Becoming a Public Historian: Issy Coleman

In this series, Dr Jessica Moody, unit co-ordinator of the third year Practice-Based Dissertation option, interviews students about their projects and experiences of this unit. The Practice-Based Dissertation was first introduced at Bristol in 2020-21 and enables students to produce a practical, public-facing ‘public history’ output as well as a 5000 word Critical Reflective Report.

In this interview, Jessica talks to Issy Coleman about her project.

JM: Let’s start from the beginning, what made you choose the Practice-Based Dissertation over the standard Dissertation?

IC: I chose the Practice-Based Dissertation over the standard dissertation because, truthfully, I did not want to write another standard history essay. As history students, we have written countless essays during our undergraduate degree, and therefore I felt the Practice-Based Dissertation would give me the opportunity to try something new. It would push me out of my comfort zone, enable me to be creative and original, and develop new skills. I got a taste of what ‘public history’ entailed in the second-year core module ‘History in Public’, as well as the special field unit ‘Remembering Transatlantic Enslavement.’ Both units were hindered due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nevertheless, they were interesting and therefore I knew I wanted to explore the public history field further.

JM: Could you tell us about your public history project?

IC: My public-facing project is a blog on two important histories of Black popular protest in Bristol: the St Pauls disturbance (1980) and the fall of the Colston statue (2020). My blog has several entries on these two events, exploring the themes of race, law and order, and activism. The idea is that each entry allows me to look at different angles and perspectives, placing different lens’ on the history of these two significant events. One of the main goals for my public-facing project was to open the conversation about these two histories. In order to achieve this, I integrated an interactive ‘Padlet’ feature onto my website whereby users could contribute and converse about the topics discussed.

JM: Why did you want to undertake this project?

IC: I think probably because the removal of Edward Colston’s statue is so recent, these are two histories that have not yet been explored together, so my hope was to tread new ground with an original idea and analysis. Additionally, since arriving in Bristol to begin university in late 2018, I have been fascinated by the city’s history, particularly that of transatlantic enslavement. I have since felt passionate to explore the other angles of the city’s history.

Screenshot of Issy Coleman's blog page

JM: What did you enjoy most about the Practice-Based Dissertation?

IC: I really enjoyed the process of creating, designing, and editing my website. I felt very proud to see my ideas come together in one space.

JM: What did you find challenging?

IC: I found it difficult to strike a balance with the language and tone of my blog posts. I tried to limit the use of jargon to make my blog accessible to the widest possible audience as well as maximise user engagement and understanding. I also found writing my report was difficult at times. Previously in my degree, I had never had to reflect on my practice or speak in the first person. It felt particularly strange to acknowledge the aspects of my work that didn’t go so well.

JM: Did you come across any problems that you needed to address or solve?

IC: One problem that I encountered, which is a pertinent issue for public historians, was gaining access to authorised images of the St Pauls disturbance (1980) that could be used on my website. This was made even harder with the pandemic, as I could not visit archives to see available images. In hindsight, this is something that I should have considered earlier in the process.

JM: What do you feel you’ve learnt from this process?

IC: I have learnt how important and relevant public history really is. Understanding the past is a gateway to understanding the present, and public history offers exciting and creative ways that that this can be done.

JM: What do you think public history needs more of? Do you have any reflections or advice from your project for public historians?

IC: Based on public history related literature, collaboration is at the core of the discipline. Therefore, I think that public historians must not only continue to collaborate with each other, but also the general public. It is the public that is at the heart of this strand of history, and so to be successful we must ensure that we are constantly communicating and engaging with them.

JM: What advice do you have for students just starting the Practice-Based Dissertation?

IC: I would probably say start early with creating your public-facing project. From my own experience, creating the website took much longer than I had anticipated. You need to factor in time for things to go ‘wrong’, for example I had serious technical difficulties with my website that I hadn’t really accounted for within my schedule of completion. In addition, this probably applies for both the standard dissertation and the Practice-Based one, but choose a topic you are really interested in. The dissertation is an 8-month process and therefore you need to remain interested in your topic throughout. I think it would be hard to stay motivated otherwise.

