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Soup of This Day #363: Bring It Back

March 17, 2014

Park Hill
The Park Hill housing estate in Sheffield – Photo: Paolo Margari, 2007. Paolo Margari is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

A week or so ago I happened across a TV promo for an upcoming current affairs program. That brief spot dramatically highlighted a feature story – That of an island that had once been densely populated but all of whose inhabitants had disappeared. Such was the intrigue around this deserted outpost that it had apparently scored a role in a recent James Bond flick as the lair of a villain.

Clearly an island of mystery then.

The current affairs show though was promising to dispel that mystery, thus revealing the secret of this ghost island. All I had to do was to tune in at the appointed hour.

Or, at any hour, I could just look it up in Wikipedia.

Where I discovered that tiny Hashima Island had indeed once been densely populated but isn’t now. Nobody lives inside it’s concrete sea-walls any more, although the previous tenants could hardly be said to have disappeared.

It’s more accurate to say that they moved. As in packed up and relocated. They didn’t do this en mass or suddenly either – Instead the leaving of Hashima was a gradual process. A very non-mysterious gradual process.

Hashima Island was all about coal. In the late 1800s Japan was being industrialised and coal was needed to power this transition. Hashima had coal in abundance and so the population of this rocky outpost grew. By 1916 it had grown to such an extent that housing was a problem – The solution was to construct large concrete blocks – The 1st being a 9-story megolith, and such was the Japanese need for coal that these urban fortresses were soon filled with coal miners and their families.

It didn’t last.

Petroleum overtook coal as the fuel of choice and across the 1960s, Hashima’s workforce was repeatedly downgraded. Until, in 1974, the Mitsubishi Group, owners of the Hashima facilities, decided that there was no more profit to be had and the mines were closed. With no other reason to be, the settlement on Hashima Island subsided into silence, devoid of human residents. A ghost island.

Even with the artificially hyped drama stripped away it’s an interesting story. It’s hardly a unique 1 though – Resource booms and busts have seen many a settlement go from a thriving cacophony of humanity to a listless sigh of emptiness. The coal ran out or the price of nickel dropped or maybe asbestos was found to be deadly. Whatever the reasons, there are ghost towns and islands in many locations – I can remember an old saw mill that my Dad used to get firewood from – He’d pick up the old jarrah off-cuts from the waste pile there. In truth by then the whole place was waste – The mill-workers cottages would have made good fuel for the fire too if Dad had been inclined. He wasn’t though and last I remember those skeleton abodes remained, some with graffiti dating back decades.

It takes a strong society to ride out the ebb and flow of resource economics.

Such societies do exist. I was recently looking at the city of Sheffield in England’s Yorkshire region. Sheffield isn’t on an island but, like Hashima, it’s fortunes have been bound to a particular resource. In this case it’s steel – Circa 1740, Sheffield saw the development of a new technique that produced higher quality steel than was available anywhere else in Europe. This improvement, which involved the use of refined coal, saw Sheffield become 1 of Europe’s industrial capitals. From 1801 until 1901 the population jumped from around 60,000 to an astonishing 450,000.

Still, there were bad times, recessions and subsequent job losses. The most recent of these occurred in the period across the late 1970s and early 1980s. Then, a conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher, privatised the British steel industry leading to substantial job losses as the new owners struggled with high fuel costs. This, coupled with the collapse of the local coal industry, sent Sheffield into a downturn.

This slump was mirrored in a drop in the fortunes of 1 of Sheffield’s hallowed football teams, Sheffield United. United had been formed in 1889, just 2 years after Hashima got it’s 1st residents, and in their 1st 35 years won the top flight title once and the FA Cup 4 times.

If that was the apogee for United then the nadir occurred at the same time as Sheffield’s steelworkers faced a bleak future in Thatcherite Britain. Perhaps this was to be expected, if only because there existed at least a symbolic link between Sheffield’s steel heart and it’s football – United bear 2 crossed swords on their crest and are consequentially known as The Blades – A direct reference to the steel-making history of the city.

Maybe there is more to it than symbolism though – I’ve written before about Margaret Thatcher and her disdain for society. Football clubs are underpinned by society and Thatcher’s assault on Sheffield’s core, however economically sound, could easily have tainted the steel of The Blades.

Whatever the cause the once-proud club slipped tamely into the 4th and bottom tier of the Football League.

Since then though, the city and it’s football club have fought back. Sheffield has been rejuvenated by a series of redevelopments. Where once, George Orwell could suggest of the heavily-industrialised metropolis:

‘Sheffield, I suppose, could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World.’

Now, 61% of the city is open-space, with some 2,000,000 trees making Sheffield the most wooded city in Europe. And for a bonus, there remains enough space among those trees for a kick of the football.

And it’s been a decent kick for Sheffield United of late. The Blades have twice been back into the top flight of English football and 4 times have made it through to the semi-finals of the FA Cup since those dark days of the early 1980s. In 2014 they might go 1 better in that latter competition – They face English Premier League (EPL) side (and fellow Yorkshire outfit) Hull City on the 13th of April for a spot in the 2014 FA Cup Final. Despite being in League 1, the 3rd tier of English football, nobody should bet against them either as they have already accounted for EPL sides Aston Villa and Fulham in this cup run.

As it happened I didn’t watch that current affairs program but inspired by Sheffield United, I’m hoping that the ‘secret’ of Hashima had nothing to do with the price of coal or James Bond villains. Perhaps instead the real secret of that ghost island was that they were doomed for lack of a football team.

C’mon you Blades.

Bring It Back

  1. An underdog worth rooting for. We have a city nearby that was forged and elevated by manufacturing steel and now just reels from the passing of those good old days when they were a “player.” A “lost” city. Here’s hoping the players on the Blades have sharpened their skills enough to carry the emotional torch for their community.

    • Funnily enough, as I wrote the latter part of that post I was humming along to Springsteen’s Youngstown. A lot of steel cities and manufacturing towns got hurt in the 70s & 80s.

      As always, thanks for reading and commenting.

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