#Thanks for Typing

Josh Allen

Josh Allen

I was recently enthralled by the hashtag “Thanks for Typing”. In a nutshell #ThanksforTyping is a way for today’s intellectuals to share and shine a spotlight upon just how vital the (often unpaid) labour-both intellectual and emotional-of typists, proofreaders, research assistants and other (often unpaid) has been in the development of knowledge.

Within the field of modern British studies, uncovering “brain work’s hidden labourers” is an area of research that is gathering pace. Probably my favourite article last year was Carolyn Steedman’s Threatening Letters: E. E. Dodd, E. P. Thompson, and the Making of ‘The Crime of Anonymity’” in History Workshop Journal, exploring the relationship between the author of the Making of the English Working Class and his longstanding research assistant.

But when it comes to my current project, exploring graduate study at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the 1970s, I’d be the first to admit that it’s probably the spells I’ve spent as a clerical worker that lead me to be intrigued by the traces of typists and other fleeting interlocutors glimpsed in the archive.

Image result for typewriter 1977

Clerical work requires a lot of patience and a surprising degree of flexibility. Being the CCCS’ Secretary, a position held by a woman called Joan Good in the period that I study, probably required even more flexibility than most, not least because of the shear volume of work. As John Clarke, who was involved in the CCCS throughout much of the 1970s recalls: “We [the students] had to be involved in the management… They were running a research centre with 1.5 [academics] and a secretary”.

These attempts at “management” might not have always have been welcomed by a professional administrator, as Janet Batsleer recalls:

“…I think she was amazingly tolerant of the way folk occupied that space really, because it [the Centre’s Gestetner duplicator, located in Joan’s office] was used a lot to produce papers and she was there for sessions and so on, that is probably why she sticks in my mind so much.”

[Gestetner copiers are rather noisy…]

Clerical workers also intrude into the contemporary documents that are stored in the CCCS’ archive. Traces of their presence and exertion lingers in the physical effort in terms of paper filed and sifted, in the typed indentations on the page, in the occasional awkward line break and neat dab of correction fluid. The relationship between a “writer” and a typist is akin to that of a draftsman and a machinist, one sketches the blueprint, the other gives it embodied form. It is a very different relationship from that between writer and computer. Dorothy Hobson’s MA thesis (1978) notes that her initial typist “was carried off to have her baby”, if you go to the Library’s Research Reserve and call it up you can see the change in typists to the line. MacBooks don’t take maternity leave: the experience of relying on a machine and relying on a person is quantitatively different and cannot but affect the work you produce.

Other CCCS’ theses also thank typists. Paul Willis lists no fewer than seven women who helped produce his final PhD, noting that they saved him “in [his] hour of need… From [his] own indifferent typing”.

Interestingly John Clarke MA thesis, lodged a year or two after Paul Willis finished his PhD thanks “Paul Willis for his assistance… with the typing”. This initially led me to assume that Paul’s’ typing had become less “indifferent” and that he’d stepped in to lend his friend a hand. John Clarke’s oral history, however, shines a light upon what actually happened. He apparently “…inherited [a class] from Paul Willis at Birmingham Poly which was teaching private secretaries two components of an advanced diploma, one part of which was use of English in communications… the other part was key management concepts so that they would be able to appreciate the male supreme elements that they were working for.”

He clearly built up a rapport with the class because as he recollects:

…embarrassingly if you go to the university library and find my Master’s thesis you will find that it was typed on 10 different keyboards, because they said, “We’ll do it for you,” and so they took a chapter each, they were all entirely different.”

my interpretation of the part of the thesis dedication that thanks Paul Willis “for the typing” is that Clarke was actually thanking his friend for passing on the class to him. Who knows: maybe a previous cohort typed Paul Willis’ PhD up for him?

Interestingly Hazel Chowcat, who studied for a PhD at the Centre between 1977 and 1980 and who, having been a secretary herself, was interested to study the ideological patterns that structure clerical work, actually argued that making generous and emotionally involved gestures like offering to type up your tutor’s dissertation were key to the secretary’s job. Much as Paul Willis’ later project Learning to Labour shows that the key skills needed to navigate and cope with manual work are honed in patterns of “anti-school resistance” displayed by working class schoolboys, so Hazel Chowcat indicates that the key to understanding clerical work is that it is usually performed by women. For her, secretaries are oppressed and controlled twice, once as “workers” then as “women”, expected to perform caring duties in a discreet and compliant manner.

