Programme: Rethinking Modern British Studies

Chris Moores

Chris Moores

We are delighted to announce the programme for the Rethinking Modern British Studies Conference that we will be hosting between the 1-3 July.

The full programme is now available to view on the conference pages of our blog, and information about travel, accommodation and accessibility is available. Registration is now open via the University shop, and will remain open until 30 May.

We will be charging a small fee for the event (£15 day rate and £45 for the whole three days), which covers the costs of lunch and drinks over the three days. The charge helps us make the conference entirely free for students, those on part-time or temporary contracts and the unwaged.

As we assembled the programme, we were struck by the number of fantastic proposals from academics at many different stages of their careers. It became rapidly apparent that we needed to extend the time and space available to accommodate as many proposals as possible as well as finding time for our plenary speakers – James Vernon, Deborah Cohen, Stephen Brooke, Seth Koven and Catherine Hall – to contribute. This meant we added an extra afternoon to the conference and expanded the number of panel session beyond our initial expectations.

One of the bigger ideas behind the creation of Modern British Studies at Birmingham was that we could build on existing conversations about the British past and, hopefully, provide a forum for some new ones. History is a collaborative practice – we all build on the work of many different scholars and rely on continuing coversations within and beyond the discipline. It is in this spirit that we planned this conference.

© Brian Clift via Wikimedia Commons -

© Brian Clift via Wikimedia Commons

We set out an intellectual agenda in our collaborative working paper which aimed to help us think together about how we could bring our divergent research interests in synch and to set some serious intellectual challenges for the Modern British Studies staff and students here. The conference is an attempt to look beyond our own campus.

We have not tried to be prescriptive or programmatic about our plans. How could we be, when we do not always agree amongst ourselves? It will probably not surprise anyone to know that attempts to find shared ground has at times been a source of some sharp arguments and quite a lot of gentle bickering between us here. Even so, it has already been hugely productive to think about the connections and disconnections between our work and some of the questions that allow us to join up constructively.

Our Working Paper set out some of the ideas behind the centre and we have also been lucky enough to explore these further in our teaching, in our connections with the city of Birmingham and with our community of PG students, many of who have written for our blog over the past year. This latter group’s own Working Paper was a robust reminder of the different challenges facing new generations of historians. We anticipate hearing more about this during the conference and at a Pre-Conference Postgraduate and Early Career Workshop (more information to appear later) on the 1 July.

Scanning the programme I am struck by the same thoughts that I had when planning our MA programmes and thinking about our plans for Working Papers; that there is a vibrant and dynamic field of scholars determined to examine nineteenth and twentieth century Britain and we are very fortunate to have so many speakers interested in joining us.

We very much look forward to hosting you all at the start of July.

British Council Film Collection – Presenting Britain to a Global Audience

Liz Walker

Liz Walker

In a third blog from the Sites and Source module of our MA in Modern British Studies, Liz Walker writes on the British Council’s documentary films. You can find out how to apply for the MA in Modern British Studies on the University of Birmingham’s website and more info about studying with us and the MA modules on this blog.

Established in 1934, the British Council was tasked with fostering international relations through cultural diplomacy and educational exchange. Governments quickly saw the Council’s potential as a tool in helping shape and promote a particular image of Britain to a global audience. Inspired by the documentary film movement of the 1930s, around 120 short documentary films about British life were commissioned by the Council during the 1940s and were shown in over a hundred countries until the mid-1960s.

A mixture of scripted and unscripted documentary, the collection covers a range of topics, including British history, public services, welfare provision, natural history, science and technology, industry and agriculture, and the workings of governing institutions. Yet there are several themes that can be identified in the collection.

