Doing research at the Royal Archives

I recently paid my first visit to the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle. Doing research there is a wonderful experience, so I thought it would be useful to blog about it here.

I work on eighteenth-century British history and the Royal Archives is a key repository for this period, since it houses the records of George III’s court, as well as every royal family that followed. During the nineteenth century, the growing royal papers were not housed very systematically, but following the death of Queen Victoria the decision was made to archive them in the Round Tower at Windsor Castle, where they remain to this day.

I was lucky enough to be awarded a fellowship by the Georgian Papers Programme, for my project on ‘Shoes and buckles at the Georgian court’. This fellowship helped me to get to the archive, since Windsor is a 3 hour trip from Northampton so required an overnight stay, and my project will require several visits.

Working at the Royal Archives requires more prior planning than most archives. Space for researchers is limited so you are advised to book well in advance, and security at the site is tight so researchers have to apply for clearance in advance. The castle is a functioning royal seat and a major tourist attraction: the archive is part of this bigger operation and has to work within these considerations.

I had never been to Windsor before and it is striking how the castle dominates the town – it is right in front of you as you leave the railway station. On arrival, I walked past the long queue of tourists and made my way to the Pass Office. I located the small door and made my way up a narrow flight of stairs to collect my visitor’s pass. (If like me, you enjoy the Hogwarts-like experience of gaining access to archives in magnificent old buildings, you are in for a treat.)

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The Round Tower, Windsor Castle (source: Wikimedia Commons)

At the gate I showed my pass for inspection and made my way through the castle grounds to the Side Door, where I was buzzed into the door at the foot of the Round Tower. At the top of another long flight of steps I was greeted by Oliver Walton, the curator and co-ordinator of the Georgian Papers Programme, who introduced me to the archive and its workings.

As with any archive, on your first visit you have to learn the archive’s rules and how to order material. There is currently no searchable catalogue for most of the papers, but there are finding aids and a card catalogue. I immediately got lucky with the card catalogue, which gave me the reference to some petitions lodged by bucklemakers in Birmingham and Wolverhampton, who were imploring the royal family to continue wearing buckles after they went out of fashion in the 1790s.

It is advisable to order material in advance of the visit, so I had requested the correspondence of Prince Frederick, Duke of York. This was fascinating material, and it was exciting to leaf through a box of letters from the likes of George III, the Duchess of Devonshire and the Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Finding references to a specific item like shoe buckles was more challenging, but I was able to cross reference from names in the card catalogue and from references in a published edition of some of the correspondence.

Photography of the sources isn’t permitted (indeed cameras and phones are not allowed in that part of the castle) so researchers take notes by hand or on a laptop. It is possible to request scans of items, however, and digital images are gradually being made available as the papers are digitised.

Which brings me back to the Georgian Papers Programme. This is a huge project which aims to digitise the Georgian court papers and make them freely available online. It also involves a range of research projects, including a growing community of Fellows who are interpreting the material and helping the digitisation project. It may be clear from this blog that the Royal Archives is not the most accessible of archives, so making the material available online will open this rich material up to many more scholars – and, crucially, will make it more easily searchable.

On the other hand, I am a big fan of consulting originals rather than digital copies, and visiting the Royal Archives is a unique an enjoyable experience. So even when all the papers are online, I would heartily recommend paying a visit.

Matthew McCormack

Remember, Remember the Fifth of November

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A photomontage of fireworks from a Guy Fawkes Night display at Roundwood Park in Harlesden, London. Credit: Billy Hicks, under Creative Commons licence

Senior lecturer Caroline Nielsen investigates the history of Bonfire Night:

Most people in England are probably familiar with this rhyme:

‘Remember, Remember the 5th of November

Gunpowder, treason and plot

I see no reason why the Gunpowder Treason

Should ever be forgot’

The rhyme refers to the 1605 Gunpowder Treason plot; a failed assassination attempt on King James I of England and Scotland. Rhymes like this one have been around more or less since the plot itself. They were designed to give children a mnemonic history lesson. Earlier rhymes could be detailed, like this nineteenth-century one:

‘Remember, Remember the 5th of November

Gunpowder treason and plot

I hope that night will never be forgot.

The king and his train

Had like to be slain:

36 barrels of gunpowder

Set below London to blow, London up!.

Holla boys! Holla boys!

Let the bells ring!

Holla boys! Holla boys!

God save the King

A stick or a stake

For [Queen] Victoria’s sake,

And pray ye remember the bonfire night.’

(quoted in M. E. S. Wright, Rhymes Old and New (1900), p. 14)

But behind these simple rhymes lies a complex history of religious intolerance, persecution and violence.