Given the current interest in studying the processes that produced the documents in our archives and the books that sit on all our bookcases pit-prop our disciplines, what can be gleaned from the CCCS’ practice as researchers and writers in the pre-digital age (and in Hazel Chowcat’s case, her research) is incredibly vital in pointing to ways in which we can question the conditions within which intellectual inquiry once functioned.

In true academic style, though, I’ll end this post on a plea or two. Firstly do go and scroll through #ThanksforTyping. Secondly if anybody, for a journal article, undergraduate, or MA, dissertation (PhD, postdoc..?) wants to go and research the questions relating to academic production and scholarly labour in the 20th Century the archive is amongst you, you walk within it and you walk past it every day.

I was at an event in a professional capacity the other week and an academic colleague asked me what I was researching for my degree. I began to explain, talked about the CCCS archive, talked about the long memos they used to send, the academic colleague recalled the long memos they used to receive… At this point another administrative colleague, who was working at the University long before I was born, chipped in “interesting to hear you talking about how academics used to send each other loads of long memos. I used to have to type them all and post them!”.

There are still quite a few university staff today who remember the world that the 1970s CCCS was working in. An administrator that joined the University straight from secretarial college at seventeen in 1978-the year that Policing the Crisis was published-would only be fifty six or fifty seven today, and very possibly still working here. They’d certainly have stories to tell: of what different professors were like to work for, of what it was like to have to “book time on the word processor”, of the days when unaccompanied secretaries were not allowed to enter Staff House and it was the greatest honour to be invited for a drink in what’s now the Bratby by “your professor”.

When encountering administrative staff, especially older administrative staff, it is worth bearing in mind how much has changed and also-some would say-how little.






Seeing like a Sub: Modern Britain from Beneath

Modern British Studies at Birmingham are delighted to announce its new research resource: ‘Modern British Subby’ a state of the art deepwater research vessel. Including a fully functioning multibeam echosounder system for hydrographic and habitat surveys as well as a deepwater capacity ipod dock, this will allow the centre to continue its cutting-edge explorations into the British past while listening to killer tunes beneath the ocean.

MBS’ new under-ocean research craft – the second addition to the MBS fleet after the 17.5 foot Explorer-HV expedition kayak which Dr David Gange has been using for his project on Britain’s Frayed Atlantic Edge – will aid us in our aspiration to find new ways of thinking about British society, culture, politics and economics from the eighteenth century onwards.


Modern British Subby in Action: Here piloted by MBS Fleet Commander Dr Chris Moores alongside historian of nautical trade Dr Kate Smith.

In keeping with our cross-department interest in histories of mobility, endangerment and the environment we believe that ‘seeing like a sub’ will allow us to appreciate what Britain looked like from the ocean floor, allowing us to reflect on Britain’s connections to the wider world through the excavation of techniques and conventions of underwater planning via the interrogation of Britain’s historic transnational cable routes.


The first edition to our fleet: David Gange’s kayak.

Inspired by Michel Callon’s work on the scallops of Saint-Brieuc Bay, we wish to understand how non-human, sub-aquatic forces created Modern Britain; fish, crabs and seals have shaped Modern Britain and we wish to know more about their historic agency and the stories they can tell. Here Birmingham’s oral historians will be pioneering non-anthropocentric oral history techniques while working within and around the submarine.

‘In this world, headwinds are far more prevalent than winds from astern’. Building on such a notion and working in the established practice of Melville (London, 1851), we  respond to the signing of Article 50, by stressing historic connections between Britain and mainland Europe. By restoring Doggerland from the enormous condescension of the North Sea, we hope to further demonstrate Britain’s connectivity to the Continent and suggest hidden depths to a history which is all too often told as an ‘Island Story’.

Most importantly given our long-standing interest in object-oriented history and the history of loss, we hope to find and explore many ship-wrecks with treasure and, building on our track record of delivering dialogues with the dead, interview any ghostly piratical skeletons discovered in this process.

