Past Matter, Object 7: The Whitbread Tankard

After a short gap, we’re back with another object of historical significance for a researcher at Bristol. This week Emily Glass, a MLitt Student in Archaeology and Anthropology, shares an award won by her grandmother.


My Grandmother (Joice Glass) won the Whitbread Tankard for playing bowls – sometime in the 1970’s – and my grandfather bought her the chain to put it onto. I don’t know how much she wore it at all – I certainly don’t remember her wearing it! About 10 years ago she gave it to me while I was visiting her. I am a big fan of silver and really liked it – I bought a turquoise and silver pendant while on holiday in Egypt in 2008 and exchanged it for the tankard which I then changed back to the tankard in late October 2012 when my grandmother passed away – it felt right to do so and it makes me feel closer to her. We have the same birthday – 2nd April – so we’ve always been close through that and I miss her still.

Past Matter, Object 6: A Roundel

This week Lesley Kinsley, a postgraduate research student in the department, shares a roundel displaying a bird that is extraordinarily important in environmental history.


I only bought this recently and it is a copy of a section of a beautiful window in the main house at the National Trust Tyntesfield estate near Bristol. The Trust sells this roundel as a pigeon in its shop, but the estate owners made their fortune exporting Peruvian guano and I am convinced that this is just one of three main types of guano producing bird. Its excrement was dug from beneath it and exported as fertiliser, making it one of the most valuable birds in the world. It still lives and breeds off the coast of Peru, but in much smaller numbers, oblivious to the importance of its place in history. It will always remain a strong symbol to me of the significance of past human interventions in landscapes and the ecosystem changes that ensued – and why environment is such an essential component of historical study.

Past Matter, Object No. 5: Earthworms

This week’s object, isn’t really an object, but a group of animals. Our final year undergraduate student Ben Eagle explains how these earthworms have inspired his history dissertation.


Earthworms have only recently become an historical interest of mine although I have had a soft spot for them, working and walking in the fields of the Essex landscape, as long as I can remember. As some of the oldest animals on the planet they fascinate me as much as they fascinated Charles Darwin who published a lengthy treatise on earthworms in 1881. These particular worms, a family of 80 eisenia foetida, a species of compost worm, were kindly given to me by a fellow Bristol undergraduate. They connect me to the soil and to the past, both personally and intellectually and they have inspired me to both pursue environmental history and to push boundaries in my writing, particularly relating to how we can study the natural sciences alongside the humanities.

Past Matter, Object No. 4: A Frame, and the Picture Within

The fourth object in our series is a picture frame purchased by Dr Jill Payne at Ashton Gate Flea Market a couple of years ago. It came with a free photograph…


I bought this with the aim of re-purposing its honestly-crafted little frame, barely registering the faded image itself. Once home, though, the emptiness of its provenance resounded loudly. I like uncluttered surfaces, but these craftspeople and their business proprietor (?) defy me to either remove them from their casing or put them out of sight: a scant trace of something that someone, somewhere, sometime, wanted to record.

Past Matter, Object No. 3: A Penny

This week Dr Victoria Bates shares one of her Grandfather’s pennies and her interest in telling the stories of things often overlooked.


This coin from 1902 is one of my late grandfather’s coin collection, with which I was always fascinated as a child. I spent many an hour inventing stories about the journey of these coins, the different people who had spent them, what goods and services they had been used to purchase, and how they made their way to my grandfather. This particular coin is also representative of my more general approach to history. It has never been the big histories (or the valuable, shiny coins) that capture my imagination but rather the supposedly prosaic histories (and worn, common coins), which bring with them the stories of how people thought, lived and behaved in the past.

From Event to Exhibit

by Dr. Andrew Flack

Taking ‘Animals and Empire’ from the seminar room to the computer screen was a process that taught me a great deal about the nature of public impact and, in the absence of my having previously led a diverse team of scholars, the importance of effective communication and collaborative cohesion within and beyond the academy.

 ‘The Empire Needs Men!’, World War One Recruitment Poster (c. 1915).

‘The Empire Needs Men!’, World War One Recruitment Poster (c. 1915).

