I have a new post up on RefugeeHistory.org, about the past, present, and future of Villawood immigration detention centre in Sydney, Australia. You can read it by clicking this link (or the image).
Before I visited Villawood, I’d already blogged about it on here (link), as one of a series of posts about sites of confinement and containment in modern Australian history—others included Maribyrnong immigration detention centre in Melbourne and the old quarantine stations at Point Nepean, also near Melbourne, and North Head in Sydney.
This post has been updated (23 March 2018)—see below.
The University of Glasgow, where I work, has a beautiful campus. It’s on Gilmorehill, perched above a bend in the river Kelvin in the west end of the city—a commanding position that features heavily in the university’s advertising. But the university only moved here in the 1860s and 70s, over four hundred years after its foundation in 1451. The shift was part of the general westward migration of wealth, power and influence in Glasgow in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which still very visibly marks the city. Before that, the university’s buildings had been set around College Green next to the High Street, near the cathedral: ‘some of the most remarkable C17 architecture in Scotland’, the Pevsner architectural guide to Glasgow says, ‘their loss was a tragedy’ (p. 335). But the university needed to sell that large site, to a subsidiary of the North British Railway Company, to pay for the move.
Most of the land the university now occupies on Gilmorehill was purchased as a single estate. It had been constituted in 1800-1803 by one Robert Bogle, who also had a substantial house built for himself here. The university bought the site in 1863 and building work began in April 1867 with the levelling of the hilltop, but the house itself was retained during construction as offices for the architects and contractors. The photograph above shows the house in the late 1860s, with the west quadrangle of the present-day main building going up around it: only after the official completion of the move was the house demolished.
The university’s archives and special collections tweeted the picture a week or two ago. I saw the picture when someone else I follow on Twitter, the Glaswegian musician (and Edinburgh PhD researcher) Diljeet Bhachu, asked what had happened to the house—then swiftly followed that up with a second tweet saying ‘Actually, never mind. A quick google says it was built by a slave owner.’ This was news to me: I’d never thought to find out what was on the hilltop before the university moved up here. But a little research soon introduced me to Robert Bogle of Gilmorehill and many other members of his family. It also brought me straight into contact with Glasgow’s history of slave-ownership, and with real-world examples of the euphemisms that cover it up—reminding me of the words of Catherine Hall, Nicholas Draper, and Keith McClelland:
Slave-ownership is virtually invisible in British history. It has been elided by strategies of euphemism and evasion originally adopted by the slave-owners themselves and subsequently reproduced widely in British culture.
—Hall et al., Legacies of British Slave-Ownership:
Colonial Slavery and the Formation of Victorian Britain (Cambridge, 2014), p. 1
The first of these was on the university’s own website, where the ‘University of Glasgow Story’, a database of historical information about people in the institution’s past, has a page about the vanished building. This notes that it was ‘built by the West Indies merchant Robert Bogle Junior’.
‘West Indies merchant’: this is one of the very examples that Hall and her colleagues give on the first page of their book, when they show how modern-day resources like the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, or the University of Glasgow Story, “continue to reflect (consciously or otherwise) the strategies of the slave-owners of the early nineteenth century, who evaded the very term ‘slave-owner’.” The database that they themselves produced, Legacies of British Slave-Ownership, is less coy: as well as being a ‘merchant’, in 1813 Robert Bogle of Gilmorehill inherited from his brother a quarter of Dunkley’s Dry River Estate in Jamaica, which had been producing sugar and rum since at least the 1780s. Other members of the family owned the rest.
Robert Bogle died in 1821, before the British empire finally abolished slavery, but when it did, in the 1830s, two hundred and eighty-six people were enslaved on the estate. Members and in-laws of the extended Bogle family, including Robert Bogle’s son Archibald, shared £6230 5s 8d in compensation from the British government for the ‘property’ they had lost: in the simplest terms of purchasing power parity that would come to well over half a million pounds at 2016 prices, though by other methods of calculating worth it’s a much more significant sum.* (I used the site MeasuringWorth.com for this.)
There are many other Glasgow Bogles in the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership database, and a couple in the ODNB. It’s a bit hard to trace the connections between them, not least because across several generations and several branches of the family the names George, Robert, and Archibald recur frequently. The LBSO database thinks Robert Bogle of Gilmorehill (?1757–1821) was the son of Archibald Bogle and Janet Cathcart. If that’s the case then he must have had a cousin of the same name, a similar age, and a near identical occupation: the ODNB entry for the George Bogle (1700–1784), ‘merchant’, who was four times Rector of the University of Glasgow, notes that his inheritor was his son Robert Bogle. It’s possible that these late C18th/early C19th Robert Bogles are in fact one and the same, but it’s just as likely that they shared a name—after all, George Bogle 1700-84 was the son of another Robert, and the father of another George.
In any case, two things are clear. First, many of the Glasgow Bogles profited from enslavement, and from the ‘compensation’ paid to slave owners after 1833. Second, modern-day reference works including the University of Glasgow Story and the (immensely larger and more authoritative) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography do a very good job of hiding the fact. The former has Robert Bogle, builder of Gilmorehill House, as an innocent-sounding ‘West Indies merchant’. The latter’s entry on George Bogle (1700-84) is packed with the sorts of euphemism that Catherine Hall and her colleagues identify: ‘Bogle’s mercantile career from the later 1720s was focused on the colonial trades of sugar and tobacco’; ‘His son Robert Bogle inherited the family estates, and the dynasty continued in the mercantile world.’
