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The Algerian Hirak

HirakSince 22 February 2019 Algerians have been protesting in the streets. As usual there has been very little coverage of events in the British, indeed Western, media. This is, however, one of the most impressive pro-democracy movements the world has seen. It was triggered by President Bouteflika’s decision to stand for a fifth term of office. This flew in the face of the Algerian Constitution, and would have meant that he would have added an extra five year term to the twenty he had already served as Algeria’s longest-serving present. To further breach constitutional matters, Bouteflika had rarely been seen in public since 2013 when he suffered a stroke, and article 102 of the Constitution states that an incapacitated president must stand down. Since his stroke in 2013, perception grew across Algeria that Bouteflika had been a puppet president, with figures from within Bouteflika’s entourage calling the shots.

On 10 February 2019, a press release signed by the long-ailing Bouteflika announcing he would seek a fifth consecutive term provoked widespread discontent. After Friday prayers on 22 February  Algerians took to the streets. This effectively shattered a longstanding fear of protest in Algeria after the Black Decade of the Civil War of the 1990s. Millions of men, women and children took part in peaceful rallies across Algeria, and have been protesting ever since.

The protests, which have been dubbed Algeria’s Hirak, which is Arabic for ‘movement’, took on a broader focus when Bouteflika finally ceded to pressure and resigned in April 2019. Protestors then called for action against the failures of the privileged elite who had supported him, and in doing so had failed public services in Algeria. The protestors  called for widespread reform, and for corruption charges to be brought against the regime’s generals and oligarchs.

Bouteflika’s  long regime had  effectively crushed political dissent and oversaw a proliferation of corruption throughout the state, with oligarchs and the party elite owing their position to the monopoly on oil and other key energy industries. Algeria is one of Africa’s major oil and gas producers, the endemic corruption has led to an overreliance on oil revenues at the expense of the agricultural potential of the country, further adding to discontent on the domestic front. Additional factors including high unemployment, lack of job opportunities, economic stagnation following the decline of oil and gas export revenues in 2014, social inequalities, have led the Algerian population to protest against ‘le pouvoir’ (the people in power. Although forcing Bouteflika’s resignation in April 2019 as a result of the mass protests was a major achievement, the momentum was with the protestors, and the Hirak forced further concessions.

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The strength of this Hirak, also known as the ‘Revolution of Smiles’, is that the protestors seem to have learned the lessons of the Arab Spring. Millions of people, both men and women, who mostly young, are participating in the weekly marches, occupying public spaces and peacefully demanding the regime to change. The fact that this is a movement with no official leader, but which is seeking dramatic change through entirely peaceful means, appears to have prevented the emergence of extremist groups, as occurred in Libya and Syria. The movement also has a significant cultural component, and has witnessed the proliferation of creative endeavours: songs, slogans, cartoons, the occupation and collective clean-up of public places, spontaneous dialogues and debates, and very active social media. The abiding cry has been: ‘Yetnahaw Gaa’ / ‘Get them out!’

When finally a new election was called for December 2019, this was largely rejected by the movement, who instead called for a complete overhaul of the political system. As the protests grew louder, the response of the government was to clamp down severely on detractors, and the number of arrests increased significantly.  Protestors are recording increasing internet censorship, and political cartoonists have been arrested and imprisoned. Amnesty International’s ‘Algeria Watch’ reports of around 500 arrested, some arbitrarily, as a result of a sweeping government action against the Hirak. (see https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2019/12/algeria-hirak-protests/)

The election went ahead on 12 December 2019, and the result was controversial.  Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a Bouteflika loyalist was elected as President. Protestors chanted ‘The vote is rigged. Your elections are of no concern to us and your president will not govern us.’ One protestor stated: ‘Tebboune is worse than Bouteflika, We did not vote and we will not back down.’ Little news has emerged in the West since the election and the protests which followed. Has the Revolution of Smiles turned sour?

 

 

Racism, diversity and contested histories: some reflections on Christmas (just) Past

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The Cratchits sit down to Christmas dinner 

If, like me, you tuned in to watch the BBC’s latest adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol, I’m sure it will have left a lasting impression.  Over three nights a star-studded cast presented a much darker version of the tale of Scrooge than we are used to. It was uncomfortable at times, rude, crude even, but funny and also very poignant and political.

