Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp’s international ‘web’ and the anti-nuclear movement, by Amy Longmuir

Women Linking Hands at Greenham Common Cruise Missile Base – Newbury,
1985 (Evening Standard, 19 Oct 2019)

The history of Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp near Newbury, Berkshire has been well documented in popular history and the media to narrate the development of the camp as an important element of the nuclear disarmament movement.

Missing from this, however, is the ever-expanding ‘web’ that the camp created; first in the UK with women’s support groups in cities such as Manchester working alongside the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Quickly this became an international network with the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp establishing connections across the world, many of which are coming to light with the decolonisation of history both within the public sphere and in the archives, as room within the narrative is afforded to previously ignored countries. The Lynette Edwell Collection at Berkshire Records Office has captured this international nature with communication, newsletters, and posters from across the world that were sent to Greenham Common.

Extensive literature has been collated in this archive concerning the anti-nuclear dumping campaigns that gained significant support in the Pacific, notably in Guam. These home-grown initiatives are illuminated in the collection with leaflets and posters being sent to Greenham Common as part of their ongoing communication. The issue of nuclear dumping by the US military was then picked up by campaigners in the UK, forming the basis of a symbiotic relationship that can be seen across the world as more groups started to communicate with each other to create an international campaigning community.

Nicaragua is also significant in the development of this global ‘web’ with many groups protesting for the removal of American troops and nuclear weapons from South America. For example, Spinsters Against Nuclear Genocide played an important role in highlighting the presence of the American military in South America and the Caribbean as part of the campaign for a ‘Nicaragua Libre’. This further exemplifies the continual expansion and securing of relationships between the Peace Camp in Berkshire and their international partners.

The Lynette Edwell Collection also includes material on the anti-nuclear movement within Europe which maintained strong links with Greenham Common Peace Camp as they became an inspiration across the continent. La Ragnatela [spider’s web] in Italy is one of the most significant camps that worked with Greenham Common and who were subject to various police raids and evictions, the same as the Greenham women. There is also evidence of similar movements and correspondence with camps in France, Belgium, and Denmark, as woman began to organise in protest against nuclear weapons, especially those being deployed by the USA on foreign soil.

Widening the Web Poster (Lynette Edwell
Collection, Berkshire Records Office)

These examples are just the start of the international ‘web’ that was created around nuclear disarmament, with Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp becoming the epicentre of a network of protest groups across the world. Their stories and actions, as shown through the Lynette Edwell Collection, are of particular importance in showing the activism that occurred across the world rather than focusing solely on Western states. This exemplifies the fact that anti-nuclear activism allowed women to belong to an international community which was instrumental in challenging nuclear powers across the world.

Amy Longmuir is an undergraduate History student at the University of Reading.

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Christmas Cancelled? Nothing is new, ask the puritans of 1647 by Dr Rachel Foxley

In 2020 we are approaching Christmas with warnings ringing in our ears, as well as encouragement to celebrate – and that’s just from the Prime Minister, whose characteristically mixed messaging tells us to be jolly, but also to ‘be jolly careful’. Across the UK we are digesting Christmas rules which will mean that families have to haggle about which three households can ‘bubble’ across the 5 days of relaxed Covid restrictions. We may be taking more comfort in our Christmas customs than ever – my tree is already up – but there’s no denying it will not be the usual Christmas experience for most of us.

But Christmas isn’t cancelled, and although Covid restrictions have become politicised and divisive, we can hope to avoid the battles over Christmas which were seen in the streets of Canterbury and Ipswich in 1647. Parliament had been victorious in the first civil war against Charles I, and the puritans who had for years been preaching against the ‘superstitious’ practice of celebrating Christ’s birth on a particular day now saw their wishes made law. Christmas was banned. Christmas fell on a Saturday: churches were not to offer services, and shops were to open as usual.

The highly partisan newsbooks (early newspapers) which had sprung up to report on the events and politics of the civil war were keen to put their spin on what happened next. What is certain is that there was a real attempt to suppress the most visible celebrations of Christmas, particularly church services; and that this did not go down well with much of the population – parliamentarian or not – who saw comfort and not harm in the traditional customs. In London, church services were broken up – although the churchwardens of St Margaret’s, Westminster reportedly explained that they had only allowed a sermon in the pragmatic belief that people were not intending to work or open their shops on Christmas day, so catering for them with a sermon would ‘prevent their mis-spending of time in Taverns and Ale-houses’. The Mayor himself went out to pull down the festive greenery of rosemary and bay which decorated the conduit in Cornhill, and was met by a ‘mutiny’ which turned violent. Political divisions exacerbated the tension, and in Canterbury and Ipswich, in particular, events got completely out of hand.

