A Picture on a Wall

For LGBTQ+ History Month, Professor Ronald Hutton reflects on the life and legacy of Dr John Leslie (1947-1994), a former colleague and historian at the University of Bristol. 

Against one of the walls of my university office sits an oil painting. It is in the German Expressionist style and shows a man in his early thirties, with short, light brown hair and clean-cut features, conventionally dressed in a brown tweed jacket, matching tie and white collared shirt. This is Dr John Leslie, who was a member of the History Department when I arrived in it at the opening of the 1980s. He was an expert on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and taught the history of modern central and eastern Europe. He was also one of the members of the department at that time – amounting to four out of fourteen – who were gay. All were men in their thirties and forties, with bachelor lifestyles, who contributed much to the convivial atmosphere of the department at the time, marked by constant reciprocal wining and dining. None of them ever referred to their sexual orientation and nobody in the department ever mentioned it or asked them about it. It was instead inferred from acquaintance with them and/or confirmed by less discreet members of Bristol’s gay community. There seemed to be an unspoken agreement in the department that silence on the matter made life easy for everybody: that it was something that could be completely accepted as long as there was no evidence that there was anything to accept. It was rumoured that at one point somebody had been injudicious enough to ask our head of department, an old dear who had fought in Burma in World War Two, what he thought of having so many reputed homosexuals in his department. He was said to have replied that once a person has served east of Suez, these things lose their capacity to shock, and that this was all he would say on the matter. I had a feeling that things had been this way in the university for decades, and perhaps in polite and professional British society for much longer.

John however had an additional reason for keeping his closet door firmly closed against the world. His parents and wider family were devout evangelical Christians, and he retained a vague, residual and guilty attachment to that faith: his friends teased him with having been a church mouse. That family, to which he remained affectionately attached, would have been horrified to learn of his sexual alignment, and this need for secrecy kept him aloof from even the local gay community. Instead he enjoyed holiday adventures abroad: another wholly traditional British way of dealing with the issue. In the mid-1980s he was diagnosed as HIV positive. In this predicament, he could confide in nobody around him, and plunged into a prolonged depression. His baffled friends rallied round: I took him to films and on picnics in an effort to bolster him. After a time he did stablise,and appeared to return to his usual bouncy self. Perhaps he had realised that he still felt fit, and had a small chance of survival, and probably some years still ahead of him. He remained more withdrawn than before, but then the close and familial social life of the department had in any case dissolved in the harsher instititional environment of the 1980s. I myself married, and submerged in the pleasures, and then problems, of domesticity and parenthood. By imperceptible stages, John and I grew amicably apart.

In the early 1990s he suddenly developed AIDS. He resigned precipitately from the university, claiming that he could not bear the changes in British higher education: even now he would not admit the truth. He completely disappeared from our view, having retired into a Bristol hospice, alone and unvisited, where he died a short time later. He spent much of his declining time there listening to classical music, which he loved, on headphones. It was at his funeral, in a local church, that his real story came out, mostly through the hospice chaplain who had tended him during his final weeks. His family wanted nothing to do with his personal possessions, and the university cleared his office. It offered his portrait, painted in Vienna and of which he had once been so proud, to anybody who would take it. John had abandoned it with the other trappings of the office, perhaps because it reminded him of a different time, when long life and academic success still seemed to beckon. Nobody else was interested, and so I volunteered to take it, in memory of my lost friend. I have kept it in my own office ever since, which has been more than thirty years. When people who notice it ask after the identity of the person in it, I tell them John’s story, so that he can be remembered and honoured; and I tell it now, because Richard Stone walked into my office, asked the question, and on hearing the answer persuaded me to mark LGBTQ+ history month by sharing it more widely in the department. Perhaps in the process it is also possible to reflect on the mercifully changing nature of British society and culture, and be grateful for the passing of a traditional world that we may have lost forever.

If you would like to see the painting of John, Professor Hutton invites you to visit his office, 1.44, 13 Woodland Road. 

PhDone! Dr Alice Kinghorn

Dr Alice Kinghorn completed their undergrad degree at the University of York, followed by an MA at the University of York, before joining Bristol for their PhD. Alice’s PhD examined Anglican missionary societies’ involvement in transatlantic slavery in the early nineteenth century, focusing specifically on Christian support networks behind these societies. Alice, who already has several articles published, successfully defended their PhD in December 2023. To keep up with their latest research, follow @KinghornAlice.

What was your doctoral research about?

