Catherine Hall in Conversation

Catherine Hall will receive an honorary degree from the University of Birmingham on 12th July 2016. Following this, Hall will be in conversation with postgraduates from the department of history to discuss her career, in particular the interaction between her work, politics, and personal life. The event is open to all and there will be an opportunity for members of the audience to ask questions. More information here.

Catherine Hall is Professor of Modern British Social and Cultural History at University College London.  Since her pioneering work Family Fortunes: men and women of the English middle class, 1750-1850 (1987), she has sought to resituate constitutive categories of class, gender, and race as being central to narratives of Britain, especially in re-thinking the relation between Britain and its empire.

famly fortunes

Catherine Hall’s career has exemplified the rallying slogan of the second-wave feminist movement that the ‘Personal is Political’. A feminist scholar, Hall withdrew from her first doctorate at the University of Birmingham to participate in second-wave feminism and was prominent in Birmingham Women’s Liberation.

Her politics and personal life have constantly intersected to inform her historical work. Hall’s seminal Civilising Subjects: metropole and colony in the English imagination 1830-1867 (2002) is framed by a subjective introduction and prologue. This exploration of her own life as a daughter, wife, mother, and scholar establishes the postcolonial and feminist framework for the book as not only an intellectual endeavor, but also a deeply personal one.



Always something there to remind me

In the latest of a series of posts about the history of display cabinets Donna Taylor, a doctoral researcher in Modern History at the University of Birmingham, follows on Matt Houlbrook, Kate Smith and Chloe Ward‘s earlier posts. You can find out more about Donna’s work here.

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.

Unlike Matt Houlbrook’s well preserved china cabinet, much of what adorned our nan’s display has been discarded as ‘junk’ over the years.

I can still remember how it looked; she upgraded to a very modern flatpacked, teak effect cabinet in the 1970s. The glass doors slid open and I used to love being allowed to help dust the treasures inside. There was nothing particularly old in there, and certainly nothing of great value.

There was a lot of holiday memorabilia: a paperweight containing a scene from Great Yarmouth seafront, a plastic fan, a small glass test tube, meant to represent a lighthouse, filled with coloured sands that I had carefully chosen during a holiday on the Isle of Wight. A Shire horse, complete with brewer’s dray that my Grandad had made himself from scraps of wood. He worked as a stoker at Marston Green hospital, but he was a brilliant carpenter.

And then there was a small collection of things that seemingly sat outside immediate family memories. They were strangely ‘exotic’, though in a very working class way. Our nan loved capodimonte (I had to google that to find how it was written!) and had a two roses, one was red and one was a pale pink. They were single flowers, sitting on silver coloured stems. I was warned to be ‘careful with them Donna’, though I feel sure that the small chip in a petal of the red one was very likely my fault.

The roses are, very sadly, gone (surely not junk!), but I did rescue a couple of things. The first is nanny’s ‘china’ coffee set. I used to love this as a child and was absolutely NOT allowed to dust it. The story I have of it is that nan had admired it in a hardware shop
up Alum Rock and had mentioned it during a shopping trip with her sisterinlaw,
my aunty Elsie. To her utter delight, aunty Elsie had bought it for her, for her wedding anniversary.

It originally hung on a goldcoloured wire stand. It was so flimsy it never stood the test of my numerous house moves. The coffee set is currently stored in a shoe box. The label on the bottom of the coffee cup reveals its provenance as ‘foreign’.

nanny's coffee set (2)

The second treasure holds a personal memory for me, because I can remember exactly how my nan looked when she first showed it to me. In the shopping centre above New Street Station, there used to be a small store that sold all manner of oriental goods. It had beautifully embroidered kimonos hanging outside to lure you in. We never went in. It wasn’t the sort of shop that people like us went into. But there was an oriental fayre held on the concourse of the shopping centre. Nan must have gone to have a wander around, she told me about it when she got back from her trip as she carefully removed a tissue wrapped parcel from a small paper bag.

She really enjoyed revealing it, like she was sharing a great secret. This was something nan had bought, probably from the housekeeping money, and it
was a thing that made her happy. The little frog paperweight is just about my best family treasure because of this memory. It has always been on display in every home I’ve lived in.

nanny's frog

As I uploaded these images to include in the post, I was distracted by Grayson Perry discussing, coincidentally, ‘taste’ at the Chelsea Flower Show. Perry commented how our liking a thing is influenced by all sorts of factors, including class and education.

