Between silent factories and struggling shops, there’s poverty and even hunger. But there’s also a steadfast community spirit which holds the key to turning this town around. Jennifer Williams's reporting and Joel Goodman's photography is supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundationby Jennifer Williams / July 4, 2019 / Leave a comment
There’s a particular image of Oldham that goes some way towards encapsulating decades of its history, successes and struggles.
In the background stand the long-silent mills, testament to a bountiful, industrious identity reaching back more than 200 years. Terraced houses, built for the thousands of people originally working in those mills and, later, for the engineering giants that flourished here during and after the Second World War, curve into the middle distance.
Yet what’s missing from the picture is just as significant. Gone from the frame is the pocket of Oldham’s library, police station, youth centre and social services department, including a day centre for the elderly. All of these have shut since the introduction of austerity, within a few years and a few yards of each other. Yorkshire Bank closed its local branch in 2017; the post office went late last year.
Not far out of shot, the engineering giant, Avro, once anchored the surrounding community of Chadderton. Home of the Lancaster Bomber and employer to more than 11,000 people, it was eventually subsumed into BAE Systems, before closing in 2012.
The story of Oldham will resonate in many former industrial towns, especially across the north and midlands, that live in the shadow of a neighbouring city. It is the tale of somewhere, and there are many such places, that feels as if it is considered rarely, if at all, by ministers and officials in faraway London. It is a place where a strong identity fights to flourish under layer upon layer of economic bad fortune. Consequently, Oldham’s experience can tell us an awful lot about the ferocious currents swirling through our national politics.
But this is not a story about the “left behind,” a phrase that causes eyes to roll when it is uttered here. Those words subtly lay blame with the town itself, suggesting its people were too slow, too short-sighted to keep up with the big boys, be it London or resurgent Manchester next door.
There is much to admire in the Oldham of 2019, and—if you look for it—a great deal of hope. While admitting that times feel tough and power out of reach, people stress in the same breath that their tale is also one of pride and generosity, of hope, resilience, imagination and…