JM: How can people find out more about your project?

IC: The blog can be found here.

JM: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

IC: For anyone contemplating whether to choose the Practice-Based Dissertation – go for it! I am so glad that I took this unit as opposed to the standard 10,000-word dissertation, and I know so many people that wish they had chosen it.



South Asian Migrants and Bristol

Our new colleague Dr Sumita Mukherjee looks at the place of Bristol city and university in the modern history of South Asian migration:

David Olusoga’s BBC2 programme Black and British: A Forgotten History has brilliantly demonstrated the ways in which peoples of African descent have been living in Britain since the Roman times, how they have been part of the fabric of British life and society for centuries, how migration and multiculturalism are not twentieth-century phenomena.

It should go without saying that just as men and women of African descent have lived and played their part in British history for centuries, so have men and women from Asia, including men and women from the Indian subcontinent. Much of my research has focused on Indian men and women who came to Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, before the more large-scale migrations of the post-war era.

A study of the effects of such migrations could focus on the city of Bristol. Bristol has many long-standing connections with Indian men and women. These links are publicly noted in College Green with the statue of Indian reformer Rammohan Roy. He came to Britain in 1831, was present at King William IV’s coronation, and politicians and philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Macaulay and Robert Owen all clamoured to meet with him. He was a vocal champion of women’s rights, and human rights more broadly.


Rammohan Roy statue at College Green, Bristol. Original image & CC licence here.

In 1833, staying in Bristol with Minister Lant Carpenter and his daughter, Mary, Roy died of suspected meningitis. He was buried in Bristol. A few years later, Dwarkanath Tagore, the father of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, shifted Roy’s grave to Arnos Vale and erected a monument; Roy’s tomb at Arnos Vale Cemetery is grade 2 listed, a tourist attraction and remains a site of commemoration for members of the Brahmo Samaj, the reformist group he founded.


Image of Rammohan Roy tomb at Arnos Vale (author’s own image).

Mary Carpenter moved to Red Lodge after the death of Roy, and it was there that she hosted, Keshub Chunder Sen, another Brahmo Samaj reformer, on his tour of England in 1870. Carpenter tried to make Sen comfortable by preparing  ‘curry and rice’ for him in her Elizabethan drawing room, and together they formed the ‘National Indian Association’, first in Bristol (September 1870) and then in London (1871), as a place for Indian visitors to meet like-minded British people and to discuss reform issues.

Bristol was eulogised by many Brahmo Samajists and so Mary Carpenter hosted many other Indian visitors in the nineteenth century who came to pay their respects at Roy’s grave, and to build networks among like-minded reformers. They include Sasipada Banerji, whose son was born on 10 October 1871 at Carpenter’s house and named Albion, after his birth place. The family returned to India in 1872, but Albion came back later to Britain to study at Oxford.

Indeed, in the early twentieth century, the largest foreign student body at British universities were Indian students. Many Indians were encouraged to visit Britain to pursue higher education, having been educated in institutions in India that were modelled on British schools and colleges. In the academic year 1930-1, Bristol University had 28 Indian students. As John Reeks has discovered, one of those students, Man Mohan Singh, attempted to be the first Indian to fly from England to India in 1930. He was unsuccessful.

Another noteworthy example is Sukhsagar Datta, who came to Britain in 1908. He married Ruby Young in 1911, and joined the University of Bristol Medical School in 1914, qualifying as a doctor in 1920. He first worked at the Bristol General Hospital, and eventually the Stapleton Institution (now called Manor Park Hospital) until his retirement in 1956. Datta joined the Labour Party in 1926 and became chair of Bristol North Labour Party in 1946.

Bristol continued to host, and became home, for many more men and women of Indian origin. Many of these stories have yet to be uncovered; their names are hidden in censuses, their faces obscured in photos. Their stories are interwoven with other migrant groups, and together they have shaped the architecture and history of Bristol and Britain.