Posts Tagged ‘Britain’

British History in the Long 18th Century
7 November 2012
Kate Retford (Birkbeck, University of London)
What’s in a Name?: The ‘Conversation’ Piece in Eighteenth-Century Britain


A Conversation piece (wikipedia)

A Conversation piece (wikipedia)

For the uninitiated (that would include me, I’m afraid!) ‘conversation’ pieces is a term used to describe an informal array of portraits, mainly from Britain, and popular in the eighteenth century.  As a group they tend to be small in size and portray some activity either indoors or outdoors relating to ordinary life.  As Kate Retford explains they were generally more focused on the details of the setting rather than the people themselves.

In this paper Kate Retford focuses on two inter-related questions.  First, the difficult question of establishing exactly what was meant and is now meant as ‘conversation’ pieces.  Were they one and the same or has the category evolved over time (especially in the historiography).  The second question is more general.  What is the meaning and significance of the term ‘conversation’ within the confines of this category of art work?  Neither question has straight forward answers.

The standard checklist for ‘conversation’ pieces is that they are to be set on a small-scale canvas, are to be intimate and informal portraits, and will focus on the setting and context more than the people themselves.  However, Retford’s investigations show that many genre pictures were also called ‘conversation’ pieces and that the hard and fast rules don’t always apply.  In many cases the ‘conversation’ piece was described as an examination of behaviour, tastes and possessions accurate to a given time and place.  This was, indeed, one of their uses – the ability to capture a moment in time.  But it is nonetheless far from a simple picture.


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British History in the Long Eighteenth Century
30 January 2013
Giorgio Riello (University of Warwick)
The World is not Enough: Global History, Cotton Textiles and the Industrial Revolution




Although the title of this paper might remind you of a James Bond film, this paper is not about the media or large conglomerates  but about the industrial revolution, and in particular the trade and use of cotton textiles. The Cotton industry formed a major component of the British Industrial Revolution but because of that the story is often formed around the rapid transformation of cotton and textiles in the nineteenth century, and generally focused around the British story.  This is not the approach that Giorgio Riello outlines in today’s paper.  Riello believes that the story of the cotton industry is made more interesting and accurate by looking at a wider picture over a longer period of time and across the world.  Cotton has a long history well before it arrived in Europe and so Riello looks at its use from 1000 AD up until the sixteenth-century as well as mechanisation in later centuries.  Through this prism it is possible to see that the changes evoked in Britain were part of a wider story that crossed from India, to China and the Americas, even a little into Africa.  Riello’s primary questions are why this major industry moved from predominantly India and China to Europe and why and how this because mechanised.  The arguments form the backbone for a forthcoming book on Cotton and the Early Modern World.

To listen to this podcast click here.

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Digital History
From Cradle to Antipodean Grave: Reconstructing 19th Century Criminal Lives
Hamish Maxwell-Stewart (Tasmania)
8 May 2012


Senate House Paper_Page_18In this session of the Digital History seminar, streamed live on 8 May Hamish Maxwell-Stewart gave a fascinating talk about reconstructing the lives of convicts taken to Australia in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  Using digital tools (but not going too much into them) Maxwell-Stewart looks at what the records tell us – and it would seem they tell us a lot.  We have information on rates of illness and life expectancy; we have details about punishments and work-loads for convicts; we also have information about repeat offenders.  More than this, though, the project that Maxwell-Stewart is working on is enabling families in Tasmania to reconstruct their family pasts and reconcile themselves with a history that might well have a criminal basis.

This project has produced the Founders & Survivors: Australian life courses in historical context 1803-1920 website, which, as Maxwell-Stewart notes, is the result of a partnership between historians, genealogists, demographers and population health researchers.  The project seeks to record and study the founding population of 73,000 men, women and children who were transported to Tasmania.  Indeed, Maxwell-Stewart actively encourages similar collaborations believing that University historians still do not take genealogy or family historians seriously despite the amazing evidence that have been collected in those pursuits.

