Their Only Crime Was Poverty
John Payne's booklet about the Bath Workhouse is now published
The booklet sets out the facts as in the Museum of Bath at Work exhibition of 2017 and traces the story through from before the 1834 Poor Law Act to the present St Martin’s Hospital. This was the exhibition that began the Workhouse Walks programme and my collaboration with John, leading on to the Walking the Names walks that we kept going through the lock downs.
‘Workhouse to Hospital’ is on sale at £5. Once printing costs are covered, income will go the Workhouse Burial Ground Campaign and used towards getting a permanent memorial to the 3182 people who died in the workhouse and are buried in unmarked graves there.
The booklet is 28 pages, printed on high quality paper, thanks to all who helped with this, especially Julian Vincent for typesetting, Jude Harris for designing the cover, and those who gave permission for the use of photos. On sale at Oldfield Park Bookshop in Moorland Road, BA2, and the Museum of Bath at Work and direct from the author
If you have visited the Burial Ground recently, you will know that Parks Department have changed their mowing pattern to allow wild flowers to grow. There are already interesting plants coming up. Paths have been mown to allow easier access for walkers.
Walking the Names continues supporting local residents in their opposition to plans to build housing right next to the Workhouse Chapel on Midford Road. The developer is refusing to recognise that 1107 bodies are buried there. These include John Plass, the stonemason, who was an inmate of the workhouse and supervised the building of the chapel, now a listed building.
price (£5) from Oldfield Park Bookshop in Moorland
Road BA2 or Museum of Bath at Work BA1.
A new walking trail launches in Bath on March 28, a group hosted by Bath University is publishing a public trail identifying some of the City's connections with the Atlantic slave trade. The route invites the walker to visit a city built on the wealth generated in the trade in, and labour of, captured and enslaved Africans. The map identifies the former residencies of slave-owners and their coded memorials in the Abbey. Building on the work done by activists, researchers and artists including my own (Sweet Waters) this is the continuing story of bringing a UNESCO designated World Heritage City out of induced amnesia and denial.
Engaging with Bath’s Uncomfortable Past: A creative workshop to launch a new walking trail and reflect on the legacies of slavery in Bath
Thursday 25th March 18:00 – 19:30 GMT
We are invited to visit the ornate memorials stones in Bath's Abbey and to consider the millions of captured and enslaved people who died to produce their wealth. The route identifies some of those who exposed the horrific trade in human lives as well as some who played a part in supporting resistance to and escape from enslavement. The famous white aristocrat Wilberforce is acknowledged, of course, but what is new and long overdue is the opening to the stories of Black speakers and witnesses who came to Bath in the ongoing campaigns for freedom and civil rights. Black presence in Bath is featured.
The questions on the memorialisation of this 'uncomfortable' past, this reluctant heritage, continue. The need for social repair and public acknowledgement is self evident and embodied in the UNESCO designation, the local authority and holders of the official story of Bath have yet to respond. The launch workshop with contributions from academics, artists, heritage practitioners and walkers offers an opportunity to discover this latest contribution to ending the 'dead silence' that Jane Austen noted over two hundred years ago. I am very proud to have contributed to this.
Fairfield House in Bath, once the war-time home of Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, his family and the government of Ethiopia in exile, was a gift to the city. .
The House is a significant site of pilgrimage for Rastafarians and is becoming a centre for art and performance. One of the latest developments is a radio station, Imperial Voice Radio.
I was invited on to the In Our City show for a conversation about walking, race and equality in Bath, amongst other things.
Click the image to listen
His Imperial Majesty came to England in 1936 following the invasion of Ethiopia by the Italian army then under the control of Mussolini's fascist government. Still pursuing a policy of appeasement to the fascist governments in Europe the UK government wanted to Selassie away from London. Bath welcomed him, and he is reported to have been very happy in the city. He was a great walker and you can still walk in his footsteps through the city , along the river and in the surrounding countryside.
