The Naked Blogger of Cairo, by Dr Dina Rezk

In November 2011, 20 year old Egyptian Alia Mahdy posted a nude photograph of herself on her blog Diary of a Rebel. She was wearing nothing but black stockings, red leather shoes, and a flower in her hair. The photograph had 1.5 million hits within a week. In 3 years, her blog had more than 9 million views.

Black and white photograph of Aliaa Magda Elmahdy.
Image from:, courtesy of Aliaa Magda Elmahdy.

Alia’s act of digital disruption was part of a wider series of political and artistic activities that took place on the internet during Egypt’s so called ‘Arab Spring.’ The 2011 revolution was replete with reminders of the body as the ultimate political medium. From the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi, to the anonymous ‘Blue Bra’ girl dragged across Tahrir square, images of the body played a central role in mobilising and articulating revolutionary expression.

But unlike thousands of postings by Egyptian women in 2011 calling for social and political change that found widespread popular support, Alia’s act was met with repudiation by all of Egypt’s political groups. Alia’s desire to make her naked body visible to the world was seen as subversive, unauthentic and an assault on the values and culture of the nation and the region. So why did Alia see herself as participating in an artistic act of political protest while others denied and indeed condemned her contribution?

Alia described herself as a “secular, liberal, feminist, vegetarian, individualist Egyptian.” In an interview with CNN she said the post was “an expression of my being’” and clarified the relationship between freedom of expression and her body: “I see the human body as the best artistic representation of that [being].” The question of her agency and bodily autonomy was key: ‘I took the photo myself using a timer on my personal camera.’ “I accepted [to publish the picture] because I am not shy of being a woman.’

Alia’s pose in the photograph is revealing. She looks directly at the camera, her posture is upright and her eyes have a defiant expression. In Alia’s view, this assertion of her own sexuality on her own terms, was the ultimate expression of political freedom.

The caption she wrote with the photograph, perhaps unsurprisingly, garnered much less attention. But the text was key to contextualising Alia’s action within a wider historical and political context:

‘Put on trial the artists’ models who posed nude for art schools until the early 1970s, hide the art books and destroy the nude statues of antiquity, then undress and stand before a mirror and burn your bodies that you despise to forever rid yourselves of your sexual hang-ups, before you direct your humiliation and chauvinism at me and dare to deny me my freedom of expression.’

Allusions to Egypt’s more liberal past were evoked both visually through the black and white photograph, and this outright reference to an earlier time in Egypt’s history where bodily exposure was not shamed and repressed.  

Her words proved to be a powerful pre-emptive attack on the diatribe that ensued.  Despite widespread condemnation of her actions, the political implications of her act were not lost on her audiences, even whilst people repudiated them. One critic said “You claim to be Egyptian; how did you dare [do what you did] when you hold the Egyptian nationality and carry the Arab identity” (S. Zaki, 2011). Abdo Wazen (2011), a columnist in the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat placed her artwork within the broader context of embodied protest that marked the Arab revolutions: “Alia is another Mohammad Bouazizi, but instead of burning her own body, she burnt our eyes and made us blind in the broad daylight of revolutions.” Eventually, facing physical intimidation and death threats, Alia was forced to seek political refuge in Scandinavia. As scholar Marwan Kraidy puts it, “Though biologically alive in exile, her body suffered a social death at home.”

Grafitti of Alia Mahdy next to Samira Ibrahim (right), comparing the virginity checks of female protestors campaigned against by Ibrahim and the media attention Mahdy attracted with her image.
Image commonly seen on Wiki, under the legal right to panorama

Alia’s photograph, and the spectacular controversy it gave rise to, made me think. It made me think about what agency truly means, what people want (female) agency to look like and how this differs across time and space. As I write up my research on Egypt’s ‘Arab Spring’ and its enduring legacies, I find myself asking important questions about the relationship of the personal and the political; what revolution really means; and the centrality of the body as a battlefield during times of upheaval.

I spent a few months in Egypt in the autumn of 2022. It was the first time I had spent an extended period in my country of origin and locus of my research.  Upon my return a friend asked what I had noticed, “Was there anything exciting happening on the streets?” he said.

I paused to reflect, before nodding. I told him that around the right outside my flat in Cairo there was a community of skaters who gathered every evening around a local park where I would take my daily walk.  As I watched these Egyptians weaving in and out of traffic, whizzing across uneven pavements and laughing together, men and women, children and teenagers, I was struck that this was one of the few contexts I had encountered in Egypt where gender didn’t seem to matter. What felt important though was the sense that these skaters were claiming their power to use and move their bodies how they liked in the face of Cairo’s chaos. Like Alia, they were forging a public space for themselves by sharing their bodies, their art and their freedom. And that felt exciting to me.

Dr Dina Rezk is an Associate Professor of Middle Eastern History at the University of Reading, currently researching the role of popular culture during the Arab Spring.

All comments and opinions presented in this article are that of the author.

We have made every effort to abide by UK copyright law but in the instance of any mislabelling of images, please contact the author of the blog post.

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“Piety, Sobriety and Variety”: The first 3 female MPs to arrive at Westminster, by Dr Jacqui Turner

Much has been written about Constance Markievicz, the first woman elected to parliament at the general election 1918 and Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her seat in parliament a year later via a carefully controlled by-election. However, much less is known about who came next, those women elected between Astor and the first cohort of Labour women mostly elected at the general election of 1923.

During the 1923 election, candidates Margaret Wintringham, Nancy Astor and Mabel Philipson were dubbed ‘Piety, Sobriety and Variety’ and the following limerick appeared in The Times (London):

“Lady Astor, MP for sobriety,
Mrs Wintringham; She’s for propriety,
Now Berwick-on-Tweed
With all speed has decreed,
Mrs Phillipson wins – for Variety”

Black and White Photograph of Margaret Wintringham and Nancy Astor, 1923.
With thanks to the Astor family.

Margaret Wintringham has the distinction of being the first Liberal woman elected to parliament and the first woman born British too. As she was in mourning following the death of her husband, the sitting MP for Louth, she was a ‘silent candidate’ and chose not to speak in public throughout the election campaign. Wintringham did have plenty of experience in local politics and women’s’ groups.  Wintringham was considered

‘the most typical British woman the House of Commons has had among its members’ (Westminster Voices, 1928, 198). That said, Wintringham and Astor became close friends and supportive colleagues despite their political colours. Wintringham was re-elected at the general elections of 1922 and 1923. She supported protections for young girls and was vocal on the equal franchise and the right of women peers to sit in the House of Lords.

‘Sobriety’: Nancy Astor (Conservative, Plymouth Sutton)

Drink promises you everything but gives nothing.

Astor was well known for her stand on temperance, a result of her Christian Science faith alongside personal experience. Her anti-drink platform resulted in some of the most misogynistic personal criticism that she received both in her mailbag, the press and in the House of Commons.

On 24 February 1920 Astor delivered her maiden speech about retaining wartime drink restrictions to a largely hostile chamber. There was a general concern that since Astor was born in the US she might try to introduce prohibition into the UK. In 1923 she became the first woman to introduce a private members bill – the Intoxicating Liquor (Sale to Persons under Eighteen) Bill which passed into law and is the reason why we still must wait until we are 18 to drink alcohol today. You can find out more about the act here: Intoxicating Liquor (Sale to persons under 18) Act – UK Parliament.

‘Variety’: Mabel Philipson (Conservative, Berwick upon Tweed)

Mabel Philipson
Source in the public domain. Sourced via Wiki but this image is commonly used across the internet.

Before being elected to parliament Philipson had a successful career as a Gaiety Girl and comedy actress before moving into serious drama in 1913. She married her second husband, Hilton Philipson in 1917 and in 1922 he was elected as National Liberal MP for Berwick upon Tweed. However, he was unseated due to concerns about financial irregularities during his election campaign and was barred from standing again for 7 years. Philipson took his place though as a Conservative party candidate. Her theatricality was a vote winner and served her well on the hustings though her background did raise some eyebrows. She was elected in 1923 by a larger majority than her husband had been. Although Astor, Wintringham and now Philipson had been elected to their husbands’ seats, Philipson in particular ‘was seen as somewhat lightweight and one of the less active women MPs’.

Astor, Wintringham and Philipson faced a ‘political baptism of fire’ and a maelstrom of press and public attention. Public scrutiny of women’s dress, deportment and conduct were often of far greater interest to the electorate and the press than their policies. All aspects of their lives were fair game – has anything really changed?

Further reading

Elaine Harrison, ‘Wintringham [née Longbottom], Margaret (1879–1955), ODNB (2011)

Duncan Sutherland, Philipson [née Russell; other married name Rhodes], Mabel (1886–1951), ODNB

Daniel Grey and Jacqui Turner (eds.), ‘Nancy Astor, Public Women and Gendered Political Culture in Interwar Britain, Open Library of Humanities (2020) Open Library of Humanities | Collection: (

Rachel Reeves, Women of Westminster (London, 2019)

Iain Dale and Jacqui Smith (eds), The Honourable Ladies, Volume 1 (London, 2018)

Dr Jacqui Turner is Associate Professor of Modern British Political History at the University of Reading, specialising in 19th and early 20th century parliamentary politics and political cultures.

All comments and opinions presented in this article are that of the author.

We have made every effort to abide by UK copyright law but in the instance of any mislabelling of images, please contact the author of the blog post.

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International Women’s Day: Inspirational Women from History

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2023, members of staff and students from our department have nominated their inspirational women from history!

Dr Jacqui Turner – Mary Wollstonecraft

Oil Painting of Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, circa 1979, NPG 1237, ©National Portrait Gallery, London

For me, it is Mary Wollstonecraft. There is always a temptation to choose someone from our own research, and Eleanor Rathbone was a tempting choice, but Wollstonecraft was a real pioneer and lived her life by her own rules and principles. In 1792, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman was a clarion call for equality:

“If women be educated for dependence; that is, to act according to the will of another fallible being, and submit, right or wrong, to power, where are we to stop?”

Wollstonecraft’s premise that men and women should be considered equally rational was revolutionary and one of the earliest examples of feminist philosophy. Wollstonecraft’s work had a mixed reception, her own circle lauded this presentation of her ideas but less so more broadly – Horace Walpole referred to her as a ‘hyena in petticoats’. Wollstonecraft died in 1798 as many, many women of her age did due to complications in childbirth. But the scandal of Mary’s life, premarital relationships and an illegitimate child, damaged her legacy for many years.

You can see contemporary copy of Vindication here at the British Library and hear more about Wollstonecraft and her work.

Prof Emily West – Angela Davis

Photograph of Angela Davis at the US ‘Women’s March on Washington’, January 2017

I’ve chosen Angela Davis as my inspirational woman for many, many reasons. An activist, intellectual, professor and author, she played a pioneering role in bringing Black women’s feminism in the US to wider audiences and she remains committed to Left wing activism and social justice. The picture shows her at the US ‘Women’s March on Washington’ in January 2017 in which she called for an inclusive and intersectional feminism to challenge the incoming Trump administration. Angela Davis’ intellectual work is also pioneering. She was imprisoned by the FBI in 1970 on false charges of murder, conspiracy and kidnapping related to her involvement in the left-wing Black Panther Party (part of the wider Black Power Movement at this time). Yet, writing from her prison cell, with scant resources, she successfully managed to write a ground-breaking article about the lives of enslaved women in the US that situated their triple oppression within the fact of their enslavement, being Black, and being women. She additionally framed the sexual exploitation of enslaved women by enslavers as a forms of institutional terrorism by which men manifested their power and authority over women.

Abbie Tibbott – Helen Gwynne-Vaughan

Oil Painting of The First Chief Controller, Qmaac in France, Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, by William Orpen. ©IWM Art.IWM ART 2048

Helen Gwynne-Vaughan had a very varied career, first graduating with a degree in Botany, studying both at King’s College London and Royal Holloway College (now Royal Holloway, University of London). In WW1 she served as Commandant for the Women’s Royal Air Force, transforming the discipline and morality of the young women who were involved. I encountered her during research for my undergraduate dissertation on the WRAF.

She co-founded the University of London Suffrage Society with Louisa Garrett Anderson, and was involved in politics throughout the 1920s, standing several times for election and speaking at NUSEC meetings. As well as her political life, she was involved with the Girl Guides, an organisation that I was part of growing up, and something that I believe helped shape me as a young woman. She returned to academia as a Professor of Botany in 1921, eventually achieving Professor Emeritus in 1944.

Gwynne-Vaughan is inspirational to me because she excelled at university, was involved in the political arena but also made time for the development of women and girls in the UK. She even has fungi named after her! 

Dr Natalie Thomlinson – Maureen Coates

Maureen isn’t a famous person; in fact, she was just an ‘ordinary’ person, living in an ‘ordinary’ town. Maureen was a community activist who became involved in helping her local community of Scawsby (in Doncaster) during the miners’ strike of 1984-5, which her husband Jim took part in. Maureen helped to raise many thousands of pounds to make sure no-one from a striking family went hungry. She died a fortnight ago, and like most working-class women who get involved in activism,  there will be no obituaries in the press for her, or famous people at her funeral. She is one of the many of the unsung heroes of working-class women’s history;  but it seems appropriate to honour the socialist roots of IWD by thinking of those working-class women who have contributed so much to the struggle for social justice.

Dr Dan Renshaw – Millie Witkop

Image from: ‘MILLY WITKOP: ANARCHIST, FEMINIST, AND UNION ACTIVIST’, East End Women’s Museum, https://eastendwomensmuseum.
org/blog/milly-witkop, (accessed: 07/03/2023)

Millie Witkop was one of the leading figures in metropolitan socialism, anarchism, and feminism in London before the First World War, and later was involved in radical politics in post-1918 Germany and the United States. Witkop, born into a Ukrainian Jewish family in 1877,  was, along with her comrade and partner Rudolph Rocker, a leading contributor to the Yiddish-language anarchist journal the Arbeter Fraynt. She was a key mediator in inter-ethnic class solidarity in turn-of-the-century revolutionary and trade union politics, forging links between Jewish, Irish and domestic socialist groups, and organising inter-communal support networks for the families of striking workers in the industrial action that took place across Britain in 1911-1912.  

Amy Longmuir – Marie Skłodowska-Curie

Marie Curie (centre) with four of her students c.1910-15, Library of Congress, available from:

An incredible woman in science, Marie Curie was born in Poland and later moved to France where she was a physicist and chemist researching radioactivity. She is named on a lot of firsts; the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (being the co-winner with her husband Pierre Curie in 1903), the first person to win a Nobel Prize twice, and she remains the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different scientific fields. In 1906, Curie also became the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris. During World War One, Marie Curie became the director of the Red Cross Radiology Service after studying radiology to make X-ray machines portable. Assisted by her 17-year-old daughter, Irene, Curie oversaw the use of 20 mobile radiology vehicles and 200 radiological units at field hospitals across France from 1914. She discovered two radioactive elements; polonium and radium.

What is particularly interesting is that Marie Skłodowska-Curie pioneered women in science both at the time and in retrospect whilst also being a wife and mother. Her husband, Pierre, supported her completing her doctorate in 1903, and throughout her scientific career. Her original notebooks and cookbooks are still radioactive, over 100 years after they were exposed to radium, and bring to life her actions as a scientist and cook, which can be viewed here:

She is buried alongside some of France’s most notable people in The Panthéon, Paris.

Fiona Lane – Caroline Wallace

Caroline Wallace of Caldwell Road, Kingstanding, was inspirational. She led the neighbours in her street in a rent strike against Birmingham council. She had been a resourceful woman all her life, coping on her own with a small child, setting up a shop when her husband was sent to the workhouse. Just as life had taken an upturn and she and her family had moved to a new council house, her husband died, leaving her with three of her nine children still dependent on her. She was an ordinary working-class woman and nothing set her back: when the council proposed to put up the rents, she knew many of her neighbours could not afford to pay and she organised meetings and demonstrations. Her determination was part of the success of the city wide strike. In July 1939, the council withdrew the new rent scheme.

All comments and opinions presented in this article are that of the authors.

We have made every effort to abide by UK copyright law but in the instance of any mislabelling of images, please contact the author of the blog post.

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History, Gaming, and Churchill’s “Promise”, by Abbie Tibbott

Tucked away in a time-shift segment of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is a short conversation between the playable character, Lydia Frye, and Winston Churchill. Whilst playing the game, this short exchange dragged me from the game’s immersive world and landed me with a bump back into reality. In this post, I’ll be considering the repercussions of casual assumptions made about history, and what impact this can have on a younger generation who use historical game franchises to inspire them to take an interest in history.

For those unfamiliar, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is broadly set in Victorian London, with the player assisting the Brotherhood against the power-hungry Templars through a mixture of assassination, stealth and problem solving. These games are immersive and have inspired many of us to learn more about the historical eras that form the settings for these 70+ hour gameplay narratives.

In a section of this game however, we are transported to London in 1916. Air raid sirens sound, military blockades are up, and the main bulk of the gameplay segment is centred around Tower Bridge. Lydia Frye meets Winston Churchill, apparently back from the trenches of Europe, who asks her to take the lead on several reconnaissance missions to get some vital intelligence for the war effort. The mission itself is engaging and fun to play, but a comment made by Churchill as part of his dialogue clearly displays the limitations of Ubisoft’s Quebec-based team when writing about British history.

Churchill explains to Lydia that if she completes these missions, he will enfranchise women, giving them the vote. To think that 1916 Churchill would even consider this statement is laughable, as 1926 Churchill would be horrified at the thought of being a supporter for increasing the electorate.

This comment, although seemingly harmless, is in itself inherently damaging to those who research and write about the enfranchisement of women. For a high-profile game to suggest Churchill was a supporter of women’s voting rights damages the work done by those who wish to remind us that historical figures are multi-faceted.

Nancy Astor, MP for Plymouth Sutton, pestered Churchill and other members of the 1924 Conservative Cabinet for ten years, for when women would be granted equal voting rights to men. She worked alongside various women’s organisations and even ordered a deputation, where Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks was forced to hear the testimony of many influential women in society in support of expanding the electorate. As Churchill served as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1924 government, if he had honestly wanted women to have the vote, Astor would have probably had a considerably easier time in Parliament!

There is of course irony in the statement that Churchill promised Lydia that women would get the vote, as the Representation of the People Act 1918 would not have enfranchised her, as a working class woman under the age of 30 (she is canonically in her twenties at this point of the game) and although she is married, there is no evidence she has any property. Of course, her character is entirely fictional, and I have no issue with that, more with the fact that Ubisoft decided to write an extremely prominent politician into a game, and then saddle him with dialogue that is not representative of his views towards women.

So, what of the damage? Yes, it is just a game, but it is important to remember that young people draw inspiration from films and games and may use this piece of dialogue to come to the conclusion that Churchill supported women’s voting rights. This is a disservice to all historians working on women’s history in the interwar period, and I am certainly disheartened that for a game based on historical events, this was not fact-checked by anyone at Ubisoft.

Historical fiction is a genre enjoyed by so many, but it is so important that crucial events, decisions – and in this case, conviction politics, are portrayed as accurately as possible. Churchill was vehemently opposed to expanding the electorate in the 1920s, as he wanted the Cabinet to safeguard the Conservative Party’s electoral majority for the next election. Even when the tide was turning and the Cabinet were drawing up their own franchise bill to present to the Commons, Churchill presented his fellow politicians with a memorandum on the franchise, where he listed fifteen separate arguments as to why the franchise should not be extended.

When I was an undergraduate student, it was a transition to learn about historiography and how our recording of history is all down to perspective. In this game, Churchill is presented as a leader, but also as someone who not only had the power to enfranchise women seemingly single-handedly (he was not Prime Minister at this point in his career), but that actually thought that all women’s highest priority was being enfranchised. To generalise women in Britain this way was probably not deliberate but offering women’s enfranchisement as a ‘prize’ that was the most desirable thing that Churchill could offer Lydia Frye is a misrepresentation of the work and sacrifices made by women during the war effort, whether they were part of the Suffrage movement or not. It is important to be precise about these things, as titles in the Assassin’s Creed franchise cover major historical events, even if the player’s character is fictionalised.

Overall, this incident serves as another reminder that historical fiction deserves to be written in a way that is representative of the people and issues featured. Ubisoft is not the enemy here, but rather a specific example of how influential figures in history must not be presented as 2D characters in a plot device and should be instead used to educate us about their triumphs, their politics, and their convictions.

Abbie Tibbott is a PhD Student at the University of Reading, specialising in conservatism, citizenship and democracy in 1920s Britain, with a focus on women and unemployment.

All comments and opinions presented in this article are that of the author.

We have made every effort to abide by UK copyright law but in the instance of any mislabelling of images, please contact the author of the blog post

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A new platform: female MPs and the quest for equal citizenship, by Abbie Tibbott

This Women’s History Month, it is important to remember some of the pioneers that stood on a very crucial platform, often against all odds. The collection of women that were successfully elected to UK Parliament in the 1920s represented women’s issues on a national stage. In this blog, we will uncover the 1927 deputation organised by Nancy Astor MP and her colleagues, in what was one of the last hurdles to jump in the fight for female citizenship.

The fight for equal voting rights was not started by female MPs, but they took up the flag for Britain at a time of economic upheaval, changing relations with Ireland and several short-lived governments. The 1924 Conservative Cabinet attempted to repeatedly stall and de-prioritise the need for women’s full emancipation, but the tide was turning by 1927. In the past decade, female MPs had banded together, and made meaningful advances regarding so-called women’s issues. Margaret Wintringham MP worked with Nancy Astor on the women’s police, pensions for orphans and widows, as well as equal guardianship, principles of which were adopted into the Equal Guardianship Act 1925, enshrining the mother’s equal right to her children. Astor introduced the Intoxicating Liquor Act 1923, the first Private Member’s Bill by a woman to be passed. This important piece of legislation restricted the sale of alcohol to persons ages 18 and above, and still exists today. Although it is clear that female MPs were being directed towards women’s issues because of their gender, that did not mean those causes were unimportant.

Photograph of the front of the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act, 1928, from:

The Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act was passed in 1928, just in time for the 1929 general election in which the Conservative government lost their majority. This fear had been a major factor in the unwillingness of the Conservative Cabinet to introduce or support a second franchise bill, as they were concerned that new legislation would enfranchise the stereotypical Labour voter – a young, single, working class woman.

Before the act was passed and a garden party planned at Cliveden, there was significant pressure placed on the Cabinet by female MPs in the form of a deputation, attended by the Home Secretary William Joynson-Hicks. Jicks, as he was known, had previously blurted out, in full view of the House of Commons, that the Cabinet intended to introduce a bill. Astor replied:

‘Does the right hon. Gentlemen mean equal votes at 21?’

Jicks, then, might not have been the Cabinet’s favourite man to attend such a deputation, as the meeting cleverly brought together female politicians and influential groups from the Women’s Movement that had been gaining momentum. Evolved from the suffrage movement, these women had renewed their efforts to get legislation passed through the Commons, and female politicians were their vessel. Jicks was not a staunch opposer of equal franchise by 1927, but Winston Churchill remained unmoveable. Historians have the benefit of hindsight, but it would be really interesting to see what would have happened if the Chancellor of the Exchequer had been sent to that deputation!

Image of Nancy Astor giving speech, surrounded by members of the public, from:

The deputation was a long meeting, introduced by Astor. Several leaders from women’s organisations spoke, imploring Jicks to make meaningful changes for women in Cabinet. Unlike elected members of the Commons, the Cabinet was handpicked by the current Prime Minister, and Stanley Baldwin appointed Churchill to sit in the seat of the Treasury, but that does not mean that Churchill’s personal politics were reduced to that of the economy alone. Despite being married, Churchill maintained the view that there was no need to extend women’s voting rights, a view shared by many male members of his party. His attendance at a deputation like this would have garnered an entirely different reaction, and although she was unafraid of Churchill, Nancy would have surely been grateful for the tentative ally that was Jicks.

Interestingly, Cabinet Papers detail that it was actually the Prime Minister, Baldwin, that was supposed to attend the deputation, but sent the Home Secretary instead. Whatever Baldwin’s reasoning, he was careful to send a politician in his place that was not openly hostile. By this point, Baldwin recognised the inevitability of a second suffrage bill, and it was important for the Cabinet to make sustained progress towards introducing one before the next general election.

Deputations, protests, marches and conferences all give people the ability to express their opinion, meet like-minded parties and move against a force they do not agree with. Whilst the campaign for extended voting rights for women may not have mirrored the civil disobedience of the previous decade, both forms of protest do matter. Whilst spending ten years campaigning for equal franchise, female MPs used their gender to influence legislation that impacted the lives of women in Britain. Much of our history of gender and feminism of this period focuses negatively on the violence of certain individuals that wanted votes for women, and neglects to see the wider impact of concentrated cross-party activity that improved welfare, childcare and safety for women in everyday life.

As a century has passed, it is always worth considering how far women’s equality has come, as well as looking forward to where it must go. Women remain a minority in Parliament but have achieved multiple Cabinet positions in the last hundred years. Just like the deputation in 1927 that brought politicians and community organisations together, meaningful progress is vital for the protection of underrepresented groups in our society in the modern day.

Abbie Tibbott is a PhD Student at the University of Reading, specialising in conservatism, citizenship and democracy in 1920s Britain, with a focus on women and unemployment.

All comments and opinions presented in this article are that of the author.

We have made every effort to abide by UK copyright law but in the instance of any mislabelling of images, please contact the author of the blog post

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Pirate Legends: Matelotage and Mavericks – Celebrating LGBTQ+ History

On 28 December 1720, a court was convened in Spanish Town, Jamaica, whose audience bore witness to one of the Golden Age of Piracy’s penultimate acts of defiance. The final verdict decreed that the prisoners: ‘go from hence to the Place from whence you came, and from thence to the Place of Execution; where you, shall be severally hang’d by the Neck, ‘till you are severally dead.’ A single moment later, the prisoners played their trump card, claiming that they were both pregnant, and so the court was brought to a standstill. By ‘pleading their bellies’ as it was called, both women could not be hanged for their piratical crimes, and so they were granted a stay of execution, representing a unique moment in the wider history of piracy. The two women in question were Anne Bonny and Mary Read, now known the world over as the pirate queens, or the Hellcats of the Caribbean.

As we have previously explored in Pirates Legends III, Bonny and Read’s story represents one of the Golden Age of Piracy’s most notable acts of defiance. In their challenging of the norms of their age in such a spectacular way, they continue to epitomise the social rebellion view of piracy. What is even more interesting however, is that many authors have postulated that the two were in fact lovers. Captain Charles Johnson, arguably the discipline’s most famous author, was a firm believer that the two shared a sexual relationship, emphasising in 1724 that Anne fell in love with Mary under a guise, and continually hints towards intimacy between the pair in two corresponding chapters. Centuries later, Steve Gooch’s play The Woman-Pirates (1969) further implies that the two kindled a romantic relationship.

If one takes a gander at the wider social history of piracy, the discipline is littered with instances of peoples of the same sex finding comfort with each other out on the vast oceanic frontier. In the last two decades, historians have investigated the social history of piracy, arguably the most innovative, and progressive component of the discipline. Subsequently, at least two writers have asserted that many Golden Age pirates engaged in homosexual activity. Namely, Hans Turley suggested that piracy and homoerotic imagery are conjoined, arguing that pirate literature and genuine historical evaluations of pirates is infested with homoerotic imagery. Likewise, Barry Richard Burg put forth the notion that within pirate communities, the ratio between genuinely homosexual pirates and those who partook in what can be considered as homosexual acts in consequence to the lack of women, would have significantly increased homosexual contact. Though both theories rely on the certainty that pirate ships were exclusively male institutions, and there is evidence to the contrary.

Correspondingly, is the seafaring practice of matelotage or, seamanship. While any person of any profession may practice it, matelotage was very prevalent amongst pirates. The practice was a formal agreement between two men, whereas one would inherit the other’s property if they were to pass away. While on the outset this appears to be a purely economic relationship, matelotage has been compared to marriage. Fortunately, we have written evidence of a matelotage agreement between two known pirates- John Beavis and Francis Reed. Signed and dated in 1699, the document made it known that ‘by these preasants that Francis Reed and John Beavis are entread in courtship together.’ This is of course not the only instance of the practice between two male pirates. The notorious Captain Robert Culliford, archnemesis to Captain Kidd, was also known to have engaged in matelotage via his relationship with fellow pirate John Swann, who supposedly also lived with Culliford. While these instances do not necessarily denote a sexual relationship, the common saying that pirates married one another is a legitimate historical fact, if the exact nature of the relationship itself remains ambiguous. Several authors have firmly asserted the notion that matelotage was only a form of insurance lacking any kind of personal relationship, though I personally disagree with this narrow assessment.

Thus, it is perfectly plausible to suggest that pirates engaged in relationships, and possibly sexual relationships, with each other. It is no wonder then that this viewpoint has ventured into the realm of popular culture. Recent portrayals of pirates have embraced the evident LGBTQ+ presence within piracy, culminating in numerous examples across multiple media. Most famously however, Starz’s Black Sails (2014-2017) presents a gritty prequel to Treasure Island, where the main protagonist- James Flint (played by Toby Stephens), is canonically bisexual, having been shown engaging in sexual relationships with both men and women. Without too much in terms of spoilers, the entire plot of Black Sails is driven by Flint’s intense desire for revenge against the oppressive establishment that robbed him of his relationship with his male partner, decreeing that he intends to ‘wage war against the world.’

Captain James Flint, as portrayed by Toby Stephens.

More recently, HBO’s hit comedy-drama Our Flag Means Death (2021-present) features no less than three separate LGBTQ+ relationships. Including a heartfelt love story between fictionalised versions of Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard (played by Rhys Darby and Taika Waititi), and another between nonbinary character Jim Jimenez and Oluwande Boodhari (played by Vico Ortiz and Samson Kayo). The series has garnered widespread critical acclaim for his portrayal of LGBTQ+ relationships, and a second season is already forthcoming.

Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet’s relationship garnered widespread acclaim and was lauded by many for portraying a touching love story in a period-comedy.

Golden Age piracy represents many things. Some scholars view the period as a sailor’s rebellion against the oligarchical establishments of Europe, while others claim it represented nothing more than a loose contingent of outlaws harassing trade and prosperity. Nevertheless, pirate subculture facilitated liberation and freedoms in a notoriously oppressive age, and these men and women sought the sunny horizons of freedom, over the darkness of the deep blue sea.

Further Reading

Burg, Barry Richard. Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition. New York, 1984.

Earle, Peter. The Pirate Wars. London, 2004.

Fox, E. T. Pirates in Their Own Words. Milton Keynes, 2014.

Johnson, Charles. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious

Pirates (1724), edited by Johan FranzénTurku, 2017.

Leeson, Peter. The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Piracy. Princeton, 2009.

Rediker, Marcus. ‘Liberty Beneath the Jolly Roger’ in Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World 1700-1920 eds. Margaret Creighton and Lisa Norling. London, 1996.

Turley, Hans. Rum, Sodomy and the Lash. New York, 1999.


Luke Walters is a PhD Student at the University of Reading, specialising in Early Modern maritime history.

All comments and opinions presented in this article are that of the author.

We have made every effort to abide by UK copyright law but in the instance of any mislabelling of images, please contact the author of the blog post

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A Queer Past the Censorship, by Gabe

A record dated to January 1395 sees the ‘Examination of two men charged with immorality, of whom one implicated several persons, male and female, in religious orders’[1]. Arthur Hermann Thomas, the person who wrote that summary in 1932, skimmed very briefly over the true complexities of the case of Eleanor Rykener.

Arrested in the streets of London wearing women’s clothing, Eleanor Rykener was brought to court. They were taken in with a man, John Britby, as both had been caught ‘committing that detestable unmentionable and ignominious vice’[2]—or in other words, a sexual act.

As Eleanor was a prostitute, this was nothing too surprising. What made this case so unique was the fact that Eleanor was assigned male at birth.

The following interrogation of Eleanor conducted by the Lord Mayor’s Court in London addresses them using their legal name and masculine pronouns. Yet, as they introduced themself as ‘Eleanor’, I shall use that name for them. As for the pronouns, I decided to use ‘they/them’ as a gender neutral option given that Rykener lived life as a woman; not only did they confess to presenting as a female sex worker, but they also worked as a barmaid and an embroideress.

Applying modern terms to a person who was unable to use such labels comes with its own array of issues, but the fact that they confessed to sleeping with both men and women as well as living as a woman within and outside of their sex work does tell us a few things. We know Eleanor had interest in both men and women, that they did not conform to their gender assigned at birth, nor the gender roles of the time, and that they presented feminine.

Regardless of what modern labels they may or may not have chosen, Eleanor is just one of many examples that the LGBTQ+ community has always existed, even outside of the available terminology, freedoms, and rights we have today. The arguments that the growth of our community is a ‘modern phenomena’ is indeed, incorrect. We have always existed. Rykener proves as such.

Our history was made murky through suppression—living in England in the 1300’s would certainly make you want to hide too—and those whose identity was discovered would not have had a happy end. On top of that, figures of the past have also had their queerness overlooked, ignored, or out right erased; Thomas’ summary of Rykener’s case irons out a lot of the intricacies which aligns it with anything LGBTQ+.

It is undeniable that things have improved, but the struggle for our rights is still an uphill battle. Yet, I find it comforting to look to the past. Knowing that we have evidence of those who existed before us throughout the ages proves we have been here the whole time. Seeing records of their deeds, their lives, knowing their names—it is a comfort, a strong human connection to know that, even after all this time, we see them. We know them.

We’ve always been here, and we always will.


Gabe is a MRes Medieval Studies Student at the University of Reading.

All comments and opinions presented in this article are that of the author.

[1] ‘6 Feb. 1395, Membr. 2. Roll A 34: 1394-95’, in; A. H. Thomas, (ed.), Calendar of the Plea and Memoranda Rolls of the City of London: Volume 3, 1381-1412 (London, 1932), pp.228-232, available from: British History Online, [website],, (accessed: 16 February 2023).

[2] Fordham University, ‘Internet Medieval Sourcebook: The Questioning of Eleanor Rykener (also known as John), A Cross Dressing Prostitute, 1395’, [website], available from:, (accessed: 16 February 2023).

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Pride: Representing LGSM in Cinema, by Amy Longmuir

Pride Film poster
Copyright belonging to the distributor of the film: Pathé or the poster designer: Yolk Creative London,

After winning the Queer Palm award at the Cannes film festival, Pride (2014) grossed over £3.5million at the UK box office in its first month.[i] With such a reception, it was inevitable that Pride would come to be a widely known film showcasing the Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners’ (LGSM) group. Much has been written as to the representation of historical events in this film, and there is a clear acknowledgement of the importance of cultural representation and memory in the making of Pride.[ii]

Historical Background

Pride is a film that attempts to showcase the history of a seemingly unusual alliance between ‘a group of London based lesbian and gay activists’ and the striking mining community of Dulais.[iii] The film begins focusing on one young man, Joe Cooper (later referred to as Bromley) going to the Gay Pride Parade in London. In starting this way, Pride locates itself within the British Gay Liberation politics, a movement that attempted to ‘eradicate the stigma and shame from the identification of being gay’.[iv] Bromley here, though, is only 20 years old, and thus not legally able to consent to homosexual intercourse. Although secondary to the main plot of the film, it is an acknowledgement of the disparity between homosexual and heterosexual ages of consent.

The other key element of the film is the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike. Having started in reaction to the planned closure of 20 mines, and thus the loss of 20,000 jobs, across the North of England and South Wales, this became one of the longest disputes in British industrial history.[v] Mining communities across South Wales lost their income; combined with the increasing police presence and, in some cases brutality, on picket lines across the country, the resilience of the miners and their family was stretched.

Injured miner taken away by police: A. Travis, ‘Battle of Orgreave: more unreleased police files uncovered’, The Guardian, 01/03/2018, (accessed: 24/01/23), Photograph: REX Shutterstock

Pride finds itself at this intersection, with leader of LGSM Mark Ashton, arguing that the police’s arresting of miners reflected what the gay and lesbian community had experienced for many years. Early in the film, Ashton answers the question ‘Who hates the miners?’ with ‘The Police, the public and the tabloid press. Sound familiar?’.[vi] This demonstrates the connection Ashton saw the gay and lesbian community having with the miners, and the motive of what would become LGSM in their actions of solidarity.