My thesis examines the Church of England’s role in transatlantic slavery through the work of Anglican missionaries. I looked at two Anglican missionary societies: the Church Missionary Society (the CMS) and the Incorporated Society for the Conversion and Religious Instruction and Education of the Negro Slaves in the British West India Islands (The Conversion Society). Firstly, I looked at the financial support of both societies by cross-referencing donors and subscribers with UCL’s Legacies of British Slavery Database. This demonstrated the extent to which the West India Interest supported both societies. Secondly, I assessed how Anglican missionaries worked in the Caribbean, including schooling systems. The motivations of the missionary societies and their funders revealed important aspects of both the Church of England’s attitudes towards colonial slavery, determining that Anglican missionaries ultimately worked to delay emancipation. Additionally, I looked at interactions between missionaries and enslaved people which revealed new ideas about enslaved people’s religious experiences in the British Caribbean. I argued that while Anglican missionaries were integral to plans to delay emancipation, enslaved people’s decisions shaped the extent to which their objectives were achieved.  

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

I started my PhD in September 2020, and so archive access was really difficult in my first year. The main archive for my research (Lambeth Palace Library) was closed until October 2021. However, this actually ended up shaping my research as I was limited to the sources I could find online. These were mostly annual reports for missionary societies, and so I developed the idea to research the societies’ financial support during this time. When the archives opened again, I was able to complete the qualitative research for my thesis (mostly through missionary correspondence).

The most exciting element of my research has been the travel opportunities during my time at Bristol. I undertook research at the Archives of Antigua and Barbuda, and presented at conferences in France and Chicago. Whilst I was unable to travel to archives at all in my first year, I certainly made up for it later on. 

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

I was nervous for my viva – not because I didn’t think I knew my thesis, but because I didn’t really know what to expect. My supervisors were incredibly helpful by explaining what the format of the viva would look like, and by giving me some questions to think about beforehand. They also reiterated that the viva is an enjoyable experience as your examiners have taken the time to closely read and evaluate your work.

I would say think about why you undertook your research in the first place, its originality, its significance within your field more widely, and any future plans you have for publication/research. I also looked at scholarship that had been published since I submitted, and came prepared to discuss parts of my research that I might have done differently on reflection. I ended up really enjoying my viva! 

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

I have a few projects lined up that continue research into the Church of England and transatlantic slavery, both in research and public engagement. I am hoping to turn my PhD into a monograph and to publish two more articles this year, with the view of applying for postdocs in the next academic year. 

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

If you do decide to pursue a PhD, try to get as involved in as many research groups/research opportunities as you can (if you feel like you have the time/capacity). I built up support networks this way, both in terms of research and friendship, that were invaluable to my research experience. My research profile wasn’t confined to my thesis, and I gained experience in public engagement, publishing, and working with stakeholders.

Celia Newsome: Unveiling the Hidden Side of Slavery

Content Warning: This post contains distressing detail on violence and sexual assault.

In the latest of our posts for Black History Month, Taisha Richards, a student of African American history in the Antebellum South, explores the story of Cecila Newsome, an enslaved woman who violently resisted her exploitation and abuse. 

Image from The American anti-slavery almanac (Boston : N. Southard & D.K. Hitchcock; 1838), https://archive.org/details/americanantislav1839chil (Public domain)

Investigations into the experiences of enslaved African American women during the Antebellum period help us to better understand the nature of violence and oppression, as well as resistance. For example, my research into Celia Newsome is representative. After being purchased at the age of fourteen, Celia was raped by her slaveholder on their way to his plantation. Celia unwillingly became his concubine and house slave who he monitored and controlled every aspect of her life. She was sexually exploited for the next five years until she killed her slaveholder after he ignored her pleas to stop assaulting her. This act of resistance resulted in Celia being tried, convicted and executed at the age of nineteen. Celia’s experiences are pivotal to my research because she helps us to better understand the experiences of other enslaved women. She provides an insight into the hidden side of slavery, including sexual exploitation from a young age, being blamed by a slaveholder’s family for the sexual abuse, baring children for slaveholders, and having no legal recourse for exploitation as the law protected their perpetrators. Celia’s story also exemplified that slavery worked on many fronts to subjugate enslaved women by trying to take away their autonomy; however, enslaved women resisted in many ways regardless of the consequences. Celia is important as she was one of many enslaved women who paid the ultimate price with her life because she refused to continue to be sexually exploited.

We asked Taisha, why is this history important to you?