Following the amazing counter mapping workshop at 44AD artspace in Bath two years ago, the co-created storms in teacups and international street art work last year and the continuing resonances of the Sweet Waters project, I am collaborating on a publication with Dr Christina Horvath from the University of Bath.
Attending to Legacies of Slave-ownership and Enslavement: Reshaping Memoryscapes in Bath and Bristol after the Fall of Colston
Christina is Reader in French in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies, she co-hosted the international co-creation project to which I contributed strategies towards 'sensing legacies of slave-ownership'. With the fall of Colston there appears to have been a step change in activity both within the heritage institutions and outside, some may argue that that change was already underway, others may argue that the dead (white) silence is resilient and absorbent, that this storm will pass....
This proposed publication emerges from the questions and actions that have taken place in the months of the virus since the murder of George Floyd and the fall of Colston. We invite participation in extending, exploring and documenting the intensities, presences and absences of this moment.
Deadline for abstracts and expressions of interest 15 Jan 2021. Details below.
We are keen to embrace a range of responses from artists, academics, walkers, individuals and groups. Please share!
A call for contributions
The aftermath of the Colston toppling in summer 2020 has left us with a set of unanswered questions. How could Bristol’s and Bath’s historical connections with empire and the trade in, and wealth generated by captured and enslaved Africans be uncovered and made part of the official narratives? What should happen to monuments celebrating Britain’s legal slave owners and traders and how to break with the enduring ‘white silence’ in places like Bath where there is no statue to be removed and replaced? What is the role of a memorial today? Is erecting statues or monuments the most efficient way of making reluctant past visible in a city’s memoryscape? If silence is complicity, is acknowledging institutionally forgotten legacies of the slave trade sufficient to take responsibility for what happened in the past? Do references to the Abolitionist movement in Bath and Bristol and the anti-slavery movement and support for the Underground Railway in the USA risk obscuring white privilege and draw attention away from Black resistance? Are discussions about modern-day slavery and human trafficking a necessary part of the conversation about trans-Atlantic slavery legacies or rather a way to divert attention from past responsibilities and present-day inequalities? These are some of the current debates this collective volume seeks to engage with by looking at the most recent attempts to engage with colonial history in Bristol and Bath and explore the two cities’ links with the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans. The volume, to be proposed to Policy Press, Bristol, aims to bring together researchers, artists, activists, institutions, teachers, curators and other stakeholders to reflect on both cities’ changing memoryscapes and various strategies enabling different communities and stakeholders to be part of the conversation.
We are inviting contributions dealing, in particular, with the following questions:
• How to avoid debates about the past that remain confined to the realms of experts, curators and administrators without involving in the conversation representatives of broader civil society? How can communities of stakeholders engage in collaboration with institutions and what are the pitfalls of often unequal dialogs with institutions?
• What strategies should be adopted to make hidden connections with historic legacies of the trade in captured and enslaved Africans visible? What is the role of artists, researchers and activists in this process? How can unequal power relations between these groups be balanced and mitigated?
• Is it possible to decolonise exhibits, buildings, institutions and memorials? How to present collections derived from a contested past to encourage fairer representations of the enslaved and promote more equal futures?
• Whose story should be remembered and how should it be presented? How can museums critically reflect on their own histories and collections in collaboration with their audiences and stakeholders?
• Can similar strategies be used to shape Bristol’s and Bath’s memoryscapes or should local differences be recognised to elaborate effective ways of engaging with the past?
• How can young audiences be involved in the current debate? How can artistic or walking practices promote an active and democratic engagement?
Contributions can be theoretical or arts- or practice-based. 250-word abstracts accompanied by a short biography should be sent to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org by 15th January 2021. Accepted contributions should be submitted by September 30th 2021
This is an invitation to join Walking the Names at the Bath Union Workhouse Burial Ground on Wellsway Bath Sunday 1 November at 11.00-13.00
A slow and socially distanced walk.