As Fernand Braudel wrote, ‘the sea itself, the one we see and love is the greatest document’: it’s time we learnt to read this. If nothing else our new resource will allow us to keep warm below the storm in our little hideaway beneath the waves.

Our ‘Modern British Subby’ – named ‘Subby McHistory McSubface’ is currently moored up in the Worcester-Birmingham canal alongside Protium, the University of Birmingham’s Hydrogen-powered canal boat. We are working out how to best navigate our new vehicle seawards and look forward to updating you on our progress as we make it.



Fare thee well poor devil of a Sub-Sub, whose commentator I am.

Conservatives, Grammar Schools and the ‘Great Meritocracy’

Photo for Uni Page

David Civil

In his first budget since becoming Chancellor, Philip Hammond outlined plans to spend £500 million on new school buildings, with a significant portion going towards the creation of grammar schools. Social commentators and journalists have exposed the Conservative Party’s faith in selective education to considerable scrutiny. What has been left relatively unexplored, however, is what the return of grammar schools tells us about the role of meritocracy in Conservative Party ideology.

Apart from Brexit, the concept of meritocracy has come to define Theresa May’s early premiership. At her first Conference speech as Prime Minister in October 2016 May outlined her plans to transform Britain into a ‘Great Meritocracy’.

She turned to the concept in the belief that it could remedy post-Referendum social divisions and to distinguish her government from the ‘boys-club image’ associated with David Cameron and George Osborne.

Conservatives should be interested in social stability through the preservation of only those inequalities which are deemed legitimate and fair. With the advent of Brexit and the rise of Trump, a variety of politicians across the Western World have come to recognise that inequalities emerging from market outcomes are no longer deemed socially acceptable. Those ‘left-behind’ by globalisation, it is argued, are turning against the established elite.

For Theresa May, meritocracy offers a potential solution. With its emphasis on intelligence and effort it seems to offer the chance to restore fairness to social hierarchies. In embracing meritocracy, however, May is simply following the well-trodden path of her predecessors.

The desire to create a meritocratic social hierarchy seems to be a prerequisite for political office in modern Britain: Tony Blair, in a speech to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference shortly after taking office in October 1997 proclaimed, ‘the Britain of the elite is over. The new Britain is a meritocracy’. David Cameron, during his campaign to become Conservative Party leader argued that his Party needed ‘a new identity’ and went on to claim that he was a ‘believer in meritocracy and opportunity on merit’.


Theresa May at King’s College, London. (c) Jay Allen via Creative Commons

The word meritocracy is a post-war creation. Its creator, British sociologist Michael Young, catapulted the term into mainstream political discourse through his 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy. The book is told in the guise of a fictional PhD thesis from the year 2033. In this not-too-distant future Britain is a ‘true meritocracy of talent’, where rewards, goods and status are distributed precisely by the formula: ‘I.Q + Effort = Merit’.

Image result for michael young the rise of meritocracy

The new elite this system creates is more secure than its aristocratic predecessor because its status is seen to be the outcome of individual intelligence and effort. While these characteristics may be appear more socially just than birth or luck, this elite feels able to arrogate to themselves larger and larger rewards. By the end of Young’s narrative it has become a distant, heartless and rigid ruling caste.

Despite Young’s warnings Britain’s political elite began a frenzied battle to appropriate the concept and to infuse it with a positive, popular meaning. The concept appealed to Britain’s mainstream ideologies, all of whom could endorse meritocratic policies despite different conceptions of social justice and equality.

For the British Conservative Party adjusting to the changes of the post-war period involved reconciling themselves to meritocracy. Merit, despite its abstract nature, would serve as the new basis for socially legitimate inequalities.

In The Rise of the Meritocracy the integral role played by grammar schools makes private provision as well as the education of the masses redundant. In an age of automation, comprehensives teach functional skills which allow those excluded from the meritocracy to better serve the new elite.

Similarly, Hammond’s budget did little to address an emerging funding crisis engulfing the nation’s education system. The Association of School and College Leaders claim England’s schools are being forced to make £1 billion in savings this year alone, rising to £3 billion by 2020. Many fear that the return of grammar schools will be matched by the emergence of a new generation of comprehensive ‘sink-schools’.