Slavery in Antebellum America has always interested me. My research focuses on the forms of exploitation enslaved women endured, specifically sexual exploitation and how in the midst of being exploited they resisted utilising different forms of agency. Problematic stereotypes like the Jezebel allowed enslaved women to be sexually exploited as they were represented as over sexualised, absolving slaveholders of blame or consequences. I wanted to know about the experiences of enslaved women in their own words

About the Author

Taisha Richards studies African American history and the experiences of enslaved people in the Antebellum South with a particular interest in the intersectionality of race, gender, sexuality and law. Taisha can be found online @TaishaRich

Annie Jiagge: International Jurist

In this next post by Kate Skinner, Professor of African History at the University of Bristol, we celebrate the life and work of Annie Jiagge, an international jurist, for Black History Month 2023.

Born in 1918, Annie Jiagge (née Baëta) was one of a small but growing number of girls in the Gold Coast (Ghana) to attend school, pass the standard VII certificate, and train as a teacher. With the financial support of her mother, however, Annie soon travelled to London, where she studied at the London School of Economics and Lincoln’s Inn. She returned to the Gold Coast as a qualified lawyer in 1950, working first as a barrister and then as a magistrate.

Annie Jiagge, by kind permission of the World Council of Churches, Wikimedia.

Ghana became independent from British colonial rule in 1957. By 1961, President Kwame Nkrumah had appointed Annie Jiagge as a high court judge – one of very first women in the Commonwealth to achieve such a position. Following her appointment to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, Annie Jiagge drafted a working document which later became the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. The declaration was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1967.

The International Women’s Year of 1975 gave additional impetus to proposals to develop the declaration into a binding international convention. Work proceeded through the first few years of the United Nations Decade for Women. In 1979, the United Nations General Assembly approved the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Ghana, along with 63 other states from all around the world, signed the CEDAW in July 1980, at the Copenhagen Conference that marked the mid-way point of the Decade for Women.

The CEDAW proved crucial in defining discrimination, and in setting out obligations on states-parties to enact laws and formulate policies to eliminate discrimination against women. It has spurred mobilisations for gender equality in many countries all around the world for more than forty years.

You can learn more about the remarkable life of Annie Jiagge in the United Nations-sponsored film Fear Woman, and the recent documentary When Women Speak. Both are free-to-view online.

We asked Kate, what drew you to Jiagge?

“Like millions of women around the world, I benefit every day from the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The convention has prompted women in many countries to mobilise against discrimination, and whilst there is still considerable work to be done, important victories have also been won. I am grateful to Annie Jiagge for her role in the initial development of the convention.”

About the Author

Prof Kate Skinner joined the History Department at the University of Bristol in February 2023. She is currently researching the political history of reforms to laws on inheritance, divorce, child maintenance, adoption, and abortion in postcolonial Ghana.

Ona Judge: Enslaved Fugitive, Black Founder

In the latest of our series for Black History Month 2023, Will Comben, a PhD student in the Department of History, shares the history of Ona Judge – an enslaved Black woman in early America who defied George Washington to live out her life in freedom.

Ona Judge, like many enslaved Black women in early America, sought freedom. Enslaved by George Washington, her story lays bare the paradox at the heart of the early American republic: a project conceived in liberty, but committed to slavery.

Judge grew up in Washington’s Virginia home, Mount Vernon. In 1789, she was taken by Washington to New York, and then to Philadelphia as part of the President’s enslaved household staff. Judge likely yearned for freedom from a young age, but her experience in northern cities brought her dream within sight. Philadelphia, in particular, had a large free Black population and a vibrant abolitionist community. On learning of the Washingtons’ plan to gift her to their grand-daughter, Judge resolved to escape. With the help of abolitionist neighbours, she boarded a ship to New Hampshire, where – despite the Washingtons’ relentless attempts to re-enslave her – she built a life of freedom.

Newspaper notice for Ona Judge in the Philadelphia Gazette.

The Philadelphia Gazette & Universal Daily Advertiser, May 24, 1796, p. 1. Reproduced by the Library of Congress, https://blogs.loc.gov/headlinesandheroes/2019/10/runaway-fugitive-slave-ads-in-newspapers/

Judge’s story, told to abolitionist newspaper The Granite Freeman, and subsequently republished in The Liberator, has endured mainly because she was enslaved by George Washington. But Judge was just one of thousands of Black women who pursued freedom in early America. Traces of their stories can be found in contemporary newspaper advertisements (such as that for Judge shown below). Her ingenuity, careful planning and resilience were typical of female freedom-seekers.

It is incumbent on historians to recover and disseminate stories of Black women, who some might regard as ‘founding mothers’ – people who, more authentically than their enslavers, embodied the principles articulated so poetically in the Declaration of Independence.

What drew you to the story of Ona?

My research on enslaved Black women’s fugitivity has revealed the nature and extent of their agency, but also their historical marginalization. Judge, powerfully, told her story in her own words and she remains an important source for historians.

