Post Conference Feedback and Contemporary British History Prize for Best Postgraduate Paper

It’s raining gently as I write this, but I’m still feeling the warmth and energy from last week’s conference, when sunny coffee breaks seemed to give way to electrifying panels in regular succession.

If you were there, could you:

a) fill out the survey asking for feedback

b) if you like, nominate a paper given by a postgraduate for the prize sponsored by the Contemporary British History journal (email me m.moulton at, or tweet at CBH)

If you weren’t there, but care about the project of MBS, fill out this survey anyway, with a focus on the final page. We’re looking for co-conspiritors to make #MBS2021 (and beyond) sustainable and pertinent.


One week to go! An introduction to the opening roundtable on de-centering British Studies from the peripheries

By Jacob Fredrickson and Martha Robinson Rhodes on behalf of the MBS postgraduate and early career researcher group.

With MBS 2019 only a week away, the programmes have gone to print, name-tags are on their way, and Birmingham is bracing itself for the biennial arrival of hundreds of British studies scholars for three days of vibrant, inspiring and challenging conversations. We thought it was a good time to introduce in a little more detail what will kick off this year’s conference, a half day session organised by us, postgraduates and early-career researchers working within the Centre for Modern British Studies here at Birmingham.

We firstly want to thank the Centre for again inviting us to kick off discussions and frame the intellectual agenda for the next few days.

This year, we’ve titled our workshop ‘Decentring British Studies From the Peripheries’. In doing so, we’re hoping to both provide a welcoming and productive space for junior scholars, and articulate the value and importance of our voices within the field as a whole. This is particularly important at a moment where postgraduates and early-career researchers face increasingly hostile conditions and labour practices.

The issue of precarity and casualisation in academia has been central to our discussions as postgraduates and early career researchers over the last few years. In January 2015, we published a working paper where we argued, “The ongoing shift to a market-based education system (which can be characterised as the neoliberalisation of the University) continues to re-imagine and re-construct the material conditions in which we work…Young academics setting out to write original and insightful PhD dissertations also appear to be the most obvious potential victims of job scarcity, declining research funding and pervasive long working hours.” To explore these issues in more detail, we have hosted a number of conferences exploring the relationship between our working conditions and the sorts of history we’re able to write.

This year, we want to harness the energy of our previous discussions towards a slightly different intellectual enquiry. For our roundtable, ‘Decentring British Studies From the Peripheries’, we have asked the speakers to consider contributions that are focused on an aspect of their own research, with precarity as a category of analysis – rather than presentations about precarity per se.

In line with the theme of the wider conference, we want to think beyond boundaries by returning to one of the most vexed historiographical boundaries in our field, the periphery. In this roundtable, we want to return to the periphery in the time of precarity.

Firstly, the ‘time of precarity’ draws our attention to the pressing need to return to the periphery in post-Brexit, neoliberal, imperially nostalgic Britain. Thinking through the boundaries of Britain and of British identity – who gets to be British, who gets to set the boundaries of the periphery itself, where these boundaries are drawn – all of this has a pressing political purpose at a time when national identity is at the centre of a toxic and pernicious politics, with worryingly increasing appeal.

We also want to consider the ‘time of precarity’ in a second sense; the temporalities of our precarious labour. Postgraduates and early career researchers are increasingly expected to do more in less time. This impacts what research we can conduct. From having the time, and money, to visit archives, to balancing teaching with writing on exploitative contracts, precarity marginalises. As MBS PGRs wrote in 2015, ‘we stand on the edge of the academy, it is our precarious position of becoming historians that most keenly reveals the relationships between academic and non-academic, between experts and non-experts, between history and our present moment’.

The periphery in the time of precarity is a useful heuristic to reflect on the impact of our working conditions. We want to stimulate discussion of the periphery utilising precarity, and precarious labour, as a category of historical analysis. How, and in what ways, does our own knowledge becomes privileged or marginalised? How does this shape what can be told about modern Britain?

We have invited six scholars across career stage to reflect on these themes in relation to their own work. It is our hope that this session stimulates a conversation on the relationship between our labour, our working conditions and the limits to what it is possible to know about modern Britain.