Historical Accuracy

Despite being a cinematic piece, there are a number of elements that make Pride historically accurate. The ‘Pits and Perverts Benefit Ball’ at the Electric Ballroom, Camden is an example of the film’s incorporation of actual events into its storyline. The use of Bronski Beat’s song here, ‘Why’ links Pride’s representation of the Benefit Ball to the actual events where the band played in 1984. Doing so brings another dimension to Pride – it attempts to bring the historical events to life for the audience in a way that is as accurate as possible within its remit.

‘Pits and Perverts. A benefit organised by Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners’, British Library: Pits and Perverts Collection, 1984, Copyright: Kevin Franklin., (accessed: 24/01/23)

Real media footage of miners clashing with police, especially at the ‘Battle of Orgreave’, is also included in Pride. Using this near the beginning of the film gives the audience a way of locating the events within this widely seen imagery of the time, and in popular memories of the Miners’ Strike. This also places the majority of the audience in a similar position to the characters that would form LGSM as, for most of them, this was the only way they had seen the Miners’ Strike whilst living in London.


Pride does well in its representation of the different groups, debates and problems within LGSM and the gay and lesbian community of the early 1980s more broadly. A sub-plot to the film which is most notable at its end is that of the difficult position of lesbian women within LGSM. Here, this is seen in the decision made by some lesbians to create ‘Lesbians Against Pit Closures’ separate from LGSM as a way of creating a lesbian-only, non-confrontation space.[vii] Despite this splintering, they still marched ‘alongside LGSM and the mining communities’ in 1985, showing that many groups still worked together at national events, as they did in the film.[viii]

Finally, Pride carefully integrates the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Although not the centre of the film, there is continual reference to the fear of HIV/AIDS both within the gay community and the public more generally. For example, Maureen (played by Lisa Palfrey) refuses to house any members of LGSM when they visit Dulais for fear of catching HIV/AIDS. This very simple example demonstrates the fear of AIDS in the 1980s and the difficult position for the gay community. This is not the only reference to HIV/AIDS though; later in the film, it is revealed that one of the main characters, Jonathon, is one of the first people in the UK to have been diagnosed HIV positive. Also, whilst LGSM take some of the Dulais mining community out for the night in London, Ashton meets an old partner who himself is HIV positive, and which brings the epidemic back to the story. In these instances, both the fear and prevalence of HIV/AIDS is brought to the fore, with the realities of HIV/AIDS being shown at the end of the film with it stating the Mark Ashton passed away on 11th February 1987 after being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.


In LGBTQ+ History Month, it is interesting to look at films such as Pride to understand the popular memory and understanding of events in the LGBTQ+ community’s history. This film does well in bringing a coalition between LGSM and the Dulais mining community to the fore whilst also acknowledging the difficulties each community faced. The complex incorporation of historical accuracy with audience enjoyment as well as difficult topics such as police violence and HIV/AIDS demonstrates an awareness of the complex position of this history in wider understandings of the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike and Gay Pride. This film, then, serves to broaden public memory of events to better remember activists such as Mark Ashton, as well as those less politically-active and thus unnamed like Bromley, who were part, and thus shaped the history of, the LGBTQ+ community.


Amy Longmuir is a PhD History Student at the University of Reading, specialising in modern British women’s and feminist history.

All comments and opinions presented in this article are that of the author.

We have made every effort to abide by UK copyright law but in the instance of any mislabelling of images, please contact the author of the blog post

[i] ‘Festival de Cannes: la « Queer Palm » décernée a « Pride » du Britannique Matthew Warchus’, Le Soir, 23 March 2014,, (accessed : 23/01/23) ; C. Grant, ‘Gone Girl finds gold and Dracula Untold sucks bucks at the UK box office’, The Guardian, 2 October 2014,, (accessed: 23/01/23)

[ii] L. Robinson, ‘Thoughts on Pride: No Coal Dug’, Open Library of Humanities, 5(1) (2019).

[iii] N. Richardson, ‘‘What I was told about lesbians really did shock me. It can’t be true, can it? You’re all vegetarians?’: Greywashing Gay Shame in Pride’, Open Library of Humanities, 6(1) (2020).

[iv] Ibid.

[v] ‘Miners’ Strike 1984-1985’, Archives Hub, [website],

[vi] Pride, 2014, Scene 1

[vii] W. Caldon, ‘Lesbians Against Pit Closures’, LGSM, [website],, (accessed: 24/01/23).

[viii] Ibid.

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Introducing the ‘Charting History’ podcast, by Graham Moore

We are excited to be showcasing the work of one of our PhD students here at the University of Reading History Department, Graham Moore, who has just launched his new podcast ‘Charting History’. Below is Graham’s introduction to the podcast and the first episode, and links are provided to access the content on a variety of platforms.

One of the best things about postgraduate research is the many connections you make along the way. I’m now in the third year of my PhD with the University of Reading and The National Archives, and for me the most exciting aspect has long been the potential to make new friends and contacts across a variety of research areas, and even across disciplines. Everyone, I find, has carved out their own area of enthusiasm – everyone has a story to tell.

This was the main impetus behind ‘Charting History’, a podcast project which began its release schedule on Wednesday (1 February 2023). The more I spoke to people I met about their areas of expertise, the more I wanted to share those stories with other people – and podcasts, as an accessible and public-facing medium, seemed the best way to do so. Each episode of Charting History consists of an interview with a historian, giving them the chance to tell a story they’re excited about. For the listener, each episode is a chance to see what’s going on at the forefront of historical research (or, sometimes, what’s germinating in the back of researchers’ minds, yet to sprout into published form…).

This allows the podcast to cover a broad range of topics, from piracy to women’s rights, and from the Shakespearean London to the ‘golden age’ of cinema. It’s been fun to range outside of my (maritime) comfort zone, and the more open interview style used in Charting History is designed to give each expert the space to properly express themselves. In future, I’m hoping to push my list of potential guests outside my immediate social/professional circle, and also further beyond the limits of academic history as a discipline; however, that will need to wait until the podcast has a few episodes out in the wild first!

In today’s inaugural episode, Luke Walters (University of Reading) – with whom regular readers of this blog will no doubt be familiar – comes aboard to tell the story of Captain William Kidd. Through the medium of audio we travel back in time and across the globe, to the Indian Ocean at the very end of the seventeenth century: a hotbed of political, commercial, and imperial ambitions. Into this powder keg comes a match – a match in the form of William Kidd. Kidd was a privateer turned pirate and, at that, quite possibly the unluckiest pirate in history. Join us as Luke tells the story of Kidd’s fall from grace, a story that involves murder, mutiny, political skulduggery, and – last but not least – possibly the only real example of buried pirate treasure…

Subsequent episodes from ‘season 1’ will release fortnightly, featuring a whole host of historians (initially limited only by my address book and my ability to wrangle them to come onto a podcast that, at the time of asking, did not yet even exist!). Several historians from here in Reading will make appearances, as well as experts from further afield (the University of Cambridge, The National Archives, the University of Glasgow, independent scholars), all of whom are united by their shared enthusiasm for the histories they tell. I’m looking forward to it – I know I have learned a lot along the way! – and I hope you’ll come along for the ride.

You can find the Charting History podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Amazon, Acast, and a variety of other podcast hosting services. (And if you use a service that the podcast isn’t on yet, then let me know – I’ll soon sort things out.) Meanwhile you can get in touch on Twitter, @ChartingHistPod, where I’ll also be notifying followers with updates and episode releases. Transcripts will be available via the episode descriptions, as well as on my website.

See you on the airwaves!

Graham Moore is a current CDP-funded PhD student at the University of Reading and The National Archives, specialising in early modern Maritime History.

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Challenging the ‘Cistem’: The Importance of Diversity in Trans Representation, by Amy Austin

The policing of gender is nothing new, but in recent years the escalation in attacks against transgender and non-binary communities has seen fierce battles over the definition of ‘man’ and – more pointedly – ‘woman’ and who can be accepted into each category. The most concerning consequence of these debates has been the increase in violence and discrimination against transgender and non-binary individuals. Official government statistics on hate crimes committed in England and Wales reveals that transgender identity hate crimes have increased by 56% from 2021 to 2022.[1] 

The recent furore and misinformation over the Gender Recognition Reform Bill in Scotland, an act that underwent six years of scrutiny only to be blocked by the UK Government, is a case in point.[2] Much of the criticism of the Bill focuses on concerns over the protection of ‘women’ and ‘girls’ and single sex spaces such as bathrooms and changing rooms. However, these spaces are not covered by the Bill and the charity Stonewall estimates that only 0.2% of the community will benefit from the reforms.[3] As the Scottish government’s website makes clear, ‘[t]he Bill does not make changes to toilets and changing rooms. Trans people can and have been using facilities that match their gender for years and they will continue to do so.’[4] Indeed, the purpose of the Bill is to ‘improve and simplify the application process for [a Gender Recognition Certificate] by making it less lengthy and intrusive. The Bill does not introduce new rights for trans people but will mean that trans people can have better access to their human rights.’[5]

With some gender critical feminists calling for an emphasis on ‘sex’ not ‘gender’ when determining who can be categorised as ‘female’, we seem to be returning to a biological essentialism that reduces women to their reproductive functions. A reliance on chromosomes and reproductive organs is not actually implemented in day-to-day gender attribution. Research has revealed repeatedly that individuals suffering abuse and/or intimidation when using public toilets are those who do not conform to feminine stereotypes regardless of whether they are trans or cis. Kath Browne gives several examples of the recorded university student Janet’s experiences of such intimidation in her paper ‘Genderism and the Bathroom Problem: (re)materialising sexed sites, (re)creating sexed bodies’ (2007). Janet stated: ‘they don’t look at my face or anything they just look at my build and look at my height and look at my haircut and they just instantly assume that I am some dirty man in the women’s toilets so.’[6] These assumptions reinforce the confining female stereotypes that feminists should surely be challenging.

What is also evident in much of the media discussions of transgender and non-binary rights is the absence of voices from these communities. The vast majority of reporting focuses exclusively on trans women, with trans men and non-binary individuals effectively erased from the discussion. This lack of representation has become a facet of histories of gender non-conformity where strict boundaries are being established as to who can be considered trans. As historians we are limited by the availability of sources and our decisions over which stories to tell impact how these histories are represented. Much of the information concerning transgender individuals can either be found in legal or medical documents. In both cases, even where the individual’s testimony has been preserved, it is filtered through the official context in which their statements were recorded. Individuals were and are obliged to conform to narratives dictated by the medical profession in order to access gender affirmation surgery. Michael Dillon for example, the first British trans man was approved for surgery due to a false diagnosis of acute hypospadias in the 1940s.[7] Similarly, trans individuals seeking surgical access are expected to adopt the medical ‘wrong body’ narrative if they are to be seen as valid.[8] Such official records also privilege the histories of those who seek to transition, representing them – erroneously – as somehow more authentic.

Kit Heyam has summarised the issues with these dogmatic definitions of who is and is not a representation of a trans identity in their fantastic book Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender (2022).

[T]here are two big problems with how we decide whether a story ‘counts’ as trans history. The first problem…is that a lot of evidence we have for gender-nonconforming lives comes from legal and medical contexts…But law and medicine aren’t neutral contexts…they’re high-stakes environments in which we construct a narrative for an authority figure whose decisions have huge consequences for our lives…The second problem with our existing criteria for inclusion in ‘trans history’ is that they privilege an incredibly narrow version of what it means to be trans…As a result, this narrative shapes contemporary trans stories, and all trans lives appear fundamentally similar.[9]

Heyam asks the reader to question why it is that some examples of historical gender non-conformity can be considered trans while others are rejected. As my research has developed, I have adopted Heyam’s inclusive approach to transgender identities. Those who have experienced a stable, unchanging gender identity since childhood and undergo gender affirmation surgery are just one representation of the diverse experiences of gender non-conformity. Equally valid are those who presented as another gender for a set period or whose gender remained fluid or transcended binary categories. In representing trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming histories, I propose we take inspiration from the Pride flag itself and embrace the diversity to be found within experiences of gender. Gender, like sexuality, is not black and white but a rainbow.


Amy Austin is a PhD Student of History at the University of Reading, specialising in transgender histories in Britain from 1870 to the 1940s.

All comments and opinions presented in this article are that of the author.





[5] Ibid.

[6] Kath Browne, ‘Genderism and the Bathroom Problem: (re)materialising sexed sites, (re)creating sexed bodies’, Gender, Place and Culture, 11 (2004), 337.

[7] Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka, Out of the Ordinary: A Life of Gender and Spiritual Transitions (New York, 2017), 101.

[8] Ulrica Engdahl, ‘“Wrong Body”’, Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1 (2014), 267.

[9] Kit Heyam, Before We Were Trans: A New History of Gender (London, 2022), 9-11.

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Mini medieval ‘grete pyes’, by Dr Ruth J. Salter

Back in November, during the drinks reception ahead of our annual Stenton Lecture, I got chatting to our social media maven, Chessie Baldwin. Talk turned to History’s blog and what we’d be doing as our Christmas series this year … at some point in our conversation I mentioned the possibility making a medieval recipe and ‘tweaking’ it for a twenty-first century Christmas and thus the premise behind this blog post formed. But what to make? Well, why not a medieval great pie, or ‘grete pye’ to give it the Middle English spelling!1

This post is not, I should stress early on, is not a ‘history of medieval Christmas’. I have in previous years discussed medieval Christmas celebrations in more detail and am mindful not to replicate myself here. Nor is this post an attempt at providing a cook-a-long for making your own ‘grete pye’. Rather it should be seen as a light read and an encouragement, to all who want to, to have some fun in the kitchen this festive season. With that said, on to the pye!

John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, dines with the king of Portugal (London, British Library, Royal MS 14 E IV, f. 244v).

Medieval ‘great pyes’

A ‘grete pye’ was a staple of a medieval Christmas feast. The specific ingredients could differ depending on maker, availability, personal taste etc., but the key elements were various meats, dried fruits, and spices (I hope the need for pastry goes without saying!)

The recipe for this version of a ‘grete pye’ was recorded in a mid-fifteenth century cook book (now BL, Harley MS 4016), in the twentieth century it was published in an edition of medieval recipes edited by Thomas Austin, before then being published alongside a modern interpretation in Black’s The Medieval Cookbook, (British Museum Press). The late-medieval recipe can be found below, but I am very grateful to Black for the modernised version which includes measurements and cooking times which meant this was a lot less trial and error.

Grete pyes. Take faire yonge beef, And suet of a fatte beste, or of Motton, and hak all this on a horde small; And caste thereto pouder of peper and salt; And whan it is small hewen, put hit in a bolle, And medle hem well; then make a faire large Cofyn, and couche som of this stuffur in. Then take Capons, Hennes, Mallardes, Connynges, and parboile hem clene; take wodekokkes, teles, grete briddes, and plom hem in a boiling potte; And then couche al this fowle in the Coffyn, And put in euerych of hem a quantite of pouder of peper and salt. Then take mary, harde yolkes of egges. Dates cutte in ij. peces, reisons of coraunce, prunes, hole clowes, hole maces, Canell, and saffron. But first, whan thou hast cowched all thi foule, ley the remenaunt of thyne other stuffur of beef a-bought hem, as thou thenkest goode; and then strawe on hem this: dates, mary, and reysons, &c. And then close thi Coffyn with a lydde of the same paast, And putte hit in the oven. And late hit bake ynogh ; but be ware, or thou close hit, that there come no saffron nygh the brinkes there-of, for then hit wol neuer close.

‘A grete’ pye’, cited in Black, The Medieval Cookbook, p. 118.

Having looked through the recipe, and Black’s reworking of it, I made the decision to go for chicken and sausage meat as the two meat options. For the dried fruits I went with equal portions of ‘coraunce’ (currants), prunes, dates and apricots – the latter adding a little colour to the mix. I followed Black’s guidance on spices and made up a blend of cinnamon and mace with a pinch of ‘clowes’ (cloves).

As for the pie crust itself, I have a confession to make, I used shop-bought pastry! Any bakers reading this are likely tutting at me right now, I know! I would usually make my own shortcrust pastry, but for time and ease this worked well and, after all, the pie ‘coffyn’ was hardly the star of this show.

In forming the pastry ‘coffyn’, and with Chrisitmas celebrations in mind, I made the choice to move away from the ‘grete’ in size pye for mini ‘grete pyes’ that would be more suitable for party nibbles. Gone are the days of sitting down to a great medieval feast and I wanted to make these pyes a more practical (and hopefully somewhat less messy) festive offering.

Making the pyes smaller (I used a cupcake tin) also meant adjusting the method. This was not going to be the large pye envisaged either by our fifteenth-century cook or by Black with repeated layers of spiced minced meat, egg yolks and dried fruits, and boiled meats that should bake slowly in the oven. My mini pyes would bake to a crisp if I tried that! Instead, I pre-cooked the filling – ‘parbolie’ (poaching) the chicken as per the recipe before mixing it in with the cooked sausage meat, spices, and fruits. The pastry was then rolled out and the mini pyes shaped, filled, and the ‘coffyn’ lids put on (making sure to give these and egg wash and pierce them to let steam escape). The pyes were then popped in to the over (fan, 200oC) for around 15 minutes until they were cooked through and golden on top.

Cooks preparing food in the Luttrell Psalter (London, British Library, Add MS 42130, f. 207r).

The finished product was, I’ll be honest, a little ‘rustic’ looking, and despite piercing the lids and sealing the lid to the base, a few pies did open up while in the oven. However, the smell of the meats and spices cooking definitely had that Christmas feel to them, and for my first attempt at making these I’m pretty pleased. I’ve even got some left-over pie filling to make another batch with.

As for the taste, I was pleasantly surprised, but a good cook always listens to others too, so I decided to find some taste testers in the History department: Anne Lawrence, Elizabeth Matthew, Jacqui Turner, and Emily West were the lucky (?!) guineapigs. Despite my trepidations, the pyes went down well (so much so I left the remaining pyes with them).

Will I be adding grete pye(s) to my collection of Christmas recipes in future years? Yes! I’d like to add a few fresh herbs in too just to balance the flavours out but these were surprisingly easy to make and definitely worked well on a ‘mini’ scale making them an excellent option for a festive social gathering and they bring something new (old?) to the table!

[1] This blog is also published on Ruth’s personal blog platform, so take a look for more medieval treats and tales!  

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An American Christmas History, by Melanie Khuddro

When we think of the roots of our Christmas customs, we might typically think of nineteenth century England. The Victorian Royal family popularised the indoor, decorated tree in an image of them gathered around one which was published in Illustrated London News in 1848. Tom Smith introduced an embryonic form of the Christmas cracker soon after, with small items such as chocolate and fans wrapped in paper that ‘snapped’ when pulled. The first commercially produced Christmas card was designed by English illustrator, John Callcott Horsley in 1843, which featured a large family sat around a table and raising a toast.[i] And, of course, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol captured the spirit of Christmas in the public imagination; charity, family, forgiveness, and goodwill.

The first ever Christmas card, commissioned by Henry Cole.

It’s import into the United States generated some traditions we continue to uphold, though we might neglect to recognise their American origins. Bostonian composer, James Lord Pierpont, published One Horse Open Sleigh, or ‘Jingle Bells’,in 1857. It became the first ever recorded Christmas song in 1889.[i] The popular image of Father Christmas can also be traced to the US and is possibly the single greatest American contribution to Christmas culture that persists across the Western world. Thomas Nast gave Santa Clause many of his modern-day distinct characteristics during his career as a cartoonist for the American magazine, Harper’s Weekly.[ii] Dutch settlers in New York brought with them the fictional character Sinterklass, based on Saint Nicholas, that was phonetically Anglicised into Santa Clause. The notion of a flying wagon used to bring children presents by Saint Nicholas was imagined by Washington Irving in his 1809 satirical book, Knickerbocker’s History of New York.[iii] This evolved into a sleigh in the children’s poem Old Santeclaus with Much Delight– now better known as ‘Twas the Night before Christmas– published anonymously in New York in 1821.

Nonetheless, the majority of America’s festive influence was cultivated slightly later. Commercialism advanced towards the new millennia, harnessing a culture of consumerism that excelled in the US.[i] The post-war era experienced a flourish in prosperity and, with it, the creation of iconic Christmas symbolism in music, film, literature, and toy production. So much familiar imagery – from little drummers to the Grinch to red-nosed reindeers – were conjured during this period of productivity. Its effect is so recent that, for some, their origins are still in living memory. However, it is so impactful to our collective vision, that we unassumingly associate it with Christmas as if it were a custom as long-standing as our Victorian ones.

So, why has the American effect come so recently?  Although Christmas is now celebrated across the nation in a similar fashion than in the UK, if not more fervent and extravagant, this was not always so. A brief history of America’s turbulent relationship with Christmas might go some way in explaining why it took much longer to take hold.

Original Puritan colonies decisively rebuffed the importation of Christmas from England and, particularly in the older settlements of Massachusetts, such sentiments proved hard to shake. Their dislike of Christmas came from two sources. The first was a sceptical view of its Christian heritage. Religiously devout and cynical of European authorities as the early settlers were, they recognised the lack of historical and biblical rationale to celebrate the birth of Jesus in December. For shepherds to be with their flock in the field, it would have been unlikely that the event took place during winter solstice. Puritans also identified the origin of its seasonal placement to have come from a morphing of pre-Christian festivals by the fourth Century Early Church. The Romans marked the period of the 17th and 24th of December in the name of the God of Saturn, Saturnalia– and the 25th of December was observed as the birth of Mithras, the God of light.[ii]

The second source of animosity towards Christmas came from the general social disruption it caused. The period had become synonymous with disorderly conduct; drunkenness, promiscuity, rioting, and theft were a few of the complaints raised by clergymen. Wassailing, which we now think of in relation to children trick-or-treating for Halloween, was used as an excuse for people enter strangers’ households and, in extreme cases, harass and assault them.[iii] Another frowned upon practice was known as Mumming. This was when men and women would swap clothes and then go to their neighbour’s houses and “make merry with them in disguise”.[iv]

In an attempt to pacify the wantonness that the festive period stimulated, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony legally prohibited citizens from observing Christmas in 1659. The penalty for contravening was a fine of five shillings. It was only upheld for 20 years, during which time, no prosecutions were made.[v] But it goes some way to demonstrating that anti-Christmas feeling that engulfed the State during this time.

A public notice in Boston in 1659 describing dressing in fine clothing, feasting, and exchanging presents to be ‘sacrilege’ and ‘satanical’.

Practicing Christian traditions appeared to be the antithesis of Christian behaviour to some of the early colonies and it was a sentiment that long prevailed in the history of the nation. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that America witnessed a slow thawing of the Puritanical mood. Louisiana became the first state to instate the 25th of December as a holiday in 1830. Massachusetts expressed the most reluctance and followed suit much later, in 1856. Christmas Day was then inaugurated as a federal holiday on the 26th of June, 1870. Some 150 years later, Christmas is now quite comfortably subsumed into twenty-first century American culture.

Although its fundamentally Christian roots and practices persevere, it has increasingly transitioned from a religious custom to one which denotes nationality and more secular iterations of cultural identity. Such a transformation has been understandably criticised by some for the dilution of its sacrality. Christmas has become such a widely celebrated and well recognised holiday in the US, that it has permeated the populace beyond its practising Christian demographic. Its status is now at such odds with its contentious history that it makes it hard for the modern reader to conceptualise a period in American history when Christmas simply did not exist.

[i] A copy is held LDPHT The Postal Museum, Calthorpe House. Accession Number: OB1996.4/8.

[ii] Peter Nagy, ‘Voices of Christmas Past’, The Dawn of Sound, (02/12/2008) [Accessed: 1st of December 2022].

[iii] Robert C. Kennedy, ‘Cartoon of Thomas Nast by de Grimm’, HarpWeek, (Website) HarpWeek: Cartoon of the Day [Accessed: 1st of December 2022].

[iv] Washington Irving, Knickerbocker’s History of New York: From the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty [1809] (Independently published, 2021), Book 2, Chapter 5, p. 28.

[v] ‘Christmas Cartoons by Thomas Nast in “Harper’s Weekly,” 1863’, The Homestead Museum Blog (13/12/2018) [Accessed: 1st of December 2022].

[vi] Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of our most Cherished Holiday (Random House, 1997), pp. 138–40.

[vii] Rodger Beck, ‘Ritual, Myth, Doctrine, and Initiation in the Mysteries of Mithras: New Evidence from a Cult Vessel’, Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 90 (2000),pp. 145, ft. 2. 

[viii] S. Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas, pp. 16–8.

[ix] Ibid., p. 7.

[x] Christopher Klein, ‘When Massachusetts Banned Christmas’, History Stories (21/12/2020) [Accessed: 1st of December 2022].

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Pirate Legends Festive Special: A Caribbean Christmas Carol, by Luke Walters

‘Tis the season for merriment and comradery, and what better way to kick off this festive period than unwrapping a new edition of Pirate Legends. In this short and light-hearted entry, we’ll be taking a look at how pirates might have celebrated Christmas, as even seasoned buccaneers needed some rest and respite. So, get cosy by the fire and pour yourself a tankard of grog, as we unwrap the hidden mysteries of the Golden Age of Piracy’s Christmas celebrations.

It must be stated that even to this day, scholars are still largely unaware of the exact social parameters of a contemporary pirate ship, so to combat this dearth of information, let us first explore a viable alternative. Let us glance into the practices undertaken by the contemporary navy, and as many pirates once served as privateers and navy men themselves, it is perfectly plausible to suggest that pirates continued these yuletide traditions. On Christmas day 1678, the diary of Henry Teonge details that prayers were taken at 10 in the morning, and while a sermon was planned immediately after, he was forced to conclude the service abruptly due to a major change in the winds. For Christmas dinner, the ship’s officers enjoyed rice pudding, a ‘special piece’ of English beef, a portion of beef tongue, ‘excellent’ fish fry, woodcock pie, multiple roasted chickens, and no less than three different varieties of cheese. Finally, a ‘great charger’ of figs, almonds and raisons, complimented by ‘wine and punch galore’ and several apples tarts, a true feast indeed. Though it must be stated that a good time was not had by sailors of all capacities, as one Edward Barlow can attest. Barlow himself is a contemptable figure within maritime history, yet he was partially involved in the legend of Captain Kidd and bequeathed to the world an invaluable account of his long seafaring career. In 1672, Barlow was a captive of the Dutch after the capture of his ship and complained that rather than enjoying traditional yuletide mince pies, he suffered the indignity of having ‘boiled rice and a piece of stinking beef’ for his Christmas dinner. It appears that Christmas Day 1672 was not all that merry for Edward Barlow.

So, how exactly did pirates celebrate the festive season? Many pirates served as legitimate sailors prior to raising the black flag, so it is perfectly plausible to suggest that certain traditions carried over to pirate ships. Indeed, several pirate captains maintained religious traditions aboard their vessels, most notably Captain Bartholomew Roberts, alias Black Bart or Barti Ddu. Despite the several atrocities he committed during his piratical career, Roberts was known to be a man who stayed true to several Christian doctrines. For instance, even in his articles (this being the pirate code) Roberts dictated that the ship’s musicians may ‘rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other six days and nights, none without special favour.’ While there is no surviving evidence, taking into consideration Black Bart’s religious penchants, it is entirely plausible that he and his crew celebrated Christmas.

When one thinks about what a pirate Christmas party may look like, one envisions rum and wild merriment, with the singing of sea shanties and Christmas carols alike. Believe it or not, this actually rings true. In 1718, Captain John ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham and his crew celebrated Christmas in true pirate fashion. In the dubious A General History of the Pirates, the author insisted that Rackham’s pirate band ‘went to a small island and cleaned, and spent their Christmas ashore, drinking and carousing as long as they had any liquor left.’ A proper pirate Christmas has captivated both academic and popular imagination for centuries, thus it is no surprise that piratically-inclined Christmas celebrations have made their way into popular culture. Most notably, Sea of Thieves, the world’s most popular pirate videogame with over 30 million active players annually celebrates the Festival of Giving, a pirate Christmas celebration set across multiple media. It is the objective of the festival to pillage and plunder, albeit with a unique festive twist. Each year’s festival oversees different goals, such as 2021’s ’12 Deeds of Giving’, where your pirate must complete different objectives in the days leading to Christmas. For instance, on the last day- And a Monster That Rose from the Sea, players were tasked to hunt the elusive kraken. Aspiring pirates take heed however, for in the game’s vast and fascinating lore, those who break the Pirate Code during the festive season better keep a weather eye on the horizon for the Bonechiller, a fearsome skeleton lord who hunts pirates whose names are on the naughty list.

And so, we draw this issue to a close. I hope you have enjoyed this light-hearted and almost humorous edition of Pirate Legends. Although we cannot know for certain whether all pirates celebrated Christmas, there is some surviving evidence that suggests that certain buccaneers did adhere to the festive spirit. While they certainly did not celebrate the yuletide as we do now, in the practicing of sermons and joyous merrymaking, legitimate seafarers and pirates alike celebrated the Christmas season in their own unique way, and the results of researching such a unique topic are quite fascinating to say the least.

So why not follow in the pirates’ footsteps? Grab a grog and get ready to close this academic term just in time for the festive season. It is Christmas after all, so I say here’s to you dear reader. Cheers!

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas My Captain Gave to Me,

12 Cutlass Slashes

11 Drunken Bashes

10 Buried Caches

9 Boarding Axes

8 Sea Dogs Drinking

7 Shanty Singings

6 Ships a-Sinking

5 Stolen Rings!

4 Men-of-War

3 Swift Sloops

2 Black Flags

And a New Ship That’s Barnacle Free!

Luke Walters is a PhD Student of History at the University of Reading, specialising in Early Modern maritime history.

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Christmas in Mining Towns 1984: Turkey for a Striking Christmas, by Amy Longmuir

After two years of COVID uncertainty, family Christmas dinners are firmly back in festive plans as some form of normality returns for most people in the UK. Avian flu has, however, decimated a number of Christmas turkey and goose farms this year. Some farmers have lost their entire seasonal stock after having to cull their turkeys for fear or prevention of avian flu spreading.[1] This isn’t the first time that turkeys have been difficult to come by at Christmas; in 1984, miners and their families across the country faced a Christmas without turkeys, or presents, as their long battle against mine closures continued into the festive period.

Nationwide industrial action began on 12th March 1984 in reaction to the National Coal Board’s planned closure of 20 coal mines, with a loss of 20,000 jobs across Britain which would most severely affect the North of England, Scotland, and South Wales.[2]  Only three months later, the ‘Battle of Orgreave’ brought clashes between police, 5,000 striking miners onto television screens, resulting in 51 picketers and 72 policemen being injured.[3] Although clashes like this were uncommon, this entrenched divisions between the government and miners, vowing they would ‘stick it out to the last’.[4]

‘Convoy of coke, with riot police, mounted police, and uniformed officers outside the British Steel Corporation’s Orgreave Plant’, 29 May 1984, Labour Party Photograph Library. Report Digital, via Jisc Archives Hub

Despite a number of miners returning to work as Christmas approached and the winter worsened, the majority remained out on strike throughout December, making it a very different Christmas than they had experienced before. With no coal being mined or delivered, houses were not heated and strike wages of £12 per week did not cover the cost of food or the luxuries of a merry Christmas.[5]

Trade unions and solidarity organisations had already established donation and food parcel networks to ensure that families in mining towns across Britain had enough to eat and continue striking. At Christmas, these groups wanted to make sure that miners and their families were able to join in festivities, with the ‘Turkey run’ delivering around 7,000 turkeys to households in South Wales, complementing the vegetable food parcels sent by the trade unions every week. With families ‘lucky to have food now’, these parcels made sure that miners were able to celebrate Christmas, and ‘stick it out to the last’ without breaking the strike, despite increasing pressures from home.[6]

Interviews at the time said that this was a ‘Marvellous Christmas’, with the community coming together in a way it had not done before.[7] Oral history interviewee Aggie Curry said that the children were ‘so grateful for what they got’ as it meant all the more to them given the family’s situation.[8] Although not having a ‘Turkey Run’ in the North of England, Aggie Curry and her family living near Doncaster were able to get a ‘chicken from union and some vegetables’ that allowed them to have a proper Christmas dinner.[9]

Many families were also supported by relatives not impacted directly by the strike, with numerous accounts of mothers or mothers-in-law, aunties or other family members sending Christmas presents and resources to those on strike. Aggie Curry’s mother bought her a gateau for Christmas day, whilst one interviewee’s mother and mother-in-law bought their son a bike, although the parents were not able to their child any presents themselves.[10] Toys were bought and collected in each community by their Women’s Support Groups, meaning more children were able to have Christmas presents without having to rely on other family members. In Penrhiwceiber, the Women’s Support Group sold off any toys they had not allocated for 50p to £1, with the money being put back into the local fund.[11] Across the country, these Support Groups also organised Christmas parties for local children, using the town halls or Men’s Social Clubs to host festive events.

‘Christmas Party for Miners’ Children, Banwen, Neath Valley,  Amgueddfa Cymru, ‘The Miners’ Strike – 1984-85′

What can be seen here is the importance of generosity from supporters at Christmas, a turkey or chicken being the centrepiece to Christmas day far beyond the other material difficulties of these families that were striking against coal mine closures across the country. The community-based nature of these ‘turkey runs’, combined with the organisation of toys and generosity of donations made sure that strikers did not have to go back to work in December 1984, despite the pressures of Christmas, supported by their families – and especially their wives. This is best encapsulated by one woman’s statement that ‘we’ve been out 10 months now, what the hell is another 10?’ when she was given her turkey in Bedlinog.[12]

Despite this, and the extensive shows of solidarity that underpinned the ‘turkey run’ and other initiatives for the striking miners in 1984, they were ultimately defeated in March 1985. National Union of Mineworkers’ delegates voted 98 to 91 in favour of ending the strike, and two days later, on 5th March 1985, miners across Britian returned to work. Considerable numbers of coal mines were closed after this as the National Coal Board continued with their plans, but Christmas 1984 is remembered by many in the mining communities as ‘the best Christmas we ever had.’[13].

Amy Longmuir is a PhD Student in History at the University of Reading. The ITV Wales Archive interview can be found here.

[1] J. Partridge, ‘Avian flu set to deal killer blow to turkey farmers at Christmas’, The Guardian, 12 November 2022,

[2] ‘Miners’ Strike 1984-1985’, Archives Hub, [website],

[3] More information about this can be found here: D. Johnson, ‘Orgreave: The battle that’s not over’, BBC  News, 10 October 2016,

[4] Turkey Run, Miners Strike Christmas 1984, Bedlinog, [online video], 2015,, (accessed: 25 November 2022)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] ‘ALL OUT’ Penrhiwceiber South Wales during the Miners Strike Christmas 1985-1985, [online video], 2020,, (accessed: 25 November 2022)

[8] Aggie Curry, interviewed by Coalfield Women, accessible via: ‘Making ends meet’, Women and the Miners’ Strike 1984-5,, [website], accessed: 25 November 2022).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Aggie Curry, interviewed by Coalfield Women, accessible via: ‘Making ends meet’, Women and the Miners’ Strike 1984-5,, [website], accessed: 25 November 2022); Turkey Run, Miners Strike Christmas 1984, Bedlinog, [online video], 2015,, (accessed: 25 November 2022).

[11] ‘ALL OUT’ Penrhiwceiber South Wales during the Miners Strike Christmas 1985-1985, [online video], 2020,, (accessed: 25 November 2022).

[12] Turkey Run, Miners Strike Christmas 1984, Bedlinog, [online video], 2015,, (accessed: 25 November 2022).

[13] Aggie Curry, interviewed by Coalfield Women, accessible via: ‘Making ends meet’, Women and the Miners’ Strike 1984-5,, [website], accessed: 25 November 2022).