Arising from a conference hosted by the University of Bristol in June 2013, it quickly became clear that the array of cutting edge research papers delivered had significant potential to both set the evolving agenda for research into human-animal interactions in the modern world, as well as having the ability to engage the public in an innovative arena of academic endeavour with substantial implications for the contemporary world. In the months before the conference, the Animal History Museum, based in Los Angeles, contacted me to propose a new form of exhibit for their webspace; that which brought an academic perspective on human-animal interactions to the public in an engaging and accessible way.

One of the major challenges in taking a body of research into the public arena was ensuring cohesion across the exhibition so that there was a clear narrative. Each author arrived with their own particular research area and style of communicating the fruits of their research. Ensuring consistency across contributions, without stifling the individuality of the pieces, was a process that was ongoing throughout the almost year-long curation process. Furthermore, writing for public dissemination is quite different from writing for a journal or scholarly monograph, and a central part of my role was ensuring that research findings were clearly and engagingly communicated, while retaining the clear sense of scholarly integrity that was to characterise the exhibit as one with roots in serious and rigorous academic research.

‘Animals and Empire’  is the first exhibit of its kind to be commissioned by the Animal History Museum.Both the Museum and the exhibition team were learning as they went along, assessing what was working and what was not, and this required a great deal of patience and persistence (for which I am eternally grateful…!). The Museum hopes that this exhibit will provide a rigorously tested model for future exhibits of this nature.

Past Matter, Object No. 2: Some Lake District Litter

Following on from our first object last week, our Head of Department Prof. Tim Cole describes how a piece of litter discarded in the Lake District sparked an interest in the past…


I glimpsed this bottle walking along a sunken lane in the southern Lake District when I was eight years old. I don’t know if that is when I decided to become a historian, but it certainly was part of a process of fascination with the past. Unearthing it from beneath moss and soil felt like connecting not just with the ‘past’ but with the unknown person who tossed this bottle to the side of the track a hundred or so years earlier. It is the everyday actions of ordinary people – in often times extraordinary contexts – that has occupied, and continues to occupy, my historical imagination.

Past Matter, Object No. 1: A Burmese Bookend

As part of the Past Matters festival of history that we have been running at the Department over the last few years we are focusing on objects. Things that have meaning and value to people. Over the coming year some of our PhD students and members of staff will be working with different communities and groups in Bristol on a variety of exciting projects. As part of the those projects we will be producing postcards of objects important to the people they will be working alongside. And you’ll be able to follow them on this blog, under the title Past Matter (see what we’ve done there…). But whilst these various projects get off the ground, we thought we’d start with ourselves. So, over the next few weeks we’re going to be posting photographs of some of our own objects, taken by our Deas Scholarship PhD student Vesna Lukic, with brief explanations of why they are important to us.

To kick things off, here’s Dr Jonathan Saha, specialist in colonial Burmese history, and his Burmese bookend…


This bookend was given to me by a friend who studied with me when I did my MA in Asian History. It was made in Burma and is a Chinthe, a mythological lion-like creature. His father had been in the country many decades earlier and had acquired it. It reminds me of the camaraderie of my MA experience, and the friends I have made on the journey to becoming a historian. It is also a tangible artifact from Burma’s past that, appropriately enough, keeps my academic history books upright on their shelf.

Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013

by Dr. Robert Skinner

There is no single word that inspires debate amongst historians more than ‘inevitability’. Nothing, many learned scholars will proclaim, is inevitable in History. Except, inevitably, death.

The world has lost one of its greatest heroes. Perhaps – we might surmise – one of the last heroes, a witness to the passing of an age where hope and progress were seen as guiding principles rather than questionable meta-narratives. But without doubt, one of the single most significant individuals of the past century. As such we are, as Historians, obliged to consider his legacy, his contribution, the multiple meanings of his life and struggle.

I do not believe that the time is right for extensive analysis and off-the-cuff opinion. Our task as scholars is, I think, partly to maintain the integrity of the carefully considered account, of the value of slow reflection in an age of flashing mirrors. In the case of Nelson Rohilhlahla Mandela, though, I feel compelled to offer a couple of partial and provisional thoughts in order to honour the man himself.


