May 2017

At the beginning of May, I was privileged to be asked to speak at the Historical Association Conference in the luxurious surroundings of the Mercure Piccadilly Hotel in Manchester.  It was an excellent weekend with a wide range of lectures and continuing professional development opportunities.  I came away with lots of great ideas to work on, but for now, I thought I’d write a series of blog posts about the various lectures and workshops I attended.

The weekend opened with the Presidential Lecture, given this year by Association Past President Professor Chris Wrigley:

Inventing Tradition – British and European May Days 1890s-Present

Professor Wrigley commented that May Days had been left out of mainstream text books for many years.  For example, the Thatcher-era poll tax riots were described as the biggest demo in London since 1890 but didn’t say that what actually happened in 1890 was the May Day parade.


There were, though, plenty of contemporary accounts in the press. It took place on 4 May, the closest Sunday to 1 May.  According to these reports, it “seemed as though the whole population of London poured parkwards in a huge mass”.   The parade was so long that it arrived in Hyde park after the speakers had finished – Engels was one of them. Estimates put the crowd at at least quarter of million, but most thought there were half a million people there. In fact, there had been a huge turn out for about 5 years.

Eric Hobsbawm described it as an invented tradition, arguing that it started only in 1890 even though it was portrayed as if it went black hundreds of years.  But Wrigley argues it rested on tradition rather than being newly invented, because it followed routes of the saints days. There had been parades for the Tolpuddle Martyrs and Chartists too.

Walter Crane‘s colourful images of May Days were reused all over the world with different languages.  They were very powerful in France in particular.  Trade unions also began to look internationally in the late 19C.  The biggest unions, such as the Durham miners, had their own parades with union banners.  The most prominent trade unions were the new ones –  the less skilled ones – such as match girls and dockers.  Much of it was therefore to do with the upsurge in trade unionism.  Trade unions like these were always at their strongest when there was an economic upturn because they had more bargaining power.  The parades drew on the traditions of French radicalism, with many bands at the marches playing La Marseillaise, while people wore liberty caps.  The May Day parades were therefore associated with the labour movement.

Prof. Wrigley compared the British experience with that in France, Germany and Austria.  In Austria the workers were told that there would be severe consequences if they came out ‘on strike’ on May Day 1890.  The middle classes were scared.  They fled Vienna on April 30th and didn’t come back for a couple of days.  Factory owners prepared to defend their factories.  Despite the threats, the workers failed to attend work and marched round Vienna anyway.  Troops, including lancers and cannon, were in the park and ready for the demonstrators.  When the families arrived, the troops did not fire; the people sang and walked through the cannon.  Revolution and bloodshed were avoided.

He suggested that in London, the 1890 parade was very effectively organised by Eleanor Marx and her partner Aveling.  So they were partly ‘red’, but not entirely so – the crowds returning from Hyde Park cheered Gladstone as he went past.  They also highlighted divisions between elements in British socialism.

A few weeks ago I was trying to work out how to liven up the teaching session on the Civil War for my first year undergraduates.  I decided to check out Emma Kennedy’s really useful teaching and learning advent calendar for ideas, as it was me that suggested that she could source teaching ideas for it from an appeal on Twitter in the first place.

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Now, several of the teaching strategies are things that I use routinely, like ‘Get Students Talking First’, or at least fairly regularly, like ‘Use Visual Art as a Way Into a Period of History’. Furthermore, as the course is not mine in the first place, the work itself and the questions to be discussed are set by the course leader.  But I wanted to do something a bit different with the week’s material and I did manage to find a couple of ideas.  I have reproduced their work here with their permission.

The session objective was to understand the causes of the civil war and some different interpretations of it, so I started with an art activity.  I asked the students to work individually to draw a picture which represented their understanding of the causes of the civil war.


Next, they were to discuss their drawings in groups of four and come up with a composite drawing, which they were then to transfer to the white board using different coloured markers.

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A spokesperson from each group was then asked to explain their drawing to the rest of the class.

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Next, I used my slideshow of images of Charles I, carrying on the artistic theme of the evening, before we moved over to a discussion of why Barbara Donegan’s interpretation of the civil war in the set reading for the week was different to the other interpretations that they were familiar with.  We looked at the difference between the rules for foreign war and civil war, and talked abotu various civil war atrocities. I gave the groups different examples to work on an asked the other group to identify what specifically was outrageous about each event.  This led us on to discussing breach of contract.

Returning to the theme of imagery, we looked at the images from various civil war pamphlets and talked about how they might have affected their audience.  Finally, I asked each individual to write in big letters on a piece of paper the one or two words which for them summed up the difference between the first and second civil wars. They folded them in half, swapped them randomly among each other and then read them to me. I wrote them up on another whiteboard and we looked at which themes dominated those words.

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All in all, it was a very successful evening, as it stimulated a lot of informed discussion while taking the pressure off individuals to answer questions.  It combined individual, group and whole class work and used a variety of techniques to get the students talking, both to me and to each other.