This is a direct example of the way wealth derived from enslavement shaped the city of Glasgow as we live in it today. As an example of the way enslavement shaped the University of Glasgow, it’s only indirect: this is about how the estate the university bought was constituted, not about the sources of the university’s own wealth. It would be interesting to know how the university profited directly from enslavement, as it surely did. But if the institution’s self-history, the ‘University Story’, euphemizes and disguises the role of enslavement in making the city, I doubt it’s ready to take a hard look at its own past.
UPDATE: A colleague informs me that I spoke too soon: the university is already investigating its connections with slavery, following a decision made by its senior management group (SMG) in July 2016. The following information—a preliminary acknowledgement—has now been prepared for the University Story; below that is the SMG’s statement.
Glasgow was one of Britain’s leading centres of trade with the Chesapeake and West Indian colonies, meaning that large amounts of slave-produced commodities such as tobacco, sugar, cotton and rum came into the city. First the ‘Tobacco Lords’ and then the ‘West India merchants’ were wealthy and powerful elites in and around Glasgow. While not all owned enslaved people and plantations, some did, and in both cases much of their wealth derived from slave labour.
The Senior Management Group (SMG) of the University of Glasgow issued a statement in July 2016 acknowledging that although the University was active in the movement to abolish the slave trade and slavery, the University also received gifts and bequests from persons who may have benefited from the proceeds of slavery. On the authorisation of SMG a research team is evaluating the nature and extent of the University’s connections with people who profited from slavery. At the same time, a steering committee is preparing a report for SMG so that it can adopt a series of measures designed to begin the process of addressing and redressing this history. As a first step, in 2017 the University of Glasgow became the first British University to join the international consortium of Universities Studying Slavery.
And here’s that statement on slavery, approved by the Senior Management Group on 11 July 2016:
The University of Glasgow acknowledges that during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it received some gifts and bequests from persons who may have benefitted from the proceeds of slavery. Income from such gifts and bequests has been used in supporting academic activity undertaken by the students and staff of the University.
The University notes that, during the era of slavery, many of its staff adopted a clear anti-slavery position. For example, the Principal and Clerk of Senate, on behalf of the Senate of the University, petitioned the House of Commons in 1788, and again in 1792, against slave holding and slave trading; in 1791, the University honoured William Wilberforce with the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws in recognition of his anti-slavery work; Adam Smith, Francis Hutcheson and John Millar all wrote against slavery in their publications; and James McCune Smith, an emancipated slave, graduated in medicine from the University of Glasgow in 1837, and, in so doing, became the first African-American in the world to graduate in medicine. Smith came to study at the University of Glasgow for this degree as he was barred from doing so in the United States because of his colour.
The Senior Management Group (SMG) of the University of Glasgow has instructed that research be undertaken and a report prepared on the University’s connections with those persons who may have benefitted from the proceeds of slavery. When it receives this report, the SMG will consider the most appropriate way of acknowledging those connections.
That initial research project is being carried out in the current academic year: see this report from last September in The Scotsman for more information. I look forward to seeing the results of the research—and the actions the university takes in response.
*To be in the same sort of relationship to the average wage today as someone earning a wage of £6230 5s 8d in 1835, you would need to be earning over £5m a year. Slaves, of course, were not paid a wage.
Among all the past and present sites of detention that I visited on my trip to Australia last month, in some ways there is most to say about the old quarantine station at North Head, Sydney. But in other ways there is least to say, because so many excellent scholars have already written so much, and so well. Compared to Alison Bashford, who has been going there regularly for nearly twenty years, or the historical archaeologists on the Quarantine Project who spent months on the site uncovering and documenting over 1,600 inscriptions on the rocks there and investigating their stories through archival research, my own experience of the site is fleeting indeed.
To get to North Head you catch a fast ferry from Circular Quay in the very heart of Sydney, tucked between the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House. There’s a slower ferry too, but I took the fast one, a low-slung catamaran that moved across the water faster than any other boat I’ve ever been on, I think. As it draws away from the quay, you begin to get a sense of the size and complexity of this enormous natural harbour: to aft you can see under the bridge, where it continues deep inland, while on either side you pass urban coves and inlets—to starboard, Farm Cove with the botanical gardens surrounding it, then the deeper Woolloomoolloo Bay where an aircraft carrier is among the grey-painted naval vessels at the wharf, and these are only the first two you pass. Soon you can see down the harbour, too. The ferry scuds over the waves across the mouth of North Harbour (the northern branch of the main harbour), and you can see the destination: the steep sides of North Head, overlooking the harbour mouth and beyond it the Pacific.