Royalist newspapers reported these disturbances with relish. In Canterbury, pro-Christmas vigilantes apparently trooped door to door, checking that their neighbours were properly supplied with ‘Pies and Plum-pottage’ and violently targeting the ‘nigardly Schismaticks’ (i.e., puritans) who were abstaining. They then seized the weapons in the town hall and declared themselves for ‘God, King Charles, and Kent’. Even a rather less colourful account (in the pamphlet Canterbury Christmas) has them targeting the wares of the dozen or so shops which dared to open on Christmas day, and certain key puritans including the Mayor, before staying in arms until a climbdown on the Tuesday. The ebullient royalist newsbook Mercurius Dogmaticus praised these ‘honest Christians of Canterbury, angry to be prohibited both of their Cheare and devotion at one time’ even while reporting that they had broken the windows of those who failed to answer their doors, and beaten up the Mayor. An anti-royalist newspaper, in contrast, railed at the ‘superstitious sons of Canterbury, who were so incorrigible as to beat their Mayor, and so barbarous as to assault their neighbours in their own houses.’ Rather than any noble motive, according to this parliamentarian, ‘it was the spirit of Ale that wrought these wonders’, as the rioters were ‘well tipled’. Satirical parliamentarian doggerel mocked this attempt to ‘rise/ To right [i.e. restore] Plum-Pottage, and Mince-pies’. Meanwhile, in Ipswich, two were reported killed in disturbances which involved an attempt to free prisoners held for the initial pro-Christmas disorder. An acerbic parliamentarian newsbook reported that the dead included a man with the surname Christmas ‘whose name seemed to blow up his zeal to the observation of the day’. 

The authorities took all of this extremely seriously, in the unstable political conditions of 1647-8. The Christmas rioters were subjected to trials which, in the words of Blair Worden, ‘fanned the mood of protest that grew into renewed civil war in the spring and summer of 1648.’ In 1649 the regicide followed, and Christmas continued to be banned throughout the 1650s.

All of this might put our current troubles into some perspective. Christmas may be scaled back this year, but we can look forward to a new year which brings the hope of vaccines and a slow return to a more sociable and lively version of everyday life. Let’s hope for better Christmases to come.

You can find out more about Rachel and her research at the University of Reading at https://www.reading.ac.uk/history/about/staff/r-h-foxley.aspx

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Dreaming of a White Christmas? It may all be in the stars! by Professor Anne Lawrence

Recent forecasts and news stories have raised hopes of a white Christmas, even though the Met Office has pointed out that there has only been a widespread covering of snow on Christmas Day in the UK four times in the last 51 years.  They also warn that accurate forecasts of snow on a specific day can only be made 5 days in advance.  For more details see:  https://www.metoffice.gov.uk/weather/learn-about/weather/types-of-weather/snow/white-christmas 

Snow at Greenwich, December 2017

However, medieval and early modern meteorologists had no such problems and could predict the weather several years ahead!  The downside, of course, was that their forecasts were made on a basis which has subsequently been shown to be entirely unscientific, and accuracy was thus more by accident (and experience) than design.

Astrometerorlogical forecast for October 1590 (image copyright University of Reading Special Collections)

This year, the History Department decided to experiment and see whether medieval methods would forecast a white Christmas in 2020.  The results follow!

Medieval and early modern forecasters made their Prognostications on the basis of astrometeorology, so the first step is to calculate where the planets will be on the chosen dates, as seen from the relevant place.  In this case the relevant place is Berkshire, and the chosen period is 20th to 27th December, focusing on Christmas Day.  The locations of the planets are, of course, calculated in relation to the zodiac – and only the planets known before 1700 are used.

The Sun will start in Sagittarius (28°) and move into Capricorn (3° on Christmas Day)

The Moon will move across Pisces and Aries, and reach 6° Taurus on Christmas Day

Mercury will be close to the Sun, at 6° Capricorn on Christmas Day

Venus will be in Sagittarius (12° on Christmas Day)

Mars will be near the Moon on Christmas Day, at 24° Aries (the Moon will have moved through this position on Christmas Eve)

Jupiter and Saturn will be in very close Conjunction, in the first degree of Aquarius. 

These two powerful planets have been moving closer through 2020 and will come closest of all at the Winter solstice.  They have not been this close since the 13th century – and medieval astrologers agreed that this placing signified major events affecting large regions on Earth.  

For weather forecasters, the element linked to each planet (Earth, Fire, Air and Water) was important, as was the degree of power attributed to each planet.  The sign placings are significant as each sign was also linked to an element and to factors affecting the weather.  Finally, the relationships of the planets to one another (their aspects) also needed to be taken into account as well as their directions of movement.

Traditionally, a powerful placing for Saturn signified colder-than-usual weather, making snow perhaps more likely.  However, the conjunction with Jupiter may predict unusual or dramatic weather; and its occurrence in the Air sign of Aquarius could mean strong winds or storms.  It is also important that the pairing of Jupiter and Saturn is in a significant relationship to the Sun and Mercury, which are in the Earth sign of Capricorn – another cold location.  Mercury is fast-moving and believed to cause turbulence in the air; and the powerful, fiery planet, Mars, is in a significant aspect with Mercury and the Sun.  Mars is placed in the Fire sign of Aries, which suggests that the winds are likely to be warm.

