1970s school leavers tell how industrial decline and political incompetence shattered their town and fragmented the community
There was a time, in the not-so-distant past, when the English fishing town of Grimsby proudly lived up to its full name – Great Grimsby (so named to distinguish itself from a nearby village, Little Grimsby). Situated at the mouth of the Humber in North East Lincolnshire, it was the world’s biggest fishing port, lording over the North Atlantic deep-sea fishing grounds.
The fishermen were, Peter Rowley tells us in his book Class Work, ‘three-day millionaires’, who braved often-terrifying weather during weeks-long voyages before returning to indulge themselves during short breaks at home. Their haunt was Freeman Street, the town’s main shopping artery. Close to the docks, it was “a vital area, full of life, more akin to a wild west frontier town”, says Rowley.
The fishermen, “identified by their suits, powder blue, bottle green, red, yellow, expensive and distinctive with pleats and belted jackets”, have long gone, their industry shattered by the triple hammer of ruinous ‘cod wars’ with Iceland in the 1970s and 1980s, the European Union’s Common Fisheries Policy, and Margaret Thatcher’s devastating 11-year reign as British prime minister.
Freeman Street, formerly “packed with shoppers, tailors, jewellers, a plethora of watering holes and a massive conveyor belt of semi-skilled and unskilled employment”, hit the nadir of its 40-year decline in 2018 when it was declared the ‘Unhealthiest High Street in Britain’, due to the number of takeaway food outlets, betting shops and off licence booze outlets that fill the spaces between now-shuttered storefronts.
A former schoolteacher and college lecturer, Rowley describes the period covered by Class Work as one of “political upheaval, stunning change, an economy on a roller coaster as seen through the eyes of Grimsby school leavers from the 1970s to the present”.
His book is an oral history, told by ex-students of Harold Street Secondary School, that traces the transformation of the town’s East Marsh area – which provided the crews for the town’s trawler fleets – from a deep-rooted, close-knit community into an outpost of almost paralysed decay, afflicted by drugs, violence and other anti-social behaviour.
Their stories highlight the pressing need for stronger links between community, schools and industry to enable children to progress through an education system designed to prepare them for quality work that pays the bills, provides for the needs of a family, and encourages further education and training for personal and career advancement.
That might sound like an utopian dream, but it is precisely what existed in Grimsby and other British towns and cities before Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal disrupters emerged in the late 1970s to trash the existing, but already fragile, post-war status quo.
Rowley’s ex-pupils, who attended Harold Street from 1969 to 1976, were at the bleeding edge of a union-busting, money-grubbing political blitz that caused much of the industrial decline that has ravaged the north of England over the past 35 years.
In this period, Grimsby’s East Marsh was transformed from what ex-pupil Diana Sanford remembers as, “a friendly place where there was a genuine community spirit where people looked out for one another”, into one in which, “We have landlords who buy bulk houses and have no interest in offering a decent standard of service. Drugs are endemic and family situations challenging. Some seem to lack any real aims or purpose in life, which inevitably leads to a lack of self-esteem, pride and self-respect”.
That splintering of community is also noted by Karon Kennington, who recalls a time when “the area bustled with life and there were corner shops everywhere”. But it degenerated so much she was forced to “move my dad out of the family home in 2008. Basically, he was frightened by the vandalism and crime. He became a virtual recluse in his own home. It’s not the Grimsby I grew up in”.
Kennington adds, “I think today’s school leavers would be shocked at how I got my first job. The careers officer came to school with a batch of job cards. My friend was interested in fashion and got a job in a fashion shop”, while she and two others found were given work in the food hall of a department store.
In contrast, Rob Rowntree, a pupil at the school from 1969 to 1974, is infuriated at the cynicism of the great youth employment cover-up by today’s Tory government:
My lad is at Primark. He works 32 hours per month. He doesn’t pay tax. That’s how you get a ‘jobs miracle’, four/five jobs created where really the hours are consistent with one full-time genuine job. The community is collapsing from within”.
