PhDone! Dr Gary Willis

In the latest of our #PhDone series, we caught up with Dr Gary Willis

Dr Willis is an historian of military industrial enclosure in the period following the Second World War. Before starting a PhD, he worked in international development and the trade union movement for nearly thirty years, with organisations including Oxfam, the Disasters Emergency Committee, and Save the Children International. He later gained an MRes in Historical Research from the Institute of Historical Research before joining Bristol, where he was the recipient of a Keil Scholarship. He has an article published in Rural History and you can follow him on X @GaryW_Env_Hist


What was your doctoral research about?

My thesis title is ‘Fields Into Factories: The Contested Growth of Military-Industrial Capacity and its Impact on Britain’s Rural and Peri-Urban Landscapes Across the Long Second World War, 1936 to 1946’.  Basically (and this is the short version!), in the pre-war and war-time periods land was either voluntarily or compulsorily purchased or requisitioned by the State to build aircraft and munitions factories.  The vast majority of these sites were originally green-field, in either rural or peri-urban areas, and the purchase/requisition process ran rough-shod over existing (weak) planning restrictions due to the exigencies of war.  At the end of the war my research shows that in only two cases what I term “elite interests” (Council for the Preservation of Rural England and Friends of the Lake District, and Cambridge University) were sufficiently influential to resist state interests, resulting in one of the sites returning to something like its pre-war rural identity, and the other being used for educational rather than military or industrial purposes.  In crude terms, therefore, under cover of war-time need, the State gained ownership/control of hundreds of sites (amounting to tens of thousands of acres) of green-field sites which it would otherwise not have had access to in peace-time.  It was a massive – and until my thesis – undocumented act of state military-industrial enclosure – a State-led land-grab.

How did you first become interested in environmental history?

I’ve had a life-long interest in both the environment and lesser-explored aspects of the Second World War, probably stimulated by the fact that I’m old enough that both of my parents were involved in the war, giving up five years of their young lives to serve in the forces.  Beyond that, within the field of environmental history the historical environmental impact of warfare is still a quite neglected area, so I hope to carve out a bit of a niche for myself.

What was the most exciting, or perhaps challenging, element of your research?

The most exciting… I guess finding really valuable material in unexpected places, so much of my data about the size of military-industrial sites comes from post-war Board of Trade journals rather than where you might expect to find it, in Ministry of Agriculture or Ministry of Town and Country Planning archives. The most challenging is probably the opposite of that… not finding material where you would expect it to be, and opening government folders where the correspondence refers to accompanying appendices which look really priceless in their possible content – but finding that these appendices have been separated from their correspondence and discarded at some stage because the civil servant or archivist didn’t think they were of historical importance.  It’s then that you appreciate that history is about what materials survive.

Do you have any tips for someone preparing for their viva?

Mmm.  I have to be careful here as I think probably every viva is unique because it reflects the content of a unique piece of work – but that said, the best advice I absorbed in my preparation for it was that the decision about whether you will pass and if so with minor or major corrections has almost definitely been decided by the examiners in advance of the viva.  So that took quite a lot of the pressure off for me.  My wife’s a drama professor and she’s examined about a dozen theses, and she says that only in one instance did what the student say in the viva make her change her mind, from giving a pass with major corrections to a pass with minor ones.  Apart from that, prepare for questions based around explaining the origins, originality and significance of your thesis – and try and enjoy the viva, because apart from your supervisors, your two examiners will probably be the only two people in the world who will ever read your thesis (the book version of your thesis being a different thing) and will want to engage you in conversation about it.

You’re a mature student.  What did you do before your PhD?

I worked for international development NGOs and the international and environmental departments of the trade union movement for nearly thirty years.  I started off organising a street collection for Oxfam, and six years later was heading up the Disasters Emergency Committee, the fundraising coalition of NGOs that respond to overseas disasters.  After that I was Coordinator of the Real World Coalition, a grouping of NGOs trying to influence political discourse ahead of the 1997 general election, and after that I joined what is now called Save the Children International.  Then I moved into the international departments of the trade union movement, working with trade unions in countries where it was/is particularly difficult to be a trade unionist, such as in Zimbabwe and Palestine.  I finished off that part of my career working on environmental issues, helping trade unions adopt and apply environmental policies to make them operate more sustainably, and campaigning on the (then) relatively new issue of climate change.

I took voluntary redundancy in 2014, which gave me enough money to take a year off without worrying about how to pay the bills.  One of the things I wanted to do was look at the environmental impact of the Second World War – just out of interest – but I found very little material on the subject, particularly relating to Britain.  I decided I wanted to do a PhD, and try for a late second career in academia.  I chose the UoB because a cluster of academics within the History Department had worked on landscape militarization, and I was fortunate to be awarded the History Department’s Keil Scholarship which made it possible financially.  Now, with my PhD in hand, all I need to do now is to find a job!

What do you have planned next? Are there ways to follow what you do?

As you can see from my photo, I’ve come late to academia, having had a first career working in international development NGOs and trade unions, so my plan is a late second career in academia, hopefully in the field of environmental history or the environmental humanities.  In my first post-PhD year I want to just work part-time if I can, so that I have time to research and write a second journal article and develop my thesis into a book, as being well-published seems to be one of the accepted routes for making one eligible for either a job or a post-doc fellowship.  I occasionally post on my ‘X’ (formerly known as Twitter) account so if people want to follow me and/or get in touch it’s : @GaryW_Env_Hist

What would you say to someone who’s considering pursuing a PhD?

If anyone’s reading this who is thinking of doing a PhD – make sure you absolutely love your chosen subject matter and the research question you are asking, that you’re fascinated to find out more about it and want to share what you find out with the world – it will carry you through the difficult times.

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