The Gunpowder Plot was a religious sectarian plot against the Protestant monarch James I and his court. Early seventeenth-century England was fraught with religious divisions. Catholics were actively discriminated against in law and in wider society. Catholics were not allowed to practice their faith publicly. There were fines for not going to Protestant churches or for not educating one’s children to be Protestant or for hiding a priest. Catholics priests risked imprisonment or execution for saying Mass. Many English Catholics had initially hoped that James (who was married to a Catholic) would curb some of these laws, but that didn’t happen. Frustrated by James’ perceived unwillingness to help his loyal Catholic subjects, a small group of conspirators decided to act. The plotters would be deemed to be terrorists now: they were willing to kill potentially large numbers of people indiscriminately for their cause. The plot was stopped at the last minute. One of the conspirators, Guido (or Guy) Fawkes was caught red-handed in Parliament, not far from the pile of gunpowder barrels intended to kill James. Fawkes was arrested and taken away for interrogation and torture. This is why Fawkes is the most well-known of all the conspirators, even though he was not heavily involved in the early planning (Fraser, 97-100). Most of the other conspirators were caught over the next fortnight, and the main trials began in January 1606. (Fraser, 211-226.)

In recognition of his brush with death, James passed a law in 1606 that there should be an annual national ‘thanksgiving’ event on the 5th November. Contemporaries believed that God had acted to save James, and by extension the Protestant monarchy. The 5th of November was to be a day of state religious observance. It wasn’t until 1859 that James’ act for this national ‘remembrance’ day was repealed.

Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century people commemorated in a set way. People were encouraged at church services and civic events to ‘remember, remember’. Souvenir sermons were printed throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries on the 5th November. All shared the same prejudicial theme: that Protestantism was inherently better than Catholicism.

People gradually began to add other rituals to the religious services such as processions, bonfires and fireworks. These rituals also tapped into the earlier religious traditions of having parties with bonfires for Halloween (31st Oct), All Saints (1st Nov) and All Souls (2nd Nov). Now synonymous with Bonfire Night, the ‘Guy’ ritual was actually one of these later additions to the event. It is thought to date from the 1620s. Effigies of the Pope would be paraded around the crowd and then ceremoniously dumped on top of the bonfire. One can’t imagine the fear and horror felt by seventeenth-century Catholics, watching as their neighbours and friends publicly burnt symbols of their faith. Sometimes the Devil would be burnt in effigy. According to historian David Cressy, it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that the effigy was identified as ‘Guy Fawkes’ (Cressy, 147).

The legacy of the Plot was heightened religious discrimination at a state level. The plotters were a tiny minority: they didn’t represent other English Catholics, the vast majority of whom just wished to practice their faith and live quietly. It was this silent majority which proved to be the victims. The plot hardened the English state’s already-prejudicial attitudes towards the Catholic minority. The plot was used to justify the passing of a series of acts which limited Catholics’ rights. Catholics could not practice law, nor serve in the military. They couldn’t officially act as legal guardians or executors in wills. They were barred from studying in English universities (although some did study in Scotland). They were banned from voting in elections until 1829.  People became openly more anti-Catholic. Wild rumours spread about Catholics, and there were even periodic riots against Catholic people throughout the eighteenth centuries and into the nineteenth. (Fraser, 283).

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Lewes Bonfire Night, procession of the Martyr’s Crosses. Unknown author, under Creative Commons licence

Festivals and celebrations change meaning over successive generations. Our contemporary understanding and enjoyment of Bonfire Night is very different than that of the inhabitants of seventeenth-century England. To them, the 5th of November was a public religious event centred on Protestantism and a Protestant monarchy and driven by anti-Catholic sentiment. To us in the 21st century, Bonfire Night is now all about food, drink and watching beautiful fireworks displays with friends, family and our wider communities. ‘Firework Night’ is often used in schools as a way to teach fire and firework safety. The emphasis of the event now is very much on keeping everyone safe so we can come together as communities, rather than on encouraging religious division. Political effigies are still burnt in some places: the Lewes festival in Sussex featured in national headlines yesterday for its fire procession and its political effigies. But this event is now largely an exception. Effigies are not usually the central feature of contemporary Fireworks Night events, and are often omitted totally. But this omission doesn’t mean that we should forget the hidden histories of the 5th of November. We should be open about the history of this commemoration, and willing to highlight the historic legacy of the Plot.

If you would like to know more about the history of festivals, and of Bonfire Night, try:

  • David Cressy, Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England (London: Sutton, 2004), chapter 9.
  • Antonia Fraser, The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1996).
  • Lesley Pratt Bannatyne, Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History (Pelican: 1998).

 

The Sad Story of a Victorian Ghost-Seer

This Halloween, senior lecturer Caroline Nielsen explores the sad story of a spooky storyteller…

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A young woman is sitting in a chair reading a story which has made her nervous. Engraving by R. Graves after R.W. Buss. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

This is the time of year when most of us begin to think about ghost stories as we witness the annual build-up to Halloween. So, in the spirit of the season, please allow me to introduce you to one of the best-selling ghost story collections of all time and to the foremost writers on psychic phenomenon of the nineteenth century: Mrs Catherine Crowe. Crowe’s story is one both of fame and triumph over adversity, but also a tragic history of the stigma around mental health problems.

