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Remembering Conrad Russell, Historian Of Stuart Britain And ‘Last Of The Whigs’

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This post was written by Penelope Corfield, and originally appeared on her monthly blog.

When remembering my colleague Conrad Russell (1937-2004),1 the first thing that comes to mind is his utterly distinctive presence. He was an English eccentric, in full and unselfconscious bloom. In person, Conrad was tall, latterly with something of a scholar’s stoop, and always with bright, sharp eyes. But the especially memorable thing about him was his low, grave voice (‘Conrad here’, he would intone, sepulchrally, on the phone) and his slow, very precise articulation. This stately diction, combining courtesy and erudition, gave him a tremendous impact, for those who could wait to hear him out.

He once told me that his speaking manner was something that he had consciously developed, following advice given to him in his youth by his father. In fact, given his life-long wish not to be overshadowed by his famous parent, Conrad spoke very rarely about the mathematician and public intellectual Bertrand Russell (1872-1970). Conrad, the only child of Russell’s third marriage, was brought up by his mother, who lived in isolation from the rest of the family. But the eminent father had once advised his young son to formulate each sentence fully in his mind, before giving voice to each thought.2 (Not an easy thing to do). The suggestion evidently appealed to something deep within Conrad, for he embraced the slow, stately style from his youth and maintained it throughout his lifetime.

One result was that a proportion of his students, initially at London University’s Bedford College (as it then was),3 were terrified by him, although another percentage found him brilliant and immensely stimulating. Only very few disliked him. Conrad was manifestly a kindly person. He didn’t seek to score points or consciously to attract attention as an eccentric. Yet his emphatic speaking style, laced with erudite references to English politics in the 1620s, and witticisms with punch-lines in Latin, could come as a shock to undergraduates. Especially as Conrad did not just speak ‘at’ people. He wanted replies to his questions, and hoped for laughter following his jests.

Because he thought carefully before speaking, he was also wont to preface his remarks with a little exclamation, ‘Em …’, to establish his intention of contributing to the conversation, always followed by a Pinteresque pause. That technique worked well enough in some contexts. However, when Conrad took up a prestigious academic post at Yale University (1979-84), a number of his American students protested that they could not understand him. And in a society with a cultural horror of silence, Conrad’s deliberative pauses were often filled by instant chatter from others, unintentionally ousting him from the discussion. A very English figure, he admitted ruefully that he was not psychologically at ease in the USA, much as he admired his colleagues and students at Yale. Hence his relief was no secret, when he returned to the University of London, holding successive chairs at University College London (1984-90) and King’s College (1990-2003). By this time, his lecturing powers were at their full height – lucid, precise, and argumentative, all at once.

And, of course, when in 1987 he inherited his peerage as 5th Earl Russell, following the death of his half-brother, Conrad found in the House of Lords his ideal audience. They absolutely loved him. He seemed to be a voice from a bygone era, adding gravitas to every debate in which he participated. Recently, I wondered how far Conrad was reproducing his father’s spoken style, as a scion of the intellectual aristocracy in the later nineteenth century. But a check via YouTube dispelled that thought.4 There were some similarities, in that both spoke clearly and with authority. Yet Bertrand Russell’s voice was more high-pitched and his style more insouciant than that of his youngest child.

The second unmistakable feature of Conrad’s personality and intellect was his literal-mindedness. He treated every passing comment with complete seriousness. As a result, he had no small talk. His lifeline to the social world was his wife Elizabeth (née Sanders), a former student and fellow historian whom he married in 1962. She shared Conrad’s intellectual interests but was also a fluent conversationalist. At parties, Elizabeth would appear in the heart of a crowd, wielding a cigarette and speaking vivaciously. Conrad meanwhile would stand close behind her, his head slightly inclined and nodding benignly. They were well matched, remaining devoted to one another.

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Fig.1 Conrad and Elizabeth Russell on the stump for Labour in Paddington South (March 1966).

My own experience of Conrad’s literal-mindedness came from an occasion when we jointly interviewed a potential candidate for an undergraduate place in the History Department at Bedford College. (That was in the 1970s, before individual interviews were replaced by generic Open Days). A flustered candidate came in late, apologising that the trains were delayed. Within moments, Conrad was engaging her in an intense discussion about the running of a nationalised rail service (as British Rail then was) and the right amounts of subsidy that it should get as a proportion of GDP. The candidate gamely rallied, and did her best. But her stricken visage silently screamed: ‘all I did was mention that the train was late’.

