British People Month – Chartism Essentials, by Prof David Stack

Next week, in the run-up to Chartism Day 2023, the History Department at Reading will be celebrating all things Chartist. Here, to get Chartist Week underway, and to fill in any gaps in your knowledge, the Department’s very own Professor David Stack answers some key questions about Chartism.

What was Chartism?

Chartism was a political movement, most active between 1838 and 1848, which demanded electoral reform and a widening of the franchise.

Why was it called Chartism?

Chartism took its name from a document called ‘The People’s Charter’, produced by the London Working Men’s Association in 1838. The Charter consisted of the famous ‘Six Points’.

These were:

  • Universal Suffrage (later changed to manhood)
  • No Property Qualification (for MPs)
  • Annual Parliaments
  • Equal Representation (i.e. constituencies of comparable size)
  • Payment of MPs
  • Vote by Secret Ballot

Why were these demands deemed necessary?

Britain was not a democratic society in 1838: only one in seven men (and no women) had the vote; only rich men could afford to be MPs; constituency boundaries were drawn in such a way as to advantage the rural south and minimise representation from the industrialising and urban north; and public voting, without a secret ballot, meant that even those who could vote were often subjected to pressure and intimidation.

Was the Charter popular?

The Charter proved extremely popular. The London Working Men’s Association distributed copies to small radical groups around Britain, who organised petitions in support of the Six Points. By 1839 1.25 million people had pledged their support. A second petition in 1842 petition proved even more popular, with an estimated 3.3 million signatures. The third and final mass petition, in 1848, was bigger still, with the Chartists claiming six million signatories.

What happened to the petitions?

The petitions were taken to Parliament. The first was rejected by the House of Commons, by 235 votes to 46; the second was rejected, 287 votes to 67; the third was never even put to a vote. The petitions were destroyed, so historians are unable to consult and analyse these documents.

Each time the petitions failed – in 1839, 1842, and 1848 – Chartist delegates from around Britain were meeting in a National Convention to decide what to do next. On each occasion this proved to be a moment of division, with some within the movement advocating violence. All the main Chartist leaders were imprisoned at one time or another, and this use of force and coercion against campaigners for democracy is a shameful part of the story of British history.

Why was Chartism so popular?

Partly because it made basic democratic demands, but it must be said that these demands were not new. All six points of the People’s Charter can be found in older radical documents, such as Major Cartwright’s Take Your Choice! (1776), which dated back to the time of American War of Independence. What gave the Chartist demands such resonance in the 1830s and 1840s was a sense of betrayal by the Whig governments of 1830-1834 and 1835-1841 – who had granted a very limited franchise extension and introduced the hated New Poor Law – combined with the increasingly harsh economic conditions that were driving down living standards and ushering in the era known as ‘the hungry forties’. Chartism was, as one of its leaders put it, always ‘a knife and fork question’ and ‘a bread and cheese question’, as well as a political one.

Who were the Chartists?

There were many famous Chartist leaders, including William Lovett (1800-1877), who helped draft the People’s Charter; James ‘Bronterre’ O’Brien (1805-1864), the leading intellectual of the movement; Feargus O’Connor (1796-1855), a charismatic orator, who dedicated himself to the cause; and Ernest Jones (1819-1869), a poet who befriended Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

But the real heroes of Chartism were the ordinary men and women who came together in support of the People’s Charter, and who joined the National Charter Association.

Before Chartism, radical politics had been dominated by the artisan class: skilled workmen in established, apprenticed trades, and often focused on London. What was different about Chartism was that it quickly outgrew its origins and became a national movement of the whole working class, including unskilled workers in the new industries of Yorkshire and Lancashire, and with enthusiastic followings in south Wales, Scotland, and the North East of England.

How did the Chartists campaign?

The Chartist campaigns brought together established methods with new, innovative practices. The idea of petitioning for a charter was a self-conscious echo of Magna Carta (1215) and the Bill of Rights (1689), and the use of Chartist lecturers drew upon the itinerant preacher tradition. What was new were the mass meetings – ‘monster meetings’ as they came to be known – which drew together thousands; a national newspaper, The Northern Star, which kept local branches connected; and the world’s first mass membership organisation, the National Charter Association, founded in 1840,

Did Chartism fail?

None of the Six Points were achieved within the lifetime of the Chartist movement, although five of the six points had been achieved by 1918. (We still do not have Annual Parliaments, but the length of parliamentary terms was reduced from seven years to five years in the 1911 Parliament Act.)

Beyond the failure to achieve the Six Points, however, it is possible to argue that there were broader successes for the movement. The actions of the Peel government (1841-1846), culminating in the repeal of the Corn Laws, might be read as a response to the horrendous conditions highlighted by Chartism. More convincingly, historians such as Edward Royle and Malcolm Chase have emphasised the success of Chartism as a lived experience that gave pride, purpose, and dignity to men, women, and families living through a period of penury, poverty, and suffering.

The Chartists gathering on Kennington Common on 10 April 1848.

What happened to the Chartists after 1848?

The National Charter Association continued in existence until 1858, and it was a sign of the enduring appeal of the movement that an estimated 50,000 people attended the funeral of Feargus O’Connor at Kensal Green in London on 10 September 1855.

Many Chartists remained active in the parliamentary reform movement, contributing to the agitation that led up to the Second Reform Act in 1867. Others worked in the incipient trade union and socialist movements, and many of the more disillusioned (or hopeful) emigrated to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the USA, where they often took leading roles in founding labour organisations in those countries.

The last known Chartist was Henry S. Clubb (1827-1921) from Colchester, who emigrated to the US, survived being shot at the Siege of Vicksburg (1863), where he fought for the Union Army, went on to become a Michigan State Senator, and was the founder of the Vegetarian Society of America.

Where can I find out more about Chartism?

There are many excellent resources about Chartism available. One of the best, and most accessible, is the Chartist Ancestors website.

In addition, throughout Chartism Week you can contact us with your questions about Chartism and we will attempt to answer them.

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.

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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British People Month – The Changing Place of the Countryside in Modern British Life, by Dr Jeremy Burchardt

‘Farmworkers harvesting leeks’, Date Unknown, Credit: The Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading

The way historians think and write about the countryside has changed dramatically over the last few decades. Until the 1980s, most British historians regarded the economic history of farming as by far the most important aspect of the history of the countryside.  The Agricultural Revolution, seen as the essential precursor for the Industrial Revolution, was the central focus and a succession of studies focusing on farming methods, technology and output ensued, exemplified by J. D. Chambers’ and G. E. Mingay’s The Agricultural Revolution (1966).  From the late 1970s, this was challenged by a new generation of historians influenced by the ‘history from below’ movement, who were concerned on the one hand to put people back into the history of the countryside and on the other to expose the vast inequalities of power and wealth that had accompanied the process of agricultural ‘improvement’ from the eighteenth century onward.  Among the key works were Howard Newby’s Green and Pleasant Land? (1979), which showed how idyllic images of the countryside cast a veil over the reality of low wages and persistently sub-standard housing for many farmworkers, Keith Snell’s Annals of the Labouring Poor (1985), which deployed rigorous quantitative methods to demonstrate that inequality, poverty and unemployment actually became worse in rural England during and after the Agricultural Revolution and a succession of studies by Alun Howkins focussing on the efforts of farmworkers to resist their exploitation, for example through forming trade unions.  Perhaps the pivotal moment was the foundation of a new journal, Rural History, in 1990, dedicated to exploring the social, cultural, and political history of the countryside, in conscious rejection of what was perhaps a little unfairly dubbed the ‘cows and ploughs’ remit of the older tradition.

