I had a weird moment while I was browsing the Guardian website last week. I followed the headline ‘London rooftops to carry missiles during Olympic Games’. The Ministry of Defence has decided to site a launchpad for ‘high velocity missiles’ on the water tower of a building that is now called the Bow Quarter, near the Olympic Park, apparently. According to the Guardian, the missiles ‘travel at more than three times the speed of sound, have a range of 5km and use a system of three dart-like projectiles to allow multiple hits on a target. Ten soldiers will be on duty at all times to guard and operate the missiles if needed to bring down a fast-moving jet or helicopter attack’. Local residents are complaining about the lack of consultation, and have apparently looked the missiles up on Google (as you would) to find that they leave a lot of debris behind them and don’t therefore seem very suitable for use in cities…
Putting all that aside, the rooftops in question are ones I was very familiar with thirty years ago when I was researching my undergraduate dissertation. The ‘Bow Quarter’ was originally a factory for making Bryant and May matches; it employed several hundred local women in very poor conditions, until the women went on strike in 1888. That strike heralded the emergence of mass trade unionism in the UK. About a hundred years later, I was studying the strike for my dissertation, and as I lived in London then I thought I’d go and take a look at the factory. When I got there, I discovered it was in the process of being converted into flats; the entrance buildings had already been sandblasted, so there is pretty much the same photo as the one the Guardian in my dissertation too. Because of course I photographed the building when I was there.
Perhaps it was the pointlessness of taking a photograph as an illustration of a building that in the late 1980s was so radically changed from its use in the 1880s, via technology that had barely been invented when the building was designed, that spurred my later scepticism about using photographs in academic work without thinking quite carefully about what they’re supposed to be doing there. (On further reflection, though, the photo did of course serve a purpose other than illustration – it proved to my dissertation supervisors that I was keen enough to investigate the actual site of the strike – so perhaps that snap also presages my interest in what photos do rather than necessarily what they show.)
What a place, though, that building. From factory and birthplace of mass trade unionism, to gated community, to rocket launchpad… there must be some sort of symbolism there, of London’s trajectory as a world city.
Oh, and for anyone interested in maps as a visual research method (yes maps, an oddly neglected visual research method), for my dissertation I mapped where the strikers lived, and from the clustered residential pattern that emerged I argued that their collective strength rested as much on their experience of neighbourhood networks as it did on workplace solidarity. A version later appeared in an atlas, even: see Rose G (1995) ‘The Strike at Bryant and May’s Match Factory, East London, July 1888’, in Charlesworth, A and Southall, H (es) The Atlas of Industrial Protest, Macmillan, pp.99-104.