 

Crowe’s The Night-Side of Nature: or Ghosts and Ghost-Seers is one of the largest collections of ghost-sighting and psychic phenomenon to be published in English. It was a ground-breaking, systematic attempt to investigate the full range of haunting phenomenon, from death-bed visitations, death portents to ghostly lights. According to writer Roger Clarke, The Night-Side even helped two of Hollywood supernatural favourites gain further notoriety; the poltergeist and the doppelganger. Both had their origins in German folklore.[1]

 

The Night-Side was not Crowe’s first attempt to document supernatural phenomenon. In 1845, she translated and edited the short German biography, The Seeress of Prevorst, being Revelations Concerning the Inner-Life of Man, and the Inter-Diffusion of a World of Spirits in the One we Inhabit. Originally written by Justinus Kerner, the seeress ‘Mrs H.’ was reputed to be both a powerful clairvoyant and spiritual healer, who mapped the separate ‘spheres’ of the spirit worlds.

 

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Map of the spirit world. Credit: The Wellcome Collection

 

Reviewers were scathing of The Seeress. Tait’s Edinburgh Review sneered ‘save as an experiment on English credulity, one can hardly imagine a motive for translating this work’, which they apparently dismissed as ‘foreign’ nonsense.[2] They claimed The Seeress was an ‘entertaining nonsense-reading’ or a guide to abnormal psychology at best.[3] They took particular aim at Crowe’s spiritualist faith, her views dismissed simply because she was a known ‘believer’ in spiritualism and clairvoyance.

 

But Crowe did not back down. She eloquently defended her beliefs (and the applicability of them to English audiences) by writing The Night-Side, which contained an extensive collective of cases from across the UK. The reading public also did not agree with the critics.[4] The Night-Side alone went through sixteen print editions in six years.[5]

 

But I have to admit that I find Crowe herself far more interesting than her spectral subjects. A successful novelist and short-story writer, Crowe was an active member of the Edinburgh and London literati, corresponding with well-known society figures like Charles Dickens and the pioneering female journalist Harriet Martineau.

 

According to historian Lucy Sussex, Crowe’s legacy on horror and crime writing can still be felt now. This is because Crowe produced one of the first female-led amateur detective stories, where a murder is solved by an elderly female housekeeper-turned-sleuth. Move over, Miss Marple. If that was not enough, Crowe may have simultaneously brought the legal phrase ‘circumstantial evidence’ into prominence in the same book.[6]

 

Crowe’s achievements were recognised in her own time, but why haven’t more people heard of her now? Why did her reputation fade so quickly?

 

Two factors worked together to ensure that Crowe was marginalised in her late life, and then largely forgotten after her death; her legacy only known to a few academics and specialist interest groups. These factors were her chosen topics and her health.

 

Crowe’s work was very eclectic, but it tended to focus on women’s lives and domestic situations. She was not afraid of discussing the harsh realities of domestic life, and of crime. Several of her stories hinge on the treatment of women trapped in abusive relationships or situations. She even reworked Harriet Beecher Stowe’s iconic anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin into children’s books, publicising the injustice of plantation slavery and racism to young readers.

 

Her preference for this important subject matter inadvertently helped to undermine her post-humous literary reputation. Serious literature was not supposed to be about women or written for children. Serious writers were certainly not supposed to write uncritically or sympathetically about ghosts and ghost-seers. Thus, Crowe was easily (mis-)labelled as a writer of minor fiction.

 

But something else happened to her which really affected her reputation: she also suffered the stigma of severe mental illness.

 

In 1854, six years after the first publication of The Night-Side, Crowe experienced a period of serious ill health. Accounts of exactly what happened differ, but she appears to have suffered a period of delusional behaviour. According to Charles Dickens:

 

‘[Crowe] has gone stark mad – and stark naked – on the spirit-rapping imposition. She was found t’other day in the street clothed only in her chastity, a pocket-hankerchief and a visiting card. She had been informed, it appeared, by the spirits, that if she went in that trim she would be invisible. She is now in a madhouse, and I fear, hopelessly insane.’ [quoted in Sussex, p. 60].

 

Her illness was short, but the effect of extensive public gossiping appears to have been long-lasting. Crowe tried to defend herself publicly against the accusation of delusional behaviour – which she blamed on a long-standing digestive problem – but gradually she seems to have faded from public life.[7] We do not know if she stopped writing completely or simply gave up on publishing her work. She died in 1872 aged 82.

 

I can’t help thinking that Crowe’s marginalisation is the real tragedy here, more tragic than any of the spectres were wrote about in The Night-Side. I hope that in writing this, I help to end some of her previous marginalisation.

 

If you would like to know more about Crowe and her world:

 

It is only very recently that Crowe and her writings have become the subject of academic interest. However, very few accounts of her work are currently available. Try the following sources:

 

  • Joanne Wilkes, ‘Catherine Ann Crowe [nee Stevens] (1790-1872), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Online (2008).
  • Lucy Sussex, Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), ch. 3
  • Roger Clarke, A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof (London: Particular Book, 2012).
  • Shane McCorristine, Spectres of the Self: Thinking about Ghosts and Ghost-Seeing in England, 1750-1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

 

The University of Kent Special Collections houses the Catherine Crowe archive, a large research collection compiled by Geoffrey Larken in preparation for his unpublished biography.

