In this special post, we caught up with BA History graduates Rich Kennett and Tom Allen to hear about their textbook A New Focus on the British Empire, which has just been published by Hodder Education. Both Richard and Tom are history teachers.
Hi Tom and Rich, thanks for joining us. OK, so the book sounds amazing. Can you tell us more?
A New Focus on the British Empire is a new history textbook for Key Stage 3 students (Year 7 to Year 9), which aims to tell a fuller story of the Empire than has often previously been taught in British schools. We were both editors on the book and wrote sections as part of an author team made up of 11 history teachers.
Most school textbooks have little input from academic historians. We wanted to change that. Throughout the project we have asked historians for their help, and they have been incredibly generous with their time and expertise. Some helped at the ideas stage; many helped at the manuscript stage, critiquing our work; and a good few even helped us to polish the final proofs. We feel this has made a far better product – more historically accurate and reflecting of current scholarship.
As Bristol alumni, our first port of call for help with the book was the history department where we had studied. Bristol historians helped massively. Erika Hanna and Brendan Smith helped with the sections on Ireland. Robert Bickers advised us on China. Beth Rebisz was involved with loads of the book including sections on Africa, colonial legacies and race. We also had help from Bristol academics from other departments, such as Natasha Robinson in the Department of Education.
Another way we wanted this textbook to be different was its perspective. Most British school textbooks, if they cover the Empire at all, tell its story through the eyes of the British – they are its ‘main characters’. The people who were most impacted by colonisation are barely mentioned, or when they are, it is on the periphery of the narrative.
For example, the story of the Mayflower colonists who sailed to America in 1620 will begin with a group of Puritans in Scrooby, Lincolnshire, wanting religious freedom, and end with the establishment of the colony. We wanted to turn this narrative around as much as possible. We try to tell the story of the Plymouth colony from the perspective of the Wampanoag people – individuals such as Tisquantum and Metacomet, who were forced by the arrival of the colonists to make huge decisions.
This flipped perspective is something we have tried to maintain throughout the book.
Why did you want to write a school textbook about the British Empire?
We both had school history educations that largely neglected colonial history – an experience shared by many people who grew up in the UK and something we are hoping to redress with this book.
Studying at Bristol in the early 2000s was the first meaningful exposure both of us had to colonial history. It suddenly seemed to connect so many previously disparate bits of history, from economic development in Europe to changing ideas on race. At that time the University had a partnership with the (now defunct) British Empire and Commonwealth Museum by Temple Meads, and we had access to the fascinating collections there.
In 2020 we were both living in Bristol when Colston’s statue came down. This prompted us to rethink the way that we taught about Bristol’s role in transatlantic enslavement. It was lockdown, and we channelled our energies into working with a group of Bristol teachers on a textbook (Bristol and Transatlantic Slavery, published by Bristol Museums). A key part of this writing experience was the input we had from Bristol historians such as Richard Stone and Madge Dresser. It left us thinking that there was more important colonial history to get into schools – and that working closely with academics would yield really good things.
What is the importance of the British Empire today?
It’s completely impossible for young people to understand the world today without an understanding of the British Empire. From the borders on maps, to climate change, to migration and even food and drink – its legacy is everywhere.
What advice would you give to a student interested in getting into teaching?
Tom: Teaching is in a bit of a dire state at the moment but it’s a wonderfully rewarding job. You can make a genuine difference – plus it can take you on all sorts of adventures.
Rich: Honestly it is the best job, especially being a history teacher. I get to teach kids about a huge variety of topics giving me a great opportunity to top up my own knowledge at the same time.
What’s the best advice you ever got about history?
Rich: anything that Ronald Hutton has ever said to me is the best thing I’ve ever heard about history.
Tom: I agree with this. Every sentence of Ronald’s lectures was like a shimmering gem to be treasured. I also really appreciated Richard Sheldon’s lectures on the philosophy of history. That was the first time I felt as though I understood how history actually works.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve read in the last twelve months?
Tom: The Soviet Century: Archaeology of a Lost World by Karl Schlögel. It’s a new book by a German historian, who uses the methodology of archaeology to recreate the ‘lifeworld’ of the USSR. He goes into great detail about material objects such as wrapping paper and the doorbells of communal apartments. It’s completely fascinating historical worldbuilding.
Rich: The Restless Republic: Britain Without a Crown by Anna Keay. It’s a topic I knew very little about, but the way that Keay crafts a narrative around individuals is a masterpiece. It feels like gripping fiction.
If you had a time machine, where and when would you most want to go?
Rich: The 1780s. The modern world is truly beginning and the globe is changing. I’d love to see that. This is one of our favourite pub conversations.
Tom: Agree (we’ve discussed this before, at length). The difficulty would be in deciding where you go. Meeting Olaudah Equiano in London or listening to Mozart in Vienna would be pretty exciting. Or it would be horribly fascinating to see the First Fleet arrive in Sydney Harbour or the Storming of the Bastille.
Falafel King or Eat a Pitta?
Rich: Eat a Pitta is better. I hate to say this as nostalgia makes me want to say the King, but Eat is better. My current favourite place is Pizza Bianchi though.
Tom: This is where Rich and I disagree. Sitting outside Arnolfini with your legs dangling over the edge of the harbour eating a Falafel King is as good as it gets. But the best thing I ever ate in Bristol was the marinated aubergine at Caribbean Croft.
What are you working on next?
Fingers crossed: we want to start a series of textbooks focusing on individual centuries, but zoomed out with a global perspective.
Richard Kennett is an assistant headteacher in Bristol at Ashton Park and Redland Green where he focuses on curriculum and assessment. More importantly though he is a history teacher and fellow of the Historical Association. He graduated from the University of Bristol in 2003 and writes history textbooks in his spare time.
Tom Allen graduated from the University of Bristol in 2004. He is also a history teacher and textbook author. He has worked in schools in West Yorkshire, Australia, and Bath, and currently teaches at an international school in Munich. In September he will return to Bristol as Head of History at Merchants’ Academy in Withywood, a school sponsored by the University of Bristol.