Just as Young warned, therefore, meritocracy may be the cause of, not solution to, the unfairness May perceives has engulfed the nation’s social hierarchy. Despite the Prime Minister’s assertions, Meritocracy is not a new concept. Meritocratic assumptions have been at the heart of major policy changes in post-war Britain from education policy to tax reform.

The Rise of the Meritocracy ends with revolution. Theresa May and Phillip Hammond would do well to heed Young’s warnings. The return of grammar schools, and the faith in meritocracy which underpins their creation, represent an illusory attempt to remedy drastic levels of social inequality and threatens the social stability Conservatives should seek to preserve.

David Civil is a M3C-AHRC funded Doctoral Researcher at the University of Nottingham and University of Birmingham. You can find out more about his work here or follow him on Twitter @Civil_93.

MBS 2017: New researchers and the future of Modern British Studies

cfp imageWe are currently planning another half-day workshop for postgraduates and early career researchers as part of our preparations for the 2017 Modern British Studies conference. Based on the positive feedback we received from the PG/ECR session at MBS 2015, we know that this time was valuable to our community and that much of it helped frame subsequent conference discussions on academic labour. However, we are not sure it achieved all that it set out to do.

In 2015, we aimed to continue the conversation we began in Working Paper Two about how the conditions of academic labour (both in terms of physical and emotional toil) impact the histories we write. Given that there are simply not enough jobs in academia for all of us, it is not surprising that most of the 2015 workshop centred on our uncertain futures. However, despite the anxiety that these challenging conditions create, we cannot allow discussions between PGs and ECRs to always collapse into group therapy sessions. While emotional support and affective networks are vital, we are missing a trick if we do not use our time together to talk productively about what our place of precarity means for the future of our discipline.

We have so far failed to talk at length about the intellectual implications of negotiating a challenging job market. Papers at our recent PG/ECR workshop Seeking Legitimacy explored how impact agendas, tough funding competition and short-term contracts alongside the pressures of researching, teaching and publishing have implications on the intellectual and historical choices we make. Ben Mechen, in a paper on the legitimacy of writing the history of pornography, reflected on how his subject matter may be considered sordid, frivolous or even offensive to some funding/employment panels, while others may find it innovative or engaging. Should the job-seeking researcher play it safe and tick the boxes to land a permanent position? Or should we take risks and write the history our subjects deserve?

This is not to say that we should stop talking about the way these pressures affect our health and wellbeing. They need to continue. But debates about the intellectual implications of our patterns of labour may emphasise the structural causes of poor mental health in academia. The rhetoric around mental health support aimed at postgraduates (in our institution at least) revolves around coping strategies rather than examining the structural causes. The onus is therefore on PGs and ECRs to discuss their own problems and to find their own solutions.


This is why we want to make exploring the relationship between academic labour and the histories we produce part of the agenda at MBS 2017. However, we remain unsure as to whether our PG and ECR workshop is the best place for this dialogue. Indeed, the spatial dimensions and divisions particularly concern us. We have been working hard in MBS to resist hierarchical structures. Restricting these conversations to new researchers potentially reinforces damaging hierarches and ensures that we miss out on the insights of more senior staff. While a distinct platform may help us feel confident in speaking openly amongst our peers, we cannot help but feel troubled that a separate space may now be a pre-requisite for new researchers to say difficult things.

Moreover, only having these discussions amongst ourselves implies that our community has to find a solution, just as we are responsible for our own mental health and wellbeing. This is not only a huge burden, but requires access to networks that we are not yet part of. Although many commented on the way the postgraduate workshop at MBS 2015 spilled over into the conference ‘proper’, this in itself is problematic. While we were delighted that we helped to frame MBS 2015, it was certainly not the two-way conversation we would have liked. Instead, the academic community were able to pick up on some of the tropes of our broader points without fully engaging with us or our debates.

Segregation also prevents us from sharing knowledge that comes from our unique vantage point. For example, we are the first generation of historians who have been encouraged from the start of our training to engage with other disciplines. Some of us who are funded by Doctoral Training Partnerships regularly meet with students from other disciplines via this network. Similarly, those of us who share offices with other schools and colleges are keenly aware of the value of speaking with non-historians. If MBS 2017 is going to focus on questions of cross-disciplinarity, surely we should be part of that conversation – from the centre and not from the edges!

