My name is Tundun Folami, and I am the Institute of Historical Research Library’s current graduate trainee.
In an exercise designed to improve understanding of what it’s like to use the collections, each of the IHR library staff have been undertaking different research projects using the library. This exercise was particularly beneficial to me to see how easy it is to access the collections, as I only started at the IHR library a week ago.
Using the library catalogue
I chose espionage during the Cold War as my research topic and as a starting point for my research, I searched the library catalogue using ‘Cold War’ as a keyword.
Searching ‘Cold War’ by keyword brings up 88 results. Some examples included:
The first five results were most relevant to my research; three of which were books available on open access and two were e-books.
I felt narrowing down my search to Cold War espionage didn’t yield enough results, so I scrolled to the bottom of the page and found a link to the IHR library E-Resources page. Here I found a list of links to online resources available onsite. I went through the list and ultimately, the most relevant results were retrieved from JSTOR and Times Digital Archive. These included journal articles, reviews and newspaper articles.
Working in the IHR Library (Wohl Library – Lower Ground)
My topic for this exercise was on Cold War espionage and so I chose to work on the lower ground level of the Wohl Library, as this is where the International Relations collection is held. I sat at the desk closest to the entrance as it had a PC which I could use to browse the library catalogue and it was near to the rolling stacks holding the International Relations collection.
Working in this area was comfortable and quiet, though occasionally the noise from reception on the floor above would disturb the silence. The room housing the International collection was also poorly lit, especially further in towards the window.
The library has a large amount of material on the general topic of the Cold War, both in the library itself and online as e-books and e-resources. When I narrowed down my research topic to Cold War espionage, the majority of titles found were from a U.S perspective. A smaller number of titles were retrieved for the USSR, France, Germany, Italy and Latin America. I felt it would’ve helped my search if there had been a sub-category in either the Military or International Relations collection guides on the website. There were a few issues regarding noise and lighting were the International Relations collection is held, but overall, working in the IHR library was pleasant and largely problem free, and an ideal place to start research on the topic I’d chosen.
The Pollard Prize is awarded annually for the best paper presented at an Institute of Historical Research seminar by a postgraduate student or by a researcher within one year of completing the PhD.
Winner: Kenneth Duggan of Kings College, London, for ‘The Limits of Strong Government: Attempts to Control Criminality in Thirteenth-Century England’, paper given to the European History Seminar 1150-1500
Runner up: Imogen Peck of the University of Bristol, for ‘A chronology of some memorable accidents’: the representation of the recent past in English almanacs, 1648-1660, paper given to the History Lab seminar
The papers will be published in Historical Research
Last month the library began a series of blog posts about some of the most notable years of India’s history during the British occupation; the Battle of Plassey in 1757 and the Rebellion of 1857. Here the last instalment will highlight some works from the library’s collection which give some understanding of the events surrounding the independence of India in 1947 and the subsequent partition.
A particular strength of the collection is its range of official sources which give the viewpoint of the out-going British. The transfer of power, 1942-7, a multi-volume collection of sources published by the H.M.S.O. conveys this view. As one would expect, this work puts the process of independence in the broader context of the 1940s as well as having four volumes (of a twelve volume work) devoted to developments from November 1946 to the 15th August 1947. Also found in our collection are Louis Mountbatten’s report of events during the spring and summer of 1947, as well as the diary of Pamela Mountbatten (1929– ), Lord Mountbatten’s youngest daughter. Although varying in formality, from the official documents issued from the British government to the views of a teenager, all were entrenched in the centre of the British political establishment in India at the time.
Lord Mountbatten addressing the Independence Day session of the Constituent Assembly on August 15, 1947. Seated at his right is Dr Rajendra Prasad, President of the Assembly.
Moving away from the direct centre of the British administration, however, a number of works in the library offer differing glimpses into developments during 1947 and 1948. A civil servant since 1935 and appointed partition secretary in 1947, the memoirs of Hiralal Muljibhai Patel (1903–1993) convey the impressions of someone not only from within the workings of Britain’s imperial administration but also someone who would have a major role to play in the new Indian administration.