Like the quarantine station at Point Nepean, the one at North Head—which was founded a couple of decades earlier and remained in operation until a little later—is just inside the mouth of a natural harbour, where a port city had developed further inland. It isn’t as remote: Sydney Cove, where the European settlement began, is only a few miles away across the water (Melbourne is forty miles away from Point Nepean on the other side of Port Phillip), and even with the circuitous route over two bridges and around the northern coves and inlets you could drive there from central Sydney in under forty minutes if the traffic wasn’t too bad. But, just as Point Nepean is as for from Melbourne as you can be while still being close to Melbourne, North Head is as far from Sydney as you can be while still being in the city.
The sites are similar in other ways, past and present. The national park at Point Nepean begins at the edge of the plushy weekend resort of Portsea, and is dotted with old fortifications and facilities for the coastal defences of Port Phillip. The national park at North Head begins at the edge of the plushy suburb of Manly, and is dotted with old fortifications and facilities for the coastal defences of Port Jackson (the official name for Sydney Harbour). The quarantine stations and their grounds, on your right as you enter the national park and facing the harbour, not the sea, were added to the parks more recently in both cases, because maritime quarantine restrictions survived a bit longer than coastal artillery batteries. Long-range bomber aircraft (and, later, intercontinental ballistic missiles) made the latter irrelevant by the middle of the twentieth century, but it wasn’t till a little later that mass civilian air travel did the same for the former. In 1963, the year the North Head fortifications fell permanently out of use, the teenager Johannes Hendrikus Jacob van den Berg emigrated to Australia from Holland by ship with his family and changed his name to Harry Vanda en route.
And although it’s much closer to the city than Point Nepean is to Melbourne, North Head feels remote and isolated. It’s been much more ambitiously developed as a heritage destination (‘Q Station‘) than Point Nepean, and no doubt at certain times of day and year it’s busy with visitors—you can stay there, in the restored accommodation blocks, and the ghost tours on offer include one that lets you stay overnight. But it was quiet when I walked around the large site: on the way in I saw a masked lapwing nervously pacing about the lawn, its yellow face bright in the sunshine, and on the way out I passed an echidna rummaging its snout in the sandy soil by the road, but I didn’t see many people. Like Point Nepean, the scenic walk out to the head and the old fortifications seemed to be attracting far more visitors, though a school group came through as I sat in the visitor centre by the wharf.
The station is spacious, spread out on the slopes that rise from Spring Cove, and in its time it was rigorously segregated. Accommodation areas reproduced the class hierarchies, and racist hierarchies, of the passenger ships that arrived: the first class passengers in their comfortable accommodation were protected from mingling with second class residents by high fences and a stretch of ‘neutral ground’, while third class passengers were elsewhere again and ‘Asiatics’ were housed in crowded dormitories with an external communal kitchen. Obliged to stay at the station in 1930, the golfer J.H. Kirkwood found the segregation insufficient:
I am an Australian, and I always thought that this was a white man’s country, but when I have seen Chinese, Indians, and Fijians with the same bathing and toilet facilities as white men in this quarantine station I have not been able to help feeling disgust. However, we are resigned to our fate.
For residents suspected of carrying disease, or showing symptoms, there was an isolation zone at one end of the site; for those who became ill there was a hospital, and in the final necessity a burial ground.
The visitor centre is down by the wharf, where a steep-sided little valley runs down to a beautiful beach. At the top of the sand a line of trees, their branches bare but for large flame-red flowers, played host to a busily feeding squadron of rainbow lorikeets. There’s a set of buildings nearby that were familiar to me from Point Nepean: a boiler house with a tall brick chimney, and a disinfecting room where luggage was steamed in enormous cast-iron autoclaves. The visitor centre, with a couple of rooms of historical displays and a somewhat gloomy café, was adapted from the old luggage store—the boiler house is now a restaurant, but that’s only open in the evening.
On the road down to the wharf you also pass the most visible remaining inscriptions, carved into the sandstone: one of them is shown at the top of this post. The Quarantine Project has produced a beautiful book about these (I bought a copy in the visitor centre, and read about Kirkwood as I ate my lunch) as well as many academic articles. Some of their most fascinating work, for me, is on the inscriptions that weren’t carved into exposed sandstone by nineteenth-century sailors and emigrants, but were scratched or scrawled onto the internal walls of the building on the site that was used as an immigration detention centre in the 1960s and 70s, as the quarantine station’s operations wound down. Although the building has now been adapted into a wedding venue (!), many of these are still to be seen in backrooms and above head height. I didn’t locate this building, A20, though I suspect that it may have been one that I peered into as a site employee touched up the external paintwork by the door. Inscriptions and graffiti are a kind of source that I should think about in my work on refugee camps: they’re omnipresent, as photos from formal and informal camps show.
A final similarity with Point Nepean isn’t mentioned anywhere on the site, or not that I noticed. In 1999, Point Nepean briefly accommodated several hundred humanitarian evacuees, Kosovo Albanians evacuated from Macedonia during the NATO air war against Serbia: even humanitarian evacuees needed to be confined in some way and ‘distanced’ from the rest of the population. Something similar happened in 1975, when over two thousand five hundred Vietnamese children—some of them the children of US servicemen—were evacuated from Saigon in what was known as ‘Operation Babylift’. About three hundred were brought to Australia, mostly to Sydney, in the midst of bitter recriminations over the country’s participation in the war and responsibility for Vietnamese refugees. Like the main ‘Babylift’ to the US, the available scholarship on this subject is mostly interested in its implications for international adoption, and doesn’t—as far as I know—say much about the experience of the evacuation itself. But the quarantine station at North Head was one of the centres that received evacuees (there’s a helpful Tumblr about it compiled in 2015 by an undergraduate student in history at the University of Sydney, who only gives her name as Stephanie): this picture from the Sydney Morning Herald shows prime minister Gough Whitlam visiting them.