Some good news:
The grass has been cut again, and again the evolving 'poor' memorial has survived. It looks like it is now recognised again in the cutting plan.
The soundwalk made with the recordings we generated during lockdown has been nominated for an international award in Sound Walk September 2020! Its here: https://walklistencreate.org/walkingpiece/bath-workhouse-burial-ground-walking-the-names
listen remotely or on your phone on the site using the Echoesxyz app.
If you think its any good leave some stars or say something nice!
When will it be over? The remaining years of burials are now mapped out and if all goes well the final Walking the Names will be in March next year. At that point, after more than a year of firstr Sunday walks, Walking the Names, I will be moving on with the hope that this contribution will stimulate others and that perhaps by then new things are growing from the 'poor' memorial we have established. Spring could be on the way then too...and maybe the virus will be under control.
As with so much we are working with there are tragedies, mysteries and surprises. The records offer a final mystery.... the very last name on the Burial Register for the Workhouse Burial Ground is Thomas Cowdery buried on 21 Nov 1964! Was he born in the Workhouse, or is it a misprint?
Walking projects in development include work on botany and empire and I think I have found a way into walking the Enclosures tracing slaveownership and the journey of the cloth. And the Lake District project is still a possibility. Watch this space!
Walking the Names continued through the (first?) lockdown, many walkers recorded and shared their readings. Readings came in from around Bath, Bristol and beyond; one regular came in from Denmark. As we now return to the burial ground itself those distant readings have continued. This is a short film using readings made on Bornholm Island in the Baltic mixed with a fragment from the reading on the burial ground at the beginning of August.
The project has generated widespread interest as well as local involvement. People have made contact who think they may have ancestors buried in the field, others have got involved responding to the virus death toll in the underfunded and part privatised care sector. It has been a focus to consider the responsibilities of civil society towards its elders and those who are finding life difficult as a result of illnesss, disability or just bad luck. In doing so questions of care, responsibility and memorialisation hang over the local authority and our elected representatives who inherited the burial site from the Poor Law Guardians and of course the Church who consecrated the ground. Ultimately such questions return to us, how to respond, how to bear witness, how to repair. We walk with these questions. Join us every first Sunday details here
For the past 10 months, every first Sunday of the month without fail, I have been hosting a group Walking the Names at the Bath Union Workhouse Burial ground. Each month to the toll of the Workhouse bell we have walked and read and reflected on a group of names from the burial register, reading them day by day and month by month of their burial. Each month and on our own walks we have honoured the space and respected the dead, leaving flowers, stones and flags at a ruined and almost erased memorial. A ‘poor’ memorial is emerging. Twice the council has shredded it. This artists project is about holding this space of reluctant civic memory open.
Each month we have walked we have gathered at the remains of the demolished memorial. Some remember it as a ruined trough they used as ‘home’ in childhood tag games. Today just a few stones remain deeply embedded. It has become a special place, the start and finish point for each Walking the Names walk. Flowers often mark the place and over the months this has become an improvised memorial of wreaths made with found found flowers, small stones, flowers from walkers gardens, wild flowers and more recently flags with the names of the dead.
Bath and North East Somerset Council shredded the memorial again at the end of July.
Inherited over the years from the Poor Law Guardians, the Council still own the site. The Park department mow the grass, they mow it into nice shapes for other people using other parks in the city, leaving spaces for other lives and other plants to grow. Why cant they do that here? They blame the contractors for mowing up and down but it would not take much ink to write into the contract an instruction them to save their blades and mow round this evolving ‘poor’ memorial. They did it once. As well as the responsibility for maintaining the site the Council has inherited a responsibility for respecting the dead of this City.
On the first Sunday in August we renewed the 'poor' memorial.
As the virus constrained our activity, Walking the Names has continued, recording and sharing our reading and walking.
Watch and listen to the lockdown recordings here.
