Working Paper No. 2

Instead of a regular blog piece this week, we draw your attention to MBS Birmingham’s 2nd Working Paper.

The paper was produced by the postgraduate students associated with the centre. It is a response to some of the ideas set out in Working Paper No. 1, a reflection on the state of the field and academic life more generally.

Working Paper No. 2 makes a number of important arguments. We hope you find it as stimulating and engaging as we have.


“Dossers”: Campaigning on Homelessness 1960-1990

Nick Crowson’s Special Subject Group have been examining NGOs publicity and campaigning on homelessness in the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s.

They were tasked with creating new promotional campaigns evocative of the changes in the marketing strategies of Shelter through the ages.

We thought we would share their efforts with the MBS blog.

First up – the age of the ‘rediscovery’ of poverty and redefinitions of what it meant to be poor in a welfare state….

Reimagining Shelter's campaigning of the 60s

Second, homeless groups’ politicization and response to the Thatcherite rhetoric on housing.

Shelter style promotions 1980s

Third, NGOs attempts to narrate poverty and emphasis on human rights during the 1990s.

Shelter 90s

We see lucrative careers in marketing and the NGO/charitable sector in the future….

After Paris: Keeping our buildings and minds open

Gavin Schaffer

Gavin Schaffer

In the wake of the Paris shootings the Daily Mail, and other national newspapers, reported with sadness that Britain’s Jewish community had been forced to take additional security measures, and received increased police support, in advance of its Sabbath services.  While this is factually correct, my initial reaction is that the realities of change will be minimal for Britain’s Jews, who are already well used to functioning in a climate of fear and tension. For as long as I can remember, all Jewish community activities, from synagogue services to schools and youth clubs, have involved a significant security presence. For Britain’s Jews, it has historically been entirely normal to gather in secure buildings policed by volunteer security guards, who work in a close relationship with local police. You can’t just wander into a Jewish building in Britain, at least not in London or other major cities.

Nationwide, Jewish security arrangements are coordinated through a charitable trust, the CST.  They monitor antisemitism, produce research and intelligence, and provide on-the-ground security for community events. CST is a big deal. Indeed it is one of the top ten Jewish charities in Britain with an annual turnover in excess of seven million pounds. At a local level, things can feel a little more ad-hoc. Synagogue volunteers take it in turns ‘on security’, including my 70-year-old dad. Of course, this kind of community initiative would probably not have stopped the Paris attacks from taking place. Having people on lookout stops you being seen as an easy target. It probably doesn’t prevent determined, military-trained and armed terrorists. For me, Jewish security has always felt a little like the Home Guard. My dad is determined to help defend his community – Jackie Chan, he ain’t.

Security measures within the Jewish community are so normal, so long term, that we don’t tend to notice. And I would be very surprised if recent events changed anything much. Historically, fears have been different, but the effect much the same. In the interwar period, community action meant defending buildings and people from Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and likeminded groups. Similarly, in the postwar, even when I was growing up in the 1980s, it was the far right that was seen as the primary threat. Throughout, fears have not been imaginary. In the 1960s, fascist leaders like Colin Jordan and John Tyndall were jailed, under public order legislation, for plotting to attack British Jewry.

But real as the danger is and has always been, it does not detract from the fact that living a life in the shadow of constant security takes a heavy toll. The money and time is not the issue, though it is a sad diversion from better causes. More important is the psychological impact of constantly feeling threatened and believing that without the barriers between them and us, we would be done for. It is of course true that security drives paranoia, though as any good shrink will confirm, suffering from paranoia doesn’t necessarily mean that people aren’t out to get you! Just to be clear, I would not like to be the one to pull back the security infrastructure around British Jewry. But I feel resentment and anger that it’s there, and am sure that we have not thought nearly enough about what all the security has done to us (as opposed to what it has done for us).

Most British Jews, like most British people, are deeply committed to our imperfect multicultural home. And if we don’t want our cities ever to descend into the fantasised dystopia that ludicrous Fox News commentators already believe to exist, multiculturalism must mean keeping our doors and our minds open, living alongside other Britons in the fullest sense, entering into each other’s lives and homes as friends, neighbours and colleagues. Our houses of prayer, our community buildings, should be prominent cultural resources, enriching our city landscapes, not hidden behind high fences or barbed wire. Sadly, some of Britain’s most remarkable Jewish buildings aren’t even signposted for fear of the attention they may attract.

