Take the tram north from Blackpool and eventually you reach Fleetwood, its smaller, sleepier neighbour in Lancashire. Few have cause to make the trip today. The town lingers in the national consciousness on account of its overachieving football team, Fleetwood Town, and its biggest employer, Fisherman’s Friend – manufacturer of the eye-wateringly strong menthol throat lozenges.
There is an irony about the latter: Fleetwood was once the third biggest fishing port in Britain but, as with dozens of northern towns, the particular industry that housed its identity has all but disappeared.
Some of Fleetwood’s neighbourhoods are among the most deprived in Britain. Where once a third of its population of 250,000 were employed in fishing, no full-time trawlermen remain (some think the decline of the industry in part inspired the town’s overwhelming vote for Brexit). Irish Sea ferries no longer call at its port, which looms over handsome Victorian terraces.
The town’s Grade II-listed Customs House, meanwhile, has become a museum. And former deep-sea fishermen volunteer in the galleries, which trace the town’s history from a planned settlement built by Victorian philanthropy to a maritime powerhouse.
But for how much longer? In 2016, Lancashire County Council (LCC) withdrew funding from five museums; Fleetwood Museum is the only one still open to the public. Where once the council paid for five full-time staff, now the volunteer-run museum trust has just one. Across the north of England and the Midlands, the picture is similarly bleak: more than 20 museums have closed since 2010. Others have been forced to cut their opening hours or limit access to pre-booked school groups.
Fleetwood has managed, by sheer force of will, to buck the trend. “There were always times when we thought having to close might be the case,” Dick Gillingham, a retired geography teacher who chairs the museum’s friends, said. “But the cuts galvanised people. You don’t want to down tools and accept that’s the way it is. We were prepared to fight. The town’s story is unique and it’s worth telling – and it’s worth people coming to hear it.”
More than 200 paying friends, of whom as many as 60 volunteer regularly, fill the gap left by the local authority. When we met in its café Keith Porter, a former coal merchant and chair of the museum’s trust, joked of having to “lasso” first-time visitors to keep the place running.
Porter said that his living room, piled high with paperwork, was a testament to the administrative burden of the job that he and his wife, retired bank clerk Sue, had taken on. He conceded that it could be a struggle but said it was worth it. “There are a lot of people who want to see Fleetwood’s history survive,” he told me. “How can you tell them about today if you don’t tell them about yesterday? That’s why this place is so important.”
Dick Gillingham, the former geography teacher, agreed. “One generation on, and the likelihood is that the majority of people in the town won’t remember deep-sea fishing. For us, it was an essential part of our lives, but it went, and it really hit the town hard. The museum is one of the only places where people can still experience that history.”
On the Thursday afternoon I visited, the museum was quiet, with shoppers drifting in and out; earlier, local schoolchildren had visited for a lively session on the town’s Victorian history. More than a thousand pupils were booked in for the coming month. And like many museums in the age of austerity, Fleetwood has diversified and the building has become a community hub: local groups use its spaces for events and the café does brisk trade.
There are problems. In one room, where a guestbook bearing the autograph of George Formby took pride of place, water leaked from the ceiling into a bucket – repairing the roof will be another job for an unlucky volunteer. But the museum’s lovingly tended exhibits and dedicated volunteers tell an important story that would otherwise be lost.
Questions remain over the long-term viability of volunteer-led museums (which are run to a disproportionate extent by retired people). Gillingham, who is 70, has been working unpaid 40-hour weeks: he said it would “absolutely” be much easier if the council stepped back in.
Other communities in Lancashire, similarly affected by post-industrial identity crises, have not been so lucky. Two museums devoted to the textile industry that made Burnley famous have been shut for two years. LCC is planning to reopen them for three days a week, however.
The Museum of Lancashire, in Preston, cost £1.7m to refurbish in 2011 but now only opens for pre-arranged school visits. Money might have been saved by that decision – the council still has to pay to maintain the mothballed collections – but closing museums has severed valuable links to the past in deprived communities.
Local museums in post-industrial towns “are one of the few ways in which ordinary people can have a dialogue with the past and work out their place in modern Britain,” Jack Southern, a public historian at the University of Central Lancashire, said. “Places like Fleetwood and Burnley have been through tough economic times, and museums can be a vital expression of their story.”
Can they survive with only minimal professional input? Southern said that austerity had resulted in “enthusiastic amateur historians… stepping into the breach in place of professional roles”.
But they are, in the main, only having to do so in smaller and provincial towns. Spending on museums by central and local government fell by 13 per cent between 2007 and 2017, but the high-profile museums and galleries in London and other big cities have the security of direct government grants.
Gillingham accepted that things will always “be a little bit precarious”. But for now, Fleetwood’s volunteers are keeping the flame alive.
This article appears in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman