MBS 2021: Programme and Registration

“We Are Still Here: a PGR Research Showcase”, our summer 2021 conference, is fast approaching! Register here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/we-are-still-here-a-pgr-research-showcase-tickets-147765150543

Please see the programme below, which is also available for download:

CALL FOR PAPERS: We Are Still Here! A PGR Research Showcase.

The Centre for Modern British Studies at the University of Birmingham presents its 2021 Conference We Are Still Here! A PGR Research Showcase, a conference created by Postgraduate Researchers, for Postgraduate Researchers. After a year of limited opportunities but continued research, this conference provides a space to celebrate the perseverance and adaption of academic research across a range of fields. See the CFP below or download pdf below.

Guest Blog: International Students at the University of Birmingham in The Guild News 1958-1962

This is a guest blog by current undergraduate students Rahma Mohamed and Tamanna Rakib. They undertook this research as part of the recent conference on Becoming Birmingham: History, Diversity and Collaboration, organised by MBS MA graduate Ellen Smith. Here, Mohamed and Rakib present their findings from the Guild News in greater detail.

The opportunity to delve into our University’s past through the student newspaper The Guild News was an invaluable way to bring to the fore experiences of international students. 1958 to 1962 was an interesting period of investigation regarding foreign students in the wake of World War II. Analytical signposts we considered to guide our research were student events, student societies, student profiles and student interaction with international politics.

Image from the Guild News showing a Canadian Candle light dance performed by Sita at an International Evening
Pictures from the events that had happened in previous years would often be included as a way to encourage more people to attend. UB/GUILD/F/4/9

In our appraisal of student events we focused on two recurrent ones – the International Evening and Overseas Freshers’ Conference. International Evenings’ popularity reflected a positive cultural exchange – it was said that ‘people had to be turned away’ (October 1958, p.3). By 1958, the International Evening was in its sixth year and was advertised as including dances from Estonia, Poland, and an Israeli choir. The Overseas Freshers’ Conference to help foreign students acclimatise to Birmingham debuted in 1958 with 44 international students attending.  By 1961, The Guild News reported that there were 2500 international students in the West Midlands and the Overseas Freshers Conference was amplified as a result of this growing number. Therefore, whilst interaction with international students was limited, it was burgeoning by the late twentieth century. Significant to historical research, events like the conference provided the only student profile of an international female student from 1958 to 1962, Miss Izzat Alibhai! Beyond these set events were a plethora of additional ones, like the International Brains Trust which, however minor, still provided an essential paper trail.

Furthermore, there were ‘80 societies, plus the Guild societies function in the Guild’ (March 1960, p.3). Within such a framework was evidence of active foreign students’ engagement in UoB life and their home countries. Societies prompting cultural exchanges occurred via the Arab and Israeli societies’ cultural exhibitions (1960), the French and Jewish societies’ plays (1960) and the World University Services which annually held an international week at UoB. An example of international students’ engagement in their home countries affairs was the charity ball held by the South African Society (1959). Many of these societies (like the French and Indian societies) appreciated the cooperation of notable figures, namely cultural delegate for the West Midlands Mr A. Favre and the permanent secretary of the Guild, promising a picture of broadened interactions with foreign students between 1958 to 1962. 

Locating individual profiles throughout the newspaper was also incredibly helpful. Profiles of Medical student Sadrudin Jivani and Chemical Engineering student Ahmed Qidwai demonstrated the way in which international students both excelled academically and with regards to their involvement with student social life. Hamid Noshirvani’s profile was of particular interest as he shared the different adjustments international students would have to make, whilst also stating that international students were hesitant to return back to the Middle East due to instability. Demonstrating the role of the newspaper in facilitating a conversation between the student, international student Tarik Al Irhayim responded by attributing the instability of the Middle East to the meddling of the West and argued international students were actually eager to return.

