Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.
Until the past few decades, the American environmental historian Richard White has recently reminded us, most people have encountered and known nature through the raw physicality of their labour. That insight and the postcard below are the starting point for what will become my next research project. White’s comments have nagged at me since I first read them a few months ago; the postcard has haunted me for much longer—since we dug it out of a box of my Grandma’s things after she died in 2007. As historians, our preoccupations emerge from many different sources and serendipities. But all of them, I think, have some element of this intersection between the intellectual and the personal.
I tried to write about the postcard a few years ago but I’m not sure I really knew what to say about it:
In July 1929, a decade after he had come home from the war to work in the coal mines of South Yorkshire, Thomas Marriot was staying at the Risedale Convalescent Home just outside Grange-over-Sands on the southern coast of what is now the Lake District. Risedale was one of many rural or seaside convalescent homes to which miners were sent when their bodies gave up under the rigours of working underground—a brief period of fresh country air somehow being seen as sufficient cure for dust-filled lungs and exhausted limbs. A postcard that Thomas sent to his 17 year-old daughter Edna, then in domestic service in Manningham in Bradford, suggests that this was a welcome respite—‘it’s a lovely place’. He continued: ‘we went onto Windermere and Bo’ness, it’s absolutely splendid scenery, never knew there was such places in England. Weather glorious.’ The brooding fells and lakes that left Thomas awe-struck were a long way from the scenes described by HV Morton or Stanley Baldwin. They were even further from the scrubby hills, industrial landscape and terraced houses of Mexborough, the pit town that he lived in—almost to the point of being an alien and unfamiliar sight. This was not his England.