The old Ely Paper Mill site was filled with the ghosts of former workers when a guerilla exhibition took place yesterday.
Photography student, Jon Hancock of the University of Wolverhampton, held his exhibition, entitled Encountering the Past, on the old site which sought to bring back a sense of belonging to the Paper Mill.
Ely Paper Mill was founded in 1865 and was a reliable source of income for the local economy and provided jobs for many Ely residents.
The Mill closed in 1999 resulting in a loss of 460 jobs. The site was subsequently knocked down and flattened, removing all trace of the Mill’s history.
Mr Hancock, through his exhibition, brought back the voices of ex-workers to the site as recorded interviews played over speakers. The sound installation reverberated amongst a living room scene, with a sofa, armchair, and dining table standing isolated in the 50-acre flattened concrete site.
This scene represented the living rooms of Paper Mill workers. The cracked plate on the dining table and the fragments of furniture signified the broken homes created as a result of the factory’s closure. The paper tablecloth embodies the last relic of a forgotten industry.
Mr Hancock, originally from Ely said: “The idea of the project came together from memories of the community. Space connects to memories for me and landscape can trigger thought and reminiscences.
“I was born in Ely and moved away when I was 18. When I came back here after the Air Force the mill was gone, completely flattened. It was this sense of loss I wanted to convey.”
Mr Hancock highlighted the exhibition’s comment on today’s society under recession and harsh economic climate. He said: “The exhibition is about the economy, the loss of a place of work and the affect it can have on a person. I was unemployed for a while and it left me climbing up the walls.
“The economy and industry are very much a part of my heart because it keeps families together. People normally don’t enjoy work but miss the companionship and sense of purpose when it is taken away.”
The interviews conducted with former workers form Ely paper Mill had a specter like quality and evoked a melancholic atmosphere of memories and loss.
One of these interviews told the story of a woman called Eileen who started working at the Paper Mill in 1940 when she was 18 years old. She worked in the main office as a secretary and her duties included typing and taking down notes in shorthand. She said: “This was a long long time before computers.”
Eileen remembered a jovial incident which happened to her at the Paper Mill. She said: “ I was only a young girl when I started working there and I was incredibly shy. All the men would cue for their pay at the end of the week and I would have to walk past them on my way to the office.
“One day I walked past and felt a tap on my shoulder. I refused to look behind me because I was so shy. One of the men looked at me and said ‘The boss wants to speak to you love’, I looked around and the boss was behind me. I was so embarrassed.”
In another interview, a man from Ely reminisced about the Mill’s relationship with the local community. He said: “In Ely we had the Paper Mill and the Ely Brewery. When we were boys we used to go down by Thomas Owens’s Mill, as it was known then, and used to stand on the railways looking down over the town.
“The Paper Mill was a big part of the community in Ely. Anything they didn’t need or have use for was given to local people. They would then use the paper to make tablecloths or use it to draw on. People could find all kinds of uses for paper.”
It was announced in November 2011 the Welsh Assembly Government are to invest £5m this financial year and a further £1m next year, to develop affordable and market housing on the Paper Mill site. The project will develop housing on the site for the next four to five years and will create up to 200 jobs per year.
Commenting on the promise of rejuvenation to the site, Mr Hancock said: “The sunset is not the end and we know it comes up again tomorrow. The land will evolve and people will go on but the memories here will remain forever.”