The point I am making is not primarily for/or about British Jews.  Community security is far from just a Jewish affair and there is little doubt that it is British Muslims who face the greatest threat in the current climate. Instead, it is a plea to all Britons to hold our ground in the aftermath of last week’s attacks. Because if Paris makes us build new walls around ourselves or ushers in a new wave of security arrangements it will do so at the cost of our conviviality. And in the long run, this might cause a bigger problem than it solves, especially when measures are ill equipped to effectively stop the kinds of attacks we are likely to face in any case.

Mike and Trevor Phillips, in their book on Windrush immigration, famously described the rise of British multiculturalism as irresistible. I think they are right, but what is certainly true is that Britain’s present enemies, both fundamentalist religious bigots and the far right, would like to see it resisted. This truly is the battle that’s worth fighting, and it is one where keeping our barriers down might be more important in the long run than trying to defend ourselves with new ones.

Saving teeth, removing inequalities: Fluoridation in Birmingham, 1964-2014

Jonathan Reinarz

Jonathan Reinarz

In June 2014, dozens of people (myself included) gathered in Birmingham Council House to ‘celebrate’ fifty years since fluoride was first added to the city’s water supply. Fluoridation is a process of raising the concentration of fluoride (a naturally occurring mineral) in water (to approximately one part per million) in order to improve a population’s dental health. Water fluoridation in Birmingham started in 1964 and, briefly, extended across the region. Today, approximately 5.5 million people in England drink fluoridated water, the majority located in the midlands and the north east. Rates of fluoridation vary similarly globally, with less than 10% of Canadians in British Columbia, for example, consuming fluoridated water, compared with more than 70% in Manitoba and Ontario. Its promoters claim that the prevalence of tooth decay has declined by as much as a half in all fluoridated regions. Although celebrated by some as a proven public health measure, one might equally question why the event in Birmingham was invitation only and held behind closed doors. Some would argue it has to do with a small and vocal group of opponents who have largely questioned the ‘science’ backing arguments in favour of fluoridation. Faced with conflicting testimony, the majority of people today remain cautious. Noticeable, too, is a growing scepticism of orthodox medicine that began to emerge in the 1960s, just as UK fluoridation campaigns were underway.

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The history of fluoridation begins in the United States, when Colorado dentist Frederick McKay noticed, in 1901, that his patients’ teeth were badly stained, though healthy, while the enamel had a mottled appearance. Similar findings were confirmed in the high-fluoride town of Maldon, Essex, where children’s teeth also had fewer cavities than the national average, despite conspicuous specks, later described as fluorosis. In 1942, Dr H. Trendly Dean of the U.S. Public Health Service first demonstrated the relationship between decay and fluoride content of water, recommending one part per million as an effective preventive level, causing minimal mottling. Fluoride was later introduced in the UK towns of Anglesey, Watford and Kilmarnock, starting in 1955. As fluoride was added to water supplies where it had previously been absent, the results were dramatic. Previously, many children by the age of five had four decayed milk teeth, but this average dropped to only two cavities under the new initiatives. On average, at aged fifteen, 10 of the 28 permanent teeth of every English child were either decayed, missing or filled. With fluoridation, dental practitioners, who were already recognised to be in short supply, could deal more easily with the huge amount of dental work that still remained to be done in communities. An investment of a few pennies per head of urban population was estimated to save millions of pounds in dental expenses, not to mention lost work hours.

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There have been many obstacles to public health campaigns in the past. The use of vaccination to deal with infectious diseases in the nineteenth century, not to mention recent opposition to MMR will be familiar examples to many readers of this blog. Not only do anti-fluoride campaigns share similarities with anti-vaccination debates today, but opponents were also very successful in delaying further fluoridation initiatives. Although the World Health Organisation adopted a resolution recommending member states to fluoridate water supplies that contained low levels of natural fluoride, a resolution that was reaffirmed in 1975, progress was not guaranteed. Four years earlier, Sweden repealed legislation supporting fluoridation. Kilmarnock already ended their scheme a decade earlier, and new initiatives clearly slowed with the reorganisation of local authorities and the National Health Service in April 1974. Between 1974 and 1979, no further plans to implement fluoridation were introduced in England, despite the fact that more than 80% of Area Health Authorities passed resolutions in favour of such intervention.

