Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Brent Museum

Willesden Library Centre,
95 High Rd,
London NW10 2SF
Thursday December 8   2016      

The one thing this Museum lacked was a map showing us the boundaries that Brent has – formed like all the other London Boroughs in 1965 it brought together bits of the capital close to Kensington and Chelsea and Camden but also Harrow and Barnet.   At one point it must have looked like leftover corners from its neighbours but surely it has developed its own character, and as this Museum  so clearly shows, its own history and memories.

The Willesden Green library is very striking, taking up a substantial corner site on the High Road, which is used by a significant number of bus routes in spite of its narrowness, so we were not on unfamiliar territory. Inside the library there is light and space and quiet, though there was a storytelling session taking place in the ground floor children’s section. A sweeping staircase takes you to the Adult Library on the First Floor and (though we had to ask) the Archives and Museum at the top. The broad and safety conscious-bannisters form small display cases where memorabilia belonging to Willesden worthies or former craftsmen are displayed but the purpose-built museum follows a more usual chronological approach.        
There is an interactive display about the River Brent which sadly was not working: buses apart this is one of the borough’s features we have also followed as it forms a significant section of the Capital Ring Walk and in fact one of the most beautiful. We were told that the name comes from a Celtic goddess named Brigantia – she who eventually settled into being Britannia.   If there were Roman and Saxon remains we somehow missed them, as the focus was on following the development of the area from one of largely agricultural and grazing lands to industry and commerce.

Watling Street was a major Roman Road now the thoroughfare through Kilburn, and the museum shows how important the Kilburn Priory was as a place of pilgrimage.  Priory apart the land was productive for farming of all sorts, though as urbanisation increased dairy farming became more important. We did not note any key buildings or events from Tudor times. St  Andrew’s In Kingsbury is considered to be the oldest building in Brent and even then you would have to ‘pick out’ the original bits from successive restorations – the picture here is from a walk and not the Museum…
There are artefacts from several small local dairies, who sometimes delivered up to three times daily, but by the 19th century a Mr Titus Barham, in the way of entrepreneurs, founded the Express Dairies, on the back of which he became very rich. (When I was in Primary School in NW London (and this is going back 60 years) the playground factions divided pretty much between rival football clubs Spurs or Arsenal but just below was whether you had your milk delivered by the United Dairies (RED livery) or the Express Dairies (BLUE) (though a few playground oddballs went with the Co-op in GREEN) which indicates how powerful these brands became – but like many their day came and went.This article maintains Titus Barham was the making of modern Brent !

Other major manufacturers included a brickworks large enough to make an impact on the local environment with rows of houses – some large and imposing but also many for the ‘incoming’ railway workers; this mainly round the Kilburn area. While the menfolk were engaged in industry the museum credits women with having laundry jobs, later working for drapers and running haberdashery shops, with the appropriate ‘goods for sale’ on display. Following the First World War house building expanded prolifically with the spread of ‘Metroland’ – as the Museum shows there was no shortage of railway lines through the area and housing followed stations. Metroland was a term coined by the promoters of the Metropolitan Railway and certainly spread out from the parts of Brent such as Neasden, Sudbury and Wembley before heading into ‘the Shires’.
Naturally all these modest house owners needed to be fed and by the Twenties there was a proliferation of factories – most of them still household names.  

By the Twenties and Thirties the canal road and rail connections round park Royal were so good that many different manufacturers set up there: McVities originating from Scotland as you might expect have long (since 1902) and continuing links with the Harlesden end of Brent and for any biscuit lover the time-line is a must. If savoury is more your line Heinz and Smith’s Crisps were here too. Also the famous architect Giles Gilbert Scott built a brewery for  Guinness, which they only vacated in 2005. Park Royal is still a busy Trading Estate encompassing both large brand names and smaller outlets – we criss-crossed it many times on our bus journeys as it continues to offer employment.

The expansion of industry and commerce is indivisible from the history of immigration as the plentiful work available attracted and employed successive waves of incomers. Brent is one of the most diverse boroughs in London and also probably still has the largest number of Irish families, most of whom arrived originally to fill labouring jobs. During the Fifties and Sixties the Caribbean families came in significant numbers alongside those from Gujarat. When the British passport holding Indians of East Africa were no longer welcome there they came over from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. These communities are now well settled and more recent arrivals mirror those of the rest of London’s residents and workforce. The Irish left their mark on the Kilburn/Cricklewood axis with the Galtymore Ballroom and large convivial Irish pubs. In another part of the borough closer to Wembley is the stand out structure of the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, described by Wikipedia as ‘Europe’s first traditional Hindu stone temple’. The cases hold exhibits reflecting all these cultures. 

Perhaps the authorities had a sense of all this diversity or perhaps it was prescient when they decided to hold the  Empire Games in Wembley ( and nearby White City )  in 1934. Brent’s legacy was of course Wembley Stadium, both the original and the 2007-opened buildings being instantly recognisable. Both old and new stadiums have hosted some memorable events including the original Live Aid and even better attended the Pope’s Visit.

All this industry and development is not to say that neither World war had an impact on Brent. There are memorials to a local man winning a VC in the first World War, and rather touchingly a librarian from this very resource who also died and has his own plaque. Though not as heavily bombed as South London, Brent suffered quite badly because of the industry, which did also include the Handley Page works at Roe Green and de Havilland in Cricklewood. This did not stop the local folk raising cash to buy a Spitfire plane, which went to a Polish Squadron; this was obviously a national effort as we had seen similar contributions to ships at both Tottenham and Waltham Forest borough archives.

Inevitably where there was war damage those large high rise estates such as at Stonebridge replaced the much needed housing and in turn became unpopular.

The Archive has a generous space set aside at the end for special exhibitions and a BBC trailer had alerted us to this one: The Grunwick Strike. This was extremely well documented partly due to the fact that Special Branch had released their papers from this era having played a significant if covert role.(They kept a list of every single poster and placard, which must have helped the exhibition curators!)

Grunwick was a photo processing plant – in the era before every phone became a digital camera people used to post their holiday snaps to be processed and about a week later a pack of photos arrived back by post. Much of the workforce was female and at that women of South Asian heritage who were ‘kept in their place’ by all possible means of bullying and degrading working practices. When an enterprising and educated worker called Jayaben Desai (originally from Tanzania) talked about Union involvement attempts were made to dismiss anyone who joined her.  The epigram and the theme for the whole exhibition was ‘We are Lions’ from her riposte to management:
“What you are running here is not a factory it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions, who can bite your head off. We are the lions Mr Manager. “

The strike ran for two years and is immaculately documented with a detailed time line on the floor and corresponding panels for each key stage of success and defeat. It is seen as particularly significant in (trade union) history as, like the strike at Dagenham, it involved low paid women and workers from an ethnic minority. Their treatment at work was degrading – being followed to the toilets etc. The strike also featured significant police involvement which seems staggering when you look at these petite Asian women on the frontline – though there were 550 arrests no strikers were involved in violence against the police and it soured community/police relations for some time. The subsequent government must have taken notes and used even more extreme tactics and in the end legislation to curb unions. All these workers wanted was:
1)     The right to belong to a union.
2)     The right to have the union recognised.
3)     The right not to be dismissed for joining a union.

This special exhibition – and I have really compressed the amount of information on display – made a stirring end to our visit to the Brent Archives and Museum so we took one last look over the balcony where  Brent worthies and celebrities have little showcases (Twiggy anyone?) (Bob Marley passing through?) and made our way down and out. 

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