You can read all of the articles written by the project team as part of Activist Selly Oak in the online newspaper above. The newspaper was designed by Kerry Leslie and it’s layout and look is based on a number of publications the team came across during the research, in particular the Selly Oak Alternative Paper (SOAP), which was a community produced publication that ran from 1980-1983. Copies of SOAP can be viewed in the University of Birmingham library.
Activism across Selly Oak
Selly Oak Flyover – In the spring of 1966 visitors to Selly Oak Library were confronted with a row of neat municipal information boards, a cluster of leaflets and at the centre of the display, a carefully proportioned architect’s model of a raised motorway and a series of gigantic interchanges.
Their curiosity piqued, library users would probably have learnt that the building they were standing in, alongside the Selly Oak Institute across the road, The Oak Cinema, dozens of shops, a handful of pubs and hundreds of houses (their own possibly included) were due to be demolished over the course of the next five years to enable the construction of the ‘Selly Oak Flyover.’
Birmingham in the mid-1960s was one of Britain’s post-war economic success stories. The city’s advanced manufacturing industries offered the highest average wages in the country outside London and tens of thousands of workers flocked from all over the world to work in the vast factories of large firms like Lucas, GKN and BMC. Simultaneously paternalistic and enraptured by modernity, the Conservative-controlled council encouraged private developers to remould the city centre with new shops and offices while the council bulldozed poor quality inner city housing and moved its occupants to new estates on the edge of the city. With cars now affordable for factory and service workers, they were the means of linking the sparkling city centre and the tidy new suburbs; but if it was to work it would require an enormous programme to construct new roads.
This made suburbs like Selly Oak, which grew up alongside the expansion of the tram network in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a major inconvenience to modernising councils like Birmingham. The narrow high streets, which were built long before mass car ownership, were bottlenecks that slowed motorists hurrying to their destinations. The solution they proposed was urban motorways which would bypass, or sweep away, these relics of a pre-car existence.
When unveiled in 1966 the plans attracted less opposition than might be imagined. The shopkeepers who looked to lose their livelihoods were dismayed and ran a poster campaign alongside a petition presented to the council stressing their opposition to the scheme. It is hard to find concrete evidence of residents being particularly opposed to the plans at this time, but a degree of activism in opposition to the proposed flyover began to gather steam during the 1970s, because while the council had bold plans for Selly Oak it did not have the money to implement them. This meant that Selly Oak began to suffer from what’s called ‘planners blight.’ With the lingering threat of the road project, potential buyers couldn’t get mortgages on properties scheduled for demolition and landlords did not want to spend money on their upkeep. Few people wanted to open businesses on the threatened high street and as such, if a shop closed down it quite often remained empty and became derelict. This meant that throughout the 1970s the quality of life enjoyed by Selly Oak residents depreciated, a situation that increasingly revealed a more radical side to life in the suburb.
Radical Selly Oak – ‘Planners blight’ may have been a curse for many, but in some ways it brought opportunities for others. As people and businesses moved out without being replaced, Selly Oak suddenly had a lot of vacant space, opening up possibilities for people who were willing to risk the arrival of the council’s bulldozers.
A lot is known about the protests and occupations that were staged by university students in 1968. A lot less is known about how the late sixties marked the beginning of changes in the kinds of activism that both students and non-students engaged in. In 1967 the Guild of Students at the University of Birmingham restructured their volunteering wing, renaming it ‘Student Community Action’ (ComAc for short). ComAc was a different type of student volunteer organisation which aimed to work with the wider community in relation to residents’ priorities. ComAc proved a great success in many ways. In 1969 two thousand students in Birmingham participated in ‘Action Week,’ with participants working on a wide array of social projects such as redecorating homeless hostels and elderly residents’ homes. The small group of the most committed participants tended to have radical left-wing politics. This led students at the University of Birmingham to unite with local campaigners in the spring of 1969 to form the ‘Selly Oak Claimants Union.’
Barry Toon, a longstanding local campaigner then aged nineteen, went along to their first meeting which was chaired by the Guild of Students’ full-time ComAc worker Marion Bowl. The meeting took place in the Dog & Partridge pub (now replaced by Touchbase Pears) and the students and members of the community who were present decided to set up an organisation that would campaign to ensure that people claiming social security benefits in Selly Oak secured for themselves all of the money that they were entitled to. Barry recalls that he and his fellow campaigners would help benefit claimants complete their forms, support them in meetings with Benefit Office officials, and from time-to-time led protests at the social security offices in Northfield and on Harborne Park Lane.
The network of activists involved in the Claimants Union, both students and non-students, soon took on other campaigning projects. Given the number of vacant houses in the area, especially around Lottie Road and Katie Road a ‘substantial squatting operation’ emerged in the early 1970s. From the ‘Selly Oak Community Workshop,’ an early squat in a former greengrocers on Lottie Road, activists would identify properties that could be occupied by individuals and families who were homeless or inadequately housed. They also attempted to run a wholesale food co-op from the property but this proved rather more trouble than it was worth. The activists were also hampered in this space by an inadequate water supply. There wasn’t one available until the maintenance worker from the local short life housing association SHAKE came round and used his tools to split open a pipe running through the building’s cellar! An interesting example of collaboration between SHAKE, a radical yet formally constituted organisation, and the Selly Oak Community Workshop which was operating in breach of the law (as a side note, and an interesting sign of the changing times, SHAKE employed Lea Lane as their in-house astrologer).
Given the lack of investment in the area, a lot of the housing in Selly Oak was of a low quality. The council had bought around thirty particularly substandard houses on Harborne Park Lane with the intention of constructing one of the junctions for the flyover. As the 1970s wore on, and the flyover failed to materialise, those people living in the houses grew increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress in rehousing them. With the help of the Selly Oak Community Workshop they formed the Harborne Park Lane Residents Association, and under that banner over a hundred tenants marched up to the Bristol Road and blockaded it which, appropriately considering the nature of the dispute, caused huge traffic jams. This action was a great success resulting in the council agreeing to demolish the properties and replace them with modern, newly built homes.
