Why bother recording archaeological sites from the very recent past? Mike Nevell and Sarah Cattell explain why a community project investigating the remains of a Manchester nightclub demolished in 1986 holds the answer.
Some aspects of 20th-century archaeology are already well established, particularly those focusing on the two World Wars and the Cold War. But you would be forgiven for asking what the point is of exploring the material remains of a period when other sources (film, oral history, written documents, and photography) already provide a wealth of information – perhaps more, even, than archaeology can muster? Do we risk, as archaeologists, undertaking third-rate anthropology, economic history, or sociology instead of material-based research? Several media stories in the last few years – such as the excavation of a 1990s Ford Transit van at the Ironbridge Museum (see www.york.ac.uk/archaeology/research/current-projects/in-transit/), and the recording of graffiti created by 1970s punk band the Sex Pistols (see CA 268) – might lead the casual reader to think this was indeed the case, and that such studies have little to add to our understanding of an era that still comfortably lies within living memory. Inevitably, though, the way that these projects were reported in certain parts of the media did not really reflect why they had been undertaken, nor the particular challenges of working in the very recent past.
The straightforward answer is that archaeological analysis, whether through excavation or recording standing building remains, provides a unique form of data that is not available through any other discipline. A good example of this is the ‘Excavating the Reno’ project. It brought together oral history and archaeology in a three-week excavation exploring the story of a Manchester soul and funk club that became a welcoming sanctuary from the racism that mixed-heritage members of the local community often experienced in the 1970s. The club was demolished in 1986, but our investigations, generated from within the local community and supported by a £65,000 grant from the National Lottery (the project was a finalist in the Heritage Lottery Awards, see ‘Further information’ box on p.45 for more details), offered the present residents of the Moss Side area the chance to access this important part of their heritage once more.
Located in Hulme, on the outskirts of town, the Reno occupied the basement of a large Edwardian building on Princess Road, one of the main routes into Manchester City Centre. It was originally filled by shops with residential flats above, but in the mid-1950s the structure was converted into an African Seaman’s Mission. It soon became a meeting place for Manchester’s fledgling African and Caribbean communities. Informal drinking and gambling clubs sprang up within its walls, and it was these groups that eventually led to the opening of several pubs and clubs in the building during the 1960s and 1970s. Soon the area was hugely popular with the local community as somewhere new and exotic to spend a night out, and the Reno in particular was renowned for its music.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the club was celebrated for its rare funk and soul music – sometimes it was the only place in the country playing certain records, which were imported by long-standing DJ Persian – as well as for its late licence, with many nights out in town finishing there in the early hours. Although rather dingy, the thriving club was visited by celebrities including Muhammad Ali, while the snooker star Alex Higgins was a regular and record producer Tony Wilson had his stag do there. It was more than that to the local community, though: to those who went there every weekend, in some cases every night, it was a haven from the disapproval and prejudice they encountered in their daily lives.
Locally and nationally, throughout the mid-20th century, people of mixed heritage were often treated with suspicion, disgust, and disdain, caught between black and white communities. From facing casual racism in the street to deep-seated prejudice in the local community to national political barriers, these individuals often felt that there was nowhere where they were truly welcome – and so it is not surprising that a place like the Reno, where such issues were left at the door, felt like more than just a nightclub; rather, it was a home and family.
For the Reno regulars, it was a place to meet up, grow up, and get together in a place which, although it attracted its fair share of trouble from time to time, felt safe and familiar. They knew that they could go ‘down the Reno’ any day or time and find familiar faces to hang out with (among other things), and in many cases these friendships and relationships have endured to this day – producing a generation of ‘Reno babies’ to keep the club alive in spirit.
By the time the Reno closed in 1986, Hulme and Moss Side, with its large African, Asian, and Caribbean communities, had suffered years of high unemployment and unrest, including rioting in 1981, which led to a range of attempts to improve the area. It seems that the building that housed the Reno and its other pubs and clubs was unofficially seen as part of the problem. It was demolished relatively suddenly, leaving those who had been so closely linked with the club bereft, not only of a place to go but also of a sense of community. Since then, although the site of the building has remained vacant, there have been several Reno reunions to keep the community together. The club itself seemed lost forever, though.
A CREATIVE PARTNERSHIP
This was all set to change, however, thanks to local playwright Linda Brogan. She visited the Reno in the 1970s, aged just 16, and her inspiration for the present project came a few years ago. ‘Crossing the poppy-filled site, I sat to remember our civilisation – black market, social structure, king and queen; all frustrated artists,’ she said. ‘A play couldn’t capture the nuances, so, in 2016, I filmed Reno memoirs. Blacks and whites talk about the music and dancing… the Reno’s wall-to-wall “half-caste” being our true family.’
Two years ago, Linda approached Salford Archaeology with a plan to resurrect the club through archaeology, art, and film. For years she had been thinking about new ways to tell the story of the club and get the people back together. Then she hit on the idea of physically going back into the Reno by digging it up. Having seen the level of preservation of other excavated Edwardian buildings around Manchester, she realised it might be possible, and was determined to get people back on the dancefloor. Linda was also keen to tell the story of Hulme and Moss Side’s mixed-heritage community to a wider audience, while simultaneously proving to that community that despite years of being overlooked, their story was valid and relevant and needed to be heard.