Mandela was an African Freedom Fighter

Early in 1962, Mandela slipped across the border into Botswana (then still Bechuanaland), leaving the country of his birth for the first time. His mission was to lead the ANC delegation at the conference of the Pan African Freedom Movement for East, Central and Southern Africa in Addis Ababa, and at the same time develop a network of contacts for the ANC (and military support for MK, the armed wing of the ANC) on the continent.  From Botswana he flew to Tanganyika, where, he later recalled, he felt ‘truly home for the first time’.[1] Firsthand experience of independent Africa underlined some of the traditionalist assumptions that he inherited from his eastern Cape upbringing, but set them within a pan-African framework. The liberation of South Africa was, however, the task of the people of that country: the ‘centre and cornerstone of the struggle for freedom and democracy in South Africa’, he argued in his speech in Addis Ababa, ‘lies inside South Africa itself’. Furthermore, he used the speech to force home his message that liberation could no longer be achieved by non-violent methods alone: ‘a leadership commits a crime against its own people if it hesitates to sharpen its political weapons when they have become less effective’.[2]

This was Mandela’s baptism as an international figure. It was a carefully-crafted speech, a collaborative effort whose editors and co-authors included Oliver Tambo, Robert Resha  and Tennison Makiwane. But it was an early glimpse of Mandela the statesman – and a reminder today that his political charisma was potent before his three decade-long imprisonment. Robben Island may have made Mandela the great champion of reconciliation, but his fearsome integrity after 1990 also derived from his historical role as an African freedom fighter who – albeit briefly – walked the international political stage at the dawn of post-colonial Africa.

Mandela is a symbol

One of the most intriguing and little-mentioned aspects of the ANC’s tribute to Mandela yesterday was its acknowledgement of his membership of the South African Communist Party. The question of Mandela’s role in the SACP has been hotly debated for half a century, in part perhaps because of his rather careful denial of the fact during his Rivonia Trial statement in 1964. Unpacking and interpreting Mandela’s political ideologies is a task for the future (albeit one that has already been the focus of much considered attention). For now, I would offer the comment that Mandela’s membership of the Communist Party, and the debate surrounding his status as ‘a Communist’ speaks as much to his significance as a symbol as it does his personal beliefs.

For it is as a symbol that Mandela lived for much of his life, and it is as a symbol that he will continue to live, and is continuing to live, even at the moment of his death. In the first ‘authorized’ biography of Mandela, Fatima Meer wrote of how Mandela had dismissed autobiography as ‘an excuse for an ego trip’, only to request some months later that she begin writing an account of his life. Now, Mandela’s life has become one of the most widely-told tales of human endeavour, documented in written text, in art and in cinema. The construction of Mandela as the symbol of the struggle for South African freedom, which began in the wake of the Soweto Uprising of 1976 and the death of Steve Biko the following year, stands as a parable of the power of image in modern politics, and is probably the most successful example of the imprinting of a single individual as the signifier of a national liberation struggle on a global scale.

It is also the reason why we all appear to ‘own’ our particular sense of the value and significance of Mandela the person. In time, we might wish to interrogate the symbol and revisit the man. But for now, I am happy to simply offer thanks. Hamba Kahle, Mandela.

[1] Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, 345.

[2] Quoted in Meer, Higher than Hope, 184.

Back to the Farm

by Prof. Ronald Hutton

The successive television series on historic farming practices and associated bits of rural life, which commenced several years ago with ‘Tales from the Green Valley’, continues currently on BBC television with ‘The Tudor Monastery Farm’. Each series features visiting experts in particular processes, and I have now appeared in more episodes of the whole sequence than any other, including two-thirds of those in the present one: and I shall duly be present in its ‘Christmas Special’. This prominence is mainly due to the fact that my particular expertise, in the history of seasonal festivals and customs, extends over the whole range of historic time so can fit into any age before living memory. It also, however, owes something to the rapport which I have built up over the years with the company which makes the various series, Lion TV, and with the stars of them. By process of natural selection, an original resident team of five has reduced to two survivors, Ruth and Peter, who are both now television personalities in their own right and superb at their job, just joined for the present series by new boy Tom, who shares Peter’s courage, resilience and geniality.