Arguing that there was no such thing as bad taste (‘perhaps’), he said that ‘taste is just a way of signalling to people in your tribe that you belong’. This made me wonder about the exotic objects in our nan’s cabinet.

What did they mean to her? What did they represent. We were a very
white, workingclass family. We watched and laughed along with all the old racist tv shows and there was always this sense of mistrust of anything or anyone ‘foreign’. At the same time, we also watched and were fascinated by Whicker’s World and held a sense of awe at the exotic. I think our nan’s china cabinet probably encapsulated this duality.

Trust, Charities and the EU Referendum


Chris Moores

As my colleagues Matthew Hilton, James McKay, Nick Crowson and Jean-Francois Mouhet have observed, the rise of the single-issue, mass membership NGO, represented a fundamental shift in how mass democratic politics was conducted in the late twentieth century Britain. This was, according to them, linked to questions of trust.

Although measuring the history of political and social trust is a tricky business, they conclude that ‘while trust in politicians and journalists has declined, trust in NGOs, charities and voluntary organizations has actually increased’[1].

Certainly, within various statistical attempts to quantify the level of support directed towards different ‘institutions’ during the late twentieth and early twenty-first century it is clear that charities score relatively highly.



Arguably, NGOs and charities have become the platforms through which democratic engagement take place, around which our notions of citizenship manifest and where political participation takes place, however ‘apolitical’ charities might seem.

Where concerns about the protection of the environment, the maintenance of just and equitable rules of trade, or the protection of human rights, to give just some examples, have become too complicated and technical to be articulated within the traditional programmes of political parties, the rise of the NGO and the trust directed towards charities makes sense.[2]

Moreover, the association of charities and NGOs with such complex issues, which often transcend the parameters of the nation state, has often required the establishment of relationships between the sector and various supranational bodies, such as the EU. Because of this, it is safe to assume such organizations would have something interesting to say on the upcoming referendum.

Given charities and NGOs credentials as markers of the public’s democratic interests, the sense that we are all somewhat tired of a familiar roster of familiar politicians making familiar arguments in conversations with familiar broadcasters and the clamour for voices from outside the specific campaign teams, it seems reasonable to ask where their voices are in the debates about the up-coming European Referendum?

The charitable sector is, of course, incredibly diverse and there are, presumably, many different reactions to the proposed referendum within it. Even so the National Council for Voluntary Organizations states that ‘the EU is underpinned by a commitment to equality, fairness, solidarity and social justice, values that are highly congruent with those of the voluntary sector’ and, as such, the sector might offer ‘something different to mainstream debates which have focussed on markets and migration’.

Some charities have been more robust than others. In the environmental sector, Friends of the Earth has offered clear statements of support for continued membership but the Wildlife Trust and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England have little to say despite a working knowledge of the advantages and disadvantages of EU protective legislation on environmental concerns.

There are some peculiarities here. CAFOD was happy to offer a position on the AV Referendum, as was the Child Poverty Action Group, yet they appear to have litte to say on the European referendum. Amnesty International offered guidance on the Scottish Referendum, but has no statement on Brexit. Obviously, the European Referendum speaks to certain charities more than others, but it seems the voices of the sector are not forthcoming.

Yet, one doesn’t have to look too far to understand the lack of engagement. Mass membership organizations, in particular, risk losing membership by commenting on what have become an increasingly divisive set of issues. Moreover, the media seems more than content to continue grilling the same politicians, fetishing fissures within our political parties or positioning themselves, however dubious their credential might be, as the vox populi on referendum matters.

 But perhaps more significant is a longer-standing history of attempting to curtail the ‘political activity’ of the voluntary sector.

It is easy to see why the Charity Commission’s Guidance on the European Referendum has been controversial within the sector. Organizations have questioned the clarity of its instructions and their potential to stymie discussion.

The Commission’s guidance published in March stated: ‘In exceptional cases charities may consider that the outcome of a referendum is likely to directly affect, positively or negatively, the delivery of their charitable objects. Where the impact on the work of the charity is very indirect or uncertain, the trustees will find it difficult to justify campaigning for a particular outcome’.

