Socialist Principles and Historical Studies

Tim Galsworthy

The university is characteristically conceived as a fundamentally left-wing space, with the long-haired student central to the modern iconography of dissent. Before I came to study History at the University of Bristol I envisioned my time here following the plot of Starter for 10, not just in terms of appearing on University Challenge and having success on the relationship front but also in terms of political protest; I envisaged myself shouting and screaming for endless good causes, and expressing my hatred of Thatcher an awful lot! After two years, and the election of worryingly right-wing Tory government, my (typical wishy-washy liberal) optimism has waned somewhat. The election result on May 7th has led me to pause and reflect on just how my socialist beliefs have intersected with my historical studies, and whether my left-wing conceptualisation of Bristol University is actually shared by my peers.

A cursory glance at the units found on Bristol’s History course would seem to belie the idea that it is a left-wing discipline. The study of the British Empire or the Tudor period in mandatory first year units seems a world away from radicalism. Yet that is from just a cursory glance, my socialism has taught me to always look below the surface and beyond the obvious. Yes we study the British Empire, but we focus an awful lot on the economic criticisms of imperialism. Moreover, we study seemingly un-socialist topics with a particularly left-wing stance, thanks to the advances of ‘new political History’. Whilst studying the Tudor period we study Henry VIII and Elizabeth I yes, but we also delve into the world of Tudor rebellions. These rebellions are now interpreted by the majority of the academic community not as spasmodic anarchy but as markers of political agency, an avenue for my plebeian ancestors to voice their displeasure before the days of the ballot box or the picket line. Fundamentally our undergraduate study encourages us to look at such ‘history from below’, to consider how the 99 per cent have stories to tell too. History teaches us that politics belongs to the people not just the powerful, an overtly left-wing projection for me. Yet perhaps I am being overly polarising here, after all is it truly that revolutionary to believe that the 99 per cent have a voice and a history too?

Within the somewhat left-wing framework that historical studies afford us I have always found myself drawn to the left-wing figures of my specific courses. This attraction to radical historical actors- whether it was John Brown and Frederick Douglass when I studied the American Civil War, or Abbie Hoffman and Herbert Marcuse when I studied Sixties America- is my socialism expressing itself in my studies. I always assumed others were drawn to such militants too, especially given the popularity of both these units, and shared at least a semblance of my liberalism. But assumptions are so often wrong.

In every class I have undertaken I have mocked and criticised right-wing politics and parties, the Tories and UKIP especially, and these positions have received little defence. Yet May 7th has made me realise that Tories among students are like Tories in the general public – they are a silent but dormant force. Anyone who was with me at the Student Union for the Election results will agree that a sizeable number of Tories seemed to come out of nowhere. The University of Bristol is found within the notably progressive Bristol West constituency, which has just elected the brilliant Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire, and thus students are certainly socially liberal in terms of equality issues. Yet I fear Bristol students are much more conservative on economic matters.

The 2015 Election has disheartened many on the left, including myself, given the rise of a very right-of-centre Tory government and the disheartening successes of Nigel Farage’s collection of crackpots. But if historical studies can offer a socialist anything it is hope. Being left-wing certainly makes us critical purveyors of the past- challenging the ‘Saint’ Bob Geldof narrative of Band Aid, or questioning the liberalism of Kennedy’s Camelot- but it makes us hopeful prospectors too. I myself turn to Attlee’s victory in 1945, or Radical Reconstruction in the nineteenth century, or the anti-fascists who opposed Franco and Mosley as sources of optimism and inspiration. We can dream that 2015 might be such a watershed in future blogs, as the beginning of the end of the right’s ascendancy.


