Class, gender, and mobilities: the Princess Diana Collection*

Chloe Ward

Chloe Ward

A couple of posts back Matt Houlbrook wrote about the hidden history contained within his small bureau. Here Chloe Ward from the University of Melbourne and a former MBS Visiting Fellow, responds by reflecting on her own family’s display cabinet.

Do you have a display cabinet or case in your family? If so, we would love to learn more about it — to see your hidden objects and hear the stories you have to tell. Please feel free to share your stories through the comments section on this blog.  

My Nanna, Joyce, never, ever called Australia ‘home’. She spent most of her life in Australia, from when she left Ilford in 1952 until her death in 2003, but it was never home. She was English, so English that she died getting up to make a cup of tea.

When she died, of a sudden heart attack at the age of 83, we put her ashes in the glass fronted tv cabinet in my mum’s living room. She would have preferred being there, with everyone, above anything more elaborate. Since then, a small, collection of cheap Princess Diana paraphernalia, collected by my siblings and me on visits to the UK, has grown up around Nanna’s ashes.


How do we evaluate this archive? The individual objects can’t be disaggregated from the collection as a whole, or even from the shelves they stand on, or their place in the living room. Collapsed into this cabinet is a story about class, gender, Englishness (not Britishness – Nanna had an irrational dislike of ‘the Scots’), and cultural transactions that have continued after her death.

The TV cabinet itself has symbolic functions. My mum bought it when we moved into our new house, when I was 15, a few months before Nanna died. It was stylish, and expensive. It’s a reminder of Nanna’s slippery relationship with class, across two countries and most of the 20th century. Nanna’s large, close family was, and mostly still is, spread across Essex. In the decades before Nanna left, they were of the comfortable, ‘proto-affluent’ working class. She had little interest in ‘upward’ social mobility. But she was defensive about intra-class distinctions, and became more so after she moved, unwillingly, to Australia.


For decades after migrating Nanna was by any material standard ‘poor’. Financial insecurity was underlined by dislocation from her family, and dependence first on one husband, then another, neither of them very nice. Being of the ‘respectable’ working class became totemic for Nanna. She disassociated herself from the indignities of social precarity in the western suburbs of Adelaide. This class identity was also an English identity. She was the first to educate me about ‘the People’s War’, and her own role in it, building munitions in a former Tube station and nearly getting killed in the Blitz for her trouble. Australians, she told me, wouldn’t have done it.

My mum’s move into the professional middle class, and relative affluence, was an unexpected outcome from all this. Mum benefited from the expansion of university access in the 1970s, then from two economic booms and the (relatively) equal distribution of their benefits. This made for some equivocation from Nanna. Our new house, and all the things in it, represented an escape from impoverishment. It also signified avoidance of the English family’s diminished life chances, intimated alongside affectionate reminisces, and family news, in letters from her sisters over 50 years. In the end, Nanna thought moving to Australia, and staying there, was for the best. One of my last memories of Nanna is her sitting in front of the tv, contentedly holding the puppy we bought a week before she died.

There were, also, ongoing cultural exchanges with ‘home’. I remember watching rolling tv coverage of Princess Di’s death with my upset Nanna. She loved Diana. Diana provoked in Nanna deference and fascination, and schadenfreude for the rest of the royals. Diana was a vector for Nanna’s determined ‘Englishness’. She was also, maybe, a symbol of domestic, psychological and physical violence, and loneliness and isolation, that Nanna knew too well.

I don’t remember exactly when we started collecting Diana memorabilia. It certainly wasn’t in deliberate tribute. But we’ve accumulated teacups, spoons, and a Russian nesting doll (that one bought in Moscow). We’ve expanded the collection’s parameters to include other royals – a friend of mine sent over a Will and Kate tea towel a few years ago. I’m eyeing off a commemorative Queen and Duke of Edinburgh tea tray, in a shop window on my way to the bus stop.


At one level, this is easy to interpret. We’re taking the piss out my Nan and her sentimental attachment to Princess Di. But a historian can ask more particular questions of these household objects – like what do our actions, and the collection that springs from it, say and do? I’d say it shows how easily physical distance, that caused Nanna so much grief, is overcome these days. It concretizes other distances, of generation, nation, class, and culture, between my English Nanna and her smart-arse Australian grandchildren. It’s also ironic. Teasing her is a sincere act of affectionate remembrance. But how could a historian understand this, without testimony like mine about these objects’ provenance? Sources like these are difficult to interrogate. But, I swear, only things we really love go in the tv cabinet. In 2012, when Bowie the dog died, his ashes went straight on the shelf, next to Nanna.