What’s more, although fear of interview-and-funding-panels-to-be loom over our imaginations, Seeking Legitimacy demonstrated that our creativity has not been completely stifled. We are tackling challenging and exciting subject matter and are using interdisciplinary methodologies in our interventions. This is not history à la mode but a way of innovating from the margins. At MBS 2015 it was repeatedly noted that new researchers are doing some of the most exciting work. This can only reinforce the value of our voice in the debate about what Modern British history is and where it should go next.  We hope that it will become part of the norm to discuss our subjects in more reflexive ways, to be transparent about our privileges and to be open about the context in which our work has been produced.

Precisely because the material conditions of labour determine our intellectual outputs, a conference that does not locate new researchers at the centre of discussions cannot claim to fully engage with the intellectual shape of our discipline.  Our precarity should not just be a point of entry for a conversation about the neo-liberal university. Rather, the very future of our discipline is at stake.

Ruth Lindley & Laura Sefton


Waltzing with the Goddess in Modern Britain


Ruth Lindley

Ruth Lindley is a PhD student looking at the place of religion and spirituality within the problematic of ‘modernity.’ You can follow her on Twitter @RuthLindley.

In September 1999, PhD student Ruth Mantin inter-viewed Jaki, a self-identified witch, about her spiritual journey with the Goddess. After discussing Jaki’s Jewish background, Ruth asked whether her relationship with the Goddess was comparable to the ‘God wrestling’ of Jewish theology:

I mean, ‘God wrestling’ to me suggests that you set yourself against him. ‘Goddess stroking’ or ‘Goddess tickling’ or something… It’s different from how God effects, God is so definitely the other that you’ll spend your whole time working out your relationship with God, whereas Goddess is just there, through us, enabling us to explore on Her behalf… Perhaps Goddess waltzing. [1]

For Jaki, Goddess waltzing was all about engaging with the sustaining symbolism of the female in divinity as an alternative to the misogyny of the monotheistic traditions. She explains to Ruth how the fluid and changing nature of the Goddess addresses what she views as the damaging “otherness” of the male God in the Western tradition:

I have occasionally experienced this as ‘other’ but most of the time to me it is the planet, it is nature, it is beauty, it is conduct of human relations which are all part of the Goddess to me… Soul, spirit, mind, body, it’s all embodied… unless we see it as embodied, acting through everything, we are going to continue with this sort of genocidal behaviour, the love of war toys, wastage of all our resources in war games, I mean wrong set of values. [2]

Jaki was one of nine women Ruth inter-viewed between March 1999 and July 2000 for her thesis on contemporary feminist spirituality. Although the common theme of Goddess waltzing ties the participants’ testimonies together, descriptions of the process are varied and sometimes divisive. For Helen, a Pagan who belonged to a local Unitarian community, waltzing with the Goddess allowed her to reject the idea of a static “true female self” and to embrace the pluralities of her experience:

The Goddess image was the mother, the woman, the child bearer, the creatrix, the whole gamut of female emotions, ways of being… I have uncovered layers of myself which has enabled me to take on other layers. I am deeply happy at the moment, it’s a wonderful feeling and it’s enabled me to be much more open to other things, other people and other situations because I don’t need to be anything particular anymore. [3]

Finding out what it meant for women like Jaki and Helen to waltz with the Goddess reveals so much rich and textured history of how faith is experienced in the modern world: a history that is lost when interpreted using current historical models. My PhD thesis looks at the oral testimonies of Ruth’s inter-viewees, and other similar sources, to messy the linear narratives that historians and sociologists use to tell the story of religion and spirituality in modernity, especially in relation to gender’s role in contemporary religious change.

When released from these kinds of stagnant narratives, the testimonies of Ruth’s participants reveal the fluid exchanges that were taking place between religion, spirituality and gender. Not only were the inter-viewees engaged in complicated and sometimes painful theological reflection when reimagining the objects and modes of their religiosity, they also engaged with the feminine principle of the Goddess as a fluid and transforming category.

