Soham. Hungerford. Dunblane. Hillsborough. Names inextricably linked with a news story, places whose infamy lasts long after the media circus has rolled back out of town.
Do the places retain a trace of the news stories that made them briefly the talk of the country? Will anyone ever hear the name of a little town called Lockerbie without thinking of Pan Am Flight 103?
Colin Philpott has often wondered about these questions. With a large part of his life spent working in the media, the former head of BBC Yorkshire’s new book goes behind the headlines to look at the places defined by an event.
“When I was a reporter I enjoyed doing feature pieces where I would go back to scenes of big news events to find out what happened afterwards, “ says Philpott. “About two years ago I sat down and started making a list of places that would be good to go back to and started approaching people.”
Those initial approaches soon revealed Philpott’s idea had legs. When a place hits the headlines it somehow burns itself into our collective consciousness, but for the people who live there, their lives go on when the story is over.
“I was a journalist for 25 years, that’s what it still says on my passport and it always struck me as a little strange that when these big stories happen, the caravan descends on a town and we all become experts on that place very quickly,” says Philpott. “On a couple of occasions I got to know the people involved quite closely and so I got the chance to go back and return to the place as a non-journalist.
“There was one particular story I covered in 1984, the Abbeystead disaster, when a methane gas explosion destroyed a waterworks in a town in North Lancashire. There were visitors inside at the time and eight were killed immediately. I got to know a lot of the families who were affected and was invited to an annual dinner in the village. Stories like that remind me of what Ed Stourton says in the book’s introduction – that news happens to real people in real places, not just on the television.”
Philpott’s book, A Place in History: Britain’s headline news stories remembered, is published this month by Ammonite Press.
Packed with some of the most significant stories to have appeared in our newspapers over the past century, it uses spectacular photographs to convey the stories that at one time gripped us all.
“Since I was young I have had a fascination with places and their history,” he says. “I used to stare at buildings and wonder what used to be standing there before. I think we’re all a little bit nosey about the past.”
As though to demonstrate this point, the book opens in 1936, on November 30 at The Crystal Palace. As Philpott says in the book: “It is hard to think of a place where – even 75 years and more since it was destroyed in one of the most spectacular peacetime fires in Britain – the ghosts of a building live on so powerfully.”
In the book Philpott tells the story of the palace, built in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851. On the evening of November 30, 1936, the 600,000 sq ft building caught fire. Despite the efforts of 400 firemen using 89 fire engines, the blaze that was witnessed by an estimated 100,000 people razed the structure to the ground.
Philpott writes: “By coincidence, the first public television service in Britain provided by the BBC had started exactly four weeks before the fire. The abdication of Edward VIII came 11 days after the fire. These three events together somehow seem, with hindsight, to represent the passing of one age and the beginning of another.”
There is the crux of Philpott’s book. The pages of any newspaper are filled with whatever is important there and then, but the ripples of those effects can become a tidal wave.
Disasters like the Hillsborough tragedy, are the focus of attention in all the day’s newspapers – until the next big event. Yet today the after-effects continue to unfold. Philpott’s book returns to the epicentre of the tragedies and examines the situations that put them on the national stage in the first place.
One such tragedy is Aberfan. Most won’t be able to hear the name of the little village in Merthyr Tydfil without thinking of the disater that killed 144, including 116 schoolchildren.
It was in 1966 on October 21 at around 9.15am when a colliery waste-tip came crashing down on the Pantglas Junior School. Even though it happened over four decades ago, for many the memories, many of which were created by the powerful media coverage, are as strong as ever.
“Most of these stories seem to dull over the passage of time, but that hasn’t seemed to happen with Aberfan,” says Philpott.
“One of my first news memories was Aberfan. It was one of the first major disasters that was covered by the television age, which is one of the reasons it had such an enormous impact. It one of those very clear moments where a story and a place moves from current affairs to history.”
Philpott, who left the BBC to become head of Bradford’s National Media Museum in 2004, stepped down earlier this year to concentrate on projects, including his book. He has spent much of the year revisiting places touched by these stories.
“As a journalist you tend to sit outside of the story, you have to in order to report what is happening objectively, to do your job,” he says. “Going back to places and seeing the effect is incredibly moving. Somewhere like Hillsborough, for example. It is still incredibly raw, the people of the place still feel the tragedy that put it centre-stage for a little while, even today.”
Although tragedy does figure in the book, there is also triumph – he visits the Iffley Road Running Track, where Roger Bannister broke the four-minute-mile in 1954 and the site of the first Harry Ramsden’s Fish and Chip Shop.
There are also chapters on the first Butlin’s resort at Skegness, and the Scarborough Hotel Landslide in 1993.
“For several days in June 1993, the country – indeed the world – was gripped by the drama of a hotel perched on a cliff above Scarborough slipping into the sea,” writes Philpott.“Newsdesks everywhere loved the pictures and for many local people, this epitomised Scarborough’s slow slide from its former splendour as a premier seaside resort.”
The book also contains elements of the bizarre – like the Case of the Snail in the Bottle.
“This was one of those stories that show how something that appears in the newspapers one day, isn’t necessarily forgotten the next – in fact, it can have ramifications for a very, very long time afterwards,” says Philpott, who narrows the eye of that particular storm to the “corner of Mellweadow Street and Lady Lane, Paisley”.
On August 26, 1928, May Donoghue ordered a drink in a café and discovered inside the bottle a decomposing snail. She developed gastroenteritis and want on to claim £500 in damages.
What was significant about the story, was that Donoghue sued the manufacturer. A four-year court case eventually found in Donoghue’s favour and, for the first time, someone claimed damages against a manufacturer over an item they had bought.
It was such a landmark case that, in May this year an international conference was held in Paisley on the 80th anniversary of the ruling, to discuss its significance.
“Never before has journalism been under such scrutiny and the behaviour of reporters held up to question,” says Philpott.
“Journalists are seen as being callous, dropping in, getting the story and moving on.
“This book examines why they have to be like that, to be able to report the story objectively and dispassionately – to do the job – but it also examines what happens to those places after and shows why it is important to have journalists there recording what will go down in history.”
A Place in History: Britain’s Headline News Stories Remembered, published by Ammonite, is available now, priced £14.99.