 

 

[1] Roger Clarke, A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof (London: Particular Book, 2012), 87-88, 156-8

[2] ‘The Seeress of Prevorst’, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine 12:141 (September 1845), 586-91.

[3] ‘The Seeress’, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, 591.

[4] The second edition was published under the title, Revelations of the Invisible World by a Somnambulist; being the life of the Seeress of Prevorst: Her Revelations Concerning the Inner-Life of Man, and the Inter-diffusion of a World of Spirits in the one we inhabit, communicated by Justinus Kerner, Chief Physician at Weinsberg (London: C. Moore, 1847); Shane McCorristine, Spectres of the Self: Thinking about Ghosts and Ghost-Seeing in England, 1750-1920 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 10-11.

[5] McCorristine, Spectres, 10-11.

[6] See Lucy Sussex, Women Writers and Detectives in Nineteenth-Century Crime Fiction: The Mothers of the Mystery Genre (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 45-49.

[7] Sussex, Women Writers, 60-3.

17 October 1961 – We Drown Algerians Here

17 October 1961

In Black History month it is worthwhile underscoring how minority histories have often tended to be overlooked, covered up, or subsumed under majority narratives and ‘official’ memory. At the time of the Bataclan terrorist attack in Paris in 2015, for instance, the press and media all lamented what they claimed was the biggest loss of life on French territory since the Second World War. This was false. What had been overlooked was the murder of hundreds of Algerians in central Paris on the night of 17 October 1961.

It was the height of the war between France and Algeria. The many Algerians living and working in mainland France were increasingly distrusted by the French government, who feared that they were acting as a ‘fifth column, supporting and collecting funds for the FLN (National Liberation Front), the insurgents leading the war for independence from French colonial rule in Algeria. Harsh domestic policing tactics were employed against Algerians living and working legitimately in France, including surveillance, stop and search, and a curfew which saw Algerians homebound between 7pm-6am.

It was a protest against this curfew which sparked the events of 17 October 1961. The Algerian community groups organising the march had emphasised that the protest would be entirely peaceful, and protesters were searched for weapons before they boarded the trains and buses which transported them from the ghettoised peripheries and shantytowns to central Paris.

1961 bus

1961

In 1961, Maurice Papon was the Police Chief in charge of Paris. Papon, who had served as a senior police official for the wartime Vichy regime, and oversaw the deportation of c.1600 French jews to Nazi concentration camps. In 1956 he had also served in Constantine, in Algeria, participating in the repression and torture of Algerian nationalists. Papon’s past clearly did not dispose him to take a lenient approach with colonial subjects protesting on French national territory. However, it is still difficult for historians to establish exactly what precipitated the massacre and on whose orders, for many of the archives related to this incident, and to France’s role and actions in the Algerian war more broadly, are still under wraps.

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Around 30,000 marched. By the end of the week 14,000 had been arrested. This fate was far better than many suffered. Police bludgeoned innumerable participants as they exited metro stations. Others were rounded up and taken to the police HQ at St Michel, where, according to eye-witness accounts, Papon ordered their extermination. The bodies of many Algerians were thrown in the Seine.

Evidence of these atrocities was immediately covered up by the Paris police force. Journalists and photojournalists present during these events attest to the fact that they were silenced; that they were threatened; that their copy/photographs/films were confiscated. On the night itself, televised news showed only reassuring images, and the whole incident disappeared from the media by 24 October.

The exact number of deaths is difficult to establish. Some documents and archives have been destroyed, others remain classified. Historian Jean-Luc Einaudi, who has researched the event extensively, and who also challenged Papon in a court case, has suggested that at least 200 were killed on 17 October. British historians House and MacMaster claim that 550 were reported as missing from the shantytowns. At the time, the French government, headed by de Gaulle, with Roger Frey as Interior Minister, admitted only two of the dead. A government inquiry in 1999 concluded 48 drownings on the one night and 142 similar deaths of Algerians in the weeks before and after, 110 of whom were found in the Seine. It also concluded the real toll was almost certainly higher.

The massacre has often been cited by community activists as an example of ‘confiscated memory’:  an event whose existence was denied, the memory of which has been suppressed, and which had long been eliminated from the ‘official’ history of the Franco-Algerian conflict. Activists have sought to reinsert this history into French national memory – some erecting makeshift banners along the banks of the Seine which read: ‘We drown Algerians here’.  It was in response to this sort of call for the suppressed memory to take it rightful place in the history of France and Algeria that prompted Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë to unveil a plaque on the Saint-Michel bridge of the Seine near to the Police HQ, to those who were ‘victims of the bloody repression of the peaceful demonstration of 17 October 1961’. It was not until 51 years after the massacre, in 2012, that then President, François Hollande, made official comment on the matter, recognising that ‘Algerians legitimately demonstrating for their right to independence were killed during a bloody repression’. The passive voice employed in both the plaque and the statement bear witness to the fact that the French state is still far from being able to acknowledge fully its own part in both the massacre and its subsequent erasure from history.

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Plaque

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Articles

Jim Beach reflects upon taking an intelligence history investigation from initial idea to publication.