After a while, I asked if she’d like to talk about the historical period that she was studying for A-level. Often, interview candidates became shifty at that point. On this occasion, however, my suggestion was eagerly accepted, and the candidate discoursed at some length about the financial problems of the late Tudor monarchy. Conrad was delighted with both elements of her performance; and, as we offered her a place, commented that the young were not as uninterested in complex matters of state as they were said to be. The candidate subsequently did very well – although, alas for symmetry, she did not go on to save British Rail – but I was amused at how her apparent expertise was sparked into life purely through the intensity of Conrad’s cross-questioning.

His own interest in such topical issues was part and parcel of his life-long political commitment. At that time, he was still a member of the Labour Party, having stood (unsuccessfully) as the Labour candidate for Paddington South in 1966. But Conrad was moving across the political spectrum during the 1970s. He eventually announced his shift of allegiance to the Liberals, characteristically by writing to The Times; and later, in the Lords, he took the Liberal Democrat whip. He wanted to record his change of heart, to avoid any ambiguity; and, as a Russell, he assumed that the world would want to know.

Conrad’s literalness and love of precision were qualities that made him a paradoxical historian when interrogating written documents. On the one hand, he brought a formidable focus upon the sources, shedding prior assumptions and remaining ready to challenge old interpretations. He recast seventeenth-century political and constitutional history, as one of the intellectual leaders of what became known as ‘revisionist’ history.5 He argued that there was no evidence for an inevitable clash between crown and parliament. The breakdown in their relationship, which split the MPs into divided camps, was an outcome of chance and contingency. Those were, for him, the ruling forces of history.

On the other hand, Conrad’s super-literalism led him sometimes to overlook complexities. He did not accept that people might not mean what they said – or that they might not say what they really meant at all. If the MPs declared: ‘We fear God and honour the king’, Conrad would conclude: ‘Well, there it is. They feared God and honoured the king’. Whereas one might reply, ‘Well, perhaps they were buttering up the monarch while trying to curtail his powers? And perhaps they thought it prudent not to mention that they were prepared, if need be, to fight him – especially if they thought that was God’s will’. There are often gaps within and between both words and deeds. And long-term trends are not always expressed in people’s daily language.

In case stressing his literalism and lack of small talk makes Conrad sound unduly solemn, it’s pleasant also to record a third great quality: his good humour. He was not the sort of person who had a repertoire of rollicking jokes. And his stately demeanour meant that he was not an easy man to tease. Yet, like many people who had lonely childhoods, he enjoyed the experience of being joshed by friends, chuckling agreeably when his leg was being pulled. Common jokes among the Bedford historians were directed at Conrad’s unconventional self-catered lunches (spicy sausages with jam?) or his habit of carrying everywhere a carafe of stale, green-tinged water (soluble algae, anyone?). He was delighted, even if sometimes rather bemused, by our ribbing.

Moreover, on one celebrated occasion, Conrad turned a jest against himself into a triumph. The Head of Bedford History, Professor Mike (F.M.L.) Thompson, was at some date in the mid-1970s required to appoint a Departmental Fire & Safety Officer. It marked the start of the contemporary world of regulations for everything. Mike Thompson, with his own quixotic humour, appointed Conrad Russell to the role, amidst much laughter. Not only was he the caricature of an untidy professor, living in a chaos of books and papers, but he was, like his wife Elizabeth, an inveterate chain-smoker. In fact, there were good reasons for taking proper precautions at St John’s Lodge, the handsome Regency villa where the History Department resided, since the building lacked alternative staircases for evacuation in case of emergency. Accordingly, a fire-sling was installed in Conrad’s study, high on the top floor. Then, some months later, he instituted a rare emergency drill. At the given moment, both staff and students left the building and rushed round to the back. There we witnessed Conrad, with some athleticism,6 leap into the fire-sling. He was then winched slowly to the ground, discoursing gravely, as he descended, on his favourite topic (parliamentary politics in the 1620s) – and smoking a cigarette.

