This post was written by Chris Corbett, Community Engagement Officer at Teesside Archives. This is part of a series of posts on the theme of Environmental History for History Day 2021.
Climate change, species extinction, plastic pollution, habitat degradation; these are just some of the issues faced by the natural world as the impact of people gathers pace and we turn to ourselves and our leaders to make useful and constructive decisions towards a more sustainable future. The role of archives, museums and libraries in this debate has never been more critical, as they often hold vital information from the past that helps us to make sense of the present and plan for the future. The records held at the Teesside Archives are no exception and it is interesting to find that some useful data is kept in the most unexpected of places. For example, the archives holds an important Imperial Chemicals Industry collection in which weather data is meticulously measured and recorded in relation to trials and experiments looking at the most efficient use of agricultural fertilisers while a look at Hartlepool Heugh Lighthouse logbooks held in the Hartlepool Port and Harbour Commissioners collection reveal wind speed and direction records from 1911 to 1924 and general weather observations from 1923 to 1934. Smaller data sets can give skewed results and are less reliable as sources of long term trends but it is still interesting to compare the wind speeds experienced at the time they were written to see how our increasingly chaotic and unseasonal weather systems compare.
One of the most relevant collections for comparing past and present is a series of oral history recordings made over 10 years ago as part of the ‘Where the Wild Things Were’ project (from which the title of this blog originates), delivered by the Tees Valley Wildlife Trust. The project set out to record people’s memories of their childhoods, focusing in particular on the free-range experiences that were so common back in the 1950’s and 60’s but seem less accessible now. Memories and reminiscences have helped to plot where particular species were found, such as slow worms, red squirrels and wild flowers, helping to show the longer-term decline in biodiversity and changes in distribution due to climate change. If we know what was there before, there’s always the chance that we can make room for it once more.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom because there have been some winners in this battle, as shown in the wonderful records of the Teesmouth Bird Club and the Cleveland Naturalists Field Club which in the case of the latter organisation, date back to the club’s inception in 1881. We owe much to the men and women of these local clubs for their attention to detail and fervent record keeping which have created a wealth of data and information in both sets of records. We find the arrival dates of spring migrant birds in Albert Park in Middlesbrough from past decades, which can help show how spring is edging forward through the study of phenology. The former scarcity of the red admiral and speckled wood butterflies was noted whereas now, these and other invertebrate species are common throughout the region. I would love to have been the birdwatcher whose sighting of a little egret at Coatham Marsh near Redcar on 27th May 1967 turned out to be the first ever sighting for Teesmouth and the first for Yorkshire since 1840! Today, this small white version of our grey heron is spotted regularly on urban becks and bodies of water throughout the Teesside area and even breeds locally, a lovely addition to our area’s avifauna and probably a sign of climate change at work.