The low rents in Selly Oak encouraged radical organisations with modest finances to set up in the area. There was the radical bookshop at 632 Bristol Road, simply named 632 Books, which sold an array of left-wing literature, whilst offering printing services and meeting space to a wide array of community and left-wing groups. This therefore became the meeting space for the Selly Oak strand of Big Flame, a libertarian Marxist movement established in Liverpool in 1970, but which had soon spread to other cities such as Birmingham. Big Flame was a fluid mix of residents and students, with close ties to ComAc at the Guild and a commitment to organising and working in the community. They were not the only revolutionary organisation to be based near Hubert Road. The Maoist Indian Workers Association opened a south asian arts, crafts and bookshop at 624 Bristol Road in 1974. Books sold there included Mao’s Little Red Book, books on Marxist-Leninist theory and People’s Republic of China merchandise. Jagmohan Joshi who managed the space was very concerned about the conditions that south asian workers at the Birmingham Battery endured; the factory, which operated until 1988, had an appalling record on safety and wages. Often working out of 624, he lobbied and sought to organise the workers in order to secure better pay and working conditions.
Towards the end of the 1970s a group of Big Flame members, which included university students alongside some unaffiliated local activists, squatted a former butchers shop at 768 Bristol Road. They converted it into ‘The Selly Oak People’s Centre,’ a more substantial successor to the ‘Selly Oak Community Workshop.’ This was ran as a community and advice centre, with a significant part played by the university’s law faculty in providing legal advice, whilst even playing host to gigs by left-wing punks like Steve Rogers ‘Red Alert,’ who more typically played venues like the Bournbrook Hotel. Birmingham Trades Council granted the People’s Centre membership which enabled the activists clustered around it to access trade union funds. Despite the fact that the People’s Centre’s occupation of the building was illegal, further ‘respectability’ was granted by a Labour Council who gave the centre a management grant. This was promptly rescinded by Edwina Currie (who went on to be a cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher) who came to chair the Social Services Committee when the Conservatives took back control of the Council in the early 1980s.
Perhaps the most striking example of the kind of DIY atmosphere that prevailed in the neglected Selly Oak of the 1970s is the story, reported on ITV Local News in the summer of 1977, of the group of teenagers who squatted a disused shop on the Bristol Road and opened it as a makeshift youth centre. In an interview with ATV’s Brian MacLaurin, Tommy Whelan and Eddie Short, two of the group’s leaders, threatened to ‘keep on occupying’ empty premises if the council did not accede to their demands and build a youth centre in Selly Oak. This group were encouraged and assisted by members of the existing squatter’s movement in Selly Oak, and Whelan and Short’s argument was that they and the thirty five other teenagers occupying the shop would be out stealing cars, committing burglaries and acts of vandalism if the council did not increase its youth provision in the area.
This unlikely action is indicative of how local campaigning changed during the 1970s. Whilst Selly Oak, with its proximity to the university, might have been exposed to new ideas like Big Flame’s libertarian Marxism and the efforts of organisations like ComAc to a greater degree than suburbs elsewhere, the actions of the People’s Centre, Harborne Lane Association, Tommy and Eddie’s demands for a youth club and the general tenor of radical activism in the area, shows a strong drive amongst residents, along with students, to campaign in a range of innovative ways during this period. Given how the proposed road scheme hung over the suburb during this period, such actions breathed life into a neglected area, keeping a sense of social cohesion alive for many.
Urban Renewal and Community Activism – In the late 1960s and 1970s student and community activism with revolutionary socialist politics linked up with some of the most disadvantaged members of the Selly Oak community in order to address specific problems around benefits, housing and access to council services. They were however far from the only people active in the community during this period. There was a substantial amount of crossover in terms of activity between the radical left and more traditional Labour and Liberal parties who also campaigned around community issues.
This climate recharged an array of traditional community activities by the late 1970s and 1980s. The Selly Oak Carnival was a large community-run event that took place each summer. In addition to a funfair at the Selly Oak Recreation Ground, a typical programme for the event in the late 1970s might include street theatre at the Selly Oak Institute, with the Institute Manager Sue Battledargh inviting groups like the Red Ladder Theatre Company to perform plays that appealed to a range of audiences. This was followed by a showcase of local bands at the Bournbrook Hotel that would continue into the early hours of the morning.
The Bournbrook Hotel (now the Goose at the OVT) was a lively and popular venue that made great use of its rambling premises, incorporating a skittles alley, cellar bar and upstairs function room, in addition to the main bar area. This made it a popular venue with activists in area who used it to hold Rock Against Racism gigs that featured bands like The Cravats, as well as for street theatre performances. Rock Against Racism was a national movement but one which had strong resonances in the 1970s and 1980s in Selly Oak. The National Front had developed a presence in the area, which then led to the establishment of local gatherings of the Anti-Nazi League in Selly Oak from around 1977; members of this group recall meeting at the Dog & Partridge Pub and also in various people’s houses during this time.
Racial tensions continued in the area into the 1980s. Unlike the inner city and some northern suburbs like Handsworth and Saltley, Selly Oak did not see substantial settlement by migrants from the Commonwealth during the post-war era. In common with a lot of south Birmingham its demographic remained predominantly white for much of this period; there was an influx of migrants from Ireland and to a lesser extent from eastern Europe, then followed later by people from Latin America. Whilst most Selly Oak residents were welcoming to new residents from outside the UK, some were more hostile. A community magazine produced in the 1980s sought to whip up support for minorities in the area by running a story about the awful treatment one family endured at the hands of a group of individuals who continually broke their windows and engaged in other acts of vandalism. The same article also reported that a large number of south asian shopkeepers in the area also regularly suffered harassment, and ended with a plea for the community to do more to support its minorities in the area, including a guide to far-right and anti-racist symbols, and asking that people remove or cover them up if they saw them appear in public places.