 

Dil'Se restaurant Dundee

 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  Depending on how you voted.  Our project was born in Dundee on the evening of Thursday 23 June 2016.  The Dil’Se restaurant provided some great food, ideas were discussed, questions were half-formed, and possible lines of inquiry scribbled down.

The following morning, we awoke to the EU referendum result.  Although we never consciously entered into a race with the Conservative party, having simultaneously started something that was initially ill-defined and then unexpectedly complicated, we do feel slightly smug in having crossed the finish line before them.

The initial impetus to research and write came from a sense of unfinished business.  Nine months before our meal I had published the diary of a First World War soldier who had been engaged in frontline signals intelligence (SIGINT).

Editing the diary had caused me to do some research on IToc (aye-tok), the British army’s system for intercepting German trench telephones, and to also look for the service records of the SIGINT soldiers whose names popped up in the text.

And it turned out that I’m not very good at rummaging in personnel records.  Enter stage left my old friend, Jock Bruce.  He’s a genealogical ninja and, I think initially out of pity, demonstrated that I was giving up too easily when confronted by hundreds of hits on common names.

Jock’s main historical interest is early Twentieth Century SIGINT and so, while I moved on to other things, he pushed further into the personnel files.  We also batted emails back and forth about another problem; some of the diary evidence just didn’t fit with previously-accepted interpretations.

Jock then had a breakthrough.  From the diary we knew that men who were recruited into this type of work were transferred to the Royal Engineers (Signal Service).  But there were over 200,000 Royal Engineers in the First World War.  How could we identify the couple of hundred who were designated as ‘Interpreter Operators’?

Taking the two dozen names that we had from the diary, Jock tested a hypothesis.  What if these men had been transferred to the engineers in batches?  Administrative logic would suggest they would have been allocated new service numbers in sequential blocks.

Through a process we dubbed ‘numerology’, Jock started searching for engineers with service numbers close to those of men identified in the diary.  This unlocked many fresh targets and we quickly realised that, using their service records, we could build up a useful collective profile of these men.  Or, to give it its proper academic label, engage in some prosopography.

 

Art IWM PST 6976

‘The enemy listens too! Careful on the phone!’

© Imperial War Museum, Art.IWM PST 6976.

 

Over the curry in Dundee we had decided to write a short article which synthesised the existing secondary sources with the evidence from the diary, plus a couple of thousand words on the personnel dimension derived from Jock’s genealogical work.  It all sounded so simple.

But then it spiralled out of control.  We found ourselves investigating multiple leads and producing many more questions than answers.  But we persisted.  Mostly from a combination of curiosity and obstinacy.

The next forehead-slap moment came when we both dug back into our old notes on First World War intelligence.  We found numerous examples of both of us having both looked at documents without realising the potential significance of the trench SIGINT references.

While re-tracing our steps in well-known sources, we also began trawling new ones, such as local newspapers, using terminology found in the diary.  We got lucky in finding, for example, one officer who decided to spill the beans about his secret SIGINT work to a community group in Berwick-upon-Tweed.  We were also aided by the kindness of numerous First World War historians who responded very generously to our strange enquiries about obscure aspects of their past and present research.

Then came the hard part.  Writing up.

It quickly became clear that we’d accumulated too much material for one article.  We wrangled with various configurations, but eventually ended up writing two; one focused thematically on the personnel and the other, structured chronologically, on the SIGINT.

Neither of us had co-written academically before, and it’s fair to say that it was quite challenging.  What we learnt was that, having known one another for many years, we found it relatively easy to engage in a critical-but-creative dialogue conducted mostly by email.  That said, we both realised early on that writing this way takes much more time than flying solo.

Eventually, we submitted to the Journal of Intelligence History and found the peer reviewers to be firm yet fair.  A little further digging thereby ensued and, happily, we were waved through at the second time of asking.

Would we do it differently if we had our time again?  Probably not.  Yes, we made mistakes and could have been much more efficient in pursuing leads.  We also discovered just how strangely obsessive each of us could be in pursuing divergent aspects of the investigation.  But, ultimately, by working together, we have researched and written something that neither of us could have done alone.

Please have a look at our work using the links below.  And tell all your military and intelligence history friends to do the same.  There should be something in there for everybody; perhaps the German intelligence advantage during the Battle of the Somme, security concerns about using immigrants for secret intelligence work, or eavesdropping on the conversations of enemy prisoners.

British Signals Intelligence in the Trenches, 1915-1918: Part 1, Listening Sets.

British Signals Intelligence in the Trenches, 1915-1918: Part 2, Interpreter Operators.

Finally, we are most grateful to the University of Northampton for funding open-access.  And we also thank GCHQ for recently publicising the names of the Interpreter Operators.

Horrible Histories: The Movie review

It’s the school holidays and I was looking for a way to entertain the children on a rainy morning, so we went to the local cinema to see Horrible Histories: The Movie. Since they graduated from CBeebies to CBBC, Horrible Histories has been a reliable favourite and, thanks to iPlayer and Netflix, we have watched the back catalogue exhaustively.

