Seeking out tales of the Raj among the Peaks

The Peak District landscape and Cromford Mills World Heritage Site near Matlock, below.
The Peak District landscape and Cromford Mills World Heritage Site near Matlock, below.
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A new project will explore the Indian cultural heritage of the Peak District. Sheena Hastings reports.

CHAMU Kuppuswamy travelled to Britain from Tamil Nadu in Southern India nine years ago to study for a PhD in Law at Sheffield University. She later became a lecturer in the law department.

More recently she discovered the beauty of the Peak District National Park and, so taken was she by the vast tract of protected natural environment on her doorstep, that she became a frequent visitor and trained as a park ranger, leading guided walks and helping visitors to understand the value of the Park and explain its features.

She also became involved in Mosaic, a national project led by the Campaign for National Parks that aimed to build sustainable links between black and minority ethnic communities and ten of the National Parks in England and Youth Hostels Association.

The three-year campaign was developed in response to evidence that although about 10 per cent of the population was of an ethnic minority background, only about one per cent of visitors to National Parks were from ethnic minorities.

In Chamu’s opinion there are various reasons which might explain why many people from ethnic minorities stay away from national parks.

“There is an assumption among some people that the parks are to be preserved, because in many other countries national parks are not seen as recreational but as natural environments that are to be left undisturbed. Another factor may be lack of knowledge about access.”

During her ranger training, Chamu visited Kedleston Hall near Derby, formerly the home of Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India.

The experience led her to think about how people in Britain had learned about their country’s activities in the colonies and what, if any, were the cultural and other effects of the British Raj on the population here.

Old steelmaking equipment she had seen at Abbeydale Industrial Museum carried stamps of the company’s branches in Sheffield, New York and Calcutta, but she saw no explanation of what the exact interaction with Calcutta might have been. Pioneering cotton magnate Richard Arkwright opened Cromford Mill in the Peak District’s Derwent Valley during the Industrial Revolution, but little is known generally of what exchanges of information, goods and expertise his business had with the giant cotton industry in India.

Now the influences that link ordinary people here today and those under British rule in India in the last century and beyond are about to be researched by ordinary people, thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant which will enable the Indian community in Sheffield to research stories hidden in the archives.

The University of Sheffield is helping this project to explore the Indian heritage of the Peak District after receiving the £8,600 funding. The Hindu Samaj in Sheffield is one of the first groups in the UK to receive such a grant. They are leading the project, entitled British Raj in the Peak District – discovering, recovering and sharing colonial history. The money will enable a community team to learn about how life in and around Sheffield and the Peak District National Park was influenced by ideas and raw material from British India during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The University of Sheffield’s Researching Community Heritage project helped Sheffield Hindu Samaj to apply for All Our Stories, a brand new small grant programme, launched earlier this year in support of BBC Two’s The Great British Story, a series designed as an opportunity for everyone to get involved in their heritage.

The popular series presented by historian Michael Wood got thousands of people asking questions about their history and inspired them to look at that history through the eyes of ordinary people.

The Hindu Samaj promotes Hindu faith, culture, arts and languages amongst the members of the Hindu Community in Sheffield and neighbouring towns, encouraging education and raising awareness about different racial groups to promote good relations.

Historians from Sheffield University will train volunteer community members in research skills so that they can go to local archives and uncover, for example, the ideas that were transmitted from Hindu and Indian culture through the correspondence between Edward Carpenter, a renowned socialist writer who travelled extensively in India then lived for years in the Peak District, and Mahatma Gandhi.

Researchers will also explore Indian heritage during the Industrial Revolution by tracing the connection between the cotton industry in the Peak District and cotton producers in India. TV presenter and historian Michael Wood said: “We British love our history, and no wonder: few nations in the world, if any, have such riches on their doorstep, and so much of it accessible to all of us. It is really tremendous that the people of Sheffield have been inspired to get involved to tell their own story and to dig deeper into their own past. It’s brilliant that so many people are being given the chance to get involved.

“Having travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles this last year filming The Great British Story, I am certain that fascinating and moving stories will be uncovered which will not only bring to life the excitement of local history, but will illuminate and enrich every community’s connection with the national narrative.”

Dr Esme Cleall, lecturer in the history of the British Empire at the University of Sheffield, is working with Hindu Samaj to research the project. She said: “This is important and exciting. The connections between Britain and India, so formative in both British and Indian history, need far more investigation at a local level. This project will help to uncover these stories and to explore them with the diverse communities of Sheffield.”

Dr Dinesh Naik, vice president of the Hindu Samaj and a Sheffield resident for more than 50 years, said: “We at Hindu Samaj are delighted to have this opportunity to explore the inter-relationship between the Peak District and India.

“Many of us who have been settled here for a couple of generations have little or no idea about local connections to the country of our birth. We are looking forward to finding out more about people such as Edward Carpenter.

“Understanding history will be empowering and fulfilling for the Hindu and Indian community in Sheffield and building a shared understanding with the wider community on this subject will be a great learning and sharing experience.”

Chamu Kuppuswamy plans to lead special guided walks in the Peak District next year which will explain the area’s links with Indian heritage.

Britain’s first National Park – the glorious ‘backbone of England’

The Peak District is a large and topographically diverse tract of land in the Southern Pennine Range (known as ‘the backbone of England’) – and lies mostly in the county of Derbyshire, but extends into the neighbouring counties of Staffordshire, Cheshire, South Yorkshire and as far north as West Yorkshire and Greater Manchester.

At its hub is the Peak District National Park, covering an area of 542 square miles of some of the most beautiful and breathtaking countryside to be found anywhere within the British Isles.

The Peak District is surrounded by densely populated lowlands and at its boundary edges lie the vast urban connurbations of Manchester to the north-west and Sheffield to the north-east, with Chesterfield and Matlock to the east and south east respectively, and Wirksworth, Ashbourne and the Potteries to the south & south west.

The Peak District National Park was the first of Britain’s National Parks, formed in 1951, and is administered from Bakewell, one of the area’s principal market towns and known as the capital of the “Derbyshire Dales”.

The area is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, owing to its location and close proximity to so much of the population. It attracts upwards of twenty million visitors a year.

The Peak District rivals the Lake District for its large number of mostly man-made lakes and reservoirs, each with it’s own mood and character.