As well as countering such malign influences, community activism and volunteering also took on more positive forms. During the school summer holidays in the 1970s and 1980s, ComAc and volunteers drawn from the local community ran a series of ‘adventure playgrounds’ for children of all ages because of a lack of play provision in the area, and also concern that a number of local parents were unable to take their families away on holiday. Initially taking place on wasteland off Katie Road, and then moving to Coronation Road (where a council run youth centre and playground still stands) after the construction of the health centre, volunteers recall that these adventure playgrounds were truly ‘adventurous.’ Typical games included lighting fires to clear bushes and weeds, and children actually constructing the playground themselves using ‘saws, hammers and nails.’ One volunteer told us that by the end of a typical summer they’d ended up with ‘two broken arms and a kid in hospital with saw cuts.’ Despite the lack of health and safety, the playgrounds were a key part of the community, enjoyed by the children who attended whilst parents appreciated the entertainment for their children during the long summer holidays.
Other types of volunteering also sprang up in Selly Oak during this period. In 1980 the Midlands Conservation Volunteers opened ‘Country Matters,’ an office and information centre at 577 Bristol Road and advertised extensively in the Selly Oak Alternative Paper (SOAP). SOAP ran from 1980 to 1983 and was an initiative that began at Selly Oak Library when a group of activists, some involved with the Selly Oak People’s Centre, others with the Labour, Liberal and Ecology Parties, came together to create a community magazine. Produced with the aid of ComAc at the Guild of Students and printed at the Saltley Action Centre in north Birmingham, SOAP retailed for ten pence and could be acquired from organisations and businesses throughout Selly Oak including the ‘Wild Oats’ vegetarian cooperative restaurant on Raddlebarn Road.
With lots of adverts for local events and businesses, as well as light-hearted features on local history, arts and crafts, alongside games and puzzles for children, on the surface SOAP was less overtly political than much of the literature produced by groups like Big Flame in the area in the 1970s. One especially notable feature from 1981 is a two-part feature on the pubs in the area where members of the SOAP editorial board reviewed all of the area’s drinking holes (a good excuse for a pub crawl!). Pub reviews aside though, the paper also produced a great deal of commentary on politics in the area. The road scheme, which even in mid-1980s (twenty years after it was first proposed) the council still insisted was soon to start, received a lot of coverage as the Selly Oak Redevelopment Group campaigned about the problems concerning the development. The group also commented upon plans for the Selly Oak Triangle to be redeveloped with a Sainsbury’s supermarket (which did open in 1990) and expressed sadness at the loss of The Oak Cinema, a vast 1,500 capacity picturehouse which had stood on the Triangle since 1924. Other issues covered in the paper included the (unsuccessful) campaigns for a Selly Oak Parish Council in 1982 and an effort to save the old St. Mary’s School from demolition and transform it into a community centre. SOAP also ran a combative interview with Anthony Beaumont-Dark, who was Conservative MP for Selly Oak between 1979 and 1992 before Lynne Jones of Labour took the seat.
Activities like SOAP were sustained through the networks nurtured by the Tiverton Area Residents Association (TARA), and also ACORN residents group which performed a similar role around Oak Tree Lane and Lottie Road. These were quite influential organisations in the area, funded by the City Council (who they often clashed with) using money from central government Urban Renewal Grants. By the late 1970s the wholesale demolition of areas of poor quality housing was firmly out of fashion. Instead the government provided councils, housing associations and community groups with money to revamp old homes. The money paid for new roofs and windows, adaptations for elderly and disabled people and improved thermal insulation. Birmingham secured a large slice of this funding and the nineteenth century terraces in Selly Oak were declared ‘General Improvement Areas’ and earmarked for improvement.
To smooth this process the council gave money to organisations like TARA and ACORN to organise and represent residents in the areas being improved. This was far from fair sailing as the associations were frequently highly critical of the council. TARA used its share of the money to hire Bill James as ‘Area Caretaker’ in June 1980. Bill’s remit was to advise homeowners on the upkeep and maintenance of their homes, keep the streets tidy and support elderly and disabled people who required DIY work in their homes. He was based at 38 Dawlish Road which had opened in 1979 as a neighbourhood advice centre, managed by Pat Hogan who was a community development worker. In this way the council’s funding put the kind of informal advice and support that had earlier been provided by groups like the Selly Oak Community Workshop, Claimants Union and Big Flame on a semi-official basis. This didn’t please everybody though, as in early 1983 the council who owned 38 Dawlish Road suddenly ordered all of the organisations using the building to vacate it. One of the final issues of SOAP from 1983 alleges that the Conservative Party who controlled the council had decided to shut 38 Dawlish Road because the local Labour Party was based there. The core services that were provided by 38 Dawlish Road did not cease though, they merely transferred to the more ‘official’ environment of the Urban Renewal offices on Katie Road.
Situations like this meant that the mid-1980s were a transitional period for activism in Selly Oak. On the one hand the council and other organisations became increasingly interested in supporting and building communities, which in turn created new opportunities for people to engage in less overtly political or ideologically orientated forms of activism focused upon improving their area. However, the testimonies collected from Selly Oak activists at the time clearly indicate that older forms of campaigning and solidarity continued. During the 1980s a number of the people spoken to as part of this project, through their contacts in the trade union movement, put up workers when they moved around the country joining strikes during the major industrial disputes that were a hallmark of the period. The most notable of these was the 1984-5 Miner’s Strike when nearly all of Britain’s 200,000 coal miners downed tools and protested the government’s plans to massively decrease the number of coal mines in the country between 1984 and the early 1990s. Miners stayed with people living throughout the Selly Oak area. A number of residents recall putting up miners in their houses on Alton Road, Katie Road, and on Gibbins Road. The miners who stayed in Selly Oak were picketing industrial coal users in the Birmingham area, supporting other groups of workers engaged in disputes with their employers, raising funds, or traveling around the country giving talks and raising support for their cause. In this way, older forms of activism such as trade unionism continued to be important for people in the area even as they began to engage in other newer forms of activism.