Later, Conrad referred to his years in Bedford’s History Department with great affection. Our shared accommodation in St John’s Lodge, five minutes away from the rest of the College, created a special camaraderie. The 1970s in particular were an exciting and challenging period for him, when he was refining and changing not only his politics but also his interpretation of seventeenth-century history. The revisionists attracted much attention and controversy, especially among political historians. (Economic, demographic, social and urban historians tended to stick to their own separate agendas). Collectively, the revisionists rejected the stereotypes of both ‘Whig’7 and Marxist8 explanations of long-term change. Neither the ‘march of progress’ nor the inevitable class struggle would suffice to explain the intricacies of British history. But what was the alternative big picture? Chance and contingency played a significant role in the short-term twists and turns of events. Yet the outcomes did not just emerge completely at random. In the very long run, Parliament as an institution did become politically more powerful than the monarch, even though the powers of the crown did not disappear.

By the 1990s, the next generation of political historians were beginning to revise the revisionists in turn. There were also new challenges to the discipline as a whole from postmodernist theory. In private conversation, Conrad at times worried that the revisionists’ critique of their fellow historians might be taken (wrongly) as endorsing a sceptical view that history lacks any independent meaning or validity.

Meanwhile, new research fashions were also emerging. Political history was being eclipsed by an updated social history; gender history; ethnic history; cultural history; the history of sexuality; disability history; world history; and studies of the historical meanings of identity.

Within that changing context, Conrad began to give enhanced attention to his role in the Lords. His colleagues among the Liberal Democrats appreciated the lustre he brought to their cause. In 1999 he topped the poll by his fellow peers to remain in the House, when the number of hereditary peers was drastically cut by the process of constitutional reform. And, at his funeral, Conrad Russell was mourned, with sincere regret, as the ‘last of the Whigs’.

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Fig.3 Conrad Russell, 5th Earl Russell, speaking in the House of Lords in the early twenty-first century.

There is, however, deep irony in that accolade. In political terms, it has some truth. He was proud to come from a long line of aristocrats, of impeccable social connections and Whig/Liberal views. Listening to Conrad, one could imagine hearing the voice of his great-grandfather, Lord John Russell (1792-1878), one of the Whig architects of the 1832 Reform Act. Moreover, this important strand of aristocratic liberalism was indeed coming to an end, both sociologically and politically. On the other hand, as already noted, Conrad the historian was a scourge of both Whigs and Marxists. Somehow his view of history as lacking grand trends (say, before 1689) was hard to tally with his belief in the unfolding of parliamentary liberalism thereafter.9 At very least, the interpretative differences were challenging.

Does the ultimate contrast between Conrad Russell’s Whig/Liberal politics and his polemical anti-Whig history mean that he was a deeply troubled person? Not at all. Conrad loved his life of scholarship and politics. And he loved following arguments through to their logical outcomes, even if they left him with paradoxes. Overall, he viewed his own trajectory as centrist: as a historian, opposing the Left in the 1970s when it got too radical for him, and, as a politician, opposing the Tories in the 1980s and 1990s, when they became dogmatic free-marketeers, challenging the very concept of ‘society’.

If there is such a thing as ‘nature’s lord’ to match with ‘nature’s gentleman’, then Conrad Russell was, unselfconsciously, one among their ranks. He was grand in manner yet simple in lifestyle and chivalric towards others. One of his most endearing traits was his capacity to find a ‘trace of alpha’ in even the most unpromising student. Equally, if there is such a thing as an intellectual’s intellectual, then Conrad Russell was another exemplar, although these days a chain-smoker would not be cast in the role. He was erudite and, for some critics, too much a precisian, preoccupied with minutiae. Yet he was demonstrably ready to take on big issues.

Putting all these qualities together gives us Conrad Russell, the historian and politician who was often controversial, especially in the former role, but always sincere, always intent. One of his favourite phrases, when confronted with a new fact or idea, was: ‘It gives one furiously to think’.10 And that’s what he, courteously but firmly, always did.

Conrad Sebastian Robert Russell (1937-2004), 5th Earl Russell (1987-2004), married Elizabeth Sanders (d.2003) in 1962. Their sons, Nicholas Lyulph (d.2014) and John Francis, have in turn inherited the Russell earldom but, post Britain’s 1999 constitutional reforms, not a seat in the House of Lords.

Conrad volunteered this information, in the context of a discussion between the two of us, in the early 1970s, on the subject of parental influence upon their offspring.

Merged in 1985 to become part of Royal Holloway & Bedford New College, these days known simply as Royal Holloway, University of London (RHUL), located at Egham, Surrey.