Speaking on the roundtable will be:

Lara Choksey, Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Exeter

Jonathan Saha, Associate Professor at the University of Leeds

Laura Sefton, Postgraduate Researcher at the University of Birmingham

Olivia Havercroft, Postgraduate Researcher at the University of Manchester

David Geiringer, Associate Lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London

Ruby Daily, Postgraduate Researcher at Northwestern University

Following the roundtable, we will be hosting a number of smaller workshops that will run co-currently. These will focus on the practicalities of becoming a scholar within British Studies, including sessions on journal articles, book contracts, and job applications to universities outside of Britain. We have also organised a session for more senior colleagues, exploring practical ways established academics can build solidarity and support junior scholars. Please see the programme for full details on this.

We hope that those who are attending the conference over the three days will attend, even if you aren’t a postgraduate or early-career researcher. Precarity affects us all, and we hope to make clear that the political and historical questions it poses are of pressing importance to the field of modern British studies as a whole.

See you next week!


A Guide to Travel, Accommodation, and Food & Drink in Birmingham

All of us at MBS look forward to welcoming you to Birmingham in July.

We are lucky to be able to share with you the Brum Secrets Zine, produced by MBS’s own Ellie Munro. We draw your attention especially to pages 6-10 for great restaurant, café and bar recommendations. Scroll down for more links on accommodation, travel, and food from the University’s main site as well.

Screen Shot 2019-06-06 at 10.35.15 AM


University of Birmingham’s information on accommodation

University of Birmingham’s information on travel

University of Birmingham’s information on food & drink

Registration Deadline Extended

We have extended the registration deadline. You can register here.
All presenters must register before the conference.

Please be advised, if you require a visa invitation letter to attend the conference we cannot now guarantee that we will be able to provide you with one with enough time for you to apply for the required visa. You register at your own risk and we are not able to provide a refund for late applicants.

For folks who aren’t presenting — we can take payment and register you on arrival, but you would need to bring the correct amount in cash or pay with a cheque. We do not have the facility to provide change or take payment by card.
And that’s all the technical formal stuff! Can’t wait to see you in July!

Draft Programme and Registration

Registration is open here.

And, we have a draft programme! Download it here.


Wednesday 3 July


8:00: Registration opens


The first morning of sessions is organised by postgraduate researchers and early-career researchers. All are welcome.


9.15 – 10.45: Roundtable: ‘Decentering Modern British Studies, from the peripheries’

Chairs: Jacob Fredrickson & Martha Robinson-Rhodes


Laura Sefton

David Geiringer

Ruby Daily

Olivia Havercroft

Jonathan Saha

Lara Choksey



11.15-12:15: Break-out sessions


A Getting published in academic journals


An advice session on writing and publishing in academic journals with guidance from experienced editors of journals in the field.


B Applying for an academic job outside the UK


Advice and tips from international scholars on the particularities of the application process for securing an academic post in the Anglo-speaking world.

C Securing a Book contract


A session led by academic publishers exploring how to approach formulating a book proposal, and turning your doctoral thesis into a book.








Precarity in Academia: Standing in Solidarity & Fighting Back


Session details tbc.




12:15-1: Lunch


1-2:30 Plenary Session: Inclusive Pedagogy in Modern British Studies


2:30-3: Break


3-4:30 Panel Session 1


A Subverting gendered institutions in the twentieth century

Chair: Hannah Kershaw


Anne Hanley, ‘I caught it and yours truly was very sorry for himself.’ Searching for the consumer-patient in Britain’s VD Service


Catherine Holloway, Crossing and Constructing Boundaries: The Construction of ‘Modern’ Girlhood in Girls’ Technical Schools in 1950s Britain


Ellie Simpson, Beyond the Boundary: Section 28, Sex Education and the Contested Authority of the Teacher in 1980s Britain

B Roundtable on Race and Ethnicity in UK History and British Studies

Chair: Sadiah Qureshi


Shahmima Akhtar

Saima Nasar

Kennetta Hammond Perry

Jonathan Saha

C Small Histories Across Boundaries

Chair: Matt Houlbrook


Simon Briercliffe, An intimate history of an Irish quarter


Itziar Bilbao Urrutia, Coffee Table Kink: an intimate history of an emerging subculture


Dion Georgiou, Suburban Close-up:   Writing British History from the City’s Margins


Richard Hall, Fathers, sons and emotional oral histories


Julia Laite, A microhistory of ‘sex trafficking’ in the modern British world


Lucinda Matthews-Jones, Settling on a Translocal History








Identity and Representation: Transcending Britishness in the Mission World

Chair: ?