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Halloween: Our Childhood Traditions

It’s the spookiest day of the year! We asked some students and staff to share their favourite Halloween traditions. But first, some Halloween history…

‘The name Halloween itself is simply a contraction of All Hallows Eve.  This derives from the fact that Halloween is the evening and night before the Christian festival of All Hallows, or All Saints.  That festival was placed on 1st November from the eighth century onwards and therefore Halloween fell on 31st October. 

From the early middle ages there were fears that ghosts and spirits were able to return to earth and do harm to people, animals and crops, at liminal times – and at Halloween in particular.  This made the lighting of fires and candles, and the protective ringing of church bells, important on this night.  Gifts of food were also offered, either directly to the souls of the dead or as alms in exchange for prayers.  By the sixteenth century an additional supernatural threat had been added to the perils of the night, as growing fears about witches led to beliefs that witches were especially powerful and likely to cause harm on that night. 

There are no records of lanterns made from turnips or pumpkins being used in medieval churches! Even so, special contacts with the dead, feasting, lighting-up of the night, and communal protection against supernatural dangers all remain important activities at this time. If you go out trick-or-treating tonight, spare a moment to think about the medieval origins of these ideas.’ – Professor Anne Lawrence

Childhood Halloween Traditions

‘The boys go about the village with turnip lanterns, which they make themselves, doing all kinds of mischief.’ (Anon 1897)

‘For someone brought up in the North West in the1970s, large, bright, orange pumpkins at Halloween were an exotic thing; something American and expensive, something we might expect to see being unloaded at Liverpool Docks. Pumpkins were not for us, nor many across the UK, our tradition was a turnip lantern. Turnips were small and cheap to buy but brutal to carve. While the image above shows some very professionally carved turnips, in reality a kitchen knife and a large spoon produced something more fundamental usually hanging on a grubby piece of string to be carried around!

However, the carving of turnips predates the mid C20th by some way. The Victorians carved not just turnips but other vegetables too. They were left of the doorstep (not to indicate that this was a ‘trick or treat’ stop) but to ward off evil spirits.  After All Hallows Eve, you would often find the turnip lanterns relocated around farmers’ fields protecting slumbering crops. The tradition originated in folklore, a tale of the unfortunate Jack, who roamed the neighbourhood with a only piece of burning coal inside a hollow turnip for light – the original ‘Jack-o’-lantern’.

For more on turnip lanterns, the legend of Jack or ‘Jack ‘o lanterns’ English Heritage have a wonderful blog here. If you want to try your hand at carving a turnip lantern, you can find a video guide from English Heritage here (wish I’d had this as a kid!)’ Dr Jacqui Turner

‘Each Halloween I wait until the final week of October and binge-watch my ‘Halloween Movie and Series Checklist’. It includes classics like ‘Hocus Pocus’, ‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’, and ‘Nightmare before Christmas’. I also carve a small pumpkin and put a candle in it, hang up pumpkin fairy lights, and go for leafy walks with hot coffee! On the day I listen to my ‘Halloween’ playlist and usually have a party!’ – Layla, UG History Society

‘For me, I enjoy watching Chilling Adventures of Sabrina on Netflix, and switching on just about every form of fairy light I can find. I always find horror films can only be watched with other people, (I get scared so easily) so group watch parties are a fun way to spend a night in. The only way to live out my teenage Autumn Pinterest aesthetic is by purchasing a PSL from Starbucks – they’re absolutely the best!’ – Emilia, UG History Society

‘At Halloween I enjoy reading comforting books and watching traditional Halloween movies. I also love drinking hot chocolate in the evenings!’ – Kath, UG History Society

‘One of my favourite things to do on Halloween is to go through some scary fiction – whether it be films (eg: The Witch), horror YouTube channels or read scary stories such as on r/NoSleep. There’s some good stuff out there, such as Infected Town anthology on r/NoSleep and Nexpo on YouTube. It’s fun but beware, it can spook you!’ – Om, UG History Society

‘I loved listening to monster mash on repeat!’ – Oskar, UG History Society

Visit our Twitter @UniRdg_History to comment your own favourite Halloween Traditions!

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Top Tips for New Undergraduate Historians

Welcome to the University of Reading History department! If you are reading this, you are most likely a new student about to embark on their journey for an undergraduate History degree. Starting university can be overwhelming. In all the uncertainty of the past few years, you might not have had the chance to visit campus in person or are nervous how to prepare for your course.

Worry not!

We asked our wonderful staff and experienced PhD students for their top tips for incoming historians at the University of Reading….

The main thing that I would encourage any new undergraduate to do is to try new things. We’re so fortunate here at Reading to have a History department with such a fascinating variety of expertise, with modules that span the medieval period to the recent past and cover a huge swathe of the globe. It’s the perfect opportunity in your first year to encounter topics that you haven’t studied before, gain new insights, and perhaps find your own future area of expertise. I had never studied American history when I started my undergraduate degree – and frankly didn’t think it was all that interesting – and now I teach and research it! Make use of this unique time in your life to move beyond your comfort zone and see what else is out there. Find the modules that intrigue you and enjoy them! – Dr Liz Barnes, Lecturer

Follow you heart and try something new.  While you require a pass mark for the first year, the overall mark does not contribute to your overall degree classification. A such, be brave, follow your heart and delve into a topic you have never done before or even thought about. There is always a temptation to fall back on what you have done at A level and often an EPQ – try not to do that. As a student I was interested in radicalism and revolution, but rather than sit in the modern period I looked at the Peasant’s Revolt, the Interregnum alongside the French and Russian Revolutions. I am now a Modern British Political Historian but all that I studied provided a rich backdrop for my research on class and gender in parliament today. – Dr Jacqui Turner, Associate Professor

You probably need to do less than you think you do, but try and give whatever you do a spirit of very careful, focussed, attention. Notice what excites your mind and move towards that. – Dr Dina Rezk, Associate Professor

Read the introduction followed by the conclusion of any set reading before trying to tackle the middle. This will speed up your reading and set you up well for the rest of your degree! Treat yourself to a lunchtime bagel in the union, because they are literally the best. Finally, spend time perfecting your knowledge of the referencing style for essays in your first year! Try to remember that as nervous as you feel meeting so many new people, you are all in the same boat. Try to get involved if you can in seminar activities to seek out new friends and turn to trusted seminar tutors/academics for support if you need this! – Beth Rebisz, PhD Student

See the first year as a learning process where you’re figuring out how to write at undergraduate level, not A Level – and if your marks are not Firsts all the time, that’s normal! A lot of people go from being at the top of their school classes and then panic if they get 2:2s, when actually that’s just helping them learn a whole new set of skills. – Amy Austin, PhD Student

Identifying your preferred learning modality and experimenting with different methods of study will reduce stress and improve retention. This is a form of self-care. Learning to embrace criticism and negative feedback is essential for growth… and do the readings. We can tell when you didn’t. – Richard Balzano, PhD Student

Learn to skim read and that the index is your friend – you don’t need to read every single book cover to cover. – Aisha Djelid, PhD Student

Don’t be scared to ask questions! Make the most out of the fact that you actually have a specialist in the field right in front of you – ask questions and question the ideas and thoughts that are discussed in class. Make sure you enjoy your first year. Try to find ‘your’ topic in each class. Even if it’s the caricatures of politicians in a class on 19th Victorian political philosophy. Get to know the library and the people who work there. They can be the biggest help when you write your papers. – Michelle Tessmann, PhD Student

I remember being totally crestfallen when I got the marks back on my first paper, and it took me a while to realise everyone was in the same boat (& I wasn’t an imposter who’d slipped through the net). I find it super useful to read other people’s work early on – e.g. by asking module leaders for past essays that have scored well, just to get a feel for style. It’s crazy how being out of essay writing mode over the summer impacts the quality of your work in the first term of the new academic year, and reading other people’s work who are at a more advanced stage can provide a useful barometer of where you should be aiming for. Also, be to be open to seeing what other departments are up to and what events are on, and where they can add to your experience both academically and socially! – Emily Peirson-Webber, PhD Student

And last, but certainly not least….

I would recommend figuring out where the toilets are in all the random parts of Edith Morley! – Amie Bolissian

Remember, always reach out if you are feeling overwhelmed. We can’t wait to see where your journey as a historian takes you.

©University of Reading
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Pirate Legends IV: Hoist the Colours, by Luke Walters

A Historical Blog Exploring the Myths and Legends of the Golden Age of Piracy

I ran to the colour lines, handed down their cursed black flag, and chucked it overboard…’

-Jim Hawkins, Treasure Island (1883)

Despite the countless piratical tropes that have arisen from popular culture in the last few centuries, it cannot be countermanded that the pirate flag has emerged as the most iconic. Casting aside the parrots, peg-legs and hooks, the symbol of the ‘death’s head’ above a pair of crossed bones has become synonymous with piracy itself. At the height of the Golden Age of Piracy, a fraternity of over 2,500 men pledged allegiance to the so-called Pirate Republic, and the black and red banners of piracy symbolised a sort of identification among the various crews. Despite this, pirate flags also played a vital role in pirate tactics, as well as glorifying the captains’ own vanity as we will discuss shortly. The ‘Jolly Roger’ would only see action during hunts, as pirates often flew banners of specific nations when chasing prey. The term ‘Jolly Roger’ is believed to have derived from ‘Old Roger’, an old English nickname for the devil. On the contrary, many are of the mindset that the term actually originates from the French ‘joli rogue’, meaning ‘pretty red’, as the vast majority of early Golden Age crews in the Indian Ocean preferred the blood-red banners in leu of yet iconic black.

While the precise origins of the ‘death’s head’ remains a mystery, several authors have propositioned various theories. Marcus Rediker attests that the banner itself echoed the pirates’ own consciousness. This being, it is known that many pirates previously served in the merchant and military navies and were thus well aware of the harsh reality of life at sea, in addition to the abhorrent treatment they suffered by the hands of tyrannical captains. Thus, if a sailor was to perish for whatever reason aboard a contemporary vessel, be it from battle or sickness, the captain or ship’s surgeon would often mark a miniature skull next to said sailor’s name in the logbook. Within this interpretation, pirates seized a motif of their oppressors, and utilised it on their own banners, manifesting the skull and crossbones as a symbol of revenge against an oppressive establishment. Nevertheless, the primary aim of the skull and crossbones was to instil as much fear into the hearts of potential prey, yet this was not the only symbol that adorned pirate colours. Unbeknownst to many, pirate banners were in reality superbly diverse, with captains utilising their own ensigns to better suite individual tactics. Not only can one identify the skull and crossbones, one may observe hourglasses, spears, skeletons, and goblets among an assortment of many other items.

Despite being a simple piece of waving cloth, the Jolly Roger was an uncompromising component of pirate battle tactics. For instance, say if a pirate was stalking a French vessel, the pirates would raise a French ensign as a mark of identification, hoping to lower their enemy’s guard. When close enough, the Jolly Roger would be hoisted up, signifying the chasers’ true intentions. This was the pinnacle moment, and to paraphrase Captain Flint himself, if pirates raised the black flag too early, they would incite panic and the target may run, but raise it too late, and it will inspire fear and a greater chance of resistance. In addition, sometimes a shot may be fired across the enemy’s bow. Indeed, multiple merchant captains lamented that whilst being chased by pirates, up would go the ‘Pirate Colours, at sight whereof our men will defend their ship no longer.’ Evidently, when a gang of pirates chased the ship Eagle sometime during the Golden Age, the crew of the Eagle were ‘so much terrifyed’ that ‘no men not only refused to fight themselves but also hindered the officers’. It appears as in this case, the black banner served its purpose of inspiring sheer terror, as the men turned on their own officers and risked mutiny rather than face the pirates’ wrath. 

Let us examine a few of the patterns and identify what exactly these symbols may represent.

Henry Avery’s flag – the ‘King of Pirates’

I believe it is only right to first examine the banner of the so-called ‘King of Pirates’, Henry Avery, who reportedly flew a number of banners during his illustrious career. Avery’s banner incorporates the standard Jolly Roger motif albeit with a few notable alterations. Instead of facing forward, the skull looks to the right and bears a bandana and a large earring. In nautical superstition, sailors and pirates alike wore earrings not necessarily as a fashion accessory or to denote status, but instead the explanation is a tad macabre in nature. In some circles, if the sailor was to die at sea, the gold accessory would be taken by their comrades and used to either pay for their funeral arrangements, or to send it back to their families if applicable.  

While this next flag is attributed to Blackbeard, it is a probability that this banner is purely a work of fiction, although we cannot know for certain. The incarnation of the Death’s Head incorporates the skeleton of a devil, or perhaps the devil himself, stabbing a pleading heart with a spear. The object in the skeleton’s right hand remains a topic of discussion, although there are two possibilities to what the item in question might be. Firstly, some believe that the item is an hourglass, which symbolises that the target had a certain amount of time to surrender before no quarter was to be given, nautical speak for ‘no mercy’. As you can see on the flag guide, several other pirate captains made use of the hourglass symbol, including John Quelch, whose flag bears a striking resemblance to Blackbeard’s, in addition to the banners of Emanuel Wynne, Walter Kennedy and Christopher Moody.

The banner most associated with Captain Blackbeard.

On the other hand, others believe that the item is a chalice, and that the devil, and thereby Blackbeard himself, is toasting to the victim’s damnation. This would be in keeping with Blackbeard’s theatrical nature, as on the day of his death, Lt. Maynard attested that Captain Thatch ‘drank damnation to me and my men, whom he stil’d cowardly puppies, saying, he would neither give nor take quarter.’ However, despite the uniqueness of this flag, it is evidently not an 18th century design. Indeed, the true origins of the banner dates back to a 1912 article of the Mariner’s Mirror, and the images thereon do not corporate with 18th century designs. Point of fact, it was only attributed to Blackbeard much later. A 1718 newspaper article reporting one of Blackbeard’s raids harbours the only known contemporary account of what Thatch’s flag may have looked like: “…a large Ship and Sloop with Black Flags and Deaths Heads in them and three more Sloops with Bloody Flags all bore down upon the said ship Protestant Caesar…the Ship had 40 Guns and 300 Men called the Queen Anne’s Revenge.’ Hence, it is likely that in actuality, Blackbeard flew standard black flags adorned with a skull, or the bloody red flags used by his predecessors.

Jack Rackham’s legendary banner.

Next in line is the banner of Captain John Rackham, who roved the Bahamas in defiance of Woodes Rogers’ royal pardon in 1718. Though not nearly as successful as some of the other Golden Age captains, Rackham is best remembered for two reasons. The first is his involvement with female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who we discussed in the third edition of Pirate Legends. The second being his flag, and the impact it has inflicted upon the popular perception of piracy. Rackham’s banner incorporates the classic Death’s head design, while changing the traditional crossbones for a pair of cutlasses. Rackham, also known as ‘Calico Jack’, due to the fashionable calico clothing he frequented, clearly had a love for the dramatic, and this is shown evidently in his flag. Indeed, in the final episode of Black Sails (2014-2017) Jack lamented that ‘what’s it all for if it goes unremembered? It’s the art that leaves the mark, but to leave it, it must transcend. It must speak for itself. It must be true.’ Though this statement is entirely fictious, it accounts perfectly for Rackham’s flag, and perhaps the history of the Jolly Roger itself.

Black Bart Roberts’ flag

Finally, let us take into consideration the flags of Bartholomew ‘Black Bart’ Roberts, a fellow Welshman and known in Wales as ‘Barti Ddu.’ In life, Roberts was known as a flamboyant and sharply dressed pirate captain, though he was inherently cruel and committed many atrocities despite his highly successful pirating career. It is said that in times of action, Roberts would don himself in crimson regalia, coupled with an ostrich-plumed tricorn and a magnificent gold chain decorated with a cross adorned with green emeralds. In consequence, his French enemies labelled him as ‘l’homme en rogue’ or, ‘the man in red.’ Evidently, Black Bart’s first flag is rather vain in nature, as it depicts himself and a skeleton (likely an embodiment of Death) sharing a toast.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the dreaded black and red banners of piracy would inspire fear of death and a promise of violence. From the 20th century however, for lack of a better phrase, the Death’s Head has fallen from grace. Indeed, pirate flags are now used as bunting for children’s birthday parties. The Jolly Roger, while maintaining its legendary status, and devolved into a staple of popular culture above all else, while genuine historical agency has been somewhat cast aside, laid bare by the many fictional flags that are now considered by many as authentic. Once the Jolly Roger was cursed by captains and feared by kings, yet now it has best remembered with fondness is inherently recognisable, which is arguably the wrong reasons. Above all, the Jolly Roger personified one thing only… terror.

Luke Walters is a PhD Student at the University of Reading, specialising in Early Modern maritime history. Catch up on the rest of the Pirate Legends Series by scrolling back through our blog!

Further Reading:

Breverton, Terry. Welsh Pirates and Privateers. Llanrwst, 2018.

Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag. New York, 2016.

Little, Benerson. The Sea Rover’s Practice. Potomac, 2005.

Rankin, Hugh. The Pirates of Colonial North Carolina. Raleigh, NC, 1965.

Rediker, Marcus. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Cambridge, 2010.

Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations. Croydon, 2012.

Rennie, Neil. Treasure Neverland. Oxford, 2013.

Woodard, Colin. The Republic of Pirates. London, 2016.

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Pirate Flag Challenge – Full Gallery

Thank you to everyone who got involved with Captain Jackdaw’s Pirate Flag challenge! We were blown away by all the submissions, from pirate enthusiasts aged 3 – 10! It has been a joy to see at all the creativity on display and the clear love for pirate history still abound.

A small panel has selected a lucky winner and two runners-up, soon to receive their prizes!

Winner: Pirate Cotty

Runner-Up One: Pirate Amelia

Runner-Up Two: Pirate Evie

Also highly commended is Pirate E. Lewis! It was extremely hard to choose as all the entries were detailed and highly impressive. You can view the full gallery of submissions below.

If you enjoyed being involved, please keep an eye out for the next University of Reading History Challenge, and don’t forget – 19 September is ‘International Talk Like a Pirate Day’…

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Draw a pirate flag!

A fun children’s challenge with a pirate treasure prize…

Are you looking for a summer holiday activity for the kids? Do you know any young pirate enthusiasts? Do you want the chance to win a bundle of pirate-themed goodies? Then Captain Jackdaw has a challenge for you!

Remember: A good pirate flag needs to be fierce and creative!

This competition is open to all children under 10. Please send your submissions to our Twitter account @UniRdg_History, or email

All submissions must be sent by Friday 26 August. A small panel from UoR will then decide the winner and send out the treasure…

Get to it, shipmate! Captain Jackdaw is counting on you!

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Pirate Legends III: The Reign of the Pirate Queens, by Luke Walters

A Historical Blog Exploring the Myths and Legends of the Golden Age of Piracy

Thus far in the series, we have discussed some of the Golden Age of Piracy’s most prominent pirate captains. The first issue examined the tragedy of Captain William Kidd, who in reality was a far cry from the infamous and fearless treasure hoarder that he is so often associated with. In the previous issue, we lunged forward, deep into the heart of the Golden Age, and visited the Pirate Republic of Nassau during the mid 1710s. It was in this most unique of settings that we visited Captain Edward Thatch, alias Blackbeard, and uncovered his sinister machinations in North Carolina. Besides laying bare the fruits of Blackbeard’s labour, we also briefly examined Captain Charles Vane, a pirate loyalist who violently refused King George I’s most gracious offer of a pardon by sending a fire ship into the heart of a British fleet. It was aboard Captain Vane’s ship where our next pirate legend begins.

Scholarship in recent decades has begun to explore a new branch of Golden Age piracy that had long since been shrouded. Previously, pirates had been depicted within four primary stereotypes: aristocratic, heterosexual, Caucasian and above all else, male. One only needs to look to immortal characters of Errol Flynn’s Captain Blood (1935) or even Captain Hook to observe this trend. Evidently, both captains are depicted as being men of fine standing and of illustrious education, with Blood peddling his trade as a physician prior to being accused of treason, and Hook’s biography stating that attended Eton College.

Eton’s crest can be seen alongside several depictions of Captain Hook in the media. In Steven Spielberg’s Hook (1991), the crest can be seen on the back from Hook’s ship, while in Peter Pan (2003) Hook, as portrayed by actor Jason Isaacs, has the crest tattooed on his upper left arm. In the original play, Hook’s last words were ‘Floreat Etona’.
In the hit television series Black Sails (2014-2017), Captain Flint, as portrayed by actor Toby Stephens is identified as adhering to bisexual tendencies throughout the series.

In actuality, pirates were primarily of poorer, working-class backgrounds, and were for the most part completely illiterate. There were many reasons why sailors went to sea. Chief amongst them, England’s pitiful holdings offered few opportunities, while many others were cohered into naval service by the notorious pressgangs. Far from the clean-shaven and handsome or even incongruously dressed pirates that the media has produced for centuries.

Hence, if pirates were not the proud aristocratic seamen, let us move forward to our next stereotype. This being, the portraying of pirates as primarily heterosexual. Historians Hans Turley and Barry Burg are amongst the influential voices on this subject, and both have even gone as far to suggest that the vast majority of Golden Age pirates were at least prone to homosexuality. Emphasising the ‘deviant homosocial world’ of the pirate, Turley suggested that piracy and homoerotic imagery are conjoined.

Thirdly, pirate ships had traditionally been characterised as possessing an exclusively Caucasian crew. In reality however, it is likely that African pirates held a large minority. On the other hand, during the Napoleonic Wars that would come decades later, African sea rovers occupied the vast majority of pirating crews. Concurrent to the Golden Age of Piracy was the height of the African slave trade, and the horrors it brought in its wake.

In 1995, historian Kenneth Kinkor exerted that pirates of African descent occupied a vital component within the operations of a pirating vessel, naming Samuel ‘Black Sam’ Bellamy’s Whydah as a prime example of this. The ships’ pilot, John Julian (c.1701- possibly 1733) was of indigenous Miskito heritage, and he was reportedly amongst the purported 30-50 non-Caucasian crewmen on board Bellamy’s ship. Kinkor goes on to argue that between 1715 and 1725, as much of 20-30 percent of all pirates were of African heritage.

In Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (2003-present), Mistress Ching, a reimagined version of Madam Cheng appears in At World’s End (2007) and much of the extended media. Ching appears as a member of the Brethren Court, the ruling council for pirates of all nationalities.

Thus far we have fractured three previous pirate stereotypes. Although these archetypes have long been cast aside by modern historians, these conventions influenced the impression of Golden Age pirates for generations, and it is only relatively recently that public perception has shifted towards the true reality of the pirates’ life. One stereotype, long since abolished, was that pirate ships were male-dominated, and while this was certainly the case, there are instances of women finding liberty aboard sea roving vessels. One such individual was Jeanne de Clisson, who in attempting the avenge the death of her husband, commanded a fleet of ships bearing black sails. Next, there was the Irish pirate queen Grace O’Malley, who terrorised the coasts during the reign of Elizabeth I. Laskarina Bouboulina is another notable female queen, who commanded a fleet of warships during the Greek War of Independence (1821-29). During the 19th century, roved Madam Ching, who dominated the China Seas and was one of the only confirmed pirates to have comfortably retired.  In the eighteenth century, ‘civilised’ seafaring gave to the world the fascinating stories of Mary Anne Talbot and Hannah Snell. Pirate subculture however, bequeathed the legends of Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

Despite there being over 2,000 confirmed pirates roving the Caribbean in 1720, this number would decrease exponentially in the coming years, and there remained only half this number three years later, and there remained only a few hundred stragglers by 1726. Indeed, out of over 2,000 pirates, in truth there are only four confirmed female Golden Age pirates. One such pirate was Martha Farley, who along with her husband very briefly occupied Blackbeard’s old stomping ground near Ocracoke Inlet, before being acquitted in 1727. Next, there was Mary (sometimes referred to as Maria) Critchett, whose very brief pirating career was brought to an abrupt close after being caught by a navy patrol ship in the Chesapeake Bay, and ended her short stint as a pirate with a hangman’s necktie. However, none have attained Bonny and Read’s legendary status.

The front cover for Johnson’s General History, as you can see Bonny and Read reign supreme, while their male counterparts remain blow in much smaller font.

Before we delve into the histories of these most infamous of pirate legends, it is important to note that while their stories are ones of intrigue and pure fascination, their histories may in fact be somewhat, or even entirely, fictional. As per usual, the only contemporary evidence we have of their upbringing is Johnson’s General History, which has garnered an increasing level of criticism over the course of three centuries.

But for now, let us examine the legends of Bonny and Read, at least according to the General History. Anne Bonny, the future redheaded hellcat of the Caribbean was supposedly born in County Cork, Ireland in the late 1680s, the product of an affair between the attorney William Cormac, and a maid employed in his service. After a very confusing fiasco involving a set of silver spoons, to which Lady Cormac believed were being stolen by the maid, she proceeded to sleep in the maid’s bed to prove her guilt. Her husband then entered the room, and it was there she discovered the affair. Despite Lady Cormac summoning a constable, and the unnamed maid being held for a short period, it was discovered that she was pregnant and gave birth to the new-born Anne while still in prison. In an initial attempt to hide his daughter’s true parentage, Cormac disguised her as a boy and passed her off as a clerk in his employ.

Anne Bonny, as depicted in the General History (1724), note the number of weapons she carries. These include a boarding axe, several knives, a cutlass and a pistol.

When Anne was still a child, Cormac and his wife divorced, and he relocated his practice to the Carolinas and brought Anne along with him, with the intent of purchasing a plantation. In Johnson’s own words, Anne possessed ‘a fierce and courageous temper’, and it was claimed that she had once killed an English serving girl with a knife, though even Johnson claims this story may be baseless. It was also claimed that when a young man attempted to assault Anne, she beat him within an inch of his life. Despite her father’s efforts to find a good match for his daughter, Anne eloped with a hapless young sailor named James Bonny, and was subsequently disinherited.

We shall return to Bonny’s story presently, but next let us take into consideration the trials and tribulations of her sister-in-arms. Mary Read, the fearless raven-haired harridan also possessing seemingly impossible origins. Reportedly born somewhere in England in the 1680s, Mary’s mother’s husband was a sailor, who would frequently leave his wife alone for months on end while he was at sea. According to Johnson, Mary’s mother suffered an ‘accident’, which to quote the captain, ‘often happened to women who are young, and do not take a great deal of care’ and fell pregnant. Evidently, the baby was not her husband’s child. Mary’s mother alleged to her mother-in-law that her new-born daughter was her husband’s, and in similar regards to Bonny, Read was raised as a boy for much of her adolescence. When her ‘grandmother’ died some years later, Mary was placed in the employ of a French lady as a footboy. Ever the adventurer seeker and discontent with civilian life, after some years and employing the skills she had acquired while posing as a boy, Mary once again disguised herself and joined the army, and was at some point deployed to Flanders. If true, whilst in the army one can imagine that Mary found a sort of comradeship, as she was respected by her peers and distinguished for her commitment to her duties. Not only this, she also found love. According to legend, she and her new husband left the army and ran an inn, until he passed away a few years later.

Mary Read, also from the General History. In similar regards to the Bonny’s previous illustration, note the number of weapons present.

Heartbroken, Mary returned to sea, this time aboard a Dutch privateering vessel bound for the West-Indies. Soon after, the vessel was set upon by English pirates, and as Mary was the only ‘Englishman’ aboard, ‘he’ was pressed into service. Finally, it is here that the legends of the pirate queens finally converged. Enter John ‘Calico Jack’ Rackham, our next player. After leading a successful mutiny against his captain, in late 1719, Rackham limped to Nassau and bartered a pardon from Woodes Rogers, claiming that he and the remaining crew had been forced into service. In keeping with the theme of pirates not abiding by their pardons, in the summer of 1720, Rackham and his crew departed Nassau, once again flying the black banner of piracy in the sloop William. Rogers, furious about having been made a food of yet again, issued a proclamation on 5 September for Rackham’s recapture, noting the presence of ‘two women, by name, Ann Fulford alias Bonny and Mary Read’ aboard Rackham’s ship. Soon after, pirate hunters were dispatched. The game is now set, and history will never be the same.

The circumstances in which Rackham and Bonny met are unknown, but it is likely that they became involved while she was living in Nassau with her husband, James. It is said that Rackham had attempted to ‘purchase’ Anne from James in a legal practice that was once referred to as a ‘wife sale’. James, furious with Anne’s infidelity, sought the help of Woodes Rogers, who subsequently had Anne publicly flogged. There are differing anecdotes referring to when the first meeting between Bonny and Read took place. Some claim that the two met aboard the William or another of Rackham’s commands, either prior to or after leaving Nassau. According to legend, despite being Calico Jack’s lover, Bonny was taken aback by a young handsome man, and being ‘not altogether so reserved in point of chastity’, Bonny was slightly disheartened to realise the young pirate’s true gender. Of course, the pirate in question was a disguised Mary Read. It is known that the pair struck a close friendship, while some historians even claim that the two were also lovers. Another anecdote dictates that Read’s gender was known prior to their escape from Nassau, and this is the most likely as in Rogers’ aforementioned proclamation, Read was named directly.

Rackham’s banner is undoubtedly one of the most famous pirate flags of all time. In Pirates of the Caribbean, this flag is repurposed Captain Hector Barbossa aboard the Black Pearl

Rackham’s defying of traditional maritime practice and the courage and tenacity displayed by the two pirate queens set into motion one of the Golden Age’s most enduring and inspiriting legacies, and it is here where genuine historical agency takes command. Rogers dispatched a sloop of 12 guns to hunt down Rackham’s pirate band, and Rackham, likely expecting this, set a course south and harassed fishing boats near Harbour Island, and later a schooner off the coast of Port Maria. After raiding further along the coast, the pirates dropped anchor at Negril, Jamaica. This was a disastrous move. The privateer Jonathan Barnet tracked down the William, and Rackham attempted to set sail and escape. Barnet positioned his ship and fired a broadside, crippling the William in the process. The pirates, Rackham himself included, ran below decks and barricaded themselves in the hold. Bonny and Read however, refused to stand down.

The two women fought valiantly, with Read even firing a flintlock pistol into the hold and cursing the pirates as cowards. Outnumbered, both of them were overwhelmed, and marched across the island from Davis Cove to Spanish Town lead by Major Richard James for trial. Rackham was tried first, and although he and his crew all pleaded not guilty, on 16 November 1720 they were all found guilty of ‘piracy, robbery and felony’. Legend has it that prior to his hanging on 28 November, Bonny and Rackham were permitted to meet once more, and she cursed that had he ‘fought like a man, he need not be hanged like a dog.’ Rackham’s body was gibbeted at Dead Man’s Cay, known today as Rackham’s Cay which can still be visited today. Likely due to the uniqueness of their circumstances, Bonny and Read were tried separately. It was read before the court that ‘the said Mary Read and Anne Bonny, alias Bonn . . . did feloniously and wickedly, consult, and agree together, and to and with, John Rackham . . . to rob, plunder, and take, all such person . . . which they should meet with on the high sea.’ What followed was perhaps the most theatrical pirate trial of the Golden Age, arguably even rivalling that of Captain Kidd. 

Both protested that they were not guilty, despite obvious evidence to the contrary. Fisherwoman Dorothy Thomas swore that ‘the two women, prisoners at the bar, were on board the sloop, and wore men’s jackets, and long trousers and handkerchiefs tied about their heads; and that each of them had a machete and pistol in their hands, cursed and swore at the men’. Thomas continued that Bonny and Read ordered the deaths of their captives, should they escape and alert the local authorities. When asked by the arbitrator whether the accused had anything to say in their defence, Bonny and Read maintained a deathly silence. Thus, they were sentenced to ‘go from hence to the place from whence you came, and from thence to the place of execution, where you, shall be severally hanged by the neck, until you are severally dead.’ Did they really think it would be that easy? They spoke up and played the ace of their sleeves. Both women claimed to be pregnant, a manoeuvre known under English common law as ‘pleading one’s belly’, and their executions were postponed until their children were born, yet this would only keep the reaper at bay for a few precious months.

What happens next is tragedy entangled in myth and legend. Mary Read fell ill with a particularly violent fever and died shortly after giving birth to her child. St. Catherine Parish corroborate this, naming her death date as 28 April 1721. The fate of her child remains unknown. Bonny’s fate on the other hand is more ambiguous, as she simply vanishes from history. Johnson admits that even he could not find any evidence to her fate, though he firmly attested that ‘only this we know, that she was not executed.’ Perhaps she died in prison with Mary, or perhaps her influential father somehow smuggled her out or manoeuvred her release. Some say she lived until 1782 before dying at the ripe age of 82, having lived a long and adventurous life. 

Both women embraced the pirates’ life with great enthusiasm, demonstrating immense degrees of courage, and demanded the respect of their peers in an occupation that was previously perceived as an exclusively male enterprise. Not only did they renounce the traditional concepts if maritime authority, both women were also complacent in defying traditionalist marital practices. Both women were married at separate times, Mary Read to her (alleged) spouse after serving in Flanders, while Bonny wed at least twice, once to James Bonny, and again to Rackham some years later. In doing so, both women adhered to John Gillis’ definition of ‘proletarian practice of self-marriage and self-divorce.’ Interestingly, both Bonny and Read unknowingly aided in the passing of the 1753 Hardwicke Act, which restricted the passing of marriages outside the jurisdiction of the Church of England. Thence, they defied the traditionalist practices of a notoriously oppressive establishment where women felt few rights, and commanded respect in the maritime world well into the present day. To close this issue, though the natures of their upbringings remain shrouded in mystery, the legitimate historical agencies surrounding Bonny and Read can never be countermanded, and if their legends can be summarised in a single word, I think of only one: Defiance.

Next: Sloops and Floating Fortress- The Pirate Ship

Further Reading:

Burg, Barry Richard. Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition: English Sea Rovers in the Seventeenth Century Caribbean. New York, 1984.

Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag. New York, 2016.

Cordingly, David. Seafaring Women. New York, 2007.

Earle, Peter. The Pirate Wars. London, 2004.

Ellms, Charles. The Pirates Own Book. Portland, 1859.

Gosse, Phillip. The History of Piracy. Dover, 2007.

Johnson, Charles. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724), edited by Johan Franzén. Turku, 2017.

Kinkor, Kenneth. ‘From the Seas! Black Men Under the Black Flag’ in American Visions Vol. 10, Issue 2. Washington, 1995.

Rediker, Marcus. ‘Liberty Beneath the Jolly Roger’ in Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World 1700-1920 eds. Margaret Creighton and Lisa Norling. London, 1996.

Rennie, Neil. Treasure Neverland. Oxford, 2013.

The Tryals of John Rackham and Other Pirates. The National Archives, Kew.

Turley, Hans. Rum, Sodomy and the Lash. New York, 1999.

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Pirate Legends II: Blackbeard’s Gambit, by Luke Walters

A Historical Blog Exploring the Myths and Legends of the Golden Age of Piracy

Captain Kidd, who we discussed in the last issue, met his end in London, a city of fog. But let us now travel over 4,000 miles south-west to the exotic beaches of the Bahamas during the height of the Golden Age of Piracy. From 1713 onwards, New Providence Island was a pirate haven, and was later established as the capital of the self-proclaimed ‘Pirate Republic’The Peace of Utrecht (1715) signalled the end of the Spanish War, resulting in tens of thousands of British sailors being cast aside, as the bankrupt Royal Navy disowned three-quarters of its manpower, condemning over 36,000 men to poverty in the first 24 months following the end of the war.

               Betrayed, abandoned, and above all resentful of their distant king,  these men banded together to ransack the very empire they had help build. As gamekeepers turned poachers, these newly minted terrors of the Caribbean would captivate public opinion for centuries to come. Declared hostis humani generis, or enemies of mankind, these pirates honoured a code of their own- war against the world.