Television work has been part of my own life since the 1980s, although an intermittent one squeezed into small gaps between my regular duties as a university-based teacher and researcher. As a result, although the occasional long vacation slot or period of reduced teaching allows me to present a series, my classic contribution is the interview, in which I turn up on set for a couple of hours, am filmed giving information on the subject of the programme, and then go back home or to the office. This format fits the Farms perfectly, although the setting for the Tudor Monastery series was mostly in West Sussex and so day trips were usually needed, with different sequences being run together: for example, the Palm Sunday and May Day sequences were filmed on the same date (in June). I usually enjoy my work for the historic farm programmes even more than most of what I do for television, partly because of my cumulative friendship with the stars and the crew, partly because my role as an expert on festivities means that I am talking about, and involved with, fun, and partly because the sets provide a unique chance to reconstruct bits of living history. When I saw what was intended for the Midsummer’s Eve sequence of merrymaking, based on a chapter in one of my books, I had to comment that this was not only going to be the fullest filmed representation of an early Tudor midsummer revel that had ever been made, but probably the most elaborate such revel ever actually staged. The director had put together four different rituals at once, when an English community in 1500 would only have bothered with one. As for the cast, they explained candidly that my popularity with them was due to the fact that every time I turned up, they knew that they were going to get a party, instead of having to engage in yet another difficult, smelly and exhausting job.


All of us agreed that the world into which we were now put was by far the most alien of those which we had recreated to date, in a span between the 1630s and the 1940s. Even the early Stuart Age seemed more recognisable than this one, which was still essentially late medieval, and a quantum leap beyond modernity in its religious, social, technological and political culture. The clothes were utterly unfamiliar, and inconvenient. The custom is that a visiting expert puts on period dress like the cast, even though, as at least one reviewer has noted acidly, I am never asked to cripple myself by removing my spectacles, so the effect is never perfectly authentic anyway. Even so, I was still expected to get myself laced into doublet and breeches, of rough and itchy wool, using sharp metal points on the end of strings instead of buttons. The process takes a quarter of an hour and needs assistance: this is not a job on which a loose digestive system is an option, and even less dramatic natural processes are awkward: we won’t even begin to discuss the techniques of coping with a codpiece. I was also forced to wear stupid hats, which I kept quietly trying to lose, and there were problems of other sorts. Water was not drunk at table or at open-air revels at that middling level of Tudor society, but beer, and a crew who did not seem bothered about my glasses insisted that we had to have it visibly foaming in our mugs. The beer drunk in 1500, however, was thin and weak, and so bearable in quantity, whereas we got provided with strong Continental lager. As many of the party sequences involved constant retakes of eating and drinking scenes, we had to sip very carefully; although in fact I soon found that to some extent slight inebriation was an asset in coping with some of the activities in which we had to engage; to date a unique experience for me in television – or indeed any – work.

The Christmas Special also involved suffering the smoke of a log fire lit in a replica Tudor house which was never built in the expectation that any fire would actually be kindled there, and so had no structure to remove the fumes. However, there were some truly wonderful scenes. Peter commented at the Easter Day dinner that he had never before ended up in a Da Vinci painting. He was completely right, save that the painting was more that of a Flemish than an Italian artist of the period. There was a moment when the harvest sequence was being filmed, on a gorgeous sunlit September day, when I looked at the cast tying up sheaves in their costumes upon the field, and caught my breath with the beauty of the scene as well as its compelling historical authenticity. Also, I wasn’t the only professional historian making a fool of himself on the series, for my former Bristol colleague Professor James Clark acted as consultant to it, and had to appear at intervals as a Benedictine monk in black habit and sandals. All told I got off lightly, as it was my task to keep viewers reminded that the age of bubonic plague, bloody and futile rebellions and minimal social mobility was also that of Merry England.