*Thanks to Linda Ward, for photos and fact-checking.


CFP: Understanding Material Loss Across Time and Space

Understanding Material Loss Across Time and Space is an innovative conference that will take place next year at the University of Birmingham. Kate Smith, who works as Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century History here in the School of History and Cultures, is organizing the conference to complement her current research on loss and the making of modern Britain. Rather than focus solely on modern Britain, however, the conference seeks to consider the methodological and historical insights that might be revealed by utilizing loss as significant analytical framework, particularly when examining the material world.                             

smith cfp

Call for papers

Archaeologists, anthropologists, philosophers, literary scholars, sociologists and historians have increasingly come to understand the material world as an active and shaping force. Nevertheless, while significant, such studies have consistently privileged material presence as the basis for understanding how and why the material world has played an increasingly important role in the lives of humans. In contrast, Understanding Material Loss suggests that instances of absence, as much as presence, provide important means of understanding how and why the material world has shaped human life and historical processes.

Speculative and exploratory in nature, Understanding Material Loss asserts that in a period marked by ecological destruction, but also economic austerity, large scale migration and increasing resource scarcity, it is important that historians work to better understand the ways in which humans have responded to material loss in the past and how such responses have shaped change. Understanding Material Loss asks: how have humans historically responded to material loss and how has this shaped historical processes? The conference will bring together a range of scholars in an effort more to begin to explore and frame a problem, than provide definitive answers.

Confirmed keynote speakers include:

Understanding Material Loss seeks to uncover the multiple practices and institutions that emerged in response to different forms of material loss in the past and asks, how has loss shaped (and been shaped by) processes of acquisition, possession, stability, abundance and permanence? By doing so it seeks to gauge the extent to which ‘loss’ can be used as an organizing framework of study across different disciplines and subfields. Understanding Material Loss seeks papers from across a variety of time periods and geographies. Although open and speculative in nature, this conference will focus on three broad topics within the wider rubric of loss, in order to facilitate meaningful conversations and exchanges.

 Using Materials

  • How has the ‘loss’ of particular materials affected scientific practice, manufacturing, architectural design or development in the past?
  • How have humans responded to the partial loss or decay of materials?
  • How have ‘lost’ skills or knowledge affected the use of materials?
  • How have humans re-appropriated or recycled seemingly damaged or obsolete materials?

 Possessing Objects

  • How have humans sought to maintain and mark the ownership of objects?
  • How has the loss of possessions and property affected human mobility and constructions of identity?
  • How have communities historically responded to the loss of particular objects? When and why have they sought to stave off the loss of things?
  • Where, when and how have cultures of repair flourished?
  • How has the loss of possessions and property (or the potential for loss) affected processes of production, consumption or financial stability?

 Inhabiting Sites and Spaces

  • When and why have particular sites or buildings been understood as destroyed or obsolete?
  • How have past societies responded to the loss of particular sites?
  • When and how have landscapes been actively purged of symbols and sites?
  • How have past societies worked to rebuild or reclaim particular sites?
  • What strategies did past societies develop to ensure the resilience of certain structures?

If you are interested in participating in the conference, please send proposals (250 words max per paper) for papers and panels to conference organizer Kate ( by Friday 14 October 2016. Papers should not exceed 20 minutes. Roundtable panels featuring 5-6 papers of 10 minutes each or other

Hidden Objects and Untold Histories

There are stories bound up in objects which are hidden in plain sight. A pot donkey silently carries memories down through generations; an unopened envelope of newspaper cuttings tells of journeys in the past. Untold histories surround us, on mantelpieces and in display cabinets.


There is a small bureau in the corner of our box room in Birmingham. Standing on fresh-painted floorboards, its scuff marks and scratches and tea ring patina suggest the passing decades. A glass fronted display cabinet reminds us of what it has hidden in the past; a fold-down writing desk conceals drawers, shelves, scraps of paper. Look closely enough, and here are the traces of my family’s recent history.

The bureau hasn’t always been in a box room in Birmingham. It reminds me of other rooms, places, lives. Thinking back through offices in Oxford and Liverpool takes me to my grandma’s sunlit corner room in Nassau House in Winterton. I move on to a bungalow overlooking allotments from the top of Willow Drive in Mexborough. From there it is a short walk but several years down the hill to a dark front room in a terraced house in Schofield Street. That is where my grandma lived and my Mum grew up. It is also where that bureau came into my family.

When I notice it, the bureau reminds me of the smell of coal and dusty newsprint, the timbre of my grandma’s voice, the loves and all-being-wells that punctured her speech, the mischievous sparkle in her eyes.