Nassau, under pirate and later British occupation is a major explorable location in the hit videogame Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (2013)

The year is now 1715, and pirates ranked at the top of the food chain. The port of Nassau itself was less of a town then a small collection of shacks and makeshift hovels, with the imposing bastion fort keeping a watchful eye over the bay. New Providence Island was the ideal base of operations for any pirate, as its shallow beaches halted His Majesty’s men-of-war from getting too close, and the Bahamas itself was a veritable labyrinth of small islands and inlets, with hundreds of hiding places where a sea roving vessel could remain undetected for weeks. These enterprising pirates knew these islands well, yet it took years of trial and application for the Royal Navy to even grasp a basic understanding of the pirates’ tactics.

The Pirate Republic took the established democratic ways of a privateering vessel and moulded the rules so that they could be adapted on land. Consequently, the pirates elected their own leaders, and several so-called ‘governors’ if one could call them such, were ‘sworn in’ to manage the republic’s affairs. Among these men were Benjamin Hornigold and Henry Jennings, and much later the cutthroat pirate ringleader Charles Vane. One of these individuals, Thomas Barrows, after declaring himself ‘Governor of Providence’ reportedly claimed that he awaited several hundred Jamaican sailors to join the pirate fraternity, so that they may wage war against the empires of Spain and France, while keeping out of England’s way. One of these ‘governors’ would not only become the world’s most infamous pirate, but also America’s first bogeyman. His name was Captain Edward Thatch, now known the world over as Blackbeard.

The pirates’ reign over New Providence, however brutal or strange it might have been, could not have lasted forever. Having grown tired of the continued pirate raids against their regional interests, the Admiralty named Captain Woodes Rogers governor of the Bahamas, and through much political manoeuvring and the securing of benefactors from Parliament and even financing a fraction of the voyage himself, Rogers led a fleet to retake the island for the Crown. Rogers’ fleet was comprised of the flagship Delicia, Commodore Peter Chamberlain’s Milford, and the sloops Rose, Buck and Shark. On 5 September 1717, George I issued a proclamation decreeing that those pirates who should surrender themselves would have the king’s ‘gracious pardon of and for such his or their piracy or piracies’, a desperate attempt to quell the pirate threat. Rogers was to sail into the heart of the pirate nest to deliver the king’s decree, yet he had no idea of what truly awaited him.

A statue of Woodes Rogers outside the Hilton Hotel in Nassau, many still revere Rogers as the hero that liberated the island from the pirate occupation.

In July 1718, under the command of Thomas Whitney, the Rose was dispatched to scout the state of the island’s primary anchorage. What he saw must have turned Whitney’s blood cold. The blackened skeletons of captured vessels scattered the shoreline, while in the middle of the bay, silently sat Charles Vane’s brigantine, with its 20 primed guns. While Whitney attempted to parlay with Vane’s crew, which was comprised of dissenters that opposed the pardon by hoisting the white flag of truce, with Rogers’ approaching armada, Vane must have realised that Nassau was lost. At 2 AM, Rogers’ men awoke to a state of shock and horror. Vane’s ship, its deck covered in pitch, tar and all things flammable, and its cannons loaded was sent on a collision course with the blockade. As the cannons were double loaded, the moment the heat reached a certain point, the guns would ignite and fire in all directions causing havoc to anything in close proximity. The British fleet scattered, leaving an opening for Vane to sail out of the harbour. Successful pirates knew when to run, and Vane executed his scheme masterfully. The pirates sailed the Katherine out of Nassau to unknown shores, shouting profanities to the British sailors as they passed, and Nassau finally fell the British. The remnants of the Pirate Republic collapsed soon after.

So where was Blackbeard in all this? Having most likely summarised that the pardon would spell doom for Nassau, Blackbeard was busy making friends (and enemies) further north along the east coast of the American colonies. Let us take a moment to analyse another pirate legend:, the tale of Dead Chest Island. We are all too familiar with Billy Bones’ iconic sea shanty that first appeared in Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island (1883), a verse of which reads as such:

Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum
Drink and the devil had done for the rest
Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum

According to one pirate legend, Blackbeard marooned 15 of his crewmen on Dead Chest Island near Deadman’s Bay, though in truth to refer to the isle as an ‘island’ may be a tad flattering, as the island contains little vegetation, and is entirely uninhabited. Legend dictates that Blackbeard left each man a bottle of rum and a cutlass, and when Blackbeard returned a while later, all but handful remained alive. The legend is most likely what it is, a legend through and through. Yet, short anecdotes like this continue to render Caribbean piracy a fascinating area of study, as it is sometimes difficult to differentiate fact from fiction.

Returning to the matter at hand, what was Blackbeard up to whilst his remaining comrades resisted Rogers’ invasion of Nassau? The answer demonstrates Thatch’s (Blackbeard’s) sheer ingenuity and political guile. Thatch relocated to Ocracoke Inlet, North Carolina, only short distance from the colony’s capital of Bath. Unlike crown colonies which were under the direct control of the king, North Carolina at the time was a privately-owned colony dependent on individual enterprises. The small colony could have not been more perfect for Blackbeard’s scheme. Reigning Governor Charles Eden was more than willing to deal with pirates, who could in theory provide a steady source of income.In June 1718, Blackbeard tactically negotiated a king’s pardon for himself and his men and put into action his latest and greatest con.

With the glimmer of gold in his eyes, Eden asserted that Blackbeard should take a privateering commission from the Danes of St. Thomas, as Thatch’s taking of the Adventure, a registered Spanish vessel was itself an act of piracy. Eden overlooked the transgression and allowed Thatch to keep his sloop and might have even forged the relevant ownership papers for the captain. Having remained an honest citizen for the impressive span of a month, by August, Blackbeard had resumed his piratical activities. Under Blackbeard’s command, his crew harried fishing craft in the Outer Banks, later attacking several British merchant vessels. Thus, Blackbeard’s plan is laid bare. So long as Eden remained under this thumb, Blackbeard could rely on colonial protection.

A contemporary illustration of Edward Thatch, alias Blackbeard that appeared in Charles Johnson’s A General History (1724). The Queen Anne’s Revenge can also be seen in the background.

So, if Blackbeard had maintained a relatively good relationship with the local colonial authorities, who exactly were the titular adversaries? The answer lied directly north in the colony of Virginia, were the vengeful Governor Alexander Spotswood held court. Viewing Blackbeard as something of a personal adversary or perhaps even a nemesis, Spotswood’s distain for pirates is legendary, having previously mandating that all former pirates who wished to settle in Virginian territory must make themselves known to the local authorities, and had later masterminded the kidnapping of William Howard, a prominent member of Blackbeard’s crew. To silence his adversary and fearing the formation of a second Nassau in his back garden, Spotswood dispatched a small flotilla comprised of the sloops Jane and Ranger to silence the dread pirate once and for all. Indeed, Blackbeard’s ploy treaded the boundaries of politics, colonial jurisdiction, and economic circumstances, so devious was his master plan.

On 21 November 1718, Spotswood’s pirate hunters dropped anchor a short way from Ocracoke Inlet. Ever confident in his scheme, Blackbeard neglected to post a lookout, effectively bestowing commanding officer Lt. Robert Maynard with the element of surprise. At 7:30 the following morning, Maynard ordered a launch in an attempt to stealthily infiltrate the Adventure. According to popular legend, Blackbeard’s crew were at the time of the ambush recovering from a night of heavy drinking, and it is imaginable that many of the pirates groaned as they heaved their aching bones and groggy heads into action after the alarm was sounded. Blackbeard’s gunner, Phillip Morton, fired a broadside at the British sloops, and it was reported that Maynard raised the Union Jack in defiance, while Thatch returned the favour by raising a black flag. As per Maynard himself, Blackbeard, ever the showman, ‘drank damnation to me and my men, whom he stil’d cowardly puppies, saying, he would neither give nor take quarter.’ To kill a pirate, Spotswood and Maynard had relied upon pirate tactics. The Jane and the Ranger were outfitted for speed, while in contrast the Adventure rode low in the water due to the weight of her heavy guns. Another broadside robbed the Ranger of his leadership and she was run aground on a nearby sandbar by its confused crew. Overly confident in his abilities and sure of a victory, Blackbeard ordered the Adventure to fire further broadsides on Maynard’s Jane. Maynard’s strategy was commendable, if somewhat dishonest. One could even suggest that they were more akin to pirate tactics to Royal Navy stratagems. Maynard ordered his remaining below decks, leaving only Maynard himself and a few others on deck, conveying the impression that the pirates had already dispatched the majority of the crew.

‘The Capture of the Pirate Blackbeard in 1718’ by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris. While heavily romanticised, this illustration perfectly conveys the dramatic nature of the Thatch’s last stand.

With his crew cheering and morale high, Blackbeard ordered that the crew of the Adventure board Maynard’s ship, and it was at this moment that the pirate hunters sprang their trap. Maynard ordered his men on deck, and the navy outnumbered the surprised, and likely severely hungover pirates. Blackbeard’s crew were no match for Maynard’s revitalised hunters. The two commanders engaged in a duel, yet before Blackbeard could silence Maynard, ‘one of Maynard’s men gave him a terrible wound in the neck and throat’, catching Blackbeard off-balance. According to legend, it took 20 lacerations from a cutlass and 5 gunshot wounds to bring Captain Blackbeard down, though this is most likely fictious.. Perhaps to finally ensure that the dread pirate Blackbeard stayed down, one of Maynard’s highlanders cut off the captain’s head, which was later hung from the Jane’s bowsprit as a warning to all that Blackbeard was no more. Demoralised, the remaining pirates surrendered, and a plot by the pirate Black Caesar to ignite the Adventure’s powder magazine was foiled by some rebellious captives. Blackbeard’s headless corpse was then thrown overboard, which according to legend swam 20 times around the ship before sinking to the captain’s final resting place in Ocracoke’s shallow waters.

Perhaps Blackbeard had the last laugh after all, as while his adversaries became shrouded in history and spent years untangling the subsequent political calamities that they themselves had created, Blackbeard’s legend has survived and thrived. Indeed, for all their accomplishments, Spotswood is only really remembered for one reason: their association with the far more famous archpirate.

Despite having halted Blackbeard’s pirate activities, Sportswood was accused by multiple parities of breaching contemporary colonial conduct, and spent the next years attempting to unravel the chaos he had unknowingly created.

Captain Thatch, you certainly did have the last laugh.

Luke Walters is a PhD Student at the University of Reading, researching Early Modern maritime history.

Next week: The Reign of the Pirate Queens

Further Reading:

Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag. New York, 2016.

Earle, Peter. The Pirate Wars. London, 2004.

Gosse, Phillip. The History of Piracy. Dover, 2007.

Johnson, Charles. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724), edited by Johan Franzén. Turku, 2017.

Konstam, Angus. Blackbeard. Hoboken, 2006.

Lee, Robert. Blackbeard the Pirate. Winston-Salem, 2004.

Rankin, Hugh. The Pirates of Colonial North Carolina. Raleigh, NC, 1965.

Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations. Croydon, 2012.

Posted in Arr-gust, News | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Pirate Legends I: The Legend of Captain Kidd’s Buried Treasure, by Luke Walters

A Historical Blog Exploring the Myths and Legends of the Golden Age of Piracy

A Brief Introduction to the Pirate Legends Series

They say ‘dead men tell no tales’, yet the real pirates of the Caribbean continue to spout their legends in continually spectacular fashion. While the exact parameters of the Golden Age of Piracy are still debated amongst historians, it is generally accepted that the period spanned from around 1680-1730, and those mavericks who terrorised the trade routes have forever been epitomised by the larger-then-life figures of Blackbeard, Henry Avery, and many other legendary pirate ringleaders. Those rogue sailors have bequeathed to the world some of literature’s most colourful characters, including Captain Hook and Long John Silver, and despite the pirates creating a culture based on terror, in challenging the cultural and social norms of the contemporary period so dramatically, they captivated the minds of their contemporaries, and are still revered as folk heroes to this day.

            Howbeit, one of the Golden Age’s most enduring legacies is the piratical tropes it endowed. Evidently, images of colourfully dressed pirates swinging from ropes and burying their treasure on exotic desert islands is certainly an alluring concept, yet unfortunately, it is a far cry from reality. This is the aim of Pirate Legends, to explore, demystify, and even authenticate some of the most extraordinary legacies of the pirating practice. From buried treasure and cryptographic maps, to sloops and floating fortresses, it is the objective of this blog to seek the sunny horizons of freedom, over the darkness of the deep blue sea, and bring into the light true tales from pirate’s life.

Welcome to the Golden Age of Piracy.

Pirate Legends I: The Legend of Captain Kidd’s Buried Treasure

During the course of four centuries, smugglers, thieves, and pirates alike met their ends at London’s Execution Dock. That little scaffolding in Wapping was built to send the Crown’s enemies to the other side, but above all, it served another purpose. It was a warning. Imagine for a moment, what Wapping’s waterfront may have looked like during the dawning years of the eighteenth century. A veritable wooden city within the heart of the British Empire’s capital, with its incessant wharves and timber yards, and its blackened streets surfeited with the homes of sailors and merchants alike, within a community where maritime culture reigns supreme. If you were to take a short stroll from Wapping, you may find yourself in London’s principal port at Custom House Quay, where the anchored ships with their masts and riggings appearing as a jungle of wood and rope, all the way to Old London Bridge. This would be the last thing that Captain Kidd would ever witness. 

A portrait of William Kidd by James Thornhill. Kidd’s powdered wig and unique reputation should
immediately differentiate him from the average buccaneer.

Believed to have been born in Dundee, Scotland, around 1654, much of William Kidd’s formative years remains shrouded in mystery, though we know that he was born to a radically Calvinist household, and that his father held a position of some kind within the Church of Scotland. Kidd’s name does not appear on any known records until 1689, where he can be found serving aboard a buccaneering vessel in the Caribbean. Immediately following the Glorious Revolution, William III’s ascension plunged the British Isles into the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697) and pirates and rogue sailors alike were reminded of their patriotism and thus privateering commissions were issued so that these ‘reformed’ seamen may harass Britain’s enemies. Up to this point, British-born pirates traditionally targeted ships flying the colours of enemy nations, and they would not necessarily target British shipping for another twenty years. Kidd gained his own command in the vainly named Blessed William and sailed with a privateering flotilla commissioned by Governor Christopher Codrington of Nevis. After a decisive battle at Marie-Galante, Kidd’s crew, dissatisfied with their captain’s line-of-battle tactics and constant bullying, mutinied and seized the Blessed William, along with the £2,000 of Kidd’s shares that were still aboard. Some of their number would go on to become pirate legends themselves, including one Robert Culliford, who would later become Kidd’s most enduring nemesis.

While Kidd may have lost his command and a sizeable amount of treasure, he gained something far more precious: a fearsome yet reliable reputation. After further adventures in New York, which at the time greatly benefited from pirate activity, the good captain married Sarah Bradley Cox Oort in 1691, and the marriage was finalised mere days after the death of Sarah’s second husband, John Oort. The exact origins of Kidd’s notoriously maladjusted enterprise remain unknown, as each partner turned against each other like rabid dogs several years later. Briefly, by 1695 Kidd must have grown tired of life as a landlubber and set sail for London onboard his brig, the Antigua, to acquire a privateering contract in response to the pirates operating out of the East-Indies. Upon his return to London, Kidd settled in the home of a Mrs. Hawkins, a distant relative of the captain, whose home was situated in none other than Wapping. This almost delicious instance of foreshadowing illustrates that Kidd’s legend was to end where it first began.

After much political manoeuvring, this ‘Corporation of Pirates’ as they were later labelled had their heads filled with dreams of pirate treasure, as news of the East-Indian escapades of Thomas Tew and many other pirate ringleaders reached their ears. Though the king initially ignored the plan, he later gave his approval, and the corporation attained a patent under the Great Seal. Thus, the now-legendary Adventure Galley, a formidable vessel of 34 gunswas refitted for duty and the backers sealed their partnership. Each individual man involved would go on to deeply regret this decision. The king himself maintained a stake in the venture, as Lord Shrewsbury made it so that the king would retain a handsome 10% of the profits. With his letter of marque secured, Kidd sailed the Adventure Galley down the Thomas and out of London on 10 April 1696. Officially, Kidd’s commission allowed him to take ships flying enemy colours, yet the primary goal of his venture was to hunt down the notorious pirate captains that had plagued British regional interests. Indeed, only a year before, Henry Avery, the so-called ‘King of Pirates’ had captured the treasure-laden Ganj-i-Sawai, resulting in a severe deterioration of Anglo-Mughal relations.

After making port in the West-Indies, Kidd landed in the Red Sea and found little success, and so he deemed it wise to chase a Mughal pilgrim fleet. Making an anchorage at Perim Island, Kidd went about to set his trap. The pilgrim fleet set sail from Mocha on 11 August 1697, under escort from a fleet of three European ships. Interestingly, the Ganj-i-Sawai, narrowly avoided Kidd’s wrath, and it was this reason that Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb ordered the English, French and Dutch East India companies to escort his pilgrim fleets from hence forth. One such ship, the Sceptre, was commanded by one Edward Barlow, a highly controversial figure within maritime history, and a remarkably unreliable narrator. Barlow claimed to witness the Adventure Galley flying the red flag of piracy. Kidd, vastly outnumbered, retreated to the open ocean.

Technically speaking, Kidd had not yet committed piracy, but he was about to commit murder. His gunner, William Moore, dissatisfied with Kidd’s leadership, openly challenged his captain, claiming that they should attack a nearby Dutch vessel. Kidd, enraged at his gunner’s insubordination, hit Moore across the head with an iron-hooped bucket, with the gunner’s last words supposedly being ‘farewell, farewell, Captain Kidd has given me my last.’ Moore died later the next day of a fractured skull. Kidd supposedly claimed that he possessed friends in England that would ‘bring me off for that’, believing that despite having killed a man, his benefactors in London would ensure that he never saw the inside of a prison cell. Despite this, the fact was inexcusable. Kidd had committed first degree murder.

Kidd’s killing of William Moore remains synonymous with his legend, and several illustrators across the centuries have since reimagined the confrontation.

The final nail in Kidd’s coffin would be his taking of the 400-ton Quedagh Merchant on 30 January 1698. Under the guise of a French flag (a common privateer and pirate tactic) Kidd intercepted the vessel, which was under the command of the English Captain Wright, who produced a French pass, and as Kidd’s commission was to take French vessels, he thought he had finally scored a major victory. In reality, the vessel was of Armenian origin, and her cargo the property of the Mughal Empire. Kidd was surely aware of this, as Coji Babba, one of the seven Armenian merchants aboard, offered Kidd 20,000 rupees to allow them on their way. His plea fell on deaf ears, and Kidd took control of the ship. Following this, Kidd later chased the Sedgewick, a ship registered to the East India Company. William Kidd, privateer of Great Britain died. Out of the ashes emerged Captain Kidd, pirate legend of the Indian Ocean.

With the leaky Adventure Galley on her last legs, or sails in this case, Kidd set a course for Île Saint-Marie in Madagascar, a notorious pirate hideout. It was here that Kidd once again crossed paths with Culliford, who at this point was an established pirate captain. Ever the thorn in Kidd’s side and disgruntled with their meagre shares and with Moore’s murder probably still fresh on their minds, many of Kidd’s crew abandoned him for Culliford. Out of 117 men, Kidd now only commanded about 20, whose ranks were bolstered with the addition of slaves. With reduced manpower, Kidd’s second ship, November, was stripped and burned by the dissenters, while the Adventure Galley finally sank to her final resting place, as Kidd’s remaining men could not man the pumps that required constant operation to keep the ship afloat. Culliford had made a fool of Kidd yet again.

With the Quedagh Merchant, now renamed the Adventure Prize, Kidd, defeated, set a course for the Americas. It was in the West-Indies that Kidd discovered from an East India Company agent that he had been deemed an outlaw and enemy of the crown. Kidd was arrested in Boston for high seas piracy. In the ensuing trial at the Old Bailey, Kidd was sentenced to death twice on the same day. Once for the murder of William Moore, and once for his piratical transgressions. Despite this, for the duration of his trial Kidd maintained that he was the ‘innocentest person of them all, only I have been sworn against by perjured persons.’ It was an undeniable fact at this point, Kidd was doomed. Consequently, on 23 May 1701, Kidd was hanged at Execution Dock. Kidd’s hanging was a major public spectacle, and hundreds hurried to the waterfront to witness his demise. Evidently, Captain Johnson deemed Kidd’s escapades to be the ‘subject of all conversation, so that his actions have been chanted about in ballads.’ The first rope snapped, and Kidd hoped that by some divine providence, he had been spared. Though he intended to remain defiant to the end, at the last possible moment, Kidd repented his sins. The second rope held, and Captain Kidd was no more. In death, Kidd suffered a final humiliation; his corpse was gibbeted at Tilbury Point, a warning to all to what awaits those who contemplate the pirate life.

What became of Kidd’s legendary treasure hoard? We are all too familiar with the archetypical trope of pirates burying their treasure to safeguard their ill-gotten gains, yet in part we can thank Captain Kidd for this most enduring of piratical legends. Evidently, leading maritime historian David Cordingly lamented that the concept of buried pirate treasure has garnered far more attention than it ever deserved to have. Yet, over a century before Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver set sail for Captain Flint’s fabled Treasure Island, Kidd apparently stashed his bounty away before dancing his final jig at Execution Dock. While we are aware that the concept of pirates acquiring massive amounts of treasure is a misconception of sorts, it is a genuine historical fact that Kidd did possess a hoard of great wealth.

Captain Kidd gibbeted at Tilbury Point, though it must be noted that the artist has taken several liberties with this illustration.

Upon his arrival in the West-Indies, the Adventure Prize’s hull was laden with gold, textiles, silver, and other treasures of great monetary value. In order to rid himself of the highly inconspicuous Indian-built Adventure Prize, Kidd traded much of this away and acquired the Saint Antonio for 3,000 pieces of eight. In addition, he collected 4,200 in bills of exchange and a further 4,000 in gold dust and bars. Consequently, Kidd pocketed a handsome 8,200 pieces of eight, a respectable amount for the time, along with an unknown number of treasures that were shifted aboard the Saint Antonio. It is also theorised that Mrs. Kidd may have been in possession of some of Kidd’s booty, as he reconnected with her upon his return to New York.

News of Kidd’s fortune whetted the appetite of Lord Bellomont, who went about hunting down the individuals who had been in contact with Kidd who might have some inclination to the location of the haul. Kidd’s old friend Duncan Campbell was among this number, whose Boston lodgings were subsequently searched, and 463 ounces of gold, and a further 203 ounces of silver were discovered, along with a menagerie of other smaller treasures. John Gardiner, fearing Bellomont’s wrath, also conceded his 11 bags of silver and gold. After a short stay in prison, Mrs. Kidd forswore her treasures as well. Most likely intended as a bribe, prior to his arrest, Kidd sent Lady Bellomont a ‘gift’ in the form of chest of jewels, and this was also confiscated by her husband. In total, Bellomont dispatched 2,353 ounces of silver, 1,111 ounces of gold, 52 bags of silver doubloons, 41 bales of goods, and several precious jewels to England along with Kidd himself aboard the Advice.

Howbeit, one might be keen to learn that this statistic did not even amount to a fraction of Kidd’s total reported bounty. Kidd himself attempted to plea with Bellomont that if he were to return to the West-Indies, he would give up an additional £75,000 worth of goods that was said to still be aboard the Adventure Prize. He reiterated this plea at his trial, yet it fell on deaf ears. Bellomont supposedly stated that he had bid ‘the gaoler to try if he could prevail with Captain Kidd to discover where his treasure was… but he said nobody could find it but himself and would not tell any further.’ This is suspiciously similar to an alleged statement attributed to Edward Thatch, alias Blackbeard, who claimed that he had hidden his loot where only himself and Satan may find it. However, this was a poor bargain, as the Adventure Prize itself was thoroughly searched and stripped prior to its burning. This is where myth and legend assume command. Kidd appropriated an estimated £400,000, so this does indeed beg the question. What happened to the rest of the treasure? The rapacious Bellomont, ever desirous, went as far to dispatch a ship to the West-Indies to continue his search.

A fanciful rendition of Captain Kidd and his pirate crew burying his bounty on an uncharted island, as illustrated by Howard Pyle.

So, finally we arrive at the precipice of piratical legend. While it is believed that Kidd did indeed bury some of his treasure at New York’s Gardiners Island, it is hypothesised that this small haul was unearthed during Bellomont’s treasure hunt. Undoubtedly, the most enduring legend is that Kidd hid his treasure from the world on Oak Island, Nova Scotia, which itself has been the centre for a treasure hunt spanning several centuries. The island’s ‘money pit’ as it is referred, uncovered in early excavations, is believed by some to have been dug by Kidd’s remaining crew to safeguard the lost fortune, and the island is laden with many natural traps and tunnel systems that can be considered nigh ingenious in design. The Oak Island ‘curse’ dictates that seven people must die before the treasure can be found, and to date, six men have perished in search for riches. Kidd is not the only contender for the origins of the Oak Island mystery, however. Indeed, many have theorised that the isle’s prophesied bounty may in fact be William Shakespeare’s original manuscripts, Marie Antoinette’s jewels, hoarded Viking treasure, or even the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant, supposedly hidden away centuries ago by the Knights Templar following the failure of the Crusades. Kidd’s treasure however remains the most popular theory.

Kidd’s buried bounty, and indeed Kidd himself has become deeply intertwined with pirate popular culture. Indeed, the popular television series The Curse of Oak Island (2014-present) has dedicated many episodes to finding the purported treasure, as brothers Rick and Marty Lagina continue to hunt for the elusive fortune. The island itself can be visited in the cult videogame Assassin’s Creed III (2012), where the protagonist unearths Kidd’s hidden stash after gathering four map fragments previously in the possession of Kidd’s former crewmen. The aptly named ‘Capt. Kidd’s Anchorage’ in Treasure Island (1883) is named for Kidd, and an argument can be made that without the legend of Kidd’s gold, we would not have Robert Louis Stephenson’s immortal adventure.

Furthermore, several of American author Washington Irving’s short stories are centred around the Kidd legend, including The Devil and Tom Walker and the Money-Diggers, both published in Irving’s Tales of a Traveller (1824). The latter includes a short story entitled Kidd the Pirate, where it is illustrated by one of the protagonists that the treasure in question was as ‘buried by Kidd the pirate and his crew.’ Veteran diver Barry Clifford believed he had discovered a silver bar belonging to Kidd’s hoard off the coast of Île Saint-Marie, yet this was later debunked by multiple UNESCO lines of inquiry. Suffice to say, rumours of Kidd’s treasure ignited an explosion of North American treasure hunting, and through the centuries multiple companies and consortiums have been established to find the hoard.

Thus, the legend of Kidd’s treasure is laid bare. Although the privateer turned pirate has been long dead, rumours of his fortune remain prevalent today. So, what is the conclusion to this most enduring of pirate mysteries?  It could be that Kidd’s stash is a fantasy, a fabrication that was centuries in the making. Perhaps Bellomont was victorious in finding Kidd’s treasure, and kept it hidden for himself. Maybe some lucky individual has already discovered it and has hidden it away from public eye. It could be that Kidd’s cursed bounty is still out there, waiting to be found. Or perhaps there was no treasure, and Kidd fabricated the story himself in an ill-conceived attempt to escape the hangman’s noose. Though Kidd remains a decisive figure within the maritime discipline, he is remembered as one of the early legends of the Golden Age of Piracy, and I imagine that the good captain would be fond of the legacy, and the ambiguous promise of riches it harbours. Nevertheless, perhaps the explanation is far more sinister. As the Oak Island curse observes, seven must die before the treasure will reveal itself, which means that one more unlucky soul must perish in search for the fabled bounty.

Take a warning now by me,
For I must die, I must die,
Take a warning now by me,
For I must die,
Take a warning now by me,
And shun bad company,
Lest you come to hell with me…

Next week: Blackbeard’s Gambit…

Luke Walters is a PhD Student at the University of Reading, researching Early Modern maritime history.

Further Reading:

Bonner, Willard Hallam. Pirate Laureate. New Brunswick, 1947.

Brooks, Graham. The Trial of Captain Kidd. Glasgow, 1930.

Cordingly, David. Under the Black Flag. New York, 2016.

Johnson, Charles. A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724), edited by Johan Franzén. Turku, 2017.

Pyle, Howard. The Book of Pirates. Dover, 2020.

Rediker, Marcus. Villains of All Nations. Croydon, 2012.

Rennie, Neil. Treasure Neverland. Oxford, 2013.

Ritchie, Robert. Captain Kidd and the War Against Pirates. Cambridge, 1986.

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Undergraduate Students Celebrate 75 Years of the Reading-Düsseldorf Association!

Part Two: UG student Eve Roberts reflects on her placement at the Berkshire Records Office, in collaboration with Reading-Düsseldorf Association.

Our much loved Discovering Archives and Collections Module enables students to test and develop their interest in careers in the archives sector through a 10-day placement at the Berkshire Record Office. This year, students Eleanor and Eve worked in collaboration with Reading-Düsseldorf Association, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary!

We are pleased to share these blogs ahead of the exhibition at Reading Museum opening this weekend (18th July 2022): ‘Head Over Heels: Friendships From the Ruins’ . Delivered in partnership with the Reading-Düsseldorf Association, the display will include rare items on loan from the Berkshire Records Office and an exploration of the Reading sculpture Cartwheeling Boys.

In the stunning visual display below, Eve explores the founding of the relationship between Reading and Düsseldorf. Inspired by ‘the children’, then-mayor Phoebe Cusden set up an exchange with local families in Reading. Read on for a beautiful story of love, community and kindness at the heart of Reading!

‘It Started with the Children’: A celebration of the Reading-Düsseldorf Association, by Eve Roberts

Although the association was formally established in 1948, Reading’s links to Düsseldorf had already begun through the efforts of the mayor at the time, Phoebe Cusden, as demonstrated by this letter written by Phoebe in response to an article published in The Spectator regarding the plight of post-war Germany. Given that the letter dates so soon after the war ended, yet expresses such a strong desire to illustrate ‘that we are not indifferent to human misery’, provides a particularly noteworthy insight into Phoebe’s own aspirations, but also the founding ideals that the association was built upon. 

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, a call went out to Berkshire County from the Royal Berkshire Regiment based in British-occupied Düsseldorf, to adopt the city.  This was answered by Phoebe, who set up a Christmas appeal in 1946 within the local newspapers. Although initially hit with criticisms stemming from continued hostilities towards Germany, the generosity of local people soon outweighed this, with donations of £80, 1,000 lbs food and 11 sacks of clothing assembled within a month, despite ongoing rationing.

Given this success, Phoebe undertook her first visit to Düsseldorf in 1947. Like many other European cities, Düsseldorf had been reduced to rubble by the war, with the photographs below providing just a small snapshot of the damage caused by bombing campaigns. On her return, Phoebe recounted the ‘appalling conditions’ of families within the city, with thousands living in ‘air raid shelters’ and ‘holes in the ground’, and ‘suffering from lack of bare necessities of life’. Seeing this first-hand drove aspirations to forge a link between Reading and Düsseldorf further and in 1948, the Reading-Düsseldorf Association was established.

When establishing the link between Reading and Düsseldorf, one of the main concerns of the association’s co-founders was the welfare of Düsseldorf children. A further appeal was published within local papers for families to take in children from Düsseldorf as part of an exchange. This was duly taken up and in 1948, six children came to stay with local families for three months, with the exchange then reciprocated in 1949 with seventy English school children.  As noted by Phoebe Cusden’s grandson, Richard Thom, the exchanges were extremely important to Phoebe:

She felt that she wanted to give the children a better life, but she also wanted the children of both places, Düsseldorf and Reading, to meet each other, learn to get on with each other, reconciliation after the war and to build up friendships that in some cases will last for a very long time.”

One of the six children to first visit Reading, Gretel Rieber, later recalled her ‘amazement’ at the luxury of being given a box of dates by a member of the association and that to her, Britain was a ‘land of cornucopias’ compared to the ‘cold, hunger and deprivation’ of post-war Düsseldorf. Although Britain was still suffering the effects of wartime rationing and damage caused by German bombing campaigns, the fact that for these children their time spent in Reading was so far removed from their lives in Düsseldorf, arguably provides a revealing comparison of the differing post-war societies in Reading and Düsseldorf. 

Due to the success of these initial exchanges, it soon became an annual fixture and in 1981, was officially termed the Mayor’s Young People’s Exchange. Although this ended in 1992, the association continues to encourage local school exchanges with Düsseldorf, which has also extended to include work experience trips for college students, and exchanges between local sports clubs, orchestras and choirs to name a few. 

As ties continued to grow between Reading and Düsseldorf, the association began to look for ways to commemorate the link for the 30th anniversary. This soon led to the incorporation of the Düsseldorf tradition of cartwheeling street performers.

Stemming from city folklore, it is said that on his way to his wedding, Prince Jan Wellem’s coach wheel came loose. To resolve the issue, a local boy stepped forward and rotated within the wheel, thus creating the effect of a cartwheel, from which he was awarded a gold ducat. To this day, children continue this practice of performing cartwheels in the cities of Germany in exchange for a penny.

For the 30th anniversary, a statue representing the cartwheeling boy was commissioned to sculpture Brian Slack, and unveiled outside the Hexagon Theatre in 1981, where it still stands today. As highlighted by the surrounding images, the symbol came to celebrate both the exchanges and the growing ties between Reading and Düsseldorf, with the incorporation of traditional folklore acting, as current vice-chairman Robert Dimmock notes, as a symbolic ‘identity’ through which the association could build itself around.

Throughout the association’s numerous anniversary celebrations, key events have often centred around musical and dance performances, with a vast array of local and international groups taking part.

Regarding dance performances, a firm favourite within anniversary celebrations is the Düsseldorf Grasshoppers, whose performances have spanned the majority of these celebratory events. Other groups have also included the Kennet Morris Men dancers and St Andrews Scottish dancers, who joined the Grasshoppers for an International Folk-Dance Festival held for the 30th Anniversary.

Anniversary celebrations also included several music concerts, with groups such as the Reading and Düsseldorf Youth Orchestras, the Düsseldorf Big Band and Reading’s Phoenix choir, timetabled to perform. Some groups, such as the Youth Orchestras, also forged their own friendships from these events and went on to host one another through several exchange trips and concerts; thus, extending the ties between Reading and Düsseldorf further.  

Following along similar performing arts-based lines, one of the main programmed events for the 40th and 50th anniversaries included performances conducted by the Düsseldorf Marionette Theatre.

Theatre productions included “The Ballad of Norbert Nachendick”, which followed the story of a tyrannical rhinoceros, and “The Magic Flute”, which was performed in Düsseldorf and follows the story of the lovers Pamina and Tamino. Each production used an array of different hand-made puppets and sets crafted by the company.

Although the performances were in German, issues surrounding their receival and understanding proved to be of little consequence, as highlighted by the local newspapers below, which mirror one another in their reflection of the overall ‘delightful theatrical experience’ of the productions, enjoyed by audiences of children and adults alike.

The local newspapers used within this online exhibition also illustrate how numerous anniversary celebrations enabled the association to explore different avenues of contact established between Reading and Düsseldorf. The use of performing arts in particular arguably reflects a symbolic sharing of cultural practices between the two areas, that enabled a shared cooperation between local groups and sustained interaction between Reading and Düsseldorf.   

We hope that you have enjoyed this online gallery, which has been granted permission for use by the Berkshire Record Office. All materials used within the gallery are located in the Reading-Düsseldorf Association collections and Phoebe Cusden collections held at the Berkshire Record Office.

Above: Photograph of Phoebe Cusden during a visit to Düsseldorf, D/EX1485/15/16

You can visit the exhibition at Reading Museum from this weekend and view some of the items above for yourself!

Archival Primary Sources:

Berkshire Chronicle, 30th May 1947, Reading, Berkshire Record Office, D/EX653acc9640.18.

Berkshire Chronicle, 11th July 1947, Reading, Berkshire Record Office, D/EX653acc9640.18.

Reading, Berkshire Record Office, Reading-Düsseldorf Association Collection, D/EX653acc4544.1.

Rieber, Gretel, ‘Friendship creates peace: 40 years of city friendship between Reading and Düsseldorf’, Reading, Berkshire Record Office, D/EX653acc9640.18.

