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Cheltenham: Diaspora − researching migration

Cheltenham: Diaspora, a research project conducted by the History Team at the University of Gloucestershire, has questioned the traditional heritage narrative of the town and given voice to under-represented demographic groups living in Cheltenham.

Many people’s understanding of Cheltenham’s history is dominated by its Regency past.

However, the range of diasporas found in the town is extensive, and the research team sought to preserve histories from those voices who lack a presence in the established heritage provision in Cheltenham. The project also aimed to safeguard traditions and practices evident within migrant communities, that might otherwise be left in decline.

The project’s research was predominantly split between archival work and the recording of oral histories. The archival research initially focused on the former Cheltenham Training College (which provided the foundations for the later University of Gloucestershire), exploring the earliest examples of international students at the College, followed by explorations of their life stories following graduation. One former student, Moses Craig Akinpelumi Adeyemi, attended the teacher training college in 1911, and went on to play a major role in the establishment of educational institutions in the city of Oyo, Nigeria.

Extensive research was also carried out at the Gloucestershire Archives, exploring the narratives of ayahs who came from India to live and work in Cheltenham.

During the latter part of the nineteenth century, international links were established between Cheltenham and western Africa, the Caribbean and Thailand. The relatively little-known migration stories that took place during this period feel relatable in a Cheltenham context, as the teaching institution remains a dominant presence in the town.

Other historical elements included the growth of distinct cultural groups in Cheltenham, namely Chinese, Irish and Polish communities; an exploration of the connections between Cheltenham and the East India Company (and the inward migration associated with this enterprise), and the pursuit of Cheltenham-based individuals with international connections (such as Eddie Paris, the Welsh international footballer whose father was from Barbados).

Dr David Howell, Lecturer in History and project lead, University of Gloucestershire said:

“In a cultural climate that is rigid in its perception of what counts as ‘heritage’ and what is deemed as relevant by the most ‘vocal’ local stakeholder groups, we explored the groups of people who have migrated into Cheltenham, seeking to understand the importance and practice of intangible cultural heritage forms within these migrating communities.

“The project completed oral history recordings with Brazilian, Chinese, French, Italian, Polish, South African and Zimbabwean participants. Time was also spent with members of the Cheltenham Hindu, Jewish and Muslim communities, recording the growth of their respective religious institutions in the town. The project also developed links with the Greek community and the members of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church (from Syria).

“Use was also made of social media groups, such as Facebook group ‘South Africans in Gloucestershire’, to interact with diasporic groups in the area.”

Significant contributions were also made by seven undergraduate student researchers, who joined the project as part of the University’s Your Future Plan placement programme.

The Cheltenham: Diaspora project provided significant insights into the nature of migrant demographics in Cheltenham, and produced a range of intangible forms of heritage which are now safeguarded by virtue of their recording as part of this project. A series of public ‘pop-up’ exhibitions have been hosted by cultural centres throughout Cheltenham. In addition, in spring of 2020 the exhibition was digitised and made freely available to the public; an effective means of continuing audience engagement within the context of Covid-19 movement restrictions.

The next challenge for the project team is exploring and identifying further ways in which these heritage narratives can become normalised and grounded in the cultural landscape of Cheltenham.

Find out more about research priorities at the University of Gloucestershire on the website.