Edna Markham bought the bureau from Willis Ainley, the only furniture shop in Mexborough, around 1958. She bought it when my Mum passed the 11+ exam so she would have somewhere to do her homework when she went to grammar school. After my grandad came home from working nights at Manvers, ate, and went to bed, my grandma went to her various cleaning jobs. Scrimping and saving, she put together what was left from her earnings until she could afford to go to the Willis Ainley showrooms and buy that bureau.

I first told this story as part of the eulogy at my Grandma’s funeral almost ten years ago. It is an intensely intimate story about one person and one family. It is also a story that points towards much bigger histories of Britain in the second half of the 20th century. As you can see, it is about class and gender; mothers and daughters; home and work; education and emotion — all things of a time and of a place.

It is about all of those things, but this story is also always about my grandma, what she was like, her place in our lives and our memories.


This is what my Mum remembers being in the bureau when she was growing up in Schofield Street:

 the little teapot etc.apparently a fishing prize won by my grandad, a “best” tea service, presents to mum from me (small pot donkey, Wade whimsies of Lady and the Tramp and a monkey) rabbit cruet set, plaque from my French pen pal. In the top were a few photos , insurance cards, rent book, death certificates for both my grandmas, obituary cuttings from the South Yorkshire Times for family members and one of Christine Beardsley and I when we were about eight watching some event in the pouring rain.

Form-filling bureaucracy intermingles with a South Yorkshire family’s ephemera of a South. Death certificates, fishing prizes, and Wade Whimsies all speak of memories and emotions. These objects hold ties that bind in the here and now; ties that bind a changing present to our changing past.


The bureau moved over the years — not very often, and only from the mid-1980s when my grandma and grandad left Schofield Street. New objects crowded the display cabinet; drawers overflowed with yellowing paper; money mysteriously disappeared down the back of the shelves. In Nassau House my brother remembers:

 there was definitely the metal tea set, and I think maybe a small china tea set too? Egg cup with rabbits was there … Possibly also some of those Lilliput Lane ornaments? In the dropdown/writing section, mainly I remember the newspaper cuttings of us in the Telegraph etc for various sporting/academic things, the pile of photos (us, but also older ones of mum and dad, and Stan/Walt and Marion etc), and saved birthday and christmas cards. Plus a couple of packs of playing cards.

It’s strange how we each have such a vivid memory of the bureau and its contents. People go, but objects remain. Memories, stories, histories — all coalesce in a piece of furniture and a porcelain beagle.

There are stories bound up in objects which are hidden in plain sight.

I have told this story as if it were ‘just’ that of my own family. But I am sure that any of us could tell stories similar in outline, if not detail. Display cabinets and cases, mantelpieces and shelves — the ubiquitous material frame for our everyday lives. Here are the framed photographs, candlesticks, teacups, and firedogs that have their stories to tell.


What does it mean for an object to be hidden in plain sight? Familiarity brings invisibility. It is easy to walk past a porcelain beagle when you’re busy. The reticent dog does not bark for attention. However cherished they might be, things freighted with personal meaning seem unlikely stuff for the historian to work through. Is there anything significant in a mass produced Lilliput Lane cottage or a Wade Whimsy?

Of course there is.

Display cabinets and their ephemeral contents are everywhere and everyday, familiar yet often unnoticed. They remain hidden in another sense. Placed in box rooms or living rooms, such things are the fabric of homes and families. It is in our private lives that they accrue meaning and importance. It is also in our private lives that they are hidden — isolated from other display cabinets in other homes near and far. All of us might possess a version of my grandma’s bureau, but do we really know anything of the objects, stories, histories we might share?

My colleagues Chris Moores, Kate Smith, and I have become increasingly fascinated by hidden objects and stories like these over the past few months. The more we share our stories, the more we are convinced that the material fabric of everyday life holds rich possibilities for writing new histories of modern Britain. But how can we learn more about the objects hidden in plain sight in homes in Birmingham and beyond? How might we share stories about things like my grandma’s bureau — and, in so doing, find those objects and stories that we hold in common? This bureau and its contents will not find their way into a local museum’s social history collections; these obituaries from the South Yorkshire Times will not end up in an archive. How, then, might historians begin to find these stories bound up in objects hidden in plain sight?

Histories written with and through a display cabinet and its contents — ordinary and intimate in their foundations, yet no less important for our understanding of the past.



Do you have a display cabinet or case in your family? If so, we would love to learn more about it — to see your hidden objects and hear the stories you have to tell. Please feel free to share your stories through the comments section on this blog.