Primary Sources:

Interview with Richard Thom, Reading, 24th November 2021.

Interview with Robert Dimmock, Reading, 19th November 2021.

Secondary Materials:

Corridor Press, Hands of Friendship: The Story of Reading’s twinning links (Reading, 2003).

Stout, Adam, A Bigness of Heart: Phoebe Cusden of Reading (Reading, 1997).

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Undergraduate Students Celebrate 75 Years of the Reading-Düsseldorf Association!

Part One: UG student Eleanor Dyer reflects on her placement at the Berkshire Records Office, in collaboration with Reading-Düsseldorf Association.

Our much loved Discovering Archives and Collections Module enables students to test and develop their interest in careers in the archives sector through a 10-day placement at the Berkshire Record Office. This year, students Eleanor and Eve worked in collaboration with Reading-Düsseldorf Association, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary!

We are pleased to share these blogs ahead of the exhibition at Reading Museum opening this weekend (18th July 2022): ‘Head Over Heels: Friendships From the Ruins’ . Delivered in partnership with the Reading-Düsseldorf Association, the display will include rare items on loan from the Berkshire Records Office and an exploration of the Reading sculpture Cartwheeling Boys.

In the short blog below, Eleanor pieces together the story of Hildegard Stephan in the archives, who travelled to Reading from Düsseldorf in 1949. Read on for a moving, visual insight into Hilde’s material history – and stay tuned for Eve’s blog, coming later this week!

Three Months in ReadingThe Reading Düsseldorf Association and the Young People’s Exchanges, by Eleanor Dyer

In 1949, 25 German children from the city of Düsseldorf came to Reading on a trip as part of the then newly created Reading Düsseldorf Association, which was set up in 1947 by the Mayor of Reading at the time, Phoebe Cusden. It aimed to send both material aid and gestures of friendship to the German city, which had been destroyed by the devastating effects of the Second World War.

This newspaper cutting from 1949 explains how these 25 German children were chosen to come to Reading. The Second World War caused much suffering for Düsseldorf families, after intense bombing there. This meant that children were picked who were “all suffering in one way or another from the results of the war – lack of food, bombed homes, loss of parents and psychological disturbance”. Many of the children even arrived to Reading with unsatisfactory clothing; this was remedied by the kindness of neighbours and the children’s host parents, who in some cases even bought them new clothes.

One of the 25 German children was Hildegard Stephan, who is mentioned in this newspaper cutting. Her home was bombed, and her family lost everything they owned; tragedies like this are why the trip was so positive for these children.

The gratitude and happiness Hildegard had for her stay in Reading can really be felt in this beautifully written and illustrated report she wrote about the activities she got up to and the places she saw during her time in Reading.

1: The front page of the diary is illustrated by Hildegard; it shows a drawing of Great Britain with Reading marked out.

Nowadays Hildegard’s report of the journey and the trip is located at the Berkshire Records Office (BRO), where it made its way from the archives of the Reading Düsseldorf Association, after being donated by Hildegard herself. Robert Dimmick, who is currently the Vice Chair of the Association, was the person to receive Hilde’s donation, and commented that the diary was “a way of communicating what life was like” for Hilde in England.

Until now the diary has not been officially translated from the German, but as a student doing a placement at the BRO who also happens to study German, I have been able to translate Hilde’s story into English. The report covers lots of different aspects of the stay; it weaves factual accounts of what took place with Hilde’s personal feelings about everything she did.

Here Hilde writes a contents page of everything in her report:

The trip across the sea.
Arrival in Reading.
Easter days on the beach.
What I saw and experienced in Reading:
The house that I lived in.
My host parents.
In the Alfred Sutton School.
On wanders through the town.
On trips in the surrounding area.
On a trip in London.
As a guest with English people.
With German children at home.
On visits to neighbours.
Farewell and trip home.
Arrival back in Düsseldorf.

Hilde and the other German children’s adventure began on the 13th of April 1949, bright and early in the morning.

Hilde writes: Finally, the day of the journey had arrived. I hadn’t even thought about how I should have such good fortune to be able to travel to England. But when the 13 April came, it was really four o clock in the morning, going with my parents to the train station where the journey began. All 25 Düsseldorf children who had been invited to Reading boarded the D train accompanied by Miss Siemons shortly after 5 o clock, going to Hannover where we arrived at 9 o’ clock. There, another medical check-up took place in a hotel, and our luggage was checked by customs officials.

You can really hear the excitement and nervousness in this first page, and how Hilde was so thankful for the opportunity.

However, there were some difficulties that Hilde and the German children came across.

On these pages, Hilde talks about what going to school in Reading was like:

After the Easter celebrations, lessons also began for me at the “Alfred Sutton School”, which I attended every day from 8:40am until 4pm. Even over midday we stayed in the school and got lunch there. We had English, French, Mathematics, Geometry, Geography, Biology, Drawing, Music, P.E., Gymnastics, Handiwork and Cooking. In most subjects, it was impossible for me to follow the lesson because I didn’t understand the teacher’s explanations. That’s why we German children kept ourselves busy with other things instead …. The school hours went by very slowly this way, and we could hardly wait for the end of the day.

This is a really illuminating part of Hilde’s report because it shows that no matter where they come from or what they have been through, teenagers will always be teenagers, complaining about school and just trying to get through the school day with their friends. In my opinion, this is a reason why the children’s exchanges that Phoebe Cusden and the RDA fostered were so important for these Düsseldorf children. They had suffered so much that they really deserved a chance to feel like normal kids again and do day-to-day activities like going to school and hanging out with friends.

This sentiment is echoed in a letter sent from Phoebe Cusden to Harold Nicolson of The Spectator in 1945. Here, Phoebe expresses her belief that in attempting to set up these children’s exchanges, those involved can show that they are “not indifferent to human misery – even the misery of ex-enemies, if children can be so called.”. It’s certainly true that even though Nazi Germany caused suffering in Britain, this was initiated by certain few perpetrators at the top level, definitely not children.

Back in 1949, Hilde and her German friends said farewell to Reading on 14th July.

She writes: So, it was no wonder that the three months which seemed to lay endlessly before me at the start of the trip had come to an all too fast end. On the 14th of July the farewell from Reading arrived. Many tears poured as we drove away from the Town Hall

There is really a sense of how much the children enjoyed themselves on the trip. Without a doubt, they went home feeling happier about their lives. Like Hilde says to end her diary: “But now I go back to my work with new courage”.

 After this, many more children’s exchanges took place, and the same values of friendship and cooperation which gave young people opportunities like this are what guides the Reading Düsseldorf Association today, almost 75 years later.

Pictures produced with permission and thanks to the Berkshire Record Office.

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That’s a Wrap! Our MA History Students Get to Grips with Historical Items in the Archives

‘Episode’ Four: ‘From the ‘boneshaker’ to women’s suffrage’, Oliver Ziebland blogs about bicycles and women’s liberation!

We’re wrapping up our material culture series for the Historical Skills and Resources Module with a short blog by MA student Oliver Ziebland. Inspired by an original ‘boneshaker’ at the Museum of English Rural Life(MERL), Oliver asks how the 1869 velocipede paved the way for the modern bicycle, allowing for cycling to become a symbol of women’s liberation.

Before we hand over to Oliver, we’d just like to say a huge ‘thank you’ to all the students involved and to module convenor Dr Jacqui Turner for all her hard work on this module. We’ve loved these innovative assessment methods and hope you have too! If you want to find out more about our MA options, click here – there’s still time to sign up for September 2022!

From the ‘Boneshaker’ to Women’s Suffrage, by Oliver Ziebland

In 1908 Rose Lamartine Yates became the first woman to be elected to the Cyclists’ Touring Club council. One year later fellow suffragette Alice Hawkins, member of the socialist Clarion Cycling Club, led a campaign to increase membership for the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) by cycling from village to village around Leicester. Cycling became an important tool for women’s emancipation at the turn of the twentieth century and it was the cranked velocipede, known colloquially as the ‘boneshaker’, that made it possible.    

Built with wood and iron and weighing up to ninety pounds, the ‘boneshaker’ appears far removed from the modern carbon fibre road bike that can be as light as eighteen pounds. Nevertheless, the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL) houses an indispensable piece of bicycle history.

Having acquired its nickname due to the uncomfortable ride over poor-quality roads, this bicycle represents the first two-wheel design to incorporate pedals. Arriving in Britain in 1869, popular interest sparked two decades of rapid development, culminating with the safety bicycle which was first brought to market in 1885. Yet aside from representing an intriguing piece of technology history, the preservation of an original ‘boneshaker’ in the MERL encourages us to consider the significance of such an item outside of its immediate impact on transport, sport and leisure. For cycling played an important and often unsung role in the movement for women’s emancipation.

The Boneshaker on display in the MERL 55/278

The history of the bicycle is largely underappreciated. Even within professional history it preoccupies a rather niche group of transport and technology historians. Perhaps understandably the development of the bicycle is overshadowed by other technological advances of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, most notably the steam engine and motor vehicle. Two wheels, a handlebar, saddle and pedals – its simplicity undermines the ingenuity of its inventors and the bicycle’s legacy as a tool for societal change. In our popular imaginations it is often the penny farthing that emerges as the preferred example of proto-bicycle design. Its large front wheel placing the rider precariously high above the ground has become a peculiar signifier of late Victorian England. However, whilst the penny farthing has greater cultural cache, before the invention of the safety bicycle it was the velocipede or ‘boneshaker’ that had the most impact on the development of the modern bicycle.

Not only was the ‘boneshaker’ one of the first designs to attach a crank to its wheels, it was the first to do so on a two-wheel velocipede that placed its rider out of reach of the ground. For most of us today, balancing on a bicycle is a skill we are all quick to learn as a child, but for the average adult in the nineteenth century it was a total novelty. Designs for such a model emerged in France and the United States in the mid-1860s, and the first ‘boneshaker’ most likely appeared in Britain at the start of 1869. Almost immediately ‘velocipede mania’ swept the nation, as stories of long-distance rides and races around the Crystal Palace captivated audiences. Over one hundred suppliers contributed to a burgeoning British bicycle industry in 1869 and newspapers across the country ran hundreds of advertisements for the new velocipede. The craze was intense but short and by the spring of 1870 the Manchester Evening News was running no advertisements, compared to two hundred the previous year. Nevertheless, the bicycle craze of 1869 was prophetic of what was to come in the 1890s, when the invention of the safety bicycle transformed cycling into a cultural phenomenon.

It was for women that the development of the bicycle into a mass market consumer item had the most significant impact. The ‘New Woman’ of the 1890s became synonymous with the fashionable safety bicycle, providing middle class women greater freedom to travel away from the home. This tested the chaperone system which had previously ensured women were very rarely out in public unaccompanied. Women did not take up cycling en masse until the early twentieth century, but in 1869 the ‘boneshaker’ began to challenge many of the patriarchal conventions that were blocking female emancipation. When it came to cycling, fashion was the obvious barrier. Long flowing dresses and tight corsets made riding the cumbersome ‘boneshaker’ almost impossible. However, a few early pioneers were prepared to ditch such restrictive clothing, adopting pantaloons that were first popularised in France.

Postcard promoting women’s suffrage. New Zealand had become the first country to grant women the vote in 1893

The liberating potential of the bicycle was quickly recognised by American suffrage activists Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony. In 1895 Stanton predicted that the bicycle would inspire women to have more ‘self-respect, self-reliance’ and ‘courage’, then, the following year Susan B. Anthony went a step further declaring that the:

“…(bicycle) has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world. I rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a bike. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood.”

High praise for the humble bicycle. The MERL’s ‘boneshaker’ was itself once owned by a female rider. Donated to the museum by a Mr Claude Brighten in 1955, he had previously acquired it from Lady Frances Clayton-East of Hall Place, now home to the Berkshire College of Agriculture.  Whether or not she ever rode the ‘boneshaker’ is unclear. Yet, Lady Clayton-East’s part in the story of this bicycle speaks to its broader social significance.    

Of course, the emancipatory legacy of cycling is partly due to the patriarchal backlash.  In the sporting comments of an edition of London’s Morning Post published in 1895, one commentator wrote disparagingly of the emergence of women’s organised sport in the 1890s.

Sporting comments, Morning Post, Monday, Nov. 25, 1895  

127 years later for many sportswomen, amateur or professional, the same stereotypes and prejudices persist. Therefore, for feminists today the history of the bicycle should not simply be remembered as a quirk of the early suffrage movement, but as inspiration to continue the campaign for equality in sport and wider society alike.

Further Reading

Tony Hadland and Hans-Erhard Lessing (with contributions from Nick Clayton and Gary W. Sanderson), Bicycle design: an illustrated history, Cambridge, MA., London, MIT Press, 2014

Shelia Hanlon, ‘Rose Lamartine Yates: The Cycling UK Suffragette’, We are cycling UK,

Christie-Robin, Julia, Belinda T. Orzada, Dilia López-Gydosh, ‘From Bustles to Bloomers: Exploring the Bicycle’s Influence on American Women’s Fashion, 1880–1914’, The American Journal of Culture, Vol. 35, Iss. 4, (December, 2012), p.315-331

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Podcasting Material Culture! Our MA History Students Get to Grips with Historical Items in the Archives

Episode Three: Charlie Olsen looks back on ‘The Land of My Fathers’: The Queen’s Colour and Welsh History

In the next instalment of our podcast series for the Historical Skills and Resources Module, MA student Charlie Olsen reflects on the historical significance of ‘The Queen’s Colour’ in Wales, particularly the people behind the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War represented on the flag.

“Through his enthusiasm for the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War, my Dad introduced me to the story of the Queen’s Colour of the 1st Battalion, 24th Regiment of Foot. My ambition recording this podcast was to showcase a lesser-known piece of British and Welsh histories and emphasise its position today as a tangible link between past and present.” – Charlie Olsen, MA History Student

Image obtained from the Royal Welsh Museum: <; (accessed 2022)

Listen to Charlie’s podcast below, or read on for his report on the material culture of ‘The Queen’s Colour’ in Welsh history!

The ‘Land of my Fathers’ podcast explores the history of a different piece of Welsh national iconography, with as much attention paid to the objects in the nation’s material culture that are niche as those that are famous. The first instalment, ‘The Queen’s Colour’ (today laid up in Brecon Cathedral) is the most unique for although the Colour is famous and admired by the nation, the flag is cherished because it represents the bravery of Welsh soldiers who fought for the British Army in the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War. The Queen’s Colour recovered from the 1879 Battle of Isandlwana is displayed as testament to the heroism of two lieutenants who gave up their lives to preserve the honour of their battalion and nation by ensuring their standard was never captured by the Zulu ‘impi’, whereas Welsh national iconography usually juxtaposes that of its British equivalent. For example, ‘Y Ddraig Goch’ (the Welsh dragon), substitutes the Union Flag, and daffodils substitute for the rose or thistle, and nonconformist chapels for Anglican parishes.

However, this instalment is of interest to anyone from Wales with an interest in the past, regardless of their opinion on Wales’ part in British military history. Drawing upon the extensive research of Chris Peers’ ‘Rorke’s Drift and Isandlwana’ (2021), the ‘Land of My Fathers’ makes no attempt to tease out the political subtext behind the Colour’s preservation and physical appearance. Instead, the podcast only explains how it came to be so ragged and torn by retracing the steps of two lieutenants, Teignmouth Melvill and Nevil Coghill, who carried the Colour safely to the Zululand-Natal border at the uMzinyathi (Buffalo) River, only for the officers to lose their standard as they crossed the river and their lives on the opposite bank, an episode immortalised as an act of self-sacrifice and patriotic heroism for which the two soldiers have been immortalised ever since.

After briefly discussing what a Queen’s Colour is, exactly, the podcast moves onto the events that have given the flag its famously tattered appearance. With both officers at the centre of the latter half of the narrative, the podcast contextualises what they were doing on their journey at specific points, and how it has been immortalised through the flag’s materiality. The final third of the podcast has been dedicated to asking, what does this flag mean to Wales today?

Recollecting this story on the ‘Land of My Fathers’, the podcast joins the military-epic ‘Zulu Dawn’ (1979), the sequel to its critically acclaimed predecessor, ‘Zulu’ (1964), and Chris Peers’ aforementioned book, in dramatizing the events of that fateful day. Unlike the anachronistic ‘Zulu Dawn’, this podcast has put historical accuracy before creative liberty and seeks to accurately portray the plight of the lieutenants as it really happened. Therefore, the ‘Land of My Fathers’ compliments Peers’ work and is particularly aimed at anyone arriving at this site having watched the film and looking to disseminate the facts from dramatization. – Charlie Olsen

There’s still time to sign up for an MA in History at the University of Reading. From America, to South Asia, to the Middle East, to Western Europe, we offer global pathways in history right up until present day. To find out more about our MA course, click here.

For more information about our Department and the study options available, visit our website.

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Podcasting Material Culture! Our MA History Students Get to Grips with Historical Items in the Archives

Episode Two: Amy Longmuir and a ‘Partnership Like No Other’: The Commercialisation of the British Music Festival Industry

Continuing our podcast series for the Historical Skills and Resources Module, MA student Amy Longmuir takes up the baton to use material culture to talk 90s music, the New Music Express (NME) and Glastonbury! Drawing inspiration from a badge held at the Museum of English Rural Life, this short podcast is a fantastic insight into the history of the commercial music festival industry.

“This was a really challenging and unorthodox module that gave me the opportunity to move away from historical theory and really understand the importance of objects in history.” – Amy Longmuir, MA History Student

Listen to Amy’s podcast below, or read on for her report on the material history of ‘Behind NME Lines’!

Amy Longmuir, ‘A Partnership Like No Other: Music Festival History in the Archives’ (2022)

Intended for a general, albeit historically enthusiastic, audience, this podcast attempts to shed light on the beginning of commercialisation within the British music festival industry in the 1990s.

As Britpop groups like Blur and Oasis emerged across the UK from the late 1980s, music festivals were slow to rise to the occasion and begin embracing this new musical wave. Glastonbury Festival failed to incorporate these bands in their early days and this, combined with audience violence that forced organisers to postpone Glastonbury 1991, created a sense of decline in the festival industry. They would be essential to the inaugural NME stage though, with Britpop band Blur headlining. So, in 1992, Glastonbury needed to come back with something new and exciting, and this was provided by music magazine, the New Musical Express.

The NME had gained notoriety through their coverage of punk in the 1970s, employing innovative punk journalists such as Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons. This earnt them the reputation of the magazine of the underground and subversive. As with Glastonbury though, Britpop looked to claim another victim with the magazine’s failure to cover the emerging and influential genre.

Both parties thus looked doomed to fail by the beginning of the 1990s. It is here that the ‘Behind NME lines’ badge at the Museum of English Rural Life, Reading comes into being to commemorate the establishment of the NME, now called the Other, Stage. 1992 was an attempt to turn around the fortunes of both parties involved. For Glastonbury, it seemed to work; there was a clear change of fortunes and its commercial success quickly became noticeable. Ticket prices tripled in the 15 years following the establishment of the NME stage, corresponding with the rise of commercial interest in music festivals more generally. The NME did not share in these fortunes, however. Only six years after the establishment of the NME stage, they moved to online publications, this becoming its main format by the beginning of the 2010s. It was thus evident that they were losing their appeal and, although they continue to have worldwide editions today, they have been forced towards free online publication to promote readership, a move completed in 2018.

The mixed fortunes of the NME and Glastonbury Festival all stem from their partnership in 1992 with the rise of commercialism and corporate sponsorship in music festivals. The ‘Behind NME lines’ badge illuminates the story of modern British music culture far beyond the world in which it was created. The badge forms part of the ‘Collecting 20th Century Rural Cultures’ collection at the MERL and is currently exhibited in the ‘Rural in Vogue’ display.

Further information about the history of Glastonbury can be found through the Victoria & Albert’s online pilot project ‘Performing Glastonbury’ and Glastonbury Festival’s own history pages. – Amy Longmuir

There’s still time to sign up for an MA in History at the University of Reading. From America, to South Asia, to the Middle East, to Western Europe, we offer global pathways in history right up until present day. To find out more about our MA course, click here.

For more information about our Department and the study options available, visit our website.

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Podcasting Material Culture! Our MA history Students Get to Grips with Historical Items in the Archives

Episode One: Fin Barringer asks, ”Who Put That There?’ Finding Letters of Robert E. Lee in Reading Archives’

For the MA Historical Skills and Resources Module, our brilliant students were asked to put together a podcast or vlog on an item they found in the archives. They could pursue their own interests and find something unexpected, underappreciated, or just downright exciting!

We’ll be sharing a few of the short podcasts produced by the students to showcase their fantastic work in this module. First up is a passionate American historian, Fin Barringer. Fin chose a letter from Confederate General Robert E. Lee written to his daughter on the eve on the American civil war, held in Special Collections at the University of Reading.

”I think the main thing for me was that it was an opportunity to step outside of my comfort zone in history, and with that came a surprising number of challenges to the ways in which many historians and myself are used to thinking. Definitely an interesting experiment.” – Fin Barringer, MA History Student

You can listen to Fin’s short podcast below:

Fin Barringer, ‘Who Put That There? Letters of Robert E. Lee in the Archives’ (2022)
Robert E. Lee, photograph by Mathew B. Brady (MET, 2005.100.1213)

There’s still time to sign up for an MA in History at the University of Reading. From America, to South Asia, to the Middle East, to Western Europe, we offer global pathways in history right up until present day. To find out more about our MA course, click here.

For more information about our Department and the study options available, visit our website.

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So here we are again… sex and misogyny in Parliament, by Dr Jacqui Turner

So here we are again, after a weekend of press and parliamentary misogyny, the subsequent outrage will inevitably simmer down and go away until the next time…and the next time… and the next time.

Angela Rayner called out “sexism and misogyny” in politics, after the Mail on Sunday claimed that she crosses and uncrosses her legs during prime minister’s questions to distract Boris Johnson. The report was universally condemned by Johnson and MPs from across the House of Commons. The Mail on Sunday reported that an unnamed Conservative MP said Rayner’s actions constituted “a fully clothed parliamentary equivalent of Sharon Stone’s infamous scene in the 1992 film Basic Instinct”. I am not going to include a photograph of Angela Rayner’s legs here, rather her own take on the issue:

Of course, she is right, from the outset women in the House were considered an aberration, a passing phase, a temporary blip that would go away allowing business to return to normal.  That clearly didn’t happen and while we may not yet have equal representation in parliament, things have improved.  Unfortunately, the misogyny that lies just below the surface has not altogether, it is very often simply shielded.  Edwina Curry’s confident statement that women were no longer at any disadvantage over men continues to be risible. From Sturgeon and May in ‘Legs-it’ to Tracy Brabin’s off the shoulder top, the obsession with women’s appearances and how this indicates or constructs their sexuality is never ending. Let’s not even go there with Diane Abbott who regularly receives more than half the abusive Twitter trolling of all women MPs.

Beyond comment on women’s sexuality, in 2016 the outrageous representation of Theresa May as Cruella Deville by the Scottish nationalist newspaper, The National, evidences the media continuing to question that second prong of femininity – women’s ‘special feminine qualities’ as wives and mothers and the fact that women who do not openly exhibit these are also questioned and pilloried.

Thus it is and always has been. The first woman took her seat in Parliament against a maelstrom of press comment. Press comment was intrusive, invariably hostile and focused on her marital status and dress.  Nancy Astor was elected to parliament for Plymouth Sutton at a by-election in November 1919 replacing her husband who had previously been MP.  She stood as a Unionist candidate though many in the party had reservations, including the Unionist Party Chairman, Sir George Younger, who felt that ‘the worst of it is, the woman is sure to get in’. She did get in and on 1 December 1919 when she stood at the bar in the House of Commons, Astor’s words as she took the oath was the first time a female voice had been heard in the Chamber. The Chamber was not full but the Manchester Guardian reported that the proceedings generated a ‘flutter of altogether pleasant excitement’ though Astor sensed an undercurrent of nervousness: ‘I was deeply conscious of representing a Cause, whereas I think they were a little nervous of having let down the House of Commons by escorting the Cause into it’. Astor’s presence in the House had been commented on in The Times the day after her election. A woman MP, was a ‘tremendous breach in Parliamentary tradition’.  The language used by The Times strongly suggested that Astor was an unwanted intrusion, an illegal intrusion and she was forcibly overcoming a bastion of male dominance.  The notion of a woman had been ‘almost inconceivable’. Astor had to cope with a constant and insidious sexism that undermined her attempts to be taken seriously.  She avoided comments on her clothing, by adopting a uniform of dark coat and skirt, white blouse and tricorn hat but she was less successful in evading the patronizingly flirtatious and ribald comments of her male colleagues.

Astor’s maiden speech in 1920 was in opposition to a proposal to relax wartime restrictions on opening hours for public houses.  Sir John Rees, who was well aware of Astor’s abstentionist politics, concluded his speech by looking directly at her, and archly remarked:

I do not doubt that a rod is in pickle for me when I sit down, but I will accept the chastisement with resignation and am indeed ready to kiss the rod.

Astor wittily demurred, replying that Rees had gone ‘a bit too far. However, I will consider his proposal if I can convert him’.  No such witticism is recorded for the occasion on which an inebriated Jack Jones, Labour MP for Silvertown, interrupted Astor.  Refusing to give way, Astor told Jones he was drinking too much and should think of his stomach, to which he answered to loud guffaws, he would push his stomach up against hers any time she liked.

While the medium was different, the sexualised trolling was the same.

Possibly all of this may have been considered ‘understandable’ in the context of the interwar period BUT the insidious sexism that Astor experienced remains overlooked and often sniggered at, over a century later.  It might best be equated to the statement made by comedian Jo Brand on BBC One’s Have I Got News For You in 2017: within the context of the #MeToo movement and in the wake of a series of resignations over what Sir Michael Fallon had described as behaviour that had “fallen short” of expectations, the all-male panel discussed the issues raised.  With a smirk, regular team captain Ian Hislop described some claims of harassment as “not high-level crime … compared to say Putin or Trump”. Brand’s response was measured but spoke volumes:

If I can just say, as the only representative of the female gender here today, I know it’s not high level, but it doesn’t have to be high level for women to feel under siege in somewhere like the House of Commons. And actually, for women, if you’re constantly being harassed, even in a small way, that builds up and that wears you down.

Questions of severity and degree are, for most of us, an ‘insidious’ undermining of sexual harassment which will never change until we have an equal power balance in society and in Parliament.  All of this said, and with absolute support for Angela Rayner, not long ago, Rayner could not or would not define what was meant by ‘woman’. Here is the reality of being a woman – Rayner can’t always have it both ways.

You can find out more about Turner and her work here Dr Jacqui Turner – History ( and her work on the centenary of women in parliament here Astor 100 – Celebrating 100 years of women in parliament (

For more historical comment on women MPs, the press and their appearances see:

Cowman, K., (2020) ‘A Matter of Public Interest: Press Coverage of the Outfits of Women MPs 1918–1930’, in Grey D. and Turner J. (eds), ‘Nancy Astor, Public Women and Gendered Politics in Interwar Britian’, Open Library of Humanities 6(2), p.17. doi:

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The census: a treasure trove of material for social historians, by Peter Jolly

“The release this January of the 1921 records is doubly important not only in showing the impact of World War 1 on communities, but because these are the last to be revealed for thirty years, with the accidental destruction of the 1931 entries and the onset of war preventing a 1941 census.”

The census has always provided a treasure trove of material not merely for family historians and genealogists, but also for social historians. The release this January of the 1921 records is doubly important not only in showing the impact of World War 1 on communities, but because these are the last to be revealed for thirty years, with the accidental destruction of the 1931 entries and the onset of war preventing a 1941 census. It is unfortunate too that the present commercial pricing structure of 1921 entries seriously inhibits their use for wider analysis, as for the first time this census required everyone to reveal not merely their occupation, but also their actual workplace.

Although the first national census took place in 1801, that of 1841 was the first to contain any individual details, whilst that of 1851 importantly required details of the relationship, familial or otherwise, of all persons within the household. Each subsequent census modified and often extended the range of information sought, which can mean that some direct decadal comparisons of data become problematic. For example, that of 1911, sometimes called the ‘fertility’ census, sought details of how long women had been married, and how many children, both living and since deceased, they had produced, a feature missing from the 1921 census.  Each Victorian and Edwardian census was rapidly followed by Command Papers, each with explanatory narratives, and tables galore, dividing the statistics between geographical areas, occupations, age, status, disabilities and the like, with separate analyses of workhouses and institutions, and those on-board ship. How, before computer technology, they were produced in such depth by so few civil servants is little short of amazing.  These reports are readily accessible through the UK Parliamentary Papers site as an e-resource. 

Command Papers can be found here.

But whilst these government reports enable me to discover fascinating minutiae such as the existence of just one female plumber, a widow, in 1911 Berkshire, and similarly the county contained a single female boatbuilder, who was married, occupational statistics are largely confined to county or county borough level, and we need to look at and search through all the individual census schedules better to explore details of personal and economic relationships, particularly within towns and villages.

“Research such as this provides not merely a fascinating insight into community life and allows inter-community comparisons to be drawn, but enables wider social, gender and class agendas to be addressed.”

My research over the past few years concerned domestic servants, most of whom lived in their workplace.  It was an empirical and largely census-based study, which involved transcribing and placing onto spreadsheets the individual householder schedules for several different communities. The search facility of commercial genealogy websites has enabled me to trace patterns of employment continuity within families, and the broad brushstrokes of migration patterns. The census has facilitated analysis of the different size of houses in which servants were employed, as well as of the numbers in each household, the types of persons, whether by gender, occupation, or social class, that kept residential servants. I have also examined not merely geographic origins of Berkshire servants, but the sort of families in which they grew up and the different types of position they occupied. 

Research such as this provides not merely a fascinating insight into community life and allows inter-community comparisons to be drawn, but enables wider social, gender and class agendas to be addressed. Sadly, however I am still searching for both female plumber and boatbuilder, and I have also failed to locate the only 14-year-old girl who worked in paper-bag manufacturing!

Peter Jolly is a PhD Student of History, specialising in using the early twentieth-century censuses to study patterns of female domestic service in rural Berkshire.

Find the National Archives Guide to using the census here.

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Women’s History Month: Mary Turner Wolstenholme, by Dr Jacqui Turner

During Women’s History Month we often focus on great women and women pioneers. But for Women’s History Month 2022, here at the Department of History, we are privileged to be able to concentrate on one of our own, Mary Turner Wolstenholme. Mary represents so many women who might have considered themselves ordinary but whose achievements tell us so much about women’s lives and opportunities.  With the kind permission her daughters Gilly Pinner and Julie Wolstenholme and through their generous donation of their mother’s documents and photographs from her time at Reading we present:  Mary Turner Wolstenholme.

Mary Turner completed a BA Hons in Geography and graduated on 1st July 1948. She graduated in the same year that the eminent historian Doris Stenton received her doctorate in History. 1948 was also an auspicious year that saw the founding of the NHS. After graduating from Reading in 1948 with a BA Hons in Geography, Mary (known as Molly) went on to complete her teacher’s diploma at Manchester Victoria University. She subsequently became a teacher at a local high school in the Rossendale Valley, Lancashire, known as Whitewell Bottom. She married Robert Wolstenholme in 1952 and her daughter Gilly was born in 1956 and Julie in 1959. Mary retuned to teaching when her own daughters started school, as a primary school teacher, first at Stubbins County Primary then Edenfield CofE Primary. She continued teaching at Edenfield, later becoming Deputy Head, until taking early retirement in the 1980s. Through the kind gift of Mary’s personal papers we can see her journey to becoming an educator herself though her time at Reading.

Female undergraduates and academic staff at Reading, 1947

Rag Week 12th March 1947

Rag week is almost a lost tradition, it was a designated week when the university and the town came together; students organised fayres and a procession of floats to raise money for local charities.

Students attempt to kidnap Phoebe Cusden, first female mayor of Reading and eminent peace campaigner. Read more about Phoebe Cusden at the Berkshire Records Office where her papers are held The Berkshire Record Office.

Kimber, Bill Ashton, The Mayor, Brian Robinson, Roger Williams

Final Examinations

BA Geography examinations consisted of eight 3-hour papers.  How would you have done?

Other papers included: Human and Historical Geography, Geography (PRACTICAL), Physical Geography, Regional Geography (EUROPE), Regional Geography (BRITISH ISLES AND FRANCE), Economic Geography, Cartography.

Graduands for presentation

When Mary graduated there were a surprising number of women gaining a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Faculty of Letters.  For the Bachelor of Science degrees however the number of women dwindles hugely!

Doris Mary Stenton (Lady Stenton), was awarded her doctoral degree D. Litt. from the Faculty of Letters at the same presentation.

Reference in application for Education Methods (modern PGCE)

What Mary made of her reference from Professor Austen Miller in 1949 we do not know but it is eye-wateringly misogynistic by C21st standards! While Mary was of a ‘frank, cheerful and warm-hearted disposition’, she might not make ‘a great scholar’. In fact

‘The qualities that recommend her are the more personal ones of appearance and presence…’

In 1878, the University of London was the first to award degrees to women.  Both Oxbridge universities were among the last to grant women degrees on the same terms as men: Oxford in 1920 but not until 1948 at Cambridge, the same year that Mary Turner graduated from Reading. The granting of degrees by Cambridge caused a huge amount of unrest with male undergraduates burning effigies of women students and throwing fireworks at the windows of women’s colleges. Even then, the university was allowed to limit the numbers of female students relative to men and continued to exercise that power to the full. The University of Reading awarded degrees to women on the same terms as men from its inception in 1926.

Mary Turner, BA Geography, 1st July 1948

By Dr Jacqui Turner, with great thanks to Mary’s daughters for sharing these wonderful images with us.

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Benchwarmer to Battleaxe: Nancy Astor and her Maiden Speech, by Abbie Tibbott

Nancy Astor was Britain’s first elected woman to take her seat in Parliament. In a political career that spanned over thirty years, Astor recognised her position as the first female in the House of Commons and aspired to be an MP for all women. On the 24th February 1920, Astor delivered her maiden speech, her first contribution to parliament, alone to an audience filled with men. Her written (and often spoken) contributions to British politics demonstrate how a politician’s personal convictions influenced their alignment with party ideologies.

Astor’s speech began by detailing her unique situation as the first woman to sit in the House:

“I shall not begin by craving the indulgence of the House. I am only too conscious of the indulgence and the courtesy of the House. I know that it was very difficult for some hon. Members to receive the first lady M.P. into the House.”

With partial franchise having been granted in 1918, Astor’s election to the Commons had been due to votes cast by the working-class men of Plymouth Sutton. Sailors and soldiers, this was a community that had suffered material and emotional losses in the Great War and was struggling to recover in the economic downturn that had followed. As a wife and mother, Astor’s position as a woman put her in a sympathetic position to recognise the issues that directly affected her female constituents and used this tactfully to convince her enfranchised constituents that she would represent all, whether they could vote or not. Although initially put forward by her husband, Viscount Waldorf Astor, to essentially ‘hold’ the seat whilst he tried to exit from the House of Lords, Astor went on to have an undefeated political career, resigning in 1945.

Establishing herself in the Commons would prove to be an almighty task, as the majority of male MPs did not approve of women serving as representatives in the Commons. These attitudes stemmed from remaining Victorian middle-class ideals about the supposed proper place for women, and a lingering distrust of politically motivated women who had participated in civil disobedience and militant activities prior to 1918. The Commons proved to be an inhospitable place for female MPs, who were forced to share cramped offices and exclusion from male-only clubs and societies, where alliances were formed, and ideas hammered out away from the influence of party whips. The very environment Astor would have encountered was not designed for women, making her foray into politics even more difficult.

A maiden speech is traditionally used to establish an Hon. Member within the chamber, and often details causes they are particularly attached to, as well as their ambitions for their parliamentary service. Personal politics are complicated, as they may not align to party ideologies. Many MPs are forced to make compromises on their views for the sake of promotions and popularity within their party. Astor, who soon became known for heckling, disruption, and a clear moral standpoint, seemed unafraid of addressing her personal convictions during her maiden speech.