A detailed study of Goddess waltzing forces us to question current scholarship on the ‘twin’ stories of gender and religion in the contemporary world. The most recent interpretations of the secularisation narrative identify women’s abandonment of the church in the 1960s as the primary motive force behind religious decline. Historians have constructed this argument around a blunt understanding of the way gender works: using the fictive nineteenth century constructions of the ‘feminisation of piety’ and the ‘privatisation of faith’ to argue that ‘heathen man’ secularised long before his counterpart, ‘spiritual woman.’

Masculine/feminine and public/private are just two of the outmoded and largely unchallenged binaries that frame the secularisation narrative and allow it to emphasise the inevitability of religious decline. Others include religious/secular; religious/spiritual; modern/tradition; bondage/freedom; East/West; universalism/particularity; progressive/outmoded. Especially in the sociological literature, these binaries carry problematic value judgements. They fail to escape from the implicit perspectives of religious institutions to whom ‘women’s spirituality’ is seen as ‘alternative’ as opposed to ‘mainstream’, ‘casual’ as opposed to ‘organised’, diluted as opposed to strong.

When viewed through the lens of this kind of reductive scholarship, Goddess waltzing looks like the result of a lot of ‘sloppy thinking.’ The willingness of Ruth’s participants to maintain several propositions simultaneously, some of which appear mutually exclusive, reflects a fluidity of thought that is too readily dismissed by historians and sociologists as unstructured and insignificant. What’s more, adherence to the clichéd historical construction of ‘spiritual woman’ allows this scholarship to emphasise the over-determined ‘feminine’ aspects of contemporary spiritual movements in order to claim that modern women turn to ‘alternative spiritualties’ because they nurture feminine qualities, which are depicted as timeless and universal.

To read the experiences of Ruth’s inter-viewees in terms of secularisation, ‘abandonment’ and ‘loss’ is to misinterpret the changing landscape of modern religiosity: it is a misinterpretation in which overdrawn binaries underpin linear narratives of change and imagined crisis. In order to better understand religious movements of the modern world we need, not just to reframe the idea of secularisation, but to remove it from our analytic vocabulary altogether. Only then will we be able to bring into focus the case studies that demand a quest for new paradigms.


[1] R. Mantin, ‘Thealogies in Process: The Role of Goddess-Talk in Contemporary Feminist Spirituality’, PhD Thesis, University of Southampton (2001), Jaki, pp. 16-17

[2] Ibid., p. 6.

[3] Mantin, ‘Thealogies in Process’, Helen, p. 5.


British Studies and North Britain: UHI, HSBI, and the Impact of Research-Led Teaching

This week we are very happy share a guest blog from our colleagues at the University of Highlands and Islands who offer their own take and on Britishness, British Studies, teaching, research and engagement.

We have been following the exciting events at Modern British Studies from our base in the north of Scotland, at the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI). UHI is Scotland’s newest university, spread out over 13 colleges and research centres from Perth to Shetland, and Argyll to Moray. This is our campus:

UHI Campus Map

UHI Campus Map

In the Humanities we have a thriving range of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, and like most Scottish universities our students take modules from different disciplines. Our staff, too, are often involved in more than one subject area, and as such interdisciplinary research is second-nature to many of us. Because of the nature of our institution we had to find creative ways to make Humanities teaching and research work, and we’ve become experts in the use of VLE spaces and video-conference teaching.

For the past three years we have been working on a new interdisciplinary Masters programme, which was approved recently with Prof. Matt Houlbrook as our external. The MLitt British Studies brings together academics from History, Literature, Philosophy and Archaeology who share a research interest in British identities: Dr Jim MacPherson (History, Dornoch), Dr Kristin Lindfield-Ott (Literature, Inverness), Dr Innes Kennedy (Philosophy, Orkney) and Dr Simon Clarke (Archaeology, Shetland). Students on the programme will study core modules from those disciplines as well as option modules from across the Humanities, and their dissertation will be an interdisciplinary research project of 15,000 words. Students can study this course in the Highlands and Islands, or anywhere in the world – we are internationally validated. The weekly video-conference seminars bring staff and students together in small discussion-based sessions, and the classes are timetabled to suit our students’ needs.