This culture and the network that supported it continued into the 1990s. TARA and ACORN themselves continued going quite strongly until 1993 when the Urban Renewal programme was wrapped up. By this point the proposed road scheme had largely been cancelled, with only a relatively small scale widening of the Bristol Road by the Triangle going ahead. This meant that the ‘planners blight’ was lifted and by the year 2000 large companies like Halfords, B&Q, Homebase and Aldi had invested in Selly Oak. A lot of damage to the area’s fabric had occurred by this point. Several rows of shops proved impossible to rehabilitate and were demolished, a process that continues. Likewise a lot of community spaces in Selly Oak have been lost, which has had an impact upon activism in the area. To give one small example, of the dozen or more pubs visited by the SOAP editors in 1981 only four are still open today, whilst almost all of the others have been demolished. But despite the many changes in the area, a number of people continue to campaign for the causes that are important to them, both local causes and also joining up with larger regional and national political movements. With the influx of students into the area over the last 20 years the demographic of the area has evolved a great deal, and the ramifications of this in relation to community activism and wider movements in Birmingham are yet to be fully understood. But we hope that projects such as Activist Selly Oak will, in some small way, help students and new residents recognise the rich history of the area, and spark conversations and action regarding how people may come together to work on common causes.
Images 2 and 3 courtesy of Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham; Redbrick 1968 and 1978.
Student activism: within, outside, and against the University
Unravelling the history of activism undertaken by students at the University of Birmingham during the latter half of the twentieth century poses a difficult task. This is not simply due to the fact that there was a great deal of activism pursued by students, but also because such a task involves deciding what events and movements merit bringing to light now. This choice is particularly relevant and sensitive when being undertaken in the context of the wider aims of ‘Activist Selly Oak,’ a research project that is also exploring the activism that took place in the neighbouring area of Selly Oak; an area who’s residents, depending on who you speak to today, possess a range of mixed feelings towards the legacy of the University and the large influx of students that have moved into the area in recent decades.
However, it is important to note that the students and University are not one and the same, and often have not seen eye-to-eye themselves. It seems therefore that the most fruitful place to start with this history is the student sit-in of 1968, not least because this year represents the 50th anniversary of the event. Echoing Barry Toon’s introduction to this newspaper, the pivotal year of international student protests and political movements sparked a new era of cultural and political consciousness. It may be the case that, to some observers at least, 1968 has been given more weight as a national and international turning point than is necessary, but the sit-in at the University continues to represent a key moment for a number of alumni and Selly Oak residents, a moment when politics entered the culture of the institution much more significantly.
The sit-in began on 27 November 1968 and consisted of a week-long period of direct action by the students who were demanding more representation in the administration of the University. Rumblings regarding student involvement had been stirring for some time, but these demands took concrete form when the Guild of Students submitted the ‘Student Role’ document to the institution’s hierarchy. The students’ requests were relatively modest when compared with some of the other student protests in the UK and internationally. The demand for more student representation was limited to administrative procedures rather than being teaching-related and, as Clare Dutton wrote in the Guild Handbook in 1969, broadly they wanted to see more of a general understanding on the University’s part that student representation was important in principle.
However the University Council rejected the Guild’s requests for students to be represented on the Council, and also the Planning and Priorities sub-committees, resulting in the occupation of the Aston Webb building. As Helen Fisher, Archivist in the Special Collections at the Cadbury Research Library, highlights in an article on the sit-in, the ensuing week involved debates, meetings, arguments, leafleting and drafting of policies, whilst outside there was a mix of support and opposition from staff and students, and a relatively negative commentary in the media (as part of the Activist Selly Oak event on 6 September one of the few archival news clips of the sit-in will be on view, which is now stored in the Media Archive for Central England). Aside from a desire to see change within the University, and believing direct action being the only means of achieving this, there was a lack of cohesion amongst the students regarding the specific aims and actions necessary to take the next step. It was therefore decided by a majority of students at a large campus meeting on 5 December to end the occupation, and in turn the University Senate agreed to form a committee that would discuss reforms in direct consultation with students.
There were a number of other outcomes following from this, such as a Review Body that deemed students should be represented on a number of committees, which was implemented through agreement by the Guild and the University. But for many students, whilst they didn’t achieve everything they had hoped, the key change occurred within the culture of large sections of the student body; the sit-in sparked a number of new attempts to redefine what a University should be and how that could be achieved, as Clare Dutton wrote in the same article;
‘the more worthwhile and more long-term results of the sit-in have been those efforts to make student participation more meaningful as part of a democratic and educationally conceived university. This has, for example, moved some of the non-professional staff to write detailed papers offering a radically new view of the university’s structure and position in society. It has also encouraged many post-occupation departmental teach-ins, and at the end of the term an ambitious two-day University Symposium was held.’
As Dutton highlights, whilst the early sixties had seen protests and demonstrations by students, towards the end of the decade direct action became increasingly more prevalent. This continued with other occupations and protests, such as opposition by students to the conferring of a law degree to Humphrey Gibbs, former Governor of Rhodesia, in 1969, and an occupation of the clock tower by students in 1977 over increased fees. This evolution in protest was likewise mirrored in the Selly Oak area, for example when the Selly Oak Community Workshop joined forces with the Harborne Park Lane Residents Association to blockade the Bristol Road in demand for better housing (which was ultimately achieved on that occasion). Students from different institutions also came together in common causes and moved out of the bubble of the campus into the city centre, such as in 1968 when, not long before the sit-in, Birmingham and Aston students formed a protest in Victoria Square in response to Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.