Not only had Sadrudin Jivani been the first to take his second year exams with a beard, he had also won Fresher of the Year even though he played no sports and was unable to speak proper English. His main motivation was to simply prove he could do it. UB/GUILD/F/4/9

The newspaper as a forum for opposing views to be voiced would also emerge following the publication on the front page in 1961 of a racist letter that had been sent to Mike Thickett, the Chairman of the S.C.A.R.S (Students Committee Against Racial Segregation) society. Set up in the wake of racial segregation in South African universities, S.C.A.R.S were no strangers to racism and the purpose in publicising this letter had been to show that racism did not just exist in South Africa but was present here in the UK. Whilst some chose to believe the letter was doctored, there was evidence that ethnic minority students were upset that this opinion had been plastered on the front page. This could be attributed to the fact that it was well known that they would have been potentially already have been exposed to the racist views present in Birmingham, especially when looking for accommodation.

Although we only spent our time researching four years of The Guild News, we found a wealth of information about international students that was not included in our final presentation or indeed this blog. In that sense, there is still a lot of work to be done to better understand their experiences at University of Birmingham.

MBS2021: An Update

Two years ago, I was eagerly anticipating welcoming a few hundred Modern British Studies scholars to Birmingham for three days of cutting-edge research presentations in overly warm rooms and intense discussions in the sunshine over buffet lunches. For obvious reasons, nothing of that sort will be possible this summer.

So, first, the sad news: there won’t be a full-scale MBS2021 this summer.

The good news: a team of brilliant postgraduates is working on a smaller-scale set of online conversations organized around the theme of Resistance and Recovery. Make a note in your diary for the week of 5 July, and watch this space.

Like most of us, I’m giving a lot of thought these days to what conferences of the future should be like. Even once it’s safe to gather again, we will need to think carefully about the climate impact of our gatherings. I want to think equally carefully about how to foster conversations that work against the systems of borders and global hierarchies that structure and often stifle our work. I hope that the wider MBS community can be a site for those conversations, and I hope that we find ways to nourish the vitality of our shared work despite the overwhelming pressures of the last year.

by Mo Moulton, director of the Modern British Studies Centre.

Call for Participants: The life narratives of women who attended Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp 1981-2000

This Call for Participants is from MBS postgraduate researcher Rose Debenham.

I am interested in collecting oral testimonies from people who had a variety of experiences with Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. If you spent any length of time at the camp, I would like to hear about your experiences.


I am conducting an oral history research project for a PhD at the University of Birmingham exploring the life narratives of women who attended Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp between 1981-2000. I am examining how women’s identities were shaped and presented throughout their lives and through their participation in activism.

I would like to conduct digital interviews with you if you fulfil one or more of the following criteria:

  • You stayed at Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp
  • You attended Greenham as a day visitor
  • You visited or stayed at Greenham as a child

In collecting oral testimonies, I want to understand your feelings about what it meant to attended Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp as well as hear your wider life story. I am also interested in finding out more about the following topics:

  • How do you think about your past identities and experiences?
  • What was your life outside of the immediate space of Greenham Common?
  • What do you think about the personal and historical legacy of Greenham Common?

By taking part in this project, you will allow for individual perspectives on these subjects to be recognised and made visible in the historical record. Complete anonymity is guaranteed for all participants, if desired. For more information and if you are interested in taking part in this project, please email Rose Debenham on RXD442@student.bham.ac.uk to arrange an informal conversation prior to interview.

Becoming Birmingham: History, Diversity and Collaboration (16 December)

International students and global connections are part of the University of Birmingham’s DNA, but recent movements such as ‘Decolonising the Academy’ show this can sometimes go overlooked. A range of speakers, from students to lecturers, have been invited to share their thoughts and findings at the ‘Becoming Birmingham: History, Diversity and Collaboration’ conference, which has been generously funded by the University’s Green Heart Festival, adding ideas of ‘diversity’ to its impressive series of celebrations. The conference seeks to provide an introduction to the University’s and the wider city’s history of engagement with people from around the world.

Join us to hear about the exciting research that a group of University of Birmingham student volunteers, from undergraduate to doctorate level, have been conducting in the University Archives on these themes of ‘History’, ‘Diversity’ and ‘Collaboration’. Alongside these short presentations, we have an exciting line-up of three key speakers: Dr Manu Sehgal (University of Birmingham), Dr Michell Chresfield (University of Birmingham), Dr Pippa Virdee (De Montfort University), and an external guest from the organisation, Beatfreeks.

