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.

Summer Reads 2023

From works of historical fiction to micro-history, memoir to nature writing, as we reach the midpoint of the summer holidays, historians at the University of Bristol share with us what they’ve been reading so far.

Brendan Smith, Professor of Medieval Studies, is reading Danube by Claudio Magris. Every page has something memorable to say about the historic connections of the places the author passes through, from source to Black Sea. Not since my interrail in the summer of 1982 have I seen the mighty river!

Misha Ewen, Lecturer in Early Modern History, is reading The Love Songs of W. E. DuBois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers. The Love Songs of W. E. DuBois is an emotional work of historical fiction, which is both a coming of age story and a family saga, which traces their experiences of enslavement and dispossession, intimacy and love, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It’s also a mediation on the role of the (family) historian – the ethics of doing research and what we hope to recover. I’ve never read a book quite like this and I couldn’t put it down.

Lorenzo Costaguta, Lecturer in U.S. History, is reading Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. Nickel and Dimed is a short and extraordinary book. Written by social justice activist and writer Barbare Ehrenreich (1941-2022), it narrates the author’s attempts to survive through minimum-wage jobs in late-90s US economy. The book became a literary sensation when it was published in 2001. In an economy still enjoying the upside of the late 1990s tech boom, Ehrenreich unveiled the social damages produced by a capitalist system designed to be impossible to navigate for the poor. Beautifully written, self-critical, inspired, Nickel and Dimed rapidly became an instant classic.

Will Pooley, Senior Lecturer in Modern History, is reading Twilight of the Godlings: Shadowy Beginnings of Britain’s Supernatural Beings by Francis Young. I love a book that takes on an old problem – what are the origins of the motley spirits and supernatural beings of medieval Britain? It’s no surprise the answer isn’t simple. Young suggests that across the longue durée communities with similar needs recycled the bits and pieces of old godlings into new spirits, wild men, and eventually… fairies. A fun one for folklore fans!

Josie McLellan, Professor of History, is reading The Swimmer: The Wild Life of Roger Deakin by Patrick Barkham. An experimental biography of the nature writer Roger Deakin. Subtle, engrossing, and an absolute page-turner!

Simon Potter, Professor of Modern History, is reading The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey: A True Story of Sex, Crime and the Meaning of Justice by Julia Laite. The Disappearance of Lydia Harvey traces Laite succeeds in bringing out big themes in twentieth-century global and social history through painstaking reconstruction of the lives of ordinary people.

Fernando Cervantes, Reader in History, is reading Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History by Peter Brown. It had me completely hooked for a good week. It is a fascinating memoir of his intellectual development that takes the reader from Brown’s native Dublin through Oxford and London to Berkeley and Princeton. It is also an exceptionally generous appraisal of all the people who have influenced him as well as a cracking read. Written with Brown’s characteristic elegance and wit, it is also a wonderful travel book, reconstructing Brown’s many journeys in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Among the many books he mentions that had a profound impact on him is Hilda Prescott’s The Man on a Donkey, a forgotten classic of historical fiction that meticulously reconstructs the lives of individuals and communities in the decades leading up to and during Henry VIII’s decision to dissolve the monasteries. I am only half-way through — it is very long! — but I am thoroughly enjoying it. Both books are absolute ‘musts.’

Richard Stone, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History, is reading Late Light by Michael Malay. It’s a beautiful piece of nature writing.  Michael takes us with him as he learns about four fascinating but overlooked animals with which we share the British landscape (eels, moths, mussels, and crickets), but also how human actions are putting them at risk of extinction. Michael also tells us how, after growing up in Indonesia and Australia, his explorations of nature helped him fall in love with English West Country which he now calls home.  I’m normally a physical books person, but Michael narrated the audiobook himself, so listening to it is just like sitting listening to a friend tell you about his adventures!

A New Focus on the British Empire: Richard Kennett and Tom Allen

In this special post, we caught up with BA History graduates Rich Kennett and Tom Allen to hear about their textbook A New Focus on the British Empire, which has just been published by Hodder Education. Both Richard and Tom are history teachers. 

Hi Tom and Rich, thanks for joining us. OK, so the book sounds amazing. Can you tell us more?
A New Focus on the British Empire is a new history textbook for Key Stage 3 students (Year 7 to Year 9), which aims to tell a fuller story of the Empire than has often previously been taught in British schools. We were both editors on the book and wrote sections as part of an author team made up of 11 history teachers.

Most school textbooks have little input from academic historians. We wanted to change that. Throughout the project we have asked historians for their help, and they have been incredibly generous with their time and expertise. Some helped at the ideas stage; many helped at the manuscript stage, critiquing our work; and a good few even helped us to polish the final proofs. We feel this has made a far better product – more historically accurate and reflecting of current scholarship.