Historical Association Bolton Branch

Branch secretary Jenni Hydechatted to Kevan Williams of community radio station Bolton FM on Friday 19 May about the work of the Historical Association nationally and in Bolton. She invited everyone to join the branch at our special event on Wednesday 24th May 2017 10.30am-12.30pm at Bolton Museum, Le Mans Crescent:

Dr Henry Miller: ‘Political caricature and satirical prints in Britain, 1700-1840’, followed by hands-on workshop in the museum.

You can listen again to the interview for the next seven days.

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This is a well thought out post on dealing with the dips in the PhD journey, that I think applies whatever the research project. Personally, my advice would be to watch out for “Deep cleaning the bathroom.” I know it’s a piece of advice that works and at the root of it is a need to change the scene and do something physical that takes your mind off it, but with all of these things, you need to watch what’s happening carefully. At the point where that becomes the only thing you feel in control of, there’s a major problem that’s much bigger than the PhD blues. I know. I’ve been there.

The Thesis Whisperer

While many people will suffer ‘the blues’ during the PhD, in some cases the problem is more serious and can lead to or trigger clinical depression. In those cases, all the practical advice in the world won’t help and you need to seek medical attention. If you are worried about how you feel, and nothing seems to help, please visit your GP for advice. The website Beyond Blue has many excellent resources and information if you are worried about another colleague, family member or student and are not sure what to do.

If you are suffering from the blues, here’s some practical advice that might help. I’d like to thank Ümit Kennedy for sending in this post. Umit is a PhD candidate with the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University. You can connect with her via email at or on social media using @umitkennedy. Although the…

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I spent much of Easter in a frantic attempt to edit my book to submit it to another publisher.  Over the years, I have come to realise that my way of writing tends not to suit publication.  I tend to write as I go along, developing my ideas throughout a paragraph until I reach the point I was trying to make. This means that people who like to see ‘signposting’ get a bit frustrated, as my point sometimes gets buried at the bottom of a paragraph.  So I took the text apart.  I split it up into paragraphs, and sometimes even individual sentences, and reordered them so that it was clearer where the text was going. This involved putting all the extra leaves in my dining table, using lots of post it notes and coloured pens and paper, and an awful lot of tea.

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I think it’s better for it, so keep your fingers crossed that the readers approve.

Before I started my PhD (which feels like a century ago even though it’s not), my Fiend memorably said to me “As for an academic career, I’d say forget it”.  The irony was that I hadn’t thought about it in order to be able to forget about it.  This is from Cath Feely on the trials and tribulations of finding an academic job now and a century ago.

Source: Securing an academic career: Past and present

Interesting post on the Research Whisperer about juggling many roles, including motherhood.

The Research Whisperer

Portrait of Dani BarringtonDr Dani Barrington is a Research Fellow in Water Engineering for Developing Countries at Cranfield University, and an Honorary Fellow at The University of Queensland.

Her work focuses on water, s16anitation and hygiene (#WASH); check out a video of the cool “Reinvented Toilet” she’s working on nowadays.

She tweets at @Dani_Barrington.

Photo by Lou Levit | unsplash.comPhoto by Lou Levit |

I play the academic game.

Those of you who’ve read my previous posts know this.

Like many people at my career stage, I juggle contract research with papers with teaching with grant applications with public outreach and university service. As exhausting as it is, I love the fact that I get to do all of these things as part of my job (OK, grant writing is the pits, but getting together with like-minded colleagues to hash out the initial project idea is super exciting!).

But, over the last…

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At the end of April, I gave a short paper to the North West Early Modern Seminar at the John Rylands Library in Manchester.  There were lots of other interesting speakers and it was lovely to catch up with some of my Manchester friends, (especially Ros Oates and Sasha Handley, who both, at different times, supervised my doctoral research) if only very briefly!

Alice Marples – Medical Education in Manchester, 1750-1850

Medical education was bound up with industrial expansion.  Manchester had some parity with Liverpool, with the Infirmary being followed by other institutions.  Some of these provided medical apprenticeships, including ones for surgery.  Manchester was the first provincial centre of medicine.  Alice works on the variegated archive at the John Rylands University Library which contains lecture notes, commonplaces, letters  and much more. It reveals a tension between learning and practice, and ambition and locality.

Next, I gave my 5 minute paper on ballads and the Pilgrimage of Grace.

Grace Allen– Greek Political Theory and Political Professions in Late Renaissance Italy

Grace talked about her work on late Renaissance Italy at the time when politics were becoming professionalised. She described Plato and Aristotle’s influence on sixteenth century texts, especially those relating to the Roman political sphere.  Greek thought defined the court environment.  These political thinkers believed monarchy to be the best form of government, with democracy the worst. The perfect ambassador was the creature of the prince, so the prince had to be perfect.  Anyone involved in public affairs had to live under a perfect prince in order to be perfect.