All welcome, but registration essential:
The conference will take place via Zoom, 14:00-16:30 on 16 December 2020. Please email the organiser, Ellen Smith: ecss3@leicester.ac.uk with any questions about the event. Looking forward to seeing you all soon for this end-of-term research afternoon.


14:00 – 14:10 Welcome.

14:10 – 14:30 Dr Manu Sehgal (Lecturer, University of Birmingham).

14:30 – 14:40 Rahma Mohamed and Tamanna Rakib (University of Birmingham history undergraduate students).

14:40 – 15:00 Dr Michell Chresfield (Lecturer, University of Birmingham).

15:00 – 15:15 Q&A with all speakers.

15:15 – 15:25 Break.

15:25 – 15:35 India Nathan (University of Birmingham, Modern British Studies MA alumna).

15:35 – 15:55 Dr Pippa Virdee (Reader in Modern South Asian History, De Montfort University).

15:55 – 16:10 Eugene Thabo Hilton (Community Developer, Don’t Settle, BEATFREEKS).

16:10 – 16:25 Q&A with all speakers.

16:25 – 16:30 Closing remarks.

Upcoming Seminar: Gender Trouble in British Interwar Student Life

profile pic 2019
Dr Emily M. Rutherford

We are delighted to welcome Dr. Emily Rutherford, who will be speaking to the Centre for Modern British Studies as part of the BRIHC Seminar Series 2020-21.

Currently a junior research fellow at Merton College, Oxford, Dr Rutherford is a historian of gender, sexuality, and education in modern Britain.

Her talk will be online and open to all.

Date & Time: Tuesday, 1 December, 2pm GMT

To register: University of Birmingham staff & students can use this Canvas link. Everyone else, please contact BRIHC director Dr Klaus Richter for the registration link: K.Richter@bham.ac.uk.

Our New PhDs: Dr Shahmima Akhtar and the Cultural History of Irish Identity on Display

Name: Shahmima Akhtar

Title of PhD thesis: ‘A public display of its own capabilities and resources’: A Cultural History of Irish Identity on Display, 1851-2015

Supervisors: Sadiah Qureshi, Mo Moulton, Nathan Cardon

Tell us a bit about how you came to do a PhD.

I came by the decision to do a history undergraduate on the basis of what A-Level I most enjoyed (the other contenders were English Literature and Psychology) and so there was no grand plan as to what to do after university. However, in the third year of my UG, a Masters was suggested to me by a seminar tutor and soon to be MA and PhD supervisor. I enjoyed the research elements of my UG the most and was really looking forward to the dissertation side of things. I had always been interested in exhibitions – my UG dissertation was a comparison of an exhibition on George Catlin in the National Portrait Gallery and the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in 2012 compared to Catlin’s display of his own paintings in the nineteenth century. I came across an Irish Village during my MA which was really intriguing to me because I had always conceived of displayed objects and people as reserved for those ‘othered’ in traditional western discourse. For instance, Catlin portrayed American Indians in his artworks. I was very intrigued as to the display of the Irish within Britain, Ireland and the US, which became the subject of my Master’s dissertation in the form of a case study of an Irish village and a PhD topic on a broader study of exhibitions of Ireland in world’s fairs in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

What’s your thesis about?

My research looks at key historical moments between Britain and Ireland and centres the visions of Ireland that were portrayed in the exhibitions of the time. I argue that display became a key platform for the Irish to work out their politicised existences in conjunction with the political and economic sphere as a cultural history of Ireland on display. It starts with the first exhibition in 1851 (the famous Crystal Palace) to consider post-famine exhibitions and then moves to consider Irish migration to the US and the displays of the 1890s, particularly in Chicago. By following the nation building processes of the Irish populace, I consider the early twentieth century displays and Home Rule debates as well as the inter-war period to demonstrate how the visual arena of exhibitions accommodated diverse political needs according to different audiences of Irish, British and American contemporaries.

Tell us about researching the thesis.

I thoroughly enjoyed researching my thesis and was able to travel to the United States and Dublin for archival work (which was luckily funded by M3C). I mainly dealt with textual sources such as exhibition reports and guides, as well as newspaper clippings and a vast array of visual materials in the form of postcards and photographs. The highlight was spending two weeks in the stunning Library of Congress in Washington DC poring over all manner of catalogues and ephemera from the exhibitions.