It looks as if the medieval prognostication for Christmas 2020 would be that it will see strong, warm winds blowing over very cold ground – a combination which could produce snow-storms but is unlikely to result in a picture-perfect white Christmas!  So we can all feel very happy that this is unlikely to be correct.

Snow in February (Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry)

A medieval white Christmas (from the Torre Aquila in Trent

Find out more about Professor Anne Lawrence Mathers and her research at the University of Reading here

You can also find out much more in her book Medieval Meteorology

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When should we start putting up decorations and celebrating Christmas festivities? Are you team Nov 1st? Dec 1st? A week before? Professor Helen Parish takes a look…

Our own Professor @HelenLParish takes a historical view of this question and how this debate has raged for centuries!

In the words of Perry Como’s classic, “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas”. The pandemic has got many yearning for a little festive joy earlier than usual and, for some, it started looking like Christmas in early November. Trees, lights, tinsel and baubles were already appearing in streets and houses, and Christmas shopping was well underway.

But such early holiday spirit is not always well received by those who argue that Christmas is for, well, Christmas. It wouldn’t be Christmas though without such disagreements – they’ve been going on since early Christians started celebrating the birth of Christ. You can find the piece that she wrote for The Conversation in full here.

You can also find her blog on the origins of the twelve days of Christmas here

Helen Parish is a historian with interests in religion and belief in early modern Europe. She has written on the history of clerical celibacy and marriage in the western Church, as well as debates over superstition, miracles, magic, witchcraft, and early modern natural history. She is the author of Clerical Marriage and the English Reformation (Ashgate, 2000) and Clerical Celibacy in the West (Ashgate, 2010), and a range of books and articles on the history of the Reformation, religious belief, and the supernatural in early modern Europe.

You can find our more about Professor Helen Parish and her research at the University of Reading here

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Female statues: Couldn’t Mary Wollstonecraft have kept her clothes on? by Dr Jacqui Turner

Nobody really knows how many statues of women there are in the UK. It is even more difficult to know what type of women they represent; invariably they are divided between royals, religious icons and, well, everyone else. Frustratingly, we can also say with certainty that a large proportion are naked and un-named. The centenary of the women’s partial vote in 2018 and of female MPs in 2019 went part way to highlighting and addressing the issue of the lack of female statues, most notably with the installation of Millicent Fawcett in Westminster, Emmeline Pankhurst in Manchester and Nancy Astor MP in Plymouth. But it is a painful process to generate funds for public art and any campaign to raise public money for a statue is managed with an expectation that the resultant artwork will be a reflection of the community that funded it. Unfortunately, the Mary Wollstonecraft statue is not. While huge credit is due to the tireless work that it took to see this project through a decade, as the overwhelming comment on social media reflects, it is a missed opportunity.

The Wollstonecraft statue is not unique in courting controversy. I lay no claims to being an expert on art but in 2019 I was historical consultant and part of the committee to commission a publicly funded statue of Nancy Astor which was not been without its political controversies to say the very least! Similarly, in February 2019, London rejected a statue of Margaret Thatcher for fear it would be vandalised and only after some debate was it agreed that the statue would instead be erected in her home town of Grantham. What is it about women? Statues of controversial men, misogynists, racists and homophobes become part of the landscape with little comment. And all named. And all fully clothed. Focusing the onlookers attention on their achievements rather than their bodies.

However, the issue here is not Wollstonecraft but the representation; a tiny, naked, sliver figure with pert breasts and copious pubic hair atop a mass of female parts. I understand the intended message; this is a representation of ‘everywoman’ and not another figurative statue atop a plinth but couldn’t she at least have kept her clothes on? Hambling’s alleged comment that this tiny silver nude was a representation of the figure that we all [women] crave, really didn’t help.

Mary Wollstonecraft was an C18th tour de force, a philosopher and educationalist, the ‘Mother of Feminism’. Her work was overlooked for a century as her reputation suffered in life and after her death. She had an illegitimate child, suffered mental health issues resulting in a suicide attempt before her death in childbirth age 38. It was Wollstonecraft’s disreputable lifestyle and the fumbling but well intentioned biography written by her husband William Godwin that resulted in her work being overlooked. So how would she feel about the nude? The plinth clearly states ‘for Mary Wollstonecraft’ but does that matter? It is still another naked woman. Women are more than the sum of their bodily parts and whether or not we perceive that this to be a figurative image, it still misses the point. Why couldn’t she have kept her clothes on?

Wollstonecraft never wrote an autobiography or asked for a statue. However, this statue should represent an important milestone in the development of a language of equality and feminism. Mary Wollstonecraft was not ‘everywoman’, she was exceptional. The statue might well be outdoors but is it really accessible to all? That said, if this statue has done one thing it has brought together feminists of all persuasions in condemnation leaving us asking the question – does this commemoration send the right messages or even ask any useful questions?

Dr Jacqui Turner is Associate Professor of Modern British Political History at the University of Reading. She is also the national programme manager for the Astor100 project and historical consultant for the Nancy Astor statue.

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