Since then, historians have worked hard to recover the histories of neglected, marginalized and exploited rural groups.  Historians such as Nicola Verdon and Briony McDonagh, among others, have done much to open up the history of women in the countryside, at every social level from the field workers Verdon focuses on to the elite landowners McDonagh has studied.  Mark Freeman has written about the ‘Hodge’ stereotype demeaningly applied to farm workers in the nineteenth century, a stereotype that regrettably lives on in terms such as ‘yokel’ and ‘country bumpkin’.  The most exploited and vulnerable farm workers were often seasonal migrants, who were typically employed just for a few weeks during harvest, and in some cases moved around the country wherever there was work to be done.  In the nineteenth century many of them came from Ireland and faced ethnic discrimination as well as low wages, economic insecurity, and poor working conditions.  Harvest workers were often employed in the infamous agricultural gangs, which became a notorious Victorian scandal and were legislated against under the 1867 Agricultural Gangs Act.  The gangs largely disappeared for much of the twentieth century but became a major feature of UK agriculture again in the late twentieth century, leading to the re-emergence of highly exploitative conditions of a kind that many mistakenly believed we had put behind us.  Historians such as Philip Conford have done their best to draw attention to these disturbing parallels. 

The environmental crisis we are living through has sharpened historians’ awareness of the extent to which rural labour always affects and is affected by the non-human world.  Some of the most interesting research has highlighted how environmental values cannot be detached from their social context.  What is construed as environmentally benign by one group of people may not be seen as such by others.  Carl Griffin and Iain Robertson have written illuminatingly about this, using the concept of ‘moral ecologies’ developed by Karl Jacoby.  They show how elite ecological discourses, for example in relation to forestry, were often deployed in ways that delegitimized and led to the suppression of vernacular and indigenous ecological practices and understandings.  As always, history shows us that values, however neutral, incontrovertible, and universal they may appear to be, always arise in particular social and historical contexts and express the experiences, commitments, and inevitably, the power structures that prevail in those contexts. 

Yet for all the often-concealed problems, difficulties, and tensions that beset the countryside (and which historians have worked so hard to expose), it continues to be cherished by millions of people.  Harvey Taylor and Helen Walker’s pioneering research made us aware of just how much the countryside mattered to millions of ramblers, cyclists and other outdoor enthusiasts. More recent research, for example by Nicola Whyte, Paul Readman, Kerri Andrews, Matthew Kelly and myself, has begun to explore not only the often idealized representations of the countryside but also its more grounded and experienced-based significance in the lives of ordinary people.

Dr Jeremy Burchardt is an Associate Professor in Rural History at the University of Reading, specialising in different experiences of landscapes across time and space.

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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‘What manner of creature is it in the semblance of man?’: Count Dracula and ChatGPT, by Dr Dan Renshaw

Left image of the front cover of Dracula by Bram Stoker, and the right the logo of ChatGPT

At the end of the nineteenth century human society seemed to be on the brink of profound behavioural change spurred on by advances in technology. Over the previous fifty years innovations had occurred in communications, in transport, and, less benignly, in weaponry. Pioneered by the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès in Paris, popular culture was about to be transformed by the advent of cinema – ominously enough one of the first pieces of film, ‘The Devil’s Castle’ (1896) was a horror movie depicting a winged demon, initially in the form of a bat and played by Méliès himself, flying into a haunted tower. Improvements in mechanical reproduction altered the way in which information was consumed, whilst ‘trick’ photography called into question whether one could really believe one’s own eyes.[1]

Fast forward another twelve or thirteen decades, and humanity is again confronted with a period of rapid advancement in how information is processed and disseminated. Within the last twelve months the ability of Artificial Intelligence programmes to almost instantly create convincingly-written text of any length and on almost any subject had progressed with dizzying speed. We are witnessing a communications revolution of equal significance to the popularisation of the internet at the end of the 1990s and evolving at a much more rapid pace. As historians this will have profound consequences for how we all carry out work, and how we assess our students’ work.[2] As at the time of the Victorian fin de siècle, responses to this technological change vary from intense optimism to profound concern, and as was the case at the turn of the twentieth century, this change is being pushed forward for primarily commercial reasons. Combined with other forms of AI that are capable of replicating physical characteristics and the human voice, it may be that we are entering a period of ‘two-tier’ truth, where essentially any information or imagery encountered online must be viewed as potentially or even probably fraudulent. The ramifications of this are enormous.

However, that is not the primary focus of the present discussion. Instead, I will draw connections between ChatGPT and its emerging AI cousins and an earlier source of societal anxiety, the Gothic vampire of late-Victorian popular fiction, as it appears in Bram Stoker’s seminal Dracula (1897). In the 1890s there was a definite shift in how technological progress was viewed, and this was reflected in the literature of the time. The presentation of modernity had moved on from the romances of Jules Verne in the 1870s and 1880s, where changes in communication and transport were essentially positive, a means of bringing humanity together, to the early novels of H.G Wells, where science was often malevolent – a means of torture and mass murder, and a challenge to human identity.[3] Of all the horror texts written in the 1890s, Dracula is probably the most concerned with modern technology. Stoker’s great innovation, as critics have noted, was to bring his vampire to London in the present day, rather than setting his story in a far-off land in the early modern period. Thus, a whole armoury of contemporary tech is available to Dracula’s opponents, including typewriters to create multiple copies of reports, phonographs to record one’s voice, a telephone for instant communication, and the latest carbines for the final chase in Transylvania.[4] Coupled with this, the contemporary phrenological theories of Cesare Lombroso are referred to, as is the rise of the New Woman.[5] As Jonathan Harker notes, whilst trapped in Dracula’s castle, ‘It is nineteenth century up-do-date with a vengeance.’[6]

Stoker intended his creation to be exactly contemporary. Today, of course, this means that we instantly locate the novel as archaic, an articulation, a freeze-frame even, of the hopes and fears of Stoker’s own era. How then does this Victorian vampire anticipate AI text creators? Firstly, like ChatGPT, although Dracula very closely resembles a human, he is in fact non-human, a soulless vessel driven only by programmed instinct. Having seen his host climb down the castle walls like a monstrous lizard, Harker wonders: ‘What manner of man is this, or what manner of creature is it in the semblance of man?’[7] Later, as Professor Van Helsing explains the nature of their foe to his comrades, he describes the Count as ‘brute, and more than brute; he is devil in callous [sic], and the heart of him is not.’[8] He is both more than and less than human. Yet Dracula, like text-generating AI, is very good at resembling a human (or the work of a human), and this is what gives him much of his power. He is not like the Frankenstein Monster, a grotesque figure whose physical appearance marks him as an outsider; Dracula can move through London society (he adopts a pseudonym, ‘the Count De Ville’ to aid him in this), he can even (unlike in some of the film adaptations of the novel) walk around in the daylight.[9] Like ChatGPT, when examined closely, his non-human nature (no reflection in a mirror, hair on the palms of his hands) may become apparent, but at first glance there is nothing to distinguish him from the tide of humanity upon which he feeds. That something might be familiar at first glance and yet unsettlingly different on close inspection is at the core of the Gothic as a genre.