Firstly, Britain is seen as being an advancing industrial country, a modern and productive state built upon mechanised industry and agriculture. Visually arresting, the Technicolour Steel (1945) explains the workings of a foundry and describes steel as being the backbone of Britain’s industrial power, declaring “the finest and truest steel” to be British steel. Innovations in technology and machinery used in British agriculture are told in Power on the Land (1943), underlined by the “close partnership between farmer, machine maker and agricultural engineer”. Both films explicitly place the relationship between skilled worker and machinery as essential in this story of a mechanised Britain, reassuring the viewer that far from the tradition of the steelworker and the farmer being replaced by technology, they are instead fundamental to a modern state’s growing industrial power. Such unbridled optimism over the future of British industry is especially poignant given the deindustrialisation that occurred in later decades.

But the films are keen to stress that this modernising identity has not come at the expense of Britain’s rural past. In many films, a rather genteel vision of small-town British life is portrayed, one that is infused with optimism about the country’s future whilst constantly referring back to its traditions and heritage. Noticeably, these films make little reference to the war.

Set in Lincolnshire, Country Town (1943) introduces the viewer to a ‘typical’ market town with the “old and the picturesque…side by side with the new”. Community life is portrayed as being of good quality, with much of the film showing locals enjoying various pastimes and leisure pursuits. Little is mentioned about the war, but where it has impacted on their lives (i.e. rationing), the narrator frames it as being almost beneficial to the community in having raised their awareness of being part of something bigger and making them more “communal”.

Despite the bulk of the Council’s collection having been produced during wartime, very few of the films make mention of the war and its impact on British life. As such, it gives many of the films a certain ageless aura, showing a Britain that is almost removed from the wider wartime context. (It also likely enabled them to be shown well into the 1960s by not tying them to a particular point in time.) Compare this with much of the Crown Film Unit wartime propaganda output which was far more explicit in acknowledging the ongoing war and people’s experiences of it, such as Target for Tonight (1941), Western Approaches (1944), and Humphrey Jennings’ Listen to Britain (1942).

This may well be down to the nature of the relationship between the British Council and the Ministry of Information. Throughout the war, there was pressure from some within government who felt the Council’s work could be done more efficiently by the MoI which could better co-ordinate the government’s propaganda output. This conflict over the extent to which the Council’s work was considered political propaganda meant that (after much wrangling) it was decided that the Council could continue but had to confine itself to cultural and educational activities, leaving any political propaganda to the MoI but with the Council’s film work still having to be approved by the Ministry prior to distribution.

One final theme in the collection is the notion of citizenship and the individual’s relationship to the state and wider society. A citizen contributes not only to their local community, but the nation as a whole. In return, the state is shown to care for the welfare of its citizens through its public services and institutions. “The protection of the nation’s health is of paramount importance” proclaims the narrator in Health of a Nation (1943), a film that outlines efforts made by local government in providing free healthcare for children, good quality housing and combatting air and water pollution, as well as showcasing the national health insurance and pension scheme.

Health of a Nation

Health of a Nation

The spirit of the Beveridge Report is felt throughout such films, highlighting the improvements to working and living conditions and in welfare provision undertaken during the war which helped pave the way for the post-war welfare state.

The British Council Film Collection clearly does not tell us what Britain was like in the 1940s, but that was never really its intention. Instead, consciously aimed at an overseas audience, the films are about promoting a particular image of Britain to the world. Produced and distributed against the backdrop of a wartime Britain that was soon to be followed by the post-war dismantlement of empire and diminishing global dominance, economic struggle and reconstruction, and the developing Cold War, the films show Britain in a somewhat defensive mode.

They present an image of Britain that is proud of its history but embraces modernity and pursues technological advancement; whose economic strength is built upon its growing industrial, agricultural and scientific sectors; where society’s post-war reconstruction focuses on improving the welfare of its citizens, and who in turn see themselves as being able to contribute to the betterment and progress of the wider society. This collection gives us an insight into how some in Britain wanted to be perceived on the world stage, presenting itself as a resilient and progressive nation with a significant role still to play in the post-war world in a period that is nowadays characterised instead as being one of British decline.