Jennifer Bond, ‘The One for the Many’: Zeng Baosun, Louise Barnes and the Yifang School for Girls at Changsha, 1893–1927


Hannah Briscoe, Missionary family correspondence and the co-construction of identity: creating a shared space between colony and metropole


Emily Manktelow, The local and the global at Canterbury Cathedral: bringing the Empire home


Caitlin Russell, ‘Imperial structures of feeling’: English missionary women’s representations of Indian women and girls as imperial and religious ‘others’ c. 1881

E Teaching Modern British History: War Studies



4:30-5: Break


5-6:30: Panel Session 2



A Landscapes of the Mind: Urban Space and Social Affect in England, 1870-1965

Chair: Phil Child


Olivia Havercroft, A lunatic asylum (“For Architects”)’: town planning and mental health in England, 1870-1914


Ren Pepitone, Law Student Sociability, Imperial Regulation, and the Contested Spaces of Legal London


Divya Subramanian, Contesting the Landscape of Social Democracy

B Queer Time and Place: LGBTQ Lives in the 1970s and 1980s

Chair: Chris Waters


Nadine Gilmore, “The Drift Towards Destruction”: the gay rights movement and morality in Northern Ireland, 1972 – 1982


Sophie Monk, Temporalities of Gay Liberation in 1970s Britain


Martha Robinson Rhodes, Time, Popular Memory and the Present in Oral Histories of Bisexuality and Multiple-Gender-Attraction

C Roundtable: New perspectives on the boundaries which defined women’s expertise in late-nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain


Kate Bradley, Boundaries of knowledge, profession and gender: women, the law, and the labour movement


Jessica P. Clark, The Bounds of Beauty: bodily knowledge and female beauty workers, 1890-1912


Helen Glew, Crossing boundaries: women workers, expertise and the marriage bar


Katie Hindmarch-Watson, Women telegraphists, telephone operators, and boundaries of privacy in early twentieth Century Britain

D Colonial Experiences in Imperial Space

Chair: Amanda Behm


D.C. Bélanger, The Decline of Empire Loyalism in French Canada


Husseina Dinani, Assigned to the “Punishment Station”: Colonial Officials, Everyday life and Impoverishment in southern Tanganyika


Thanasis Kinias, Multiple Scales of Whiteness: A Racialized Spatial Imaginary at Imperial and Colonial Levels

E Teaching Modern British History: The 1980s



Thursday 4 July


9-10:30: Panel Session 3



A Women, social mobility, and ideas of the future, c.1950s-1980s

Chair: Penny Tinkler


Laura Carter, Secondary modern girls and the meaning of social mobility in Britain, 1957-1972


Hannah Charnock, Teenage girls, hopes for the future and contraceptive practice, 1950-1980


Eve Worth, Beyond Feminism: Women, the Welfare State and Social Mobility During the Long 1970s

B Rethinking Britishness at the Boundaries: The Local, the Global and the Imperial

Chair: Penny Sinanoglou


Martin Johnes, The politics of popular history: Taking a history of colonialism to a Welsh television audience


Mimi McGann, ‘A privilege of continuity’: The future of boundary-marking in British folklore and politics


Chika Tonooka, Looking for Global Britain beyond boundaries – in Japanese imperial history


Theo Williams, Pan-Africanism and the Discourses of Britishness and Modernity

C Exploring environment and materiality in histories of citizenship, rights and activism in modern Britain

Chair: Chris Moores


Eve Colpus, Telephone use and the contested political agency of children and teenagers in 1980s/90s Britain