Dracula also resembles these AI systems in his ability to learn, to absorb new material, collate it, and exploit it, and to do this beyond the limits of human capacity. Critics of the novel have stressed how important the collation of information is in the quest to defeat Dracula, with the Count as a reactionary anti-modern force.[10] Yet Dracula himself feeds on information and, unlike his mortal opponents, he has an unlimited amount of time to do so. Confronted in his lair in Piccadilly, the vampire taunts his opponents: ‘My revenge is just begun! I spread it over centuries, and time is on my side.’[11] The first thing that Jonathan Harker notes when he arrives at the Count’s castle is the amount of material on Britain, including legal textbooks and railway timetables, that Dracula possesses. He makes use of Harker to improve his own English pronunciation and grammar, he desires that it would be flawless, indistinguishable from that of a native speaker.[12] In other words, Dracula has been doing his homework, and, unlike humanity and like AI, there are apparently no natural limitations on how much research he can carry out.

Given recent reports in the media, it might appear that the total domination of ChatGPT and its rivals over every element of business, study and entertainment reliant on the use of text is imminent. The economic ramifications of these new forms of text-generating AI are real and concerning, as is the speed with which these programmes are developing. Yet, as with the vampire, there are in fact limitations. As Van Helsing says, after listing Dracula’s powers: ‘He can do all these things, yet he is not free. Nay, he is even more prisoner than the slave in the galley, than the madman in his cell.’[13] Dracula is in fact bound to a quite specific geographical area by the need to rest in a coffin lined with earth from his Transylvanian home. He can only enter a residence if someone from within invites him to cross the threshold. He cannot cross running water, and there are ways of preventing him from gaining access to an abode.[14] Similarly, whilst within its domain of text available online AI is wholly dominant, and there is nothing within the reaches of the internet it theoretically cannot make use of, this does not mean that it is uncontainable. From the perspective of a historian, for example, ChatGPT cannot go into a physical archive and spend a week working through correspondence that has not been digitalised. ChatGPT cannot arrange an interview and record and then contextualise someone’s experiences based on it. ChatGPT cannot read a book that is not available online. ChatGPT can fabricate something approaching what a historian might write having carried out that physical research, and it can of course use material an academic has written which is available online (including this blog) to formulate a more convincing text. At the current point, text-generating AI can now produce grammatically flawless written English, and advance within confines a coherent (although not necessarily correct) answer to a question. But it cannot formulate truly original, creative, contrarian, transgressive, or taboo-breaking original arguments. Like the vampire, there are certain boundaries which (at the moment) it cannot cross.

Dracula is in the end defeated. Although his opponents make use of modern technology throughout the novel, to beat their undead enemy in the end they must abandon modernity – to kill the nosferatu one must use the methods of the Middle Ages. Although it might at times seem an attractive option to be able to return to some sort of pre-internet arcadia, before online shopping, newsfeeds, echo chambers, and huge amounts of digitalised historical primary material, this is not going to happen. We must make our peace with AI-generated text, one way or another. There are some vampires you cannot stake.

[1] Elizabeth Ezra, Georges Méliès: The Birth of the Auteur (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019) chapter one.

[2] ‘AI Bot ChatGPT Stuns Academics with Essay-Writing Skills and Usability’, The Guardian, 04 December 2022 (accessed 05 May 2023).

[3] See Mark R. Hillegas, The Future as Nightmare: H.G Wells and the Anti-Utopians (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967) pp.10-14, Steven Mclean, The Early Fiction of H.G Wells: Fantasies of Science (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 200), chapter four and chapter five.

[4] Valerie Clemens, ‘Dracula: The Reptilian Brain at the Fin de Siècle’ in Elizabeth Miller (ed.) Dracula: The Shade and the Shadow (Brighton: Desert Island Books, 1998) p.192.

[5] See Clive Leatherdale, Dracula: The Novel & the Legend (Brighton: Desert Island Books, 1993) p.228, Carol A. Senf, ‘Dracula: Stoker’s Response to the New Woman’ Victorian Studies vol. 26, no. 1 (1982): 33-49.

[6] Bram Stoker, Dracula (London: Penguin Books, (originally published 1897, this edition published 1994), p.49.

[7] Stoker, Dracula, p.47.

[8] Stoker, Dracula, p.283.

[9] Leatherdale, Dracula: The Novel and the Legend, p.107.

[10] David Schmid, ‘Is the Pen Mightier Than the Sword? The Contradictory Function of Writing in Dracula’, in Miller (ed.) Dracula: The Shade and the Shadow, p.114.

[11] Stoker, Dracula, p.365.

[12] Stoker, Dracula, p.31.

[13] Stoker, Dracula, p.287.

[14] Christopher Frayling, Vampyres: Genesis and Resurrection from Count Dracula to Vampirella (London: Thames and Hudson, 2016).

Dr Daniel Renshaw is a Lecturer at the University of Reading, specialising in migration, diaspora and identity in Britain and Europe from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the present day.

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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Into the Archives: Berkshire Records Office, by Graham Moore

When thinking about undertaking archival research, it can be easy to reach automatically for the big national institutions. But there is more to life than the British Library or The National Archives; sometimes, history can be a little closer to home. Tucked away on the other side of Reading to our University is the Berkshire Record Office. This small, welcoming archive holds the records of Berkshire county, and – like other local record offices – provides a vital insight into the experiences of those who have lived here throughout history.

              County archives contain a variety of record types, ranging from wills (probate) and local court records to maps and electoral registers. All of these show different snapshots of life in Berkshire, as it developed from a rural county (albeit one straddling several key trade routes), to a site of aspirational country residences for a rising mercantile elite, into the busy, diverse hub of commuters and industry that it is today.

              However, much of my own personal experience at BRO has involved the parish registers – arguably the most comprehensive resource for historic life in any county. A parish’s registers capture the lives of its residents at three key (Christian) milestones in their lives – baptism, marriage, and burial. These records are (with a few exceptions) in English, sorted by parish then by date range. Later records are also sorted into different register books per ceremony – one for baptism, one for burial, and so on. Each record notes the date of ceremony, the parishioners name, and – sometimes – a few exciting additional details. In fact, BRO is currently undertaking a project in partnership with the University to read the parish registers ‘against the grain’, and uncover the county’s long history of diversity. You can read more about that effort in this blog post for many-headed monster.

Many of the parish registers are transcribed, thanks to volunteer efforts, but – and perhaps it is my inner romantic speaking – there is always something to be said for calling up the records yourself and handling the real item. Leafing through a parish church’s register allows you to catch glimpses of the communities who once lived here. You can trace their lives from baptism to burial, through joy and tragedy. You’ll find many a researcher in BRO’s peaceful reading room doing the same, perhaps uncovering their family history or adding to Berkshire’s knowledge of local history.

Fig. 1. BRO, D/P49/1/2 (1698).

If you’re particularly lucky, you may find something strange and wonderful. Fig. 1 shows a page from Winkfield parish register D/P49/1/2. On this page from 1698, someone – perhaps the incumbent member of clergy who filled out the register – has carefully sketched the tower of a church. Interestingly, its profile does not match the parish church of Winkfield St Mary. Perhaps the building held some personal significance to the artist.

Like all archives, BRO is full of such hidden gems, but local records – typically not digitised, and not necessarily furnished with easily searchable online catalogues – can sometimes appear intimidating to the uninitiated. As an ‘official’ archive, BRO’s records do come with some of the expected elements of structural occlusion, the archival ‘silences’, one might expect – but there is also a level of detail here that cannot always be found at the bigger, centralised archives. There is also a genuine willingness from BRO to work as part of the local community. BRO’s staff are welcoming experts in their respective fields, and are always willing to help – not to mention keen to hear insights discovered in course of your research. Further, they are typically on the lookout for more volunteers – and working within such a small archive can give you the rare opportunity to see the whole of the institution, from the repository to the reading room.