The Vilification of the Conservative Party in the Classroom

Lauren Landon

For the historian, the results of the 2015 General Election confirmed the existence of the working-class Conservative, a neglected, underexplored and mythologised phenomenon in modern British history. This neglect, to some extent at least, has arisen from the tendency to impose political affiliations within historical frameworks. In light of Sir John Seeley’s famous affirmation that ‘history is past politics; and politics is present history’, it is unsurprising how deeply politics pervades the way we conceptualise – and teach – the past. Indeed, popular history permeated the 2015 General Election, where constructed narratives of Victorianism were utilised to demonise the Conservative Party through the allegation that austerity measures ‘send us back to the misery of the Victorian workhouse’.[1] The classroom is not so different. Ultimately, history is mobilised by a leftwing majority to – at times unwittingly and most certainly unfairly – disseminate leftwing political opinion.

Contrary to the belief of many in higher education, I believe that the Conservative Party has never wanted to punish the poor. Nor, as my reading lists so often tell me, is it a dehumanised political machine, operating to cut welfare regardless of the living standards of the most vulnerable in our society. I believe it is a party for working people, dedicated to improving the lives of British citizens and valuing them as equal – and free – individuals above anything else. This involves reducing the role of a patronising and incredibly strained state, which for so long has trapped people in dependency. Rather, Conservatism encourages and propagates aspiration through the value it places on work and equal opportunity to work – so that people have the power to participate in active citizenship.

Voicing these views on social media that fateful Friday morning was like a lamb to slaughter. Keyboard warriors described Conservative voters as ‘Tory scum’ and used lazy political caricatures to vilify personal democratic choices. In an article published in The Telegraph, Labour voter Bryony Gordon depicted social media as a ‘narcissistic echo chamber’.[2] Is this also a fitting way to describe the classroom? I had experienced ‘shy Toryism’ long before the 2015 General Election and I believe it is the result of the vilification of the Conservative Party in the classroom. From my experience, it was deemed morally wrong to identify with Conservatism and the ideology, despite its heterogeneity, was persistently framed as elitist, regressive and cruel. I remember, in a seminar discussion on the Channel 4 programme Benefits Street, Channel 4 was virulently critiqued for airing such a ‘divisive’ programme (‘an objective of the Tory government’), whilst the class was absolutely silent on the potential problems caused by an over-burdened benefit system. It was clear that a ‘false dichotomy’ had developed, which assumed ‘that lower earners are always hard-working while the better off are rapacious and should be taxed more’.[3]

Identifying as a Conservative has not been easy at university. I will never forget the time my admiration for Margaret Thatcher or belief in Milton Friedman’s equality/freedom theory was met with irritated whispers and nasty glares.[4] Or the moment I was told that I could not be both a feminist and a Conservative, which prompted my dissertation research that the two ideologies were not historically antithetical. My research has suggested the contrary; the Conservative Women’s Organisation campaigned just as vehemently for women’s rights as any leftwing women’s organisation. Indeed, the Conservative Party was always vilified in my modules on the history of politics, owing to partisan reading lists, left-wing peers and a very biased field itself. I have also been taught to feel uncomfortable with the leading Conservative historians, whose challenging and often controversial conclusions are shunned out of ideological affinity. Given the popularity of Conservatism, why am I always a minority in my seminars? Is this a characteristic unique to the study of history? Do Conservative economists or geographers feel this way too? Or are students more comfortable to express ‘opposition’ views? Should lecturers practice impartiality or is this not realistic?

It is my inclination that over-polarising ideological divisions are harming the discipline. They are restrictive and precariously limiting, particularly in the classroom. Historians and students should not feel that their ideas are somehow less worthy of discussion or historical recovery, because they envision an alternative strategy, or history, to that which has been written by the left. This is not to say that this work has not already begun. In the case of the history of the welfare state, we are beginning to discover the shared values between the 1909 Minority Report and the Majority Report; including the belief in an organic vision of society, a disdain for amateurism and do-goodism, as well as the advocation of a mixed economy of welfare between state intervention and voluntarism. The stark divisions in the conceptualisation of a welfare system between the left and the right throughout history, then, have often been overstated. At the simplest level, both ideologies recognised a national social security system, a mixed economy of welfare and the very idea of citizenship based on contribution. An understanding of the left and the right as part of a political spectrum is also imperative, as it reveals the tangled, complex and often overlapping ideologies that function in the welfare state trajectory. But to write, and teach, the history of modern Britain, in such a way that more often than not devalues, neglects and vilifies those on the right– despite the central role its actors have played in the advance of society – is a great shame.