Picture credit: Still taken from “HEALTH OF A NATION” (1943). The film is part of the British Council Film Collection, 120 short documentaries made by the British Council during the 1940s designed to show the world how Britain lived, worked and played. View, download and play with the Collection at

God Bless Manic Street Preachers Fans

George Harvey, MA Student MBS Birmingham

George Harvey, MA Student MBS Birmingham

In a second blog from the Sites and Sources of Modern British Studies, a core module of our Modern British Studies MA, George Harvey writes on fandom, fanzines and the Manic Street Preachers.

Fans seem to get a lot of criticism. Sometimes this is warranted; for example I often laugh at myself for referring to my football team of choice as “we” as though I have any input into what occurs on the pitch. Similarly, it was only last year at the age of twenty-one that I waited for an hour in the cold to meet one of my favourite songwriters.  To many people I know this is not normal behaviour and for some reason as a society in general we appear to look down on those who display their passion as fans most openly.

This stems in part from the fact that the term “fan” is an abbreviation of “fanatic”, but this also delves deeper, belying a level of age and gender prejudice.  Helen Davies has argued that the music press in particular has helped to foster a culture of ridicule around young female fans, and the “assumption of their stupidity” when contrasted with their male counterparts.  As a slightly obsessive fan, and more importantly as a historian, I can’t help but feel we should be embracing the behaviour of those most wrapped up in culture of fandom and attempting to understand its uses as a subject of historical enquiry, rather than criticising it.

A historical assessment of fan culture can lead to useful inquiries into identity, sexuality, and gender amongst other topics; for example Cheryl Cline’s piece “Essays From Bitch” works to highlight the double standard in the acceptability of “crushing” on famous people, in the process ripping apart the concept that “female fans” and “groupies” are synonymous phrases.  However I particularly want to discuss the role the fans themselves play in forming these histories.

Typically down the years fans have presented their devotion to their chosen subject through their outward appearance, physical actions (such as attending concerts or events), and through discussions with other fans.  In fact, productivity and participation are key aspects of fans’ devotion, and these elements of fan culture have been added to in recent years by the use of the internet to help link those with shared interests.

The rise of blogging in particular has aided these connections and also allowed devotees to embrace creative reactions to their heroes, whether through photo editing, journal writing, or again simply by discussing their chosen interest with like-minded people.  From a historical perspective, this is fantastic – not only do we now have access to quasi-databases storing information on certain musicians, actors, and writers, but these sites also act as a means of studying the fans themselves.  Historians are now provided with a means of surveying the depth of obsession; an insight into identity of fans and the ways in which they are formed.

One of my favourite examples of this fan culture is displayed by followers of the Welsh rock band Manic Street Preachers.  Emerging from Blackwood, Caerphilly in the early 1990s, the Manics (as they are more affectionately known) failed their initial aim of selling sixteen million copies of their debut album and immediately disbanding, instead battling on through the disappearance of lyricist Richey James Edwards in 1995 to become one of the biggest bands in Britain the following year.  Since then commercial and critical success has ebbed and flowed for the band, with their twelfth effort Futurology gaining wide acclaim last year (go and listen to it, it’s a masterpiece).  However despite their turbulent backstory, one particular aspect of the band’s existence has remained consistent throughout – the incredible devotion of their core fanbase.

James Dean Bradfield

James Dean Bradfield

Manics folklore has long maintained that you can tell a fan of the band by spotting one, or all of the following indicators – some form of leopard print clothing, dark eyeliner, and feather boas.  However, not only do these devotees quite literally wear their influences on their sleeves, not only do they willingly camp out over night to be at the very front of the crowd at gigs, but they also take to the internet in droves to compile an incredible set of self-made and self-curated resources.  For example, not only displays a fantastic level of information on the disappearance of the missing Manics member, but is linked to a collection of over two hundred newspaper and magazine articles, a wealth of primary source material for a the perusal of a historian.