Eloise Moss, Hotels, disability access and activism in modern Britain


Hannah J. Elizabeth, “HIV you must be jokin’ / I tell you man, I was boakin’”: recovering the everyday experiences of those living with HIV in late twentieth century Edinburgh

D Information exchange beyond boundaries: Britain and the international circulation of ideas after 1945

Chair: Marianna Dudley


Rosanna Farbol and Jonathan Hogg, Nuclear Exchanges: forms of information exchange between Britain and Denmark in the Cold War era, 1950-1990


David Grealy, British Foreign Policy towards Rhodesia, 1977-79: David Owen and the Entangled Histories of Human Rights and Humanitarianism


Taym Saleh, “Europhobes”, “Eurofanatics” and “gutless whingers”: the EEC, the parties and the electorate in Britain, 1983-4


Jacob Ward, Thatcherism, BT’s Privatisation, and the Global Information Society



10:30-11: Break


11-12:30: Panel Session 4



A Empire and Imagination: national and imperial identities in the British Isles

Chair: Mo Moulton


Sean Donnelly, Ireland in the imperial imagination: British nationalism and the Anglo-Irish Treaty


George Evans, Irish imperial identities in transnational perspective


Yuhei Hasegawa, Leopold Amery and the British Empire as ‘an Imagined Community’


B Gender, Sexualities, and Identity Within and Beyond Boundaries


Clare Martin, Gender, class, and region: Yorkshire working-class women in their own words (c.1900-1940)


David Minto, Britain’s Queer Connections to the World League for Sexual Reform


Chris Wallace, ‘I was more “dinkum” than had been anticipated’: Noël Coward’s 1940 Tour of Australia, Waving the Wartime Flag for Britain


Lauren Wells, Cross-dressing in the Community: Masculinity, Cross-dressing, and Working-Class Entertainment in Yorkshire, 1900-1939

C Solidarity Beyond Boundaries


Ewan Gibbs, ‘The Unacceptable Face of Labour’: Trade Union Solidarity and Division at Caterpillar Tractors, Uddingston c.1960s-1987


Diarmaid Kelliher, The Spatial Politics of the Picket Line, 1966-1988


Valerie Wright, Solidarity forever?: Exploring the intersection of class and regional/national identity in shipbuilding and car manufacture in the West of Scotland c. 1961-2017

D Boundaries and Governance, at Home and Abroad


Amanda Behm, Remaking Albion’s frontiers: the American Pacific Coast, vigilantism, and self-governance in Victorian thought


Fernando Gomez Herrero, Evelyn Waugh among the Barbarians; Or about Scott-King’s Modern Europe(1947)


Penny Sinanoglou, Boundaries of law: Marital legitimacy in the British empire


Ellen Boucher, Does Neoliberalism Have Borders?: Nuclear Risk, Popular Sentiment, and the Boundaries of Thatcherism, 1979-1986

E Teaching Modern British History : decolonising the curriculum



12:30-1:30: Lunch


1:30-3: Keynote by Dr Caroline Bressey: “Living Together: Remapping the Boundaries of Multi-Ethnic Britain”


3-3:30: Break


3:30-5: Panel Session 5



A Respecting Boundaries: the personal, professional and political in modern British history


Emily Baughan, ‘Inclined to make a fuss’: women of colour and white, male ex-colonial officials in international aid in the 1960s.


Anna Bocking-Welch, ‘Primrose pitches in with the gentle touch’: women as amateurs, experts, and ‘do-gooders’ in the post-war humanitarian sector


Charlotte Lydia Riley, Cheap Cows Like You: Being a Professional Woman in the World

B Modern Britain on Drugs

Respondent: Lucy Robinson


Peder Clark, Do You Love What You Feel?”: Ecstasy, Rave, and Ways of Knowing, 1988-1995


Ben Mechen, Rubber Gloves and Liquid Gold: Poppers and the Policing of London’s Queer Nightlife


Yewande Okuleye, You Call It Marijuana and I Call It “The Herb”: Cannabis as a Boundary Object

C Boundaries of sickness, Boundaries of citizenship in 20th & 21s century Britain

Respondent: Chris Moores


Sarah Dorrington, Maybe fit: Sickness certification in the UK, 2008-2017


Gareth Millward, Privatising sickness: policing British absenteeism in the first Thatcher government