[1] T. Hunt, ‘Tory spending cuts send us back to the misery of the Victorian workhouse’, The Mirror (London), 21st October 2013.

[2] B. Gordon, ‘Stop your whingeing: why the Left are such bad losers’, The Telegraph (London), 12th May 2015.


[4] ‘A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both’ – Milton Friedman


Beyond the ‘Baldrick Generation’: Political History from the Classroom to the Seminar Room

Sophie Hunter

The lowering of the legal voting age from 18 to 16 years old is a policy now supported by not only the Labour party, but also the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. Yet the national curriculum contains no compulsory political education, not even included in PSHE lessons.  Arguably, and also in my experience, the responsibility for educating the nation’s youth on how exactly and by whom their government is ran, is passed onto history teachers. Should history really be relied upon to explain politics?

The history classroom, with its time for reflection, provides a place to understand politics. Political history is brimming with examples of political successes and failures. The twentieth century alone includes the communist Soviet Union and the far right fascism of the Third Reich; it was my year 9 history teacher who first explained to me the right to left political spectrum. The Henrician reformation, a classroom classic, introduces ideas of the government’s relationship with the church to pupils while the American Civil Rights movement and the struggle of the suffragettes show the importance of a representative democracy.

But even when the study of history encourages independent thought and skills of evaluation, there will always be some level of influence held by the teacher, especially at a pre-university level. The way in which history is taught to us as children has a great impact over how we see and understand the world. When the presentation of the past is so malleable, there are inevitably concerns over the influence this has upon our opinions. Many sneer at the ‘Baldrick generation’ and believe them to unquestioningly lap up the post-World War Two ‘lions led by donkeys’ rhetoric. While I believe ‘indoctrination’ to be far too strong a term to use, unlike sciences and languages, the humanities open themselves up to opinions, and these opinions – in spite of teachers’ good intentions – usually make subconscious appearances within the national curriculum and into the classroom.

The relationship between historical education and its influence over the development of our political understanding continues within a university environment. It is interesting to hear certain perspectives voiced in seminars, where debate is encouraged. I felt this was particularly the case in my Introduction to the history of the British Empire unit. When discussing matters of imperialism and its legacy, I couldn’t help but see the links with current political and international issues. Learning about Britain’s empire gave me a much better rounded understanding of international relations today and the importance of institutions such as the UN. My experiences as a history undergraduate have enriched my political education and understanding, as university allows time for the development of all-important independent thought.

With only 4.6% of A level students in 2014 opting to study Government and Politics, the vast majority of people will never receive a formal political education. Evidently, much of our political education, if not taught at home, is taught indirectly through history lessons. Of course, it is possible for this crucially important task to be achieved via the teaching of history, but unfortunately England is the only country in Europe where history is not compulsory for students beyond the age of 14. Furthermore, despite a rise in the past few years, less than half of school-aged children take GCSE history.

Few would deny that an educated voter is a better voter, but if this is the case I question why there is not compulsory education in politics or political history in our current national curriculum. If plans to lower the voting age to 16 are successful I believe it would be an error to neglect thoroughly teaching current and future generations how their government works.


Unravelling Hong Kong

By Su Lin Lewis, Lecturer in Modern Global History.