Unlike the Kosovo Albanians nearly twenty-five years later, the Babylift evacuees mostly stayed in Australia, and that was the intention from the start. And surely it was in part simple pragmatism that meant they were accommodated at North Head, where the quarantine station was already being decommissioned and there was medically equipped accommodation for a couple of hundred children and their carers. Once again, though, I found myself struck by the isolation and confinement, at a site then mostly used as an immigration detention centre, of people displaced for humanitarian reasons.
Thanks to Meighen Katz for telling me about ‘Q Station’ and its history
All images taken by me (CC BY 4.0) except the Google Map
and the photo of Gough Whitlam (click for source)
Maribyrnong immigration detention centre is a discreet sort of place. It’s in a nondescript part of Maribyrnong, a suburb about five miles northwest of central Melbourne. The road it’s on is long and straight: it carries a lot of traffic, but mostly through traffic. As you walk out from the nearest tram stop you pass some warehouse-type retail units and a softplay on the left (‘Funtopia’), and a disused student village on the right. There’s no sign to mark the IDC on the road, a wedge-shaped white concrete wall bearing the number 53 on both side between a couple of small car-parks, and a driveway that’s shared with one of them. As I got there, a small delivery was pulling confusedly out of one car-park and straight into the next.
The driveway itself, though not very long, kinks to the left behind the corner of a building. You can’t see round that, but you notice a surveillance camera on a high post, and if you walk up the driveway under the camera and round the bend you’re immediately exposed to the unsmiling face of the Australian immigration enforcement bureaucracy. A high metal security gate blocks the drive, while the footpath leads up to a dull institutional building, a securitized version of the reception building at a caravan site or a 1970s roadside hotel. Signs on the wall give instructions to visitors, and warn you, as if you didn’t already know, that the area is under 24-hour video surveillance. I didn’t hang around, and I didn’t take a photograph: the detention system doesn’t like you looking at it, and you really feel it. At the end of the driveway as I walked back out, the delivery van pulled up by the kerb near me in the car-park next door. The driver wound down the window and asked if I knew where the detention centre was. ‘It’s just up there’, I said, pointing. He was a first-generation African immigrant.
Like Villawood in Sydney, the detention centre at Maribyrnong (the stress in on the short first syllable, maribbernong) was build on the site of a postwar migrant hostel that was itself built on the site of a munitions factory. Maribyrnong was centre for weapons manufacture for most of the twentieth century, ‘the arsenal of Australia’, as the nearby street names Cordite Avenue and Ordnance Reserve still attest. In 1942 the main explosives factory was expanded with a New Pyrotechnic Section ‘to produce fuses, flares, tracers and smoke grenades’—this was the area that was taken over for the hostel. (It was also the headquarters of Commonwealth Hostels Ltd, the private company set up by the government to accommodate migrants, which operated 64 hostels around the country.)
The Maribyrnong hostel was originally made up of Nissen huts, like the ones in this picture. Few of these corrugated iron military huts were used in Australia during the war: instead, thousands were bought from the British government in the late 1940s, though hardly any survive. They provided basic accommodation for the postwar migrants—at first, mostly displaced persons from European camps. As in other hostels, the quality of accommodation was improved later, partly in response to protests from residents.
An architectural historian I spoke to in Melbourne, Renée Miller-Yeaman, makes an important point [PDF] about the standard of accommodation in these hostels. There was a shortage of housing in Australia after the second world war, and the government faced pressure from its people to provide better homes—pressure that was partly coming from returned servicemen, and hard to resist. But at the same time, Australian policymakers were committed to increasing the country’s population (and therefore its pool of future conscripts) through state-supported mass immigration. That support included providing accommodation to immigrants on arrival. But the wider Australian population—extremely homogeneous in those years—was more ambivalent about immigration, especially in the early postwar years when the newcomers were largely ‘reffos’ from DP camps, many of them Jewish. To keep a lid on anti-immigrant sentiment, the government had to ensure that migrant housing was visibly inferior to the houses of the existing population.
Nissen huts fitted the bill, though the people living in them weren’t necessarily happy with this arrangement, especially as the sources of migration shifted from the DP camps to the countries of central and southern Europe. It was only later that metal huts at Maribyrnong were replaced with two-storey apartment blocks for families (the Midway Centre), and a ring of smaller buildings for single men (the Phillip Centre). As Renée argues, at sites like Villawood and Maribyrnong the history of immigration to Australia intersects with the history of home in Australia and what it means.
