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State of decay

Updated Monday, 28th April 2008

Neglected buildings can give fascinating insights into the past.

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Recently, I visited two rather intriguing places – I promise that this is not going to turn into a chatty travelogue – both of which might easily be overlooked by the casual eye. The first was possibly the most unusual theme park on the planet: Singapore’s Haw Par Villa. Created by the brothers responsible for the gift of Tiger Balm to the world, this is a collection of the most astonishingly gaudy and surreal statutes seemingly thrown down higgledy-piggledy on a hill (the UK’s nearest equivalent is Blackgang Chine on the Isle of Wight, but even that is a thin analogy). The second, more familiar to British audiences, was the seafront at Clacton-On-Sea.

Now, the connection between these two sites is, I freely admit, not obvious. One link is that each is in a state of fading glory – or ghastly disrepair, if you prefer. My edition of the Lonely Planet Singapore guide describes Haw Par Villa as "depressingly run down" – which, aside from the depressingly familiar insertion of ‘depressingly’ in front of the phrase ‘run down’, is a fair enough description. Something very similar could doubtless be said of Clacton’s pier and promenade: although visiting it on a viciously cold March day probably didn’t help much.

I didn’t, however, find these places depressing. I thought them fascinating, beautiful even. For shabby and unrestored areas offer to the historian a quite unique glimpse into the past. Let me explain: both Clacton and Haw Par Villa are examples of the development of a modern leisure industry in the early twentieth century, albeit in wildly different parts of the globe.

Clacton Pier Creative commons image Icon Draco2008 under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license
Clacton Pier

The one is typical of the seaside towns created by the expansion of British working class leisure time and holidays in the handful of decades either side of Queen Victoria’s death – the inter-war entrance to its pier, with its sly little Deco windows, is testament to that. The other, meanwhile, is really not typical of anything at all, but was nonetheless enormously popular when it opened in the 1930s and much of its subject matter (which includes vast concrete tableaux of Buddhist legends and morality tales) is of intrinsic interest to anyone wishing to see how Chinese culture has been transmitted around the world by its nationals.

And it is precisely its decayed state that makes each so valuable for historians. Buildings are no less informative than textual sources in the study of history (it depends on what you want to know!) and can similarly be analysed by historians’ techniques. So these would be, of course, primary sources no matter what condition they were in. Because they are largely unrenovated, though, then with a little imagination and background knowledge we can gain a more genuine idea of what such places were like in their heyday.

We can gauge the types of amusements that drew masses of working people from East London to the Essex coast to take their holidays in the middle years of the twentieth century. Or we can imagine the influence of Chinese cultural values on Haw Par Villa’s visitors juxtaposed with those of the ruling British imperial élite in the years before World War Two. Renovation and even restoration – if not done with extreme care – can add often impenetrable layers of extra meaning to properties. It was invigorating, therefore, to see things that are much closer to raw history.

Such faded marvels also allow the historian to pose questions about changes in fashion and practice in the years since they were first constructed. I found myself reflecting on why these places had avoided the ubiquitous momentum of modernisation. In Clacton, I saw practical manifestation of the annual seaside holiday’s decline in Britain: but what had replaced it? And why was our cab driver so surprised when we told him that we were going to Haw Par Villa?

I should, nonetheless, finish on a note of caution – because historical interpretation is rarely easy (that’s what keeps historians in their jobs). Although Haw Par Villa and Clacton’s waterfront both have many things to tell us about the times at which they were built, and though they come quite close to the concrete, unrefined form of the past, neither has been left entirely untouched since the 1930s.

Things will have been damaged, moved, re-painted. The odd nod to a new fad will have been added here and there. In the case of Clacton, indeed, it is very much the case that more contemporary advertisements, slogans, and diversions co-exist with far older ones. Even these examples, wonderful though they are, are not preserved in aspic. They require filleting before we can make sound historical judgements on them: but at least these run down, untouched, decayed spectacles can give historians a decent head start.

Taking it further

If the above blog has intrigued you, you may also find the following resources from the Open University to be of interest:

High Street History
Explore the hidden corners of your high street and see how history is buried in the everyday environment with our interactive high street history feature.

Heritage, whose heritage?
Who decides what should be preserved from the past as our heritage? Who is this heritage for and how should it be presented and explained? How can I engage actively with my heritage and have an impact on it? This course endeavours to answer these questions and to engage with current debates on the preservation of the past.

Cities and technology: from Babylon to Singapore
This very wide-ranging course uncovers the interactions between technological development and the growth of urban living from the ancient world through to the present day. It scrutinizes in detail the applications of major technologies – in particular building construction, transport systems, energy sources, and communications. It is designed to develop critical skills such as comparative analysis and the use of historical models of urban development.

 

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