Away from the government buildings and bureaucracies the course of independence and partition can be gleaned from two further works from our collection. One is the account of the American journalist (and later ambassador) William Phillips Talbot (1915–2010) who at the time was working for the Institute of Current World Affairs. He was not only a keen observer of political events but also of the social and humanitarian ramifications of the partition. The second work is the memoirs of Sir Fulque Agnew (1900–1975). Although he was a member of the British nobility, his career was at times far from typical; running away from school at 17 to join the British army and later air-force during the First World War, he would later become a conscientious objector working for the Friends Ambulance Unit during World War Two and would be briefly be in India in 1947–48, undertaking humanitarian work where he witnessed, although briefly, some of the horrors that took place during the partition.
A refugee train, Punjab, 1947
Understandably these sources only give the briefest of impressions of events that would affect millions. The library, however, remains committed to add to all its collections and acquire works that will offer a broader spectrum of narratives, from the national to the local. Moreover the area around the Institute of Historical Research is lucky to be rich in other collections, notably the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies which offer many more voices from the years 1947 and 1948.
The Ottoman empire is known for its ethnically and religiously pluralistic social fabric, but also for defending the mainstream Sunni branch of Islam in opposition to its Iranian Safavid rival. This article revisits the Ottoman construction of Sunnism and suggests that, despite strict state policies from above to exclude Shi‘ites and communal pressures from below in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, channels of dialogue could not be closed down in the long term. By focusing on a specific intra-religious dialogue of 1743, that aimed at reconciliation between Sunnis and Shi‘ites, this article highlights a probable case of ‘de-confessionalization’. Close examination of the textual account of this inter-communal meeting demonstrates how the Ottomans were torn between defending their Sunni identity and the need for rapprochement to avoid further sectarianism in broader Muslim society.
In response to the pressure of the invasion debates of 1903–1905 the Admiralty developed a new strategy, ‘flotilla defence’, to counter arguments brought forward by the War Office. This concept was a purely political one; it was a cynical bid to mislead the Committee of Imperial Defence in order to secure naval funding. By placing ‘flotilla defence’ in this context this article will demonstrate that it was not, as has been claimed, a revolutionary naval strategy, but part of the polarization of defence policy which led to a breakdown in relations between the army and the navy.
This article examines the ways in which the First World War was represented in historical pageants during the interwar period. Pageants in this period are often overlooked as sites of commemoration and dramatic representation. Three types of pageant are identified: those that portrayed the war hyper-realistically, those which relied on symbolism and allegory to convey messages about war and peace, and those which sought to incorporate the war into the longer histories of the communities whose pasts they depicted. The article argues that ‘traditional’ forms of representation of the past proved to be resilient features of popular commemoration and remembrance.
Desertion from active military service has always been a contentious action, especially in times of war. Deserters in the eighteenth century were routinely castigated as poor patriots or traitorous subjects. Recently, scholars have begun to analyse in greater depth how and why desertions occurred, and have demonstrated that political considerations were less important than issues of identity and interest. However, in the context of the American Revolutionary War, historians have focused on the relationship between deserters and the military, arguing that soldiers who left their posts were less integrated into the camp community. This article suggests that the act of desertion was often more than a protest against conditions or discipline, but instead was shaped by a deserter’s connections with civil society rather than the military community.
This article explores the influence of the Hundred Years’ War on Fowey between c.1337 and 1399. In so doing, it employs naval pay rolls to study the contribution the town made to royal fleets and considers the mechanisms which the Crown employed to defend the port from enemy raids. It also examines the degree to which the war was extended though the agency of ‘pirates’. The article argues that the conflict had an all-pervasive effect upon Fowey, but that the costs incurred by the port and its people as a result of this were by no means crippling.
In Anglo-Saxon courts, from the eighth century down to the Norman conquest, ‘officers of the mouth’, bore household titles and served the king and his guests during meals, at least on major occasions. Those butlers (pincernae) and dish-bearers (dapiferi, disciferi) were not mere ‘waiters’ but members of great aristocratic families; serving the king’s table was an honour for them, with all the implications of that word in an early medieval context. Using a variety of sources, particularly the subscription lists of charters, this article examines their rank at court, social origin, degree of proximity to kings and queens, and the nature of their occupation.
As one of Britain’s landmark constitutional reforms, the 1832 Reform Act has attracted considerable historical attention. However, only cursory notice has been paid to the extensive work completed by the 1831–2 boundary commission to reform the nation’s parliamentary boundaries. Drawing on previously unused archival material, this article provides the first sustained analysis of the boundary reforms that took place in England’s ancient boroughs in 1832, revealing the significance of Thomas Drummond, a previously obscure royal engineer and chair of the English and Welsh boundary commission, to the ‘Great Reform Act’. As well as revealing the wider importance of parliamentary boundaries to the passage of reform by 1832, Drummond and the boundary commission established significant precedents for the expansion of the reformed British state and future parliamentary reform.