So, I urge you – take the short trip across town this summer and peruse the parish records. You won’t regret it.

Graham Moore is a CDP-funded PhD student at the University of Reading and The National Archives, 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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Into the Archives: A Day in the Life of a Volunteer at The National Archives, by Christos Giannatos

As a Postgraduate Researcher, I was pretty excited to work with primary material and uncover the many secrets they hold, but also, use those secrets to enrich my research! From a young age, I was watching documentaries where archivists and Historians spent hours in the archives and, literally, made history. So, when I started my PhD, it’s safe to say I couldn’t wait to get into an archive and start digging, and Reading’s proximity to The National Archives (TNA) in London was an added bonus! I started volunteering at the Prize Papers Project in February 2023, and I couldn’t be happier with how things turned out. In this piece, I will walk you through a day in my life, as a volunteer in the Prize Papers Project at The National Archives.

The day, usually, starts quite early; I wake up at 7:30 am, grab a quick breakfast and I’m off to the station to catch the train to Richmond. I try to be at TNA before 10 am, but, since I live in Reading and the commute might easily be affected, that’s not always possible. Thankfully, the team is very understanding! On the train, I often check on my Excel document what papers I’ll go through during the day (each of us is assigned a box containing numerous papers from various ships) and enjoy the Berkshire countryside with some music. Once in Richmond, I hop on the Overground to Kew (just one stop), and from there TNA is only a short walk.

The day truly starts once I’ve checked my backpack and my coat in the cloakroom, grabbed my laptop and headed downstairs, where most of us work! A quick chat with the other volunteers is, always, in order, before I go through my box. At the moment, we’re working on papers of ships taken as prizes, during the American Revolution. Our job is to read all the material, regarding a specific ship, and catalogue the key information on an Excel document. We look for the ship’s name, the number of guns she was carrying, the composition of her cargo and her crew, from which port she departed and towards which destination, who was her captain (or master), whether she was a private vessel or a ship of war, and, finally, where she was taken and by who. Most of these are inside the deposition documents, produced during the adjudication of the captured vessel, at several High Courts of Admiralty (the ones I’ve been looking into come from New York). Reading through a deposition document is one of my favourite, because we get an insight on how this process was carried out, not to mention that we’re reading a 200+ year old handwriting (which, to be honest, has its challenges)!

After two or three ship’s files are done, I go upstairs to the café, as it is time for lunch. TNA has an amazing café, located just beyond the entrance, where one can enjoy their lunch and have a cup of coffee, while chatting with the numerous other researchers who spend their day at the archives. Personally, I prefer to relax, and I try to find a table with an outside view, so I can eat and gaze at the swans outside (yes, there are swans!). Just before I get back to work, I tend to check the giftshop and the occasional exhibition, as there is always great stuff to see!

Back in the office and to more ship’s files! Apart from the deposition documents, useful information can be found in the ship’s papers, where one can found her passport (issued by the French Admiralty or the American Congress), her crew logs, in which the exact number of seamen present at the time of departure is stated, as well as personal papers, such as official and unofficial correspondence. Depending on the identity of the captured vessel, these can vary from correspondence between the Admiralty and the colonies, to personal letters. For example, it is rarer for an American privateer to carry any personal papers, than it is for a French one. Another thing that fascinates me is the fact that most of those ships, have changed hands several times, between the British and the French. This is to be expected, as the American Revolution was the third major conflict that Britain and France fought against one another in 30 years! Still, it shows the importance of these vessels and how dangerous life was aboard one.

Once we have gone through everything inside a ship’s file, it is paramount to double check the data we collected, to see if they’re legitimate. The main way to do this is a simple online search, or within one of the printed catalogues of British ships, that exist in the library downstairs. It is also important to double check the details of a ship and see if there are any inaccuracies, between the deposition documents and her passport. When everything checks out and we are satisfied with the results, we put the information in the Excel spreadsheet and we’re good to go!

When 5 pm rolls around, I start to make my way back to Reading. Travel time is around an hour, so I get my music ready for the ride! I hope I was able to paint a clear picture of what a day volunteering at TNA looks like! The Prize Papers Project is an amazing initiative, and being a part of it is really gratifying. As an aspiring historian of the Atlantic World, I get access to unseen material, which can be extremely helpful for my own research, while simultaneously contributing to the digitization of an entirely new archival collection.

Christos Giannatos is a PhD History Student at the University of Reading, specialising in Imperial Control and Colonial Government in the British and French Atlantic.

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

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Into the Archives: Listening to the Voice in the Archive, by Dr Beth Wilson

Picture of the Archives of Traditional Music at Indiana University Bloomington.
Image from:

In April 2023, I travelled to Indiana University Bloomington to spend two weeks in the archives. I was funded by the Institute for Advanced Studies at Indiana University to undertake a Repository Research Fellowship at the Archives of Traditional Music – an archive dedicated to the collection of audio-visual material. The archive holds over 110,000 recordings of music and other cultural forms from across the globe, including songs, music, interviews, folktales, and linguistics, as well as accompanying documentation. I spent my fellowship exploring one collection; a set of sound recordings collected by African American linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. In 1932 and 1933 Turner travelled to this region to survey the Gullah dialect and published the first ‘academic’ survey of this dialect in 1949. Gullah is a form of creolised English spoken on the Sea Islands and mainland coast of Georgia and South Carolina, with roots in African languages evident in the vocabulary and grammar. Refuting previous claims that Gullah was simply a less developed version of the English language, Turner showed that the Gullah people had retained African elements in their language and culture, including music and dance. The Archive of Traditional Music holds 154 of Turner’s Gullah recordings, as well as later recordings from field trips to Brazil, the Caribbean and West Africa.

Image of the Front of a book by Margaret Wade-Lewis on Lorenzo Dow Turner
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Turner recorded inhabitants of the Sea Islands discussing their lives, including some elderly men and women who had been enslaved on the islands. I was interested in listening to these recordings as part of my current book project that explores the emotional lives, experiences, and memories of enslaved and formerly enslaved people in the U.S. South. My book considers how enslaved people discussed their emotional lives in different forms of testimony, including nineteenth century slave narratives, letters written by the enslaved, 1930s era textual interviews and recorded interviews. Turner’s recordings allow me to analyse how formerly enslaved people, in the 1930s, remembered, felt, and discussed their emotional lives whilst in bondage. Whilst at the archive, for example, I listened to formerly enslaved woman Katy Brown speaking to Turner on July 29, 1933. Brown had always lived on Sapelo Island, Georgia, and discussed her experiences as a child during the Civil War. Brown explained to Turner that before the Union Army advanced, her enslavers moved all ‘the people’ (the enslaved) over to the mainland and that they were forced to move countless times over the next few years. She then described the different emotions she had when she finally encountered the Union army. Explaining that they were glad to see the advancing army, she noted that it was ‘also bad’ because food was scarce – the army killed most of the local livestock to take back to the camp.  She also recounted the enslaved peoples’ excitement on hearing the news that the Yankees had advanced to Sapelo Island.[1]

Historians of US slavery, particularly those focusing on women’s experiences, are constrained by the fact that enslaved testimony is relatively rare. Whilst we do have access to abolition era slave narratives and written interviews with formerly enslaved people, these are all textual documents. We also encounter the enslaved in sources produced by enslavers, such as diaries, letters, and plantation records. In these white sources, the enslaved are dehumanised – they are only mentioned alongside their monetary value or as part of a business transaction. In contrast, Turner’s interviewees used the rare opportunity to tell their own story, and thus provides us with a chance to hear a formerly enslaved person discuss their experiences, memories, and feelings in an environment where they were comfortable enough to testify to slavery’s abuses. During my time in the archive, I also listened to formerly enslaved people discuss their relentless forced labour, the punishments they endured, and the forms of resistance they undertook, including running away and attending illicit night-time prayer meetings. Alongside analysing how the informants described their feelings in relation to these events, when developing our methodologies as researchers, it is also important that we consider our own encounter with the archive. As a historian of emotion, I am acutely aware that when I heard Katy Brown discussing her experiences, in contrast to simply reading her testimony, I had a different affective response. These recordings are infused with an affective power for the listener that written testimonies do not have.

