The Dahaley family together again, snapped by Jason Scott Tilley in December 2015, over fifty years after John Blakemore’s January 1964 original was taken. It’s worth reminding you that Nasib, the mother, is blind, and, after the death of their father, brought five children up in and around Hillfields (the mum is pregnant with the youngest brother in the Blakemore shot!) as a single mother. Wonderful outcome for this project, and great to see the family together.
Hillfields, once an industrialized, affluent suburb of Coventry, became a target for aerial bomb strikes in World War II. A vibrant urban centre instantly transformed into the ruinous aftermath of war. Today, the Imagine Hillfields project exhibits the multitude of Hillfields’ manifestations from its development and redevelopment to its present day. The project’s incredible use of photography provides a visual narrative for the people of Hillfields and the unique story of their home.
Mohan Singh Dahaley was sitting in his living room one morning when he received a Facebook message from Jaspal Panesar, a family friend from Hillfields. Jaspal’s family continues to live in England to this day, but Mohan immigrated to Canada approximately 25 years ago. He was overtaken with happiness to hear from Jaspal, but what she said in her message filled his eyes with tears.
Hello, [Mohan]. My name is Jaspal and I’m Pritam and Kuldeep’s [daughter] from Coventry. Recently I saw your message on Facebook thanking friends & family for their kind wishes after your recent stay in hospital. I copied a photo of you and showed my mum, who was really happy to see your face after so many years! A week later I happened to see another photo of not just you but your whole family. I’m not sure if anyone else has told you about it, but I couldn’t resist sending you a copy. Being so far away, I hope this will remind you of a time gone by. I would [love] to hear back from you. Enjoy this photo.
Attached to her message was a picture she saw in the Imagine Hillfields exhibition. The picture shows the evolution of the suburb with a scene of Primrose Hill Road in modern day Hillfields, beautifully superimposed with photo of a Sikh family walking through the same street 50 years earlier.
The picture was an important art piece in the exhibition, the nature of which spoke to the motif of novelty. An analysis of the aged photo, in context, reveals more newness than the modernity to which it is juxtaposed. It conveys the potential of an historical Hillfields: a brand new suburb, to be filled with brand new faces, bringing with them a rich Indian culture. This photo stands alone as a visual testament to why Imagine Hillfields was a compelling undertaking. This Sikh family – a resolute father, a caring mother, and their impressionable children – walking through the new streets of their new home, with an Indian-Pakistani restaurant seen in the backdrop, symbolized the new face of a new beginning for Hillfields and everyone who lived there, including a two and a half year old Mohan holding his father’s hand on the right.
1 Mohan (extreme right) and his family
Who would have thought 50 years later, Mohan would be looking at this incredible moment from his past through his iPhone? Overtaken with emotion and memories of his childhood, he was reminded of his humble upbringing.
Mohan was born in the British colony of Kenya where he and his family were British citizens living in Nairobi. His father was offered to relocate to England in 1962 to rebuild a war torn Coventry. His family was one of five Sikh families living in Hillfields at the time. The Sikh community in Hillfields was small, but strong. During Mohan’s childhood, these families came together to purchase a home on Stony Stanton Road, close to Leicester Causeway, and converted it into a Gurdwara (Sikh temple). Even though the community was close-knit, Mohan recalls the difficulty his parents faced trying to reinvent themselves in a brand new country.
Mohan grew up in a Hillfields vastly different from the idyllic suburbia that existed before the war. He remembers being hospitalized as a young boy after playing in a residential demolition area. These precarious structures were prone to collapse, sometimes on young children like Mohan. During the 60s, winters were bitingly cold and most homes at that time used coal as a source of heat. When families were in need of warm water, they boiled it themselves. To bathe, residents went to the Coronation Road public baths as many of them did not have full bathrooms and toilets were located outside of the house. Mohan’s father, a brilliant craftsman and artisan, constructed his own bathroom for his family.