Edited by Elizabeth Baigent and Ben Cowell, this is a new collective volume from the IHR Conference Series.
Octavia Hill (1838-1912) was a successful housing and social reformer, providing an excellent example of female leadership in the nineteenth century. She inherited a strong sense of social justice from her mother’s side of the family, and committed herself to the development of social housing and the provision of open spaces for all social classes. She was also co-founder of the National Trust. The following chapters demonstrate the breadth of Octavia Hill’s achievements and her legacy:
Octavia Hill: ‘the most misunderstood … Victorian reformer’ Elizabeth Baigent
Octavia Hill: lessons in campaigning. Gillian Darley
Octavia Hill: the practice of sympathy and the art of housing. William Whyte
Octavia Hill’s Red Cross Hall and its murals to heroic self-sacrifice. John Price
‘The poor, as well as the rich, need something more than meat and drink’: the vision of the Kyrle Society. Robert Whelan
Octavia Hill: the reluctant sitter. Elizabeth Heath
Octavia Hill, nature and open space: crowning success or campaigning ‘utterly without result’. Elizabeth Baigent
Octavia Hill and the English landscape. Paul Readman
‘To every landless man, woman and child in England’: Octavia Hill and the preservation movement. Astrid Swenson
Octavia Hill and the National Trust. Melanie Hall
At home in the metropolis: gender and ideals of social service. Jane Garnett
Octavia Hill, Beatrice Webb, and the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws, 1905–9: a mid Victorian in an Edwardian world. Lawrence Goldman
‘Some dreadful buildings in Southwark’: a tour of nineteenth-century social housing. William Whyte
For the benefit of the nation: politics and the early National Trust. Ben Cowell
Octavia Hill By John Sergeant (Image from Wikipedia)
The IHR Wohl Library now offers access to the digitized archive of the private papers of Sir Winston Churchill, both within the library and remotely to holders of a membership card.
The archive, which contains some 800,000 items, is an extraordinarily rich resource, not just for those interested in the life and career of Churchill, but also in broad stretches of the twentieth century.
Today (30 January) is the anniversary of Churchill’s state funeral in 1965: the day when famously even the cranes along the Thames lowered their arms in a moment, it seems, orchestrated for the film news crews. Neither the American President nor the Vice-President attended (President Johndon informed reporters from his sick bed in the White House that his doctors had forbidden him from flying). Instead, the United States was represented by Earl Warren, the US Chief Justice. Many in Britain deemed this a snob to the ‘special relationship’, with some speculating that this was a small form of payback for Churchill missing President Roosevelt’s funeral in 1945 (the archive contains a telegram from Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary, who attended the funeral, ‘Mrs Roosevelt said how sincerely touched she was that our country had sent a special representative [Eden]… The Governor General and I were the only representatives who made a special journey to attend the ceremony, except for the President of the Philippines, and I think this has touched people here… I find everybody here conscious of the heavy burdens which will be on you [Churchill] in the defence of both our peoples, indeed of Western civilisation now that F.D.R. cannot take part’ CHAR 20/214/124, telegram, 14 April 1945].
Churchill, of course, continues ‘to take part’ in world affairs, albeit symbolically. Few could have missed the various minor diplomatic disturbances and artificially-generated press scandals concerning the placement of the Churchill bust in the Oval Office of the White House, including that of the current occupant. The bust is by the sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), and the White House has access to two casts, one donated to President Johnson in 1965 by a group of Churchill’s wartime friends, and the other loaned from the British Government Art Collection at the British ambassador’s residence in 2001 (before the attacks of 9/11) and first displayed in the White House while their cast was repaired. At some point the Government Art Collection’s cast returned to the British embassy, while the cast acquired in 1965 continued to sit outside the Oval Office. After 20 January 2017, the Washington Post reports, it moved inside, and was then, it seems, replaced by the British embassy’s cast, since the President-elect’s team had asked for another loan.