How do you start the story of a city? The Hong Kong Museum of History begins in the volcanoes and oceans that converge to form a rocky, lush island, and the folk traditions of small fishing communities and pearl divers. At the start of the next section of the museum, visitors are confronted with the imposing, bronze statue of Lin Zexu, China’s imperial commissioner who, in 1839, ordered the destruction of 1.2million pounds of opium in Canton and wrote an open letter to Queen Victoria to stop the poisoning the Chinese people.


© Su Lin Lewis

This opium trade is also the historic backdrop of Amitav Ghosh’s latest novel, Flood of Fire. The book is the final instalment of a trilogy that begins in the poppy fields of Bengal, tracking an eclectic cast of characters – a mulatto ship’s mate from Baltimore, a Parsee trader, a disgraced raja, a Chinese opium-addict – across the Indian Ocean. They travel from Calcutta to a penal colony in Mauritius, then to Canton, and, in the third volume, back to Calcutta and the China coast amidst the First Opium War, which eventually ended in the cession of a sparsely populated Hong Kong island. Ghosh’s immaculately researched novels remind us that we cannot view Hong Kong’s history in isolation, but as part of a dynamic story of nineteenth-century trade, mobility, and power in maritime Asia.

Modern Hong Kong was a city born out of an insatiable demand by British traders for Chinese goods. Apart from New World silver, opium, much of it grown in British India and exported to China in the early 1800s, was one of the few items that Chinese would buy from Europeans. When Chinese officials cracked down on opium imports, Britain responded with a call for war.

From its seizure in 1842, Hong Kong exploded as a trading emporium, not only for opium but for imports of Indian cotton, wool, and metals, and exports of Chinese tea, silk, and porcelain. Throughout the nineteenth century, thousands of Chinese, as well as Europeans, Portuguese, Indians, and Malays flocked to the city for work and opportunity. For Chinese ‘coolies’, Hong Kong became a key port of embarkation to work in the gold mines of America and Australia.

Hong Kong’s history is thus profoundly global, both in its origins and in its rich, modern social and economic history, crosscut with the movements of migrants and openness to foreign trade. I was recently in Hong Kong for the launch of the Hong Kong history project, a collaboration between the University of Bristol and the University of Hong Kong, and other partners, to examine new avenues of research into Hong Kong’s history, situating the city within Chinese, imperial, and global history.

The workshop unravelled the multiple layers of the city’s history, from the hidden histories of colonial Hong Kong’s cosmopolitan communities, such as the Eurasians, to its lineage of social movements, from the 1967 riots, where activists and trade unionists staged a mass protest against British rule, up to last year’s umbrella revolution. We heard of untapped sources, like the Japanese archives, and fascinating oral history projects with Hong Kong’s boat people, encouraging us to view the city from the water, rather than the land.

My own contribution, as an interloper, was to frame Hong Kong as a node within global, cosmopolitan social networks that spanned maritime Asia, from Bombay to Shanghai. In Hong Kong, I encountered the same mobile trading communities that populate Ghosh’s novels, and that I was familiar with in my own research on colonial port-cities in Southeast Asia: Chinese, Armenians, Baghdadi Jews, and Parsees, who followed the networks of empire, and played a major role in shaping the urban environment of its port-cities, investing heavily in industries, transport systems, hotels, and steamships.

There are other, illuminating connections between Hong Kong and Southeast Asian in the colonial era. In the early nineteenth century, missionaries were expelled from Canton by imperial decree; they moved their press to Malacca, which became the home of the first Chinese periodical press, the Chinese Monthly Magazine, and then back to Hong Kong in the 1840s.  In the 1920s and 1930s, revolutionary press networks connected Hong Kong with Southeast Asia, as Sun Yat-Sen’s supporters funded multiple press ventures, in English, Thai, and Chinese, throughout Malaya, Siam, and Burma. Groups of Chinese, Indian, and Malay students from Penang and Singapore went to Hong Kong’s University (founded in 1911) for higher education. The Shaw brothers, cinema pioneers of 1930s Asia, set up studios in Singapore, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.

