Updated story: Historians have criticised Greenwich’s latest attempt to become the London Borough of Culture after residents were asked to submit their family stories to help the bid.
The council says that its third attempt at winning the prize will “have the people that have made Greenwich their home at its heart”.
But it has been harder for residents to research their family stories since the Greenwich Heritage Centre, in Woolwich, closed suddenly five years ago. The archives are now in an industrial unit in Charlton with limited access for researchers, with their long-term future uncertain.
The Greenwich Historical Society said that the council leader, Anthony Okereke, had not responded to their emails for over a year asking for discussions on the future of the archive.
To add insult to injury for the historians, the new borough of culture bid was launched at Woolwich Works, the £45m arts centre which replaced the Greenwich Heritage Centre in the Royal Arsenal and has been bailed out twice by the council since it opened two years ago.
The borough of culture award is worth £1.35 million in City Hall cash, which is used to put on a year of events. Lewisham held the honour last year.
Anthony Cross, the president of the society, said that the troubled venue had been chosen with “no hint of irony or shame”.
He added: “Greenwich has the dubious distinction of offering the worst archive service of any borough in London, a situation that fully exposes the harsh reality of Greenwich Council’s appallingly indifferent and negligent commitment to the borough’s history and heritage.”
The Greenwich Heritage Centre closed in July 2018, only 15 years after it opened, bringing together the borough archive and museum under one roof. Residents and visitors could come in and browse the collections without an appointment. In 2014 it was spun off into the Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust, which still runs the archive today.
The centre was originally due to move back to the Arsenal by the end of this decade, but the building earmarked for its use was taken over by the immersive theatre company Punchdrunk and its future is uncertain. Its temporary home at Anchorage Point, on the Charlton riverside, faces long-term redevelopment, although plans to build a school nearby have been scrapped.
Cross said that the archive “remained out of sight with no public access in a poorly-located industrial unit perilously close to the River Thames”.
He said in his letter to Okereke that the Borough Hall in west Greenwich – on the market after a plan to lease it to a theatre company collapsed – should be considered as a new home for the heritage centre.
“The archives are a resource for the whole community as well as for all those who are concerned to discover aspects of the history of Greenwich and its people,” he said. “They provide a vital resource for all who are engaged in ongoing planning and development issues. But they are inaccessible.
“This failure to fulfil a basic responsibility in running a local history archive – making it available to the public – seems to us to represent a dereliction of duty reflecting very badly on the trust and on the council”.
“Now that the sale of the Borough Hall has fallen through we wonder whether that might be considered as a potential new home for the archives, given its accessible location with good transport links, bringing back to life a modernist building of great architectural merit as a hub for the exploration of social and planning history with great educational potential.”
Cross, whose letter was also signed by leading members of the society, said that he had also had no response from Greenwich & Woolwich MP Matt Pennycook, London Assembly member Len Duvall – who chairs the heritage trust – and a number of Greenwich councillors when they were copied into the list.
Both Pennycook and Duvall said they had believed they had been copied into the email so they were aware of the issue, rather than being expected to respond.
Duvall added: “Since the move from the Royal Arsenal, we have been very clear on the level of services that we are able to provide on behalf of the borough to the residents of Greenwich.
“While Greenwich is not the only borough to operate primary access to the archive via an enquiry service, our team is actively considering several options to provide a reading room to the public. We do not have a solution to announce at this time, but in the meantime the archive is cared for and catalogued in a museum-standard facility in Lower Charlton.
“This was a condition set to the council by the trust when the archive and museum collections were moved from Woolwich. We appreciate the patience and understanding that local researchers have shown, and the hard work our archivist has put into ensuring all enquiries receive timely, complete responses, including scans of documents.”
A Greenwich Council spokesperson said: “The council has acknowledged the letters written by Greenwich Historical Society regarding the borough archives, apologises for the delay in a response, and will be seeking to meet them soon.
“The archives are accessible through Royal Greenwich Heritage Trust, who continue to help an average of 77 researchers access the information they require per month.”
The spokesperson added: “The whole of the culture sector has been affected by the pandemic and cost of living crisis, so we are bidding for London Borough of Culture to support our creative organisations, celebrate the collective identities of Greenwich residents, boost our local arts and culture economy, and provide an even richer cultural offering for future generations.
“If successful, millions of pounds will be invested into the borough and its culture sector, and there will be a lasting legacy of jobs, infrastructure and learning and mentoring opportunities for years to come.”
Asked to clarify where “millions of pounds” would come from if the City Hall grant was only £1.35 million, the spokesperson later added: “If the Royal Borough of Greenwich were to be successful in its bid, the Greater London Authority would award £1.35 million. The council would then need to provide a match of £405,000 – of which about 50% will come from existing funds/grants.
“There would then likely be significant investment into the borough from increased tourism, newly created jobs, the ability to apply for other grants, and the boost in Greenwich’s status as a hub for culture.”
Waltham Forest was the first borough of culture in 2019, followed by Brent in 2020. Greenwich has lost out in both rounds of bids, with Adel Khaireh, the cabinet member for culture, saying in July that its “Royal Greenwich” status had counted against it, overshadowing other communities in the borough.
Last year Lewisham turned the Albany theatre in Deptford into a beach, hosted Luke Jerram’s Gaia artwork in a park in Catford and put on a winter lights show in Beckenham Place Park. It said earlier this year that 436,000 people attended or took part in nearly 700 events, with events paid for by £4 million of grants.
Updated at 2.25pm on Wednesday to add a follow-up quote from the council on where “millions of pounds of investment” would actually come from.