Similarly useful sites include and, blogs which offer impressive summaries of the band’s immense discography, focussing heavily on breaking down the lyrical content that is so important to the very nature of the Manics.  Wider fan input and discussion can be witnessed on the fansite and forum, meanwhile provides a fantastic rundown of the fanzines created and distributed in the 1990s which, if located, offer a real opportunity to study the creative aspects of fan support in this period in a similar manner to Lucy Robinson’s work on the Riot Grrrl bands of the 1990s.  Furthermore, one common theme to all of these sites is the way in which they collate large numbers of fans, who could be contacted for further information by a historian who wishes to study this material further, possible through the form of interview.

So where am I going with this? As previously mentioned, the accumulation of primary source material by fans can be used not only to discuss those adored by their supporters, but to also study the very nature of fandom.  Therefore, to study the Manics’ fans, one could engage on a discursive level, and study the ways in which language is used by their followers to display their devotion.  Equally, a historian could look at the manner in which music can influence its listeners, in terms of outward appearance, political views, and wider cultural intake.

For example, utilising this description of one of most widely recognised Manics songs “A Design for Life” allows us to envisage the meaning this track holds for fans of the band.  Not only does this article provide a breakdown of the song’s music and lyrics, but it also explains why the song is so significant for the bands followers, explaining that as the song closes most gigs since the year 1996, it is “integral to the Manics live experience”.  Similarly the article suggests that as time has passed, extensive airplay had made the track “a little harder to enjoy now”, showcasing some of the difficulties fans face when bands they follow push fully into the musical mainstream.

These aren’t easy projects, and these sources still leave considerable gaps in the quest to understand the nature of fandom, not least because these websites only provide a set number of opinions and experiences.  Either way, more material and far greater levels of wider reading and knowledge on the nature of fandom and subcultures than I possess would be needed.  However, having stumbled upon such a wealth of primary source material I figured the one job I could do would be to point this out to those who have the ability to take it further.

So next time you feel the urge to scoff when you see a row of sleeping bags outside the Roundhouse, or laugh at a teenager’s blog post on the subject they love the most, step back for a second and consider the possibilities these fans have for your historical research.  There may well be a new avenue for you to head down entirely paved by the work of these loyal supporters.

‘This is London Calling’: Whose Britain are we listening to in Listen to Britain?

Kathryn Robinson

Kathryn Robinson

In the first of a series of blogs by students taking the Sites and Sources of Modern Britain module on our MBS MA Programme, MBS member Kathryn Robinson reflects on Humphrey Jennings’ Listen to Britain and the use of film in historical research. You can find more about the MA programme here.

During the Second World War, the stirring melody of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.17 in G could be heard echoing against the empty walls of the National Gallery. At the piano was renowned pianist Myra Hess. When she embarked upon the intricate piano part, the members of the audience were listening to a woman with a Germanic name playing a piece by an Austrian composer in their lunch hour before resuming their war work to help secure Britain’s victory. A strange situation to say the least!

The aim of Listen to Britain was to capture the various sounds of Britain at war in a narrative form. From the outset, it is crucial to notice that it is as much about what the viewer sees as what they hear. Apart from a National Gallery concert, the film features tanks thundering through a rural village; women working in factories; Flanagan and Allen’s rhythmic swaying to accompany their singing of ‘Round the Back of the Arches’ in a workers’ canteen and a rousing chorus of ‘Rule Britannia’ as the film finishes.

In 1942, the USA had joined the war on the allied side, the allies had secured important military victories and the initial stages of the Blitz, though utterly devastating, had largely passed. There was much to boost morale but there were still many reasons why the morale of the nation needed boosting. It was as part of this atmosphere that Humphrey Jennings created Listen to Britain.