“…I am perfectly aware that it does take a bit of courage to address the House on that vexed question, Drink… “

With her previous marriage in America being an unhappy one, alongside her religious beliefs (Christian Science), Astor’s view on recreational alcohol consumption more closely aligned with ideas of prohibition in 1920s America, rather than the pub culture that existed in Britain at the time. Astor was concerned for how drink affected families, and used her opening speech to call for reform, much to the audible displeasure of male MPs. To include this topic in her maiden speech was certainly controversial but it shows her commitment not only to her moral standpoint, but to women, who suffered the effects of drunkenness, often in the form of marital violence.

“I do not think the country is really ripe for prohibition, but I am certain it is ripe for drastic drink reforms.”

As an American, it is unsurprising that Astor was familiar with prohibition, but what is interesting is how she used her first speech as an MP to plead for reform on an issue that was so heavily intertwined with British culture. As expected, sitting MPs that day were not supportive of her statements, some of which subconsciously implied that the country was a nation of drunks. Reading between the lines, Astor was calling for reform on an issue that she believed that male MPs did not care about, and that is directly intertwined with her gendered experience. Much of women’s life writing draws from the experience of being female, expressed through moral and religious outlooks, so Astor’s roles of wife, mother and MP all contribute to her focus on alcoholism, despite the backlash that was to be expected from a male audience.

In her contributions to parliamentary debates and committees, it is easy to trace Astor’s priorities. Although a Conservative member, she regularly worked across-party boundaries, allying herself with other female MPs, such as Margaret Wintringham (Liberal) and Ellen Wilkinson (Labour). Banished from senior Cabinet positions in the 1920s, these female MPs acted as a collective force to push for reform in areas surrounding pensions, children and later, family allowances. Despite being pushed out of policies of economy or foreign policy, these MPs championed so called ‘women’s issues’ during their time in office.

For Astor’s maiden speech, despite the angry reception to questions of drink, the female MP pushed on to remind the House of an important fact:

“I know what I am talking about, and you must remember that women have got a vote now and we mean to use it, and use it wisely, not for the benefit of any section of society, but for the benefit of the whole.”

This statement set the tone for the rest of her service in the House, especially on questions of the vote. Astor remained a staunch supporter of equal franchise, supporting bills that entered the House, as well as acting as a conduit for the Women’s Movement that campaigned outside the walls of Parliament. In terms of Astor’s views on alcohol, there was no prohibition, but the Intoxicating Liquor (Sale to Persons Under Eighteen) Act 1923 made it illegal for those under eighteen years of age to drink alcohol in licensed establishments, the first successful private members’ bill from a woman MP. This law exists to this day and remains an important aspect of her political legacy.

Astor’s political career left behind an immense collection of her writing, which is held today at the University of Reading’s Special Collections. Much of this was used in the Astor100 project, which crowdfunded a statue of Astor and provided a series of public history events to celebrate the centenary of Astor’s success in the 1919 by-election. Astor’s writings in her political appointment are an important record of a female pioneer in politics, her maiden speech being just the foundation of her entry into a male-dominated political environment.

Abbie Tibbott is a PhD Student in History, researching conservatism, citizenship and democracy in 1920s Britain, with a focus on women and unemployment. She is interested in Conservative Party attitudes to those in receipt of Poor Law relief, and is undertaking research with the Cabinet Papers, held at the National Archives. 

Further Reading:

To find out more about Astor 100:

To find out more about Nancy Astor:

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‘The German Vice’: Male Same Sex Desire in East Africa, by Dr Heike I. Schmidt

In 1910 the Governor of German East Africa, Georg Albrecht Freiherr von Rechenberg, filed charges of defamation against Willy von Roy, the editor of the colony’s main newspaper, the Deutsch-Ostafrikanische Zeitung (DOAZ). What then transpired is rather astonishing. The chief magistrate in the capital Dar es Salaam heard the governor’s testimony in chambers, even sending the African sentinel at the outside of his door away, maintaining utter secrecy. The judge then recorded:

‘Freiherr von Rechenberg has in his entire life never acted according to Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code and never made the attempt to do so. During his entire stay in German East Africa [since 1906] as governor he has not been sexually active at all.’[1]

As in other western countries, the German Penal Code declared male same sex practices illegal:

Dreizehnter Abschitt. Verbrechen und Verghen wider die Sittlichkeit.
§. 175.
Die widernatürliche Unzucht, welche zwischen Personen männlichen Geschlechts oder von Menschen mit Thieren [sic] begangen wird, ist mit Gefängniβ zu bestrafen; auch kann auf Verlust der bürgerlichen Ehrenrechte erkannt warden.


Chapter 13. Felonies and misdemeanours against morality.
§. 175.
Unnatural obscenity committed between persons of the male sex or between men and beasts, is to be punished by imprisonment with labour. The sentence may include the forfeiture of civil privileges.

A guilty sentence meant up to four years imprisonment and loss of civil rights.

Dr. Baron von Rechenberg,
Governor of German East Africa, took leave from office.

What the circumstances and content of the governor’s statement clearly show are that any insinuation of male same sex practices was not just illegal but also so scandalous that the married but childless, forty-nine year old Baron Rechenberg claimed not to have had any sex of any kind in the past four years in the colony. The judge did his best to maintain utter confidentiality in the matter, being concerned about European and about African gossip. But what ensued was a complex range of court cases over the course of the next twelve months that involved not just von Roy, the newspaper editor, but also several members of the colonial government in Dar es Salaam.[2] This colonial affair demonstrates the tremendous vulnerability of European men who were gay or wished to have intercourse with men, while at the same time living as masters in the colony with the power to enact will and violence upon African men – and in fact women and children – to satisfy their desires, sexual and otherwise. Unsurprisingly the African witnesses in the court cases that ensued, including Max, a servant in the governor’s palace who was supposed to have regularly had sex with the governor, denied any knowledge of this.

Governor’s palace Dar es Salaam
Koloniales Bildarchiv, Frankfurt/Main, Germany

At the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century one of Europe’s economically and politically most powerful and newest nation states, Germany, was widely mocked of suffering from ‘the German vice’. Rumours culminated in the Eulenburg Affair, 1907 to 1909, which showed that the emperor himself surrounded himself with men who expressed male same sex desire and that he hosted performative explorations beyond heteronormativity, including cross dressing. Meanwhile the sudden death from a heart attack was kept silent successfully, when during the ongoing Eulenburg trials, the chief of the Military Cabinet, Earl Dietrich von Hülsen-Haeseler, aged 56 years, died after performing a flirtatious ballerina solo for the emperor and his guests, dressed in a pink tutu with a flower garland in his hair, in 1908.

There was, at the time, a public discourse in Germany itself, an awareness that Berlin was an urban centre of experimentation and exploration for members of this society that had late and rapidly industrialised resulting in the social question of the sudden creation of a substantial middle class and urban proletariat. Class, gender, and politics were greatly in flux leading up to the horrors of World War One, the Great Depression, and the 1933 elections of a Nazi government that condemned male and female homosexuals to concentration camps. But under imperial rule a caricature such as the ‘New Prussian Arms’ illustrates that then it was still possible to mock the nation rather light heartedly about what were perceived to be upper class, aristocratic, and military sexual transgressions, standing rather strongly in contrast to the image of the Protestant ethic and Prussian disciplined male body.

It was in German East Africa (today mainland Tanzania, Burundi, and Rwanda) where von Roy, the newspaper editor, saw his chance to attack the governor whom he despised for what many settlers considered a soft view towards the African population. Rechenberg, from an old aristocratic family, Catholic, and even by German standards highly educated and well travelled, had a diplomatic rather than military background when he was appointed governor to German East Africa at the end of what had become a scandalously brutal anti-insurgency campaign against the African populations who rose in the Maji Maji war from 1905 against colonial rule. He was not a good fit for what Germans perceived to be colonial respectability and von Roy insinuating that another Eulenberg affair may be emerging from the colony’s headquarters hit a raw nerve.

The verbatim witness accounts in the ensuing court cases provide a layered understanding of gendered articulations of identity mediated by class in the colony that are inextricably embedded in the unequal power relations between coloniser and colonised. The evidence shows quite clearly that Rechenberg had regular sexual encounters with his African servant Max, even though the governor, Max, Max’ wife, and other African servants denied this in court. Regardless of what the actual relationship between Rechenberg and Max was from both their perspectives, the governor was the master and Max was the servant in the colony and, if the evidence is reliable, the very nature of their sexual encounters demonstrates that these were consistently controlled by Rechenberg and subservient on part of Max. All of this is further complicated by Rechenberg annotating the paperwork with the order to move ‘the brothel’ to Zanzibar. This was in reference to a brothel in Dar es Salaam that apparently had male customers and male or transsexual sex workers one of whom the court addressed as binti (Kiswahili: daughter; unmarried woman) and who was supposed to have visited the governor at times at his residence. The very existence of the brothel demonstrates that there were enough European customers to make it economically viable. Moving it to Zanzibar, a city well known to Rechenberg who had spent four years there as consul in the 1890s, fed the orientalist view of the time that non heteronormative practices and desires belonged to the perceived east. In fact, there is evidence that male sex workers and male as well as female same sex practices were common in the capital of the Zanzibar Islands.

This leads to the question of what all of this means then. The so-called German vice was certainly well and alive in the colony. But considering the charges filed by African men, women, and children for rape by German men, the picture that emerges is indeed rather messy. Some German men were gay and enjoyed the freedoms of living in the capital Dar es Salaam or on remote stations with few German neighbours to report them. Others enacted sexual violence on colonial subjects, at times guided merely by convenience and availability, without a particular desire for a man, woman, or child, while other German men again were clearly sexual predators. Maybe most surprising is in the end that as so many men of his generation who stood in the public limelight, Rechenberg went out of his way to deny any sexual transgressions, including adultery, let alone sodomy, while in this early colonial period with a colonial administration barely on the ground African survivors demanded justice in the colonial court system which did lead to guilty verdicts and sentencing to prison. Meanwhile Rechenberg returned to Germany in 1911 and quietly retired in 1914 to turn his attention to conservative party politics, while the newspaper editor von Roy was sentenced to prison and financially ruined. There is no evidence from or of Max, his wife, and family beyond the court cases where their only role was to prove whether the governor was guilty of breaking the anti-sodomy law.[3]

Dr Heike I. Schmidt is an Associate Professor in African History at the University of Reading, specialising in gender, colonialism, violence & conflict, nationalism, and identity. Dr Schmidt is currently writing a gendered history of violence and the colonial encounter. 

[1] Note With the exception of the German Penal Code, all translations are the author’s.

[2] For the full discussion of these court cases, the Rechenberg affair, and sexual crime in German East Africa, see Heike I. Schmidt, ‘Colonial Intimacy: The Rechenberg Scandal, Homosexuality and Sexual Crime in German East Africa’, Journal of the History of Sexuality
17, no. 1 (2008), 25-59; also ‘Who is Master in the Colony? Propriety, Honor, and Manliness in German East Africa’, in Geoff Eley and Bradley Naranch (eds) German Cultures of Colonialism: Race, Nation, and Globalization, 1884-1945 (Durham, NC, 2015), 109-128.

[3] For a more detailed discussion of the topic see, Heike I. Schmidt, ‘The German Empire and Its Legacies: Propriety, Respectability, and Colonial Hegemony’, in: Sonia Corrêa, Gustavo Gomes da Costa Santos and Matthew Waites (eds), Colonialisms and Queer Politics: Sexualities, Genders and Unsettling Colonialities (Oxford, forthcoming).

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The Criminalization of Homosexuality in Colonial History, by Dr Joseph O’Mahoney

First posted on the Gender History Research Cluster

At first, we were surprised.  My co-author Enze Han and I had started looking into how many countries around the world it was illegal to be gay in.  We found that 72 states formally criminalized some homosexual conduct (today it is 67 UN member states).  Penalties ranged from fines, through prison terms of 10 years or life, up to the death penalty.  Our next question was why?  Why, given that some countries were moving to legalize same-sex marriage and protect other LGBT rights, were others so repressive?  Why was there this variation?

To begin with, we correlated these laws with other factors, like wealth, economic development, religion, etc.  But when we included a variable called ‘legal origin’, that’s when we were really surprised.  The effect size was so large that it explained almost all of the variation we see in the world today.  ‘Legal origin’ means where a state got its legal system from.  And from a lot of countries, this meant colonialism.  British colonies got a common law system, French colonies got a civil law system, and so on.  And it turns out that if you had to know one thing about a country to have a good chance of guessing whether it criminalizes homosexuality, that one thing is whether it used to be a British colony.

The relationship can be starkly illustrated with an example.

Is this correlation between the three Guianas’s colonial heritage and sexuality laws a causal relationship?  And does this generalize to the rest of the world?  We next wanted to go beyond this high level quantitative analysis and look into the actual historical pathways whereby states acquired laws criminalizing homosexuality.

We looked at legal history and got hold of the texts of colonial penal codes and criminal codes to compare them.  There are some complexities and some false positives, which shows the value of detailed qualitative historical research. But the general pattern is borne out.  For many countries around the world that criminalize homosexual conduct, they do so because these laws were imposed on them during the colonial period by the British Empire.

If you want to read more detail about this, Enze and I published a book with Routledge about it.  In this blog post, though, I wanted to reflect briefly on part of my experience doing the research. I had to really engage with the complexity of historical reality.  Political science tends towards aggregated concepts and seeks causes that travel across many cases.  I think this is a worthwhile quest, but there is a danger that you can miss important specificities.  Historical work brings you face-to-face with the multifaceted nature of human social reality. This is perhaps especially the case when dealing with the British Empire, which not only covered a wide variety of local conditions around the world, but also seemed to delight in ad hocery and exceptions to the rule.  That is, if there even was a rule in the first place.

This complexity manifested in several ways.  One interesting way was that we commonly use the word ‘colonies’ to describe the UK’s relationship with polities and communities, but the politico-administrative arrangements were often very different in different places.  They also often changed over the decades.  For example, the current West African states of Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Nigeria were previously made up of five colonies, four protectorates, and two League of Nations mandates and later trust territories.

In addition, there were several criminal codes circulating, with different implications for homosexual conduct.  Seemingly accidental judgments and choices by colonial administrators could have repercussions over a hundred years later.  For example, the colony of the Gold Coast, now Ghana, got a criminal code in 1892.  The colonial administrator modeled this on a code that differentiated between nonconsensual “unnatural carnal knowledge”, deemed a felony, and consensual acts, deemed a misdemeanor and ‘only’ punishable by 2 years imprisonment.  Other colonies’ codes had different model codes that did not make this distinction and had much longer sentences.  Today, in 2022, Ghana retains this distinction in its criminal code, and has a sentence of 3 years, compared with the 7, 10, 14 years or life imprisonment in other ex-British colonies in Africa.

For me, one of the takeaways from this research is that combining the empirical detail of historical research with the conceptual and causal abstractions of political science can lead to more accurate, richer, and more useful knowledge.

Dr Joseph O’Mahoney is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, specialising in how norms and rules about war affect state behaviour. Alongside co-author Enze Han, his research has explored the role of colonial heritage in the criminalisation of homosexuality. 

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Lesbian History, Trans History, by Professor Rosemary Auchmuty

We are delighted to welcome a guest blog by Professor Rosemary Auchmuty from the School of Law. She is a pioneer of women’s studies and feminist legal studies in higher education in Britain, Rosemary (Australian by upbringing) has been professor of Law at the University of Reading since 2007.

In 1989, the Lesbian History Group published a book called Not a Passing Phase: Reclaiming lesbians in history, 1840-1985.  It was the first British study to set down the method and scope of lesbian history, together with several case studies. 

Lesbian history was new then; indeed, women’s history was not very old; history-writing had traditionally been dominated by the lives of great white men and the politics, wars and public achievements of their times.  Women, belonging to the private sphere, had no place in this history, and the very few studies of the phenomenon of homosexuality focused almost entirely on gay men, ignoring lesbians’ very different experience. 

The biggest challenge facing the editors of Not a Passing Phase, of whom I was one, was how to define ‘lesbian’.  By their very nature, our personal lives are private, so, in the days before identity politics, and especially when homosexuality was frowned upon and treated as perverted, even criminal, people kept their sexuality quiet – so there were very few records to consult, apart from those detailing the activities of a few high-profile personalities like Radclyffe Hall (whose book The Well of Loneliness was banned for obscenity in 1928).  But there was plenty of evidence of past women who had lived with a female companion in a marriage-like arrangement, or who mixed in all-female settings.  Even if these women did not refer to themselves as lesbian or gay – terms in use when we were writing, but not in earlier times – we chose to encompass them within an inclusive definition of ‘lesbian’ that also took account of current lesbian-feminist theorising, as ’women who loved women’.  ‘Does it matter if they did it?’ asked Sheila Jeffreys in a ground-breaking chapter that pointed out that no one confines the term ‘heterosexual’ to those they can prove had sex with someone of the other sex. 

A second challenge was presented by the women who had ‘cross-dressed’ and lived as men in past generations, like Mary Read, a pirate, and James Barry, a nineteenth-century army surgeon. 

Did they cross-dress so that they could live openly with the women they loved? – in which case we could claim them as lesbians.  Or did they cross-dress because they identified as men, as trans scholars are now claiming?  Did they believe they were really men, or did they wish they were men, or was their decision to present as men a pragmatic one, to give them access to men’s roles both publicly and privately?  Did they do so because women were barred from most occupations before the twentieth century and this was the only way they do something like becoming a pirate or an army doctor?  Did they need to earn money to live, or were they doing it to escape the narrow bounds of women’s lives?      

These questions are still pertinent.  They alert us to the fact that we cannot ever claim to know the truth about the past.  History-writing is always an interpretation; and what we find is often determined by the questions we ask and the reasons we ask them.

One of the purposes for which historical research is used, especially in an era of identity politics, is to uncover the heritage of a subordinate group.  Members of such groups turn back to the historical records in order to restore the forgotten or suppressed evidence of people like themselves. Such groups want to establish how they came to be in the position they currently find themselves in and to re-write the historical narrative that says that only white men matter and that history is a tale of inexorable progress.  This, of course, is why black rights activists are seeking to reveal uncomfortable truths about British involvement in slavery.  So in Not a Passing Phase the Lesbian History Group sought to show that there have always been lesbians throughout history, that they lived happy and fulfilling lives, and that, indeed, they contributed to significant social change by resisting the patriarchal insistence that women should always be tied to a man in marriage; but also to reveal how many women suffered under these very constraints that denied their sexuality and put them under the largely unrestrained control of husbands. 

The concerns of trans historians are similar.  They, too, are seeking to uncover a heritage, one that will help to counter negative characterisations and put their predecessors back into the historical narrative.  All historians need to remember, however, that the past is a different world; we must try not to create a false narrative simply to serve our current political concerns.  It’s very probable that many past cross-dressing women cannot be claimed as either lesbian or trans; they neither loved women nor believed themselves to be men; they presented as men for totally different reasons.  On the other hand, some of them were probably lesbian in their sexual preferences and some may have been trans.  What matters is that we recognise these deviant people as belonging to lesbian history and to trans history – indeed, to social history generally – as illustrations of the many ways in which women (and men) have had to respond to, and manoeuvre around, socially prescribed (and proscribed) gender roles in any given era. 

You can find out more about Professor Auchmuty and her work here: Professor Rosemary Auchmuty – Law (

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Gender identity and Sexuality: A Fiery Relationship, by Amy Austin

First posted on Gender History Research Cluster

While researching the history of gender identity I have come across numerous debates over a variety of issues. Appropriate terminology, categorisation, the genesis of gender fluidity are all hotly contested issues and let’s face it, as historians we love a good debate. One of the most contentious issues is the relationship – or lack thereof – between gender history and the history of sexualities. Scholars such as Jay Prosser have expressed the legitimate concern that combining studies of historical sexuality and gender identity leads to the silencing of gender fluid individuals who become amalgamated into narratives of same-sex attraction or economic necessity. This silencing is particularly prevalent in cases of individuals who presented as male before the advent of sex reassignment surgery. Billy Tipton and James Barry are among the historical figures who have been ‘reclaimed’ by women’s history as ‘passing women’ who adopted male identities to follow their chosen careers and pursue female same-sex relationships.

This antagonism between gender and sexuality is not only an academic concern. A cursory look at LGBT+ activism reveals the frequent marginalisation of transgender, non-binary and gender non-conformity within the movement as a whole. Equally, the countless cases of sexual and physical violence against transwomen speaks to the degree to which the conflation of gender and sexuality can have devastating results. Gwen Araujo’s murder in 2002 by four cisgender men, two of whom she had previously had physical relationships with is a case in point.[1] Their use of the ‘panic’ defence allowed the defendants to misgender Araujo as male, thereby portraying her as a man who ‘deceived’ them into homosexuality.

Gwen Araujo

Araujo’s gender identity was reduced to her genitals by her murderers. Historical gender non-conforming figures often suffer the same fate. Bernice Hausman has argued that transgenderism – or ‘transsexualism’ to use Hausman’s term – cannot exist before the development of sex reassignment surgery.[2] The reconstruction of the genitals is what makes a person transgendered. It is true that the individuals considered in my own research would not have recognised the term transgender or identified with it. However, their personal testimonies mirror modern autobiographical accounts from transgender individuals and their experiences are evidence of gender fluidity that predated surgery and modern terminology. The category of transgender may be a modern construct, but it seems very misguided to assume that a label creates an identity. Hausman’s argument not only ignores the numerous individuals who identify as trans who do not physically transition, but it also returns us to the preoccupation with genitals in determining gender. This begs the question, has the merging of gender and sexuality led to the dominance of genitals in LGBT+ studies?

Despite the array of potential sexual activities, the focus often rests on penetrative heterosexual intercourse which excludes a myriad of experiences. In terms of gender identity, the focus on genitals is even more reductive. As a cis gender woman, the idea that my female gender is solely dependent on my biology is diminishing and misguided; how much more insulting for individuals who are misgendered due to their bodies?

Michael Dillon

All of the points above suggest that a complete separation between gender history and the history of sexualities is needed. At the start of my research, I was certainly passionate about stressing the difference between gender non-conformity and sexualities, partly due to the constant assumption that transgender history was an offshoot of queer sexualities rather than gender identities. However, I have quickly discovered how frequently the two areas not only overlap but impact on each other. The lives of Roberta Cowell and Michael Dillon, the first trans woman and trans man respectively to undergo sex reassignment surgery are prime examples.

Michael Dillon identified as male from childhood. Dillon acknowledged his female physicality and in his early years was compelled to live as a woman, but his gender identity was always unequivocally male. For Dillon, his transition merely enabled him to live more easily as a man without being questioned by outsiders as to his gender. It did not originate his male gender. Dillon’s physical transition also did not influence his sexual preference for women. On the other hand, his inability to father a child led Dillon to avoid any romantic relationships throughout his life with the exception of Cowell who ultimately rejected him. Dillon believed that ‘[o]ne must not lead a girl on if one could not give her children’,[3] and when the only woman whom Dillon felt would understand his experiences refused to marry him he remained celibate.

In contrast, Roberta Cowell’s sexual orientation was inextricably linked to her gender identity. Vehemently homophobic, Cowell stressed her heterosexual attraction to women prior to transition when presenting as Robert, marrying and fathering two children. Following her surgery, Roberta was again heterosexually attracted to men while during the transition Cowell identified as asexual.[4] Clearly then, in certain cases gender and sexuality cannot be completely segregated without losing the nuances of individual narratives.

Dillon and Cowell also demonstrate the importance of a more individualised case study approach to queer histories. As historians the obligation to impose our own interpretations on individuals is often inescapable, particularly where no concrete information remains. The reclaiming of figures as either homosexual or gender variant leads to the construction of rigid categorisations which do not account for the rich variety of identities and sexualities that exist both historically and in the present. The best approach then would seem to be that of any good relationship, where both parties – in this case gender identity and sexuality – are considered in tandem as complimenting one another in the light they can reciprocally shine while maintaining their status as distinct facets of identity.

Amy Austin is a PhD Candidate in History, specialising in transgender history of modern Britain. You can also catch Amy on the podcast Surprisingly Brilliant, discussing transgender identities in 1800s Britain with Susan Stryker and Laurie Metcalf.

[1] Anon., The Murder of Gwen Araujo and the “Panic” Defense, [website], (N.D.),, (accessed 21 July 2021).

[2] Bernice L. Hausman, Changing Sex: Transsexualism, Technology, and the Idea of Gender (North Carolina, 1995).

[3] Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka, Out of the Ordinary: A Life of Gender and Spiritual Transitions (New York, 2017), 125.

[4] Roberta Cowell, Roberta Cowell’s Story (New York, 1954).

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LGBTQ+ History Month: Coming Out in the Archives, with Amy Austin and Vicky Iglikowski-Broad

Reposted from the Gender History Research Cluster.

Join PhD Student Amy Austin in conversation with Vicky Iglikowski-Broad, principal records specialist in diverse histories at the National Archives, as they discuss accessing LGBTQ+ histories within the archives.

Together, Amy and Victoria explore the challenges of navigating hidden material, and the opportunities for uncovering rich and diverse life histories if you know where to look! From national police archives, to regional records, to personal papers and family histories, research of sexualities, queer histories and gender nonconformity is reaching new heights.

Listen to their discussion below to find out more about LGBTQ+ histories ‘coming out’ in the archives.

You can visit the National Archives new exhibition ‘Beyond the Roar‘, which explores forgotten histories and includes collections on LGBT lives.

If you are interested in conducting archival research of your own, this handy National Archives guide will point you in the best direction to start!

Amy Austin is a PhD Candidate in History, specialising in transgender history of modern Britain. You can also catch Amy on the podcast Surprisingly Brilliant, discussing transgender identities in 1800s Britain with Susan Stryker and Laurie Metcalf.

Vicky Iglikowski-Broad  works as Principal Records Specialist in Diverse Histories at the National Archives, developing collections on the black British civil rights movement including the UK Black Power Movement and the trial of the Mangrove Nine, as well as the development of LGBTQ rights and queer spaces.

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The Sagas, the Solstice and the Supernatural, by Anne Lawrence-Mathers

As a medievalist it is always satisfying to point out that many traditions can be traced back to the medieval period – and this applies also to the custom of setting and telling tales of ghosts and monsters at the time of the winter solstice.  It is well known that this time, one of long-established feasts and rituals both inside and outside the Roman Empire, was deliberately chosen as the time to celebrate the birth of Christ.  What may be less well known is that the supernatural conflict between the old religion and the new is a haunting presence within the ghost stories told by the sagas.  Encounters between human heroes and destructive monsters were often set at Yule and in the semi-pagan past.  In this post I shall try to illustrate the point by retelling stories which set lasting patterns for tales of the supernatural.

I. The Saga of Bard the Snowfell God

Helluland, Earthstar Geographics (2021)

First up is the Saga of Bard the Snowfell God, which tells the story of the half-human Bard, son of King Mist, ruler of Helluland in the mysterious far North, and his descendants.  Bard’s mother, Mjoll, was human but Mist was part giant and part troll, and Bard inherited superhuman strength.  He added study of sorcery to this before leading his family to settle in Iceland.  When he grew old Bard disappeared from human society into the glacier at the head of his valley.  He reappeared to give protection to those who called on him, gaining the name of ‘God of Snowfell’.  One such reappearance was to Odd, son of Onund, whom Bard invited to a Yule feast.  Odd fought his way through the gathering midwinter storms and the devious behaviour of enemies, and was rescued from the mountainside by Bard himself in time for Yule.  However, Bard was not always so kind.  He abandoned one of his lovers, with her son, Gest, and only took Gest into the glacier when he was almost an adult.

Gest willingly learnt both law and magic from Bard and was thus well prepared when the troll, Bag, invited father and son to a great Yule feast in her cave.  Like Yule feasts across Scandinavia and Britain this one involved competitive drinking and violent games, during which Gest made an enemy of the ogre, Kolbjorn, but lived to leave the cave with his father.  This was a time when both trolls and ogres preyed on humans and their animals, killing many but also kidnapping women.  Kolbjorn followed this pattern and, as well as causing terrible losses to local farmers, stole and starved Bard’s daughter, Solrun.  During another violent feast in Kolbjorn’s even more terrifying cave Gest rescued Solrun and killed a small army of ogres, despite the intervention of Kolbjorn’s mother, a powerful sorceress. 

Ultimately more threatening for Gest is King Olaf Tryggvason and his energetic promotion of Christianity.  Gest and Solrun are invited to court for Yule, known to King Olaf as Christmas.  Gest refuses to be baptised but attends the Christmas Eve celebrations, where events strongly anticipate the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Into the court strides a tall and evil-looking warrior, wearing mail and armed with a sword, who issues a challenge (of course).  He dares all the assembled company to try to take his treasure – and then disappears, leaving most people unconscious.  Gest identifies this revenant as Raknar, ancient king of Helluland and murderer of his own parents amongst very many others, who was buried alive in his ship along with 800 warriors.  At Olaf Tryggvason’s request Gest, bound by the rules of hospitality and honour, agrees to take up the supernatural challenge.  He is given assistance in the form of two magicians and a priest, though he is not happy about the priest.  Magical equipment is also given – a sword, a piece of cloth and a candle.

In the early stages of the quest the priest is something of a hindrance, killing a pagan who offers more magic and having to be carried on Gest’s back.  However, the priest, unlike the magicians, proves to be immune to magical threats and uses his crucifix to kill a supernatural bull which nearly kills Gest.  The priest is also able to watch through the night, despite terrifying apparitions and ghostly visions.  Gest’s own powers are great enough to enable him to reach the inner depths of the enormous burial mound within which Raknar and his undead army wait to kill him.  Gest cuts off the heads of 500 warriors, seizes the treasure and finds Raknar himself seated on a carved throne.  At this crucial moment the magic in Gest’s equipment becomes exhausted and, as Raknar is about to kill him, he calls upon Bard.  The call is answered but, when the candle burns out and the dark returns, the dead men rise up and prevent Bard from reaching Gest.  It is only when Gest calls upon Olaf Tryggvason and his new God that Raknar is vanquished.  Gest then has no real choice but to accept Christianity, although the decision proves fatal when Bard arrives to punish him. 

II. The Saga of Grettir the Strong

The second saga is the better-known story of Grettir the Strong, a heroic but deeply flawed warrior who encountered a series of monsters (human and otherwise) at Yule.  His career can be placed c1,000 CE, at the time when Iceland accepted Christianity.  Even as a child Grettir was noted for his strength and courage – and also his stubbornness and love of insults.  This complex character was demonstrated when, after being shipwrecked, Grettir was taken in by a wealthy landowner called Thorfinn.  This man’s father, Kar the Old, was buried in a mound on an isolated headland but returned to haunt everyone who tried to farm on ‘his’ island.  Grettir could not resist the challenge and broke into Kar’s barrow, opening up its roof, before venturing further in.  Here he found treasure and the bones of an enormous horse, as well as the barrow-dweller himself, sitting on a carved throne.  Like Gest, Grettir was able to seize the treasure but was attacked from behind in the dark while trying to escape.  Unlike Gest, Grettir was able to cut off Kar’s head without assistance.  This exploit, unsurprisingly, was not greeted with unmixed joy by Thorfinn.  Grettir’s next adventure on the island took place while Thorfinn and most of his warriors were away at a Christmas feast on the mainland.  A boatload of Vikings took the opportunity to attack Thorfinn’s hall but were routed and killed by Grettir, thus earning the reward he desired.

The next Christmas season found Grettir at Saltfjord in Halogaland, where an enormous bear was causing havoc.  Only Grettir was able to kill the bear, after wrestling it over a cliff – but once again he made enemies and was forced to move on.  He was now famous enough to go back to Iceland and work for rich men who needed his protection, as well as to pursue old enmities.  One of Grettir’s clients, Thorkell, owned land in a valley which was permanently dark in midwinter and haunted by an ogre-like creature.  This had led Thorkell to hire a Swedish fighter called Glam, who was nearly as gigantic and frightening as the monster.  Glam was perfectly willing to fight ghosts but completely unwilling to go to church, and demonstrated his hostility to the new religion by demanding to be fed on Christmas Eve, when all good Christians were fasting.  Later that night he went out on guard but failed to return.  On Christmas day a search party found his mangled body on the mountainside, with monstrous footprints, splashed with blood, leading away into the mountain.  The body resisted all attempts to take it to church for burial but allowed itself to be buried in a cairn.

Glam himself now became an undead monster, reappearing at night through the winter and causing terrible fear and harm until the return of sunlight forced him away.  A new shepherd was hired but Glam returned with the winter, killed the shepherd on Christmas Eve and left the mangled corpse to be found on Christmas morning as another unwelcome ‘Christmas present’.  Glam then grew even more powerful and destructive than the first monster – at which point Grettir arrived.  Like the monster Grendel in the story of Beowulf, Glam broke into Thorkell’s hall at night, so strong he could tear the building apart and so huge his head reached the rafters.  In the human space of the hall Grettir held his own against the monster, but Glam managed to drag him into the moonlight, where Glam’s strength grew greater.  Grettir managed to overcome Glam, although only after Glam laid a curse on him.  The curse turned Grettir’s own strength against him and condemned him to lifelong bad luck, outlawry and loneliness, as well as constant haunting by Glam himself.

The curse took effect and Grettir found himself almost alone when facing an enemy named Thorbjorn and his foster-mother, Thurid.  Thurid was human but retained great powers of sorcery, despite being baptised.  Once again the power of the supernatural increased in the darkness of winter, and Thurid took advantage of this to carve enchanted runes into the trunk of a fallen tree, chanting spells while walking widdershins and filling the runes with her own blood.  Grettir had seized Drang Island, where he hoped to hold off his enemies, but the enchanted tree trunk reached the shore, against wind and tide, and was fatally taken as firewood by his servant.  Under the power of the curse Grettir’s own axe caused a festering wound in his leg, making him vulnerable to his enemies.  He died at Christmas, supported only by his brother, Illugi, despite all the people he had saved.  It was only after death that he was reconciled with Christianity and was buried in a churchyard. These stories, like their heroes, reflect supernatural conflicts on many levels.  The new religion triumphs and its enemies are identified with sorcery.  And yet Christmas remains a time when feasts are threatened by many kinds of darkness and when the cold of the solstice reduces most humans to huddling around their fires, telling stories of heroes and monsters until light and warmth return.  The sagas of Bard, Gest and Grettir, like many others, make it clear that elements of the old religion retained their powers – even if only in the forms of barrow-dwellers and undead warriors – and their stories can still bring a sense of darkness and cold to a midwinter’s night.

Anne Lawrence-Mathers is a Professor of medieval history at the University of Reading, specialising in medieval magic and science, and the interfaces between the two. Anne’s latest monograph, Medieval Meteorology, is available here.

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A Ghostly Christmas Tale, by Professor David Stack

Charles Dickens loved Christmas and he loved a good ghost story too. His first attempt at a seasonal story, A Christmas Carol (1843), combined these two passions.

The tale of Scrooge’s haunting and redemption was subtitled A Ghost Story of Christmas, and its four ghosts, the remorseful Marley shackled by the chains he has forged in life; the gentle Ghost of Christmas Past; the jolly Ghost of Christmas Present; and the ominous Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, are the organising points that structure and drive Dickens’s narrative.

He followed it with four further Christmas novellas:The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846), and The Haunted Man (1848). But whereas A Christmas Carol endures in popular culture, and even sits proudly on the GCSE English Literature curriculum, defying the efforts of Gradgrind educationalists and examination boards to drain the joy from its message, his four follow-ups are now rarely read.

Dickens undoubtedly peaked early with A Christmas Carol, but his subsequent efforts all sold well in their day, and enjoyed stage adaptations. The critical reception was sometimes mixed, but Dickens’s readership delighted in the way all four books took up and developed themes from A Christmas Carol, including the power of ghosts to deepen human understanding and bring about a character’s redemption. In the fiercely anti-Malthusian The Chimes, goblin spirits persuade the lead character, Trotty Veck, to shake off his debilitating assumption that the poor are ‘born bad’. But it is in the last of his stories, The Haunted Man, or the Ghost’s Bargain, that Dickens achieved his most interesting take on a Christmas ghost story.

