Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The 21st Century Historical Researcher

In between completing recent research commissions for scholars working on Turkish POWs interned in India and Burma in WW1, Iraqi coinage (issued by the Royal Mint - hence the records at TNA) and Greek refugees in the post-WW2 period, I'm currently chipping away at my PhD, trying to render it fit for publication (and not before time given that I finished the thing 20 years ago). The working title of this eagerly awaited masterpiece is 'Venal Hirelings and Despicable Incendiaries: British West Indian Newspapers During the Struggle for Abolition', and what strikes me on revisiting the original text is how different it could have been had I been doing the research now. So many new and potentially rich fields of historical enquiry have been opened up by the Internet that it's difficult to pick any one that would illustrate just how different the experience of the 21st century researcher is to his/her counterpart of a mere 20 years ago. Take the records of Parliament, for example; struggling as I was to get to grips with the Colonial Office stuff at TNA, I never did get around to even approaching this apparently impenetrable mass of material - why! even referencing the report of a nineteenth-century select committee seemed to be an arcane mystery. Thus these invaluable records remained untouched, at least as far as my work was concerned. And what an omission: a few careful searches of the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers website has produced an undreamt of bounty, all of which can be read, sifted and analysed at home and at leisure.

But it's not that simple, and even though the technocratic mystics out there may not like it there are some things that the Internet can never change: individually and collectively, the documents themselves are still what they always were, and I remain staggered at just how complex and multifarious the records of Parliament and government can be (the two are not the same thing, of course). Even finding a simple verbatim account of what was said in the Commons or Lords on a certain occasion can pose problems: 20 years ago as a callow researcher I would have thought that we would be on safe ground with Hansard, but not so - or at least not for the 1830s. In fact, I have found Hansard to be remarkably inaccurate and have had to resort to other sources in the quest to find what I was looking for: the little-known Mirror of Parliament (on which Dickens - a famously accurate notetaker - worked) or the parliamentary reports that appeared in the press, for instance. However, press reports differ slightly from MoP which differs from Hansard - so which should I use? It goes on and on: access to records has improved to an extent that previous generations would have thought impossible, but certain ineluctable research problems remain for the historian to wrestle with.     

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

The Stories of the Titanic

By my reckoning there can be no single event in recent history which exercises such a hold over the collective imagination as the sinking of RMS Titanic on 15 April 1912. Except that it wasn't a single event, of course, but a series of innumerable events as individually experienced by the 2200 people on board. Among the 1500 people lost were the following: Leslie Williams and Dai Bowen. Now there is nothing unusual about this information; both appear on the passenger manifest, and Bowen even has a short entry on Wikipedia (with the obligatory 'what if' element to the story). But what may be unusual is the reason for this blog post: I recently found two photographs of these men while searching issues of Health & Fitness magazine (a truly memorable publication, incidentally, in its own right) for a client working on a very particular aspect of the history of physical fitness. It is well known that Williams and Bowen were both talented boxers travelling to the US to take part in a series of fights, but these photographs may, just possibly, be unknown to those who are interested in the ship, her passengers and their stories. So here they are, Leslie and Dai, two friends who perished in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic - a night to remember, indeed.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Expect the Unexpected

Ask the average person (always assuming that such a being exists) when women got the vote in Britain, and I reckon they'd say the 1920s or thereabouts. Nothing wrong with that answer; until a recent visit to Newham Archives I'd have said the same, and then I'd have scurried off to look up the details in a reputable reference book: I'd have found the 1918 Representation of the People Act (certain women over 30) and then ten years later the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act (all women over 21, irrespective of property ownership). Job done.

But documents at Newham Archives - while not exactly overturning the conventional wisdom - tell a slightly different story that is worth repeating here, if only to drive home once again the point that the past is rarely straightforward. Who among us, has ever heard of the 1869 Municipal Franchise Act and the even more prosaic-sounding Local Government Act of 1894? Dull but worthy legislation no doubt, but it enabled my client's great-grandmother Caroline Meredith to vote in municipal elections. I'd found a few gleanings about her and her husband Donald on my visit but had given up finding anything else, when a helpful member of staff flourished a 1908-09 electoral register for West Ham Ward no. 7 and there was Caroline at 31 Stratford Road, presumably entitled to vote in local elections as a property owner and ratepayer.

