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.

Saving teeth, removing inequalities: Fluoridation in Birmingham, 1964-2014

Jonathan Reinarz

Jonathan Reinarz

In June 2014, dozens of people (myself included) gathered in Birmingham Council House to ‘celebrate’ fifty years since fluoride was first added to the city’s water supply. Fluoridation is a process of raising the concentration of fluoride (a naturally occurring mineral) in water (to approximately one part per million) in order to improve a population’s dental health. Water fluoridation in Birmingham started in 1964 and, briefly, extended across the region. Today, approximately 5.5 million people in England drink fluoridated water, the majority located in the midlands and the north east. Rates of fluoridation vary similarly globally, with less than 10% of Canadians in British Columbia, for example, consuming fluoridated water, compared with more than 70% in Manitoba and Ontario. Its promoters claim that the prevalence of tooth decay has declined by as much as a half in all fluoridated regions. Although celebrated by some as a proven public health measure, one might equally question why the event in Birmingham was invitation only and held behind closed doors. Some would argue it has to do with a small and vocal group of opponents who have largely questioned the ‘science’ backing arguments in favour of fluoridation. Faced with conflicting testimony, the majority of people today remain cautious. Noticeable, too, is a growing scepticism of orthodox medicine that began to emerge in the 1960s, just as UK fluoridation campaigns were underway.

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The history of fluoridation begins in the United States, when Colorado dentist Frederick McKay noticed, in 1901, that his patients’ teeth were badly stained, though healthy, while the enamel had a mottled appearance. Similar findings were confirmed in the high-fluoride town of Maldon, Essex, where children’s teeth also had fewer cavities than the national average, despite conspicuous specks, later described as fluorosis. In 1942, Dr H. Trendly Dean of the U.S. Public Health Service first demonstrated the relationship between decay and fluoride content of water, recommending one part per million as an effective preventive level, causing minimal mottling. Fluoride was later introduced in the UK towns of Anglesey, Watford and Kilmarnock, starting in 1955. As fluoride was added to water supplies where it had previously been absent, the results were dramatic. Previously, many children by the age of five had four decayed milk teeth, but this average dropped to only two cavities under the new initiatives. On average, at aged fifteen, 10 of the 28 permanent teeth of every English child were either decayed, missing or filled. With fluoridation, dental practitioners, who were already recognised to be in short supply, could deal more easily with the huge amount of dental work that still remained to be done in communities. An investment of a few pennies per head of urban population was estimated to save millions of pounds in dental expenses, not to mention lost work hours.

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There have been many obstacles to public health campaigns in the past. The use of vaccination to deal with infectious diseases in the nineteenth century, not to mention recent opposition to MMR will be familiar examples to many readers of this blog. Not only do anti-fluoride campaigns share similarities with anti-vaccination debates today, but opponents were also very successful in delaying further fluoridation initiatives. Although the World Health Organisation adopted a resolution recommending member states to fluoridate water supplies that contained low levels of natural fluoride, a resolution that was reaffirmed in 1975, progress was not guaranteed. Four years earlier, Sweden repealed legislation supporting fluoridation. Kilmarnock already ended their scheme a decade earlier, and new initiatives clearly slowed with the reorganisation of local authorities and the National Health Service in April 1974. Between 1974 and 1979, no further plans to implement fluoridation were introduced in England, despite the fact that more than 80% of Area Health Authorities passed resolutions in favour of such intervention.

Cases, both for and against fluoridation, multiplied in pamphlets and local newspapers. Endless attacks and defence campaigns led other organisations, such as the British Consumers’ Association and the Royal College of Physicians, to conduct their own investigations into the practice. Often reports recount identical stories of the earliest trials in Grand Rapids Michigan, but also introduce new theories that capture the zeitgeist of the various campaigns. A 1976 report by the RCP, for example, addressed the idea that fluoridation was a communist plot, as mooted in Stanley Kubrick’s cult classic, Dr Strangelove (1964). Throughout the 1970s, concerns about food additives and contamination from DDT, mercury, and PCBs encouraged new groups to question fluoridation. As a result, at this time, one also begins to see unusual alliances, those on the right of the political spectrum, or religious minorities, joining forces with early environmentalists and health food advocates, for example. Most recently, fluoridation has been linked by its opponents to increasing rates of obesity. Strangely, few contemporary discussions mention thalidomide, but one can be sure it was the elephant in the room during discussions in the 1960s. Interestingly, it was never mentioned in Birmingham Council House last June.