From the late 1960s, through to the 1980s, there was however still a continuation of Selly Oak residents and students coming together in ways other than direct action, instead finding themselves working on longer-term projects in order to help people in the community. As another article in this paper elaborates in more depth, the Guild’s new volunteering group, ‘Student Community Action’ (ComAc), was formed in 1967 and undertook a range of activities on campus and further afield. This included organising ‘Action Week’ in 1969 which involved over 2000 students helping local causes across Birmingham, and it also took part in the creation of Selly Oak People’s Centre in the 1970s, along with the law faculty and a number of local activists; a centre which provided a range of legal and housing advice to residents for a number of years. Instances such as these where students and residents came together were a regular occurrence in Selly Oak, and surely more common than archival records and individual recollections can account for today. Students and residents today still engage in various ways but it is important that these histories of activism are uncovered and allowed to initiate new conversations as to what the common causes of people living in the same area are, and how these might be acted on to see change take place in the future.
Images courtesy of Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham; Redbrick 1968, and Guild Handbook 1969.
‘Ground Zero in the event of War’: Selly Oak and Nuclear Politics in the 1980s
Activists from one of the UK’s largest post-war social movements, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, campaigned within Selly Oak throughout the second half of the twentieth century. CND had originally started in 1958 in response to fears about the threat of nuclear war and concern that the leading Labour Party figures were unwilling to commit to unilateral nuclear disarmament. A second wave later mobilized in the context of the new Cold War tensions of the 1980s. In the latter period, CND drew crowds of a quarter of a million to large demonstrations in London and staged significant protests across the country.
To its CND activists, Selly Oak seemed especially threatened by the prospect of nuclear war. Writing in the Selly Oak Alternative Press during the 1980s, the group explained that the location, close to the Longbridge Industrial site and the ‘nuclear research facilities’ at the University, ensured ‘that we will be at ground zero in the event of war.’
Although Selly Oak CND used different strategies to spread awareness of the threat of nuclear war, it also showed why CND as a whole was rarely a single-issue campaign and how the organization relied on building connections across local, national and global boundaries. Both waves in Selly Oak show how the movement drew on support from across different political and social forums as well as the breadth of issues on which members of CND engaged.
First Wave CND – The inaugural meeting of the Selly Oak CND Branch took place in 1959 and seems to have been instigated, or at least documented, by Shirley Hoole, also a member of the Left Book Club, who lived on Oakfield Road. Through this era, the group met regularly at 156 Oak Tree Lane and periodically canvassed by the traffic lights on the corner of Oak Tree Lane and Bristol Road. The branch had a reach across South Birmingham with members coming from Bourneville, Weoley Castle, Stirchley, Northfield and Selly Park as well as Selly Oak, and ensured that Selly Oak was represented at the Aldermaston marches in the early 1960s.
With numerous members living on Oak Tree Lane and Oakfield Road, some of whom were teachers, members of left wing, liberal, co-operative or communist parties, working at the hospital or the University, the first wave of CND in Selly Oak bears striking resemblance to its famous characterization by sociologist Frank Parkin as ‘middle class radicals.’
Selly Oak and the Peace Movement – During the second wave, between 1980 and 1985, Selly Oak’s CND Branch had around 300 members although it noted that only 10 per cent of these were ‘regulars.’ The branch represented Selly Oak and the West Midlands at the large, national protests of the era. It sent members to the ‘Stop Trident’ protests in Barrow-in Furness in October 1984, the Hyde Park demonstrations to object to Ronald Reagan’s visit to London in 1984, and the following year protested at the Peace Camp set up to protest against the 64 cruise missiles placed at RAF Molesworth.
Selly Oak CND also offered support to the all-women’s peace camp at Greenham Common. At Greenham, the women’s-only peace camp was a site of a multiple different forms of creative protest and feminist politics, becoming symbolic of protests in the era. A Selly Oak Greenham Common Support Group was set up to assist the women there both ‘emotionally and practically.’ This involved organising a night watch to protect the campers as well as planting, picnicking, sharing experiences and supporting non-violent protest.
One member’s account of visiting Greenham explains, ‘we took some wood, blankets etc. and some cash, charcoal and chocolate (much appreciated!)… these watches are necessary for two reasons – to be constantly alert in case the launchers are brought out and secondly because the women have been harassed by local vigilantes, who amongst other things, have thrown bags of maggots, animal blood or worse into the tents.’ The experience of going for a week was, nonetheless, ‘eye opening and very positive and many of the people who only went there for the day only, now want to go back.’
CND, Protest and Politics – The archives of Selly Oak’s CND branch provide a snapshot of some of the activism of the era, including its dramatic interventions and more prosaic side, showing how it drew connections across the immediate area and the city as a whole. Alongside protests, torchlight walks were held through the streets of Cotteridge, Selly Park and Selly Oak, the group organised street ballots and protests against the Trident missiles, ran a regular street stall at weekends, encouraged members to take part in the Brum Peace Run of 1984 (a half marathon and fun run), distributed newspapers around Selly Oak, ran stalls at festivals including Birmingham’s CND Festival in Small Heath Park, placed posters and stickers across the streets, ran sponsored litter picking, held parties, arranged film screenings and countryside rambles (there appears to have been a ‘Selly Oak Ramblers Against the Bomb’). A Selly Oak Non-Violent Direction Action (NVDA) was also run by a member of Woodbrooke College for those interested in more direct forms of protest.
All of this was, of course, facilitated by the cutting edge technology of knocking on doors, gathering petitions, phone trees and asking helpful academics at the University to print newsletters, posters and information sheets.
While members of the Selly Oak branch remain friends today and its activities were a mix of business and pleasure, this should not distract from the seriousness of their central campaign issue and the fear of nuclear destruction that underpinned it.
One symbolic act of protest that underscored such fear was the branch’s engagement with the International Shadow Project. Created by Performers and Artists for Nuclear Disarmament alongside Friends of the Earth US and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the project left non-permanent images of victims of the blast in public places representing humans within 300 metres of the blast. This intervention first took place across six sites in Manhattan in 1982 and then different locations Portland in 1983.