I must say that seeing her name in this source rather floored me, as when it was suggested that I check it I immediately dismissed the idea with a complacent conviction that turned out to be totally misplaced - a rather chastening experience for me (my reaction brought a wry smile to the face of the archivist). Now I'm not suggesting that voting in local elections in any way counts as 'the vote', but the fact that Caroline did at least have a very minor stake in the system in the early twentieth century is something. And it's also a reminder that with history the devil is always in the detail; no matter what the subject, it's bound to be more complicated than we think - the past always has a habit of springing surprises on us. 

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Some real political campaigning

I happened to be in the vicinity of the LSE recently, and having heard about a new exhibition in the Library entitled 'Campaigning: Causes and Connections' I thought I'd take a look. I found a strikingly designed space, well structured and full of thought-provoking items about electoral reform, the suffragettes, CND and gay rights. The centrepiece is the superb wall display, which features a stunning sequence of photographs and text that are blown up to monumental size and set on a slow-moving loop. This wall almost forms an artwork in itself; the photographs of crowd scenes are full of incident and detail, and - as with all great paintings - I'm sure that different people will see and interpret different things. It probably says a lot about me, but I also found the ostensibly mundane items fascinating: typed and handwritten letters, minutes, memos, postcards of staged scenes and what not don't sound up to much, but the typeface, old-fashioned letterheads, scrawled handwriting, even the shoddy quality of the original paper itself somehow exert a strange spell.

As to the historical content, I have to say that I found this to be something of a fillip after the intellectually dispiriting election campaign that we have just endured. (I realise that to some extent the comparison is unfair as the concentrated burst of political activity - I don't think that I can dignify it with the term campaigning - during a modern general election is nothing to do with the sustained commitment and engagement that working for deep societal change requires - Parliament is the last place that you're going to get that!) While walking around I jotted down a few themes, many of which struck me as perennial: the need to take the long view when seeking to achieve change; the inevitable despondency following reverses and defeats, and the difficulty of maintaining the faith; colossal personality clashes among leaders; disagreements, infighting, tactical blunders and - yes, occasionally - triumph: it's all here. And it made me think how much we do owe to these campaigners, their reserves of stamina, patience, courage and fortitude, and how poorly we compare in some respects. We could learn a thing or two from them: it takes more than a tweet to change the world. 

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Such, Such Are The Joys ...

More treasures from the India Office collections, this time in the form of two brief references to some character called E. A. Blair. In some ways, Eric Arthur Blair is a fiction that will forever be overshadowed by the nom de plume he created for himself, and so being out of reach he is perhaps of more interest. Not that there was much in the way of substance to what I found in the India Office Lists for 1927 and 1928: one, a terse announcement that Blair had joined the service as a district superintendent in Burma on 29 November 1922, the other an equally short note advising of his 'retirement' on 12 March 1928. Not that there is any great mystery about this period of the man's life - it produced two classic essays, and doubtless the references I looked at have been used by his many biographers. But the thrill of seeing it there in black and white, and knowing something of what lay behind his decision (momentous as it turned out) to 'retire'! This is George Orwell I'm on about - not some Phil Space hack writing to order for the tabloids. 

Saturday, 28 February 2015

The Correct Use of Language

Up, and to the British Library to use the records of the India Office. A vast, mysterious and forbidding collection: but then how else could it be given that British control of India produced so complex and Byzantine a structure of government. But I was not looking for government records; I was after finding private letters of a certain individual of some prominence in his day, and to that end I was scouring a particular collection among the IO private papers on a hunch that, as it turned out, was completely wrong. It happens, but in one of those minor pleasures that occurs in research of this kind a mistaken hunch yielded an absolute treasure.

It was once a commonplace to sneer at Babu English, the elaborate, poetic and richly ornate language of the educated Indian. Well the hard-boiled and unimaginative can mock all they like; I have loved Babu English ever since at the Historical Manuscripts Commission I received a letter from Delhi in which I was addressed as 'Most esteemed sir'. And here at the BL, among the papers of Sir Basil Blackett (Mss Eur E397), was a collection of classics; with other things to do, and the meter running, I had time to note down just one, the work of Mr S. V. S. Satyanarayan of Madras, writing to Sir Basil on 3 May 1929:

'Your merits were truly tried tested [sic] in the hot furnaces of London, where no less a man than Lord Birkenhead competed with you and failed to carry the palm of victory.'

And that was one of the more restrained passages! To me it is so unfettered and joyous, as if the writer is revelling in language for the sheer joy of it. It is a fact that we live in an age in which the language of public life has been debased almost beyond salvage by the grim terminology of business, the prevalence of exhausted cliches and an impoverished vocabulary; perhaps we could learn something from Mr Satyanarayan's learning and exuberance.