The Crown Film Unit, part of the Ministry of Information, produced films as part of a cinema programme because the MOI recognised cinema’s potential to ‘further the national cause’ and to ‘sustain civilian morale’. [2] Jennings had already helped to create Mass-Observation before the war which allowed the MOI to study morale. The popularity of his films meant that a certain portrayal of Britain was successfully being given to his audiences.

herefore, when viewing Listen to Britain it is important to ask three questions. Whose Britain are we listening to? Then, whose Britain is missing? And finally, when these questions have been answered, what are the ways that this film can be used as a source for modern British history? Perhaps the most obvious conclusion is that we are listening to Jennings’s vision of Britain but the film has more complexity than this conclusion gives.

Britain as a concept is presented in a fascinating way in the film. As was often the case during the war, ‘Britain’ was synonymous with England or London. The broadcaster announcing ‘This is London calling’ and the chimes of Big Ben puts London at the centre of British identity. Although footage of mining and factory work is shown, its exact location in Britain is unclear and this ambiguity excludes references to Britain’s component parts.

From Canadian soldiers singing ‘Home on the Range’ to the National Gallery concert, the film creates the paradoxical situation in which ‘listening to Britain’ is actually listening to Britain’s global links. It was also shown in the USA and some were concerned that the film would make Britain look like a museum piece. [3] However, the addition of the foreword – Leonard Brockington K.C. praising Britain for its determination in the face of conflict, heard in ‘the sound of her life by day and by night’ – ensured the clarity of the film’s motives.

Thirdly, the film presents a relatively prosperous wartime Britain. It shows people getting on with their lives whether at work or in leisure time and the three shots of a workers’ canteen menu board during one scene is just one example which shows Jennings’s desire to show Britain succeeding in the war.

However, listening to prosperous wartime Britain reveals the most obvious omission from the film. Apart from broken windows and sandbags in the National Gallery, it fails to portray the devastation caused by air-raids or their impact on the British people. This suggests that the story of the victims of war is missing from this portrayal of Britain; the theme of the ‘Blitz spirit’ is more prominent than a struggle in the face of devastation.

It is also startling in a film entitled ‘Listen to Britain’ during the Second World War that excerpts from the speeches of Winston Churchill are not heard. Indeed, apart from the chimes of Big Ben, there is no reference to the government at all. This however can be understood in the context of Jennings’s aim to show the ordinary lives of the British people seen both in his films and in the work of Mass-Observation.

The film’s omissions lead to how this film can be used as a historical source. They enable us to assess how true a representation of wartime Britain the film was. Bomb damage was not included in the film so as not to damage morale and this is another way in which the film could be used: to understand what Jennings and the Crown Film Unit believed would improve the morale of the British people.

This film also gives material for an analysis of power relations in British society between the film-makers, government, cinema and the people. In analysing the power of films to make people react in a certain way, we must not forget the agency all audiences of visual material have and we must not assume that the vision of Britain given to the audience by Humphrey Jennings was necessarily the same vision interpreted by those who watched it. [4]

Most importantly, this film must be considered alongside other wartime propaganda films and more broadly, the documentary movement’s developments through the work of John Grierson, the EMB and GPO. For instance, Jennings’s films London Can Take It (1940) and Harry Watt’s Christmas Under Fire (1941) portray the devastation of and responses to air-raids in ways that Listen to Britain does not.

Earlier documentary films such as Drifters (1929) and North Sea (1938) enable us to trace the movement’s wider aim to portray the lives of ordinary people, particularly in areas other than the south of England. These can also enable us to see technological and stylistic developments, from the way scenes were shot to the journey from silent film to artistic or docu-drama style films.

Putting these elements together presents us with a film that is both necessary to meet the objectives of wartime propaganda and therefore specific to its period whilst also being on a longer continuum of technological and genre-specific development.

 Listen to Britain is a clever and richly detailed film and as such, there are many ways in which it can be used. Ultimately, by asking questions about how Britain is being portrayed and where the film fits in with other similar sources, we can better understand the nature of the society in which it was originally shown and the historiography of modern Britain.

[1] A. Aldgate and J. Richards, Britain Can Take It: British Cinema in the Second World War (London, 2007), p.4.