L0071214 The Society for the aid of Thalidomide Children

The context of fluoride campaigns has noticeably changed over the years, and schemes appear to have ‘died on their feet’, as recent challenges to fluoridation in cities like Southampton seem to indicate. Some feel that a change in diet might be the best way to reduce cavities. Others claim the recent decline in tooth decay rates might be associated with fluoridated toothpaste, the use of which has become widespread since the 1960s. Given the ease of implementing such interventions, it has become less burdensome for parents, rather than the state, to care for their children’s teeth. Interestingly, the prosperous south of England appears less willing to adopted fluoridation, a reverse to the pattern seen in countries such as Canada, where poorer regions have been most vocal in their opposition. An investigation into the subject, as is currently being undertaken in the History of Medicine Unit in collaboration with a former practitioner of public health dentistry, can teach us a lot about the way populations have evaluated potential health risks and benefits and certainly how the British people have responded to state intervention in public health over the last half century.

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Further Reading:

Paul Castle, The Politics of Fluoridation: The Campaign for fluoridation in the West Midlands of England (London: John Libbey & Co., 1987).

Catherine Carstairs, ‘Cities without Cavities: Democracy, Risk, and Public Health’, Journal of Canadian Studies, Vol. 44, No. 2 (2010), pp. 146-170.

Brian A. Burt and Scott L. Tomar, ‘Changing the Face of America: Water Fluoridation and Oral Health’, in J. W. ward and C. warren (eds), Silent Victories: The History and Practice of Public Health in twentieth-Century America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 307-322.

Allan Freeze and Jay H. Lehr, The Fluoride Wars: How a Modest Public Health Measure Became America’s Longest-Running Political Melodrama (New Jersey: John Wiley & Son, 2009).

Web Links:

2. Most thought provoking book

Laura Beers: Carolyn Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives (1987)

Matthew Francis: Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time (2004)

I first came across Koselleck through reading around conceptual history but there is so much else besides in this collection of essays: historical time, war memorials, the Third Reich in dreams…

David Gange: Adam Kuper, Incest and Influence: The Private Life of Bourgeois England (2009)

This is an anthropology of the role incest (well, cousin marriage) played in sustaining the elite (Wedgewoods & Darwins).

Vanessa Heggie: Carolyn Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman (1987)

Not discovered through work, this was given to me by my mum.

Matthew Hilton: Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice (1980)

Not necessarily a book but a sentence I keep returning to more than anything: ‘systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures’

Matt Houlbrook: Vic Gatrell, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1770-1868 (1986)

This was the book that made me want to be a historian. It’s impassioned, angry, and humane. It shows how it is possible to interweave social, cultural, and political histories, and to move between the minutiae of everyday life and far-reaching processes of historical change.

Chris Moores: Carolyn Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman (1987)

I would also like to add a non-history book: Stuart Hall, Chas Chritcher, Tony Jefferson, John Clarke & Brian Roberts’, Policing the Crisis (1978).  I don’t agree with everything in it but I still keep coming back to its analysis as a way of thinking through late 20th century Britain. It is also a great example of collaborative work in practice.

Sadiah Qureshi: Alison Winter’s Mesmerized: Powers of Mind in Victorian England (1998)

It changed my outlook on how science is demarcated from other disciplines in the nineteenth century and helped lay the ground for some of the most important claims I wanted to make about exhibitions as spaces for the production of anthropological knowledge.

Jonathan Reinarz: James Huzel, The Popularization of Malthus in Early Nineteenth Century England (2006)

Written by the then unusually democratic undergraduate History tutor at UBC who introduced me to British History and whose stimulating lectures and encouraging comments echo in its pages.

Kate Smith: Dorothy Ko, Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding (2005)

Not Modern British Studies I’m afraid but this remains one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve ever read. Not only because of its findings but also for the way it plays with structure and method.

More MBS Desert Island posts:

  • Book you have referred to most
  • Most Controversial Book
  • Book you wish you had written
  • Favourite Article

1. Book you have referred to most

Laura Beers:  Ross McKibbin, Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951 (1998)

The political historian’s cultural history.

Matthew Francis: Michael Freeden, Ideologies and Political Theory: A Conceptual Approach (1996)

My copy is falling apart from overuse. Aside from the fact that his work provided the theoretical underpinnings of my thesis, Freeden also seems to have an almost endless knowledge of political thought and political thinkers.

David Gange: Alex Owen, The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern (2004)

I love this book – in treating some extremely eccentric occultists it conjures the richest treatment of 1890s culture I know of. A brilliant example of how the apparently marginal can address the big themes of a period.