Upon discovering the Imagine Hillfields exhibition, Mohan managed to contact Jason Scott Tilley, one of the photographers in the exhibition, thinking he was the original photographer. Tilley was amazed that the picture reached as far as Canada, but informed Mohan that the original photographer was John Blakemore, now in his 80s. Blakemore was touched by Mohan’s appreciation of the photo.
2 The Dahaley family, Blind, led by Mohan holding his father’s hand, aged 2½, extreme right, in the Blakemore original from January 1965
Today, the original photo is framed and hung up on the wall of Mohan’s kitchen – the epicentre of an Indian household. Like the art piece in which it was initially discovered, the photo is beautifully embedded in the modern landscape of Mohan’s life in Canada. He, his wife, and his 16 year old daughter go about their days with the picture fixed in their background.
Mohan looks at the picture from time to time, contemplating the difficulties his parents had overcome and the experiences he gained in Hillfields. Mohan is grateful to the organizers of the Imagine Hillfields project and, in particular, John Blakemore for capturing this beautiful moment.
The Imagine Hillfields exhibition was a wonderful success, with 2053 visitors during its 18 days being open. The comments book overflowed with praise and reflections, with many people happy to see some familiar faces, such as Benny the rag and bone man. We will follow many of these people up, and hope that the Hillfields History Group can find some new members.
Because of this demand, St Peter’s Centre and City College, Coventry, have both asked to continue the exhibition, bringing visitors into Hillfields again. You can visit St. Peter’s here and City College here. As ever, follow us on @imagine_hill or #imaginehillfields, and check back here for more.
Friday 14th August played host to a successful launch of the Imagine Hillfields exhibition. Check @imagine_hill to follow the many tweets, including images and comments, from those that were there.
Below is a selection of photographs taken by Steve Pool to highlight the event:
As part of our exploration of Hillfields we are pleased to announce that three events will take place at Urban Coffee Company. These events are a chance to discuss Hillfields and contribute to our research into the visions that have shaped Hillfields. The format is to watch a film or presentation and to record comments during a discussion about Coventry’s redevelopment and Hillfields’ role within this.
If you are interested in attending please contact @imagine_hill or email@example.com
Friday 21st August – 4pm to 7pm
Film 1: A City Reborn (1945) scripted by Dylan Thomas (22 minutes)
Scripted by poet Dylan Thomas, this affecting docu-drama recalls the incendiary bombing of Coventry on 14 November 1940. The film focusses on reconstruction and morale: we see the city’s rebirth through the eyes of a young local couple planning for their future, and an engineer interested in the new housing drive. This is one of several 1940s films introducing cinemagoers to the good old ‘prefab’.
Though the city’s industrial infrastructure was a key wartime target, the ultimate casualty was its beautiful medieval centre, and most famously the Cathedral, which were almost totally destroyed. This and other raids cost the lives of over 1,200 civilians. So symbolic was the destruction that Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels boasted about plans to “Coventrate” other cities.
Film 2: Learning for Leisure (1973) BBC Education (26 minutes)
During the Community Development Project era (1970 – 1975) the BBC recorded the community development work of Paul Skelton, Mel Cairns and Richard ‘Slim’ Hallett as they help the HRS Residents Association (Hartlepool, Redcar and Stockton Roads) have their area of Hillfields declared a General Improvement Area rather than a clearance area. This film focuses on how the residents association learned new skills from the CDP team, including producing a report presented to the council.
Film 3: A Coventry Kid Am I (1981) BBC Everyman (40 minutes)
Filmed by Peter Gordon in 1979 this Everyman film focuses on Coventry forty years after the war and their much vaunted rise from the ashes of the Blitz. Peter and his producer, not knowing much about Coventry, found themselves in Hillfields and Foleshill, interviewing newcomers to the city as they make it their new home. At the time Peter received complaints from Coventry residents who objected to how the city was portrayed but the film won wider acclaim.
Friday 28th August 4pm to 7pm
Film 4: Blazed (1995) Maverick Productions (25 minutes)
Shot using the old Sidney Stringer School and using young actors and local people, this drama tells the story of two young people from Hillfields as they contend with their options in life as they leave school.
