We visit The Sparrows' Nest, an archive of activism, anarchy and radical history spanning over fifty years

Words: CJ DeBarra
Photos: Dani Bacon
Thursday 09 May 2024
reading time: min, words

It’s often the places you least expect that can lead you into a treasure trove of forgotten secrets and hidden gems. This is true of The Sparrows’ Nest, which recently celebrated fifteen years. Disguised as a regular house in the middle of St Ann’s, it houses an incredible collection of flyers, books, leaflets and most importantly, local press and zines centred around activism, anarchy and radical history spanning over fifty years.

Sparrows Nest 1

The Sparrows’ Nest is arguably unlike many archives in existence in that it is incredibly accessible. So much so that most of the material can be viewed online through their website. No need to sit in a cold room, wearing gloves, weighing boxes or only using pencils to view materials. The team has dedicated hours to digitalising material so that you need not even leave the house to leave this decade and lose yourself in whatever year you choose.

Claire Lucy Taylor is a member of the Sparrows’ Nest collective. She explains how things got started in December 2008. “The Sparrows’ Nest is a library and archive project. We look after materials documenting the history of anarchism in the UK and beyond, as well as local radical history,” she said.

“We were set up in December 2008 by a small group of locals who got the idea after visiting similar places on the continent. We started out with collections of books, pamphlets, newspapers and leaflets donated by people who had for decades been involved in all sorts of struggles and campaigns, and things grew from there.”

The collections are extensive and span far beyond the LGBT+ archive. For example, the team have painstakingly digitised 2070 copies of the London-based anarchist newspaper Freedom. They also have a large anti-poll tax collection which documents grassroots local campaigns from 1989. Their dedication to documenting the anarchist, grassroots and activist work has provided a treasure trove for historians, academics and book writers from across Nottingham.

“The vast majority are pre-digital print items, including rare books, artwork, and unpublished archival materials such as letters and diaries. But the Nest is best known for our curation and digitisation of collections of periodicals and one-off publications, journals, papers, pamphlets, leaflets, posters, DIY guides, directories and suchlike, including a lot of comics and fanzines,” Claire said.

“They feature hundreds of thousands of pages of articles, photographs, drawings, graphics, collages or poetry. We also look after banners, badges, posters, and oddities including a terrifying papier-mâché mask of Margaret Thatcher! The materials originate from all around the world, finding their way to us out of the attics and cellars, or sometimes from under the beds of people all over the country.”

She added: “Many of the materials were only ever produced in small numbers and are now rather rare or even unique, with most copies having long ended up in a bin. Every time a box of items arrives it is quite exciting what we will find. One day it will be hand-printed posters promoting London Pride 1979, the next there might be a local anti-fascist school zine put together over four decades back, or leaflets promoting anti-poll tax benefit gigs, sitting on top of a copy of an anarchist journal from 1970s Japan.”

There has never been a better time to get stuck into reading the past. After all, if we don’t learn from the past, are we not doomed to repeat it? It certainly feels that way in viewing local queer press and zines made in the 80s that detail Section 28 and the HIV/AIDS crisis and, well, Thatcher in general. It’s hard not to draw parallels between COVID-19, anti-transgender rhetoric and, well, the Tories in general.

We look after banners, badges, posters, and oddities including a terrifying papier-mâché mask of Margaret Thatcher! The materials originate from all around the world, finding their way to us out of the attics and cellars, or sometimes from under the beds of people all over the country.

Making sure that grassroots voices are kept alive and loud is political work in itself. It often provides the stories and struggles that we don’t hear a lot about. Many smaller cities and those outside London are left to lose their alternative histories because no one thinks to document them.

“Such documents allow us to remember and learn about people’s lives, as well as the struggles they were involved in and fought in their workplaces, their private lives and in the streets. These materials can easily be lost forever, and the history with them,” Claire said.

“Preserving these items is also practical political work, providing people with opportunities to learn from past struggles, not only to further an understanding of the world we live in today but also to fight better in the here and now.

“There is for instance a lot to learn from the local pioneers of LGBTQ+ liberation that can aid the fight against transphobia in 2024. Or as people defend what is left of public services, they do not have to reinvent the wheel but can draw on materials produced by campaigners organising similar struggles decades ago. Even though folks communicated using telephones and letters back in the day, many of their documents can provide inspiration and practical advice on how to engage in direct action, practical solidarity and mutual aid today.”

There is a lot to be proud of in not just saving thousands of important documents but also in making them accessible to future generations. This ensures that many will be able to see their own history.

“Having been able to build up such rich collections. We have over 18,000 records on the catalogue and 7,800 items available in our free digital library, comprising some 128,000 scanned pages, accessible without a paywall or the need to register,” Claire said.

“But it is of course very important to never forget that we would not be here if it wasn’t for so many lovely people supporting us. Without all their generous donations of materials, time and money, there would be no Sparrows’ Nest. People’s interest in our work, their use of it, turning up at events and stalls, making research enquiries, plugging us into their networks, and all their kind words, keep us motivated.”

This year promises to be one of the most exciting yet for the archive with the launch of their new exhibition Under The Rainbow, at Broadway Cinema’s gallery space on Heathcoat Street. The exhibition will include a collection by local LGBT+ activist, newspaper producer and author Chris Richardson, who passed away in 2020 and donated an extensive collection spanning decades to Sparrows’ Nest. This includes his famous, and terrifying, homemade Margaret Thatcher mask and costume.

It will also coincide with the launch of the book, Notts Queer History Volume 1: 1960-1990 by the Notts Queer History Archive. A project that has been collecting oral accounts of queer history across the city for two years. It combines 150 interviews with research and archive materials. The second volume, covering 1990-2020 will be released in February 2025. All of this is just in time for Notts Pride 2024 and right in the middle of the action in Hockley.

There will also be a chance to go on a guided history walk on Sunday 28 July and the 4 of August. It’s free to take part in and anyone looking to go for a stroll down memory lane should meet at the left lion in Market Square from 2pm. Photographs from local photographer Alan Lodge will also be on display at the exhibition so there is a chance to catch a glimpse of Prides past.

“This year is looking to be busy and exciting. You will also see us at radical events in the city and around the country. A new exhibition is already in the works to coincide with Pride 2024 (we can’t wait to scare new generations with the Thatcher mask!). We also lined up a field trip across the country to pick up yet another exciting collection,” Claire said.

“We are only the custodians of these materials. Every year we are curious to see what others will do with them. They are accessed by activists, professionals, students and others for writing, reminiscing, inspiration for an art project or just for fun. There is so much to discover. So please, feel free to get in touch, visit by appointment and browse the digital library to your heart’s content.”

Under the Rainbow will open on Thursday 25 of July at Broadway Cinema Gallery on Heathcoat Street. The free exhibition will run until the 4 of August from Midday to 5 pm. Queer Nottingham Vol 1: 1960-1990 will launch on August 1st and will be available to buy from Five Leaves Bookshop.


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