Unlike Rangoon and Penang, the cities where I’ve spent most of my research, the built environment of Hong Kong doesn’t immediately exude a sense of its colonial past. Much of the city’s old architecture was destroyed to make way for high-rise buildings on an island where living space is at a premium (land reclamation efforts have been happening here since the 1850s).  What few colonial-era buildings are left are tucked away downtown in small, leafy oases (like the St. John’s cathedral) or dwarfed, like the neo-classical High Court building, by skyscrapers and ultra-modern architecture, including Norman Foster’s HSBC building. The Peak, once an area where Europeans built palatial residences to escape from the warm, humid climate of the city, is now a popular, shiny shopping and recreational complex. though you can still travel there by tram.

Hong Kong is undoubtedly a modern Asian city, but one also prominently at the edge of the Pacific Ocean.  Its hilly, buzzing downtown core is reminiscent of San Francisco’s Market Street and especially Chinatown, with its historic links to Hong Kong and the southern China coast. There are many stories and routes we could take in telling the story of this very global city, where, under its gleaming, modern face, the past persists in subtle ways.

Artists and Empire

In this blog post Dr Daniel Haines, Lecturer in History, considers the role of art in opening new avenues of historical enquiry.

image001 © Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives

In the relative cool of an Indian winter, a train of elephants lumbers through the heart of old Delhi. Atop one beast are the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, brother and sister-in-law to the British King-Emperor Edward VII. Ahead of him on another are Viceroy Curzon, the King’s representative in India and head of the colonial government, and his wife Mary. Beneath them, both literally and figuratively, uniformed Indians march along a parade route lined by soldiers. The viceroy and his staff have planned every detail of the day’s ceremonies to convey the might and power of the Raj.

This was the scene of the 1903 Delhi Durbar, a spectacular festival held to mark Edward VII’s ascent to the throne. Celebrations continued for another fortnight afterwards. The vista comes to us via an enormous oil painting that dominates the entrance hall at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, part of the Wills Memorial Building at the edge of the university campus. It’s worth a visit to take in the sheer scale of the painting, which feels virtually life-size when you’re in front of it. The painter has very clearly tried to capture the sense of awe that the Durbar was supposed to instil in Indian attendees, especially the semi-autonomous Indian Princes who collaborated closely with the British.

The history of the painting is also fascinating. It was not the product of a patriotic colonialist, but an expatriate American artist, Roderick MacKenzie. MacKenzie had travelled a long way from his native home in Mobile, Alabama. Originally intending to stay in India only a few years, he became hooked on the subcontinent – like many a backpacker since. This painting, Durbar, the State Entry into Delhi, was only one of dozens that he produced during his financially unsuccessful fourteen years in the country. MacKenzie almost bankrupted himself finishing the painting in London.

Today, the painting continues to provoke discussion. The Museum organised a day-long workshop to discuss it in March, How to interpret Art and the British Empire for 21st-Century Audiences: Roderick MacKenzie’s Delhi Durbar of 1903. Representatives from community groups and the British Museum as well as Bristol University’s Department of History discussed how we today can make sense of an artwork that borders on the monumental. Is it art or history? Should we appreciate it as a magnificent aesthetic accomplishment? Should we condemn it as piece of imperialist propaganda?

These kinds of question apply to any product of Europe’s imperial heyday. Studying this period of history is controversial: strong opinions abound about how people in former colonial countries, as well as those in formerly colonized countries, should interpret empire’s legacy. Whatever your position, there is no denying that empire is a key part of British history. How we relate that to modern British identity is not far removed from aggressive public debates about the commemoration of WWI that swept the national media in 2014. There are no easy answers. But standing, dwarfed, in front of MacKenzie’s giant canvas, is a powerful call to opening up the questions.

You can see a high-resolution version of the painting by clicking on the image in this link:

A brief bio of MacKenzie is here:

Historians in Hereford

In the Middle Ages Hereford Cathedral was a major international centre of learning. Then, as now, it attracted scholars to study its library holdings.