By the early 1980s Australia’s ‘assisted passage’ scheme was being phased out. ‘From that time’, a state heritage service report [PDF] on Maribyrnong says, ‘migrant centres focused on providing arrival accommodation and settlement services to refugees and humanitarian program entrants’. This is true, but the report doesn’t mention that by 1983 a section of the site was already being used as a detention centre. By the late 1980s only this part was active, and the rest of the former hostel was redeveloped as student accommodation for several local universities. As far as I can tell, the same buildings were reused. A plaque on a stubby obelisk at the angle of Williamson St and Hampstead Rd commemorates the opening of The Student Village on 2 Mar 1990. This is the disused student village I mentioned earlier: after hosting undergraduates for quarter of a century, it was closed in 2016 and is currently awaiting redevelopment. Victoria University, which now owns the site, is trying to lease out five of its non-residential buildings, though it’s hard to see who’d want them when they’re surrounded by empty student flats.
The village is an eerie sort of place, though it’s only a year and a half since the last students left. That’s long enough for the windows to be dusty on the inside, and their curtains, tied in a knot, to look grubby: the whole site, understandably, has an air of neglect. But most of the site feels abandoned rather than derelict. A few blocks that were evidently emptied earlier are fenced off (‘Warning Buildings Contain Asbestos’), and their gaping windows reveal interiors richly redecorated with graffiti. But otherwise the windows are dusty but unbroken: the lawns are tufty but not overgrown. At the volleyball court the floodlights have been left on, bulbs glaring irrelevantly in the daytime. The lights are still on around the verandah of the academic centre, too, but that’s probably deliberate: it’s one of the buildings the university wants to lease, and the lights may be intended to persuade the frightening local children not to smash the windows. As you walk around a site that’s empty but for magpies and the odd rabbit, you half expect the zombies to lurch into view.
There are still a Nissen hut and a Romney hut on the site (I saw them both but I don’t know how to tell the difference), and these are now heritage listed. I heard from Renée that the ones at Villawood have been relocated to a specific part of the site, supposedly to be turned into a heritage attraction, while the detention centre there is expanded and upgraded as the only onshore detention centre in Australia. At that point the Maribyrnong centre will apparently be closed. But for the moment it’s still open, its high security fences backing onto the student village that was once a migrant hostel. A contact in Melbourne who used to visit detainees there told me about a Vietnamese man awaiting deportation who’d cheerfully pointed out the buildings where he and his uncle had lived when they arrived in Australia as refugees.
The fences at the back and side of the detention centre are just as heavily surveilled as the gate at the front, and signs say ‘Commonwealth land – keep out’. Here, I did take a couple of photos. There weren’t many people around. In the corner of the compound a Teeth On Wheels van was parked up, the sign on its side promising ‘a positive dental experience’ to the detainees. There can’t be much else that’s positive about being held in a detention centre whose authorities won’t even let you out to visit the dentist.
Thanks to Juliet Flesch for talking to me about Maribyrnong,
and Renée Miller-Yeaman for telling me about her work on Villawood
Historical information about the site is sourced from
the linked report by Heritage Council Victoria
All images taken by me (CC BY 4.0), except the Google Map
and the archive photo of a family arriving at Maribyrnong:
National Archives of Australia, series A12111,
‘control symbol’ 1/1965/22/25
Everyone talks about the wind. The Rivesaltes internment camp stands on a flat stretch of land north of Perpignan, in the southwest of France. It’s not far inland and not even a hundred metres above sea level, but it feels high and exposed, with views extending to the Pyrenees. There’s no shade in the summer and no shelter in the winter. Scrubby, drought-resistant plants grow between broken lines of cheap concrete huts and latrines, and at the edge of the site a rank of sleek modern wind turbines catch the wind that’s always blowing from the mountains or the sea.
Rivesaltes has been written about by people who lived or worked there in its multiple incarnations as an internment camp between the late 1930s and the 1960, or as an immigration detention centre from the 1980s to 2007. It has been written about by people who’ve visited it, to research its history or find out more about the stories of their family members, and by publicists for the new museum there. They all talk about the wind. In pictures taken by the Swiss photographer Paul Senn, who spent six months in the camp in 1942 reporting on the work of Swiss charities, inmates wear heavy woollen coats and headscarves and wrap themselves in blankets whether they’re inside the draughty, poorly insulated huts or outside in the brilliant sunshine and bitter cold of winter.
I visited the camp one afternoon last July, on a day when it was the sun, not the wind, that felt merciless. Some American friends were staying nearby with their teenaged sons and they met me in the village of Rivesaltes itself, at the tiny railway station. It was almost deserted on a Sunday afternoon, everyone on their way to beaches nearby. We drove out through vineyards and low-slung industrial estates, a little uncertainly at first—the satnav confidently giving wrong instructions—but then finding and following new signs for the Musée mémorial du camp de Rivesaltes.
My current research project is on the history of refugee camps: that’s why I was visiting Rivesaltes, and will visit it again. It started life as a military transit camp, built in 1938 with the intention of keeping colonial troops well away from French people in the event of a European conflict: the alternative name, camp Joffre (from the first world war marshal), still shows up on Google maps. Before it came into service as a military camp, though, it was used to house Spanish refugees fleeing the defeat of the Republic in 1939. These were the lucky ones: some, especially men of military age, were penned in barbed-wire enclosures on the nearby beaches of Argelès-sur-Mer and Barcarès. During the second world war the camp was used, in rapid succession, as a detention centre for ‘undesirable aliens’, a holding camp for Jews under Vichy, a camp for Axis prisoners-of-war at the Liberation, and a prison camp for collaborators. Later it was an accommodation centre for migrant workers, a transit camp for repatriated pied noir settlers from Algeria and then more lastingly a dwelling-place for Algerian Muslims who had fought on the French side in the war of independence between 1954 and 1962. It was also, at last, a military camp for colonial troops.