Compare the BBC Interview Face-to-Face with Bertrand Russell (1959; reissued 2012), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bZv3pSaLtY with Conrad Russell’s contribution to The Lords’ Tale, Part 18 (2009), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJ_u1WM7CYA.

The intellectual excitement of that era, among revisionist circles, was well conveyed by fellow-panellist, Linda Levy Peck (George Washington University, Washington, DC).

Talking of Conrad Russell’s athleticism, some of his former students drew attention to his love of cricket. He could not only carry his bat but he also bowled parabolic googlies which rose high into the sky, spinning wildly, before dropping down vertically onto the wicket behind the flailing batsman, often taking the wicket through sheer surprise.

The term ‘Whig’, first coined in 1678/9, referred to a political stance which had considerable but never universal support throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in support of parliamentary constraints upon the unfettered powers of monarchy, a degree of religious toleration, moderate social and political reforms, and opposition to the more pro-monarchical Tories. The ‘Whig interpretation of history’, which again was never universally supported, tended to view the unfolding of British history as the gradual and inexorable march of liberal constitutionalism, toleration, technological innovation, and socio-political reforms, together termed ‘progress’.

On which, see S. Rigby, Marxism and History: A Critical Introduction (Manchester, 1987, 1998).

This point was perceptively developed by fellow-panellist, Nicholas Tyacke (University College London).

10  Conrad showed no sign of being aware (and probably would have laughed to discover) that this phrase originated with Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, in Lord Edgware Dies (1933), ch.6.

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Reviews in History – 20th anniversary special! (part 1)

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balkanismWe have a treat for you today – the first part of a special issue to mark the 20th anniversary (and bear in mind that in digital resource years that makes us at least 200) of Reviews, for which we have asked our Editorial Board to recommend some of the most influential / significant history books of the last 20 years.

Some suggested themselves, some commented that the task itself was impossible (‘Ha ha sure that’s straightforward Danny, name the best history book out of what – only a million or so contenders!’), but I think we came up in the end with a good spread of books, and nice spread of approaches to revisiting a ‘classic’.

Anyway, here are the first four (I don’t know what it says that we didn’t review any of them when they first came out! I wasn’t in charge then of course…).

We start off with Imagining the Balkans by Maria Todorova, as Hannes Grandits goes back to a book which became an instant must read on its publication in 1997 (no. 2035).

Then we turn to Randall Packard’s The Making of a Tropical Disease A Short History of Malaria. Maureen Malowany looks back over a timely overview of the history of one of the most complex and ancient of all diseases (no. 2034).

Next up is Which People’s War?: National Identity and Citizenship in Wartime Britain 1939-1945 by Sonya O. Rose. Laura Beers tackles a book which, more than a decade after its publication, remains a model for students interested in contemporary cultural history (no. 2033).

Finally, we have Christopher Bayly’s Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780-1870, and Ricardo Roque revisits a book which made him travel to places and explore ideas that he would not otherwise had considered (no. 2032).

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New reviews: unbelief, Charleston Syllabus, Wessex Danes and ancient wisdom (again)

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Martin Luther, as ever the life and soul of the party…

First up this week we have Dominic Erdozain’s The Soul of Doubt: the Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx, as Charlotte Methuen and Dominic Erdozain discuss a fascinating study of the ways in which religious faith could open the door to doubt (no. 2031, with response here).

Then we turn to the Charleston Syllabus: Readings on Race, Racism, and Racial Violence, edited by Chad Williams, Kidada E. Williams and Keisha N. Blain. Lydia Plath praises an innovative crowdsourced response to the tragic events of Charleston (no. 2030).

Next up is Danes in Wessex : the Scandinavian impact on southern England, c.800-c.1100, edited by Ryan Lavelle and Simon Roffey. Jeremy Haslam reviews an edited collection which should provide all students of the period with material to ponder and enjoy (no. 2029).

Finally, we also have a lengthy response by Dmitri Levitin to our earlier review of Ancient Wisdom in the Age of the New Science: Histories of Philosophy in England, c1640-1700, which you can read here.

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By the seaside – event and exhibit at the IHR

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dsc_0218The IHR enjoys an associate fellowship connection with Historic England and this year we invited some of the Fellows from Historic England to deliver a lecture. The event was part of the Being Human Festival and a coincident exhibit was arranged in the IHR’s exhibit space in the Wolfson corridor.