You will hear the names from batch burials of the elderly and the young, some who had lived to a great age carrying memories of family and stories perhaps from the Enclosures, others not even old enough to know their names. We walk and think about the brutal life of the poor deprived of access to land and lured to the city of Bath, we reflect on the contemporary resonances, those dying of the virus in the underfunded and privatised care homes of the twenty first century. Thinking about attitudes towards poverty and older people, the vulnerable and people with disabilities, people not considered to be economically productive and thus viewed as expendable in the pursuit of herd immunity. We talked about civic responsibility, about how one of the richest cities in the British Empire hid its poor and dumped their bodies in a field on the edge of town, and now cant even be bothered to respect a memorial.
Here in the latter half of the Nineteenth century, throughout most of Queen Victoria’s reign, as the wealth of empire poured into England people were punished for being poor, even in their deaths. Over three thousand people are buried in unmarked graves on a patch of land not much bigger than a football pitch. The dead were brought from the Workhouse on a trolley following a path through a tunnel under the road to the field. The Workhouse ran a punitive regime of self sufficiency condemning the old and vulnerable, sick and disabled people to a miserable existence. Even in death the poor were denied a decent funeral, their bodies bundled into the earth behind the grim grey walls of the burial ground.
Years ago the Council used to mow round the remains of the old memorial, then they removed the stones they could shift but their mower blades still chip away at old stones buried deep. In May they shredded the evolving ‘poor’ memorial, in a moving improvised ceremony a walker renewed it. In June and for most of July the ‘poor’ memorial found a life and began to grow. Sadly in August the Council scalped it again. On Sunday we renewed it and walked the names of those buried in 1871 and 1872. Leaving a flag for Henry Wilcox buried there on the 27 May 1871 just two days old and a flag for Jane Dunk buried there on 10 April 1871 eighty nine years old. So many local tragedies.
Walking the Names continues, if you pass through the field leave your own bio-degradable flag or flower or stone and pay your respects to the Workhouse dead and their modern counterparts. Join us next time on Sunday 6 September. A ‘poor’ memorial emerges.
All correspondence now begins with the routine,
Dear Friend, hope you are safe and well.
..and I do….
In my nuclear armageddon nightmares a half life and more ago I used to imagine the slow cloud of fallout drifting towards us on the weather, invisible and deadly.
So I have dreamed these moments of spring grass and green, yellow, blue,
when the plant world bursts into life.
But in the joy of this moment there is dread.
Strange walking at dawn,
getting up early to get out, not really out of choice
but to avoid the pumping virus breath of unmasked runners and uphill cyclists.
I am learning to fear.
Watching/listening to the spaces humans are withdrawing from.
Rats in the compost heap.
The dawn chorus gets louder or did I just get up early
In our house I was the last threat, it was me who shook hands with the nice scaffolder coming to build a platform to fix the roof lifted and scattered by the winds.
Weeks ago and tomorrow, the two weeks are up from that last skin contact with a stranger.
Our flat rang with Indian drones and sitar from my daughter and boyfriend who had dodged the virus like skimming stones on a calm sea: from master class training to tourism, a step behind Trump and a step ahead of lock down, to a show that was closed just as they got back. Last skip, a rescue ride picking them up and bringing them here, as it all shut down. Now they have gone, the house rests in a scented calm, for that moment it was a family Christmas in a lifeboat.
With the death toll still rising and in the searing glare of a burning sun we realised how long it had gone on for. No testing. No tracing. Chaos in the Coop, silent panic in the well spaced queues at Waitrose. Monthly we read names and re-membered those who died of poverty in the Bath Workhouse as underfunded care homes bled death statistics, their modern counterparts.
The virus forced imaginations;
The virus revealed ugly truths and complacent privilege.
