Shedding Light on ‘Darkest Cheltenham’: the Lower High Street Project
14th July 2017
The History blog has not been as active as usual in recent months, and while this was not ideal, there is a good excuse. Over the last seven months, staff and students in History at the University of Gloucestershire worked on a project which focused on the history of Cheltenham’s Lower High Street. The idea for the project came from discussions with Cheltenham’s Civic Society and the West End Partnership, and the outcomes from research conducted primarily by Dr David Howell, Dr Matt Kidd, and myself were showcased in an exhibition that was launched on Civic Day 17th June at the recently established Chapel Arts gallery in Cheltenham. This interactive exhibit attracted considerable attention, with over 1000 visitors and plenty of press attention. The interest in the exhibition is indicative of the significance of this local history project which was important for a number of reasons.
Cheltenham is a town often celebrated for its Regency architecture and rich Georgian heritage. However, its reputation as a ‘Spa’ town excludes its most historic district, what is commonly referred to as the Lower High Street. This part of the town has clear medieval origins, and from the early 19th century to the present day, it has often been home to Cheltenham’s poorest residents and immigrants, as well as some of its oldest buildings. Despite its heritage, it has been subject to numerous interventions by local authorities in terms of improvement and regeneration from the late 19th century onwards, which has caused the loss of significant historic architecture, as well as out-migration. Today, the Lower High Street continues to suffer from a negative reputation which serves to reduce its significance to Cheltenham’s history, simultaneously pointing to the role of class in shaping the town’s heritage and tourism landscape.
Work by staff and students focused on the memories of former and existing residents and business owners in the area that challenged the negative perceptions of people from other parts of the town. Indeed, the area seems to have been home to a vibrant community of family owned business servicing tightly-knit working class and immigrant groups. One of the first responses we had from an article in the local newspaper was an anonymous poem entitled ‘The Lower High Street’ which spoke to feelings of nostalgia for a lost and forgotten community. The exhibition was centred around many of the themes raised in this poem, including community, class, and identity, which have become increasingly relevant beyond Cheltenham’s local history following the Grenfell tower tragedy. The events in West London have brought issues of poverty, class, and housing into sharp focus in recent weeks. Indeed, by focusing on the Lower High Street our ambition was to provoke discussions about the way issues of class and poverty have been submerged in the town’s history, and that by bringing to life its hidden stories future plans for regeneration might be more sensitive to its significance to local residents. Hopefully we have made a step in the right direction, but it remains to be seen what will happen to the area in future.
The project has allowed the History team to create the Cotswold Centre for History and Heritage, a hub for future projects that will examine global and national issues through a local history lens. The Lower High Street exhibition and short documentary film can be accessed there.