But this isn’t all that makes the course special. As well as growing organically out of our research interests – work we’ve done in the past, current projects, and future undertakings – and being truly interdisciplinary, the course is distinctly different from traditional Masters courses: it puts students at the heart of wider research public engagement projects. We see our students as ‘junior researchers’ – from day 1 on their undergraduate programmes we expect to them think, read and write outside the box. Our MLitt students are part of our soon-to-be-formally-launched ‘Hub for the Study of British Identities’ (HSBI), and online research network for academics, students and the public. HSBI is a digital meeting space, and it encompasses a blog, a peer-reviewed journal (with space for junior researchers), a forum for debate, and various social media outlets. But it’s also a physical network that will bring researchers and the public together in a series of workshops and conferences, held face-to-face but supported by video-conference technology so as many people as possible can participate without having to worry about funding.

Where do our junior researchers come into this? They are at the heart of HSBI. They will be involved, formally and informally, in running the Hub, editing the journal, moderating the forum and contributing to the blog. They are expected to participate in the workshops and conferences, and to share their work with the wider community. Throughout their time with us – and beyond, we hope – they will be ‘British Identity Citizens’ (must find a better term for that!), brought together by shared scholarly interest, public engagement and the opportunity to be taken seriously as researchers. We are working with a number of cultural and heritage bodies – in particular, High Life Highland – to give our junior researchers ample opportunities to gain hands-on work experience in the cultural sector, from museums, archives and libraries to cultural arts and heritage management. Our junior researchers will be publicly visible – on placements throughout our region, by giving public talks and leading workshops, and by promoting our region’s rich cultural resources through their research.

Of course, the road to ‘British Studies’ wasn’t easy, and it has taken much convincing (of our institution, of local partners, of colleagues) that this is less about current politics and more to do with finding an umbrella that allows us to pin down our research and set up these exciting collaborations. In the land of the marginally-defeated referendum, of SNP dominance and social justice, we are painfully aware of the responsibilities and expectations that come with such a programme. We have been impressed, however, by people’s enthusiasm for our undertaking – both within and without academia, and it has proved to be an excellent conversation starter for engaging with the public.

In Inverness, for example, we have spent time discussing notions of identity with members of the public in the ‘Yes’ hub, who were admittedly a bit sceptical at first. Soon, though, they realised that we weren’t trying to sell them ‘British Studies’ as a pro-British, pro-establishment, pro-English idea, but that instead we wanted to hear their ideas on the concept! Soon, both tea and ideas flowed, and we went away inspired. They’ve kindly displayed some posters for us, too!


Just before the MLitt approval event one of our team, Kristin, obtained British citizenship. We don’t want to get into the how and why, or the prohibitive cost associated with it, or how this relates to identity – but instead, we wanted to talk about the ‘Citizenship Ceremony’ in which the process culminates. The ceremonies are run by the local councils, and there is quite a bit of freedom in how councils choose to frame the event. Here, in Inverness Town House, the ceremony was firmly Highland. Not Scottish, Highland. The address was about the region – its rich heritage, the opportunities it provides, its ‘unspoilt’ landscape – and there was a notable absence of British emblems (with the exception of a Union Jack and the oath that all new citizens were required to swear). There was, for example, no rendition of the national anthem – but there was a gift, which, as that, too, is at the discretion of each council, was delightfully local: a map of the Highlands. We are hoping that one of our students will do research into this – the process of becoming British. We’d also been keen to hear from others who have gone through the process – how did your ceremony compare to this one? The Highland Council version was truly that – Highland. It confirmed, yet again, that Scotland is a different country, and one of many identities.

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.

The secret life of Henry Reed

Mark Eccleston, Archivist at the Cadbury Reserach Library

Mark Eccleston, Archivist at the Cadbury Research Library

Henry Reed, as a literary figure, is well known to audiences as the author of the Second World War poem ‘Naming of Parts’. His personal papers, held at the Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, demonstrate that he also wrote well-received radio plays, was a talented linguist and excellent translator.

Henry was born in Erdington on 22 February 1914. He was awarded a scholarship to the University of Birmingham and became one of the so called ‘Birmingham Group’: a circle of writers and artists including W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice and Walter Allen.

Henry’s public persona was debonair, even aristocratic: the archetypal literary man about town. A talented actor and director, Reed produced numerous plays including a number performed by the Birmingham University Dramatic Society (BUDS). He deliberately lost all trace of his Birmingham accent, developed a very quick wit and must have been a most engaging companion.