And as violent deaths of black people at the knees and guns of the white state continued, a boil like a great carbuncle on the face of humanity burst. Brewing for 300 hundred years. I cant breathe. I cant breathe. I cant breathe
I cant breathe
I cant breathe
I cant breathe
I cant breathe
I cant breathe
I cant breathe
I cant breathe
I cant breathe
I cant breathe
I cant breathe
I cant breathe
I cant breathe
I cant breathe
I cant breathe
I cant breathe
I cant breathe
I cant breathe
Twenty times. Last breath. One man, George Floyd. Too many others.
300 years. White silence. Whisper it
I don’t know where home is.
That insidious enchanting white silence clings to the valleys of wealth in a oily smog, as contagious as the virus, invisible, deadly. The sounds of questions, and a noisy reclaiming the space opens the door to reparation and reconciliation.
Locked down, not locked down, still being lied to. Its shit.
Our celebration is cancelled.
The sun has stopped shining...but even that bit was scarey.
at least Colston is down and the shout is out.
With love and solidarity
Response to Space Place Practice call for responses themed Home
In May I should have been walking with co-artist Lorna Brunstein developing a programme of work for installation at the Lake District Holocaust Project. Sara's Last Steps would have taken place during a weekend of events commemorating the arrival of a group of Jewish child refugees to a location near Windermere in 1945. The weekend included a planned reunion of those still living and able to travel plus their families and descendants. Sadly the virus has put paid to that and the project is on hold.
It is our intention to develop the project and if possible stage the walk and the installation at some point in the future. Our intention was and remains to explore moments from the experience of the Windermere Children, to walk and ask questions, to think with our whole bodies in the spaces where those young refugees began to find sanctuary and exile towards generating contemporary resonances. The project is a further development of the creative collaboration with Lorna Brunstein,, Forced Walks; the invitation to participate in this Lake District project remains open. More information at forcedwalks.co..uk
Walking the Names online
Walking the Names goes online as the virus closes us down to isolation and social distancing. An informal trawl of those who had joined the first few monthly walks resulted in nearly twenty walkers interested in taking part on line. Each walker was issued with 20 names from either 1862 or 1863 entries in the Register of Burials at the Bath Union Workhouse Burial ground just off the Wells Way. This brings a whole new set of voices to the project and as they get stitched together it promises to be an interesting piece with contemporary voices and reflections.
In this time of the virus, overhearing dangerous eugenics talk of herd immunity and collatoral damage, it seems to me that the people of Bath who died of poverty in what was still one of the richest cities in the world are a presence worth remembering and reflecting on. From their unmarked graves in that unmemorialised burial ground they call on us not to forget. We reflect on their presence and the contemporary resonances: people who become defined as other, and then considered not to matter and are finally discarded.
Why walk and read the names aloud? For me its something about bringing those individuals to mind and body, even if we cant do it together at the site of their burial. As we move and breath and give sound to the names on the page we generate a deeper richer knowing of that individual. We are literally re-membering them. Its is a gentle and emotional act of witness for the othering of the poor and vulnerable, casualties of a system that generated the wealth and serviced the wealthy. Especially poignant and punitive at the time given the Victorian culture of death, they were denied a ‘decent’ funeral, a respectability in death rather than shame to be passed down the generations.There is no memorial to their lives and there was no one to mourn them in death. These people died not from a virus but from poverty. This field of bodies and each of those individual lives speaks and I reflect on the rise of homelessness and an underfunded and increasingly privatised state unable to care for its casualties.
Strange that in this moment of the virus the underpaid gig economy workers who deliver food, the bus drivers and public transport workers, the long overlooked hospital cleaners and canteen staff all become heroes. We cheer a health service crippled by underfunding that pulls out all the stops to save us, migrant workers who are doctors, nurses and support workers and all their colleagues are applauded even as they check their residency status. Walking the Names in this time of the virus urges a reappraisal of care and responsibility.
Today we walked and read names aloud in our back gardens and beyond, moments of exercise, carefully observing social distance and examining perhaps our historical distance from workhouse dead to virus dead. Layers of past in the present touch and a new knowing perhaps emerges. As the media comes in and comments other than mine surface I will post them here.