The lecture took place on Monday, 21 November, and it was a wonderful and well-attended evening. John Cattell spoke first, providing an overview of the work of Historic England. Allan Brodie then provided a visually stimulating talk on change to various aspects of seaside communities, their beaches, and waterfronts, accented with beautiful photographs, old and new. Brodie has already published books on English seaside resorts and on Blackpool and his new book on seasides and seafronts in England is well underway.

The lecture was followed by a seaside-themed reception, complete with fish and chips, cornish pasties, and samples of Caspyn Cornish gin. We were able to screen some lovely footage from the Wellcome Collection in the background, as well as tourism films from the mid-20th century, which aimed to entice visitors to seaside towns. Punch and Judy man, Professor Robert Styles, entertained and informed the guests at the reception. We watched as Robert set up his traditional Punch and Judy theatre and he then gave “backstage” tours, displaying a collection of puppets, including some antiques, and answered questions about the history of Punch and Judy.

The event also provided a launch of sorts for the associated exhibit, also titled By the Seaside. The exhibit covers fashion and morality at the beach; seaside cures; art, music and literature inspired by the seaside; the close connection of ice cream with the English beach; and beach photography and tourism materials. The central case displays a fantastic Edwardian bathing costume, on loan from IHR Wohl Librarian, Matthew Shaw. Kelly A Spring curated the excellent display on the history of ice cream, tracing the introduction of ice cream by Italian immigrants, and the early migration of that ice cream to the seaside.

The South East Archive of Seaside Photography (SEAS) kindly loaned us about 20 incredible framed tintypes and ambrotypes, portraits of couples and groups at the beach. The early beach photographer was itinerant and was perceived at the time as more vulgar salesman than photographer, regarded with at best indifference and frequently with contempt. The work produced by these practitioners has been readily dismissed as inartistic disposable wares – cheap seaside ephemera. These photographers provided while-you-wait ambrotypes (photographs on glass) or ferrotypes (photographs on enameled iron, commonly called tintypes) and these curated items provide an opportunity to reconsider the previous aesthetic, technical and cultural disregard with which they were treated. These also provide images of late 19th and early 20th English couples, friends, and families who might not have been able to afford studio portrait photography and who, therefore, are less often captured in photos.

I had a fascinating time assembling the other cases of the exhibit and was particularly intrigued to learn more about some of the habits and practices common to early beach tourism in England and about how these have changed. I had never been aware that the drinking of large glasses of seawater was a standard part of the seaside cure in the late 18th century. Some doctors felt it was acceptable to add milk to the salt water in order to make it – allegedly – more palatable. Seawater was even bottled and sold inland, much as spa water was then and still is. Measures of modesty and the measures used to enforce modest behaviour shifted dramatically over time. Some what surprisingly, it was entirely acceptable at some resorts for men to bathe naked up into the Victorian period, and regulations about gender segregated bathing fluctuated with time and geography. There is, of course, an element of the marketplace in all of these matters. Local governments and business-people used the need for modesty as an excuse for forcing bathers into rented bathing machines, tents, huts, and changing rooms.

Joe Acheson of Hidden Orchestra, and his publisher, Full Thought Publishing, kindly allowed us to set up a listening station at the exhibit, featuring Acheson’s Marconi and the Lizard EP. As Acheson explains: “Lizard Point is the most southerly point of the UK mainland. Radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi built a hut there in 1901, to experiment with sending radio signals over longer distances – it was in that hut that the first ever ship-to-shore SOS signal was received. I spent a week there in August 2016, in the National Trust’s first ever sound artist residency. The “Marconi and the Lizard” EP is the result of that residency.”

We hope this will be the first in a series of annual events of this kind, in collaboration with Historic England and hope, as well, that you have a chance to visit the exhibit, which will be on in the lower ground floor of the IHR until early December.

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New reviews: Benjamin Franklin, medieval popes, Arthur Balfour and race and the American Revolution

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Benjamin Franklin in London

Our reviews this week kick off with George Goodwin’s Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father. Angel-Luke O’Donnell and the author discuss an immersive biography, useful for anyone interested in 18th-century sociability (no. 2028, with response here).

Next up Benedict Wiedemann reviews two different but equally valuable approaches to the medieval papacy, Popes and Jews 1095-1291 by Rebecca Rist and Pope Innocent II (1130-1143): The World vs the City, edited by John Doran and Damien J. Smith (no. 2027).