Each year MA, MPhil, and PhD students in the History Department (and indeed beyond in the Faculty of Arts) who are developing their research skills as medievalists benefit  from visiting Hereford for a study day. The purpose of the day is to focus intensively on codocological analysis and palaeography. As one of this year’s participants commented: “We had a lovely day. And it was useful, too!”. Well, who could ask for more?

In 2014/15 the date for studying medieval codices and charters written for (or even in) Hereford was 5 December – we took some pictures on the day which we hope you will enjoy.

Anke Holdenried
MA Programme Director (History)
Unit Coordinator “Research Skills for Medievalists”

Hereford Cathedral_book
Hereford Cathedral_Day
Hereford Cathedral_night
Hereford Study in Progess_all
Hereford Zhang and Tom
Hereford_charter with hole

Reflections: Genocide, the darker side to the Human Psyche

Abigail Le Fevre, Third Year Historian, reflects on her recent studies of Genocide in history:

There will always be a fascination with the morbid. Its ability to represent something familiar yet challenge what we perceive to be ‘normal’ continues to capture the interests of many. Consider the following extract taken from Why Bosnia, containing an interview with a Serbian Officer from the Balkan Wars.

‘Look, there are some things you don’t go around telling everybody. But I’ll tell you, it’s not a pretty sight to watch a circular saw go through human flesh. The way it snarls through the bones.’ [1]

Retelling his involvement in the massacre of Muslim minorities in the village of Zvornik- Bosnia, the Serbian official’s rhetoric is striking. This quote, which I encountered for the first time while studying the Bosnian genocide this term, evoked a sense of shock and anger that was difficult to separate from an analytical mindset. When one finally overcomes the graphic imagery, however, the quote is able to reveal much more than the physical act of killing. We, as historians, are given a unique opportunity to gain an insight into the mindset of a perpetrator, to try and provide an answer to the unanswerable question within genocide- why?

Would it be correct to suggest that the mind of a perpetrator evolves during childhood as argued by Steven Baum? [2] Would we side more with Christopher Browning who argues that perpetrators are often ‘ordinary men?’ [3] Or do we see such behaviours as psychotic impulses displaced into forms of wide spread violence?

Studying genocide this year has reminded me that the darker areas of history can be highly emotive and personal. Close engagement with oral testimony has the ability to re-personalise large narratives such as that of the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the Cambodian genocide. By actively researching and seeking out answers to the ‘why’ question, I felt my own attitudes starting to be challenged too.

In a context in which a ‘national, ethic, racial or religious group’ was being ‘destroyed’ with ‘intent’, as outlined by the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, what category would I find myself in? [4] Would I become a bystander, witnessing events from afar to protect social upstanding, a rescuer, or even a perpetrator? While I don’t think one can ever fully have a response to this, it remains true that studying genocide with these questions in mind is just as important as the analytical ones. Looking closely at genocides throughout the twentieth century this term has taught us not only about the past, but also about ourselves.


[1] R. Ali and L. Lifschultz (eds.) Why Bosnia? Writings on the Balkan War (Connecticut, 1993), 101.

[2] S. Baum, The Psychology of Genocide: Perpetrators, Bystanders, and Rescuers (Cambridge, 2008), 123.

[3] C. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 11 and the Final Solution in Poland (Chicago, 2001), 75.

[4] A. Hinton, Genocide: An Anthropological Reader (Oxford, 2002), 43.

Quick History: Talking about the past with busy people

By Dr Emily Baughan

History takes time. As historians, we can spend years on a piece of research: reading the work of other scholars, visiting archives and libraries, and writing our findings into books and journal articles. Once that’s done, more time passes. It can often take a few more years for a book or article to make it into print. It sometimes all feels like a terribly slow process.