Much has been written about Horrible Histories as it has become an important part of the popular history landscape, especially for the young. Terry Deary started to publish books in the series in 1993, with the intention of presenting interesting facts in an entertaining way. The books ballooned in popularity and Horrible Histories became a multimedia franchise.

In 2009 the series was successfully adapted for TV by the BBC. There was a danger that the Reithian instincts of the BBC might have made the content didactic or patronising, but the programmes were more in the spirit of Monty Python than schools’ programming. The regular troupe of performers are drawn from the comedy circuit (including cult shows such as Peep Show and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace) rather than children’s TV.

As such, the series has a loyal following of grownups. This grownup is a particuar fan of the Four Georges song, for obvious reasons.

The film largely retains the spirit of the TV series, and some of the cast. The big screen outing necessarily includes some celebrity turns, such as Derek Jacobi reprising his famous role as Claudius, and Kim Cattrall as his murderous wife Agrippina. Most of the cast are drawn from British TV, giving the film a Carry-On feel – along with its bum jokes, wobbly sets and ‘epic’ battle scenes featuring a few dozen people who don’t get hurt.

The modest running time whizzes by and none of the kids in the audience seemed to get bored. This was impressive, as the TV show relies on short skits that are more suited to a primary school attention span, whereas a film needs a longer narrative arc. The story is set in the time of Nero, who is struggling both with his scheming mother and a pesky bit of the Roman Empire called Britain, which is refusing to be subdued. Due to an unfortunate mix-up with some gladiator urine, a young Roman called Atti is sent to this grim outpost, where he is promptly captured by a Celt girl named Orla, who joins Boudicca’s uprising.

There is a nice gag where a Roman soldier scoffs at the idea of a British empire. And whether intentionally or not, the diverse cast is a riposte to the controversy in 2017 over a CBBC cartoon featuring a mixed-race Roman family, where rightwing commentators and internet trolls laid into historians like Mary Beard for suggesting that this was accurate for the time.

In this and other ways, the film is true to the period it is depicting. Horrible Histories has always prided itself on its accuracy, but the relentless ‘facts’ felt a bit more shoehorned-in over the course of a 90-minute narrative than they do in a short TV skit. Long-form storytelling also requires the writers to make more stuff up, and it is unclear whether children will find the factual gladiator urine more memorable than Orla’s fictional kleptomaniac grandma. The extent to which the form of historical writing impacts upon the content is a dilemma that all historians face.

Aside from this one paragraph of academic quibble, Horrible Histories: The Movie is a success on many levels. Most importantly, it is a lot of fun. I enjoyed it as much as the children did and it was great to see some of their favourite songs from the TV series getting a reprise here. Altogether now, ‘Boudicca, superstar…’

Matthew McCormack

Peterloo today

Friday marks the bicentenary of the Peterloo Massacre. On 16 August 1819, a huge crowd of 60,000 men, women and children gathered in St Peter’s Field in Manchester to listen to radical speakers and demand parliamentary reform. At this time, only around a tenth of adult males had the vote and many new industrial centres like Manchester had no MPs at all. Radicals had for half a century demanded change to the political system, since they argued that a system that represented the minority could never govern in the interests of all.

The authorities were alarmed at the prospect of such a large demonstration of working people and called in the military. It was common practice in the days before the introduction of a professional police force to do this, but the actions of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry that day have gone down in infamy. The yeomanry were mounted volunteers, drawn from local gentlemen, so were hardly disinterested pariticipants. The cavalry charged into the crowd in an attempt to apprehend speakers on the hustings and hacked at the trapped protesters with sharpened sabres. At least fifteen people died and hundreds were wounded. The event was dubbed ‘Peterloo’, in ironic reference to the Battle of Waterloo (of which one of the victims was a veteran).

The bicentenary of Peterloo is being marked in numerous ways. Last year Mike Leigh released his film Peterloo, which movingly depicted the scale of the demonstration and the horror of the attack. BBC radio is broadcasting a series of programmes about the event. There is a new graphic novel and a reenactment, not to mention countless talks, events and conference papers on the subject. Historians of the massacre such as Robert Poole and Katrina Navickas have been very busy.

Peterloo has long been a totemic event among the British left, comparable to the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Battle of Cable Street. The Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has taken to reading part of Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy at his rallies, a poem written in 1819 in response to the massacre:

Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth, like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!

This flurry of commemorative activity has prompted something of a backlash among the right. The Times has asked whether this was an ‘isolated outrage’ that has been given ‘an unjustified historical importance’, and did not miss the opportunity to bash the BBC for ‘filling its schedules’ with leftwing content. There is an irony here, in that The Times of 1819 was instrumental in spreading news of the massacre: it had a reporter on the spot and advocated the very reforms that the protesters were demanding. In 2019, however, the politics of Peterloo are very different, as it has become a battleground in the culture wars of Brexit and the current polarisation of politics.