Cases, both for and against fluoridation, multiplied in pamphlets and local newspapers. Endless attacks and defence campaigns led other organisations, such as the British Consumers’ Association and the Royal College of Physicians, to conduct their own investigations into the practice. Often reports recount identical stories of the earliest trials in Grand Rapids Michigan, but also introduce new theories that capture the zeitgeist of the various campaigns. A 1976 report by the RCP, for example, addressed the idea that fluoridation was a communist plot, as mooted in Stanley Kubrick’s cult classic, Dr Strangelove (1964). Throughout the 1970s, concerns about food additives and contamination from DDT, mercury, and PCBs encouraged new groups to question fluoridation. As a result, at this time, one also begins to see unusual alliances, those on the right of the political spectrum, or religious minorities, joining forces with early environmentalists and health food advocates, for example. Most recently, fluoridation has been linked by its opponents to increasing rates of obesity. Strangely, few contemporary discussions mention thalidomide, but one can be sure it was the elephant in the room during discussions in the 1960s. Interestingly, it was never mentioned in Birmingham Council House last June.

L0071214 The Society for the aid of Thalidomide Children

The context of fluoride campaigns has noticeably changed over the years, and schemes appear to have ‘died on their feet’, as recent challenges to fluoridation in cities like Southampton seem to indicate. Some feel that a change in diet might be the best way to reduce cavities. Others claim the recent decline in tooth decay rates might be associated with fluoridated toothpaste, the use of which has become widespread since the 1960s. Given the ease of implementing such interventions, it has become less burdensome for parents, rather than the state, to care for their children’s teeth. Interestingly, the prosperous south of England appears less willing to adopted fluoridation, a reverse to the pattern seen in countries such as Canada, where poorer regions have been most vocal in their opposition. An investigation into the subject, as is currently being undertaken in the History of Medicine Unit in collaboration with a former practitioner of public health dentistry, can teach us a lot about the way populations have evaluated potential health risks and benefits and certainly how the British people have responded to state intervention in public health over the last half century.

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Further Reading:

Paul Castle, The Politics of Fluoridation: The Campaign for fluoridation in the West Midlands of England (London: John Libbey & Co., 1987).

Catherine Carstairs, ‘Cities without Cavities: Democracy, Risk, and Public Health’, Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol. 44, No. 2 (2010), pp. 146-170.

Brian A. Burt and Scott L. Tomar, ‘Changing the Face of America: Water Fluoridation and Oral Health’, in J. W. ward and C. warren (eds), Silent Victories: The History and Practice of Public Health in twentieth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 307-322.

Allan Freeze and Jay H. Lehr, The Fluoride Wars: How a Modest Public Health Measure Became America’s Longest-Running Political Melodrama (New Jersey: John Wiley & Son, 2009).

Web Links:

Birmingham’s history is for everyone

Chris Callow

Chris Callow

I once worked part-time in the archives service at Birmingham’s old Central Library. That experience taught me that archives services do far more than help with a bit of post-Christmas family history research. They give people an interest in a place, and sense of pride in a place, and they are an effective marketing tool for a city to the wider world.

Even if you’ve never set foot in an archive you might well know that they contain exciting things. TV historians wearing white gloves – usually unnecessarily – often manage to find something precious in them.

Yet the importance of the documents themselves, and the stores in which they sit, is far greater than this simple image suggests; archives aren’t for special occasions and their value goes beyond being historical eye candy. That said, Birmingham was recently voted one of the top ten cities in the world to visit by the travel handbook company Rough Guide; it noted that the Library was a defining feature of the city.

Library of Birmingham

Library of Birmingham

Right now the case for the wider relevance of archives needs to be made because in the UK local authorities are looking for ways to save money by making cuts to archives and library services. In Birmingham, the city council is seeking to reduce opening hours and cut over half the staff in its new, award-winning Library of Birmingham (opened September 2013).