While the primary reason for my trip to the US was to undertake this archival research, I was also able to talk to the wonderful archivists at the Archives of Traditional Music about my work; discuss longer-term projects with the Institute of Advanced Studies; connect with members of history faculty at IU; and go to some thought-provoking events about how we may use scant archives to re-imagine the lives of historical actors. Archival trips to the US are not just about the archives – they allow me to engage with people, arguments, and culture beyond the UK.

[1] Katy Brown, ‘Slavery Days’, interviewed by Lorenzo Dow Turner July 29, 1933. 12-3273: part 1, United States, Sea Islands, Gullah, 1932-33 Lorenzo Dow Turner Collection, Archives of Traditional Music. Available:

Dr Beth Wilson is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Reading, specialising in emotional experiences and memories of enslaved and formerly enslaved women in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

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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Into the Archives: South Carolina, by Prof Emily West

In April 2023 I visited South Carolina to undertake archival research. This trip would not have been possible without a British Academy/Leverhulme Small Grant, and I am grateful to them for funding this trip.

I first visited South Carolina during my PhD research in the mid 1990s, and while I have been on a few subsequent visits to the state for short research trips and conferences, I’d not had the opportunity to undertake sustained archival research for a generation. Raising two children made any substantial trips abroad impossible. Luckily most of my post PhD research has been via electronically-available primary sources accessible within the UK. This technology has undoubtedly changed the world of history, opening up a whole range of documents to international researchers, especially those digitized by wealthy institutions receptive to technological change.

Yet I also believe that it is so important to conduct research in situ. We cannot ever truly understand the history of a place without spending time there and immersing ourselves in that culture. Of course, this comes with its own set of issues, not least the financial hurdles one has to overcome in order to research abroad.

Thanks to my external funding I finally found myself back in Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, and I was very much looking forward to spending my time in the beautiful South Caroliniana library (the name refers to all things Carolinian) located in the majestic ‘horseshoe’ square of the University of South Carolina, thankfully spared Sherman’s forces during the Civil War, unlike much of the city:

Image of South Caroliniana library at the University of South Carolina. A large building with 4 white pillars at the front and large trees in front of it.

Sadly, however, the building was closed for a major renovation project, the archives temporarily moved to the main Thomas Cooper University Library, also beautiful (I’m a fan of mid-century modern!), although much more contemporary:

Image of the Thomas Cooper University Library with steps walking up to it

Thomas Cooper, an American politician born in London 1759, held enslaved people, did many prominent men in the State, and I devoted my visit here to enslavers records, seeking to examine the ways in which enslavers sought to impost communal, ‘efficient’ feeding regimes on their plantations, focussing on the women who fed other enslaved infants, children, and adults.

The second part of my trip involved a visit to the even more beautiful environs of Charleston, a port city in the lowcountry, famed for its unique Gullah culture. Here I worked in the College of Charleston’s Addlestone (named after Marlene and Nathan Addlestone, prominent in Charleston’s twentieth-century Jewish community) Library’s Special Collections Department, exploring materials from the South Carolina Historical Society:

Photograph of the entrance to the College of Charleston's Addleston Library, South Carolina Historical Society Archives

Most of the evidence I consulted here consisted of postbellum (after the Civil War of 1861-65) reminiscences by former enslavers, and thankfully the majority of these were typed, although the content remains challenging to read because of racist content.

Obviously, with enslaved people being forbidden by state laws from reading and writing, my research is plagued by what historians have termed archival silences. Gendered, racial and class discrimination means that my topics tend to go unindexed. And this can lead to frustrating days of scrolling through nineteenth century, hard to read prose while finding nothing. My eyes are weaker than they were in the 1990s, despite a selection of glasses to choose from! I have to read my sources (when I can find them) laterally, whether ‘against the grain’ or ‘along the bias grain’ as some historians have written. This means when I find useful evidence I tend to inadvertently shout ‘yes’ and raise my arms on the air, much to the alarm of the archivists and genealogists surrounding me.

While my trip had some inevitable frustrations, it was rewarding to obtain more information about the eating regimes imposed by enslavers and the women they utilised to feed the enslaved within plantation quarters. I also supplemented my ongoing research into wetnursing in the pre-Civil War South, which will also form part of my book.

Sometimes, too, evidence from the past can really strike at your heart. Although not directly related to my book project, I was struck by the testimony of a woman, Mrs Carrie Laurens/Lawrence (the spelling varies) who had, in 1928, written a letter to a member of the Ball family who had previously enslaved her. Mrs Laurens/Lawrence asked for financial help as she was unwell — there is surely a future research project to be had in these individual requests for what is essentially reparations for slavery?

While I couldn’t find a record of any outcome to this letter, in 1934 another member of the Ball family interviewed Mrs Laurens/Lawrence about her memories of being enslaved. She remembered how her mother had a disagreement with their white ‘mistress’ (the term used for enslavers’ wives) after which Carrie and her mother fled the household. One of her extended family members (also enslaved and a cook for the Ball family), subsequently hid her and her mother for two weeks two weeks in the cellar of her enslaver’s house at the Southwest corner of Vanderhorst and Pitt Street in Charleston.

Looking up the location I saw this junction was just two blocks from the library. So, I visited during my lunch break. It was hard to tell whether the house at the junction was the original one, and what the exact location of ‘Southwest’ was. I suspect Carrie and her mother hid in this house:

But opposite was an even grander home, more archetypal of the homes of Charleston’s enslavers (nearly all built ‘sideways’ because city authorities taxed Charleston’s homes on their frontage):

Whichever dark and damp cellar Carrie hid in she presumably felt scared and afraid for her future (indeed she was later sold with her mother). It was an honour to try to retrace her whereabouts, to piece together part of her life journey, to imagine how she must have felt, and to reflect on her experiences. The everyday lives of enslaved girls and women appear all too infrequently in Charleston’s public history. Plaques everywhere commemorate enslavers and Confederates, and in the city museum, one can even buy a tapestry kit of the house owned by the Manigaults, one of the state’s richest slaveholding families (with apologies for the poor-quality photo!):

Carrie Laurens/Lawrence’s life will no doubt remain plaque free, but I felt grateful to be in Charleston and, in writing up my book, to contribute to a rather different version of history.

Prof Emily West is a Professor of History at the University of Reading, specialising in race and gender during Slavery in the US South.

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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#EurovisionRdgHis nominations 2023

Throughout the month run-up to the Eurovision 2023 final, held in Liverpool, the History Department has been sharing its favourite Eurovision entries of the past. All those who were nominated, along with their reason for nomination are below.

