Archive for February, 2012

Archives & Society
29 March 2011
Leon Robinson (Positive Steps Organisation)
Unveiling the unknown: archiving the Black contribution to the performing arts over three centuries

“I don’t want any more black artists to pass away without being acknowledged for the great work that they had done.” 

This is Leon Robinson’s driving force for looking into long forgotten black artists from Victorian Britain.  Leon comes from a performing arts background but through his interest in collecting photographs and play bills of Victorian performers has moved into talking about history as a way of promoting what has almost become a lost history for the benefit of people today. “This is British Entertainment History” not just black history, Leon states firmly. 

Our second ever live stream was therefore a lively passionate affair with Leon showing various photographs, advertisement posters and videos.  Leon’s collection derives primarily from postcard fairs and it is now a large and rare collection of known and forgotten performers.  Indeed, Leon states that it was those performers that were unknown that most interested him when thumbing through the dealers stands.  The excitement of the hunt comes through clearly.  Indeed, one of the most interesting parts of Leon’s talk (other than his clear enthusiasm for the subject) is his story of how he collected these sources over many years; how he created his archive himself and learnt about what was out there and where to look.   Uncovering history is however, only part of it – Leon is not collecting for collecting sake he wants to spread the word and let other people know about what he is learning and finding.  Through his Positive Steps Organisation, Leon has created various videos (some of which he shows) about the history of black performers and his attempts to get young people involved through the use of lenticulars of those performers. 

Leon also highlighted a problem in cataloguing systems especially related to finding or identifying the colour of Victorian performers.   As an example Leon discussed a poster advertising a dance group with no images.  On another occasion when Leon went to an archive they told him that they had no materials on black entertainers but when Leon turned to leave he noticed a poster on the wall with the name Florence Mills  which he recognised as being a black artist.  There is a very real problem here of identification especially when there is no visual imagery to give us that identification.   

I was at the session itself and have since reviewed the video and both times I found it hard not to get enthused and excited about what Leon was talking about.  He reaches down to the heart of what makes an historian tick (the excitement of searching archives and discovering new things about our subjects) but expresses that enthusiasm in a way that few historians would allow of themselves.  This of course comes from Leon deriving from a performing arts background.  His interest is in the excitement of presentation of these sources and what they can say more than writing of articles and books.  I think one of the questions that we received from our online audience summed up my thoughts on this: it was great to see the “physicality of the archives emphasised so much”.

To listen/watch this podcast please click here.

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Digital History
15 November 2011 
David Thomas and Valerie Johnson (TNA)
Does the Digital change anything?

Digital preservation is a hot topic in the world of archiving – just how do you preserve the digital record?  What do you keep?  What do you ignore?  These issues have always been crucial for archivists attempting to judge what will be useful for future researchers.  However, the digital poses specific problems as well.  For born-digital records when do you consider them complete?  A website (for example) can change regularly but still be considered complete – how do you archive something like that?  These are issues that David Thomas and Valerie Johnson from the National Archives tackle head-on.  David Thomas notes the American National Archives attempt to preserve US digital material on a scale beyond anything achievable in Britain.  However, does the scale necessarily matter?  Thomas believes that the concern over digital materials becoming unusable due to format changes  have, for the most part, proved unfounded.  Most projects, for instance, can still be accessible.  The issue is one more of survivability.  Of JISC and AHRC funded projects, Thomas believes around 10% have vanished entirely since the beginning of the dot.com boom. 

Valerie Johnson looks at the archive itself in more detail.  What should be kept and in what way?  How should archived digital materials be searchable?  What is the way forward?  There are hurdles still to overcome, and a recognition in the archive industry that digital materials will be scaling up over the coming decade and that means to catalogue and organise those materials are still required if those preserved materials are to be of any use to future researchers.  So does the digital change anything?  The answer here appears to be yes, but also no.


To listen to this podcast/video click here




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Next Tuesday (21 February 2012) the IHR will again host a live stream of our Digital History seminar.  This time on the topic of The Old Bailey Corpus: Spoken English in the 18th and 19th Centuries by Magnus Huber (Giessen).  This will be the first live session of 2012 and as a lead up I thought I would look back over the past live streamed events over the next few days. 

So starting tomorrow I will look at various past live streamed events from the IHR.  In the meantime please do add the date and time to your diaries! 


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British History in the Long 18th Century
22 June 2011
Bob Harris (Worcester College, Oxford)
Scottish townscapes and ‘improvement’ in the age of enlightenment c. 1720-1820

Castle Street, Dundee (19th century)

Did the enlightenment reach provincial Scottish towns in the Georgian period?  What, if any, influence did it have on urban improvement, development and transformation of urban landscapes, particularly in the period between 1720 and 1820?  Bob Harris tells us that there was uneven change and lack of central funding for improvement projects but that nonetheless there were many changes made to the infrastructure, design and nature of Scottish towns.  Harris looks at particular to the towns that developed the most at the turn of the eighteenth century (Montrose, Dumfries, Dundee, and Perth) to examine improvements to street lighting, pavements, and houses.  However, his remit is wider with many other towns and schemes specific to them mentioned.  The eighteenth century represents a moment in time when the urban landscape was properly developing alongside enforcement in the form of police and statutes, regulation and codifying of spaces and buildings as well as tighter controls developed over what could and could not be done in an area.  To what extent this transformation was related to enlightenment thought is something that Harris tackles head-on near the end of his paper.  Were urban improvements part of an enlightenment plan or conceived off through enlightenment ideals?  Harris thinks partially, but the picture is far from clear or simple. 