Although at SA we were used to excavating Edwardian basements, it was fairly unusual to work on one that had been so recently demolished. Even so, the social impact of the dig and Linda’s enthusiasm (‘no’ is not an answer she is familiar with!) made us realise that this could be something really special. The plan was to run a three-week community excavation to uncover the club in its entirety, make a documentary about the project, and party at the Reno one last time. At first, we were unsure how all Linda’s ideas could be realised, but after several planning and funding meetings we managed to come up with an outline that worked. The Excavating the Reno project was on.
For Linda, one of the most important aspects of the excavation was getting the Reno regulars to volunteer alongside our usual archaeology volunteers, and seeing the interaction between the two groups in their pursuit of a common goal. She wanted the project to break down the racial and class barriers that the regulars had been faced with for so long, and to get them working with people they would not normally come across in their ordinary lives. With our team assembled, it was time to begin.
THE RENO RISES
The dig started on a bright October morning in 2017, and right from the moment the first machine bucket touched the ground, the Reno regulars were ready to get stuck in and find what they had not seen for so long. Having so many people present on the first day of a community dig was unusual for us, and at times pretty nerve-wracking, but this was to become one of the main features of the project. Whether they were coming to dig or just have a look, there was a constant stream of people who either went to the Reno or were related to someone who did. For the three weeks we were on-site, the tea cabin took on the vibe of the club, becoming a meeting place for old friends and a place to meet new ones. Despite Linda’s concern that more people had not come prepared to get dirty and dig, there was still a great team of volunteers every day. Little by little, the club began to emerge.
The Reno’s footprint filled the full width of the basement, with the bar, dance floor, and toilets at the front, and a kitchen and a smaller room for gambling at the back. Our excavations also uncovered the back stairs that had once led up to the ground floor, as well as the alleyway and cellars of the building behind. Although not part of the Reno itself, the alley was an important part of the story for Linda, as it was the quickest way out during the not-uncommon police raids on the venue. Indeed, many of the project’s more interesting finds, including clothing, make-up, wallets, and drinks bottles, were found in the grids and cellar lights of this passageway.
As more and more of the club was uncovered, there was constant debate raging between the regulars as to what they were looking at. This was again a new experience for us at SA, as we had never had so many ‘consultants’ on-site before who knew the structures that we were excavating so well, and who we could ask about finer details such as internal decor. Photos and memories from the club indicated that the two front rooms, the dance floor, and kitchen, had wood-effect panelling on the walls and red and blue lino tiles on the floor, with an area of red tiles for the dance floor.
Although the floor was well preserved, all that remained of the panelling were plastic corner trims and occasional fragments of hardboard, but this absence allowed us to see that the wall behind was constructed from white glazed brick. This reflected the building’s earlier incarnation: it was a common feature of Edwardian basement rooms, which were often originally used as kitchens, laundries, and cold-storage spaces. The glazed bricks extended the full length of the club and included curved examples around the doorways, which still retained fragments of their wooden frames in places. It was in one of these that another of the more memorable finds was made: a pair of green nylon ladies’ flares, in near-perfect condition – which lead to widespread speculation about why they were left in the club and whose they could have been!
The rooms to the rear of the club were more conservatively decorated, with the kitchen retaining its blue painted bricks, again common for cellars in this type of building – a shade referred to by the club regulars, who immediately recognised it, as ‘Reno blue’. The gambling room to the north had plastered and painted walls, and a concrete floor which, where it had been broken, revealed a laid-brick surface underneath. The room also had a small fireplace, complete with its 1970s-style grate and fret. This feature was remembered well by the regulars, who told us of frustrated gamblers throwing their dice into it when they lost, and the stifling heat of the room, especially in the summer, as the fire was always lit whatever the weather. Fittingly, several dice were found in this room, along with drinks bottles and pieces of formica tabletops.
As different parts of the Reno, and some of the more evocative finds (particularly the dice and a record-shop carrier bag) were uncovered, the atmosphere on-site became increasingly convivial. By the end, all those taking part, regardless of whether they were Reno regulars or not, looked like old friends. Despite the frantic organisation of the party in the marquee to be held in the evening, the final day of the dig was filled with a real sense of achievement and pride in what had been accomplished. As the volunteers all went home to get their best clothes on for the evening, many said how much the dig had meant to them, and how it had transported them back to some of the happiest times in their lives. The site itself looked amazing, in no small part due to the dedication of its excavators. With the event lighting switched on, it was like no other site we have ever worked on.
DIGGING THE RECENT PAST
Our experience of excavating the Reno eloquently demonstrates the three main issues in dealing with the archaeology of the immediate past. First is the scale of 20th-century industrial and urban archaeology, and the consequent problems in recording this. Second, how do we record such sites, while maintaining a uniquely archaeological perspective? Finally, there is the role of 20th-century archaeology as a community experience promoting excitement and support for the investigation of the recent (and not-so recent) past.
Twentieth-century archaeology offers a number of unique challenges because of its scale, complexity, and the need to focus on the archaeological, rather than what might be social or economic, history. While – as mentioned before – some topics, particularly military sites, are already seen as credible and popular among the wider public, others will no doubt follow. The period’s transport and energy revolutions are the next two 20th-century industries that have begun to receive serious study, at least in Britain, for example. Yet we suspect that, while the 20th-century remains in living memory and, more importantly, the range of sources for its study remains enormous, archaeology will struggle to find its unique perspective. The Reno project, however, has revealed one way forward.
This feature appeared in CA 342.