Then we turn to Balfour’s World: Aristocracy and Political Culture at the Fin de Siècle by Nancy W. Ellenberger. Andrew Hillier praises a fresh and illuminating perspective of what would otherwise be familiar territory (no. 2026).

Finally we have Robert G. Parkinson’s Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution. Jonathan Wilson recommends an account that deserves attention from any historian studying early American national identity, racism, western expansion, or print culture (no. 2025).

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New reviews: smallpox, history of philosophy, wonder and the Somme

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Dr. Donald A. Henderson (right), who led the World Health Organization effort to eradicate smallpox, examines a child's vaccination scar in Ethiopia.

Dr. Donald A. Henderson (right), who led the World Health Organization effort to eradicate smallpox, examines a child’s vaccination scar in Ethiopia.

We start this week with The End of a Global Pox by Bob H. Reinhardt, as Susan Heydon and the author discuss a valuable contribution to the literature on smallpox eradication (no. 2024, with response here).

Next up is Dmitri Levitin’s Ancient Wisdom in the Age of the New Science: Histories of Philosophy in England, c1640-1700. William Bulman enjoys a book full of subtly analyzed, elaborately contextualized, extensively detailed, and often interrelated examples (no. 2023).

Then we turn to Keagan Brewer’s Wonder and Skepticism in the Middle Ages, as Stephen Spencer praises a thought-provoking discussion of wonder, skepticism and marvels (no. 2022).

Finally Ross Davies marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the Battle of the Somme with the second part of his bibliography (no. 2021). Don’t forget to check out this Somme-related blog post by my BBIH colleague Simon Baker as well – http://blog.history.ac.uk/2016/09/the-battle-of-the-somme-have-you-seen-the-big-push-films/.

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New reviews: Federal Writers’ Project, the Philadelphians, Barbarossa and American Myth

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5 Writers Exhibit State FairWe begin this week with Catherine A. Stewart’s Long Past Slavery: Representing Race in the Federal Writers’ Project. David Cox and the author discuss a superbly researched, engaging, and insightful book (no. 2020, with response here).

Next up is Jane Lead and her Transnational Legacy, edited by Ariel Hessayon. Liam Temple reviews a valuable and timely collection of essays that offers new direction to those concerned with studying the Philadelphians (no. 2019).

Then we turn to John B. Freed’s Frederick Barbarossa: the Prince and the Myth. Thomas Foerster believes that this book will become the standard work in English on Frederick Barbarossa and 12th-century Germany (no. 2018).

Finally we have Exploring the Next Frontier: Vietnam, NASA, Star Trek and Utopia in 1960s and 1970s American Myth and History by Matthew Wilhelm Kapell. Kendrick Oliver thinks that a more polished and persuasive book would have better explored these worthwhile themes (no. 2017).

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Mapping Memory: The Gascoigne Open Estate Project

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This post, written by Seif El Rashidi (Project Development Officer for the HLF ‘Layers of London’ Project), originally appeared on the ‘Layers of London’ project blog

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A series of photographs by Saira Awan capture the family lives of residents of the Gascoigne Estate. These were on display in the public space around some of the buildings as part of the Open Estate Festival.

The Open Estate Project is a London mapping project of a different sort- documenting the memories and reflections of residents of a large housing estate in London that is currently being redeveloped to make way for new housing. It is one of the many projects of Studio 3 Arts, a charity set up to develop and deliver socially-engaged, co-created artistic practice in North East London and West Essex.

A fascinating collection of visual material resulted from the project – this includes portraits of families relaxing at home, as well as photos of the Estate during moments of pivotal change – showing residents doing everyday chores with the bulldozers at work in the background, or capturing the effect of the seasons on an urban landscape that will never be there again – like the modernist checkerboard created by the snow-covered paths and buildings.

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Open Estate asked local residents to think of what was valuable to them and why. Here are some of the answers.

An exhibition of wide ranging artistic output captured personal reflections on what objects and items people cherished, made out of clay – an old bathtub, a laptop, plates and saucers. To complement that, a cabinet of travelling treasures displayed people’s real mementos: an action man doll, a mantle clock, a pearl necklace.

As one of the panels in the evocative display told a crowd of fascinated visitors:

“As Gascoigne moves through the regeneration process, some objects may be the last remaining elements of a former flat – the valve from a hot water cylinder – a lock and key that used to secure a home. But other objects demonstrate moving forward, a Disney keyring from a family holiday that will hold the key to a new home, and mugs that will be the first out of the removal box for a restorative hot drink.”

