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Landscapes of the Great Depression

A research project of the Department of Archaeology

Black and white photograph of a camp comprising huts within a forest

Image above: Hamsterley Instructional Camp © Forestry Commission


The north-east of England, as with other areas dominated by heavy industries, was profoundly hit by the impact of the Great Depression. In some areas, such as the ironstone mining areas of Cleveland, the unemployment rate amongst adult males reached over 90%. Although there were not the same large-scale governmental responses to the economic and social problems that characterised Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ in the US, there were a range of public and private initiatives that sought to ameliorate the crisis. Many were instituted under the auspices of the Special Areas Act (1934). Both the economic collapse and the consequential interventions had important material impacts. These manifested themselves at a landscape and settlement scale (settlement clearance; new build initiatives; changes in agriculture; allotment/smallholding schemes; work camps). In many places the traces of these projects still survive as part of the historic environment which remains unrecorded and unanalysed.

Project details

This project carried out an archaeological analysis of the Great Depression, examining the material responses to economic crisis in the north-east England in the 1930s. It draws on archaeological, architectural, and historical sources, this research will examine, through comparative case studies, landscapes of the Depression in the region, characterizing local responses to it as material interventions in the built environment.

The project had two key strands

1.     A landscape study of the Middle Wear valley around the town of Bishop Auckland. Drawing on a range of documentary and mapping resources, it explores how the area changed over the period of the Depression, identifying evidence for areas of decline, demolition and decline, but also finding evidence of economic development, industrial expansion and the emergence of new areas of middle class housing.

2.     Exploring a series of case study sites using a range of archaeological tools. The site comprised a forestry training camp (Hamsterley), a co-operative allotment scheme (‘Heartbreak Hill’, Cleveland), an industrial estate (Team Valley) and model village (Swarland). Through a programme of fieldwork, building recording and documentary research, the development and growth of these sites has been explored, drawing out patterns of similarity and difference in their material response to economic crisis.

Published Results

Journal Articles

 Staff from the Department of Archaeology

  • Dr David Petts

A black and white photograph of a number of parked waggons

Image above: Caravan colony for the homeless, 1930s, Spennymoor © Durham University