Martin Moore, “Bright-while-you-wait”: interstitial time and GPs’ waiting rooms in Britain’s Queuetopia, 1948-1958


Janet Weston, The Lunacy Office and ‘being incapable’ in mid-20th century England & Wales

D The Case for Education: Schools, Identity, and Social Change in Modern Britain


Hester Barron, Class identities in the interwar classroom


Chris Jeppesen, ‘We’re not Bradford, but it’s vitally important to address this situation’: Multicultural education, localism, and identity in rural Britain, c. 1965-90


Amy Gower, ‘Controversial Issues’ and the Inner London Education Authority


5-5:30: Break


5:30-7: Keynote by Prof Enda Delaney: “The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps)? Modern British Studies and Irish History”


Reception to follow.


Friday 5 July


9-10:30 Panel Session 6



A (Post)Imperial Circulations: Immigration, Identity, and the Production of Knowledge

Chair: Sadiah Qureshi


Nadine Attewell, Encounters that Bite: Fieldwork and Chinese Diasporic Intimacy in the Imperial Metropole


Jack Crangle, British, Irish or ‘other’? Immigrant identities in Northern Ireland’s divided society


Olatunde Taiwo, Forced Migration in British Africa: A Study in the Statutory Authorisations of Deportation in Nigeria, 1900-1940


Caroline Ritter, ‘Britain’s Real Black Gold’: The English-Language Industry in Britain

B Beyond Boundaries in the History of Sexuality

Chair: Ben Griffin


Laura Doan, Natural and Unnatural: Lord Berners and His Circle


George Morris, Intimacy and the invention of the Anglican confessional, 1865-1879


Emily Rutherford, Conservative Homosexualities and Normative Masculinities in Early-Twentieth-Century Cambridge

C Radical Nationalism(s) and the Shifting Boundaries of “Britishness” in Post-War Britain

Chair: Emily Baughan


Benjamin Bland, Reasserting the ‘Island Race’: Postcolonial Melancholia and the Evolution of Far Right Euroscepticism in Contemporary Britain


Bethan Johnson, Bombs & Borders: Celtic Fringe Nationalisms’ Embrace of Extreme Sectarian Violence and Mass Civil Unrest, 1960-1980


Liam J. Liburd, ‘War on the Whiteman’: Colony, Metropole and Opposition to Commonwealth Immigration on the British Radical Right, 1953-1967


Steve Westlake, The ‘Oxfam of the Mind’? The Humanitarian Rhetoric of the BBC External Services and the Reimagining of Global Britain, 1975-1978

D The miners’ strike, 1984-5: gender and class at the boundaries of political struggle

Chair: Daisy Payling


Emily Peirson-Webber, Gender, material culture and the miners’ strike, 1984-5


Nathalie Thomlinson, The boundaries of the political: Activism, ‘ordinary women’, and the 1984-5 miners’ strike


Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, Class, gender and activism in regional perspective: women’s experiences in the miners’ strike, 1984-5

E Beyond the university: community members as researchers, historians, and archivists

Organisers: Josie McLellan, Jessica Hammett, Meleisa Ono-George



Members of the North Kensington Archive and Heritage Project


Windrush Strikes Back decolonial detectives


Single Parent Action Network History Group




10:30-11: Break


11-12:30: Keynote by Prof Sharon Marcus: “The Drama of Celebrity”


12:30-1:30: Lunch


1:30-3: Panel Session 7



A Feeling Like Citizens: Emotions, Experience and Expertise in the Public Realm

Chair: Clare Langhamer


Sarah Crook, Student Anxiety in the Age of Affluence


Matthew Francis, ‘The Robots Are Not People’: The Maybot Between Brexit and the Second Machine Age


Chris Moores, Corporeal Conservativism: Moral Movements, Bodies and Brains


Emily Robinson (paper co-written with Jonathan Moss and Jake Watts), Heads, Hearts and Guts: An Emotional History of Brexit

B Transnational Travel and Communities


Steve Burke, Familiarity and difference at the boundaries of British experience: Identifying with places and people in travel accounts from Atlantic peripheries, 1815-1830