In the second part of Class Work Rowley lays the blame for the decay that has bedevilled working-class communities on Thatcher’s destructive spell in power from 1979 to 1990, famously characterised by her much-reviled quote, “There is no such thing as society…”
She was determined to upset the often-uneasy equilibrium that had existed between workers and bosses during the post-war years and set about eliminating worker power. Her increasingly-harsh actions culminated in crushing the mineworkers’ strike of 1983-84, which helped shatter trade unions and paved the way to the crisis that exists today.
Thatcher’s attitude to young workers was displayed when her Tory government set up the Manpower Services Commission, a youth training programme to help youngsters find jobs. Agreeing with cynical observers, who claimed the scheme served only to mask real unemployment figures, Rowley highlights the arrogance and condescension of the commission, whose boss, David Young, declared in a 1982 newspaper article that, “Youth rates of pay in Britain are far too high … The young should be a source of cheap labour”.
Young also advised employers, “You now have the opportunity to take on young men and women, train them and let them work for you almost entirely at our expense, and then decide whether or not to employ them”.
His thoughts were amplified in an MSC memo a couple of years later which concluded that, “People must be educated once more to know their place”. Working class people needed, it seemed, to be “re-socialised to be more acceptable to employers”.
This mindset was shared by Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson who bluntly declared that the government’s intentions towards youth training were, “No tech rather than low tech”.
The future for Britain’s youth, notes Rowley, “seemed to be as a nation of personal servants, textile sweatshops, burger flippers and caterers for tourists in a giant heritage theme park”.
35 years later, the effects of that Tory ideological groupthink, continued by Tony Blair’s New Labour, and culminating in a crippling austerity campaign by the Cameron/May Tory government are clear. The hopes and dreams of several generations have been dashed by the greed of asset-stripping hucksters, who have denuded industry, off-shored profits, introduced zero-hour contracts, and created the most unequal society in a century.
What of the future? Well, we shouldn’t expect to see free-spending fishermen parading down Grimsby’s Freeman Street in their colourful suits any time soon, but there are signs of hope in regeneration projects underway – parts of the main street are being demolished to make way for housing and offices, while heavy investment is also being made in the offshore wind farm industry.
And the people on the East Marsh? Rowley tells us that the area’s Shalom Youth Club, led for 40 years by vicar John Ellis, has had a huge influence on recent generations, helping youngsters escape the nihilistic emptiness of life without hope, while also running a thrice-weekly soup kitchen. “I was looking through some old Church records and there was a soup kitchen on this site in 1861,” says Ellis. “It records an oxen head being made into stew for the poor. It’s like back to the future”.
Almost without exception, concludes Rowley, everyone interviewed in Class Work remembers Grimsby’s East Marsh area in the 1970s as a happy, integrated community.
Something has been lost that cannot be replaced and the town is now diminished because of it. A community built on physical resilience and the ability to work incredibly hard has vanished.
We are now at a crossroads. What is required in towns like Grimsby are all the elements of Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist programme of change, to replace a brutal neoliberal ideology which has patently failed the mass of people in society”
Rowley believes the next UK general election (slated for 2022, but likely to happen sooner) may be the last chance to begin the process of making Grimsby – and Britain – ‘Great’ again. “It is not merely winning the election, it is about changing the course of history by a permanent transformation in the balance of power and changing a system currently rigged against working people”, he says.
But will Corbyn get a chance to introduce changes that will cater ‘for the many, not the few?’ It’s anybody’s guess now that the country has become so divided after three years of the Tory party’s Brexit disaster.
That, along with the mass media’s relentlessly cynical campaigns against Corbyn, has helped generate huge working class support for political chancer Nigel Farage and his single-issue concoction, the Brexit Party, which advocates a swift and chaotic exit from Europe – with scant regard to the consequences.
Citizens of Grimsby’s East Marsh should be rooting for Corbyn: if Farage wins power, their suffering will almost certainly get worse.