‘Frontispiece’, John Tenniel, The Victorian Web

The man haunted in the book’s title is Professor Redlaw, a ‘taciturn, thoughtful, gloomy’ academic, who we first meet on a darkening winter’s night, ensconced in his study, and staring into a fire that sends ‘a crowd of spectral shapes’ dancing across his wall. These, however, are not the phantoms that haunt him. Redlaw’s tormentors are the ghosts of his memories, of ‘sorrow, wrong, and trouble’ past that play upon his mind and are etched in the sunken eyes and hollow cheeks of his face. He yearns for release from this pain and towards the end of the first of the book’s three chapters, ‘The Gift Bestowed’, he makes the bargain of the book’s subtitle.

A doppelgänger phantom, ‘an awful likeness of himself’, emerges from the gloom and offers Redlaw the chance to cancel all painful remembrance. He agrees, and only then learns that this gift, once bestowed, is contagious, and that he will involuntarily bestow the same destruction of painful memories on all he meets.

The consequences of this power are explored in chapter two, ‘The Gift Diffused’, where Redlaw sees the kind, and previously happy, Tetterby and Swidger families become mean, selfish, and argumentative as they lose the ability to recollect painful and sorrowful memories. In the final chapter, ‘The Gift Reversed’, Redlaw sees the memories restored to those around him, and reaches the realisation that our sorrows, as much as our pleasures, are necessary for our happiness. ‘[M]y point’, Dickens explained to his publisher John Forster, ‘is that bad and good are irredeemably linked in remembrance, and that you could not choose the enjoyment of only recollecting the good. To have the best of it you must remember the worst also.’

‘Redlaw on the landing of the staircase’
Frank Stone, The Victorian Web

When Dickens had first conceived the story, in Lausanne in the summer of 1846, whilst still writing Dombey and Son (1846), he descried it as a ‘very ghostly and wild idea’.  But by the time he returned to it in the early winter of 1848, the ghostly element was more allegorical than supernatural. This is consistent with much of Dickens’s other work. Despite what Forster called his ‘hankering’ after ghost stories, and Dickens’s delight in reading them, he never seemed entirely comfortable with his own ghostly creations. At the end of A Christmas Carol Dickens teased his readers that it might not have been ghosts haunting Scrooge  after all: ‘He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards’. And he did something similar at the end of The Haunted Man, commenting that some thought Redlaw’s ‘Ghost was but the representation of his own gloomy thoughts’.

His readers, however, and more particularly the audiences who came to see the theatrical renderings of his Christmas novellas, had fewer qualms: they wanted ‘real’ ghosts! They got one in the first production of The Haunted Man, which opened at the Adelphi Theatre in London on 20 December, 1848, two days after the book’s publication. (Dickens had provided advance proofs and advised on the final stages of rehearsal.) But it was another production of The Haunted Man, fourteen years later in an 1862, that proved more significant in the history of theatre.

This featured the first performance of the technique known as ‘Pepper’s Ghost’, in which a brightly lit figure below the stage was reflected in a pane of glass placed between the actor playing Redlaw and the audience, to make it appear as if he were interacting with the ghost. This technique, which took its name from its inventor, science populariser John Henry Pepper, has been credited with launching the fashion for later-nineteenth century ghost-themed plays. It also, perhaps improbably, laid the basis for the technology which, in recent years, has been used to bring a number of deceased rappers, such as Tupac Shakur, Easy-E, and Ol’Dirty Bastard back to the stage.

The Haunted Man itself had no comparable literary legacy. Although some scholars have identified it as a staging post in Dickens’s development towards his mature masterpiece, Bleak House (1853), it is better read simply as another example of his insatiable fascination with Christmas. From his early essay, ‘A Christmas Dinner’ in Sketches by Boz (1836), through Magwitch’s Christmas Eve appearance in the graveyard in Great Expectations (1861), and the Christmas Day murder in his final, unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), Christmas was a constant in Dickens’s writing. Ghosts gave him a tool with which to explore this theme, but as with so many of us, it was memories of his youth, good and bad, that made the season for Dickens.

David Stack is a Professor of History at the University of Reading, specialising in the inter-relationship of ideas and politics in the history of Britain and beyond.

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Christmas at Sea: 400 Years of the Festive Season Afloat, with Dr Richard Blakemore

Dr Richard Blakemore gave this talk as part of an event on ‘Christmas at Sea: 400 Years of the Festive Season Afloat’ on 7 December 2021, organised by the Royal Museums Greenwich and Institute of Historical Research Maritime History & Culture Seminar. We are grateful to the seminar convenors for recording this session, and for their permission to share this video.

Dr Richard Blakemore is a historian and lecturer of the Early Modern Atlantic World at the University of Reading. His research explores the social history of seafarers in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. If you would like to find out more about Richard’s work on the maritime world of Early Modern Britain, you can do so in his recent edited collection here.

Additional Readings:

Journal of Edward Barlow, 1656-1703:

Merry Boys of Christmas, 1660:

Four Choice Carols for Christmas Holidays, 1700:

On Cromwell and Christmas:

On Christmas dinner in Tudor and Stuart England:

On Father Christmas:

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The Gothic ‘Other’ at Christmas, by Dan Renshaw

The tradition of telling scary stories at Christmas is an old one. Tales of ghouls and goblins during the festive season, dating back to the Elizabethan period, have become part of Christmas tradition. In the years before the First World War M.R James, provost of King’s College Cambridge, would in December invite a select few of his undergraduate students to his rooms, where, over a strong drink and by a crackling fire, he would recount his own accounts of the supernatural. These stories would eventually be published, and their author acknowledged as the primary exponent of the modern ghost story. To this day, it is rare for a Christmas to pass without James’s work being featured on radio and television.

But the relationship between the gothic and yuletide goes beyond M.R James. A number of writers of horror fiction at the turn of the century used Christmas as a suitable background for their work. One vampiric example is ‘The Old Portrait’ by Hume Nisbet, set on Christmas Eve, where an artist acquires a second-hand painting of a beautiful woman who, as he dozes and dreams, emerges from the frame to drink his blood.[1] However, the two short stories I will look at in more detail are Christmas horror tales which reveal contemporary late-Victorian and Edwardian concerns about the presence of the ‘ethnic other’, migration, and violence, in the British Empire, and in Britain itself; one set in rural India, and the other in a country manor, blanketed by snow, in the English countryside.

Dâk Bungalow

It is no coincidence that the gothic genre experienced an upsurge in popularity at the end of the nineteenth century, at a point when British colonial power was at its peak, but also a time where it was widely felt that the imperial juggernaut, and the wider society, were entering a period of decline, cultural as well as geopolitical. The gothic, not always consciously, dealt with these fears – of sexuality, of the position of women in society, of the results of technological change, and of ethnic difference.[2] It was also concerned with events in the empire – and India was a particular focus. Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle, both enthusiastic exponents of British colonialism, were fascinated by the South Asian ‘other’- the former using the Raj itself as a setting, whilst the latter often wrote of the Indian supernatural intruding on a British domestic tableau.[3] The story I will discuss, however, is by the British author B.M Croker, ‘The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor’ (1893).[4] Croker herself was from the (closer) boundaries of empire, born into a Protestant family in Ireland, but spent many years working and writing in India.[5] ‘The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor’ is notable for featuring two female protagonists, who are journeying across Gujarat to join their husbands for Christmas Day. These two Englishwomen are warned against doing so – a friend suggests they equip themselves both with quinine and with revolvers. The journey initially passes without incident, until the women stay for two nights in a house in a village on the route. Here, in the early morning, they have an encounter with a restless spirit, and witness his murder, which took place years before, played out again before them. At the conclusion of the story, they find his body, buried in a shallow grave, and resume their travels, in time for Christmas dinner with their partners.

This story reveals some of the assumptions, and fears, underpinning British control in the Indian Empire, as well as gender roles in both India and Britain. Firstly, Croker intends her heroines to be self-sufficient, despite others attempting to dissuade them, they travel independently (and armed), and solve the mystery of the haunted bungalow without male involvement. But crucially, they feel protected, and confident enough to traverse the Indian countryside, because of their white British identity. They are not in truth alone on this journey, they are accompanied by an Indian guide, Abdul, but they are unaccompanied by white men. Nevertheless, there is sufficient confidence in British hegemony and control in imperial India for the journey to be attempted, their Britishness and their whiteness giving them the right to travel where they please, without fear of injury or impediment. But in the second half of the gothic narrative this confidence is called into question. The man who is murdered is a white, British colonial administrator; his killers are both Indians, ‘othered’ in the text, portrayed as treacherous and avaricious, and one is described in the following terms: ‘a strange servant in a yellow turban, with cruel greedy eyes.’[6] Croker is suggesting that the assumptions that provide the basis for this sense of security are partially false – the British elite in India are resented by the Indian population, including that section of the society employed by or collaborating with the colonial administration, and this antipathy can potentially be expressed in extreme violence. The story might end with the women eating plum pudding in the company of their husbands, but this tale is not as cosy or as straightforward as it might initially appear.

The second gothic ‘othering’ to be discussed here that takes place over Christmas is set in Norfolk. This is the now obscure ‘The Terror in the Snow’ (1904) by B. Fletcher Robinson. Robinson is almost forgotten today, but was a close friend of Arthur Conan Doyle, and their discussions inspired the latter author to write The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902).[7] The adventure, partly horror and partly detective story, occurs in a palatial mansion in the countryside, where it appears that the bloody killing of a financial magnate as Christmas Eve turns into Christmas Day is supernatural in nature, and possibly the work of a werewolf. In the end it is ambiguous whether a lycanthrope is responsible or not. The murdered man is called Baron Steen, and it is made clear that he is a shady entrepreneur, who has made his money by nefarious means and ‘played a bold game on the Stock Exchange’.[8] Indeed, on the night he is torn to pieces he is about to flee the country by boat, with the police circling. It is also heavily implied, although not explicitly stated, that he is Jewish. This characterisation grows out of a contemporary antisemitic stereotype that depicted Jews as corrupt businessmen, and also as arrivistes. Baron Steen has bought the country estate from an aristocratic family that has fallen on hard times, and in a classic gothic plot device, have been cursed for several generations by a beast that haunts the environs of the mansion on snowy winter nights. The Baron represents modernity, but also the widespread Edwardian trope of Jews financially supplanting non-Jews (especially the old landed gentry), as well as being ‘vulgar’ and ‘flash’. Ultimately, he pays for this with his life. The sentiments that informed these depictions resulted in political change; the year after this tale was published, the Aliens Act was passed, which allowed for restriction on entry into the United Kingdom (and was particularly concerned with Jewish migration from Eastern Europe), and also facilitated deportation.[9]

Christmas is often accompanied by spooky tales. But it is not solely the ghosts of Christmas past who are there at the festive celebrations with clanking chains and cold draughts. In the fin-de-siècle gothic narrative contemporary prejudices lurk, sometimes acknowledged, and sometimes suppressed, but always present, and haunting the society in which they were formulated.

Dan Renshaw teaches modern British and European history at the University of Reading, and is particularly interested in migration history and the overlap between migration, minority identity and the gothic.

[1] Hume Nisbet, ‘The Old Portrait’ in Richard Dalby (ed.), Dracula’s Brood (London: Harper, 1987) pp.275-279

[2] See Stephen D. Arata, ‘The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonisation’ in Victorian Studies (vol. 33, no.4, 1990) pp.621-645, Judith Halberstam, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters, (London: Duke University Press, 1995), David Punter, The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day (London: Longman, 1996)

[3] Ailise Bulfin, Gothic Invasions: Imperialism, War, and Fin-de-Siecle Popular Fiction, (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2018), Darryl Jones, ‘Introduction’ in Arthur Conan Doyle, Gothic Tales, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016)

[4] B.M Croker, The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor’ in Roger Luckhurst (ed.), Late Victorian Gothic Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) pp.96-108

[5] Luckhurst, ‘Introduction’ in Late Victorian Gothic Tales, p.xxiv

[6] Croker, The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor’, p.104

[7] B. Fletcher Robinson, ‘The Terror in the Snow’, in Mark Valentine (ed.), The Werewolf Pack (Ware: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2008), pp.61-79

[8] Fletcher Robinson, ‘The Terror in the Snow’, p.62

[9] Bernard Gainer, The Alien Invasion: The Origins of the Aliens Act of 1905 (London: Heinemann Educational, 1972), Carol Margaret Davison, Anti-Semitism and British Gothic Literature (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)

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Supernaturally chattering teeth: Romanticism and the politics of gathering winter fuel, by Dr Jeremy Burchardt

In recent years I’ve been researching and teaching on rural landscape and the way it has been represented in England since the late eighteenth century.  It is widely agreed that the Romantic movement, and in particular the Romantic poets, played a key role in shaping these representations.  Romanticism is often criticized for purveying a lush, idealized vision of rural life, with much of the hardship and social conflict written out of it.  Poets such as Wordsworth and Keats and painters like Constable are seen by many as progenitors of the so-called ‘rural idyll’ which scholars have devoted much attention to debunking.  However, although there may be some truth in this view, closer attention to some of the foundational texts of English Romanticism and to the social context in which they were written suggests that the simplification and distortion lay more in the subsequent reception and (mis)use of these works than in their original message.  In this blog I want to look at one of the poems published in the first edition of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798), often regarded as the first major Romantic statement in English literature.

Poems by William Wordsworth (1815), Volume I, Wikimedia Commons

The poem in question is Wordsworth’s ‘Goody Blake and Harry Gill’, which tells the story of how a well-to-do farmer, Harry Gill, apprehends a poor woman, Goody Blake, when she attempts to steal some firewood from one of his hedges in the midst of winter.  Goody curses him and, thereafter, his teeth will not stop chattering, however many overcoats he puts on.  Superficially this could be read as a conventional seasonal injunction to the wealthy to show charity to the poor, with a whimsical and even sentimental come-uppance for the hard-hearted, from the same ideological stable as Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) and John Mason Neale’s ‘Good King Wenceslas’ (1853).  But a closer reading and contextualization of Wordsworth’s stanzas show that his social criticism was sharper and more penetrating.

At first sight, Wordsworth’s choice of a farmer as protagonist is surprising.  Farmers were not at the apex of rural society at this time – that place was occupied by the aristocracy.  Farmers were several rungs down the social ladder and most of them rented their land from aristocrats and other landowners.  If Wordsworth wanted to compose a parable to teach charity, it would have been more natural to juxtapose Goody Blake with a wealthy landowner, rather as ‘yonder peasant’ is matched with King Wenceslas in Neale’s carol.  However, Wordsworth was well aware that the rural poor in fact had few points of contact with landowners.  It was farmers who employed most of them, and as population growth depressed agricultural wages from the late eighteenth century onwards, a social gulf opened up between farmers and the rural poor.  Commentators observed that newly genteel farmers were buying pianos and sofas, while there were tales of labourers being paid through holes in farmhouse walls so their employers should not have to sully themselves with direct social contact.  In pitting Harry Gill against Goody Blake, Wordsworth was drawing attention to the human consequences of this widening chasm in rural society, a chasm that over the next half century would spawn repeated outbreaks of politically motivated arson and machine-breaking culminating in the ‘Captain Swing’ riots of the winter of 1830-31.

Elderly Woman Gathering Firewood, The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), University of Reading

Wordsworth’s decision to focus his poem on collecting firewood underlines the extent to which he had his finger on the pulse of the tensions racking Georgian rural society.  As Wrigley and others have demonstrated, England was suffering from a growing fuel crisis in the eighteenth century.  Across much of the country, wood was the cheapest fuel but it was in competition with food crops for land, and as population grew, the latter proved more profitable.  Tree cover decreased and firewood became an increasingly valuable commodity, often fiercely protected by farmers and landowners.  In this situation it was coal that came to the rescue, but because road transport was difficult and expensive, only for those with good access to navigable water.  This rarely applied to inland parts of rural counties like poverty-stricken Dorset, where Wordsworth set his poem:

This woman dwelt in Dorsetshire,

Her hut was on a cold hill-side,

And in that country coals are dear,

For they come far by wind and tide.

Nor is it an accident that Goody Blake’s income derives from spinning.  Ironically the Industrial Revolution resulted in a deindustrialization of rural England, especially in southern counties like Dorset, as small-scale, cottage-based industries were out-competed by larger, factory-based enterprises, mainly in urban settings.  The result was that the price of yarn fell and independent producers like Goody Blake, reliant on it for their income, had to work longer hours to earn enough to feed themselves, often having to work long into the night to do so.  But this brought further problems.  It is difficult for us to comprehend the sheer darkness of the countryside in winter before the arrival of mains electricity.  Candles, the only tolerably bright and durable light source, were an expensive luxury.  These issues particularly affected women, who were the mainstay of domestic industry in the countryside, above all widows and ‘spinsters’ (as the name implies), who were unlikely to have any other major income source.  Wordsworth draws attention to these interlinked issues in a few succinct lines:

Auld Goody Blake was old and poor,

Ill fed she was, and thinly clad;

And any man who pass’d her door,

Might see how poor a hut she had.

All day she spun in her poor dwelling,

And then her three hours’ work at night!

Alas! ’twas hardly worth the telling,

It would not pay for candle-light.

Beyond this, the poem addresses a more fundamental change – the hardening of property rights as pre-modern paternalism gave way to a capitalist market economy.  The old ‘moral economy’ whereby the wealthy recognized reciprocal obligations to the poor and property rights were often non-exclusive was rapidly waning in the 1790s and this was felt especially acutely in the countryside.  Firewood like the sticks Goody Blake attempted to take from Harry Gill’s hedge was just one example of the commodification of rural resources.  This was also the great age of Parliamentary enclosure, whereby the commons with their multiple users were fenced and made over to exclusive private ownership, and of the rapid withering away of gleaning, the practice of allowing the poor to gather grains spilled during harvesting for their own use, now increasingly prohibited by farmers.  Wordsworth calls into question the legitimacy of these vast changes in social custom and mores, and the legislative framework that codified them, by framing property rights in relation to two even more fundamental sources of authority: nature and divinity.  Although Harry Blake lays claim to the hedge, it is also a natural object and, especially in the context of other poems in Lyrical Ballads that identify nature as a source of transcendent truth and meaning, the implication is that it resists subordination to ‘unnatural’ purposes such as Harry’s.  Nature in early Wordsworth is often difficult to distinguish from divinity but here the supernatural curse that falls on the young farmer is clear evidence that he has outraged the divine as well as the natural order.  Hence, although Wordsworth’s poem might appear to be no more than a seasonal folk tale enjoining a clichéd conventional moral, once restored to their social history context Harry Gill’s chattering teeth turn out to have a surprisingly sharp political bite.

Jeremy Burchardt is an Associate Professor at the University of Reading, specialising in the history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century English rural society.

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Sugar and Slavery: Reproductive Mills, by Jude Reeves

I have been given the opportunity to share my experience working as an intern at the Mills Archive Trust on Watlington Street, a registered charity dedicated to the protection and preservation of records of milling history, in the summer of 2021. My placement was funded by the University of Reading’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities (UROP) programme, which offers six-week funded student research projects, supervised by a member of staff, in the summer vacation before final year.

This placement involved exploring how sugar milling during the era of slavery contributed to the development of new global markets in the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries. I researched the role played by enslaved people, especially women, in sugar milling and how this changed over time. I researched technological changes in sugar milling and I also considered the legacies of the subsequent decline in sugar milling on Caribbean islands in relation to the rise of tourism on the islands. My findings have all been collated into a digital exhibition which can be accessed, below. These are important subjects to research as Britain as a nation increasingly confronts its colonial past and seeks to develop more inclusive histories and associated teaching resources.

My placement saw me moving between the office of the archive and the university library to utilise both places’ resources, supervised by Emily West in the Department of History, and Liz Bartram, Director of the Mills Archive Trust. It was my first chance to be in an archive – COVID has a lot to answer for in that respect! Having begun university in 2019 and then going into lockdown in March 2020, this was my first opportunity to gain hands on experience in heritage and to get to physically touch history and learn in such a visual way. When I began my placement, I knew very little about the history of milling and so I was apprehensive about how I would settle into the research. It turns out, it was far more accessible than I expected. The first two weeks of my placement were full of reading, reading, and more reading. Getting my head around the topic and building my confidence were my top priorities of the first couple of weeks to make sure I felt confident going into the next stage of my placement.

The second half of my placement was surrounding the creation of the literature for the digital exhibition, including making use of the Mills Archive Trust’s extensive collection of images related to sugar milling. It made me focus in on selecting the best material that I had collected and collating it into a coherent narrative for the audience to view. This was where I felt I gained the most from my time at the archive, I was introduced to a totally new way of writing and presenting material. Until this point, I had only written in an academic style and in a rather passive voice. This was the first time I had written in such a direct way and it helped me develop an understanding of the way curators present digital exhibitions.

Partaking in the UROP scheme has been a truly formative experience. It has given me the opportunity to explore different areas of history and various jobs in the heritage sector. It has further invigorated my desire to work in curatorship in the future and I cannot thank Liz and everyone else at the archive enough for taking me under their wing and giving me this fantastic experience during possibly the most seminal period of my academic life.

Jude Reeves is a third-year student studying History and English Literature. Her UROP project focused upon creating a digital exhibition which displays the links between sugar milling in the Caribbean and the treatment of enslaved people, especially women. See below to view the digital exhibition of Jude’s UROP project at the Mills Archive Trust:

Learn more about the Mills Archive Trust and the University of Reading’s UROP programme.

Jude will be giving a presentation about her project via MS teams on Wednesday 27th October at 1pm. To receive the joining link, please email

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Abdulrazak Gurnah, the 2021 Nobel Literature Prize, and a Challenge to White Fragility, by Dr Heike I. Schmidt

NPR, the US American public radio station, was broadcasting some critical reporting on the day of the announcement of the 2021 Nobel Literature Prize, 7 October. The journalists were discussing that, while the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o had been nominated many times, surely again the Nobel Committee would name not an accomplished and celebrated author from the global south, let alone a black writer, but to what many would be an obscure artist or eccentric choice of usually a white male from the west. Then the news broke that Zanzibari born Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Prize, the only second black African author, after Wole Soyinka from Nigeria in 1986, among a list of white writers from the region spread across 1957 to 2008. This set news agencies scrambling to find information on Gurnah and his work.

Much can be noted about this, not least considering that in addition to older forms of oral literature such as epics, Africa’s rich literary output since the mid-20th century in the genre of the novel has not merely added to or enriched the literary corpus. A British colleague pointed out to me a few years ago that literature is what was written by British authors up to 1900 and another colleague added that of course in English lessons at school one reads authors whose first language is English. The range of views on what that corpus encompasses still includes a significant articulation of ignorance, white privilege, and indeed what Robin DiAngelo coined ‘white fragility’, here the fear that ‘the other’, i.e. in this case non British English writers, the global south, black authors, has produced art that does not just rival but that stands shoulder to shoulder with works from the west.

Abdulrazak Gurnah
By PalFest – originally posted to Flickr as Abulrazak Gurnah on Hebron Panel, CC BY 2.0

When fellow Zanzibari born and British based artist Lubaina Himid won the Turner Prize in 2017, annually awarded to a British Artist (based or born), she was the first black woman to achieve this prestigious honour since its inauguration in 1984. Himid emphasises how much her positionality as a black woman informs her art and chosen role as a cultural activist. In whatever manner Abdulrazak Gurnah wishes to identify – black, Zanzibari, diasporic, after having lived the majority of his life in Britain – his art must be foregrounded in this critical discourse of the asymmetry of power in cultural, economic, and global relations between the west and the global south.

The Nobel Prize committee issued the Literature Prize announcement and press release with this explanation: Gurnah won ‘for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.’[1] This author cannot claim to have read all of Gurnah’s literary output. But there are two aspects that as an Africanist and gender historian one may take some issue with. The verb ‘penetration’ is an unfortunate choice for various reasons not least because it has been shown that it represents an androcentric and sexualised view of power and forcefulness that was part of the colonial and imperial discourse.[2] More importantly, one particularly celebrated work by Gurnah is his tremendous novel Paradise (1994) which is a beautiful, troubling, and wonderfully complicated exploration as a coming of age story of a boy, Yusuf. It is set in the early colonial period in what today is Tanzania, consisting of the mainland, first colonised by Germany as German East Africa from the late nineteenth century – and then after World War I handed over by the League of Nations to Britain as mandated territory when it was renamed Tanganyika – and the islands of Zanzibar which were under British rule. Both gained independence in the early 1960s and after a revolution in Zanzibar chose to join as the Republic of Tanzania in 1962. Gurnah carefully situates the novel indicating that German rule had arrived without engaging the theme of colonialism at all. Instead of, to paraphrase the Nobel announcement, ‘penetrating the effects of colonialism’ what Gurnah does brilliantly in this novel that made him globally famous is to look into the complexities of Swahili society and the lived experience of a boy pawned by his parents from a Swahili town in the interior to the coast.

Hamish Hamilton: London, 1994

The complex negotiations that characterised identities of the western Indian Ocean became even more pronounced in the nineteenth century. The volume and geographic reach of the East African slave trade increased after abolition in the Atlantic, and the Sultan of Oman moved his capital city to Africa, anointing himself the Sultan of Zanzibar, as it was here where the emirate was generating its wealth and where direct control of the merchant activities was important, with the main palaces facing the harbour, with the warehouses at their feet. The exceptional choice of composing this coming of age story of a boy before abolition of slavery on the islands of Zanzibar in 1897 and on the mainland in 1922 was, when first published, and is to this day mesmerising and astonishing. Who could one be in this world? With the boy Yusuf experiencing both bondage and accompanying a slave trading caravan into the interior, first love across ethnic boundaries with the complicated articulations of slave, Swahili (free or unfree), Indian, and Arab as some of the identities, in a predominantly Muslim world where Islam having arrived a thousand years before, the reader is literally and metaphorically taken on a moving exploration of self. One of the uncomfortable identity markers is the African and Arab othering of non-Muslims as washenzi (Kiswahili: barbarians, uncultured people) in contrast to Muslims as ustaarabu (Kiswahili: civilised). In the understanding of the time washenzi could be enslaved.

The novel Paradise challenges western stereotypes of Africa as a continent of tribes, as Africa predominantly shaped by the black Atlantic, as Africa south of the Sahara a Christian world region threatened by recent Islamicist extremism. It takes the reader on an at times uneasy path, accompanying Yusuf growing up as he negotiates manliness and masculinity and tries to find a place in the world he inhabits, something that existentially all humans do as a rite de passage through puberty. For many westerners, and especially those with white privilege, that lived experience appears safe, achievable, and certainly well-deserved. What maybe is most astonishing about Gurnah’s literary achievements is that he weaves narrative without pointing an educational finger. His art invites the reader to travel and explore the human experience that we all share, takes us to raw and even painful places but also the magically beautiful and secluded garden where Yusuf experiences the longing of first love.

Dr Heike I. Schmidt is an Associate Professor in African History at the University of Reading, specialising in gender, colonialism, violence & conflict, nationalism, and identity. Dr Schmidt is currently writing a gendered history of violence and the colonial encounter. 

[1] The Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee,, 7 October 2021.

[2] Much has been published since. For an early treatment, see H. I. Schmidt, ‘”Penetrating” Foreign Lands: Contestations over African Landscape. A Case Study from Eastern Zimbabwe’ Environment and History 1, no. 3 (1995), 351-376.

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Celebrating Black History Month: Citizenship, Belonging and the Political Imagination of Women in Rhodesia, by Shepherd Mutswiri

Re-posted from our Gender History Research Cluster

I was struck by the imposing Irish symbols and their historical meaning. The Irish Defence Forces marched on stage holding the Irish flag which had been chosen as the national flag during the Irish War of Independence in 1919.  As I sat there, I heard the national anthem and I looked up with a great sense of belonging and pride. Then we all stood up and pledged our fidelity to the Irish State. The Army Band under the command of Captain Carroll provided the music that day. The carefully choreographed ceremony was celebratory, and the mood was jovial, but it was the simple but poignant display of patriotism that was immensely moving. It left an indelible impression on me. Since then, my identity and belonging were intricately interwoven with the past and future of the Irish State, while being immensely proud to be Zimbabwean. When I look back at this internalization of symbols and images on the day of my Irish citizenship ceremony, I realise that identity is not static.

I had been a bit fraught wondering how long my application would take, but it turned out not to be an arduous wait. Alan Shatter, Minister for Justice (2011-2014) cleared a backlog of over 20,000 citizenship applications and in 2011 introduced the first-ever citizenship ceremonies in Ireland. Shatter was born to a Jewish family in Dublin. He remarked on the day of my citizenship ceremony how immigrants had contributed positively to Irish society.  Sadly, his reputation went up in flames in 2014 after a report by a barrister raised concerns about whether Minister Shatter had properly investigated complaints by a whistle-blower concerning Garda (national police force) misconduct. He would later write in his book that, ‘After my resignation from government all of the allegations that led to my political downfall would be discredited and established to be entirely untrue by two different independent statutory Judicial Commissions of Investigation’. He observed that ‘truth and justice matter but they do not inevitably win out’.[1]

Often tied to the idea of citizenship is the question: what underlies a sense of community and how is it constructed? Anderson (2006) suggested that communities are imagined through print culture.[2] Allman (2013) suggested that it is time to go beyond imagined communities that were formed through a shared print culture and explore how community was constructed through forms of culture such as song and dance to excavate claims of nationalism in performance.[3] This idea tests the limits of Benedict Anderson’s imagined communities.

Belonging is an ongoing process that involves membership in, or exclusion from a community. In this regard, when people negotiate identities, it is done so with other people’s consent.  Newcomers to a community may not be imagined to be part of that community and shared identity might not necessarily be extended to them. Furthermore, others may choose not to seek belonging or reciprocal obligations that come with certain social identities. The concept of belonging is central to our understanding of how people ascribe meaning to their lives. The ascription of ethnic identities is a common subject in African studies. Ethnic naming and how people were categorised into distinct groups during the colonial period is also essential in researching belonging. Worby (1994) observed that the power to name others, and the authority to create maps and boundaries to categorise ethnic identities and culture formed an important part of colonisation.[4] These divisions had the potential to undermine or marginalise certain groups. A similar concern with the interaction between inventions and imaginings has been central in Terence Ranger’s writing on Zimbabwean history. His early work situated this dialectic in the form of contestation between collaboration and primary forms of resistance to modern political nationalism.[5] His complementary perspective on resistance and imaginings provided a more dynamic counterpoint in the face of any repression and oppression.

I would like to go back to the point Alan Shatter made about truth and justice. It resonates with what Cornel West, a scholar of African American studies perceives to be important in any discussion about gender, race, or equality. He states that ‘The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak’.[6] In analysing the transition from the imperial system to nation-states, some voices have been misrepresented or ignored. Oppressed peoples have often used religion and culture to express their freedom. In the 1940s and 1950s, Africans were driven off their land by the colonial state and put into Reserves which led to crippling overcrowding in Makoni, Manyikaland in Zimbabwe. In 1965, the then British Prime Minister Harold Wilson sought to decolonize Southern Rhodesia and bring majority rule, but the Rhodesian Front (RF) led by Ian Smith’s minority government resisted the ‘winds of change’. To avoid majority rule, RF illegally declared independence from Britain. Although Britain was still legally responsible for Southern Rhodesia, it had great difficulty asserting power to end Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from 1965-1979. In the 1950s and 1960s, people in Makoni were desperate to align with anyone who would help them fight land alienation as a result of RF’s policies. Unfortunately, the revolutionary nationalists did not have it easy either. Nationalist parties were banned, and their revolutionary leaders were put into detention in 1964 and for 8 years there was no formal organisation of African opposition in Makoni. The banned political parties formed African National Council (ANC) and pinned their hopes on a Bishop of the American Methodist Church, Abel Muzorewa to lead the party in their absence.[7]

Women’s agency has previously been marginalised in political discourse and they were often regarded as passive observers in nationalist discourse. However, in Makoni, Ranger argued that the ANC nationalist party acquired most of its energy from the political participation of Rukwadzano Rwe Wadzimai (RRW), a women’s self-help group within the American Methodist Church.[8] The RRW women played a huge role in nationalist activities by taking part in pro-Muzorewa political protests. This mobilisation added to the fight against the colonial state, engendered by an idea of citizenship and belonging. In 1979, for the first time in the country’s history, citizenship was expanded to incorporate black Africans after Ian Smith conceded to ‘one man one vote’ to Rhodesia’s 6.5 million blacks and 268,000 whites.

Frederick Cooper has challenged historians to investigate the dynamics of citizenship in colonial Africa. Citizenship was not just about rights, but about belonging to a political unit that could make demands on its citizenry.[9] Social movements could also operate within the imperial system and make demands on the colonial state. More importantly, the political imaginations of workers, peasants or women did not always fit neatly into the nationalist framework.[10] We must reflect on the ethical importance of respecting these deeply interwoven narratives. To accommodate various imaginativeness that existed in Rhodesia, we must recapture the political imagination of RRW women through the appropriation of Christian theology and culturally idiosyncratic agency. This will require going beyond Benedict Anderson’s print capitalism’s explanation of imagined communities to looking at how political imagination was performed and articulated.

Recently scholars have looked at music and dance as forms of culture that not only construct but reflect claims of nationalism in performance. The performative art of song and dance had meaning in the lives of RRW women. Perhaps now we can begin to ask questions about how a sense of community can be constructed through songs and dance. This will allow us to get a clearer picture of the important roles played by women in mobilising and performing nationalism.

Shepherd Mutswiri is a PhD Student of History, specialising in nationalism and religion in Zimbabwe between 1960 to 1980.

[1]Alan Shatter, Frenzy and Betrayal: The Anatomy of a Political Assassination, (Dublin, 2019), pp.7-9.

[2] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York, 2006), pp. 9-37.

[3] Jean Allman, ‘Between the Present and History: African Nationalism and Decolonization’ in: John Parker and Richard Reid (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Modern African History (Oxford, 2013), 10-11.

[4] Eric Worby, ‘Maps, Names, and Ethnic Games: The Epistemology and Iconography of Colonial Power in Northwestern Zimbabwe’, Journal of Southern African Studies, 20, no. 3 (1994), pp. 371-92.

[5] Terence Ranger, ‘Connections between “Primary” Resistance Movements and Modern Mass Nationalism in East and Central Africa’, Journal of African History, 9, 3 and 4 (1968); ‘The Invention of Tradition in Colonial Africa’ in E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger (eds), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge, 1983).

[6] Cornel West, There Is Joy in Struggle, Harvard Divinity School. (2019).

[7] Luise White, Unpopular Sovereignty: Rhodesian Independence and African Decolonization (Chicago, 2015). p.214.

[8] Terence Ranger, Religion and Rural Protests: Makoni District, Zimbabwe, 1900 to 1980′, in J. Bak and G. Benecke (eds), Religion and Rural Revolt, papers presented to the Fourth Interdisciplinary Workshop on Peasant Studies, (British Columbia, 1982). p. 329.

[9] Frederick Cooper, Decolonization and African Society: The Labor Question in French and British Africa (New York, 1996). pp.266-268.

[10] Jean Allman, ‘Between the Present and History, p.10.

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How to prepare for your seminars, by Abbie Tibbot

Hello everyone! My name is Abbie and I’m a PhD student in the History department.

University is a lot to take in when you first get here but, when you’re feeling a bit more settled, it’ll be time to get stuck into to your seminars. In 2016, I started my BA in History, and I also studied for my MA at Reading. My experience as a student here means I have some advice on how to prepare for seminars and make the most out of the contact time you have.

1.Show up

I know, it’s obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many of my former course mates thought that they could muddle through a module without attending all the seminars. Small-group teaching is a core method of learning for History modules and missing out on these key moments of discussion will be to your detriment! 