While charities are permitted to engage on issues which are ‘relevant to its charitable purposes’, trustees are urged to be cautious because of potential reputational risks and the requirement to represent beneficiaries regardless of the outcome of the vote.

Taking a position on the grounds of loss of funding is not considered a sufficient justification for supporting continued membership. The result, as the National Council for Voluntary Organizations points out, is that ‘few charities would be able to justify campaigning in favour of Britain in, or leaving, the EU’.

Unlike charities that are beholden to both the verdicts of members as well as trustees interpretation of the Commission’s rules, think tanks and critics within the media have had the freedom to accuse the sector of behaving like ‘sock puppets’ to the European Commission, apparent stooges to the EU project, warning of the danger of groups acting beyond the interests of their memberships.[3]

Contrastingly, charities have no straightforward capacity to advance alternative narratives about their engagement with the EU under the conditions of the regulations set by the Charity Commission.

Of course, certain NGOs and charities have been beneficiaries of Britain’s increased European integration in the latter half of the twentieth century.

This is most obviously the case in the humanitarian sector where the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) is a major funder of the humanitarian sector and has acted as a long-standing partner of organizations including CAFOD, Christian Aid, Oxfam and Save the Children.[4]

The case of Oxfam is striking. Only last year, Oxfam joined forces with the EU on a campaign called ‘EU Saves Lives’ to provide humanitarian aid to those forced to flee their home. This was the latest in a long series of understandable partnerships given the EU’s committments to tackling poverty and exclusion.

Yet, just over a year later Oxfam’s position on membership states, ‘As an organisation which exists to tackle poverty, Oxfam does not have a position on whether Britain should be a member of the European Union. It is up to the British people to decide’.

On the one hand, the financial support given to a broad range of NGOs and charities by the European Union – estimated by the ‘Stronger In’ Campaign to be worth £200 million – might, to critics, delegitimizes any commentary offered by the sector.

On the other, organizations with working relationships with institutions associated with Europe – typically on the types of issues which transcend the parameters of the nation state – have voices which might productively feed into the discussion by offering tangible experiences of what membership means.

The point here is that if the public’s enthusiasm for charities and NGOs makes sense, allowing negotiation of the complexities of multiple political, economic, social and cultural issues, then endeavours to curtail such organization’s engagement with the referendum seems a missed opportunity.

Despite a campaign where citizenship, democracy and trust are frequently evoked, the manifestations of that citizenship, the visible forums for our democratic participation, and voices we have got used to trusting are not bable to participate as fully as they might.

Of course this is not just a problem specific to the referendum. It is part of a broader and more longstanding history of the sector which, as many the emerging historical case-studies of NGOs suggest, frequently finds itself debating what types of organization get to speak ‘politically’, what engaging in ‘politics’ means, and how this is controlled.

Even our universities – which are charities and are as such covered by the parameters of the Charities Act – are not permitted to adopt clear, institutional positions on Brexit and, instead, seek to offer platforms for debating the subject.

Healthy debate should, of course, be an essential part of any University’s goals. But these are also public institutions with outward-facing missions and notwithstanding the interventions of various Vice-Chancellors and different academic communities, including historians on both sides of discussions, HEIs might offer clearer commentaries for students, staff and communities as public institutions.

If nothing else, one would hope these seats of learning might contribute a more appealing flavour to the discussion than a conversation taking place on ‘gents tents’. Who knows, might it even count as impact?

For all of the supposed democratic appeal of the refere endum this is a discussion where the public require information as much as political posturing, and the longer history of depoliticizing the voices of those that have experience and have acquired expertise hinders our capacity to engage as democratic citizens on an ostensibly democratic process.

If nothing else, why not let us have the opportunity to reflect on the contributions from those we trust instead of those we do not? Or perhaps more importantly, given the paucity of new points of debate emerging in the build up to 23 June, letting the charities speak could – at the very least – diversify the debate offering different voices reflecting the myriad and complexity of issues on which a potential Brexit will impact.