[2] J. Leach, ‘The Poetics of Propaganda: Humphrey Jennings and Listen to Britain’, in B. Grant and J Sloniowski, Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video (Detroit, 1998)

[3] Foreword to Listen to Britain by Leonard Brockington K.C.

[4] See S.Hall, ‘Encoding and Decoding in the Television Discourse: Paper for the Council of Europe Colloquy on “Training in the Critical Reading of Televisual Language”’, Centre for Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham, September 1973.

Economic History as if People Mattered

Matthew Hilton

Matthew Hilton

On 25-26 March Birmingham’s History department is hosting a conference to mark the life and career of our much missed colleague, Francesca Carnevali.

Organised by her husband, Paolo di Martino and her close friends and colleagues, Andrew Popp and Peter Scott, the two-day event will explore Francesca’s varied historical interests. Francesca started work at Birmingham in the then Department of Economic and Social History in 1996. She was a much loved and vocal presence, always interested in the work and activities of her colleagues, and always giving a warm welcome to each new member of staff.

Her range of interests meant her intellectual networks spread all over the globe. She published widely on various aspects of business and financial history, forms of associational life, local and regional history and micro-history. She was a key figure in British and international business and economic history circle and was a committed champion of women’s history. She taught a range of courses and made an ideal editor of the second edition of 20th Century British history.


Francesca Carnevali, our much loved colleague

Francesca Carnevali, our much loved colleague


Our Centre for Modern British Studies would have learned much from her insights and her research, especially how Britain was always a nodal point in wider networks of exchange and interaction. The range of papers being presented over the two days are a testament to her contribution to the field and to what she would have brought to the Centre. For further information about the event, please contact the organisers:;;


Economic History as if People Mattered: Draft Programme



Economic History as if People Mattered
A Workshop for Dr Francesca Carnevali
University of Birmingham, 25-26th March, 2015
Draft Programme

Wednesday, 25th March
Welcome: 10.00-10.30
Paolo di Martino, Peter Scott, and Andrew Popp

Session 1: 10.30 – 12.00
Andrew Popp, ‘Spectacle, Custom and Ritual: Staging the Social in Industrial Districts’ – Discussant: Ken Lipartito
Ken Lipartito, ‘Trust and Social Capital’ – Discussant: Corey Ross

12.00-13.00: Lunch

Session 2: 13.00-14.30
Peter Scott and James Walker, ‘The transformation of large-scale retailing and the British consumer, 1914-1939’ – Discussant: Alberto Rinaldi
Alberto Rinaldi and Anna Spadevecchia, ‘The Political Economy of Financing Local Production in Italy, 1950-2000’ – Discussant: Andrea Colli
Coffee: 14.30-15.00

Session 3: 15.00-16.30
Jennifer Aston, ‘Counting the Small People: comparing and contrasting methodologies in economic and social history’ – Discussant: James Walker
Chris Wickham, ‘Microhistory’ – Discussant: Andrew Popp

Thursday 26th March

Session 4: 10.30-12.00
Lucy Newton: ‘Small things’: the manufacture, marketing and selling of consumer goods for the Victorian home (1851-1914) – Discussant: Matthew Hilton
Matthew Hilton: ‘New directions in Twentieth-Century British history’ – Discussant: Julie-Marie Strange

Lunch: 12.00-13.00

Session 5: 13.00-14.30
Paolo Di Martino: ‘Miss Francesca feeling for history: a personal perspective on Francesca Carnevali’s academic contribution’ – Discussant: Gavin Shaffer
Andrea Colli: ‘Europe’s difference and comparative history’ – Discussant: Anna Spadevecchia
Coffee: 14.30-15.00

Session 6: 15.00-16.30
Leslie Hannah – ‘Banks, Small Firms and Big Business in Britain’ – Discussant: Adam Tooze
Adam Tooze, ‘TBC’ – Discussant: Les Hannah

16.30-17.00: Closing Remarks

Family Archives and History’s Custodians

Sadiah Qureshi

Sadiah Qureshi

I read Izzy Mohammed’s recent ode to libraries on the day I was in Lancashire helping my mother-in-law and her sister sort through the papers of their late mother. Izzy’s post and the experience left me reflecting on how we might create new archives for future historians of Modern Britain.