As an example of the information contained in the site I looked up my surname ‘Phillpott’.  There were no items under that spelling, although I am aware that the spelling of the name has changed over the centuries.  Most of my family resided in Kent during this period, and there is one record that contains a place of birth of Hollingbourne in Kent of a John Philpott.  I don’t think he is a direct relation, but his record shows that he was born in 1808, was married to Elizabeth and had one child.  John was a labourer and a protestant.  He was convicted of stealing bim cloths (I’m not entirely sure what those are?  Any ideas?).  Previous convictions are interesting: John Philpott was convicted for releasing a donkey from a pound and for assaulting a constable.  For his various crimes John Philpott was taken from Sheerness to Australia on-board the Westmoreland under John Brigstock.  The journey took 116 days.  It is certainly an interesting and highly useful resource.

 To listen to this podcast or watch the video click here.



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Pacifying the past: British historical culture, 1745-1776
British History in the Long 18th Century Seminar
Paul Davis (Princeton)
25 January 2012
Pacifying the past: British historical culture, 1745-1776

This is a guest post by Paul McMenemy, one of IHR Digital’s winter interns from the University of Leicester.


David Hume (1711-1776)

David Hume (1711-1776)

The eighteenth century is often seen as the era which witnessed the birth of modern history-writing, certainly in Britain. What has not necessarily been made clear is why this should be the case. In the past, the rise of British history-writing has often been seen simply as a by-product of Enlightenment. This attitude has no doubt been encouraged by the fact that its first great practitioner (Clarendon excepted, for reasons we shall see below) was David Hume. However, while a great deal of effort has been expended on trying to understand why Hume came to his conclusions in the field of philosophy – the influence of his environment, of previous thinkers, and so on – there has been comparatively little research into the motivations behind his History of England, and explaining why it differs from previous historical works.

Paul Davies suggests that Hume and those who came after him wrote in an attempt to neutralise the still-strong passions of the recent past. As Davies points out, Hume did not begin writing his History with what eventually became its first volume, dealing with the classical and medieval periods, but with those dealing with the accession of James VI of Scotland to the throne of England in 1603, continuing until the Glorious Revolution. Why he did so, and why the period fascinated other writers of the time, Davies ascribes to fears of a Stuart return, reignited by the Jacobite rebellion of 1745. Hume effectively neutralises the martyrology surrounding Charles I in Tory circles, not by demonising him, as Catherine Macaulay was to do, but by portraying him as a noble but flawed man overtaken by circumstances beyond his control. This is not so very different from how he is portrayed by Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, whom many historians would now see as preceding Hume as the first recognisably modern British historian; however, as Davies points out, Clarendon’s reputation as a politician served to obscure his reputation as a historian during the eighteenth century – bearing out Davies’s point concerning the height of feeling surrounding the period – and the political capital made out of his History’s first publication in 1702, coinciding with the Tory revival at the start of the reign of Queen Anne, also tended to blind Whig readers to its merits.

By blaming the Stuarts’ politics more than their characters, Hume (and William Robertson – probably the foremost historian of the era – who follows Hume in his treatment of the Stuarts) removes them from the realm of contemporary politics, and transforms what Davies points out was not yet history in the eighteenth century mind into a thing of the past. What Hume also attempts to do – which Catherine Macaulay, for instance, explicitly does not – is change the reading of history from a pastime valued primarily for its morally edifying effects, to a morally neutral pursuit valuable purely in terms of knowledge gained. Until the mid-twentieth century, most historians and readers of history followed Macaulay rather than Hume in this matter.

The romanticisation of the early Stuart period which enjoyed a vogue during the later eighteenth century, as evidenced by the fashion for “van Dyck dress” on stage and in paintings by Reynolds, Zoffany, West, etc. – a discussion of which concludes Davies’s talk – can also be seen as a rendering harmless of the once-toxic past, and perhaps as a logical extension of the humanising tendency of Enlightenment historians. As Davies says, however, this was not felt to be the case in all quarters, and the backlash led by Catherine Macaulay’s vehemently anti-Stuart writing – and the republican school of American history which Davies argues she inspired – shows that symbols of the Stuart past still retained at least some of their potency. In discussing this Davies lays bare a paradox: the anti-Stuart backlash which led Garrick to de-romanticise his Shakespearean costume, and the fashionable painters to de-romanticise their historical paintings, produced the opposite effect in historians of the republican school, albeit their romanticisation now applied to the Parliamentarians, rather than the Royalists.