It can be daunting to head to a seminar with only a few people, especially during the first few weeks, but I promise the nerves will be worth it as it’s a great environment to learn in. I’d advise leaving a little bit early if you’re not sure where to go and take some time to read the floor plans on the walls of buildings to find out where you’re based that session. Arrive, set up your laptop or notebook and take a few minutes to acclimatise rather than rushing in at the last minute. Having regular attendance will also help you get into a good routine straight away, which I found difficult to achieve when living away from home for the first time.

Shy? Not to worry, the environment is new to everyone, which leads me onto my next tip.

2. Prepare to get involved

Trust me, the last thing I wanted to do in my first semester at university was to make myself look stupid in front of everyone else, but those fears were quite quickly put to rest once I made the commitment to contribute to every seminar in some way. You may find that some lecturers assign group reading or small presentations to encourage people to speak up, but other staff members will play it by ear regarding how much involvement there is in the discussion. 

There’s no hand raising at university, so jump on in and say what you’re thinking. I decided early on that I wanted to contribute something at least once in each seminar I attended, and I found that rule built the confidence to say even more. Everyone is nervous, and your contribution may inspire others to say something too! I naturally made friends with the more talkative people in my seminars, so this tactic may bag you some good friends along the way. 

3. Get your reading done

There are always going to be a few disasters along the way but, as a general rule, turning up to seminars without reading the assigned work will make the class a lot less useful than it could have been. Here are a few tips for getting it done:

  • Assign a time each week to work on your reading. Wednesday afternoons are a good choice if you don’t play a sport as it’s most likely you’ll have the afternoon off. 
  • Once you’ve made some friends, split the reading up between you, copy and paste your notes onto Google Sheets (it updates in real time) or email them to each other. 
  • Make notes. You’ll read so much that it’ll be hard to remember everything off the top of your head. 

4. Ask for help when you need it

Studying at university is different to school, so don’t let yourself fall behind unnecessarily. There are lots of resources both within the department and outside it, but if you’re struggling with reading, essay planning or just what to do (we’ve all been there), please go and see a member of staff. Your academic tutor is a great choice for study related issues, and they’ll be able to guide you towards the relevant help.

I’d been taught to reference completely incorrectly at school, so I had to quickly relearn before I started writing essays. I was directed to support at the library where I had a quick session giving me tips on how to quickly master the referencing system that our department uses.

If you’d like to find out more about me, I run a #studygram account on Instagram, with the handle @tibbotttalks_study, where I share my life as a student and promote my own blogging platform: where you can find lots of undergraduate-themed content to help you be a thriving history student. I write new blogs every week about the university experience, as well as sharing insights into major decisions I’ve made along the way. 

If you see me on campus (or any other PhD History Student) come and say hello – we are always happy to lend an ear!

Abbie Tibbot is a PhD Student in women’s history, focusing on Conservative Cabinet politics of the interwar cabinet concerning women’s citizenship in Britain.

Twitter: abbie_tibbott

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The Cold War, the Drug War, and… Summer Camp in the 1980s, by Richard M. Balzano

The Cold War shaped the latter half of the American twentieth century, and the bipolar standoff and its peripheral contests could be felt in every corner of domestic American life. Washington’s security pursuits often generated results that contradicted domestic goals, especially so with drug policy. When Ronald Reagan assumed the US presidency in 1981 on a campaign promise to reignite the Cold War, he delivered on that promise in such a way that Cold War security initiatives exacerbated America’s drug crisis. In turn, Reagan responded by escalating the ‘war on drugs’ in all the wrong hardline places. These inconsistent and contradicting policies are evident throughout the 1980s, but most glaring when they intersect in the least likely of places: the American summer camp.

First lady Nancy Reagan visited America’s summer camps throughout the 1980s. During her visits, the first lady participated in recreational activities and spoke on matters of leisure and importance, using these visits as a platform for her ‘Just Say No’ anti-drug campaign. Although the campaign sought to reduce demand, ‘Just Say No’ was a far cry from the enlightened, support-based demand-reduction model that experts would promote in coming decades, nor was it a step in that direction.[1] ‘Just Say No’ appealed to individualism and personal responsibility through intimidation and alienation, aligning ‘“drugs”…with a dangerous and roughly defined “other”’, and presenting America’s addiction problem ‘as the consequence of collective personal failure in affected communities rather than a public health crisis’.[2] After extolling the virtues of accountability on campers, the first lady would on occasion seek to extract sobriety pledges from children as young as age six.[3]

The Reagan administration escalated both the drug war and the Cold War throughout the 1980s, although the methods and outcomes were contradicting. On the foreign policy front, the administration exacerbated civil strife in Central America by backing rights-abusing anticommunist regimes and insurgents. Despite legislative obstacles and congressional opposition, Reagan put his weight behind the Nicaraguan Contra insurgency and made overt and clandestine efforts to fund them, while his perception management team worked tirelessly to package these initiatives in the altruism and simplicity of Manichean Cold War rhetoric.[4] Ronald Reagan’s February 1985 State of the Union address famously identified the Contras as ‘freedom fighters’, a brand his administration vigorously projected.[5]

On Reagan’s watch, American intelligence enabled Nicaraguan expatriates to bring substantial amounts of cocaine into the US, and the proceeds of which were used to fund the Contra insurgency.[6] The Contra-cocaine connection was first exposed in late 1985 by journalists Robert Parry and Brian Barger, and investigated further by then-Democratic Senator John Kerry as the Iran-Contra affair unfolded in 1986.[7] Diligent and controversial research by late journalist Gary Webb in the following decade exposed a labyrinth of American complicity, and Webb identified this particular supply chain as a catalyst in America’s 1980s ‘crack’-cocaine outbreak.[8]

Journalist Gary Webb

On the domestic front, the Reagan administration escalated the ‘war on drugs’—the same war that US intelligence was simultaneously exacerbating. Draconian legal penalties were introduced for non-violent and drug-related offenses throughout the 1980s, proving an early step towards America’s current mass-incarceration model.[9] The administration’s punitive and contradicting initiatives were flanked by Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign, presented in classrooms, summer camps, and similar environments.

Nancy Reagan was likely not privy to the scope of American complicity in the ‘crack’-cocaine outbreak of the 1980s, but the Iran-Contra scandal and the reports of cocaine trafficking carried out by her husband’s favourite pet insurgency would have been difficult for the first lady to ignore.[10] Perhaps Nancy Reagan dismissed the Contra-cocaine connection as a liberal media’s partisan conspiracy? After all, the Contras were supposed to be ‘freedom fighters’ central to American security. Dismissing the connection was much easier than the mental-gymnastics required to rationalize selling ‘crack’ for freedom and security—although the intelligence community held no qualms about it![11]

In the summer of 1987, Nancy Reagan’s only summer camp visit took place at the Agassiz Village camp in Poland, Maine. It was her first camp visit since the Iran-Contra story broke, and it would be her last camp visit as first lady. She pitched ‘Just Say No’ to 300 children aged six to sixteen, and 100 camp counselors, after which she invited them to declare their commitment to sobriety by signing pledge cards. Only 250 of the 400 attendees signed—a disappointing 62.5 percent.[13] If Hollywood’s depictions of the American summer camp experience have merit, we may assume that commitments to sobriety were lowest among camp counselors. If we move forward under the assumption that counselors monolithically chose Bacchus, or if they were gerrymandered and excluded from pledging, 250 pledges from 300 campers (83.3 percent) is not particularly impressive either, especially if one considers that the age six-to-nine demographic will sign most anything at the prospect of sugar or if the writing utensil produces colour. We may safely assume that the 150 missing pledges came from older campers and counselors.[14]

If Hollywood is wrong, which it usually is, then perhaps there was more to those missing signatures than teenage delinquency. Perhaps the first lady was unable to solicit a high number of sobriety pledges in her final summer camp visit because of the way her message resonated with her audience. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum describes Camp Agassiz as a summer camp for handicapped children, but this is misleading.[15] Although Agassiz Village integrated children with disabilities into their programming in the 1950s, the camp’s goal was ‘to provide a camping experience for boys from various social agencies, hospitals, clinics and schools in the Greater Boston area’. By the mid-1970s the camp was co-ed, and their doors were open to not only disabled children but children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and communities at the time of Nancy Reagan’s 1987 visit. Further, the camp enjoys a tradition of alumni returning as counselors.[16] Many of these economically disadvantaged campers were likely predisposed to the perils of addiction described in Nancy Reagan’s message, although it wasn’t a dangerous ‘other’ but rather a personal or communal experience. While it is tempting to presume that 150 of Agassiz Village’s campers and counselors chose an iconically dazed and confused American summer camp experience, perhaps they refused to sign because they recognized that the perils of addiction were brought on by the administration’s reforms and/or interventionist policies.[17] Nancy Reagan’s final summer camp visit was a blunder, indicative of the tone deafness of ‘Just Say No’ and America’s failing drug war on the whole.

Richard M. Balzano is a PhD student of History at the University of Reading. He specailses in US foreign policy and inter-American relations in Latin America’s Cold War, and therein intersections of development, human rights and US financial assistance. 

[1] See Global Commission on Drugs, ‘War on Drugs: Report on the Global Commission on Drug Policy’, (accessed 06 July 2021); Organization of American States (OAS), ‘The OAS Drug Report: 16 Months of Debates and Consensus’, (accessed 06 July 2021).

[2] Michael McGrath, ‘Nancy Reagan and the negative impact of the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign’, The Guardian, 08 March 2016, (accessed 01 July 2021).

[3] Howard Kany, ‘First lady visits Camp Agassiz Village, Lewiston Daily Sun, 07 July 1987.

[4] There was a whole office designated to shape the media narrative around Washington’s Latin American engagements. The Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean (OPD), run by Otto Reich. The OPD was created by Reagan and its supervision was limited to the US State Department, keeping it insulated from accountability. The OPD unraveled during the Iran-Contra scandal, and it was investigated and shut down after Congress determined it violated US law by projecting propaganda on US citizens. For the OPD, see Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (New York: Metropolitan/Henry Holt, 2006), 124-136, 229. For a goldmine of documents on Reich’s activities, see Thomas Blanton, ed., ‘Public Diplomacy and Covert Propaganda: The Declassified Record of Ambassador Otto Juan Reich’, National Security Archive, Electronic Briefing Book No. 40, 02 March 2001, (accessed 01 July 2021). For a comprehensive account of the Reagan administration’s perception management efforts in Nicaragua, see Eldon Kenworthy, America/Americas: Myth in the Making of U.S. Policy Toward Latin America (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania University Press, 1995).

[5] The Reagan Doctrine was cast at the 1985 State of the Union address. Reagan’s support for ‘freedom fighters’ implied Washington’s intention to support subversive and insurgent forces when geopolitically convenient.

[6] Gary Webb, Dark Alliance: The CIA, The Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999); Robert Parry, ‘How John Kerry exposed the Contra-cocaine scandal’, Salon, 25 October 2004, (accessed 02 July 2021). In the spirit of bipartisan fairness, clandestine relationships between US intelligence and international narcotics operations were not unique to Reagan, occurring under administrations ‘across the aisle’ throughout the Cold War. See Alfred McCoy, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 2003).

[7] Parry, ‘How John Kerry exposed the Contra-cocaine scandal’. Parry and Barger’s original piece appeared in AP on 20 December 1985, linking Contra cocaine smuggling to their war financing. The extent to which Contras smuggled and distributed cocaine in the US with intelligence complicity and de facto immunity was explored by Webb, Dark Alliance.

[8] For an unfortunate number of journalists and people on the whole, challenging the official word of the State Department in real time was enough to brand Webb’s Dark Alliance as a conspiracy. Webb was cannibalized by his own profession, although time has revealed his activist journalism was more accurate than not. Webb claimed ongoing intimidation during and after his research, and, as conspiracies go, his death was ruled a suicide, despite having died from two self-inflicted gunshot wounds… to the head. For controversy over Webb’s journalism, see Greg Grandin, ‘“The New York Times” Wants Gary Webb to Stay Dead’, The Nation, 10 October 2014, (accessed 01 July 2021).

[9] One in four persons incarcerated worldwide is in the US. The population of incarcerated persons in the US was 2.3 million as of  2020, which, in perspective, is 6.74 times the population of Iceland. If the US prison population were itself a country, it would have the 145th largest population in the world..

[10] Parry, ‘How John Kerry exposed the Contra-cocaine scandal’.

[11] To be fair, the intelligence community was not selling ‘crack’ per se, although the image of a black suit working a Los Angeles street corner in the 1980s makes for an appropriate metaphor. Washington simply allowed Nicaraguans to import cocaine and offered them de facto immunity, and that cocaine was funneled into the hands of notorious drug dealers of the 1980s like Freeway Rick Ross of Los Angeles, who in turn built a narcotics empire on crack-cocaine sales. The appropriate framing is that US intelligence allowed cocaine to be imported… for freedom and national security. See Webb, Dark Alliance.

[13] Kany, ‘First lady visits Camp Agassiz Village’.

[14] While it would be almost logical for non-Americans to presume that children who could not read were not required to sign a pledge, it should be reminded that children as young as five years of age are required to pledge their allegiance to the American flag at the start of each school day.

[15] ‘Nancy Reagan’s Travels as First Lady’.

[16] ‘The History of Agassiz Village’, (accessed 06 July 2021); ‘Parent and Camper Facts’, (accessed 06 July 2021).

[17] Perhaps the older counselors observed the administration’s budget cuts to food subsidies for low-income campers? Mary Battiata, ‘First Lady Downs Hot Dog, Bug Juice During Visit to Virginia Summer Camp’, Washington Post, 23 July 1982, (accessed 01 July 2021).

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The Joys of Being an Africanist: Summertime in Tanzania, by Dr Heike I. Schmidt

Part II

Conducting oral history interviews as well as participant observation are the prerogatives of the modern historian. These methods also need to be carefully learned and critically questioned as the research itself generates primary sources. They require the researcher to make him- or herself vulnerable and it is this vulnerability that can lead to comic and uncomfortable moments, often going hand in hand, at times leaving the researcher having little understanding of the research encounter. Two examples from my Tanzania research in 2001 come to mind. I spent a few weeks at a Benedictine mission station, Peramiho, where the abbot, Lambert Doerr, generously provided support for my interviews and granted access to the monastery archives holding documents in Kiswahili, German, English, French, and Latin. Peramiho is the Benedictines’ main mission station in East Africa, founded in 1898. Soon joined by nuns in 1901, and both brothers and sisters with motherhouses in Bavaria, St Ottilien and Tutzing, one significant contribution the mission has made is through its seminary, the largest in Africa by the year 2000. Staying in the mission guest house was a tremendous luxury after a very long bus ride of almost 1,000 kilometers from Dar es Salaam, with reliable electricity provided by a hydraulic plant, built by the German development agency and overseen by the monks, three meals of German food a day, and a washing machine provided with German washing powder.

Research on the mission station was fabulous but venturing beyond it was a problem. The two rainy seasons had merged into one and the rains never stopped. Assigned as the main interlocutor for my research was Brother Polykarp, a German monk who, I was told, knew the history of the area better than anybody else. I also found a teacher who was willing to serve as interpreter, switching from Kiswahili to Kingoni as the interviews required. My research project examined gender, political authority, slavery, and the slave trade in the Songea area[1] and Brother Polykarp suggested to interview an elder who could share his family memory of having been slaves of the politically dominant Ngoni ethnic group. Because travel even in a four wheel drive was treacherous Brother Polykarp suggested to take an additional man along, Zulu Gama, son of the ruling nkosi (king), ethnically Ngoni, the formerly slave raiding, trading, and owning society.

Brother Polykarp, Namabengo, Songea region
© Heike I. Schmidt

Mzee Edmund Simba, the elder, was most welcoming and eager to talk.[2] He shared that his grandfather, like so many slaves in the area, joined the German troops during the Maji Maji war of 1905 to 1908. At that time the able-bodied male enslaved population of the area either joined the Germans as auxiliary forces or fought as warriors with their Ngoni owners which was a route to gaining freedom and to changing their ethnicity to Ngoni. Zulu Gama had kept an eye on things outside and mid-interview entered the room. The elder noticed him, established that he was the nkosi’s son, and immediately changed his facial expression, his body language, his intonation, and with excitement in his voice, repeating words and phrases, insisting that I understand the importance of what he was saying, insisting that we all heard what he was telling us, performing with gestures, getting up, sitting down, moving around. Mzee Simba performed the utter humiliation that his grandfather had enacted upon Zulu’s grandfather and his warriors. As casualties were at times significant, so he told us, his grandfather and other slaves went to the killing fields, took the skulls of Ngoni warriors and drank alcohol from them. He recalled this inversion of power, an utter gesture of disgrace with great passion. The point here is that he may not have done so had Zulu not entered the room. The written sources contain an account that the German officers ordered the auxiliary troops to collect skulls, a power gesture, demanding of colonial subjects to touch the untouchable, human remains, probably to do a head count of enemy casualties, possibly to collect trophies. The elder’s recollections in contrast are of empowerment, of slaves proudly imbibing from their defeated masters’ skulls. His performance was triggered by and probably aimed at Zulu Gama, the researcher becoming a facilitator in an ethnic discourse while creating a tremendously important account of the past that complicates colonial history beyond a simple oppressor-oppressed dichotomy.

Brother Polykarp arranged also what I thought would be an audience and hopefully an interview with Nkosi (king) Xaver Gama, Zulu’s father and the ruler[3] of the Ngoni ethnic group in the area. After a warm welcome, being seated with the men, and Brother Polykarp serving as interpreter, I was trying to strike up a conversation with the nkosi. I soon realised that while I had acquired a cultural archive in Zimbabwe that gave me the confidence to know where and how to sit, how to speak and what to say – I lacked this expertise in Tanzania which was further complicated as Kiswahili was not the first language for anybody present. Loosing my linguistic and cultural bearings, I was presented with a huge mango and a sizeable knife. That put me in a conundrum. Was I really to cut it? How was the use of this knife gendered? And if I cut the mango, was I to taste it first or offer the first piece to the nkosi? How was I to cut it? Coastal style? As one of the councillors eventually took over, with me, the white woman, clearly out of her depth, he cut it and indicated for me to eat it. It was a delicious mango, the seed brought into the interior of East Africa by the slave and ivory trade. This was a pre-imperial mango, not yet filled with the fibres that the British introduced by domesticating the trees in India so that they could transport mangos to Europe. As all of this was going through my mind, and I tried to catch some of the conversation in a language I did not speak, Kingoni, when what transpired was that the visit served as a celebration of Brother Polykarp, a true friend of the Ngoni nation. I eventually took the hint that all the much to do was not about me at all. I relaxed into observing unless addressed directly by the nkosi.

Women cooking ugali (maize flower porridge) at the royal household
© Heike I. Schmidt

It is careful and informed planning in combination with adaptability and letting go of one’s own narratives and assumed authority, it is the making oneself vulnerable, listening for the unexpected, unknown that make a great researcher. In a cross-cultural environment this comes with linguistic translation and it also requires the creation of a cultural archive that provides the researcher with the necessary tools to understand what they hear and to know what to listen for in the first place. With the exception of partisan history, which has its own challenges, historians always research the other – if not across space, then across time. One of the great fallacies of researching in one’s first language, in one’s own country, and certainly from one’s desk is not to take these steps. The result is often unreflective, intent driven research the relevance of which has been increasingly questioned in the last few years by LGBTQ+ activism, Rhodes Must Fall, and by Black Lives Matter. The true challenge is not to conduct research in the hot summer on the equator in the global south but to design and carry out research on the history of the west that has relevance in today’s world.

Having a stroll in Songea, regional capital
© Heike I. Schmidt

Dr Heike I. Schmidt is an Associate Professor in African History at the University of Reading, specialising in gender, colonialism, violence & conflict, nationalism, and identity. Dr Schmidt is currently writing a gendered history of violence and the colonial encounter. You can find Part I of this blog here.

[1] Heike Schmidt, ‘(Re)Negotiating Marginality: The Maji Maji War and Its Aftermath in Southwestern Tanzania, ca. 1905–1916’, The International Journal of African Historical Studies 43, no. 1 (2010), 27-62, ‘”Deadly Silence Predominates in the District:” The Maji Maji War and Its Aftermath in Ungoni,’ in Maji Maji: Lifting the Fog of War, eds James Giblin and Jamie Monson (Leiden, 2010), 183-219, ‘Shaming Men, Performing Power: Female Authority in Zimbabwe and Tanzania on the Eve of Colonial Rule’, in Gendering Ethnicity in African History: Women’s Subversive Performance of Ethnicity, eds. Jan Shetler and Dorothy Hodgson, (Madison, WI, 2015), 265-289.

One unintended outcome of the realities of fieldwork was my research on sexual violence and male same sex desire during the German colonial period. ‘Colonial Intimacy: The Rechenberg Scandal and Homosexuality in German East Africa’, Journal of the History of Sexuality 17, no. 1 (2008): 25-59 and ‘Who is Master in the Colony? Propriety, Honor, and Manliness in German East Africa,’ in German Colonialism in a Global Age, edited by Geoff Eley and Bradley Naranch, (Durham, 2014), and ‘The German Empire and its Legacies: Propriety, Respectability, and Colonial Hegemony, in Colonialisms and Queer Politics:Sexualities, Gender, and Unsettling Colonialities, eds Sonia Corrêa, Gustavo Gomes da Costa Santos, and Matthew Waites (Oxford, forthcoming).

[2] Interview with mzee Edmund Simba, Mpitimbi, Songea region, 21 March 2001.

[3] Even though chieftaincy was abolished in 1963, two years after independence from British colonial rule, in some areas chiefs maintain political authority in the eyes of their followers. Interview with Nkosi Xaver Gama, 3 March Ndirima, Songea region.

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The Joys of Being a Historian: Summertime in Tanzania, by Dr Heike I. Schmidt

Part I

I knew exactly what I was doing. I planned my fieldwork to utter perfection. After all I was an experienced postdoc, having spent about three years living in Zimbabwe while studying and researching the country’s past. Now working on Tanzania, I had visited the country twice, travelled far and wide to find my ideal field site, started to learn Kiswahili, and won a significant funding bid. What I did not consider is what I could have learned from reading Laura Bohannen’s ‘Shakespeare in the Bush’.[1] Published in 1966, the essay is a classic and read by generations of students. The attention is well deserved. While it is a product of its time, it does an excellent job of showing the fallacies of fieldwork.

A US American, studying for a doctorate in social anthropology at Oxford, Laura Bohannen was just as confident about her research. Alas, the idea of carrying out fieldwork during the rainy season so that the households she intended to observe and people she wanted to interview in rural Nigeria would not be busy with agricultural work did not quite come to fruition as intended. Homesteads became islands as swamp water levels rose and so much alcohol was consumed that Bohannen withdrew to her sleeping hut reading. Eventually elders, tired of her trying to ask them questions, turned the tables and insisted that for a change she tell them a story. Bohannen chose Hamlet, surely a classic. Soon the elders began interrupting her to correct the story line. As she describes becoming cranky and exasperated the brilliance of the essay emerges to the reader, realising that the skill of the researcher is to listen and that listening can only succeed with a critical reflection of one’s positionality. Here Bohannen had to let go of what Hamlet meant to her and the idea of universality. She had to learn to listen to elders sharing knowledge, experience, and thinking different from hers. What makes her essay a must read to this day is that she addresses the core of research skills as well as the practicalities that are involved in fieldwork, all packed into a wonderfully humorous account.

Admittedly the Covid-19 health crisis for the first time in my many years of studying the African past has made me envious of my colleagues who sit comfortably at their computer at home and in their office accessing primary sources online or who can travel locally to an archive and conduct their research. I have even become pensive about my past fieldwork exploits. After all I have managed to catch many infectious diseases from malaria to typhoid, cholera, and both bacterial and amoebic dysentery and twice came very close to death in Africa. I managed to break my back when hitchhiking, sitting on the bed of a lorry in Zimbabwe and hit my head quite badly in an accident in a dala dala (mini bus) in Dar es Salaam on my way to the university. I cannot claim that I enjoyed learning Shona and Kiswahili, my sixth and seventh languages, as a manifestly linguistically challenged person. This is the point where the narrative continues with but – but what will always enthral me, arouse my passion, and put a light into my eyes are the unpredictability and demands on being in this world that make a great field researcher – something to which I lay no claim.

My research in Tanzania was, to reiterate, perfectly planned. At the time, in 2001, Assistentin (assistant professor) at Humboldt University at Berlin, for once I was not travelling alone but with my spouse whose project was on the islands of Zanzibar, while I studied mainland Tanzania. Two days before departing for nine months to East Africa, I returned from a brief visit in the US on a flight sitting close to a group of Pentecostal Americans who chose to sing and pray for hours as members of their congregation invited travellers to join, sharing that they had a bug going around. Stepping off the next plane two days later in Dar es Salaam, the coastal air on my face like a thick, damp, hot cloth, I realised that I was coming down with the flu. The heat of the rainy season was unbearable as my fever spiked. I do not remember much after that for the next few days.

Picture I: Approaching Zanzibar harbour by ferry, © Heike I. Schmidt
Picture II: View from our house, Baghani Street, stone town, Zanzibar, © Heike I. Schmidt

I cannot recommend bringing a winter flue to the summer heat of the Swahili coast. I can also not propose that one can realistically plan one’s fieldwork. Having applied a year before, I had to wait for the research clearance for several months with frequent visits to remind the officials in person that I was wasting my research funds by just living in Tanzania with nothing to do but to improve on my language skills. So I moved from my tiny room in a guest house in Dar es Salaam to join my spouse in stone town, the centre of the capital of the islands of Zanzibar, where he rented a house. Considering myself heat resistant when healthy, I quickly learned that this time the summer heat of the rainy season did me in. Even with nothing to do other than continuing my Kiswahili lessons and learning about Swahili female propriety and sensuality from neighbours and the umma (Muslim community) kindly providing our water supply from one of the many mosques nearby – it was unbearably hot. The incoming rain clouds raised humidity and instead of bringing reprieve had me lying under the fan that did not work without electricity. I lay there waiting for the neighbourhood boys running through the streets shouting ‘Umeme! Umeme! (electricity!) as most days the power came on for one hour, albeit at any point during day or night.[2] I spent a lot of time imagining new superlatives beyond excruciating.

Picture I: View from the entrance to our house, Baghani Street, stone town, Zanzibar, © Heike I. Schmidt
Picture II: Some of the Sultan’s palaces and the Zanzibar harbour, © Heike I. Schmidt

In the end, my nine months in Tanzania were much shaped by the usual two rainy seasons turning into one long rain that simply never seemed to end. A joke that ran through the newspapers – with photographic evidence – was that when the president with his security detail was inspecting the flood damage in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s main city, one of the secret service cars hit a pothole so deep that it sank completely, and the agents were scrambling to get out of it not to drown. In fact, one day in the city center I saw a woman walking towards me, crossing a street disappearing to her shoulders in a pothole, invisible under the water that appeared to be just ankle deep. In Dar es Salaam my thirty minute walk to the National Archives, with the last stretch on a dirt road, became too precarious. Civil servants working in the area and other passers-by built fords with stones and bricks for pedestrians but those had started to be covered by the rising water as well.

Picture I: Dar es Salaam city center, © Heike I. Schmidt
Picture II: The embassy quarter in Dar es Salaam in 1991, © Heike I. Schmidt

Some days I travelled to the archives taking a cab. The driver deadpanned that all we needed was a fishing rod for me to hold out of the car window as he very slowly and carefully made his way to the archives. None of this is to say that research in Africa is exotic and dangerous. This is not least confirmed by recent manifestations of climate change and environmental challenges to human life in the west with floods and fires. The global south, including Africa, offers a research environment that challenges the researcher to listen by being flexible, adaptable, and to negotiate and explore the boundaries and especially the certainties of one’s life. As frustrating as it may be at times, the true joy of being a historian is the unpredictable.

Dhows off the cost of Zanzibar
© Heike I. Schmidt

Dr Heike I. Schmidt is an Associate Professor in African History at the University of Reading, specialising in gender, colonialism, violence & conflict, nationalism, and identity. Dr Schmidt is currently writing a gendered history of violence and the colonial encounter.

[1] Laura Bohannen, ‘Shakespeare in the Bush’, Natural History (August-September 1966), 28-33. A rare treatment of fieldwork for historians is Carolyn Adenaike and Jan Vansina, eds, In Pursuit of History: Fieldwork in Africa (Portsmouth, NH, 1996).

[2] This made for interesting, brief windows of editing African Modernities: Entangled Meanings in Current Debate eds Jan-Georg Deutsch, Peter Probst, Heike Schmidt (Portsmouth/NH and Oxford, 2002).

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Marrows Over Maths: The history of England’s school harvest camps, by Tamisan Latherow

Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap (1961) © Walt Disney

There are certain images from the mass media that, as a child of the 1980s growing up in America, are ubiquitous to summer for me. The 1961 Disney film, The Parent Trap, staring Hayley Mills is one of them. Mills, who plays the role of twin sisters separated by their divorced parents, meet up at Camp Inch, a summer camp for girls in the middle of the woods. Beyond the humorous antics and the rose-coloured family dynamics, to me the idea of summer camp was solidified by the wooden planked bunk houses, canoes across a dark mountain lake and innocent flirting with the boy’s camp ‘down the way’, even though I never attended one of these fabled camps.

Now, more years than I care to admit to later, I come across a different kind of summer camp. One that feels just as nostalgic, but that had very different consequences: the school harvest camps of the world wars. Let’s take a step back though and try to see the big picture. In 1914, the official school leaving age for children in England and Wales was 12-years-old. This meant at twelve students could ‘graduate’ from school and start working, which many of them did. In the agricultural areas, some went on to join the Young Farmer’s Clubs or even the Farm Institutes before potentially going off to an agricultural college or university. However, the idea of child labour became a sticking point in Parliament, where the official government decision was to give no decision. 

Prime Minister Asquith (1915) stated that the question should be left up to the local education authorities to decide on their particular regions’ needs. MP T. Williams stated that same year that an estimated 45,000 boys and girls had participated in the various camps and that he anticipated at least the same amount would be needed the following year[1], which sounds less like ‘volunteering’ and more like being ‘voluntold’. Still, it took a combination of school children, women’s land army members, prisoners of war and soldiers to bring in the harvest due to the acute labour shortage over the next few years.

When World War Two came about, the situation wasn’t much better, but certain lessons had been learned. The Women’s Land Army was stronger than ever, POWs were used more extensively and civilians, both adults and children, were put to work on ‘holidays’ at farm harvest camps across the country and managed by the Ministry of Agriculture. In 1943, the Minister of Agriculture R.S. Hudson hinted that the extra 150-200,000 adults and over 300,000 school children needed to bring in the harvest could potential become conscripted should not enough volunteers be found.[2] Yet the term volunteer is a slight misnomer, not for the conscripted part, ironically, but for the implied non-payment part. Those working the land for a week or two during the summer and harvest seasons were paid at set rates, though that amount was, in many instances, not enough to cover their room and board. For example, wages in 1939 were 6d-8d an hour while room and board was 11s. a week. This did rise slightly when in 1941, school holidays were timed to coincide with the harvests. Children aged 14 (now the school leaving age) were permitted a maximum of 22 half-days a year away from school as well as received the minimum wage for agricultural workers which was around £3/week. Though some school groups were paid by the product.

Peter Clarke (South Lincolnshire) was part of a gang of 12 and 13-year-old boys and girls (around 20) that were sent from farm to farm and allocated jobs such as driving the horse, picking potatoes, weeding and even ploughing.[3]

“Although this was hard work and several children did not last the full time most of us found it great fun and had a sense of helping the War effort,” Peter said to the BBC in 2003. “[We received] about one shilling and sixpence (7.5p) per bag [of peas], which weighed 28lbs and took about 4 hours to fill. If it was underweight, it would be rejected. [While, f]or early potatoes the pay was three shillings (15p) a day. Working under the control of the school we received one shilling and ninepence (13p) per day”.

Daphne Jones (Warwickshire) was a 15-year-old student learning typing and shorthand when she was sent off to the first Farming Camp School in 1944. She remembers that they would study agricultural related matters in the morning and then help on the land in the afternoon weeding onions, digging potatoes and picking strawberries.[4] Jean Ramsell (Yorkshire) was 17 when she volunteered for her first farm camp.[5] “Much of the work involved potatoes in one form or another,” she remembers, “but another job was gathering flax that had been ‘laid’ i.e. flattened by the rain and couldn’t be harvested by machine. It all had to be pulled out by its roots and it could cut your hands”. As a female, certain issues arose that the boys didn’t seem to mind. “We had no access to the loos. Of course, the men could just disappear behind a hedge but it sometimes caused a problem. In one field there were some low triangular hen houses of a kind that I don’t think you see now and we often got the giggles crouching down in these. Fortunately, there were no hens at the time”.

London schoolboys gathering the potato harvest on Hampstead Heath, Museum of English Rural Life reference: PFW PH2/W13/10.

While such work was often typical for rural children, the experiences were new and exciting for urban school children who were now being led by their teacher into the hedgerows and forested areas in the search for windfalls, medicinal plants such as foxglove, yarrow, rose-hips and other plants of medicinal value for the nation’s pharmacies. Some schools ‘adopted’ local farms and went to help with tasks such as rat-catching and poultry plucking, or students worked on their school farm and allotments raising pigs, bees and sheep.[6] 

Working during breaks was fine, but the fight came when the Ministry of Labour suggested making the children work during term time, as part of their compulsory education. Such an action was illegal as per the Education Act and the 1933 Children and Young Persons Act and met with fierce opposition from the various educational unions. “A Durham headmaster told the 1950 conference of the National Association of Headteachers that during the previous year he had been confronted by an irate farmer complaining that eight boys working on his farm had gone on strike – merely because they had been given no time to rest during the day! This lack of compassion and understanding did little to endear the generality of farmers to teachers and the Board of Education.”[7]

Such concerns were brought up in Parliament, though little was done to mitigate them. The camps did in fact continue until 1951 when they were finally disbanded, however discussions remained in the House of Commons and the National Farmer’s Union and Ministry of Agriculture[8] and in Lincolnshire alone eight camps occurred in 1950, seven in 1951 and six in 1952[9], a shrinking number, but one that persists until this day. Of course, there are no air raids, doodlebugs or POWs working beside them and the activities are much more relaxed, more in line with the glorified summer fun of Disney’s Camp Inch where we started than the dirty and potentially dangerous war work of just a few decades ago. Still interviews from the children that attended these harvest camps show a time of childhood innocence and excitement at getting out of school and doing their bit for Queen and Country.

Perhaps that’s the true lesson here. That feeling of nostalgia that suffuses the public imagination of a period which was not rosy and happy, but in many respects a time of hardship and sacrifice. However, the volunteers who took their two-week vacation from the factory and school yard and helped bring in the harvests came together in common cause. As Jean Ramsell explained, “You didn’t expect to make any money – that was not the object of it. In the spirit of the time, you all pulled together and were united by the fact that it was wartime and you all wanted to do your bit”.

Spend your holiday at a farm camp satirical notebook, Queen Elizabeth School Collections Reference code A/DRA/001

Tamisan Latherow is a second year PhD Candidate in the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development at the University of Reading researching women’s participation in English agriculture (1920-1960) in conjunction with The Museum of English Rural Life and agroecological farming systems for Martian food production with the School of Biological Sciences.


[1] HC Deb 03 December 1945 vol 416 cc 1914-15

[2] How labour shortages were met in the Humber’s rural areas, My Learning,; Agricultural Camps in the 1940s (2021) Bolton School Former Pupils

[3] The People’s War, BBC

[4] The People’s War, BBC

[5] The People’s War, BBC

[6] Moore-Colyer, R. (2004). Kids in the Corn: School Harvest Camps and Farm Labour Supply in England, 1940–1950. The Agricultural History Review, 52(2), 183-206. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from

[7] Farmers Weekly, 2 June 1950, in Moore-Colyer, R. (2004). Kids in the Corn: School Harvest Camps and Farm Labour Supply in England, 1940–1950. The Agricultural History Review, 52(2), 183-206. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from

[8] HC Deb 30 November 1950 vol 481 cc1292-3

[9] HC Deb 11 June 1952 vol 516 c28W

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