As a new arrival, I could not have asked for a more intimate initiation into the family’s history. During the day, the sisters, grandchildren and I searched through piles of documents. They were mainly photographs, some loose whilst others were immaculately bound in albums. I recognized only a few of the younger faces; nonetheless, there was an extraordinary familiarity to the settings of these images that I am sure families across the country would recognize in their own collections but may not realize that are important historical records of modern Britain: a family freezing on a holiday to the British seaside, two young sisters dressing up for pageants though the local streets, two young boys standing outside Woolworths (holding a street performer’s pet monkeys!), an expectant couple on their wedding day wearing the latest fashions, a portrait of a soldier kept with the memorial plaque he was awarded after he did not return from the Great War, a letter informing the family that the soldier had been buried at the ‘British cemetery 1 mile S. S. W. of Passchendaele’ where he fell and a pilot posing in his own uniform just a few decades later in World War II. We also stumbled across letters, school reports, press cuttings, old periodicals and official papers such as birth certificates from the nineteenth century.

A Family Archive

Fragments of a family archive. Featured are a WWI memorial plaque, official letter informing the family of a soldier’s burial, postcard of a group of ‘machine gunners’, albums showing ‘Newer Jerusalem’ and ‘The Mighty Himalayas (Oct. 1946)’, street scenes and a boy smiling in expectation that he will be able to keep the costumed monkey. It wasn’t to be.

Heartened by how much value the family placed in the collection, I helped divide it into meaningful piles for each of the grandchildren to act as custodians. Google’s Vice President Vint Cerf recently warned that we risk creating an information black hole for our future selves and historians if we don’t develop ways to preserve our digital lives, from tweets to blog posts and unprinted photographs. Cerf favours the development of ‘digital vellum’ to preserve digital formats and make them permanently accessible even as they are superseded by new technologies.

As a historian, I hope discussions about digital preservation prove fruitful but I have a nagging sense that history teaching, writing and communicating could have a crucial role to play in encouraging families to build their own archives and make them available to both contemporary and future researchers. The National Archives already offers advice for anyone wanting to preserve family documents and some archives make it clear how material can be donated. Nonetheless, imagine the possibilities if students were given a beginner’s guide to conserving documents alongside the more familiar history curriculum or if we had a national database of personal papers to which families would willingly grant researchers access.

The campaign against the cuts to the Library of Birmingham’s budget has highlighted the Library’s role as an educational institution and archive of modern Britain’s history within and beyond Birmingham. I hope some of this awareness leads people to create archives of their own and forestalling the loss envisioned by so many in Silicon Valley.

Fragments from the archives: reading university committee minutes as a gossip column, 1900-1960s

Helen Fisher, Archivist at the Cadbury Research Library

Helen Fisher, Archivist at the Cadbury Research Library

When other work commitments allow, I return to my main responsibility, to catalogue the institutional records of the University of Birmingham. I’m currently working on the minutes of the university’s major committees, Council and Senate. These are an important source for the study of the university’s core functions and activities and contain significant information about its development during the course of the twentieth century. This development was both in the expansion of university buildings on the Edgbaston campus, and the growth and broadening scope of its research and teaching activities.

Piecing together the history of the institution requires a close reading of the minutes. Most of the content focuses on strategy and policy, which means that items directly about staff and students leap out of the records. These range from items documenting the requirements of academics to assist their working lives in the Senate minutes, to opinions about the student body disclosed in the annual reports of the Student Lodgings Warden to Council.