1967: Sandie Shaw – Puppet on a String (UK)

Our oldest nomination, this song is one from the wonderful world of classic Eurovision

Prof David Stack – Surely that has to be Sandie Shaw, ‘Puppet on a String’ – what other Eurovision winner could go on to collaborate with The Smiths?

1974: ABBA – Waterloo (Sweden)

Nominated not by one, but two of the History department, ABBA’s ‘Waterloo’ came first in our public votes, and was nominated by:

Prof Rebecca Rist – Has to be one of the Abba entries. Mind you I am torn because my popes would have regarded Eurovision as pure debauchery and put everyone involved in one of Dante’s Seven Circles of Hell. Not sure which one.

Graham Moore – I’m basic, I think I’d go for ABBA and ‘Waterloo’.

1976: Brotherhood of Man – Save your kisses for me (UK)

After being nominates twice, this song only received one public vote, despite winning the contest for the UK in 1976. This is why it was nominated:

Fiona Lane – Horrors of a 70s/80s childhood. Everyone sang it, it was played everywhere you went…and it won.

Dr Jacqui Turner – I am so sorry – I loathe Eurovision with a passion!!! I am aware making such a statement is tantamount to asking to be cancelled!!!!
If I was forced to choose one though it would be ‘Save Your Kisses for Me’, Brotherhood of Man, 1976.  Not because I love the song but because, like many Eurovision songs, it is so evocative of a time in my life – taking the old 11+ exam in the sweltering heat and starting senior school after a very long hot summer.

Eastern Bloc Intervision Song Contest

An interesting nomination here that showed a very different song contest held in the Eastern Bloc between 1965 and 1968, and was revived between 1977 and 1980.

Prof Matt Worley – I’m afraid I grew up with the Eastern Bloc Intervision Song Contest so I pick this…

1983: Nena – 99 luftballons (West Germany)

Coming third in our public vote, Nena’s 99 luftballons was nominated by only one member of staff, despite being a popular hit:

Prof Emily West – 99 luftballons! Didn’t realise at the time it was all about the Cold War… It was later recorded in English for Top of the Pops!

1996: Father Ted – My Lovely Horse (Ireland parody)

Our only parody nomination, but an honourable one at that!

Prof David Stack – But an honourable mention for Father Ted and ‘My Lovely Horse’!

2006: Lordi – Hard Rock Hallelujah (Finland)

Surprisingly the only hard rock Eurovision song to be nominated, but definitely one that sticks in the memory:

Dr Ben Bland – I’ll go for this chiefly because it manages to be even sillier than the usual Europop winners. On a more niche note, it briefly allowed teenage me to maintain the illusion that this harmless fare was the sort of thing I meant when I said I listened to “extreme metal”, an illusion shattered when (much to her horror) my mum found across all my Darkthrone and Napalm Death records. 

2007: Verka Serduchka – Dansing Lasha Tumbai (Ukraine)

Coming a very close second in the public votes, this perfectly Eurovision song has become a classic, and Verka Serduchka is performing at this year’s Eurovision too!

Caroline Johnson – Totally Eurovision and very catchy.

2012: Loreen – Euphoria (Sweden)

Performing again this year with their new song ‘Tattoo’, Loreen was nominated for their wonderful song, and the remix too!

Christos Giannatos – I’ll go Euphoria by Loreen from 2012. Such a good song; also, has a House Remix which is FIRE!

2015: Genealogy – Face the Shadow (Armenia)

A poignant nomination here, with a lot of historical significance.

Dr Jeremy Burchardt – Group made up of Armenians from five continents. The aim was to raise awareness of the Armenian genocide in 1915-17. That would be my choice

2021: Destiny – Je me casse (Malta)

The first of two nominations from 2021 from a island that neighbours the winners that year.

Amy Longmuir – Such a catchy and angry song to blare out in the car when you need a pick up

2021: Måneskin – Zitti E Buoni (Italy)

The 2021 winners of Eurovision round off our collection of nominations from our department.

Abbie Tibbott – Their cover of ‘Beggin’ from 2021 is on my Spotify rewind and On Repeat, so it’s only right to nominate them.

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The United Kingdom and Eurovision: A History of Ambivalence?, by Dr Ben Bland

It’s perhaps an understatement to say that the United Kingdom has a slightly more complex relationship with the Eurovision Song Contest than many of the other competitor nations. The UK is one of the so-called “Big Five”: the five countries – also including France, Germany, Italy, and Spain – who provide so much funding for the competition that they automatically qualify for the final. The UK missed two of the first three contests (1956 and 1958) but has since appeared in every single final (a run no other country can match) and has won the contest five times (in 1967, 1969, 1976, 1981, and 1997). Only Ireland and Sweden have won more often (with France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands matching the UK’s victory tally). It has also hosted the contest a record eight times (in 1960, 1963, 1968, 1972, 1974, 1977, 1982, and 1998), even before this year’s event kicks off in Liverpool. Whilst London hosted on four of these occasions, the contest has also been held in Birmingham, Brighton, Edinburgh, and (rather more surprisingly) the well-to-do North Yorkshire spa town of Harrogate. When it became clear that Russia’s war in Ukraine would make it impossible for last year’s winners to host this May, the UK (as 2022 runners-up) was swift to step in despite the multi-million-pound cost. Such a lengthy history of financial and cultural participation in Eurovision might make it seem as if the UK takes Eurovision uniquely seriously – but anyone who has tuned in to watch country after country award the UK nul points in recent years knows that this does not tell the whole story. 

Surveying media coverage of Eurovision over the last sixty-five years makes it clear that hostility has often been a key feature of UK attitudes towards the contest. When the BBC first launched a webpage for its Eurovision coverage, back in May 1999, one Observer writer praised the corporation’s move as ‘a great step forward for humanity, for it means that the BBC can now gracefully abandon the telecast and put on something really classy and up to date. Dad’s Army, for instance’.[1] Similarly sneering and dismissive views were also being aired way back in the contest’s early days, when those who were hostile to the idea of greater involvement in Europe cited the contest as indicative of a continental cultural malaise – one that UK viewers were increasingly subjected to thanks to increased BBC access to European programming (through the European Broadcasting Union, often confusingly referred to in the 1950s and 1960s as “Eurovision”). In 1959, for instance, Daily Mail television critic Peter Black sneered that the contest ‘was scarcely worthy of the trouble’ and that it was ‘like opening the Eurovision network to show an international knobbly knees contest’.[2] It’s worth emphasising, however, that the worst of the UK commentariat’s Eurovision ire has often been saved for the UK’s own contestants. ‘One would have to be a very odd patriot – I don’t believe even an Empire Loyalist could manage it – to get a sensation of pride and glory out of this success’, Black wrote of Pearl Carr and Teddy Johnson’s “Sing Little Birdie”, which achieved a second-place finish in 1959.[3] A little over twenty years later the same paper savaged UK Eurovision victors Bucks Fizz for their ‘antiseptic and thoroughly sanitised’ music and performance.[4] In the build-up to the 1995 final, meanwhile, writer and lecturer Andy Medhurst expressed amazement in the pages of the Observer because ‘the unthinkable [had] happened’: the UK would ‘be represented by a good song’.[5] It is fair to point out that the UK has had some spectacularly unremarkable entries over the years (some are included in the playlist below) as well as a few absolute disasters (I’m afraid we’re looking at you, Daz Sampson) but what regularly competing nation hasn’t?