As Bristol alumni, our first port of call for help with the book was the history department where we had studied. Bristol historians helped massively. Erika Hanna and Brendan Smith helped with the sections on Ireland. Robert Bickers advised us on China. Beth Rebisz was involved with loads of the book including sections on Africa, colonial legacies and race. We also had help from Bristol academics from other departments, such as Natasha Robinson in the Department of Education.

Another way we wanted this textbook to be different was its perspective. Most British school textbooks, if they cover the Empire at all, tell its story through the eyes of the British – they are its ‘main characters’. The people who were most impacted by colonisation are barely mentioned, or when they are, it is on the periphery of the narrative.

The book itself! (Please note that Rich’s cat, Lyra, is not included in the purchase of a standard edition.)

A New Focus on the British Empire

For example, the story of the Mayflower colonists who sailed to America in 1620 will begin with a group of Puritans in Scrooby, Lincolnshire, wanting religious freedom, and end with the establishment of the colony. We wanted to turn this narrative around as much as possible. We try to tell the story of the Plymouth colony from the perspective of the Wampanoag people – individuals such as Tisquantum and Metacomet, who were forced by the arrival of the colonists to make huge decisions.

This flipped perspective is something we have tried to maintain throughout the book.

Why did you want to write a school textbook about the British Empire?
We both had school history educations that largely neglected colonial history – an experience shared by many people who grew up in the UK and something we are hoping to redress with this book.

Portrait of Tom wearing a yellow jumper and glasses


Studying at Bristol in the early 2000s was the first meaningful exposure both of us had to colonial history. It suddenly seemed to connect so many previously disparate bits of history, from economic development in Europe to changing ideas on race. At that time the University had a partnership with the (now defunct) British Empire and Commonwealth Museum by Temple Meads, and we had access to the fascinating collections there.

In 2020 we were both living in Bristol when Colston’s statue came down. This prompted us to rethink the way that we taught about Bristol’s role in transatlantic enslavement. It was lockdown, and we channelled our energies into working with a group of Bristol teachers on a textbook (Bristol and Transatlantic Slavery, published by Bristol Museums). A key part of this writing experience was the input we had from Bristol historians such as Richard Stone and Madge Dresser. It left us thinking that there was more important colonial history to get into schools – and that working closely with academics would yield really good things.

Portrait of Rich wearing glasses, a cap, a waterproof, at his allotment


What is the importance of the British Empire today?
It’s completely impossible for young people to understand the world today without an understanding of the British Empire. From the borders on maps, to climate change, to migration and even food and drink – its legacy is everywhere.

What advice would you give to a student interested in getting into teaching?
Tom: Teaching is in a bit of a dire state at the moment but it’s a wonderfully rewarding job. You can make a genuine difference – plus it can take you on all sorts of adventures.

Rich: Honestly it is the best job, especially being a history teacher. I get to teach kids about a huge variety of topics giving me a great opportunity to top up my own knowledge at the same time.

What’s the best advice you ever got about history?
Rich: anything that Ronald Hutton has ever said to me is the best thing I’ve ever heard about history.

Tom: I agree with this. Every sentence of Ronald’s lectures was like a shimmering gem to be treasured. I also really appreciated Richard Sheldon’s lectures on the philosophy of history. That was the first time I felt as though I understood how history actually works.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?
Tom: The Soviet Century: Archaeology of a Lost World by Karl Schlögel. It’s a new book by a German historian, who uses the methodology of archaeology to recreate the ‘lifeworld’ of the USSR. He goes into great detail about material objects such as wrapping paper and the doorbells of communal apartments. It’s completely fascinating historical worldbuilding.

Rich: The Restless Republic: Britain Without a Crown by Anna Keay. It’s a topic I knew very little about, but the way that Keay crafts a narrative around individuals is a masterpiece. It feels like gripping fiction.

If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?
Rich: The 1780s. The modern world is truly beginning and the globe is changing. I’d love to see that. This is one of our favourite pub conversations.

Tom: Agree (we’ve discussed this before, at length). The difficulty would be in deciding where you go. Meeting Olaudah Equiano in London or listening to Mozart in Vienna would be pretty exciting. Or it would be horribly fascinating to see the First Fleet arrive in Sydney Harbour or the Storming of the Bastille.

Falafel King or Eat a Pitta?
Rich: Eat a Pitta is better. I hate to say this as nostalgia makes me want to say the King, but Eat is better. My current favourite place is Pizza Bianchi though.

Tom: This is where Rich and I disagree. Sitting outside Arnolfini with your legs dangling over the edge of the harbour eating a Falafel King is as good as it gets. But the best thing I ever ate in Bristol was the marinated aubergine at Caribbean Croft.

What are you working on next?
Fingers crossed: we want to start a series of textbooks focusing on individual centuries, but zoomed out with a global perspective.

Richard Kennett is an assistant headteacher in Bristol at Ashton Park and Redland Green where he focuses on curriculum and assessment. More importantly though he is a history teacher and fellow of the Historical Association. He graduated from the University of Bristol in 2003 and writes history textbooks in his spare time.