In the 1980s a detention centre was built on the site for undocumented Spanish migrant workers, but it opened just as Spain entered the European Economic Community and its citizens gained a full right to work in France. Undocumented migrants from other countries were detained there instead. By the 1990s, memorials had been placed around the camp by groups commemorating Jewish deportees, Algerian Muslims, and Spanish Republicans. The site was registered as a historic monument in 2000, and by 2005 was open to visitors, but the detention centre only closed in 2007, around the time that the decision was taken to create the museum.
Continuing to lock up immigrants on a site dedicated to commemorating the past victims of the French state’s illiberal immigration practices would have looked bad. But that continuity exists, and creates a tension that runs through the museum. Plain letters on a bare concrete wall note that it was opened in October 2015 by Manuel Valls, then prime minister. Valls—himself a naturalised French citizen born to immigrant parents—was not notably liberal on immigration either as premier or, earlier, as interior minister.
The building is impressive, but not obtrusive. Designed by the starchitect Rudy Ricciotti, it’s far more restrained than his other and much larger recent museum design, the exuberant but overblown MuCEM on the waterfront at Marseille. Where that shows off, with its patterned concrete screens and seemingly unsupported pedestrian walkway from the fort St-Jean, the Rivesaltes museum deliberately conceals itself. To avoid overwhelming a site mostly made up of low and semi-ruined concrete huts, the structure—a long sloping slab of ochre concrete—is half-buried in a depression dug out of what was once camp Joffre’s parade ground. You barely notice it until the walkway leads you down into the building. It’s only from the air that you can get a sense of its size, as these images from the architect’s website show:
This means the building manages to be unobtrusive relative to the site it commemorates, while also creating a doubly memorable architectural effect: the sheer gee-whizz factor when you realize what’s happening (“They hid a whole museum!”), and, quite different, the sense as you walk down towards the entrance of being drawn out of the open air and bright sunshine into an enclosed and hidden space. It’s not the same as being interned yourself, but it creates an emotional resonance that the museum’s long corridors and sombre exhibition spaces sustain.
I’m interested in the camp at Rivesaltes because it’s not unusual. It’s not unusual for refugee camps to house different groups of displaced people successively, or for that matter at the same time. And it’s not unusual for a camp that houses refugees to serve as different kinds of camp at other times: Rivesaltes was a military camp, an internment camp, and a prisoner-or-war camp as well as a refugee camp, while other refugee camps have been made out of forestry camps or holiday camps. These are two important things for me to understand and explore as I continue my research.
Rivesaltes is also not unusual, or at least not exceptional, in the amount of academic research, reportage, and literary or other artwork that it’s generated: for some examples, try searching on Google Scholar for “Dadaab refugee camp“, or reading Kate Evans’s powerful new comic book about the Calais ‘Jungle’, Threads.
What does make Rivesaltes unusual is that memory organizations commemorating different groups came together to preserve the site, and successfully got government support to create the memorial museum. This has allowed historians working on different periods, and other researchers too, to come together to try and develop a shared understanding of the history of this uneasy, windswept place. (You can go there to watch the sunrise, which would surely be atmospheric.) The museum takes an impressively long and hard look at France’s containment, detention, and deportation of displaced populations across the middle of the twentieth century. But you also leave with the sense that, perhaps inevitably for a state-run institution, it is looking away from the present. It’s one thing to allow historians and the public to examine such practices in the past, but acknowledging their continuity in our own time would be uncomfortable indeed for Manuel Valls and his successors.
Update (29 June): see comments below for some thoughts, and relevant links, from colleagues in France.
Update (1 July): the director of the museum’s Comité scientifique also commented: again, see below.
Click images for source.
If that doesn’t take you off this blog, I took the photo.
I’ve never done an oral history interview, though I keep meaning to start. But the other night, on a ten-minute taxi ride home from a concert, I got an informal bit of oral history.
As soon as he heard I’d been at a gig, the driver began reminiscing about gigs he’d been to himself, especially as a young man in the seventies and eighties. The venue he talked about most was the Glasgow Apollo, which closed in 1985—he’d seen several gigs there, the first of them Status Quo in the 1970s. The ticket for that one, he said, cost £1.50, and when a friend heard that he was going he said “I hope you’re not in the upper balcony!” But he was indeed in the upper balcony, and when he got there he understood why his friend had said that: it was perilously steep and high, and when people started dancing down at the front of it it felt as if the whole thing was shaking. There were bouncers, he said, going up and down the aisles at rock gigs like that, but if you watched the bouncers in the upper circle you’d notice that they didn’t go all the way down to the rows closest to the stage: from the doors at the top, they’d walk down the stairs of the aisle as far as about five rows up, then stop.