A ceramicist, Simeon Featherstone, worked with local residents of all ages to produce a collection of glazed ceramic globlets, made of clay dug up from the estate itself, some of these include imprints of Gascoigne’s textures: the coarse fibres of a carpet, and the swirls of wall paper. Among the most fascinating were pieces with maps of the different phases in the life of the estate – like the ones shown here, placing the plan of Victorian terraces below that of the 1950s blocks that replaced them, the very structures that are now being erased.  The goblets were a nod to the history of the Gascoigne family, wealthy aristocrats who once owned the land.

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One of a collection of goblets created to represent the urban evolution of the Gascoigne Estate, from the property of the aristocratic Gascoigne Family, to Victorian terraces, to the current, rapidly disappearing, blocks of flats.

The project’s final celebration culminated with a symposium at which heritage specialists, planners, community members and local officials put their heads together and reflected on what had been taking place.  One comment from a local resident summed it all up. “I watched a programme on the Tudors which featured a painting showing Henry VIII holding a skull – the skull was a reminder that nothing is permanent; that everything must change. So it must!”

Apart from its obvious benefits in bringing a community together to share and support each other during a period of significant change, a project like Open Estate is of great value to urbanists, and to those historians of the future who can look back at its photos, its drawings and its recordings, and understand first-hand what sort of community this was, in many different ways.

It is exactly the sort of information Layers of London can help preserve.

As Steve Lawes, Trainee Project Manager for the Open Estate Project says “The Layers of London project is a fantastic opportunity for ordinary people to access their history via visual and written records. It will allow multidisciplinary and multimedia archival and personal histories to be easily accessible, easily edited and easily understood.

For Open Estate, which is unearthing the personal and social histories of the Gascoigne Estate in Barking, Layers of London will allow us to unearth stories from people we might not have otherwise met or conversed with, and users will be add their memoirs and photos to certain places, potentially giving us a more detailed, and most of all personal, historical record. The format of adding memories and histories to a map will make people think about space, time and history in a different way to what they might learn from an information sign at a museum, or from a book. “

To find out more about this fascinating project click here.

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Reviews in History US election special!

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Hillary-Clinton-2016-FacebookLess than a week to go until the US elections, and, thanks to the hard work of our editorial board member Daniel Peart, we are able to present an election special – four books showing the ways in which the current generation of American politicians use history to promote their own brand of politics.

We start with the current frontrunner and potential first-ever woman president, Hilary Clinton, and her Hard Choices. Karen Heath believes this memoir will be of particular interest to students of the political uses of history (no. 2016).

Next up is former Governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal’s American Will: The Forgotten Choices That Changed Our Republic. David Tiedemann poses some big questions for the former presidential hopeful (which to be honest he is unlikely to answer… no. 2015).

Then we turn to God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy by another Republican White House wannabe, Mike Huckabee. Roy Rogers discerns, through Huckabee’s frustrations, some useful insights on the state of American conservativism in the age of Donald Trump (no. 2014).

Finally we turn to Ron Paul’s The Revolution: A Manifesto. Kenneth Owen questions whether the fundamental values this libertarian Republican espouses are closer to those of the Founding Fathers or to Austrian School economists (no. 2013).

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New reviews: US early democracy, medieval merchants, opium trade and Roosevelt

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shaysrebellionWe start this week with Commons Democracy: Reading the Politics of Participation in the Early United States by Dana Nelson, as Mark Boonshoft and the author discuss a book which offers a coherent paradigm for understanding an important part of the early American democratic tradition (no. 2012, with response here).

Next up is Medieval Merchants and Money: Essays in Honour of James L. Bolton, edited by Matthew Davies and Martin Allen. Chris Dyer recommends a volume which is a tribute to the ingenuity of historians (no. 2011).

Then we turn to Ashley Wright’s Opium and Empire in Southeast Asia: Regulating Consumption in British Burma, which Jim Mills believes to be another significant contribution to the revisionist movement in the history of narcotics in modern Asia (no. 2010).

Finally we have Franklin D. Roosevelt: The War Years, 1939-1945 by Roger Daniels, and Alan Dobson is disappointed by a biography focusing on Roosevelt’s spoken words (no. 2009).

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