Vanessa Heggie:  Christopher Lawrence, Medicine in the Making of Modern Britain (1994)

Often used on my syllabus, so regularly referred to. For research-only, it’s probably a toss-up between the PhD’s most used book, which is Richard Soloway, Demography and Degeneration: Eugenics and the Declining Birthrate in Twentieth Century Britain (1995) and the first post-doc’s use of JA Mangan’s Athleticism in the Victorian and Edwardian Public School (1981)

Matthew Hilton: Manuel Castells, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture Trilogy, 1996-1998)

This was really useful in helping me connect a whole variety of people, institutions and ideas when I was working on global/transnational history.

Matt Houlbrook: Stephanie Newell, The Forger’s Tale: In Search of Odeziaku (2006)

This book is a great example of how writing about an individual life can be a way of exploring broader historical issues — the relationship between metropole and colony and inequalities of race, class, and sexuality, for example.

Chris Moores: Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000 (2002)

Sadiah Qureshi: George Stocking, Victorian Anthropology (1987)

It has yet to be replaced by a more up to date survey of the entire century.

Jonathan Reinarz: Brian Harrison, Drink and the Victorians: Temperance Question in England, 1815-1872 (1971)

I started my graduate studies with drink, reluctantly left it when I began my post-doc, continued with it as a medical historian, and look forward to it, with at least one conference presentation on alcohol on the cards in 2015.

Kate Smith: John Brewer and Roy Porter’s Consumption and the World of Goods (1993)

More MBS ‘Desert Island’ posts:

  • 2. Most thought provoking book
  • 3.Most Controversial Book
  • 4. Book you wish you had written
  • 5. Favourite Article

MBS ‘Desert Island’ Books

Laura Sefton

Laura Sefton

My last blog post discussed the difficulties I have when reading academic texts. These anxieties seem to have resonated with others and I’m grateful to those who have offered advice or tips on how they deal with it, alongside others who have simply said they feel the same.  Regardless of discipline, I guess we all have to grapple with literature.

Working on modern British history poses its own challenges though. The fragmentation of the field, much lamented in Working Paper 1, has ensured that we read very specific bodies of work, related only to our own field. Clearly this is necessary, but by encouraging us to work within sub-disciplines, it can be difficult to place our work in wider contexts. Collaborative working practices remain an exception rather than the norm. And whilst these standards exist we not only miss out on imaginative and creative ways of thinking through our own work, but we will fail to encapsulate the complexity and vibrancy of modern British history.

Participating in a postgraduate-led reading group is not only an important step in challenging the anxieties I have about reading, but I also hope it will become a space in which we can read wider and think bigger.  A space where we can read works outside of our own areas of research, where discussion will not be limited to what we already understand, but stimulated by what we do not know. A space where we can begin to enjoy books.

Practicalities first, we need books to read. Inspired by these History Workshop posts, we asked MBS staff to participate in a desert island type task to get our list of books started. Being an unruly lot though, we asked them to suggest titles within categories and to explain their choices if they felt it necessary.

The titles suggested are not only a great list of books to read for our reading group, but are suggestive in their own right. Many of the titles are not British history books, indicating that just as Britain did not develop in isolation; neither does the writing of its history. The influences on our work may not be tangible; the connections between texts are not always obvious.

When we write the history of modern Britain, we choose the chronological and temporal limits of our project. We must always question the reasons why we set our boundaries and recognize that the books we read play just as important a role as the sources we painstakingly research.

We must also understand the role books play in our working practices. What we read not only influences the way we conceive of our discipline, but affects the way we imagine ourselves in relation to that discipline. There are very prescriptive bodies of literature that you must engage with before you are considered, or even consider yourself, a historian with a certain methodological approach (e.g. gender, cultural, social, etc.).

This task was designed to work outside of those boundaries, to allow staff to consider the broader influences on their work. We expected titles that related very closely to their work, and the ‘most referred to’ category invited such responses, but have been pleasantly surprised by their willingness to think beyond their immediate research and engage with the wider influences on their careers and lives.

Given these answers, our reading group will be starting with Carolyn Steedman’s A Landscape for a Good Woman.

I’ve agonized over how to present these responses but have decided to simply present the answers as they were given to me, albeit edited slightly (we all know how much historians can write…)

  1. Book you have referred to most
  2. Most thought provoking book
  3. Most Controversial Book
  4. Book you wish you had written
  5. Favourite Article