These items permit us to glimpse aspects of the lives and experiences of staff and students, though viewed through official sources, and I’ve come to look out for these brief fragments and read them almost as you might do a gossip column. Here are a few examples.

Staff comfort was clearly important. Council minutes in March 1913 report a complaint by teaching staff at Edgbaston, then comprising just the Aston Webb building complex, about ‘inadequate arrangements in the Dining Hall’ citing the poor quality of food and ‘inferior preparation’. At the time, staff and students ate together, and the response from the University Club recorded in the minutes in May 1913 dismissed the complaint, claiming that the undergraduate members had no grievances.

Teaching was disrupted during the First World War, with the Edgbaston buildings used as military hospital, and several members of staff on military or government service. In June 1920, the Senate report to Council suggests that staff were keen for a return to some pre-war routines. Staff asked for the repair of furniture in the staff common room at the Edmund Street buildings in the city centre, and for a fire to be lit during the winter. They also wanted writing materials, a cupboard to hang their gowns, a sofa, and a supply of newspapers and journals for the common room. Finally, they wanted to be able to get coffee after lunch, and afternoon tea ‘as before the War’.

In 1937, Professor Cramp of Electrical Engineering complained to Senate that it was difficult for staff in the Faculty of Science to carry out research work at Edgbaston during the summer vacation because the refectory was closed, and the library was closed during the month of August. The university’s response was that it was not financially viable to open the refectory but that staff could get lunch at the Guild of Students building until the end of July, and then again from the 1st September, and that staff could still use the library even though it was officially closed.

If staff were dissatisfied with their working conditions, the situation for women students, particularly in the years before the Second World War, were even worse. The Report of the Senior Tutor to the Women Students, included in Council minutes in March 1926, contains a depressing description of the facilities, with segregated refectories and common rooms. In the women’s common room at Edmund Street ‘evidently quarters were hastily assigned to the women…situated in the worst possible part of the building…not even in summer does the sun penetrate their gloom’.

Efforts to regulate the accommodation rented by students who did not live in university halls of residence can be seen in annual reports of the Lodgings Committee. These are often as revealing about the attitudes of the authors as about the facilities provided. For example, the report of 1931 states that there were several lodgings where the houses are ‘of poor type and without inside sanitation and bathroom, and there was a want of cleanliness’. It goes on to say that one student who had stayed in one of these houses was the son of an agricultural labourer, at the university on a scholarship, and ‘probably he was quite satisfied with the accommodation provided’.


As we move into the 1950s and 1960s we see the Lodgings Warden’s reports providing an insight into the university’s attempts to deal with a rapidly changing student demographic and the different expectations of both students and householders. They summarise landladies’ problems with students in 1956 as involving ‘Freshers’ follies – too much to drink, staying up too late, swollen heads’ in the autumn term, ‘fuel problems, illness and general tiredness, late rising of students’ in the spring term and ‘irritability and rudeness as exams approach, completely unpredictable behaviour after exams’ in the summer term. The report also notes that ‘possession of a motor-cycle, a blasé manner, or a scruffy appearance may make the securing of a vacancy difficult’.

Though international students had studied at the university since its establishment, numbers increased after 1945. The Lodgings Warden acknowledged in 1957 that some householders discriminated against overseas students on grounds of ethnicity, but also due to ‘cultural’ issues relating to diet, and the need for running water in rooms for religious observance. The 1960 report mentions misunderstandings involving students from overseas cooking with garlic, and a recurring theme of reports from the 1960s is the demands of both UK and international students for greater independence in their accommodation, preferring to live in ‘flatlets’ or bedsitting rooms in Moseley and Acocks Green rather than in rented rooms which, although having meals and laundry provided, came with the restrictions of living with a family.

These snippets, and several others, have demonstrated to me that there is more to the university committee minutes than I had first thought. There is definitely scope for research into a number of aspects of experiences of higher education, especially when the minutes are used in conjunction with other record series. As I continue cataloguing, I am sure that more will be revealed.