The Lives of Others

Grace Huxford, who joined the department as a lecturer in nineteenth/twentieth century British history in September 2015, reflects on reading letters and diaries in historical research:

Trooper of King’s Royal Hussars, Writing Home c. 1950. Copyright: Imperial War Museum.

Trooper of King’s Royal Hussars, Writing Home c. 1950. Copyright: Imperial War Museum.

For a number of years, my New Year’s Resolution was to keep a diary. Like many would-be diarists, I always started well; the first couple of weeks of January contained detailed descriptions of my day, who I had talked to, what music I had listened to, what I had eaten. But by February my entries would fizzle out and the notebook would go back in a drawer for another year. Apart from providing snapshots into my rather mundane activities in January (and the phenomenon of New Year’s Resolutions), I imagine that my diaries would be of little interest to future historians. Furthermore, I would be mortified if these diaries were to ever to reappear – even more so, if they were to reappear in a published format, like an article or book. Last year, many famous diarists noted how they were appalled at reading their old diaries once again. Recalling these attempts at diary-writing always prompts me to think: how should historians treat ‘private’ documents like letters and diaries? Even those which are publically available via archives?

In researching the experiences of British servicemen during the Korean War (1950-1953), I have read a great number of other people’s diaries, as well as personal letters sent from serving soldiers to their loved ones: letters from husbands to wives, boyfriends to girlfriends, fathers to children, sons to parents. Understandably, the tone, length and content of these letters varied greatly. One letter from a prisoner of war held in China contained a picture of a dog for his four-year-old child (something that could not be objected to by the censors at the prisoner of war camp). Elsewhere, fathers at home in Britain wrote to their sons (many 19-21 year old National Service conscripts served in Korea) about their own experiences in the Second World War and their advice for keeping warm, happy or busy. Many young National Servicemen also wrote to their mothers, asking for socks and magazines to be sent as soon as possible.

In one particular set of letters a young conscript told his fiancée (in great detail) about the silk stockings he had bought her when on leave in Japan. When reading such material, I was reminded of the diary theorist Julie Rak’s comment that we are all ‘voyeurs when we read the diaries of others’.[1] In the most personal letters, the researcher becomes deeply aware that the letter is the full extent of that relationship at a given time – what sociologist Liz Stanley has called ‘a simulacrum of presence’.[2] Some letter writers were even told to give as much detail as possible: in 1945 psychologist Kenneth Howard advised army wives writing to their husbands that ‘[n]o scrap of news, of domestic detail, of friends and of local events is too trivial to be interesting. These things make him feel that he belongs, that he is still there and in touch with all that is going on.’[3] The letter was thus a microcosm of an entire relationship and the social world the soldier had left behind. In this case, the historian feels even more like a ‘voyeur’.

War Memorial, Paddington Station, soldier reading.

War Memorial, Paddington Station, soldier reading a letter.

But perhaps viewing letters and diaries as ‘private’ and beyond the ethical realms of the historian is to misunderstand this material. Scholars of diary writing in the Soviet Union (such as Jochen Hellbeck) have noted that it is inaccurate to see a diary or a letter as a purely private space, because ‘selfhood’ in this context was neither private nor public. People used diaries to cast particular public roles for themselves or (as in the case of war) to reflect on public, geopolitical events. Furthermore, they always anticipated a future reader, even if it was just a future version of themselves. Neither are letters simply just between two people – in the 1950s, as in earlier periods, letters were read aloud, shared around family members or even published in newspapers or newsletters (as in the case of some British POW letters from Korea).

So perhaps reservations over using publically-accessible, willingly-deposited letters and diaries is nothing but squeamishness on my part. As I put my diary back in the drawer for yet another year, I think it is important to remember that as historians we should interrogate not just the content of a diary or letter, nor just the context of its production, but what that source represents to both the writer and the reader (and the historian).

[1] Julie Rak, ‘Dialogue with the Future. Philippe Lejeune’s Method and Theory of Diary’, in Philippe Lejeune (eds Jeremy D. Popkin and Julie Rak; trans. Katherine Durning), On Diary (Honolulu, 2009), p. 20.

[2] Liz Stanley, ‘The Epistolarium. On Theorizing Letters and Correspondences’, Auto/Biography, 12 (2004), p. 208

[3] Kenneth Howard, Sex Problems of the Returning Soldier (Manchester, c. 1945). p. 59.

