Portraits of Darnall’s Past: ‘The term may have been ‘slum clearance’, but the people were the backbone of British Industry’

Photographer Peter Dewhurst’s new book, Days Past, documents a pivotal time in Darnall’s history. With residents and families ripped apart in the name of gentrification, Peter was on hand to immortalise the community’s rich heritage.

So Peter, how are you keeping at the moment?
I am retired and working through my archive, the lockdown offered the opportunity to produce the books.

Tell us about your photography? How did you get into it and are you still snapping away?
I have been interested in photography since a boy making daylight prints but had various jobs until I decided to study ending up at Psalter Lane Art School in the mid 1970s, after which I spent time working as a photographer in Europe and the Middle East.

With regards to the Darnall project, tell us about it. Did you know at the time you were collecting a series of powerful images?
I rented a house in Darnall and began taking photographs of the area, the empty streets and empty shops. I can say that the photographs could not have been made without the cooperation of the people who went out of their way to accommodate me. Without them none of the photographs would have been made.

The photos show the real people behind the trendy gentrification projects that we still see today – how was your experience of photographing them in their community?
The photographer Robert Capa is frequently quoted as saying, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” What he meant was for the photographer to become more involved and intimate with their subjects. As I become known in the area more and more opportunities arose and I was drawn into the life of the town and the issues affecting it.

Do you have a particular image with a backstory that you look back on fondly?
There are several photographs, one of Grace Hudson, a widow, sitting alone in her kitchen in the empty street where she and her family were born and brought up. There is one in particular that reflects how well I became known for taking photographs. I went to the Rose and Crown to meet some members of Darnall Pigeon Club, as I walked in through the door someone called my attention and said “ ‘ere, take his picture”, pointing to an elderly man sat at a table, “ He’s just read his obituary in the paper!” It is a great picture, I remember him being called Albert and I call the image ‘Albert’s Obituary.’

Are you in touch with anyone still from the images?
I have several contacts in Sheffield and one who lives in Darnall and I am a member of a number of Facebook groups based in Darnall and Sheffield – I must say from the evidence of social media, what happened to the community during the clearances has left a bitter taste. Quite a number of elderly and vulnerable people did not survive long after being isolated from neighbours, family and friends. As one resident put it, “they send ‘em when they shift ‘em.”

Lastly, if you don’t mind Peter, what are your thoughts on the community of Darnall back then as you documented them?
The photographs, I hope, show a well established community at ease with itself placed against the wholesale destruction of large areas of the town. Neighbourhoods were uprooted and residents scattered, mostly against the will of the people. My Blurb book and the two CRB books show the community contrasted with the desolation of so-called regeneration and slum clearance. The term may have been ‘slum clearance’ but the people were anything but ‘slum dwellers’, indeed they were the backbone of British Industry. The last photo in the Blurb book has several middle aged men surveying the new High Rise City Landscape with a caption that reads “Looking out on the New Jerusalem.”

You can buy Peter’s book here: blurb.co.uk/b/10385558-days-past or from Cafe Royal Books, who have also published two books based on Peter’s work. They are available here: caferoyalbooks.com.

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