 Click here to listen to this podcast

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Voluntary Action History
Two Tier Philanthropy: the Philanthropists who funded the Bishop of London’s Fund and the work that the Fund financed, 1863 to 1914
Sarah Flew (The Open University)
10 October 2011


Sarah Flew looks at nineteenth century philanthropy from the alternative perspective of religion.  We all know that religious institutions were highly involved in philanthropic and charitable causes especially in this period, in Britain; however what is probably less well known is that much philanthropy became concerned with spiritual destitution rather than focusing on physical destitution.  Flew looks at this issue partly from the evidence in general, but also by looking at the biographical details of the funders behind these philanthropic organisations.

St Paul's, London

The case study here is the Bishop of London’s fund which is undoubtedly linked to religious causes and purposes.  After a brief expose on the origins of the Bishop’s Fund and other funds to have sprung up through the efforts of Bishop Tate, Flew shows how the rise of the Bishop’s Fund derived out of the 1851 religious census in London that showed that a large percentage of the population choose not to attend service on census Sunday.  To make matters worse for the church the secularisation of government and governmental policy meant a cessation of funding schemes for ecclesiastical purposes. 

This conclusion about the state of religious interest in London was unexpected.  At this very time there was an explosion of attempts to improve and expand the church fabric, presence and preaching in the belief that there was inadequate provision and that there was a waiting audience for it.  The need to re-establish the church presence and to reduce spiritual destitution revealed that the opposite was true. 

The brief expansion of charity organisations declined again in the 1880s as finances ceased, however the Bishop of London’s fund continued to grow and be successful.  In its early days the fund was largely subscribed by men only but increasingly women’s subscriptions increased and by 1912 made up over 60% of subscribers.  However, it should be noted that women generally gave small amounts whilst male subscribes gave large amounts (due to their larger wealth).

So in the early twentieth century women increased their importance in church life and church rising of money in London whilst male contributions declined.  On the latter, Sarah Flew has not yet found an answer as to why but for the former, women’s roles seems to have increased largely through organisations such as the Women’s Diocese Association which promoted church attendance, fund raising and involvement.   

To listen to this podcast click here.

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History of Libraries
The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland – Five years on: a review
Peter Hoare (Nottingham)
11 October 2011

Peter Hoare was not there at the very beginning but not long after – in fact he became editor very soon after Robin Alston had decided it was worthwhile doing a history of libraries as well as a history of the book.  Alistair Black was then brought in not long after and then the proposals began.  The title changed various times.  In 1994 for example the publication was to be called A History of Libraries in the British Isles.  Ireland was added in to the title not long after as it was an important element of the work.  Eventually Cambridge decided that it should become one of the Cambridge histories and thereafter it became known as the Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland.

This talk by Peter Hoare himself, looks at the three volumes five years after the final volume was published and gives insights into the creative process, purpose, and also the elements that fell by the way.  For instance, there were various ambitious related activities that never saw the light of day.  At the time ideas were thrown around of joining with the Institute of Historical Research in a similar way to the Victoria County History.  The idea was to produce a continuous series similar to the county histories.  Although that never came to pass the History of Libraries seminar is a partial benefactor of those initial discussions.

There were also long discussions on where divisions between volumes should occur and it was even considered that this should be a 4-5 volume set purely for chronological reasons.  Quite late in the day a 4th volume on statistics and appendices was abandoned.

Volume 1 was worked upon by an editorial group, volume 2 by Robin alone, and volume 3 brought in Giles Mandelbrote around 1996.  In about 1998 Robin Alston decided he had too many ‘irons in the fire’ and felt that he should drop out.  This meant that Mandelbrote was on his own for a while, until Keith Manley was brought on board as a second editor for volume 2.  Volume 3 was easier being edited by Alistair Black and Peter Hoare.

The accolade of being accepted as a ‘Cambridge History’ rather than one of their normal publications was a decision that truly showed the importance and high quality of the work.  The second half of the podcast looks into the process of publication, the costs involved and the commercial success of the history.

Note: Ian Willison and Keith Manley add an appreciation of the late Professor Robin Alston.

To listen to this podcast please click here.

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Sport and Leisure History
9 May 2011
Dr David Dee (De Montfort University)
The British Union of Fascists and the ‘Sporting Jew’, 1935-1939

The Blackshirt newspaper circulation office

In the 1930s the British Union of Fascists (BUF) published two newspapers which promoted their anti-Semitic agenda.  The first was The Black Shirt, a paper intended for a working class readership.  The second was entitled Action and was intended for a more middle class reader and was much more similar to a standard paper of the day.  Using these publications Dr David Dee demonstrates that the conception of the Jewish Hidden Hand (a claim that Jews were using, abusing and controlling too much of British wealth, politics and society) and the claim that Jews were an ‘alien’ intruder on British soil, were demonstrated through comments on politics, the arts, and equally importantly their connection to sport.  The Jew had no conception of fair play, the BUF claimed.  The Jew would get in the way of other golfers and were unable to grasp the etiquettes involved in cricket.   The often cited fear that Jews had too much control over banking and finance was also cited by the BUF in terms of damaging sports such as boxing, horseracing, and football.  In all Dee identifies sport as an essential element in the BUF’s anti-Semitic argument.  Indeed, sport was considered by the BUF as a vital signifier of Britishness which in their eyes represented a militaristic masculine ideology.  The Jewish involvement and visibility in sport was therefore attacked in these newspapers on a regular basis and (unlike most fascist groups of the era) seems to have had a very real impact on the beliefs and perceptions of the British public. 

To listen to this podcast please click here. 


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