Henry Reed

Henry Reed

Yet behind these successes, his private life was somewhat more troubled.  Personal correspondence held at the Cadbury Research Library sheds light on how Henry coped with his homosexuality. These letters, mostly written during the 1940s, were sent to Henry’s younger lover, Michael Ramsbotham. Michael retained the letters, gifting them to the University and thereby making them available for research for the first time.

The letters paint a picture of the couple’s somewhat turbulent relationship. The couple met at Bletchley and were romantically involved through much of the 1940s. They parted and reunited on numerous occasions. In one letter, dated July 1944, Henry wrote to Michael: ‘I have loved you very much […] but the world without you is flat and insipid […] and such laughter as there is, causes a pang at the thought that it can’t any longer be re-laughed with you’.

The couple parted permanently during 1950. They only corresponded with each other occasionally after this date. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s Henry went into premature decline. The impulse to write had disappeared and in his last decade, drink and self-neglect undermined his always fragile health. Henry became increasingly incapacitated and was removed to hospital. Here he died on 8 December 1986, Michael returning to be at his side.

As a public figure Henry was unafraid of including homosexual references and explicit comments in his literary work. His ‘Hilda Tablet’ radio plays, first broadcast during the 1950s, contained numerous gay references and suggestions. Even his most famous creation, ‘Naming of Parts’, is as much about masturbation as anything else.

Yet perhaps this public openness concealed, in part, the hidden angst we see in his letters to Ramsbotham? Maybe his sexual confidence was all a front and his close friend and contemporary, Walter Allen, was referring to the ‘real’ Henry when he writes, in a manuscript held at the Cadbury Research Library, that Henry’s ‘tragedy was that he could never come to terms with his homosexuality’.

The papers of Henry Reed are catalogued online with full description of their content (Finding Number: MS31)

“Tell us how it was then”

Laura Beers

Laura Beers

When a producer for the BBC Radio 4 program “The Long View” invited me to commentate on women, political advertising and the 1929 general election, I assumed that she would want me to phone in from my local BBC station, or perhaps, if the Beeb was feeling extravagant, to record the program in a London sound studio with the host, the Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland, and the various other expert commenters.  So, I was thrown for a loop when the she told me that we would likely record at three locations, starting with the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, where the Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin gave his famous speech to the party faithful kicking off the 1929 campaign. I gamely agreed, but couldn’t resist a few jokes to my husband that evening about the uses to which the BBC was putting our license fee.

Yet, when we assembled at the massive Drury Lane theatre on the appointed morning, even amidst the paraphernalia for the current production of Willy Wonka, I began to feel the power of the place.  The gates of the chocolate factory notwithstanding, the theatre had changed little from when Baldwin, surrounded by members of his cabinet, took the stage to tell a carefully assembled demographically representative sample of the Tory faithful what his government had achieved over the previous four and half years and what they would do if their mandate was renewed.  It was an event planned as spectacle, and, standing in theatre’s royal box, it was easy to appreciate how spectacular it must have been.  From Covent Garden, we went across town to the Victoria & Albert, to look at a selection of 1929 campaign posters from the V&A’s collection.  I had seen reproductions of the posters before, but standing in front of the originals, they appeared bolder and more vivid.  Whether we managed to convey the atmosphere of the theatre or the visual thrill of the original posters over the medium of radio remains to be heard.  But, by the time recording wrapped up that afternoon, I had come to appreciate the premium the program put on recording “on location”.

1929 was the first general election to feature multiple party election broadcasts from each of the three main political parties.  The listeners couldn’t see their interlocutors, but that did not stop Stanley Baldwin broadcasting in his signature lounge suit, or the flamboyant Winston Churchill, in contrast, recording in a tuxedo, or Megan Lloyd George addressing the microphone in a fur-trimmed coat of the latest style, an archetype of the modern young “flappers” whose votes her party hoped to win.  Their attire helped to create an atmosphere, and somehow, they hoped, that atmosphere would make itself felt across the airwaves.

“The Long View: The 1929 General Election and the Art of Political Persuasion” will air on Radio 4 on Tuesday 24th at 9:00am, and will be available online.

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.