Selected UK Eurovision Entries Playlist. Available at:

By the turn of the century, barely concealed distaste for Eurovision had increasingly turned into genuine scepticism as to the UK’s future participation. This was boosted by an increased sense that UK viewers were largely ambivalent about the competition. Only around six million viewers had watched the 2000 contest in the UK (less than half of those who had watched BBC coverage at some junctures in the past) and a mere 45,000 people had voted for Sheffield schoolgirl Lindsay Dracass to be the 2001 UK contestant. This, compared to the million-plus people who were participating in reality TV votes for shows such as Big Brother at the time, seemed paltry.[6] Trevor Dann, the former head of BBC Music Entertainment, was quoted in The Times decrying continued participation as a waste of resources: ‘I can’t see any value in it at all anymore. The BBC puts it on because of nostalgia over Terry Wogan’s role’. He also acknowledged that there may be some geopolitical concerns: ‘nobody wants to be seen to axe it’, Dann claimed, with reference to Eurovision’s place as a symbol of postwar European cultural cooperation.[7] This sentiment has hung around over the following two decades, despite the odd spike in the viewing figures. It has often been accompanied by assertions either that the UK does not take Eurovision seriously enough or – more interestingly – that it doesn’t understand the dynamics of the competition. In 2021, following James Newman’s last place, nul points finish, the Guardian’s Helen Pidd argued that his unflashy style made him ‘Exactly what you do not need to be to win the silliest singing competition in the world’.[8] This attitude, of course, also betrays the same sense of cultural superiority that has been such a marked feature of the UK’s coverage of Eurovision. We all know that, on one level, Eurovision is very silly, but then it doesn’t exactly pretend to be Glastonbury or the Last Night of the Proms.

The above snapshots are, of course, just that: snapshots. They don’t tell the full story of the UK in Eurovision, a story that feels conspicuously under-written given the tensions between Britishness and Europeanness that have ebbed and flowed over the near seven-decade history of the competition. They do, however, demonstrate that the UK has always been a little uncomfortable accepting Eurovision as part of its cultural identity. It’s hard to tell whether so many in the UK continue to love Eurovision in spite or because of the cultural disconnect that it is often taken to symbolise. As excitement builds ahead of the contest’s imminent return to UK shores, we may all want to reflect on how difficult it is to imagine a future in which the UK doesn’t take part in Eurovision – not to mention one in which it doesn’t complain about having to do so. 

[1] John Naughton, “Vapid, vacuous drivel – hurrah for the Eurovision”, Observer, 23 May 1999, 94.

[2] Peter Black, “Peter Black’s Teleview”, Daily Mail, 12 March 1959, 16.

[3] Ibid. The term ‘Empire Loyalist’ refers to the League of Empire Loyalists, a far right anti-decolonisation pressure group that later fed into the National Front.

[4] Simon Kinnersley, “The second-hand sounds”, Daily Mail, 11 June 1981, 22.

[5] Andy Medhurst, “Taste and style: nul points”, Observer, 7 May 1995, C6. 

[6] Paul McCann, “Eurovision contest faces its Waterloo”, The Times, 12 May 2001, 3.

[7] Quoted in Ibid.  

[8] Helen Pidd, “Nul points again: how exactly can the UK win Eurovision?”, Guardian, 23 May 2021,

Dr Ben Bland is a Leverhume Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Reading, specialising in modern British music, youth, and racialisation within the urban.

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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Nancy Astor and the Tommies of the First World War: An Image Gallery of Nancy Astor’s Correspondence with Samuel Deans, by Noah Strauss

Besides taking her seat in Parliament as the MP for Plymouth a year after the close of the First World War, Nancy Astor is not often conflated with the period of the First World War and the immediate period following it. There is, however, a discernible nexus between Astor and the First World War and its aftermath, which stems from her engagement and subsequent correspondences with soldiers who had once been hospitalised at the Canadian built HRH Duchess of Connaught Hospital at Cliveden as well as from her correspondences with veterans of the war who were not patients at Cliveden. These correspondences evince many interesting tidbits about a number of soldiers’ lives. They also evince the philanthropic endeavours of Astor which were geared towards veterans of the First World War.

One of these World War One ‘tommies’—or in his case, ‘Jocks’—who maintained a correspondence with Nancy Astor for almost four years was Scotsman private Samuel Deans. He served in the Seaforth Highlanders corps and later—after being hospitalised at Cliveden and meeting Astor—in the 296th Reserve Labour Company division under the British Expeditionary Forces (B.E.F.), which was a subbranch of the British Army that was deployed to the Western Front during the First World War and which itself assimilated various other military units. Deans’ correspondences with Nancy Astor will be the focus of this image gallery. Through these manuscripts we not only get to know Deans by learning about his experiences of serving abroad or his precarious existence upon his return home, but we also are able to get to know the ‘soldier’s friend’ side of Nancy Astor.

(Image 1) Some of the folders pertaining to Astor’s correspondences with
and about First World War soldiers and veterans

The first letters between Deans and Astor which appear in the collection stem from early 1918. Writing from the Scottish Command Labour Center where soldiers’ deployment overseas was processed, Deans sends Astor two letters telling her that he is unfit for service overseas and asks her if she could employ him at Cliveden and if so to write to his commanding officer so he could escape being sent abroad to fight. On the 5th of February 1918 Captain R. Whiteford—Deans’ commanding officer— writes to Astor that he received her wire (which is unfortunately not in the collection) and regrets that Deans has already been sent overseas to France.

(Image 4) ‘I regret the soldier referred to has
proceeded overseas this morning’
(Image 5) Nancy Astor’s secretary informs Captain Whiteford that Astor
is ‘not very happy about him [Deans], as she [Nancy Astor] feels he
really was not fit to go to France’ and that Astor believes ‘his head will
never stand it’

When Deans eventually returned home to the parlous economic state and housing crisis which beset Britain, he wrote to Astor asking for her help in finding employment—as did many other soldiers in this collection.

An undated letter—most likely from shortly after the war had ended—to Astor reveals that Deans had briefly worked in Scotland with the 25th Labour Company rebuilding Auchenmade Station.

(Image 7) ‘This is how the Germans left it you will notice how the station is
blow[n] up’

In December 1919, a Glaswegian woman by the name of Mrs. Hutchinson takes an interest in Samuel Deans promising to try and help him as best as possible. Mrs. and Mr. Hutchinson invited Deans to dinner, made him a pecuniary gift, and planned on visiting him in Greenock, where he had worked in a shipyard for a while. Writing to Astor, Deans thanks her for introducing the Hutchinson’s to him and also states that:

Mr. Hutchinson is very kind to me you know and said he would give me anything I wanted question is what I want is this much I am looking out for a good job in the country plenty of hand graft and plenty of fresh air and plenty of cash but its not here at all for me I never smoke and I don’t drink at all nor do…I have any bad habits at all so I would like very much if I could get a job out in the open country

(Image 8) Astor’s secretary thanks Mrs. Hutchinson

After not hearing from Deans for over a year, Astor receives a letter from him in June of 1921. Deans reveals to Astor that he wishes he could go on holiday and see her again as he has been working since he was a child and that he has not had a proper holiday. In another letter from June of the same year, Deans writes that he is out of a job at the shipyard and working at a farm in the Highlands as well as of his experiences fighting against the Germans in France.

(Image 9) ’Dear wee Jock, where are you and what are you doing? Have
you forgotten all about me?’
(Image 10) ‘I was working today and my foreman told me that my time
was up now’

At the end of 1921 and longing for an open air life, Dean’s becomes an itinerant in search of work which would accommodate this. In an act evoking a somewhat risible scene, Deans starts walking from Scotland in November of 1920 to visit Nancy Astor after making multiple entreaties to work at Cliveden This is where the correspondences in the collection between Deans and Astor come to an end and where we are left with the lacunae in Deans’ story.