Taking a step back from this, there is no doubt in my mind about the importance of Peterloo or the necessity of commemorating it. This summer I published a book entitled Citizenship and Gender in Britain, 1688-1928 and decided to put a picture of Peterloo on the cover. This was partly a nod to the bicentenary, but in many ways Peterloo is a pivotal point in the book. The book charts the debate that took place between the seventeenth and the twentieth centuries regarding who was fit to be a citizen: who should be made a full member of the political nation and, in particular, who should be given the vote?

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Chronologically, Peterloo falls around halfway between the Bill of Rights and the Equal Franchise Act, which begin and end this story. It was a key moment in the struggle for parliamentary reform: the climax of the postwar ‘mass platform’ and the last great reformist protest before the movement revived around 1830 to press for the Reform Bill. It was also a prominent moment in the history of men and women in politics, which is the key focus of the book. Women stood alongside men on the hustings and constituted around an eighth of the crowd, yet were around a third of the victims, suggesting that they were singled out for particularly brutal treatment by the soldiers.

The demonstration at St Peter’s Field was a peaceful protest demanding basic citizenship rights, and it was mown down by an establishment that sought to deny them those rights. The symbolism of the event is therefore unavoidable, however much today’s Times might wish otherwise.

Matthew McCormack

Fellowship Success for Northampton Historian!

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Congratulations to Professor Matthew McCormack, who has been awarded a King’s College London Summer Fellowship on the Georgian Papers Programme! With his fellowship, Matthew will be conducting research at the Royal Archives at Windsor, for a project on ‘shoes and buckles at the Georgian court’.

Shoes were loaded with ideological meaning in the eighteenth century, so footwear choices could make a political statement, especially those worn by people in the public eye. In particular, Matthew is interested in the 1790s, when there was a shift away from the traditional elite ensemble of breeches, stockings and buckled shoes, towards trousers and boots. The former came to be associated with the excesses of the aristocracy, whereas the latter connoted martial masculinity and democracy. The buckle’s fall from fashion was disastrous for manufacturers in areas such as Birmingham, who petitioned the royal family to continue requiring them at court and in the military. This project therefore highlights an episode in the political history of footwear, and forms part of a wider project on the material culture of Georgian shoes.

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Pair of man’s steel and gilt wire shoe buckles, c. 1777–1785. LACMA Image Library. Photograph LACMA., Public Domain

Matthew developed an interest in the history of shoes via his work on masculinity, which he has considered in the contexts of politics and war during the long eighteenth century. His latest book is Citizenship and Gender in Britain, 1688-1928 (Routledge, 2019).

 

URB@N History and Personal Tutoring

This week, I was very pleased to support Emma Tyler present her second URB@N project for the History department at the University of Northampton. For those who have not heard of it, URB@N stands for Undergraduate Research Bursaries at Northampton, and is a scheme the university has been running since 2008. Basically URB@N gives students the chance to carry out research into the ways undergraduate teaching works, to help lectures and other staff improve the teaching experience at the university. Students are expected to put in a significant amount of work for this research, but are rewarded for their time with a £500 bursary.

 

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Emma Tyler presenting her URB@N project at the annual Teaching and Learning conference at the University of Northampton on 18 June 2019

I have been involved in four URB@N projects so far, and each one has led to some interesting discoveries. In the past these projects have helped me develop teaching materials for my modules on the history of fascism, and enhance the department’s online and social media presence. Our online spaces now include this blog site, which features content from staff and students, and also our Twitter account, @HistoriansUON, among other things.

 

For the most recent project, Emma looked into the department’s personal tutoring system. She was trying to find out both ways it worked well and ways it could be improved, to make sure the History team is being as supportive as it can be. She conducted a questionnaire survey of all the History students, and also ran a focus group of first years. Carrying out this type of research is fairly unusual for History students, as it involves finding out things about people who are very much alive, and involves getting ethical approval for all the data collection. It has also helped develop Emma’s experience in developing practical recommendations from original research, another key skill.

 

Emma’s research was able to show that the vast majority of our students are happy with our personal tutoring system, and they seem to view the History team as helpful and supportive. For example, her data shows that the department makes clear the role of the personal tutor very early on, and uses the system to offer students a wide range of academic and pastoral support. She was also able to highlight some areas for enhancing the way the History department delivers personal tutoring, such as rethinking our choice of meeting spaces for tutorial sessions, and adding in more scheduled personal tutor meetings throughout the year.

 

While Emma is now finalising a report that she will present to the History team over the summer, on 18 June she presented her research project at the university’s annual Teaching and Learning conference. Over lunch, along with other students from across the university who were granted URB@N bursaries, she talked about her research at a poster exhibition. She chatted with a wide range of lectures and others involved in delivering teaching, and was even able to get some further ideas to help refine her recommendations. Emma was a great advocate for the History department, and was able to explain in detail how the History team approached personal tutoring.

 

The URB@N scheme is a very important element of how the University of Northampton empowers the student voice, and is responsive to problems and issues that students face. It empowers students, and helps them engage in research that not only enhances their own skills, but also hopefully improves things for fellow students. I am look forward to being involved in more URB@N projects in the future, and hope that other History students can find it as beneficial as Emma has.