My research is on people who work quickly: humanitarians. I explore the efforts made by NGO Save the Children to aid children in the conflict-riven early-twentieth century. Seeking to halt the spread of disease, feed starving populations and shelter millions of refugees during and after two world wars, humanitarians could not work fast enough. Delays cost lives.

I want the research that I’ve done into past humanitarian principles and practices to help contemporary NGOs to reflect upon what they do in the present day. Yet, moving constantly from crisis to crisis, now, as in the past, humanitarian organisations have little time for refection.

Lengthy journal articles and detailed monographs aren’t appropriate ways to communicate with busy humanitarians. If we want to work with NGOs, historians need to find different ways to speak about the past.  To do this, I recently gave a short talk about my research to the Global Programmes Leadership Team at Save the Children.  (After I’d spoken, the discussion was moving on to Ebola prevention strategies and the Syrian refugee crisis. I certainly didn’t want to take up too of the meeting!) Although time was short, the audience were interested. History is a key feature of Save the Children’s organisational identity. Its staff has a proud sense of the heritage of the organisation, which was founded in 1919 as one of Britain’s first ‘international’ charities.

Russian Famine Victims at Save the Children Kitchens, 1921.

Russian Famine Victims at Save the Children Kitchens, 1921.

Like many humanitarian organisations, Save the Children has turned its history into a compelling ‘origins story’ through a focus on a single ‘great individual’, Eglantyne Jebb. The story goes that the saintly Jebb created Save the Children after the First World War as an expression of her unique vision of compassion and concern for ‘all the world’s children’.  This ‘origins story’ is not just an oversimplification. It’s actually wrong. Save the Children was formed not by Jebb, but by her younger sister, feminist socialist Dorothy Buxton.  Its early work expressed not only ‘compassion’, but also Buxton’s radical vision of international solidarity.

By remembering Eglantyne Jebb as its founder, rather than her radical sister Dorothy Buxton, Save the Children has promoted a myth about the nature of humanitarian work: that it should be uncontroversial and apolitical. In fact, for Save the Children’s founder Dorothy Buxton, concern for others could not be separated from broader critiques of the structures and systems which have caused their suffering.

As a historian, it certainly isn’t my job to advise on present day humanitarian policy or practice. But, by demythologising the past, perhaps what I can do is free NGOs up to think in new ways. If we accept that the humanitarian mission was, at its inception, deeply political, this may enable present day organisations to understand their work as radical and themselves as challenging not only the effects of poverty, but also its causes.  By focusing my talk to the Global Programmes Team at Save the Children on the life and legacy of Dorothy Buxton, I could open up a conversation about the nature of humanitarianism in the present day.

In their recent History Manifesto,Jo Guldi and David Armitage argue that in order for history to have impact beyond the academy, historians should focus on big picture, longue durée histories. Communicating with Save the Children I did the opposite. I used a short life-story, told quickly, to ask important questions to busy people.

Past Matter, Object 8: Cufflinks

Past Matter objects return with the cufflinks of Gordon Barrett, PhD student in History, who explains below how their previous owner fuelled his interest in the past.


A relative gave this pair of cufflinks to me when I was fifteen years old and they have been one of my most treasured possessions ever since. He was one of the first cohort of pilots in the British Army’s new Glider Pilot Regiment during the Second World War, and took part in the ill-fated airborne invasions of Sicily in July 1943 (Operation Ladbroke) and Arnhem in 1944 (Operation Market Garden). In later life, he also went on to write two books and give talks about being a wartime glider pilot. I was lucky enough to get to talk with him at some length about his experiences while visiting the UK on a family vacation from Canada. I found myself entirely engrossed by what he had to say, and keen to know more about the things he discussed. These cufflinks are a tangible anchor for me to person who helped stoke my interest in contemporary history. They serve as a powerful reminder to me not only of him as a person, but also of his passion for discussing about the recent past.