Will is a SWWDTP-funded PhD student in the Department of History (will.comben@bristol.ac.uk)

Christianna Jacques: An Apprentice from Nevis in Bristol

In our continuing series for Black History Month 2023, Christine Eickelmann shares the history of Christianna Jacques – an enslaved Black woman from Nevis who built a life in Bristol

Bristol University’s Special Collections provide a unique and important resource into the experiences of enslaved people. One of the many stories to be found in this collection, is the life of Christianna Jacques (Lewis, Ellis). She was born on 30 June 1780 on Mountravers, John Pinney’s sugar plantation on the Caribbean island of Nevis. She was the first child of an enslaved woman, Mulatto Polly (aka Polly Pinney, Mary Scarborough); her father, evidence suggests, was Gwyn Vaughan Jacques, a white man. Christianna’s seven siblings were fathered by another white man, the planter John Scarborough.

In 1790, at her mother’s request, John Pinney took Christianna to Bristol. At first she was in the Pinneys’ service, working with, among others, Fanny Coker and Pero Jones, two black servants also from Nevis until aged 16 she began a three-year apprenticeship, probably as a seamstress. Mulatto Polly financed her training and sent money for her upkeep. It appears that during her schooling, Christianna did not live in the Pinney household.

Christianna Jacques lived for some time in John Pinney’s house in Great George Street, Bristol, now the Georgian House Museum. Image: Christine Eickelmann/David Small

On 20 April 1803 Christianna Jacques married a 21-year-old joiner, John Lewis, in Portsea, Hampshire, and sometime afterwards lived in Chatham, Kent. Both Portsea and Chatham were closely connected with seafaring; her husband may have worked on the ships.

From Chatham, she travelled to Bristol to meet her mother, who, by then, had been freed, as had Christianna’s siblings. Mother and daughter met up at least once more during Mulatto Polly’s several trips to England.

By then a widow, Christianna married Eli Ellis on 28 June 1813, also in Portsea. He was a jeweller who later ran his business from Goose Lane in Worcester. The couple had two sons, who were both baptised in the Methodist chapel. Her first-born, Eli Joseph, died aged two in January 1817, and it is likely that Christianna died following the birth of her second, unnamed child. Aged 38, she was buried on 2 December 1818 in Worcester.

For more information about Christianna Jacques, Fanny Coker and Pero Jones, see biographies number 445, 334 and 265 https://seis.bristol.ac.uk/~emceee/mountravers~part2chapter4.pdf

What inspired your research? The Pinney Papers in Bristol University’s Special Collections inspired my research into the entire population of Mountravers plantation in Nevis. Christianna Jacques was one of hundreds of enslaved people.

Author: Christine Eickelmann is an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of History (Historical Studies).

Maria W. Stewart: America’s First Black Feminist Political Writer

In the first of our posts for Black History Month 2023, Lumina Kemp shares the history of Maria W. Stewart – a 19th century feminist and activist. 

Many tragically underappreciated Black historical actors have shaped our thinking and lives so much so that our world would look different without their important contributions. Maria W. Stewart is high on that list. A quick Google search will describe her as a 19th century American abolitionist. She was also noted for being a writer, a lecturer, and an activist. However, a quick glimpse will not do justice to her role as the first Black feminist political writer.

Stewart’s lectures and writing examined not only how race, gender, and class systems oppressed Black women, but also held back society as a whole. Having witnessed the abhorrent treatment of African Americans in the North and the South before the American Civil War, she was motivated to become an activist. She wrote and published a political manifesto and spoke publicly (not an easy feat for a woman of any race in the 19th century) about the radical resistance needed to combat slavery, oppression, and exploitation.










This image was found at: Maria W. Stewart (U.S. National Park Service) (nps.gov). Used by permission of the Library of Congress.

Stewart made a name for herself after William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator published her first manuscript, and she gave public lectures that urged Black women to demand political rights and access to education. She spoke boldly to mixed audiences, who were less than thrilled by her assertion that African Americans’ servitude was not only a great injustice to themselves but a waste of potential for all of humanity. As an activist, Stewart taught in public schools and even established a school for children who escaped slavery during the Civil War. Her ability to critically and articulately expose her ideas laid the foundation for many others to build upon a much needed, and still relevant, critique of how capitalism, racism, and sexism adversely affect society.

Why do you think Stewart is such an important figure?

I believe it is important to critically examine history through an intersectional lens. We have great thinkers, writers, and actors like Maria W. Stewart to thank for that.

Author Biography

Lumina Kemp completed an MA in History in February 2023. She now works in the Division of Research, Enterprise and Innovation as a member of Professional Services. She can be contacted at lumina.kemp.2020@bristol.ac.uk

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.