Paul Jackson, ‘Fascism Beyond Nations’: The (British?) Extreme Right and Transnational Imagined Communities, Past and Present


Ellen Smith, ‘With kisses on both your cheeks’: The Transnational Family of Caroline Cuffley Giberne, 1803-1885


Gareth Roddy, Into the West: The Literature of Travel and Landscape in the Western British-Irish Isles, c.1880-1940

C The Rising Generation: Young People, the State and the Future c. 1908-1979

Chair: Emily Baughan


Jennifer Crane, ‘Government by consent does not necessarily imply government by mediocrity’: Gifted Children and Building Liberal Democratic Nations, 1945-1970


Laura Sefton, Innocence in the Marketplace: Children, the British State, and Market Regulation 1908-1979


Laura Tisdall, ‘I’m not going to be anything’: children, death and the future in Cold War Britain and the United States

D Gender and Agency on the Margins

Chair: Lucy Robinson


Rebecca Jennings, A shared culture of lesbian motherhood? The impact of transnational exchange on lesbian parenting in 1970s and 80s Britain


Beth Parkes, Suntanning, Race, and Protest in Teenage Magazines: 1970-1989


Beckie Rutherford, Apart or A Part’? Understanding the Agency and Erasure of Disabled Women Within the Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain, c. 1970-1993


Maia Silber, Terms of Service: British Domestics and the Negotiation of Identity in the Transvaal and the Orange River Colony, 1902-1914

E Teaching: Interdisciplinary Methods in the Classroom


3:14-4:45: Panel Session 8



A British Jewish History: Evolving Methodologies and Contexts

Chair: David Feldman


Abby Gondek, Ruth Glass and West Indian migrants to London: interpreting anti-black racism through the lens of anti-Semitism


Eliana Hadjisavvas, Imperial Internment: Jewish Refugees and the British Empire – The case of the Cyprus Camps, 1946-1949


Ellis Spicer, “They may be proud or resentful it varies”: The Second Generation of Holocaust Survivors


Gavin Schaffer, Aliyah and its Absence


B Caught out, mugged off, and on the move: revisioning postwar youth 

Chair: Hannah Charnock


Resto Cruz, Laura Fenton and Penny Tinkler, Risky expectations: pregnancies and young girls’ transitions in post-war Britain


Sarah Kenny, Moving through the city: youth culture and spatial mobility in post-war Britain


David Geiringer, Historicising Love Island; youth, emotions and authenticity in late-modern Britain

C Radical business and women’s liberation in late twentieth century Britain


Lucy Delap, Feminist Business Praxis and Spare Rib Magazine, c. 1972-82


Zoe Strimpel, Body negative: Spare Rib letters and the experience of feminism


D-M Withers, Honno Press and Welsh cultural nationalism: cultural policy as insulation from the free market


D Boundaries: Histories of Emotion as Method


Katie Barclay, Emic and Etic Knowledges: the ‘New’ History of Emotions


Laura King, ‘The story of ‘poor Harold’: object micro-histories, collaborating with family historians and boundaries of expertise in history making


Julie-Marie Strange, Love in the Time of Capitalism: emotion in the (re) making of the working class, 1848-1910


Lucy Allen, Devilish Feelings: Rethinking Working-Class Religion and Emotion and the Boundaries of Archives, 1870-1910.





Conference ends.

Stories about Individual Lives – or Intimate Histories?


George Morris and David Cowan

George Morris is a first year PhD student at the University of Cambridge. His PhD looks at questions of intimacy, masculinity and sexuality in nineteenth-century Britain.

David Cowan is a second year PhD student at the University of Cambridge, researching the memory of the inter-war years in Britain between the 1940s and the 1980s.


At the recent ‘Ways of Knowing’ conference hosted by MBS, it was notable that many of the papers were concerned with the stories of individuals. This way of writing history can be used for different ends; the historian can use individuals as ciphers for broader changes, as windows onto the operation of culture and power ‘close-up’, as cases of historical agents who shaped the society around them, or simply as the opportunity to tell a good story.[1] It is a method that has yet to be fully taken advantage of by historians of modern Britain.