To listen to this podcast click here.

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British History in the Long 18th Century
The Origins of a Coming Ideal: Meritocracy in Britain 1750-1850
Penelope J. Corfield (Emeritus Professor)
25 May 2010 

This is a guest post by James Wilkinson, one of IHR Digital’s summer interns from the University of Leicester.

The focus of this talk by Professor Corfield is on the origins of meritocracy, rather than its achievement or wide scale adoption. Professor Corfield examines three themes in the talk. These are Early Meritocracy as the aristocracy of talent, the intellectual content of meritocracy and lastly, the nineteenth century quest of how to institutionalise meritocracy.

Corfield indicates that early supporters of this system perceived meritocracy and patronage as polar opposites and having little common ground. However Corfield highlights the influence of patronage in early meritocracy, by supporting upcoming individuals and facilitating their advancement, and of corruption and self interest being present in meritocracy.

Key Themes

Corfield introduces early meritocracy, as the aristocracy of talent in new professions, highlighting a wide array of terminology used by contemporaries to describe social change and the creation of new professional groups (for example, the typocracy and influence of the newspapers). Contemporary terminology is seen to refer more to talent rather than wealth, professionalism rather than business.

Intellectual context of meritocracy and ethos is featured most prominently in the professions, which links back into talent rather than wealth. What counts as an occupation of the meritocracy. The focus on gentlemanly behaviour and conduct by contemporaries is pointed out by Corfield.

The final theme which is located closer to the end of the date range stated is the nineteenth century quest of how to institutionalise and entrench meritocracy.

To listen to this podcast click here.

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British History in the Long-eighteenth Century
 ‘Love, bitter wrong, freedom, sad pity, and lust of power’: Politics and Performance in 1820
Malcolm Chase (University of Leeds)
21 March 2012 


When historians talk about 1820 it is often to discuss the attempts by the new monarch, George IV to divorce his queen, Caroline of Brunswick.  George IV became king on 29 January 1820 after the death of his father George III.  However, due to his father’s lapses into mental illness, he acted as Prince Regent for almost a decade before then.  George IV was not a popular king; leading an extravagant lifestyle; accused of wasteful spending during times of war; and losing public confidence over his divorce attempts.  The Pains and Penalties Bill of 1820 was George’s attempt to dissolve his marriage through claiming Caroline to have committed adultery.  The subsequent trial of the queen was heavily followed in the press with a negative response.  Although the bill narrowly passed the House of Lords it was dropped by government before reaching the Commons.

The politics surrounding this royal scandal were, however, far from the only concern in that year, and it is to a wider appraisal of 1820 that Malcolm Chase looks to in his paper.  1820 was also a year of revolutions and assassinations elsewhere in Europe.  Also, in Britain, a plot to assassinate all of the British cabinet was foiled just in time and the revolutionaries executed later in the year.  In the north, various risings in the textile industry, beginning in the West Riding but spilling over into Scotland and the Barnsley/Huddersfield region, caused much disruption and fuelled fears of a revolution in Britain.

Coronation portrait of George IV (1821) by Thomas Lawrence

One of the outlets for political enactment, as is often the case, was through theatre both official and unofficially conceived.  Take, for instance, an example told by Chase from Stockton-On-Tees where a green bag was hung around the neck of an effigy of the devil and ridden around the town on a donkey.   A mock proclamation was made that the devil was guilty of conspiracy against the Queen and was subsequently burnt on a bonfire.  The green bag was a popular symbol in 1820 for the evidence piled up against Queen Caroline and appeared in many anti-establishment performances across the country.

Theatre plays too performed political satire about the events going on in that year.  Take for example performances of Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus which was used to discuss issues of tyranny and just resistance.  In particular the play allowed actors to highlight issues of liberty; something which people felt was being corroded by government acts against the press.

With the focus on just one year, Chase provides an interesting insight into the use of theatre production for political satire and issues surrounding the politics of Britain and censorship in the early nineteenth century.