To mark the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, these acts were scaled out internationally. On 6 August 1985 a number of images of those ‘vaporised by the searing heat’ appeared in Selly Oak. Locations included the outpatients entrance of Selly Oak Hospital on Oak Tree Lane, both entrances of Selly Oak Station, the pavement outside Selly Oak Library, the corner of Edgbaston Park Road and Bristol Road, as well as the BBC’s Pebble Mill Studios. These were striking reminders of the stakes at play in nuclear politics.
CND and the City – The story of CND Selly Oak helps show how activism was supported by different groups across Birmingham and how CND connected to the different types of activism taking place in the city during the 1980s. To take some examples, the Trade Union Resource Council (TURC) ran a Media Work day school for CND representatives, the Selly Oak Branch met frequently in the Transport and General Workers Union’s offices on Oak Tree Lane, and it supported the Midlands Peoples Campaign for Jobs. As with much of the city’s activism, Birmingham Peace Centre was an important hub of connection for the movement in the city, the West Midlands HQ of CND was in Allison Street, Digbeth and co-ordinated the various branches, while the West Midlands CND was even represented on the Symphony Hall’s programme of 1984.
CND events involving the Selly Oak Branch were also regularly held at the University of Birmingham and supported by its staff. E.P Thompson delivered a lecture in Muirhead Tower in October 1984, while day schools often took place in St Francis’ Hall, the University’s Chaplaincy attached to the Guild of Students. These included sessions on ‘reaching the public,’ ‘development and disarmament,’ ‘spirituality for peacemakers’ and campaign strategy. Professor John Fremlin, an expert in Applied Radioactivity at the University of Birmingham also spoke for the Birmingham Branch of Scientists Against Nuclear Arms.
Beyond the Bomb – But Nuclear Selly Oak was not solely about disarmament, it was also about trains. In December 1980 SOAP newspaper was particularly concerned about this issue and wrote that Nuclear Waste was being transported by the Severn Estuary via the Longbridge-Four Oaks line to Derby. While shortly after this, SOAP reported that the transportation of waste had been discontinued for ‘reasons of public safety,’ it added ‘why it should have been considered safe in the first place is not known.’ The issue of transportation of nuclear waste was later taken up by the ‘South Birmingham Nuclear Train Action Group’ and although we don’t yet know all that much about that organisation, the issue of transporting nuclear material remains of concern to anti-nuclear movements more recently in Birmingham and beyond.
After the Cold War – Sustaining activism after waves of initial interest has often proved difficult for groups and CND organisations faced difficulties following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The Selly Oak Branch of CND seemed to be largely active through the years 1980-1985. It continued to be supported by the Selly Oak Peace Council, which appears to have been active from the late 1980s, and was more strongly grounded in some of the traditions of peace protest associated with the Quakers in the area.
Selly Oak Peace Council was organised by Elnora Ferguson who also served as Chair of the National Peace Council, an organization founded in 1908 to coordinate pacifist and pacifistic organizations and groups across Britain, and chaired by her husband Professor John Ferguson, the former President of Selly Oak Colleges, after whom the University of Birmingham’s position of Professor in Global Ethics is named. As with CND, the Peace Council’s activities stretched beyond the single-issue as it mobilised on environmental issues (Earthday) and in protest against the Gulf War in 1980.
Liberation Movements, Selly Oak and the University of Birmingham
The University of Birmingham was an important site where the new politics of women’s liberation manifested during the 1970s. A Birmingham’s Women’s Liberation Newspaper had some association with the University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS), with the historian Catherine Hall involved in its production. The newsletter could, of course, be found for sale at 632 Books on the Bristol Road. The CCCS also produced works that were significant to a generation of feminists, most notably the publication Women Take Issue: Aspects of Women’s Subordination in 1978. A Birmingham University Women’s Liberation Group was also active from the mid-1970s and had two weekly meetings including a study group and a more general, consciousness-raising meeting. Like much of the movement this was ‘made up of women with an extremely wide range of political positions.’
Even so, finding the space to promote women’s liberation on campus was difficult, perhaps demonstrative of an institution which did not, for example, permit women to enter the Guild of Students bar at lunchtimes until 1960. Rebecca O’Rourke, a member of the CCCS, when interviewed by Dr Kieran Connell as part of a project seeking to examine the history and legacy of the CCCS, observed; ‘there was a lot of contestation around feminism, women’s studies and really big arguments about… whether feminism was a distraction from the, kind of, real politics of socialism and Marxism.’
Efforts were made to take women’s liberation seriously in the initiatives to create a Free University of Birmingham (FUB) in 1969. FUB was itself a product of the 1968 protests and attempted to create an alternative form of higher education which ended hierarchies between teachers and students, to remove formal assessment and replace it with ‘self-assessment.’
Although FUB did not last long, it ran courses including ‘Ecology Action’ in the Gun Barrels pub in Selly Oak, ‘Non-Violence and Revolution’ at Fircroft College on the Bristol Road, organized a ‘Race and Imperialism’ group and a Worker’s Control meeting from an address on Dawlish Road. Amongst these things, the FUB and Birmingham’s Women’s Liberation group hosted Susie Nelson from the American Women’s Liberation Movement and Selma James a member of the Black Panthers, to discuss political campaigning.
At the same time, however, Redbrick, the student newspaper of the University of Birmingham, was an ambiguous space for such politics during the 1970s despite covering the FUB. For a short period between 1971 and 1972, it featured a column entitled ‘Redbreast’ authored by law student Barbara Slomnicka which tried to challenge sexism on the University campus but it quickly disappeared. Indeed, a member of the Women’s Liberation complained in 1972 that the Redbrick editor’s knowledge of the movement was ‘sadly lacking’ and his analysis of ‘class and sex struggle is unintelligent and completely insensitive’. In 1980 activists complained about Redbrick to the Press Council on the grounds of sexism. Perhaps the challenges for women’s liberation on campus could be summed up by Anne Naylor, the first woman elected to be Guild President, who explained that while she ‘agree with a lot of a women’s lib’ she ‘would have lost the election’ if she ran on a women’s lib ticket.