We propose calling these studies ‘intimate histories’, a term that, unlike ‘microhistory’, captures both the emotional investment entailed and the depth and attention to detail of these micro-level analyses. This term also hints at the political stakes involved in this work. There are a number of important studies of intimate relationships in modern Britain.[2] Here, following Rachel Moss, we are more interested in intimacy as a practice; in being ‘intimate with our subjects,’ the material conditions in which we write, and our ‘own pasts and presents’. In this way of writing about the past, history can become an intimate enterprise, and intimacy can be a useful approach to our work; it concerns both what we know, and how we know it.

Emotional attachments to subjects form often and easily in the production of histories of individual lives. This was perhaps made most clear at the conference in the discussion of the ‘Writing Lives’ project, where Jess Brandwood and Tracey Hughes expressed a feeling of real connection to the people whose stories they had studied, and a sense of recognition, similarity and sympathy.

These forms of attachment are much less likely (though never absent) in other forms of historical research. When we think in terms of broader historical processes, individual lives can all too often feature only as anecdote or example, without the depth found in histories that take the individual as their main focus. But the history of an individual life might be useful not just for what it tells us about the story of modern Britain, but also how it challenges it, disrupting our assumptions about processes of social change. And while it is reasonable to question how far histories of individual lives throw light on broader historical processes, it is also reasonable to criticise broader studies for often neglecting the apparently small details that our emotional attachments draw us towards.

Sometimes emotional attachments seem to offer the opportunity of a ‘way of knowing’. A detailed personal archive or an autobiography that appears to be particularly frank and open, a particular style of writing or facial expression in a photograph, all invite us to believe that we really know the person we’re discussing, in the way that we know our families or our friends. During the panel on ‘Learning in Britain’, Lewis Ryder mentioned that he felt he recognised the voice of John Hilditch even when he was writing under a pseudonym. It’s unclear what he can do with that feeling of recognition; after all, the apparatus of academic writing makes little room for this ‘way of knowing’.

Along with files of unused thoughts and sources, every historian carries round a mental catalogue of confident feelings without a source to draw upon directly – the archival gap you’re certain solves your problems, the way you’re certain the subject felt about something even though they never recorded it, the subtle tone you’re certain you can detect in a letter. We can feel as confident in these feelings as we are about our citable findings. Both, after all, come from a position of careful research. We can feel that we know not just what the subject did but what they would have done, how they would have responded, what they were probably doing in those periods where the sources run dry, how they would feel if they knew that we were spending so much time thinking about them. We should be reflective about judgements like these, and not dismiss them out-of-hand. Emotional attachments can, if considered carefully, become a useful tool.

There is, of course, a risk that our identification with the people whose pasts we study produces a distorted perspective; that our feelings of sympathy or similarity iron out differences, contexts and historical specificity. But we are used to being aware of our biases and subject positions, to being reflexive about them and to accepting them as a necessary part of the production of historical knowledge – the emotional attachment we bring to our work is another influence that should be understood and worked with, rather than seen as a problem to be ignored.

Our emotional lives and mental health also shape how we produce history, whether it be our feelings shaping how we work, research and write, or a mental illness that can bring it all to a halt. And as Laura Sefton argued in her paper and in a recent blog, there are material and structural factors at play. On the opening day of ‘Ways of Knowing’ Laura, Ben Mechen and Michael Lambert, offered important commentaries on the constraints that precarity and market logic impose on PGRs and ECRs. In light of their papers, a renewed interest in individual lives might be seen as a product of the material, as well as intellectual, conditions in which we write history.

Intimate histories seem to offer a way of narrowing our research: a rational response to dried-up funding pots, tightened deadlines and the pressures of the job market. Of course, in practice, approaching the history of modern Britain through individual lives isn’t the straightforward exercise it would appear. As Lewis pointed out, historians producing intimate histories more often face the frustration of leaving out rich material than finding enough for a thesis. And even the richest archives contain silences that can never be filled. Martha Robinson Rhodes shared her frustrations about what she could not know about an archived oral history project, particularly the paths of enquiry that were ignored by the original researchers. Important information about the identity of the researchers themselves was missing.