But what of the artist? Epstein was born in the Hester Street, New York City, the son of Jewish refuges from Augustów, Poland. He studied in Paris and then, in 1905 settled in London before becoming a British citizen, and soon earned a reputation as a sculptor. Artistic fame (and perhaps notoriety) came in 1908, with his carvings on Charles Holden’s British Medical Association in the Strand in London, boldly depicting nudity and pregnancy and challenging chaste public taste of the day: the Evening Standard suggested ‘no careful father’ would let his daughter view them. (In 1935, the Rhodesian High Commission took over the building and mutilated the statues, as the National Archives notes, an ‘ugly reminder of an unfortunate episode of artistic censorship/indifference’.) In 1918, his name appears in the Archive, in a telegram from his wife, Margaret Epstein, to Lady Randolph Churchill, asking, unsuccesfully, if the prime minister could ‘do anything’ to obtain him a position in which, as the Archive catalogue notes, ‘Epstein could use his talents for propaganda purposes’.
His star rose in from the late 1920s, and in 1937 he was chosen as the spokesperson for the London Group, which urged artists to refuse to cooperate with a Nazi attempt to organise an exhibition of British art in Berlin that excluded Jewish artists. During the Second World War he received commissions from the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, including likenesses of Ernet Bevin and, in 1945, Winston Churchill (this was arranged by Sir Kenneth Clark, who wrote that ‘I think he will do something good, and at any rate you will not have to go far to get to the studio’ — Churchill and Epstein were neighbours in Hyde Park Gate, London). Several casts were to be made. After some discussion, Churchill agreed to the commission, and recommended a ‘third bust to go the United States of America.’ [CHUR 1/17A-B, 16 Oct 1945].
Churchill, as the archive makes clear, was rather busy at the time , and was initially unable to make space in his diary for the sitting (‘I am about to leave for an extended visit to the United States’). The Keeper of Pictures at the Imperial War Museum pressed the issue on a couple of fronts, noting ‘if it is not completed fairly soon we shall be unable to pay for it during the present financial year and later on we shall probably not have the money for it.’ More, flatteringly, ‘we hope to re-open some of the galleries of the Museum [which had been bombed] very shortly and we are very anxious, of course, to be able to include a bust of Mr. Churchill in the exhibition.’ [CHUR 1/17A-B]. Sittings resumed, with Epstein summoned to Chartwell. The bust was exhibited in 1947. You can view one of the casts on the Imperial War Museums site (the bust remains in copyright).
Epstein died of a heart attack in 1959. A memorandum in the Archive reads, ‘You have always has friendly relations with Sir Jacob Epstein, your neighbour. Do you wish to send his widow a telegram’ [CHUR 2/522A-B, f. 171, 22 Aug 1959]. On the top of the note is a Churchillian tick, and we can assume that something was sent: on 29 August, Kathleen, Lady Epstein, replied ‘Thankyou for the kind & sympathetic messsage your sent me when my husband died. He went like any artist would like to go. We drank a glass of wine together in good spirits, sang a few songs, then he took a last look around the studio & died.’
As one of the first anti-colonial movements of the twentieth century, the Indian struggle for independence has attracted a vast and rich historiography. Much of this has been focused within the boundaries of India. This article adds a transnational dimension by examining Indian anti-colonial activism in exile. The experience of political exile, both voluntary and involuntary, provides insight into the international dimensions of radical politics. This article tells the story of some of these exiled revolutionaries, looking at radical Indian nationalists in London (1905–10); the emergence of the Ghadar movement in the United States (from 1914); and the early career of anti-colonial revolutionary M. N. Roy (1917–19). It gauges the impact of global events including the First World War and the Bolshevik revolution on the thoughts, ideas, movements, collaborations and confrontations of these actors.
This article analyses the public debates about the two corporate forms used in the seventeenth century to develop England’s international commercial reach: the regulated and joint stock company. It examines pamphlets to assess the changing public postures of the two forms across the period, and challenges histories of seventeenth-century English overseas trade that argue the triumph of free trade over monopoly. The article instead suggests that the public debate about the two company forms contributed to the development of new corporate constitutions derived from both models and therefore recovers the neglected significance of the regulated company in this period.
This article examines the uses to which Cambridge University’s ten-year statute was put suggesting that its popularity from c.1815 reflects both increasing career insecurity among non-graduate clergy, and the closing of traditional non-graduate routes into the Anglican ministry. Using a quantitative study of university calendars and ordination records alongside a review of controversial pamphlet literature, the article documents the degree’s changing popularity and the appearance of a discourse which discredited both it and non-graduate clergy. This discourse also reflects the general anxieties of elite and middling families, threatened by meritocratic trends and eager to secure cultural, occupational and economic privilege.