To listen to this podcast click here.

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Conversations and Disputations: Discussions among Historians
17 June 2011
Kate Chedgzoy (Newcastle), Andrew Hiscock (Bangor), Alexandra Walsham (Cambridge), Andy Wood (East Anglia)
Cultures of Memory in Early Modern England: Round Table and Discussion
Chair: Kate Hodgkin (UEL)

One place of enacting memory – Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London

What do we mean when talking about ‘memory’ in an historical context?  How can we provide evidence that represents an accurate understanding of memory without losing the historical context?  Can using ‘memory’ become too broad to serve a useful purpose as a concept?  This ‘discussion among historians’, focuses on England in the early modern period, asking and attempting to answer some of the questions posed above.  Chaired by Kate Hodgkin from UEL each speaker is given approximately 25 minutes to present their thoughts before the session moved on to a lengthy discussion around the topic.

Andrew Hiscock uses Shakespeare’s Tempest as his starting point emphasising the symbolic practice of memory that it enacts.  The conversation is between Prospero and Miranda and recalls both selective remembrance and the drawing out of alternative scenarios:


The hour’s now come;

The very minute bids thee ope thine ear;

Obey and be attentive. Canst thou remember

A time before we came unto this cell?

I do not think thou canst, for then thou wast not

Out three years old.


Certainly, sir, I can.


By what? by any other house or person?

Of any thing the image tell me that

Hath kept with thy remembrance.


‘Tis far off

And rather like a dream than an assurance

That my remembrance warrants. Had I not

Four or five women once that tended me?


Thou hadst, and more, Miranda. But how is it

That this lives in thy mind? What seest thou else

In the dark backward and abysm of time?

If thou remember’st aught ere thou camest here,

How thou camest here thou mayst.

Hiscock argues that the early modern reader was encouraged to consider the past in terms of memorial and as symbolism for the present.  What should be remembered?  This is the key question that early modern writers grappled with.  John Foxe, for instance, sought out a revised knowledge of the past; one where the Roman Catholic religion was repositioned as a foreign enemy and heretical groups – such as the Lollards – recast as true followers.  Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene emphasised the training of memory for the pursuit of memorial.

Alexandra Walsham next reflected on an emerging historiography looking into the relationship of memory with landscape and the upheaval in memory caused by the reformation.  Walsham argues that the process of remembering was intricately linked to the physical environment and it is for that reason that the reformation was also a period of iconoclasm and erasure of physical monuments that had previously been imbued with a sense of a past that Protestants now wanted forgotten.  Religious change acted as a critical juncture in the sixteenth century for memory.  The Protestant regimes were trying to obliterate one version of the past with another.

In the seventeenth century, Walsham tells us, memory became fragmented between the rival Protestant and Catholic camps and, in addition, an embarrassment concerning early-reformation iconoclasm began to emerge.  Writers began to express regret about their lost heritage and realised that much that had been good had also been lost.  The struggle to deal with poor relief during the seventeenth century was seen as a direct repercussion from the loss of older forms of relief provided by the church that had been swept away in religious fervour.

Andy Wood moved the discussion towards archaeology and anthropology as a method for examining early modern memory.  Wood is concerned that the focus is too heavily concerned with the memory of ‘elites’ and does not try to rediscover popular memory and its connection to the local region.  Citing authors such as Daniel Woolf, Keith Thomas, and Adam Fox (and now in addition Walsham), Wood retells the history of historical study into memory from its conception as collective memory in the inter-war period, the focus on politics of memory in the 1970s, and finally onto memory as identity as expressed in the 1990s.  Using an anthropological comparison to Latin America, Wood suggests that memory often views the past as an aspect of the present.  Rather than modern perceptive of time evolving and constantly changing, early modern men and women, as also identified in areas of Latin America, experience time as static and largely unchanging but with moments of rupture and change (such as the reformation).