 

Paul Jackson, Senior Lecturer in History

‘Turns’ in eighteenth-century British history

Matthew McCormack gave this paper at the ‘Eighteenth Century Now’ conference at University College London on 26 April 2019. This conference was held to mark the 30th anniversary of the ‘British History in the Long Eighteenth Century’ seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, and was intended to reflect on the state of the field.

Today I am going to talk about methodological turns. In order to do this, I am going to take an autobiographical approach, reflecting on my own work in eighteenth-century studies. This may sound self-indulgent, but the journey that I have been on over the last quarter century is probably similar to many other scholars in this field.

I emerged from a History degree at York with an interest in nineteenth-century political culture. I chose to go to Manchester to do my postgraduate studies, because of the work on elections by Frank O’Gorman and James Vernon. It was Frank who turned me into an eighteenth-century historian, but it was the developments in the department in nineteenth- and twentieth-century British studies that impacted on my method as a historian.

Manchester in the 1990s was one of the few departments in Britain where postmodern ideas really took hold, and was probably the leading promoter of the linguistic turn. It was invigorating for me as a postgrad to be based in a department where history was so politicised and where methodology was taken so seriously. This very directly impacted on my work. Whereas I started out doing a fairly standard history of electoral culture, I soon switched to thinking about how the electoral citizen came to be defined. Working backwards from when this was codified in the 1832 Reform Act, I thought about how citizenship was talked about and lived, particularly in terms of masculinity.

My thesis became my 2005 book, The Independent Man: Citizenship and Gender Politics in Georgian England. This book was an early attempt to link the histories of masculinity and politics – and this is a link that I have tried to develop ever since – but its methodology was linguistic.

After Independent Man, I tried to repeat the trick by historicising other keywords that were significant in the history of masculinity and politics, but with rather less success. In common with a lot of work on the linguistic turn, my contention that historians had used terms anachronistically was a good one, but I was less successful at proposing what they should do with them.

Part of the problem was that, by the mid-00s, I had access to ECCO and online newspapers, which quickly generated thousands of hits that I did not know what to do with. For Independent Man I had spent months poring over Hansard, so had a good sense of context and intention of my source material. Digitisation made the linguistic turn very easy, but for the same reason I wonder if it helped to kill it off. Indeed, around this time there was a reaction against the cultural turn. Many historians expressed anxiety that the focus on representations was losing sight of human experience; some argued for a re-engagement with the ethos of social history.

Instead, I found a way forward from an unexpected source: the history of war. Historians often assume that military history is methodologically conservative, but it is a very practical field, concerned with physical and material questions. Even if you are doing the cultural history of war, you can’t get away with the kind of abstractions that are acceptable in other fields.

During my PhD I had come across the debates about the militia in the eighteenth century, which used highly gendered and nationalistic language to talk about the citizen soldier, and which resulted in the Militia Act of 1757. I wrote two articles about this and moved on to other projects. But I kept coming back to the militia and in particular the question of what it was like for the men who actually served in it. It had been relatively straightforward to reconstruct the role of masculinity in the way the militia had been represented, but in order to think about masculinity in terms of experience I had to ask different questions and use very different source types. This led to a series of studies on questions such as embodiment, space and material culture. Eventually I had enough of these for a book, Embodying the Militia in Georgian England (2015). This was a typical mid-career book, produced on the installment plan.

The structure of the book reflected its gestation, with the first half on representation and the second on practice. I could justify this structure, as debates around the militia (both at the time and among its historians) revolved around ideal and reality. Whereas most historians argued that these were completely at odds, this method allowed me to show that the ideal of the masculine citizen soldier was projected onto the practice of the institution itself. That said, I was conscious at the time that it was a bit of a fudge. Separating representation and practice is artificial, and I did not use it as an opportunity to explore the relationship between them.

I only really engaged fully with the material turn since I have been working on shoes. This was partly a development of my work on military uniforms and the masculine body. It was also a consequence of being at Northampton: I had to work on shoes eventually. The national shoe and leather collections were on my doorstep, so accessing the objects (one of the practical obstacles in the way of doing material culture history) was relatively straightforward. Indeed, building up relationships with museums (which you have to do to carry out this kind of work) has been a rewarding spinoff for me.

Previously, I had struggled with material culture. I had struggled to ask the right questions of the objects, or to get any usable answers from them. But the shoe is a very eloquent object. Shoe styles are often very striking and revealing, and the materiality of the object is key to its purpose and meaning. Shoes are also very personal objects, as they mould to the foot of the wearer and therefore provide a unique source about them. They retain traces of the wearer’s body, and impacted on that body itself, in terms of its posture, movement and health. I have therefore found men’s shoes to be a hugely revealing source about masculinity. It allowed me to think about the embodiment, the national identity and the class distinction of the public man – which takes me back to politics, where I started.

In conclusion, my third book is out this summer. It’s a textbook on Citizenship and Gender in Britain, 1688-1928 (which is very ‘long eighteenth century’). Whereas my previous books had compartmentalised the linguistic and the material turns, this one doesn’t. Perhaps this suggests that the approaches that come under the umbrella of the ‘cultural turn’ need not be opposed to one another.

Matthew McCormack