Where these cuts will fall within the library is not clear but it seems reasonable to assume that they will affect the opening hours of the Archives, Heritage and Photography section and reduce its already small number of expert staff. The knowledge that such staff have of the archives is extensive and will be impossible to replace if they are made redundant.

Campaigning is underway to discuss the fate of the library services. Petitions seeking to reverse the cuts to the Library of Birmingham and protect its photograph collections can be signed on-line at Friends of the Library of Birmingham Archives and Heritage have organized a public meeting to discuss the future of the Library on Wednesday.

The public needs to know (as do the decision-makers) what is kept in the stores in the Library of Birmingham (LoB) and the wider importance of those archives . The archives are vast, they are important to many different people for many different reasons, and it is in everyone’s interests, especially those people in Birmingham, that they continue to be readily accessible. Like so many other public services, you only discover their value when you go to use them.

The scale and diversity of the archive at LoB is extraordinary, it being one of the largest municipal archives in the UK. It contains not only the city council’s own archives – one of the most significant collections of documents on a major city’s development anywhere in the world – but everything from key documents on technological development and industrialisation, locally and internationally significant photographic collections, to recent records of new communities in Birmingham (discussed on this blog twice previously).

Birmingham’s inevitable connections with its region, Warwickshire especially, means that, among other things, LoB is home to a renowned and extensive collection of material relating to Shakespeare. This, then, is far more than a place to film an episode of Who do you think you are?, although it serves the family historian very well.

Gillian Wearing's sculpture 'A Real Birmingham Family'.

Gillian Wearing’s sculpture ‘A Real Birmingham Family’.

In fact, given the diversity of records of schools, businesses, hospitals, personal papers and photographs in LoB’s archive, family historians find out more in LoB than they might in other archives or via any genealogy service on the internet. The archive is a testament to the generations of archivists who have helped develop it, continue to develop it, and have ensured that it is one of the UK’s designated collections.

The size and diversity of the LoB’s archive means it attracts a diverse audience. From a staff perspective it takes years to actually understand what the archive contains – or at least I hope my own ignorance of it after a year of working there said more about the archive’s size than my ability to learn.

Finally I want to give three examples of the kinds of different users the service has and why maintaining sufficient opening hours and specialist staffing matters. In some respects these examples are typical, in others they are not.

First is simply of a couple of local boys, both probably about 10 years old, both from British Indian backgrounds. They came to the archive one day, unaccompanied, to find out more about the history of their school – I forget where it was in Birmingham exactly they were from. They spent about an hour looking at the earliest (Victorian) records of their school and asking questions about it.

I am not sure what had led them to visit the archive or how they knew it even existed, but they went away knowing more about their own locality than they had before. Limited access will prevent casual ‘engagement’ with kids from ‘hard to reach’ communities like these two, who no doubt went home and told friends and relatives what they had learnt.

Similarly, the proposed complete cut in LoB’s outreach activities will stop all schools’ use of the archive – over 30 schools used it in 2014. No school children will have their knowledge of Birmingham or knowledge of history enhanced once the new financial regime is in place.

Second, is the case of a young married couple who had just moved to Birmingham and just bought their own house, a Victorian terrace. They came to the archive to research the history of their house via building plans and other records about their street. Like my first pair, these were people just developing an interest in their city but their arrival in Birmingham was clearly their own choice. They clearly valued Birmingham’s cultural offering and it had probably given them a reason to move to the city.

People don’t move to new cities on the strength of their archive or libraries but when these services are available and known about, they help shape an impression of them. At present the LoB is probably a draw for professionals choosing where they live; it would be a mistake to disinvest in the cultural sector and deter people from choosing Birmingham for its ‘canals, culture and housing’.

Last, as a type of user, might be the kind of academic researcher from outside the UK who comes to Birmingham, either annually or for one-off visits, because of the specialist collections which relate to their interests. We used to have a historian from New Zealand who came to Birmingham every year in their vacation to use one or two collections of papers; they wrote books where Birmingham featured heavily and which encouraged others to take an interest in the city.