[1] M. Hilton, J. McKay, N. Crowson & J. Mouhet, The Politics of Expertise (Oxford, 2013), p. 183

[2] Here I echo the argument of my colleague Matthew Hilton. See M. Hilton, ‘Politics is Ordinary’, p. 234.

[3]; Christopher Snowdon, Euro Puppets: The European Commission’s Remaking of Civil Society: Institute of Economic Affairs Discussion Paper, No 45 (IEA, 2013).

[4] Sarah Stroup, Borders among activists: International NGOs in the United States, Britain and France (Cornell, 2012), p. 53

The bin beside the display cabinet


Kate Smith

Matt’s recent blog looked at display cabinets and the roles they can play in the creation and continuation of family histories across generations while Chloe reflected on the distance and affection that can be read in her Nan’s collection of Princess Diana paraphernalia. Display cabinets can act as touchstones. They exist as part of the backdrop of everyday life until they are made visible by some event or act – a blog post, a eulogy or a house move. But what happens when the display cabinet is the room? What happens when the display cabinet is the entire house? How might we define the display cabinet and how does it resist definition?

Recently I visited the sixteenth-century manor house Snowshill Manor and Garden, Gloucestershire for the first time. The architect, artist, collector and craftsman Charles Wade (1883-1956) purchased the Manor in 1919 with the fortune he inherited from his father (an inheritance particularly dependent on his father’s sugar plantations in St Kitts). The primary purpose of the house, according to Wade, was to provide the space necessary to adequately display the collection he had slowly amassed since the age of seven. Charles and his wife were relegated to the small Priest’s House next door; it was his collection that took centre stage. In purchasing Snowshill he wished to ensure the continuation and expansion of his collection and that he could continue to live by his motto ‘Let nothing perish’.[1]

Taken out of context and reconfigured within the different rooms of Snowshill, the collection remains in place today for visitors to engage with and reflect upon. It is a wonderful place to visit. Samurai, spinning wheels, bicycles, wooden chests, porcelain vases and lacquer cabinets line the walls.  Display cases within display cases, filled with ever-smaller objects designed to inspire wonder.  What really struck me about Snowshill, and about the collection and its display, was that display and display cabinets play upon the idea of inclusion. Such an allusion was particularly prominent at Snowshill, after all Wade had treated the entire house as a display cabinet. It continues to hold wonders and encourages visitors to delve in, walk around, see and feel. The house contains the allusion that everything is there, a wide-ranging collection of things covering many different aspects of human endeavor and the human condition. But such inclusion is just an allusion.

Smith One

Display cabinets can never contain everything; they are distinctly shaped by exclusion. Although Snowshill seems to hold plenty (it is the entire house!), it is deeply marked by Wade’s choices and predilections. In analyzing display cabinets then, we need to be aware of what is left out. Of who is not featured, of what is missing, unspoken and forgotten within the collection of things that is there and is chosen. More than hidden in plain sight, what is forcibly hidden and excluded from display? In being aware of such gaps and absences we can begin to get a little nearer perhaps to the difficult histories that might be contained in display cabinets. We need to consider what a display cabinet can and cannot hold, where they are located, what forms they take and what they don’t contain. We need to ask, how can histories of exclusion or violence be read from a display cabinet?

Smith Two

Although they might attempt to, not all display cabinets are up to the task of holding a particular familial, material, cultural or political story. Their stability and coherence begins to breakdown when they are poked and prodded, when the china begins to be used and the chip is revealed. At the same time as reading absence and exclusion then, we also need to question neglect. Despite living in a materialistic world, the display cabinet cannot hold everything. While some items are forcibly removed and are not allowed to enter the display, others lie outside the display cabinet due to benign neglect. They are ignored and unvalued over time.   How does the seemingly benign absence of certain objects within display cabinets (long thrown away, not passed down, a mere memory) complicate our understandings of consumption, acquisition and possession? How might they allow us to contemplate histories of neglect and waste?

In looking at your display cabinets it is important to consider not only what is there and what was there, but also the things that didn’t make it and to understand why. Charles Wade wished to live by the motto ‘Let nothing perish’, but of course things did, things do. We need to know what fails and disappears as much as what remains.

 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.  

[1] See Jonathan Howard, ‘Wade, Charles Paget (1883–1956)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, May 2008 [, accessed 25 May 2016]