The manuscripts in this sub-series of the Nancy Astor collection help to uncover a lesser known facet to Astor’s personal and political life from before and just after she became a MP. They are also particularly useful for illuminating the lives and often the accompanying hardships faced not just of the soldiers of the B.E.F,. such as private Samuel Deans, but also of the many and varied other military personnel featured in this sub-series of manuscripts. The manuscripts may therefore be of special interest to historians researching the lives of Commonwealth soldiers during the First World War and inter-war period as well as to researchers interested in Nancy Astor’s interactions with the Tommies of the First World War.

The Nancy Astor collection housed at the University of Reading’s special collections boasts a panoply of personal correspondences between Lady Astor and important public figures, royalty, and all the way through to the ordinary citizenry. The sub-series within the Nancy Astor collection of the correspondences between her and veterans of the First World War comprises a physical extent of 24 files, spanning from 1914 to 1922 and encompassing correspondences from soldiers with surnames corresponding with almost every letter of the alphabet. Like that of private Samuel Deans, many interesting stories within this series await uncovering.


The series reference for the folders containing Nancy Astor’s correspondences with World War One military personnel and patients at HRH Duchess of Connaught Hospital, as well as those correspondences pertaining to the Soldiers in Hospitals Appeal is: MS 1416/1/2/653-676; the single reference for the folder containing private Samuel Deans’ correspondences with Nancy Astor is:MS1416/1/2/656

Noah Strauss is an undergraduate History student at the University of Reading.

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. Many thanks to the University of Reading Special Collections for their permission to reproduce the above images.

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Laetitia Houblon’s Letters and Women on the Grand Tour, by Jessica Campbell

During the eighteenth century, the Grand Tour became a popular phenomenon among the upper classes of English society. It became a rite of passage for aristocratic young men to spend anywhere between six months to four years travelling around Europe, to complete their education in becoming a gentleman.

But did you know that women went on Grand Tours too?

While the Tour was traditionally undertaken by young men, many women also travelled but have often been overlooked in history. Famous female travellers from the eighteenth century include Lady Mary Wortley Montague and Lady Elizabeth Craven, who both wrote interesting accounts about their travels.

Another lesser-known female traveller is Laetitia Houblon. Against the typical custom, Laetitia set out travelling in 1787 while in her mid-forties and describes her travels in a series of letters written to her family and close friends. These letters are part of the Archer Houblon Family Papers which are held at the Berkshire Record Office.

Image of Laetitia Houblon (1742-1828), found in The Houblon Family Its Story and Times, Vol.II by Lady Alice Archer Houblon (1907).

Female Grand Tourists, during the eighteenth century, were typically upper-class women accompanied by their husband. Interestingly, Laetitia embarked on her travels accompanied by her friend Miss Betsy Watson, in the hopes of improving Miss Betsy’s health by taking her to a warmer climate. The two women travelled as part of a group, and both ended up getting married while on their travels. In 1789, Laetitia married Baron Friedrich de Feilitzsch, making her a Baroness, and together they continued to travel as part of a group.

While Laetitia does not explicitly call her travels a Grand Tour in her letters, she visited many of the key Tour destinations including Paris, Florence, Venice, Genoa, Turin, and Dresden which she describes in her letters and can be seen in the image below.

Image showing the different places that Laetitia sent her letters from. Mentioning Nice, Venice, Como, Turin, and Paris. (Shown in the top right corner of each letter).

Through reading the letters, you can follow Laetitia on her travels around Europe and her time spent living abroad in Nice and Dresden, before returning back to England in 1807. The first letter in the bundle was sent to Laetitia in 1787, right before she set off on her travels. An extract from the letter is shown below, which writes that Laetitia is likely busy with ‘packing & goodbyes’.

Letter sent to Laetitia in England, dated 1787.
‘I did not immediately answer my Dear […]’s letter, as she declared herself to be worried to death, with packing & goodbyes, & suppose by the time this reaches London, you will also.’

Each letter includes updates on Laetitia’s travels. In 1787, from Boulogne France, Laetitia writes to her sister-in-law, Mrs. Susanna Houblon, saying ‘well my dearest sister my first writing from France is justly your due’. In another letter she writes about visiting a palace in Chantilly France, describing it as ‘such a museum I could have remained an age lost in admiration, the arrangement is so much preferable to anything in England’.  

Other letters from Laetitia to her friends and family include updates on her travel destinations. In one letter, Laetitia writes about her travel plans in Italy, stating:

‘our plan is not settled but I believe Florence will bound us to the south & that we shall resume our first project of the Lake Como in July & August & see as much of the north of Italy as possible before October’

Laetitia’s letter writing also reveals how dangerous travelling in the eighteenth century could be. Travelling across countries was typically very hazardous and time consuming; often in her letters, Laetitia writes about experiencing sea sickness and remarks on how fortunate she has been to avoid accidents along the way. In one letter she writes, ‘we are the most fortunate of travellers, not the slightest accident or disagreeable event having befallen us as yet’.

In her letters, Laetitia often describes the travel conditions in great detail, this can be seen in the two extracts below.

Letter from Laetitia describing her journey to France, dated 9th September 1787.
‘We set out about noon Friday, dined at Dartford, slept at Sittingbourne, breakfasted at Canterbury spent the rest of yesterday at Dover the tide not serving for us to come commodiously, & our good conductor would not permit us to do anything otherwise, so we sailed at 7 this morn & had the quickest passage known of 12 months only 4 hours ½; we were all sick except Mr. Wraxall & my courier, but recovered time enough to admire the coast & harbour’
Letter from Laetitia sent from Nice, France 1787.
‘I flatter myself my dear nieces are anxious to know how their aunt & cousin are safe arrived at the end of their long journey, God be praised it was impossible to make a short one with more care not having met with the least accident or inconvenience in traversing sea, rivers, plains & mountains 1000 miles, in lieu of the dirt & indelicacy with which we were threatened’

Laetitia’s letters also highlight how important letter writing while travelling was as it became the only way to keep in contact with family back home. In one of her letters, Laetitia mentions how much writing and receiving letters means to her, expressing that so much of her ‘felicity’ depends on it.

The letters include updates on family life back home and reveal Laetitia’s close relationship with her family. Through reading the collection, you can follow, in particular, Laetitia’s close friendship to her sister-in-law, Mrs. Susanna Houblon, who she regularly wrote to. In one of her many letters addressed to Mrs. Houblon, Laetitia writes ‘your friendship is my greatest happiness’, revealing their close bond.

The series of letters not only document Laetitia’s travels and demonstrate that women travelled during the eighteenth century too, but it is a representation of Laetitia’s relationship with her family and close friends while there are great distances between them. This is nicely expressed in a letter written by Laetitia where she writes that ‘many waters cannot drown’ the love expressed in her letters.

Letter from Laetitia to Mrs. Susanna Houblon, dated 9th September 1787.
‘many waters cannot drown love, to which I add nor sea sickness put you & your dear children out of my mind’

These papers are held at the Berkshire Record Office as part of the Archer Houblon Family Estate collection which contains a range of papers relating to the Houblon family history.

Jessica Campbell is an undergraduate History student at the University of Reading.

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. Many thanks to the Berkshire Records Office for their permission to reproduce these images.

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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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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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