Even so, the University was a place where the politics of women’s liberation played out. This stretched from the intellectual work of theorizing feminism to campaigning for better nursery provision within the University and across the city. Birmingham Black Sisters recruited students from the University to help support campaigning during the 1980s, particularly around issues relating to immigration, while activists on campus raised funds for hostels and refuges for victims of domestic abuse. More overt student demonstrations also took place which included setting off fire alarms and stink bombs to object to the University’s ‘Carnival Queen Dance’ in 1973 and protesting about the Carnival’s ‘Grapple and Strip’ competition a couple of years after that.
Selly Oak was itself, perhaps, less of a hub for the women’s liberation politics of Birmingham — the communication list of the Women’s Liberation newspaper listed contacts mainly from Moseley, King’s Heath and Balsall Heath — but important work did take place there. A consciousness raising group took met at 16 Bournbrook Road for a time, another assembled at 58 Dawlish Road, the Women and Words group which worked to encourage women writers was run by Myra Connell and advertised in Selly Oak Alternative Paper, while a Women’s Self Help Group was initiated at Urban Renewal on Dawlish Road. The latter organised swimming lessons for those who wished to meet other women in the community.
Gay Liberation – The University of Birmingham was also a location where new forms of gay politics appeared from the 1970s. Its first Gay Society (GaySoc) was recognised by the Guild of Students in 1974, although unofficial groups existed before that point. This held regular meetings at St Francis Hall, the Chaplaincy next to the Guild of Students building, which also hosted an early national Gay Liberation Front (GLF) meeting in 1972. Members of the city’s gay societies overlapped and subsequently people from GaySoc got involved with the city’s GLF movement. Indeed, some of the latter’s publications were produced on a Gestetner duplicator in a house somewhere in Selly Park, with other publications, like much of the radical press in the city, supported by the Saltley Action Centre’s production facilities. Richard Dyer, another member of the CCCS, helped set up a Gay Education Group which connected with the Peace Centre in Birmingham, an important networking point between the city’s activist groups. As with the publications of the women’s liberation, gay literature was also available through 632 Books in Bristol Road.
Image courtesy of Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham; Redbrick 1977.
Sexual Politics and the University of Birmingham
As a centre of social policy research and the site of a major women’s hospital, it is little surprise to know that the politics of reproduction was a contested issue across the University of Birmingham during the 1960s.
Francois Lafitte, who lived in Selly Oak and worked at the University of Birmingham, was a significant protagonist in the politics of family planning both within Birmingham itself and at a national level. He worked with the Family Planning Association from its foundation in 1966, the Birmingham branch of the Brook Advisory Service, as well as pioneering the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) which evolved from the Birmingham Pregnancy Advisory Service as it became a nationwide service by 1972.
In so doing, Lafitte became closely involved with the emergence of various voluntary organisations which sought to offer both services related to sexual and reproductive health as well as campaigning to ensure that UK legislation kept pace with changing social norms from the 1960s onwards.
While the organisations Lafitte was involved with had paid staff and were highly professional, he explained they were voluntary in terms of the National Health Service Act of 1946, offering ‘a service not carried on for profit and not provided by a local or public authority.’
If Lafitte represented one set of opinions on the sexual politics of the 1960s and 1970s, other members of the University staff, in particular those working at the University hospital, held very different views – some of which directly fed into Lafitte’s activities.
Indeed, when giving evidence to the Lane Committee charged with examining the working of the 1967 Abortion Act in July 1972, Professor Hugh McLaren, then Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University Hospital, contrasted his attitude to that in other parts of campus.
Alluding to Lafitte, McLaren complained, ‘I am afraid the suede boot brigade in our university, with long hair and so on, the socialists, are very permissive… we have two views for the students to look at, and it very difficult… I will be called a square it does not matter.’ Indeed, Lafitte threatened legal action for defamation against McLaren following an interview the latter gave to the women’s liberation newspaper Spare Rib in November 1977, where he claimed the ‘BPAS is a racket.’
Both McLaren and the University of Birmingham’s Professor of Psychiatry, Myre Simm, were associated with the organisations opposed to the 1967 Abortion Act and opponents of what they considered ‘easy abortions.’ Indeed, Simm served on the Medical Council for the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child during the 1970s.
Because of his stance on this issue, McLaren came to be viewed with much hostility from those in favour of the legislation. An investigation by the city’s Women’s Liberation movement found that substantially fewer abortions took place on the NHS than in comparative cities. According to the Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer, the proportion of abortions which took place on the NHS in Birmingham was 27.4 per cent, compared to 94.7 per cent in Newcastle, 76.6 per cent in Manchester and 62.9 per cent in Liverpool. Quoted in an interview for the medical newsletter General Practitioner, Diane Munday of the BPAS claimed that the statistics reflected the attitudes of senior gynaecologists in the city.
Indeed, the city’s women’s rights campaigners writing for Brum’s Women Paper and the Birmingham’s Women’s Liberation newspaper frequently pointed out the difficulties women in Birmingham faced in contrast to women in other cities on the question of abortion.
Upon McLaren’s retirement, Spare Rib went as far as to print an article entitled ‘Good Riddance’ which included a cartoon of various activists holding a leaving send-off for McLaren who it reported would be taking up a role at the University College Rhodesia (hence his depiction in ‘colonial explorer’ outfit).
In November 1973, students from the Women’s Liberation Associations at both the University of Birmingham and Aston took part in the counter demonstration against the Society for Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) and Birmingham would be a site of protest around these issues throughout the 1970s. A Selly Oak Branch of the National Abortion Campaign also stressed the lack of NHS provision in Birmingham, claiming that only 4 abortions were carried out in Queen Elizabeth and Selly Oak hospitals during 1975, they met fortnightly at the People’s Centre and provided information for the Labour Party Stall at the Selly Oak Festivals. Opposition to the Abortion Act also mobilised across the streets of Selly Oak, notably a silent march to mark the 10th anniversary of the Abortion Act which was organised by the anti-abortion organisation Life began in Selly Oak Park in 1977 before heading to Birmingham’s private clinics.