An Interdisciplinary Study of a Victorian Medicine Cabinet

Isabel Wiltshire reflects on this summer’s interdisciplinary research internship, which brought chemistry together with the history of medicine; the project was supervised by Dr Victoria Bates (history) and Dr Jenny Slaughter (chemistry).

How can chemistry be used to write history? This was the question that I set out to answer this summer, using the contents of a Victorian medicine cabinet discovered at Tyntesfield House in North Somerset. This cabinet was the property of the Gibbs family who were prosperous traders and contains over 150 bottles; the contents of the cabinet ranged from medicinal ingredients to prescriptions and ‘quack’ medicines. The School of Chemistry of the University of Bristol has been involved in the safe cleaning of the bottles contained within it, many of which contained poisons and dangerous substances. I am a third year undergraduate chemistry student and have investigated the cabinet as part of an interdisciplinary project between the School of Chemistry and the Department of History.

Cabinet The cabinet – as it was found by National Trust Staff

It has become apparent, as I reach the end, that this project was far more history-based than chemistry-based, despite my initial introduction to it being through the School of Chemistry. This was inevitable really, when dealing with a Victorian artefact. However, when starting out, the sheer size of the task was daunting: I had never done historical research or studied history at any great length. Where to start? I went about the historical research the way I would go about researching a lab report. After three years of studying chemistry, I sure know how to type a keyword into a database. It turned out, of course, to be a lot harder than that. There was in fact very little literature on the exact area of history I was interested in: self-care in Victorian England. I wanted to know what happened after the doctor left, or before he would even have been called out. I started big, trying to gain a general idea of what medicine and sickness were like at the time, because I really don’t have a historical backing to start from; this process was pretty much the equivalent of reading a chemistry textbook before starting a research project because you don’t know what molecules are. I could then start going into detail about particular areas that, together, would give me an idea of how Victorians treated themselves when ill.  This research covered pharmacists, opium and quackery, to name but a few, and focused initially on books and papers published by historians. Finally I got down to the primary sources, many of which are quite different from a primary source in science. My historical primary sources included diary entries and newspapers, whereas a primary source in chemistry would generally be a journal article, peer-reviewed and presenting the latest research in that field. I found the historical primary sources to be often amusing and horrifying in equal measures (I would recommend the seminal tome, Memoirs of a Stomach to anyone). medicines It was certainly a challenge to apply my chemistry skills to a historical problem, but my background as a science student didn’t hinder my research. Any skills I have in research I believe I obtained by studying chemistry. Despite disciplinary differences, in both chemistry and history it is possible to take a medical cabinet as a ‘source’: a starting point for research. By using my skills in chemistry to analyse the medicine itself, instead of just historical books about medicine, I could gain unique insights into the history of medicine. The historical research led me to choose three bottles from the cabinet to sample. Each would be an example of a different aspect of self-care and the medical marketplace in Victorian Britain. Determining the different categories came from the observations of the different bottles and the historical research undertaken. Both complemented each other: seeing that the cabinet contained many tinctures and spirits of herbs and flowers correlated with contemporary and historiographical reports of traditional medicines still being used in ‘modernity’, for instance. The interdisciplinary aspect of the project was essential at this point: chemical analysis was important for identifying what types of medicines were being used; research into the preparation and uses of the different medicines was essential for making this analysis historiographical meaningful. Here, chemistry and history needed to work in tandem. The meeting of chemistry and history is possibly a strange one, but I believe that there is much to be learned by utilizing scientific resources, notably analytical techniques, to aid historical research.

Historians at the Festival of Nature

At the Festival of Nature 2015, a history project ran its first ever stand at the Bristol’s annual celebration of the natural world. ‘Hidden River Histories’ took the research of Bristol-based team members and created an interactive display that introduced environmental history to a diverse audience.


For the full story, and details of the ‘The Power and the Water’ project, see and

History and Politics: Students Speak

In the wake of the General Election, three students from the Department of History reflect on personal experiences of engaging with politics and political history.

In ‘Beyond the “Baldrick Generation”: Political History from the Classroom to the Seminar Room’, Sophie Hunter considers political education and asks ‘Should history really be relied upon to explain politics?’.

In ‘The Vilification of the Conservative Party in the Classroom’, Lauren Landon argues that ‘over-polarising ideological divisions are harming the discipline’ by sidelining Conservative views within the University.

In ‘Socialist Principles and Historical Studies‘, Tim Galsworthy looks at how his ‘socialist beliefs have intersected with [his] historical studies’ and reflects on the General Election results.

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