Tom Allen graduated from the University of Bristol in 2004. He is also a history teacher and textbook author. He has worked in schools in West Yorkshire, Australia, and Bath, and currently teaches at an international school in Munich. In September he will return to Bristol as Head of History at Merchants’ Academy in Withywood, a school sponsored by the University of Bristol.

PhDone! Dr. Steve Westlake

In the latest in our #PhDone series we caught up with Dr. Steve Westlake.

Steve (he/him) was a Faculty of Arts Scholarship-funded PhD Student at the University of Bristol, originally from West Wales. Steve studied for his BA in History at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge and his MA in Comparative History at Central European University, Budapest. Alongside his studies, Steve has worked in the Higher Education Careers and Employability sector, as well as for the educational social enterprise Write On Point.

Q: Hi, Steve. First of all, congratulations on your successful viva! Can you tell us a bit about what your doctoral research was about?
Thanks! My thesis was entitled ‘An “Oxfam of the Mind”? Humanitarianism, Overseas Development at the BBC World Service, 1965-1999’.

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PhDone ! With Julia Phillips

In the latest in our #PhDone series, we caught up with Dr. Julia Phillips.

Julia took early retirement in 2017 after 25 years as a CEO in the not-for-profit sector in England and Australia. She also worked in travel and tourism, as a lecturer at Warwickshire College, distribution management, financial management, and programmer/systems analyst. In her words: ‘It’s a varied background!’

Hi Julia! First of all, congratulations on your successful viva! Can you tell us a bit about what your doctoral research was about?

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PhDone: Dr Callum Smith

In the latest in our #PhDone series, we caught up with Dr. Callum Smith.

Callum was an AHRC funded SWW DTP PhD student at the University of Bristol, originally from Wales. He has been studying visual political culture for the past seven years and  recently completed his doctoral studies at Bristol. He is a first generation political and social historian of eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain. His interests focus on visual political culture and its relationship to lower order political participation, radicalism and sociability. Though he has a firm grounding in the practice of history, given the often-visual nature of his research interests he is a proponent of interdisciplinary approaches and methodologies, drawing often from the fields of Art History, Semiotics, and English Literature. 

Headshot of Callum Smith

Hi, Callum! First of all, congratulations on your successful viva! Can you tell us a bit about what your doctoral research was about?

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Featured Historian: Brendan Smith

In the latest in our regular ‘Featured Historian’ series, we caught up with Brendan Smith.

Brendan is Professor of Medieval History. His published works concern medieval Ireland and in particular the consequences there of English colonisation. His teaching ranges from the impact of the Black Death on late medieval England to the reception of the Norman Conquest in nineteenth-century historical discourse.

Hi Brendan, thanks for doing us. What’s the title of your next book? What’s it about?
A likely title for my next book is The Migrants’ Tale: Moving Around Medieval Britain and Ireland.

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Featured Historian: Beth Rebisz

In the latest in our regular feature, we caught up with Beth Rebisz to hear about her a recent exhibition she worked on in Nairobi. Beth is a Lecturer in the History of Modern Africa. Her research explores Kenyan women’s experiences during the Mau Mau conflict, 1952-1960. In doing so, her research focuses on Britain’s forced resettlement of Kenyans during this period and considers the relationship between colonial counter-insurgency warfare and international humanitarianism in the late-colonial era.

Picture shows Beth Rebisz smiling, with a striped pole in the background

Hi Beth, thanks for joining us to talk about the exhibition you’ve recently been working on. Can you tell us what ‘Barbed Wire Village’ is about?

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Featured Historian: Hilary Carey

In the latest in our regular series, we caught up with Prof. Hilary Carey to talk about her interests in the histories of religion and empire.

Hilary Carey is Professor of Imperial and Religious History and Research Director in the Faculty of Arts. She trained as a medievalist originally, but these days works mostly on colonial religious history. Her most recent book, Empire of Hell (CUP, 2019) was a religious history of the campaign to end convict transportation from Britain and Ireland to penal colonies in Australia, Bermuda and Gibraltar.

Hi Hilary, thanks for joining us! What’s the title of your new research project?

I am really excited that Sumita Mukherjee and I have been funded by the AHRC for the next three years. Our project is called ‘Mariners: religion, race and empire in British ports, 1801-1914’. Continue reading

Becoming a Public Historian: Cissy Walmsley

In this series, Dr Jessica Moody, unit co-ordinator of the third year Practice-Based Dissertation option, interviews students about their projects and experiences of this unit. The Practice-Based Dissertation was first introduced at Bristol in 2020-21 and enables students to produce a practical, public-facing ‘public history’ output as well as a 5000 word Critical Reflective Report.  

In this interview, Jessica talks to Cissy Walmsley about her project.   Continue reading