In their different ways, Lafitte, McLaren and the collective efforts of the women’s rights activists served to make Birmingham a centre of the discussions on a key issue in Britain’s sexual politics in late twentieth century; a discussion which played out across Selly Oak and the University of Birmingham.
 Committee on the Working of the Abortion Act, Meeting held at William Goodenough House, 26 July 1972, Witness Professor H. C. McClaren, MH 156/364.
 Simm’s evidence to the Lane Committee.
 Redbrick, 5 December 1973, p. 3; UB/GUILDF/5/4.
Selly Oak and International Activism
There are lots of ways activists in Selly Oak and the University of Birmingham connected with global issues. Transnational political concerns, and the different spaces available for activism in Selly Oak and Birmingham, can be seen through the work of one committed campaigner who lived on Oakfield Road, Margaret Stanton.
Stanton was involved in numerous different political campaigns and associated with various different types of movement politics from the 1930s. She subscribed to socialist and communist newspapers during that decade and visited communist prisoners held within internment camps in the initial phases of the Second World War.
Demonstrative of her internationalism, Stanton kept in touch with an East Berliner named Hans Herzberg. He was a Jewish refugee who she had met in Leicester during the 1940s. They exchanged many letters on topics such as International Friendship organisations and the Peace Movement, and in 1993, on the fourth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and fifty-five years after his father was taken to the Buchenwald Concentration, Hans wrote to Margate to tell her: ‘Your people have my eternal gratitude for having me (and many others) in your country and you personally for the solidarity and support given to German refugees… those were the formative years when anti-fascism, socialism and the struggle for peace became the primary purpose of my life.’ For Stanton too, these were international issues that continued define her activism.
Like many students groups on campus, Stanton was fiercely opposed to the Apartheid Regime in South Africa and the Smith Regime in Rhodesia. She served as Secretary to the Birmingham Campaign for Justice in Zimbabwe, and resigned from the Labour Party in 1970 after a ‘long accumulation of doubts and frustrations’ about the Party’s lack of action on Rhodesia and Vietnam, feeling that it failed to offer a true Socialist Programme. Although, it is worth pointing out that Stanton returned to the fold to support Tom Litterick, the radical MP who represented Selly Oak between 1974 and 1979.
Stanton also supported the International Year for Human Rights in Birmingham and helped instigate a Birmingham Area Civil Rights Campaign based in Edgbaston to challenge racism within the city. She even complained to the Major of Birmingham when he arranged to visit the city of Birmingham Alabama in 1971, in solidarity with the US civil rights movement.
Some of this activism was short-lived but there were two areas of international politics where Stanton appears to have been consistently active: her opposition to the Vietnam War and the support she offered refugees from the Pinochet junta in Chile during the 1970s and 1980s.
Stanton helped organize the Birmingham Council for Peace in Vietnam, circulating its publications across Birmingham branches of organizations including the United Nations Association, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, church groups, Trades Councils and Trade Unions. In addition, she attempted to co-ordinate blood donor sessions for another campaign she was heavily involved in promoting, Medical Aid for Vietnam. In 1967 Bobby Kennedy wrote to Stanton from the US Senate to thank for her for the support she gave to the opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Stanton also worked as Honorary Secretary of both the Birmingham Friends of the Chilean Popular Front (which later became the Birmingham branch of the Chile Solidarity Campaign) and the Birmingham Chilean Refugee Reception Committee.
This latter organisation provided aid to political refugees who had fled from the Pinochet regime and arrived in Birmingham. She worked to ensure that families could claim DHSS benefits to support themselves and their families, helped them find housing in Birmingham (including Gleave Road in Selly Oak) and lobbied organisations such as the Midland Area Improvement Housing Association to improve the accommodation in which the Chileans found themselves and organising appeals for furniture. Often the refugees arrived with health complaints and she informed the Chileans about how the NHS worked, helped with translations and appointments, and made sure that the refugees were signed up to a local surgery and visited the optician. She also helped make sure children received places in nurseries and schools and directed them to the Women’s Liberation Playground in Balsall Heath for support. In addition, she arranged meetings with Chileans and academics to get the former onto courses run at the University.
One problem noted by Stanton was the issue of culture shock, grappling with alien customs and languages in Britain, which she suggested triggered depression and anxiety. Venceremos — a six-piece folk group formed by refugees in Birmingham — were subsequently asked to perform regularly for new arrivals. Stanton, meanwhile, lectured at Fircroft College on the release of political prisoners, drawing on her experiences with the Chileans in Selly Oak and the University of Birmingham.
At times, the question of what the politics of supporting Chileans meant caused confusion amongst the different fragments of the left within Birmingham and Selly Oak. Stanton’s efforts did not quite align with the branding of the Chile Solidarity Campaign, which co-ordinated these efforts nationally. This was confusing for the International Marxist Group and also the International Socialists, used to bickering, who were not sure how the Birmingham Chile Refugees Committee fitted within the rubric of the international left or whether they could both work together with Stanton’s campaigning.
In the end, however, the Joint Secretary of the CSC, Mike Gatehouse, encouraged everyone to support Stanton because of the ‘wonderful work,’ ‘enormous dedication’ and in ‘tremendous appreciation’ for what her organisation had achieved. This also reflected Gatehouse’s concern that the different shades of opinion across the left over who ‘owned’ the issue of opposition to Pinochet might be problematic. He wrote; ‘any appearance of disunity is extremely confusing for the Chileans, and tends to detract from local support.’
Stanton’s work was not, however, the only connection with Chile in Selly Oak. The refugees also had an impact on the culinary scene, running a restaurant on Bristol Road. That this subsequently became a chip shop called Adam’s Place and is now a branch of Domino’s Pizza perhaps tells a small story of British social history, indicating the changing demographics of the area over the recent decades.