What was your biggest surprise in the process of doing the PhD?

How much time it took to actually write anything I wanted to keep. I re-wrote and re-wrote things to the point at which they became completely unrecognisable from the first draft. And I am still doing this in trying to turn the PhD into a book! It all became part of the process of developing ideas and working out my argument but often it was a very slow and frustrating process of looking at the same piece of work over and over but eventually it’s something I was proud of!

A work of history that you admire?

Priya Gopal, Insurgent Empire. Whilst only published very recently, the book’s focus on anti-colonial resistance by colonised groups and individuals is an empowering intervention in Empire Studies. Given the pro-empire stance that has been uncovered with Brexit it feels immensely important to highlight resistance to imperial rule at all times, both historically and in the contemporary period. By centring the voices of intellectuals, freedom fighters and revolutionaries, agency is restored to those who were colonised against their will. The book demonstrates the power of history to expand our ideas of well-studied areas and concurrently empower those in the current fight against a resurgence of empire in twenty-first century Britain.

Any thoughts on History and the pandemic?

The New York Times has put together a list of must-read books on the pandemic. By week gazillion of lockdown I may be tempted to have a look…

If you could offer one piece of advice to new postgraduate researchers, what would it be?

Don’t worry! It can sometimes seem like the questions are too big or the research is too difficult to analyse but the answers or at least some semblance of answers will come to you. Just take your time and enjoy the process as much as you can, you picked the topic for a reason, you will have a eureka moment and it will click together at some point.

What are your hopes for the future?

I am going to start a lectureship at Royal Holloway University from autumn this year so an academic career is on the cards!

Our New PhDs: Dr Howard Carlton on Cosmology, Chronology and Crises

This is the first in a new occasional series of interviews with some of the folks who have recently defended their PhDs here at the Centre for Modern British Studies at the University of Birmingham. In the current absence of in-person celebrations, we celebrate them and their work here.

Name: Howard Carlton

Title of PhD thesis: Cosmology, Chronology and Crises: trauma and the evolution of the universe in the nineteenth century.

Supervisors: Dr David Gange and Dr Sadiah Qureshi


Tell us a bit about how you came to do a PhD.
My first degree was in Biology in the early 1970s. I began a full-time PhD at Oxford but was constrained by financial and logistical difficulties. The ambition remained, however, throughout my working career in IT and when I retired at a relatively early age I took up the academic baton once more. I switched to history as it had always been an interest, encouraged by my father’s choice of reading, and had regretted having to give up the subject at school despite having had a really enthusiastic and inspirational teacher. As a prerequisite I completed an MA in the History of Christianity at UoB with David (Gange) and then began the lengthy process of researching and delivering a PhD thesis on a part-time basis.

What’s your thesis about?
My thesis argues that the significant impacts of existential trauma, life threatening illness and psychoactive substances on the apparently rational intellectual processes associated with the development of scientific thought have not to date been fully recognised. Whilst the historiography of the development of ideas about the origins and ongoing oversight of the cosmos has for some time acknowledged the influences of social, cultural and material factors it is now necessary to build on the recent turn to the history of emotions to establish an understanding of the influences of psychology and physiology on the selection of selves to be performed by the subject.

The thesis details the evidence available from the lives of a number of nineteenth-century astronomers which informs our understanding of the complex inter-relationships between psyche and soma that drove parallel changes of perspective in theology, metaphysics, and ideology as well as cosmology. Application of this frequently overlooked mode of interpretation will allow historians to achieve a greater understanding of the underlying phenomena which actuated intellectual developments in the past and which are still relevant to today’s knowledge-making processes.

Tell us about researching the thesis.
Many nineteenth-century publications and relevant secondary sources are now available online, so much of my research time was spent working with a laptop, trying to remember to make a note of any reference which I might later make use of. There were a few archive trips which provided a stimulating leavening of the digital spadework. I particularly enjoyed a trip to Birr Castle in the midlands of Ireland where the papers of Lord Rosse, a noted telescope builder, and his various astronomical correspondents are held. Other trips to the Royal Society in London and Leeds University yielded interesting insights into the mentalities of Sir John Herschel and Edward Clodd respectively.

