Written by Cora Glasser
Artist and Co-founder of Glassball
3rd August 2018

The journey began in in 2013 with a successful application to the Heritage Lottery Fund, to recognise and explore the social photographic history of a former new town in the north west of England called Skelmersdale.


The project began as a way to capture the history of the former new town by creating a new collection of material containing photographs, films and recorded oral interviews. This was in response to finding no cohesive collection in which the town shared its own story. Its identity was not being recognised or included in the wider national new town debate, let alone being valued locally.


How long does it take for a town to become a community? How many generations of families does it take for a community to emerge? These questions were integral to this project. In 2011 the town reached its 50th anniversary since the original new town designation in 1961. We wanted to use the town’s recent anniversary as a starting point to discuss with the local community, their experiences of living and working in Skelmersdale during the past 50 years, how the town has changed, how communities have emerged or disappeared. The town is on the cusp of major infrastructure change, with many developments planned that will alter the original designs of the new town as laid out by the architects and urban planners within the original Skelmersdale Development Corporation (SDC).


The project involved working in the town for two years, building relationships and trust with local residents and businesses. Many events were held, from pop-up exhibition spaces in the local shopping centre, to photo walks, archive trips, volunteer training, to creative writing performances in the local library. Along the way lots of energetic and meaningful conversations were held.


A great moment in the project was during a trip to Lancashire Archives in Preston. In many filling cabinets were thousands of glass slides from the original SDC collection, that had been deposited with the archives back in 1982. The glass slides covered the development of the former new town from the surveys before the ground was broke, right up to when the Corporation closed. They were truly a photographic journey through the towns beginnings, adolescence and adulthood. We had to begin scanning.


For me as an artist working on a project like this encapsulated Glassball’s approach to participatory creative heritage delivery. It provided people with the opportunity to explore and interpret their historical identity through creative activities. It created a legacy of collaboration and multi-agency partnership that was to continue into a new ways of working and future opportunities, which I’ll explain later on. But more importantly, it gave the residents of the town an opportunity to share their voice through the pictures they had been taking over the past 50 years. Difficult questions began to emerge, ‘why has our town changed?’, ‘why does it look like it does now?’, but out of this we found a resounding message of hope.


The results of the project is a new photographic archive for the former new town (, where anyone can contribute, and still do so, a 196 page hard backed book and an exhibition of prints in the local library (which was only temporarily installed but have been requested to remain in situ for the foreseeable future). During the book launch, Paul Farley (who wrote an essay for the publication) read to a packed library and gave those present a chance to hear how pictures of their town is a form of intimate time-travel.

Prints of Skelmersdale Development Corporation.


I look at the pictures from Skelmersdale, the light arriving from a distant place. I recognise this landscape. I’m familiar with these buildings, these raised walkways and underpasses, these precincts and benches and lamp-posts, these lines of newly laid flagstones receding to vanishing points in hard black-and-white, that green swathe that softens and gathers and stands its ground above the town. I know that cerulean sky above the Nye Bevan Pool. I’m familiar with the colour balance and cast of the images themselves, formed by dye processes in printing machines long gone for scrap, which once stood behind the counters of chemist shops in places like the Concourse. I’m standing outside Oscars cinema, in stark monochrome daylight (they’re showing The Poseidon Adventure, so this is sometime around 1973). Now I’m standing outside the same cinema, which has changed its name to the Focus, in a blue twilight, its neon running into a pool on the rainy pavement (they’re showing Steptoe and Son, so this is still sometime around 1973). Prams are parked in front of Sayers, the futuristic sans serif type of the high street bakery somehow at odds with headscarves and old school perambulators, and I recognise a clash of registers typical of this alchemic, volatile period, when the world went from black-and-white into colour. The Spar is offering 3p off Swiss rolls, and the 44D bus to the Pier Head declares, in livery approaching the psychedelic, that Skelmersdale New Town is ‘a good place to live’. Saplings stand in their wire cages as children walk and skip through the geometric newness of it all, and I can almost smell the fresh paint and broken earth and planed timber and putty. I’m familiar with all of this, even though I’m looking at it now from a long way off. I’ve never lived here, but this is an intimate form of time travel. It feels like going home.” Extract from ‘Planet Skem’ by Paul Farley, Writer & Broadcaster.

Does architecture resonate a sound? Would we understand it?

Following the project, conversations continued with local residents and Lancashire Archives to explore our newly formed dialogue and to try and answer the many questions the original project uncovered. Successful funding bids to Arts Council England and Lancashire County Council has provided us the opportunity to expand our socially engaged work in the area and collaborate with more artists who have a connection with the town.


Building on our creative heritage activities from the previous project, ILLUME is now underway in the town, working closely with Lancashire Archives (after they kindly donated 5000 unseen glass slides to the project) along with residents of the town, who are engaging with us to explore the creation of temporary and permanent pieces of public art across the town. From painting performances, to restored sections of the townscape inspired by an archive image, to a town wide audio installation, these new artworks aim to stimulate a positive conversation between the towns past and its future, being deeply rooted in archival imagery. And we are still scanning.

You can find more information on the project at

Cora is an artist and co-founder of Glassball, an interdisciplinary arts practice that over the past 17 years has been engaging in site-responsive creative heritage projects nationally.