Environment & Animals

People Power and Water Politics

In 1622, the town of Kingston-Upon-Hull submitted a petition to King Charles I. In it, urban governors outlined the watery hazards faced by the town, namely that it stood ‘upon the dangerous river of Humber, being a great and very forcible Arm of the Sea’. Like flooded communities in Britain today, they were concerned with questions of who would pay for flood defence and damage, asking the King to compensate them for the additional costs of living with the river. This petition is just one of many that document how water was managed in historic Hull, a port town on the edge of the stormy North Sea. It illuminates how citizens exerted influence and agency in order to protect their homes and livelihoods. Exploring the participatory nature of water politics in the past can be a powerful tool for empowering local action and engagement in flood risk today.

Petition submitted by the town corporation of Hull to the King in 1622 asking for financial assistance in managing flood risk: Hull History Centre, Bench Books, C BRB/3, p. 55, reproduced with permission.

In June 2023, our project – Risky Cities – held a participatory workshop ‘Watery Archives: uncovering Hull’s flood histories’ at the Hull History Centre. This event placed academics, archivists, and artists in dialogue with community participants to facilitate the exchange of knowledge across Hull’s past and present. The workshop pivoted around the exploration of watery petitions, past and present, provoking creative and activist responses from participants to this historic material. It demonstrated the power of bringing the past into dialogue with local communities’ experiences and concerns about growing flood risks today. 

Exploring Hull’s Flood Histories

Hull has a long history of living with, and alongside water. It is a town born of flood. The area was settled after a high-impact flood event changed the course of the River Hull in the thirteenth century. Flooding has shaped the city’s geography, governance and local memory: from those in recent memory such as the huge 2007 floods which caused damage to over 7,000 houses all the way back to a major flood event in 1646-47. This is a pressing issue: in a survey from April 2021 of more than 3,000 residents from Hull and the East Riding, 15% had been flooded in the past and 85% agreed that flood risk is going to get worse with climate change.

Building upon Hull’s rich watery history, as well as this current need, the Risky Cities project at the University of Hull aims to increase flood resilience and climate consciousness across the city.  Using historic documents like petitions, maps and newspaper sources, we reconstructed a timeline of flood events. This research doesn’t just offer insights into the past; we believe these offer ‘learning histories’ for people in the present which can inform action in the future. When discussed in workshops with local residents, these histories spark conversations about their own memories and experiences of flood in the city, which in turn build our archive of watery stories.

‘Wet feet, warm hearts, strong places’ flood resilience Zine. Photo credit: Risky Cities team.

The Risky Cities project built upon the proven potential of arts-based and creative methods for building anticipatory climate action and knowledge exchange. Participants, artists and the team co-created the ‘Follow the Thread’ textile exhibition which used stitched and woven textiles to depict people’s own water histories. Then, the ‘Flow of Words’ sharings mobilised Hull’s lively arts community to respond to creative writing pieces produced in multigenerational workshops around the city. Both of these expressive projects came together with new mixed media art to form the project’s ‘Wet Feet, Warm Hearts, Strong Places’ flood resilience zine.

Led by community members’ desire to have more opportunities to encounter historical documents, we designed the ‘Watery Archives’ workshop. We used early modern petitions because these documents, with their persuasive, emotive and often personal language, give a sense of immediacy despite their age. Petitions are also a format that remains relevant and familiar today, particularly with the rise of e-petitioning which has been used, for example, to lobby the government to install more water butts and ban the sale of artificial grass for climate and flood resilience.

Knowledge sharing and creativity during the ‘Watery Archives’ workshop. Photo credit: Risky Cities team.

Petitions – Past and Present

Historical petitions could be collaborative, participatory, and populist. They were a means for ordinary people to address their grievances to authority, from the monarch to a local administrator. In early modern England, women, children, the non-literate, and the non-elite submitted petitions. England’s local record offices are filled with the traces of their voices that might otherwise be lost. Some petitions contain the signatures of hundreds of petitioners, others just the mark of one. However, the main text was not written by the petitioner (other than in rare exceptions) and the content would almost certainly have been co-produced alongside a lawyer or other local advisor. Petitions were collaborative documents that have the social structures and norms of early modern England embedded within them.

From the nineteenth century to today petitions have continued to be a useful way for people to engage with democracy. A recent Hansard Society Audit of Political Engagement found that, other than voting, the public was more likely to sign a petition than to engage in any other form of democratic activity. Crowdsourcing signatures for petitions has long been a tactic of petitioners past and present, but the internet has made this a far more representative tool.

Since 2015, the government has allowed any individual to submit a petition to its Petitions Committee providing that it meets certain criteria. (If you are interested in those petitions which didn’t meet these criteria, then ‘Rejected Petitions Bot’ on Twitter showcases them.) Then, depending on how many signatures a petition obtains, it could receive a direct response from the government or be scheduled for debate in Parliament. Researchers at LSE have argued that in general this form of petitioning, whilst incredibly successful at generating widespread engagement through participating in democracy, is not all that effective at influencing actual Parliamentary policy. Nevertheless, petitions remain an accessible means of addressing authority today and their collaborative and democratic nature has enduring appeal.

Watery Archives – Community Petitions

Our workshop sought to harness the power of petitioning, drawing threads from the past into the present. Hull’s flood histories show how residents of the town have always been engaged in water management. Drawing on this history, participants in the workshop were armed with paper, pens, blank e-petitioning templates and some local policy documents on flooding. We invited them to make their own interventions in the political landscape of flooding today.

One participant spent the session walking round the room to gather up as many signatures as possible on her historically-inspired petition which wrote ‘that they [the citizens of Kingston Upon Hull] will no longer contribute to the taxation levies until their voices are heard!!’. Another asked that the Government ‘Do not build housing on Flood Plains. Our drains have been filled in and if the Humber overflows, where will the flood water go?’ These present-day water petitioners shared their knowledge of measures that can reduce flood risk, like adequate drainage, as well as engagement with current watery issues such as water companies putting sewage into the water supply.

The discussions that took place while the petitions were being written showed a desire to shape meaningful change in the ways in which the people of Hull manage their environment. These collaborative conversations, where ideas were shared and priorities stated, perhaps give a hint of the types of conversations that took place when historic petitions were being crafted. Most early modern petitions would have been read aloud in the court to which they were submitted and so at the end of our session participants likewise ‘performed’ their petitions to the room. Thus, we demonstrated that petitioning is an embodied experience with the potential to create shared communities of knowledge and action.

Petition produced by a participant during the Watery Archives workshop. Photo credit: Risky Cities team.

Our approach to ‘learning histories’  – participatory activity drawing on historical archives and stories – is an important way to enhance local engagement with climate issues. Investigating flood petitioning illuminates how people in the past expressed and articulated environmental concerns to those in power. Making these documents accessible and showing how they remain relevant today can galvanize community action on pressing issues of environmental concern.  Encouraging local people to engage with policy decisions that affect them – and inviting their direct participation, which includes drawing on their knowledge and experiences – can be a powerful tool for change.  Our experience has shown that bringing a historical dimension to this process adds even more power to urgent climate conversations and action within communities most at risk today.

Feature image credit: Louis Dorton, 2023.

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