Film 5: Champion Sound (2005) Metal Dog (30 minutes)
They brought their music and they built the sound system to play it on. A celebration and a history of Jamaican sound system, reggae music and the men who built the sounds in Coventry and especially Hillfields. From the 1950s, Jamaicans brought with them the skills and a tradition that had more influence on the British music scene than any other movement. https://vimeo.com/29317050 for trailer.
The Imagine Hillfields exhibition book is now available:
An ebook and PDF will also be made available soon. Check again later or follow us on Twitter @imagine_hill
During August, and as an accompaniment to the exhibition at the Box, Urban Coffee Company will host a number of events in surroundings curated by the Hillfields History Group. Their collection of Hillfields images has been digitised by WATCH volunteers and a number were taken to Birmingham Library’s team of photographic curators for cleaning and archiving.
The Hillfields History Group collection includes photographs taken during an era of interest to the Imagine Research Project – the early 1970s when the Home Office funded the Community Development Project, the first regeneration project in the UK, to research and understand the problems of Hillfields in conjunction with the residents. The collection also includes as images of the buildings demolished by clearance and redevelopment: their collection is a vital resource to understanding top shops in Hillfields and it’s past as a live/work part of Coventry.
Below are a few of their images:
Urban Coffee will also show the plans and redevelopment of Hillfields through images taken from the Coventry City Council archive. These images, many before not seen, show how ambitious in their vision the council was during the post war period, below:
The visions however did not match reality as development was slow and local families opposed the move from a work/ live area to one dominated by residential development. Even the popular shopping route along Primrose Hill Street was to be demolished to encourage shoppers to the new city centre. By 1969 government policy had changed from clearance to general improvement: streets earmarked for demolition such as Colchester and Winchester Street were remodelled into a carless format which still remain today.
This exhibition will sit alongside events at Urban Coffee – more on that soon – and the exhibition in the Box.
Our summer project began with John Blakemore giving two days’ of masterclasses to the students of photography at Coventry University. John’s focus is on the art of the printer – and in an era of digital imaging and software filters the art of using chemicals and light may be forgotten.
Using Coventry University’s equipment John produced a series of photographs about life in Hillfields from the negatives he has kept since he lived on Vernon Street in the 1960s as well as some of his more well known artistic work on tulips where he uses the printer’s art to create effects.
Thanks to Imagine, Heritage Lottery Fund at FarGo Village and Arts Council Funding, we will begin to explore how the future for Hillfields is represented: who is in on these conversations, how do they happen and what is the balance of power between planners, residents, policy makers and workers? Jason Tilley is currently starting a new body of social history photographs as a response to John Blakemore’s 1960’s photographs of Hillfields. This project, called 100 images, will seek to capture Hillfields life as Jason sees it, but also as it is presented to him. John’s and Jason’s images will sit opposite each other in the FarGo exhibition in August this year.
Other work at the exhibition will include Nick Stone’s images of Hillfields past and present and a retrospective of Richard Sadler’s early work in Hillfields with photographs taken form the 1950s. We will also be including a series of events to examine other ways the area has been thought of: including film and student exhibitions, walks, lectures and debates.
Images courtesy of Emma Lambert.
As part of the Hillfields Happening exhibition Jason Tilley will be taking 100 portraits of Hillfields residents. They will also be asked three questions for the Imagine research:
What is the best thing about living in Hillfields?
What is the worst thing about living in Hillfields?
What is the future for Hillfields?
100 quotes will accompany the 100 photos to illustrate the life of the person sitting for portrait. Jason hopes to mimic the photographic history of the area, in Taylor Bros Studios and ICA Studios, by creating a pop-up studio in the same location of 20 Primrose Hill St which you can see in this image with the flag sign above the shop just to the right of centre in the picture.
This part of the exhibition has been possible thanks to a successful application by Jason to the Arts Council England. The next stage is to develop a detailed plan of events that surround the exhibition. If you have ideas please contact firstname.lastname@example.org or @Imagine_hill.