This was a conversation in a taxi: I didn’t take notes, and I’m only getting round to writing this a few weeks later. But the internet being the internet, checking a few details and learning more was easy. The Apollo opened as Green’s Playhouse cinema in 1927—the largest in Europe, according to this website about Scottish cinemas, seating 4,368 (!), and with a ballroom above the auditorium too. You wouldn’t have guessed this from the pavement in front of the building on Renfield Street, where the entrance was set in a row of shops with offices above them (all part of the same building), but going inside must have been like entering another world. A pretty lurid world, too: I don’t know what the colour scheme was in 1927, but when the building was operating as a concert venue between 1973 and 1985 much of the interior was painted in shocking two-tone pink with gold trim.
How this looked under normal lighting, I’m not sure. This is one of a series of photos taken as the building was demolished, in 1987, after a fire had left it strucurally unsafe. Or perhaps that should be even more structurally unsafe: the building’s structural problems were apparently the reason why it was closed two years earlier.
The Apollo had a reputation as the best rock venue in Britain, and ‘the Quo’ loved it—they played there seven times in a single year (1976), a record for the venue, and their three concerts that December were used for recording a live album. I wonder if it was one of these gigs that I heard about from the chap whose taxi I was riding in: if so, he’d have been entitled to one of these stickers:
That formidable reputation may explain why the online forum devoted to its memory has had nearly ten million visitors. It also figures heavily on the discussion boards of other forums, about Glasgow or about bands who played there. So anyone who wanted to do a proper oral history project about it would find it easy to recruit interviewees. As I did a brief skim of the internet to write this post, a few questions sprang to mind. Was the Apollo’s reputation justified—and if so, why? It wasn’t just a rock venue, but that’s what it’s most famous for: the names most immediately associated with it by Google are Status Quo, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, AC/DC… and this picture of fans at an AC/DC concert makes it look like a bit of a boys’ club, as does the painting at the top of this post. So what was the gender history of the Apollo? In the mid-century heyday of the Glasgow dance halls, these were mixed (that was the whole point of them): was it all sweaty boys later in the century? The cutaway architectural plan shows kitchen, offices, an art room, though whether these were still in operation in the ‘Apollo years’ or dated from the time of Green’s Playhouse I don’t know. Still: what was it like to work at the Apollo, in the box office, backstage, or as a bouncer?
A bit more time on the internet, though, revealed that someone has recently completed a PhD about this: Kenny Forbes, now teaching at the University of the West of Scotland. He ran a blog about the project, and his thesis, You had to be there? Reflections on the ‘legendary’ status of the Glasgow Apollo theatre (1973-85), is available on the e-theses site of my own institution. (It’s been downloaded over 200 times since it was submitted less than a year ago: more evidence that the old ‘no-one reads PhD theses’ claim is nonsense.) So if a student ever asks me about doing their dissertation on this, they’ll have to come up with an original angle of their own.
And what about the balcony? The Wikipedia page on the Apollo is on the brief side, but claims that the balcony was ‘designed and built so that it would move up and down’. I’m dubious about this: for a concert venue that might make sense, but for an auditorium designed as a cinema? Kenny Forbes expressed similar doubts on his blog, having heard the claim in several places but found no evidence to support it. He posted some architectural plans and asked if any readers could help: I’ll need to read the thesis to find out if he got any answers. But no-one is in any doubt that it moved, alarmingly. The bouncers were right to take care.
Click images for sources, which aren’t always properly sourced themselves.
The painting at the top is by Jim MacNeary, sourced from Kenny Forbes’s blog.
This post is for my uncle Phil,
who loved knowing about music and buildings in a city’s history.
When I was offered (and immediately accepted) my current job, I sent a text message to a friend with the news: Lifelong Belle & Sebastian Fan Gets Job In Glasgow Shock. So when the band themselves played a home-town gig last May, I was quick to get myself a ticket. It was also a chance to see the inside of the SSE Hydro, the recently built enormodrome I cycle past on my way to and from work: Glasgow is surely the only city in the world where Belle & Sebastian could hope to (mostly) fill a 13,000-seater arena where you’re more likely to find Miley Cyrus or World Wrestling Entertainment than gentle art-pop.*
After the support act had finished, Stuart Murdoch’s voice came over the speakers and announced that before the band came on they were going to show a film called ‘Glasgow 1980’, and inviting us to watch it if we liked, or ignore it and just mill about if we preferred.
This is a film for people, about the city they live in—how the city is changing for the people.
At the time, I thought I was the only person in the audience who actually watched it.
Glasgow 1980 was produced in 1971 for the city corporation, by a company called Ogam Films. It’s about the twenty-year transformation of Glasgow after 1960, and presents a startlingly intense vision of where that road—and it was a road—was meant to lead. The process was traumatic :
Between 1960 and 1970, fifty-two thousand houses were demolished in Glasgow.
But the film is in no doubt that all this was necessary for a city in a steep spiral of deindustrialization: ‘It had to change’, the narrator declares.