Lord Rosse’s telescope, then


Lord Rosse’s telescope, now

What was your biggest surprise in the process of doing the PhD?
I suppose the thing that surprised me most was that I was able to start the journey without knowing where it would end. There was no clear eureka moment. As I became more familiar with my subjects and also did the ‘reading around’ recommended by my two excellent supervisors, a new hypothesis gradually emerged and in the fullness of time became my main argument.

A work of history that you admire?
A book which I admire (and can only aspire to emulate from some considerable distance) is Boyd Hilton’s Age of Atonement. He forensically dissected the many flavours of theological thinking which influenced the political and economic policies of the period in which much of my thesis is set.

Any thoughts on History and the pandemic?
The current situation with Covid-19 and our response to it reminds me that similar problems have, of course, occurred in the past. There is at the moment a justifiable perception that the disease strikes randomly and death, normally a distant prospect for many people, is hovering more closely. Our predecessors often fell back on theological tropes as explanations for who could or would be infected and as consolation for the dying and bereaved. This palliative is no longer available to many and we are still struggling to find viable alternatives – hence the initially high, now wavering, trust that the similarly faith-based and equally schismatic new religion of science will save the day.

If you could offer one piece of advice to new postgraduate researchers, what would it be?
In retrospect, I think that one key learning which takes a while to dawn on a PhD candidate (and that no-one is likely to tell you) is that you will, in due course, become the expert in the necessarily narrow field in which you have become immersed. You will eventually find that you have to take the initiative and move beyond your supervisors’ subject knowledge whilst at the same time remaining sensitively attuned to their sage advice on relevant historiography and broader questions of style and structure.

What are your hopes for the future?
I have submitted several proposals for a monograph based on my thesis to publishers (one at a time, not all at once) and am awaiting a further response from the current recipient. Initial reaction seems favourable but only time will tell …

‘Constructing Histories’: exploring the potential of charity archives

On Wednesday 1 July 2020, the University of Birmingham will be hosting a conference exploring the value of charity archives. The event will bring together academics, researchers, aid workers, and archive professionals. Adopting an inter-disciplinary approach, the conference will examine the unique value of charity archives in exploring new perspectives in a range of disciplines such as the history of medicine, education, post-colonial studies, and humanitarianism.


Material in the Save the Children Archives includes papers relating to Eglantyne Jebb, one of the founders of the charity

The Study Day aims to provide space for critical reflection of the activities of various charitable agencies throughout the 20th century and towards the present day. Although part of the day will focus on work undertaken by the Save the Children Fund (SCF), we wish to include papers which focus on other charitable organisations, in order to develop connections and identify similarities and differences within the sector.

A call for papers has been issued with a deadline for submissions of 27 March 2020. We would especially welcome paper proposals that engage with aspects of:

  • How charity archives support any aspect of academic research;
  • Diversity, race and inclusion within charity archives;
  • The value of oral history to organisations’ institutional memory;
  • The challenges of managing and accessing charity archives in the digital age;
  • And the wider question, do organisations make enough use of their own history?



Shelves of newly catalogued material in the SCF archive

Papers should be a maximum of 20 minutes in length. Preference will be given to those proposals which stimulate dialogue and debate, and engage with broader topics. Please send enquiries and proposals of no more than 300 words, by Friday 27 March 2020, to: special-collections@bham.ac.uk

This event is being arranged as part of a two-year Wellcome Trust funded project to enhance access to the Save the Children archive which is held at the Cadbury Research Library. The archive comprises 2000 boxes of administrative papers, project reports, publications, photographs, and ephemera. The archive is currently being fully catalogued and preserved as part of a Wellcome Trust funded project to enhance access and discoverability of this incredible resource for research.

We are currently half-way through this project and, so far, over 8000 individual catalogue records have been created in CALM, our archival management system. These catalogue records are rich in detail and comprise metadata which will aid individuals’ research. Over 800 boxes of material has been fully catalogued; re-housed into acid-free folders and boxes; and screened for Data Protection issues. Closure decisions are now clearly documented and accompanied by release dates, thereby providing clarity and transparency to researchers.

When the project is completed in December 2020, researchers at the University of Birmingham – and further afield – will have access to an incredible resource for the study of humanitarianism in the 20th century.

Mark Eccleston

Archivist and Project Manager