. Suffice it to say, this was a combination work camp/allotment scheme for unemployed Ironstone miners, part of a larger scheme of three parcel areas called the Community Cultivation Association. Set up by a local wealthy landlord and his wife (James and Ruth Pennyman of Ormesby Hall), it was run and managed by British naturalist, folk scholar, and arch-conservative Rolf Gardiner. It included amongst its participants the composer Michael Tippett, and it ran for much of the 1930s, possibly longer. Today the land on which the site sits is unimproved hilly pasture, and it had not been significantly utilized prior to the 1930s, so David and I suspected that there might be some pieces of the depression-era landscape still present on the surface or underneath.

Map2Map showing the locations of the CCA parcels, from Petts and Lewis 2013.

We received a small grant from the Institute of Advanced Study at Durham University to undertake geophysical survey and compile some background research. Earlier this year, a survey team from Durham’s Archaeological Services used magnetometry to survey part of the site. The results, visible in the map below, are suggestive of several subsurface human-deposited features. According to the geophysical analysis, the anomalies in the southwest corner of Area 1, all of Area 2, and the North-Central part of Area 4 represent likely areas of deposition of some kind of material with a magnetic signaturem, perhaps architectural refuse. Further testing in these areas may allow us to determine the exact nature of these anomalies.

Map3 GeophysMap showing geophysical results at Heartbreak Hill.

However, David and I were also intrigued by many of the standing or visible structures present in the field today. We found numerous brick huts scattered across the site, as well as other scatters of brick and stone that may represent ruined outbuildings from the allotment scheme. The brick structures below are similar in design, but are separated by nearly a half mile, on parcels of land used for completely different purposes today. What they have in common is that they are both in areas that were used during periods of CCA activity.

Brick comparisonPhotos showing similar brick structures on Heartbreak Hill and Dartmoor Parcels, respectively

We also noticed several portable items of material culture that one would not expect to be present on unimproved pasture-land. During a rudimentary surface survey, we noticed white-bodied 19th/early 20th century ceramics, a glass medicine bottle, and fragments of coal. One of the most striking finds was a linear scatter of bricks running over 10 meters in one of the current fields. This scatter, visible in the photo below, was later confirmed by Mark Whyman, one of the authors of a book on Heartbreak Hill (Chase and Whyman 1991), to be in the same location as a brick-lined garden plot setup by the CCA.


David and I are optimistic that there is more work to be done at Heartbreak Hill and perhaps at the other CCA parcels. One thing we would like to do is put together a community-led recording project to carefully document each of the standing structures and ruins at the site. This could be combined with further testing at the site to see if there are more subsurface remains to be found. Depending upon how extensive the archaeological record is, we are also interested in more social and political questions. We are particulary interested in how the miners who worked at the site made it their own–for example, were they able to bring items from home, or to otherwise mark off pieces of this “collective” allotment scheme as theirs? Such questions could also be asked at many of the other sites mentioned earlier, and we hope to have the opportunity to investigate them soon.

Aside from archaeology being a novel way to investigate the Great Depression, we find ourselves more broadly comparing the kinds of responses that were attempted in the 1930s to the current attempts to intervene in the most recent economic downturn, now in its sixth year. These have largely inhabited the arcane world of monetary policy, or have involved the dismantling of government programs, some of which were first initiated during the Great Depression, under the heading of “austerity”. We do not have any strong conclusions to draw in this comparison, but we are struck by the ways in which place-making seemed to be such a strong aspect of 1930s responses–for example, Heartbreak Hill was named for the difficult conditions of its production, while the other parcels were named for local flora. Conversely, many of the contemporary responses have been about de-territorializing–allowing, encouraging, or forcing the free flow of money across borders, out of public institutions, and out of the hands of individuals and communities in the name of laissez faire capitalism, regardless of historical or spatial circumstances. In any case, we believe that an archaeology of the Great Depression can locate the contingent, complex, and contradictory landscapes that emerged in its wake, and allow us to understand the Great Depression at a more human scale.

This article originally appeared on my blog on the Day of Archaeology 2014.


Barker, Bryce, and Lara Lamb (2009) The Archaeology of Poverty and Human Dignity: Charity and the Work Ethic in a 1930s Depression Era Itinerant’s Camp on the Toowoomba Range Escarpment, Queensland. Archaeologies: The Journal of the World Archaeological Congress 5(2): 263–279.

Chase, Malcom (2000) Heartbreak Hill: Environment, Unemployment and “Back to the Land” in Inter-war Cleveland. Oral History 28(1): 33–42.

Chase, Malcom (2010) Unemployment without protest: the ironstone mining communities of East Cleveland in the inter-war period. In Unemployment and Protest: New Perspectives on Two Centuries of Contention, edited by M Reiss and M Perry, pp. 265–282. Oxford Univeristy Press, Oxford, U.K.

Chase, Malcom, and Mark Whyman (1991) Heartbreak Hill: A Response to Unemployment in East Cleveland in the 1930s. Cleveland County Council.

Perley, Doris (1985) The Moorhouse Farm Estate, Eaglescliffe. Unpublished Dissertation in Local History. Teesside Polytechnic.

Petts, David and Quentin Lewis (2013) “Heartbreak Hill: Towards an Archaeology of the Great Depression” Paper presented at the Contemporary and Historical Archaeological Theory Conference, University College London, London, UK.

St. Denis, Michael (2002) Camp #9: An Historical and Archaeological Investigation of a Depresion Era Relief Camp in Prince Albert National Park. Unpublished MA, Department of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Wurst, LouAnn and Christine L. Ridarsky (2014) “The Second Time as Farce: Archaeological Reflections on the New New Deal.” International Journal of Historical Archaeology 18:3, pp. 224-241.
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