Faced with inevitable silences, and the desire to ‘know’ our subjects, projects dealing with individuals invariably expand their bounds, growing exponentially like a rhizome as trace references are followed up and anecdotes are corroborated or complicated. Sean Male’s paper was a case in point. Starting with a reference in a file at Kew, Sean’s research spiralled out through a web of references in newspapers, digitised books and additional archives. In this light, working on intimate histories helps subvert conditions of marketisation. Following these chains of references might be essential to make sense of an individual life, but indulging the pleasure of making new connections also challenges the logic that research needs to amount to ‘outputs’ with a quantifiable impact.

The internet offers another way of using individual lives to challenge the drive towards competition. In what amounts to an astonishing act of scholarly generosity, ‘Writing Lives’ makes available a vast corpus of information on working-class life writing, including transcripts of hard-to-access memoirs and associated details about their authors. PGRs and ECRs, faced with the pressure to compete in the solitary process of job applications, have a model of scholarly collaboration in ‘Writing Lives’. This act of democratisation, one suspects, is one which many of the authors of the autobiographies would have supported.

The methods employed by the ‘Writing Lives’ project, such as scouring census records, suggest another resonance with the resurgence of interest in individual lives: family history. Historians such as Carolyn Steedman, Frank Mort, and Graham Dawson have long used details from their own family as entry points into broader histories, placing their own subjectivity centre-stage.[3] It is only more recently that writers like Tanya Evans and Alison Light have started to employ the methods of family historians—aided, no doubt, by digitisation.[4] But as Sean pointed out, the rich insights gained from digitisation also pose ethical dilemmas for historians. Feats of historical reconstruction that would have been impossibly laborious a decade ago are now possible relatively quickly—but our subjects might never have anticipated, or welcomed, the possibility that future historians would be able to reassemble their lives in this way. Historians have never been better equipped to produce deep studies of the lives of individuals, but this makes it imperative to retain the reflexivity of earlier work.

We also need to be careful not to forget that precarity doesn’t just constrain historians working in universities. The costs of a subscription to online census records—not to mention countless trips to local archives, nationally and internationally—mount up for family historians, too. As the discussion of ‘publics’ and ‘public history’ highlighted, historians are fortunate that many local history archives continue to provide subsidised or free access to these services. At the same time, like all council services, local history archives are facing cutbacks. Many are employing shortened hours, reduced service and—in at least one case—proposing to charge researchers to access materials (a policy which, thanks to public pressure, was dropped). Historians must defend the services and institutions on which we rely from continued cuts. It is in this sense that intimate histories might count as ‘working with the trouble’. Without continued advocacy on behalf of embattled local services, we run the risk that the toolkits of family history—which have the potential to generate such thoughtful, reflective histories of individual lives—are parcelled off.

Both our emotional attachment to the individuals, and the material, precarious conditions in which we work shape intimate histories. Distinct from histories of social change or grand narratives, but also unlike traditionally conceived biography, this mode of thinking about and writing history has the potential to be particularly enlightening, as the ‘Ways of Knowing’ papers demonstrated. Further reflection on these themes could prove to be a productive way of thinking about modern British history, and we are grateful to MBS for giving us a space in which to begin these thoughts.


[1] Carolyn Steedman, An Everyday Life of the English Working Class: Work, Self and Sociability in the Early Nineteenth Century (2013); Seth Koven, The Match Girl and the Heiress (2014); Matt Houlbrook, Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook (2016).

[2] Marcus Collins, Modern Love: An Intimate History of Men and Women in Twentieth-Century Britain (2003); Claire Langhamer, The English in love: the intimate story of an emotional revolution (2013).

[3] Carolyn Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman (1986); Frank Mort, ‘Social and Symbolic Fathers and Sons in Postwar Britain’, Journal of British Studies, 38:3 (1999); Graham Dawson, Soldier Heroes: British Adventure, Empire and the Imagining of Masculinities (1994).

[4] Tanya Evans, ‘Secrets and Lies: the Radical Potential of Family History’, History Workshop Journal, 71 (2011); Alison Light, Common People: The History of an English Family (2014).