Undercover Undergraduate

I was staring at the Alps through the window of the plane, waiting to touch down in Italy for my very first academic conference. Interning with Josie McLellan on her Women, Work, and Value research network (, I had been granted a peek into the shadowy abyss of academia by the way of a two day conference on the subject in Florence, Italy. Ostensibly, the aim was to gather content for a series of public workshops on ‘Women and Work’, which was the purpose of my internship. In practice, while trying to get my friends as excited as me about the said workshops, I could never help dropping in my four day, Italian ‘business trip’. ‘You’re so lucky to be jetting off for a minibreak!’ said my envious friends. ‘No, it’s for work’, I replied, sounding about as convinced as they did.

When I pictured an academic conference, I couldn’t help but imagine a sea of geriatric men in tweed suits (with elbow patches, obviously), in a wood panelled, draughty library, ferociously debating the finer points of an argument made by a world-famous historian I had never heard of.  This was despite the conference being organised by Josie, about as far from a crusty elderly man as its possible to be, and the name of the conference making it obvious this conference was going to be a little more gender inclusive than my imaginings.

Firstly, even the location made this conference a far cry from what I had envisioned. Cold and draught, Tuscany in October is not. The research network was lucky enough to be hosted by the EUI campus in Florence, in a stunning building once the seat of the Spanish ambassador, set in rolling hills under a perfectly blue sky (as I write this, looking out at a bleak sky from the Hawthorns, it seems like a distant dream). Several academics stressed to me I should not expect this from every conference! Aesthetics aside, it was really interesting to see another university so different from my own- the university was postgraduate only, and truly international with students all over Europe and supervisors being required to speak at least two European languages. And as for the canteen, let’s just say that their freshly made gnocchi trumped the Refectory’s jacket potatoes.


Yet another shock was the academics themselves. Yes, maybe with ‘Women, work and Value’ in the title, it was possible this conference might have some female representation. But 31 female academics out of 33? It was actually a completely inspiring setting to be in- only 20% of senior academics are female nationally¸ so it was nice not to be in the minority for once, and to see so many intelligent female academics with interesting research- many of them in their twenties and thirties. Delegates also came from an astonishing range of countries, from Finland to the USA to Lithuania to Croatia. Those who didn’t speak English as a first language probably still speak more eloquent English than I do.

And I was definitely wrong about the content of the lecture being crusty scholars I had never heard of. Most of the content was unfamiliar to me, but I hugely enjoyed how current, relevant, and varied the work in question was- from housewives and factory workers to drummers and reality TV stars. I know gender history is a relatively recent development of historical study, and it was so refreshing to see a wide range of interesting research focussing on women’s contributions.


All these academics researched along a vaguely similar theme, and I was anxious during coffee breaks and lunch not to interfere with any ground-breaking developments that could be sparked with face to face interaction. Here I was wrong again. Yes, a lot of the conversations centred around the talks we heard throughout the days. But a lot of the time, these high level academics were simply chatting about the weather, university, and other relative frivolities- a lot like students really, right down to the frequenting of a nearby bar in the evening. Not to mention a use of social media- it seemed every academic at the conference was frenetically tweeting interesting aspects of the conference (complete with official conference hashtag, of course).  Meanwhile I, supposedly of the social media generation, slid aside my old-school notebook and glumly realised they all have far more followers than I do.

So what did I learn from my first conference? That conferences are actually vibrant places where academics learn from each other’s research, But only after they’ve caught up on all the other news that happened while they were in the library doing that research, and followed each other on Twitter. Oh and of course, all conferences take place in beautiful old houses in the Mediterranean. Right?


If you want to hear more about this exciting research network feel free to have a look at the links below:

Sarah Brodie (left, project intern and blog author), with Graihagh Goode (project intern).

Sarah Brodie (left, project intern and blog author), with Graihagh Goode (project intern).

Sarah Brodie is one of the undergraduate public engagement interns on the Women, Work and Value Research Network, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.