James Bowen – Provincial Frost Fairs in Early Modern England

Frost fairs were held across Britain. There has been plenty of recent attention on those in London but not on the provinces.  James has studied the 1739 fair on the Severn at Shrewsbury. It reflected a trend towards leisure pursuits.  The circulation of cheap print means locals were probably familiar with the London frost fairs so chose to copy them.  A contemporary engraving shows various local landmarks while foregrounding the fair. It shows people walking and skating on the ice; there are  groups of people congregating.  We can see food sold from stalls, such as sheep roasts.  Like in London, the river was an important transport route, so there are boats frozen into the ice.  Printing was an important part of frost fairs.  This was partly because printing presses were heavy and therefore demonstrated the thickness of the ice.  They allowed the sale of ballads, poems and pamphlets printed on the ice, which encouraged consumers with the act of engaging and created early secular souvenirs. There were lots of entertainments including flying men who undertook daredevil stunts from St Mary’s steeple to the meadow on the other side of the river.  One of these flying men was killed in his attempt.

Eva Mosser – The Concept of Space in the Captivity Narrative of Nehemiah How (1748)

Eva’s research looks at space within captivity narratives in North America, combining ideas of space and colonisation.  As well as investigating physical confinement, she looks at descriptions of metaphorical spaces.

How’s description of his captivity, both travelling with his captors and then being incarcerated.  It shows how he perceives his captivity. Home is the key theme of How’s narrative, with the physical space used metaphorically to describe his emotional state.  He was not a self-determined human being but someone who had to follow the will of his captors.

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After a short break for tea and cake, we heard two longer papers.

Ros Oates – Speaking with Hands – Preaching and Deafness in Early Modern Europe.

Ros is currently a leading  part of the Communities of Print research network. She described how preaching was at heart of Protestant cultures.  Sermons were central and preachers talked about dumb preachers who couldn’t preach and deaf listeners who couldn’t listen.  But this raises the question: what about the physically deaf?

John Bulwer’s Chirologia suggested sign language for preachers, who  needed to use gesture – of eyes and hands – to help their sermons along, but this needed to be measured in order to be appropriate. It was believed that the congregation could learn as much from that as the words, therefore watching was also important during the sermon.  This research caused her to ask if there was any connection between Bulwer’s text and sign language for the deaf. In fact, Bulwer followed it up with Philocopus which was indeed aimed at the deaf.

When writing about deafness, preachers tended to mean spiritual deafness; even though they would have had many hearing impaired people in the congregation.  It was extremely difficult for a preacher to measure how well an audience had heard – but it was also really important if you wanted your flock to be saved.

Physical deafness covered a multitude of problems including illness and injury, as well as the prelingually deaf.  There was an increasing recognition that the minister had to make concessions in order for things like Communion and the Last Confesssion to be available to the deaf.   Those who were born deaf need others to be as merciful to them as God. Some preachers, however, believed that there could be no salvation for those who could not hear, because salvation came from faith which came from hearing the word of God.

Many other preachers believed that since the fall everyone was impaired and therefore deaf in some way.  This meant that the deaf were worth trying to save just like everyone else.

The final speaker of the afternoon was Annie Dickinson:

‘You are still abusing women!’: The Gendering of the Malcontent

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The malcontent was a combination of literary creation and social phenomenon; a stock character type who railed against society that he sees as in some way unjust.  Typically melancholy, he wonders why men might be merry.    But the malcontent was also seen as seditious and libellous and the use of male pronouns assumes that they are usually male.  Masculinity is central, especially since the word was often spelled male-content.  This, therefore, makes slippage easy to female-content.  They are often aggressively  mysogenistic characters.


Back in February, as part of the Embodiment and New Materialism conference in Lancaster, I was part of a drama workshop which took place in Lancaster Castle.  It was somewhere that I’d been intending to visit for a long time, but had somehow never got around to it. So over the Easter break, we all went on the castle tour to get a proper look round.


Of course, one of the most interesting things about the castle for me is that it was where the Lancashire witches were tried.  Living near Pendle and teaching witchcraft as part of the undergraduate early modern history survey course meant that it was going to be a place I wanted to see.  Tradition has it that they were held in the medieval Well Tower before their trial.


But there were plenty of other good reasons to go. It’s an amazing place – the most secure court in the country on account of the keep walls, which are 3 metres thick!  It’s a hotch-potch of buildings clustered on a site that was first used in the Roman period.  Several buildings date from the medieval period, while the women’s prison was built in 1821 on the panopticon design.

The tour was excellent, and although it’s forbidden to take photographs in some parts of the castle because it is a working court, the are areas where photography is allowed.  The tour was excellent, finishing in the cells, where there was a display of prison clothing designed to humiliate the inmates and make them easy to spot if they escaped.  The condemned cell was rather more luxurious than the ordinary cells.


Another reason for my interest in the castle, though, is that my mother lived in Lancaster as a child and walked to school alongside the castle each day.