Using art to remember the unsung heroes of tragedy

Year 9 students at a secondary school in Bradford will work alongside academics at Leeds Beckett University, the charitable educational organisation Saltaire Stories and a graphic artist to remember the fatal fire at Bradford City’s Valley Parade stadium, on 11th May 1985, where 56 people lost their lives and many hundreds more had their lives changed permanently either by injuries or the loss of loved ones.

At the end of the last school year, researchers at Leeds Beckett University and Saltaire Stories launched a competition, which challenged Year 9 students in Bradford schools to create a piece of artwork or creative writing inspired by the stories of unsung heroism from the Bradford City fire.

The judges unanimously selected the entries by Beckfoot Thornton Academy’s incoming Year 9 students as worthy winners; some of these prize-winning entries are reproduced here.

 

The winning students will take part in a half-day workshop on November 8th with Leeds-based cartoonist, Tom Bailey, to create graphic novel stories that share the tales of unsung heroism from that fateful day. These include supporters, who helped others escape to safety, receiving burns injuries in the process. Members of the British Bangladeshi community, who lived in the streets adjoining Valley Parade stadium, were also described as unsung heroes at the time, with neighbours helping the injured by offering water, tea, blankets and words of comfort despite the threat that the flames posed to their homes. There were also the medical professionals (surgeons, nurses, physiotherapists, and hospital porters), charities, and personal support networks that helped the hundreds of survivors suffering burns injuries in the months and years that followed. A burn injury is for life and, as events such as National Burns Awareness Day this past Wednesday (16th October) remind us, requires years of physical and psychological treatment. This is especially the case after traumatic incidents which require long-term care.

The finished stories will be published in a graphic novel produced for the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project, ‘Forged by Fire: Burns Injury and Identity in Britain, 1800-2000’. The graphic novel also includes real life stories such as that of Geoffrey Page, an officer in the Royal Air Force who was shot down and badly burned during the Battle of Britain, becoming one of the founder members of the world-famous Guinea Pig Club, whose burned bodies were rebuilt by the surgeon Archibald McIndoe at the Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead. It also features the story of Pauline Gough, who suffered a life-changing firework burn injury at the age of seven in 1954 and is today a much loved grandmother. These stories are available for use within schools and other organisations, in West Yorkshire and across the UK, in order to start a discussion around issues related to injury, heroism, identity and survival.

Shane Ewen, Reader in History at Leeds Beckett University and Co-Investigator on this four-year project, was one of the judges of the competition. “Given we are more than thirty years on from the Bradford fire,” Shane comments, “it remains well-known locally to Bradfordians, largely thanks to the annual remembrance services run by the club and the city council, and to the terrific work of the Burns Research Unit at the University of Bradford, which was founded out of donations to the Disaster Appeal Fund. However, it does appear to be less well-known beyond West Yorkshire despite contributing, along with the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, to major changes to the safety of football in grounds up and down the country. We think now is the right time to bring the story to wider attention by giving Beckfoot Thornton’s students the chance to take the lead, and in putting the unsung heroes at the heart of the narrative. In doing so, we hope that this helps serve as a memorial both to the 56 victims of the fire as well as everyone else involved in the tragedy.”

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Saltaire Stories’ Rachel Wood, another of the judges, commended the high standards of the entries and noted that those which came from Beckfoot Thornton stood out as particularly poignant because of the fact that two of its former students, Ashley (16) and Craig (14) Stockman, were among the 56 victims of the disaster. A plaque at the school provides a permanent memorial to the siblings and acts as the focal point to the school’s own annual commemoration ceremony. “This is a fantastic opportunity for these students to hone their creativity and share stories of bravery with new audiences, as well as to remember Ashley and Craig in a respectful manner”, said Rachel.

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Neil Adams, Head of History at Beckfoot Thornton, said, “our Year 9 students are excited at the prospect of writing creatively about historical events. Art and creative writing offer new ways of engaging young people in the history of their local communities. And to do so by sharing stories of unsung heroism during a tragic fire that directly affected the school makes it all the more relevant to our students today.”

The project team will be working with the students at the school next month. The graphic novel stories will then be available in the New Year. Contact Shane Ewen (s.ewen@leedsbeckett.ac.uk) if your organisation would like to use copies in its prevention work.

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