This article aims to write the army transport mule, which has previously been neglected in the equine historiography of the conflict, into the story of the First World War. It does not aim to tell the entire story of the role of mules in the war, as this deserves fuller investigation. Instead, it focuses on how various British sources depicted the army transport mule and how the actual involvement and treatment of these animals on the Salonica Front accorded with these perceptions.
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.
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’.
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.
1 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.
2 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.
3 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.
5 The intellectual excitement of that era, among revisionist circles, was well conveyed by fellow-panellist, Linda Levy Peck (George Washington University, Washington, DC).
6 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.
7 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’.
8 On which, see S. Rigby, Marxism and History: A Critical Introduction (Manchester, 1987, 1998).
9 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.
We would like to thank regular Friday night library readers for their induldgence over a few evenings in November. Regular visitors to the library may have noticed the odd room closed for mysterious purposes, spotted our Low Countries post-doctoral fellow poring over the typography of the London Gazette from 1666, or been bemused by members of This&That Productions looking for trapdoors and other hiding spots. All this preparation was in advance of ‘Night at the Library: books of hope and fear’, part of the IHR’s contribution to the 2016 Being Human festival of the humanities (you can also read about the IHR’s other event and exhibition, ‘Beside the Seaside’ here).
The festival seeks to communicate the excitement of current humanities research, laced with the occasional dose of enjoyment. We wanted to do something in the library that explored the process of research, and perhaps introduced some new people to the richess and usefulness of the collection here. After thinking about some questions based around the collections, and making use of the library’s physical space, we very quickly realised that what we had in mind was a type of ‘Escape Room’, something that has rapidly become very popular since its origin in Japan in 2007 (and which can arguably be traced back to a series of popular TV shows in the 1980s and 90s). Ours involved a twist: we wanted to use a relatively new technology that uses small pucks to beam a geographically-specific message to a phone (or track participants around the room) via iBeacon or Eddystone protocols. Typically found at IT conferences, but also at a few cultural or heritage sites, such as Kew Gardens, it offered the chance to link the physical environment with digital resources. And with that, the ‘Book Sniffer’ was born (you probably had to be there.)
We also needed a theme. Being Human’s exploration of hope and fear quickly suggested the Great Fire of London, not least because of the 350th anniversary year, but again to pin the event down in geographical terms: the winners would be offered a night-time view of St Paul’s Cathedral from the top of the Senate House Tower. An application to Being Human was submitted, and we were fortunate enough to receive a grant, enabling us to secure the services of This&That Productions to help produce the event and develop scripts for four actors would posed the challenges to participants as they made their way through the three rooms. These included an audience with a lascivious Charles II, full of hope for his new capital city, a concerned printer to the king, trying to keep abreast of the destruction as the fires raged, and a Dutch immigrant, fearful for her son who had been arrested and accused of arson.
The challenges included the complexities of a name/place/subject index, the clues to the burning of the London Gazette‘s printing office left in its typography, operating a venerable microfilm reader, sorting early modern maps, thermochromatic love letters, and old-fashioned jigsaw puzzles. Props included real tennis balls (mistaken at the time for fire balls), and special recordings and playback machines created by the SAS sound artist in resident, Hannah Thompson.
We also had a visit from Radio 3 Free Thinking‘s Shahidha Bari and Laurence Scott, who proved to be excellent guinea pigs for the event before our 70 guests arrived for the proper event. You can hear how they fared at the end of the episode that aired on 16 Nov 2016 (about 36 minutes in).
What next? It’s possible that the event, or something like it, may return to the IHR. We will certainly look at how the puzzles and ideas might be used in library induction or training, as well as think a bit more about how escape games might relate to historical teaching, and even research, in the future. The Atlantic reported on the rise of educational escape games, Cambridge Science Museums have run several succesful games, and there is even a blog dedicated to educational library escape games. Finally, there are question about heritage and the use of the past: what are we really doing when we are playing historical escape games? Perhaps we are as much escaping the fear of the present as recreating a hopeful past. As the reading rooms return to their normal scholarly hush, we look forward to reading a book on the subject.