Finally Kate Chedgzoy focused on the archive and how memory could be drawn out from documents where it is not obviously there.  For Chedgzoy’s own studies – women history and the history of children – the archives rarely give the limelight to such evidence.  However, if one looks closely and from alternative perspectives evidence can nonetheless be amassed.  Children’s history is a case in point and one where Chedgzoy has identified a problem with current studies.  Historians tend to look at children as the subject of their study rather than ask the question of what children thought or what they saw as their own memories.  Of course, the main reason for this is that the archives do not easily give up such information.  However, stray references to what parents of children write can help to give a partial picture as can adults memories of their childhood.  One particularly striking example is a 1670s manuscript by Nathanial Friend who wrote a memorial to his boy who had recently died.

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Archives & Society
Advocacy for the archive sector
Marie Owens (Archives and Records Association)
8 May 2012

Marie Owens has a long standing knowledge of publicity, communications and PR related to libraries and archives.  Owens strongly believes that the archive sector needs to speak out and explain more strongly what it is that it does.  In this talk Owens discusses the changes over the last few decades in communications emphasis and the tools that are now available to do so.  Owens talks about strategy but also advocacy.  Advocacy, Owens argues, sits on top of good communication and is a call to action.  Often made to influential people, advocacy allows institutions and professions to rehabilitate themselves or promote themselves in a particular light through ‘champions’ who will discuss and further their call.  Owens notes the case of the new British Library off Euston road.  In 1992 the work was behind schedule and popular opinion saw the venture as a failure.  However, by its opening some five years later advocacy and a clear communication strategy had turn this opinion around and it is now a successful hub of scholarly work.  Owens makes a case for the use of advocacy in the archives sector; what that might look like; and what they might want to say.

To listen to this podcast click here.

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Voluntary Action History
16 January 2012
Berry Mayall (Institute of Education)
English children’s work during the Second World War

Are children citizens in Britain or citizens-in-preparation?  At the heart of Berry Mayall’s paper to the Voluntary Action History seminar is this question.  If children are always subordinate to adults (which they generally are), then can they ever really take on voluntary work on a ‘voluntary’ basis?  It is an interesting set of questions to ask with, perhaps, no easy answer.  In this example, Mayall talks about the ‘voluntary’ contribution of children during the Second World War.  Mayall sees this as a transformative moment when childhood began to be viewed in a different way.  Until the onset of war it was far from uncommon (in fact it was most common) for children to leave school at age 13 or 14 to start work.  Only upper class children generally went on to a secondary school of any form.  During the war itself, children were asked to ‘volunteer’ their time to the war effort.  This might include gardening (i.e. growing food), teaching younger children, working in hospitals or acting as messengers.  Girls might be asked to work in canteens whilst boys in some cases worked on munitions.  Saving schemes and special fund raising events enabled children to volunteer their money as well to the greater war effort.

Mayall notes how important the term ‘voluntary’ was in this process.  In Britain it was vitally important to appear democratic and therefore different than the dictatorships against which they fought.  The realisation, also, that many children did not have time for these voluntary activities because they were already working hard on their actual jobs, brought home the need to change policy towards children, which, after the war, gave way to a rise of importance to secondary education and arguably, to further and higher education.

To listen to this podcast click here.

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Hello all.  Just a brief abstract today from the Franco-British history seminar.  For the last few weeks updates to the blog and History SPOT has been a little on and off due to a busy couple of weeks here at the IHR and due to the fact that we had finally caught up (more or less) with our podcast backlog.  However, last week saw the starting up again of our seminars after the Easter break so keep an eye out for brand new podcasts appearing on History SPOT including last week’s live streamed Digital History seminar!  More soon!
Franco-British History seminar
Churchill’s Empire: The world that made him and the world he made
Richard Toye (University of Exeter)
1 December 2011
Abstract: ‘I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.’ These notorious words, spoken by Churchill in 1942, encapsulate his image as an imperial die-hard, implacably opposed to colonial freedom – a reputation that has prevailed, and which Churchill willingly embraced to further his policies. Yet, as a youthful minister at the Colonial Office before World War I, his political opponents had seen him as a Little Englander and a danger to the Empire. Placing Churchill in the context of his times and his contemporaries, this paper evaluates his position on key Imperial questions and examines what was conventional about Churchill’s opinions and what was unique. 

To listen to this podcast click here.

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