Other examples of historians of modern Britain visiting the archives are numerous. Sadly, limited opening hours will dissuade scholars from the UK and abroad from visiting Birmingham; they will adapt their research and go elsewhere. Given that University of Birmingham’s History department has just been rated as the UK’s best for research it would hope to capitalise on this and grow its own strengths. New UoB researchers hoping to make use of Archives and Heritage may be disappointed. Like anyone else, they might not be able to find the time during the week to visit an archive which is rarely open, or find a person who works there who can offer them informed advice.

30 Years since Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain

Saima Nasar

Saima Nasar

In December the University of Sussex hosted a workshop to mark thirty years since the publication of Peter Fryer’s landmark book Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. Staying Power is recognised as one of the definitive pieces of scholarship on the history of Black Britain. Fryer’s comprehensive yet accessible text begins in the third century, and maps stories of slavery, chattels, pageant performers, early black organisations, Asians in Britain, racism, black music and so on. The exhaustive, wide-ranging examination concludes with the rebellions in the old slave port cities of London, Liverpool and Bristol during the 1980s.

Among others, speakers at the workshop included Bill Schwarz, Madge Dresser, Gavin Schaffer, Clive Webb and Tony Kushner. The workshop discussed the enduring influence of the book, as well as past, present and future directions in the study of ‘race’. This blog summarises some of the conversations that took place, and highlights some of the pertinent issues raised by the workshop for anyone working on, or interested in, matters concerning ‘race’ today.

Bill Schwarz started the workshop by applauding Fryer’s democratic sensibilities, which Schwarz asserted ultimately ‘served to unlock new dimensions in Black British history’. Describing the book as an ‘anti-colonial epic’, Schwarz recognised the text’s marked shift from orthodox Marxism to libertarianism. Breaking from the kind of radical history commonly associated with the likes of Rodney Hilton, E.P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm, Schwarz positioned Staying Power within a gradual awakening to the significance of ‘race’ and empire, as also found in the works of C.L.R. James, Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy.

Madge Dresser further probed the occlusion of ‘race’ among those who considered it a distraction from class analysis. She persuasively argued for a reassessment of traditional histories. For Dresser, one of the lessons Fryer teaches us is the need to untangle the history of black populations from slavery alone. Tony Kushner’s paper on ‘Getting the Windrush Right’ complemented this line of thinking.

Despite the ‘marginalisation of ‘race’ in the academy today’, Clive Webb and Gavin Schaffer’s panel on ‘race’ and sex neatly demonstrated the active retrieval of occluded histories by contemporary scholars. Webb’s paper dealt with issues of intermarriage and the internalisation of mythologised narratives, particularly in the context of Britain’s perceived progressiveness. Schaffer, evoking the sociological shift in ‘race’ studies, presented on two TV sitcoms: Rainbow City (1967) and Empire Road (1978-9). As tokens of the anti-racism struggle, Schaffer argued that these shows depicted an aspirational relationship of British race relations rather than an accurate reflection of reality.

Overall, the workshop pointed to a number of interesting issues. A common theme running throughout the day was that of positionality and ‘thinking black’. As Fryer was a white journalist, discussion turned to who is best equipped to do black history. In relation to my own work, it questioned both the usefulness and limitations of being of Asian heritage and working on contemporary Asian identities. It also highlighted the importance of seeking to tell the story of non-white Britain by using the voices of non-white Britons.

The workshop also raised questions about ‘the historical moment’. Staying Power was published at a time when the study of Black British history was at the margins, but how much has this changed in the last forty years, and how can those of us in the academy ensure that the history of marginalised populations – be that due to ‘race’, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, disability etc. – are accurately and appropriately documented?

One way to do this is by following Fryer’s masterful approach. Staying Power demonstrated how recovering a history of black people in Britain is not necessarily about visibility, or indeed something that is separate from ‘white history’.

Rather, Fryer showed that the history of the rich and nuanced peopling of Britain should be concerned with the interactions between connected histories. This lesson of connectivity, I feel, is not only testament to the legacy of Staying Power, but it is something that has real practical value for contemporary researchers working on Modern British Studies.