For a locally-made publicity film for the city corporation’s urban regeneration programme, Glasgow 1980 is a remarkably powerful document. That’s partly because of the team that made it: Oscar Marzaroli, the director (and co-founder of the production company), was one of Scotland’s foremost photographers, while the editor, Bill Forsyth, became a director himself, famous for Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero. The music, by local guitarist Iain McHaffie, is also quite something. (It’s harder to find information about McHaffie online, but someone else who was struck by the music for this film had a go.) You can listen to the main theme on YouTube, and you can watch the whole film here, on the website of the Scottish Screen Archive. It’s half an hour long, though it didn’t feel like that when I was watching it at the Hydro. At least, not to me.
For anyone familiar with Glasgow’s history since the early 1970s, the film’s confident optimism—not to say arrogance—about the process of transformation would strike many ironic chords. The radical solutions to the city’s ills proposed by the corporation and celebrated in the documentary created plenty of new problems, some of which were already visible by the time Marzaroli filmed it and remain with us today.
The area I live in features in the film, for a few seconds (starting at 4’49”). The medium-rise flats that were then newly built are a block away from where I live, in a 1905 tenement building of the sort that were being knocked down in their hundreds in the Gorbals and other nearby neighbourhoods. After I (at last!) got a smartphone a few weeks ago, I took some photos as I went past one morning—the pictures illustrating this post.
With their overhead connecting bridges at the second and fifth storey and long external corridors (see top of post), they’re reminiscent of the ‘streets in the sky’ at Park Hill in Sheffield, built in 1957-61. On the satellite view in Google Maps you see them from above as two T shapes connected at the base by a long bar, T__T. But the left-hand T is no longer there. It was knocked down over the winter. The ragged edges are visible where the skyways from the demolished building met the block that’s still standing, and as I walked down Maxwell Drive I came across the pile of rubble that remains.
A friend who’s doing a research project on this part of town (and who took some almost identical photos when she walked past recently…) tells me that the demolished blocks will be replaced by new flats—plenty have sprouted around the place in the last decade or two. You could be forgiven for thinking that the new flats will look like this:
Only on closer inspection do you realize these sharply-attired new flats facing the drab brown ones across St Andrews Drive are part of the same development, but have been given a thorough makeover. They look almost identical in the aerial photo from Google Maps (another T, this one with half its crossbar missing, in the top right hand corner). But from street level the renewed façade and the beech saplings are a good disguise—it’s the overhead walkways linking the two blocks that are the real giveaway:
The other blocks appear to be staying where they are; perhaps they’ll get a refurb like the above. The squat tower blocks that line the railway just to the north—along the top of the aerial photo, and marching on further west—have had a similar refit: I didn’t recognize them in Glasgow 1980 until I rewatched some of it for this post (the camera pans round to them at 05’00″–05’03”). The groovy purple lights that shine softly down from them after nightfall are a signal that we’re nearing home when I’m on the train back from a bikeride in Ayrshire or on Arran on a winter’s afternoon, always slightly depressing because we pass within 250m of my house but the train doesn’t stop till Glasgow Central, a mile and a half away.
Ogam Films recorded a lot of footage for a sequel to Glasgow 1980, entitled Glasgow’s Progress—but production was halted in 1978, according to the Scottish Screen Archive, as ‘there seemed to be no end to the urban renewal in sight’. Meanwhile, in 1980 the Magnum photographer Raymond Depardon was commissioned by the Sunday Times to visit Glasgow. (He’d recently done a reportage from Beirut.) They never published his pictures, but some of them featured in a 2013 retrospective at the Grand Palais. They sparked enough interest, among Depardon’s photos from Lebanon, Latin America or Ethiopia, that they’ve now been released in a book published in France and Britain (and with a short text in French and English) by Seuil. It’s a brilliant collection, but it’s not the 1980 that Marzaroli’s film promised.
(If you want to see more of the photos before you decide to shell out for the book, several newspapers in Britain and France ran stories/image galleries, including Libération and the Scotsman—or you can see them all on the Magnum website.)
Meanwhile, it looks like I wasn’t the only person watching Glasgow 1980 at that concert last year. A new short film has just been made, (Re)Imagining Glasgow, which takes its inspiration from Marzaroli’s film. It mixes some of the footage recorded for the unfinished follow-up with footage from Glasgow today, still unfinished as it is. It was premiered as part of the Glasgow Short Film Festival the Sunday before Easter, and I’d love to say that I saw it—but, having travelled back from Liverpool that morning specially, I only got back to Glasgow just in time to get there a minute or two before showtime. On a sunny spring afternoon, I found myself standing in the longest queue I’ve ever seen at the GFT, and when I got to the head of it the tickets were long since sold out, even though the film (and accompanying panel discussion) had been moved into screen 1, the big auditorium. It’s good to know that that many people care, that much, about the remaking of Glasgow. I hope they’re not getting too many ideas though.
Images all by me except the Google Maps aerial view
and the Depardon photo. Click that one for source;
otherwise, they’re CC-BY so feel free to use them,
with attribution and without alteration
*Cycling past before the Miley concert, the streets were full of excited girls and young women in ‘Twerk It!’ t-shirts walking and talking in happy groups. Cycling past as the wrestling let out, they were full of utterly psyched nine-year-old boys and their equally wild-eyed dads. It was terrifying.