I’m not an expert on Dickens and have only recently read the novella that bears limited similarity to the scripted version I watched over Christmas. This seemed to annoy some people, who took to social media to complain that students studying it at school today would have been confused by Steven Knight’s retelling of an old classic. Personally, I loved it. I found Guy Pearce’s Scrooge a more complex character than Dickens had presented him and Vinette Robinson’s Mary Cratchit was a study in controlled anger.

Most of all I think Dickens would have approved as it had a powerful message about the concerns of the day, combining as it did themes of poverty and inequality, abuse, exploitation, and the callous nature of unrestrained and immoral capitalism.

But what really seemed to upset some keyboard warriors was that the Cratchits were presented as a mixed race family. This was compounded when the BBC released a modern version of Worzel Gummidge complete with two black children as the central characters (below right). For some this was diversity gone mad, a deliberate attempt by ‘auntie’ to meddle with our cultural past and present. Unknown

I’ve been musing on this for a few days now. At the time I responded to a tweet I saw by @WhoresofYore (aka Dr Kate Lister) which had shared several images of interracial marriage to challenge the claim (by some) that the BBC’s drama presentation of the  Cratchits was ‘PC nonsense and historically inaccurate’.

I wrote:

‘Some people would like to believe Britain was entirely white before 1950. It wasn’t. It’s just that we’ve written black people out of history’.

That tweet had had over 2000 ‘likes’ and nearly 200 retweets but it also drew a few people to comment that they had never seen black people when they were growing up. ‘If a black of Asian man ever came down the street [in 1950s Birmingham]’, one wrote, ‘people ran out of their houses to look at him. They’d never seen one, except in pictures’. Another commented that ‘it largely was white’ adding, ‘now my home town has 300 languages and there are very few white school kids’.

It didn’t take much searching on twitter to find some pretty disgusting racist comments about the dramas and the BBC’s use of black faces in them. Which begs the question for me at least, why are people so unhappy about the depiction of diversity on our television screens?

After all history can tell us (should tell us) that Britain has had a very diverse population for hundreds of years. There have been people from all parts of the world in England from Roman times to the present; in medieval England, in Tudor England, in the 1700s and nineteenth century, and right through the twentieth. Moreover all of these immigrants to Britain have contributed to the success of these islands, economically, culturally and politically.

Black troops fought in the last world war, and the one before that, directly contributing to the defeat of Nazi Germany and the survival of our ‘British’ way of life. Estimates suggest also that around a third of Nelson’s crew on HMS Victory were not white. The records of the Old Bailey (London’s central criminal court) reveal the presence of Black Londoners in significant numbers throughout the 1700s and 1800s. In many cases of course contemporary prejudice and notions of racial superiority mean that Black voices have been silenced or muted, or erased completely but this does not mean they didn’t exist at all.

We know this. History has been telling us this for decades at least so why do some people have such a problem accepting it?

Sadly I think it is because Britain is a country where racism remains endemic. When the grime artist Stormzy was asked if there was racism in Britain he replied: ‘definitely. 100 percent’. Reactions to that comment and its misreporting pretty much sum up the problem we have.

UnknownStormzy was condemned for labeling Britain as ‘100 percent racist’, which he never did. All sorts of people who should have known better leapt to the country’s defense accusing him of all sorts of outrages without stopping to read or listen to what he had actually said. There is racism in Britain, I agree with that statement completely (100%). Not everyone in Britain is a racist, and Stormzy never suggested that they were.

A day later racist abuse was directed at a black footballer, as he played for Chelsea in a local London derby at Tottenham. When I ‘liked’ a tweet from Jolyon Rubinstein, comedian and TV producer, that condemned the racism at his club and then added a comment that it needed to be challenged everywhere, a handful of comments took issue with me. There was no racism at ‘our club’ some said; please don’t condemn us all with the same brush.

It seems like this and the Stormzy incident are part of the same problem. Some people are more outraged at being called racist than they are at racism existing in our society. Some are so scared of seeing black faces on the TV screens that they feel the need to complain that the BBC is misrepresenting the nation and its history.

The reality is that actors are actors and it doesn’t matter what colour their skins is anyway. We’ve been used to white actors playing black characters, to Americans playing Germans, to able bodies actors portraying disabled people, and to all sorts of dramatic interpretations and adaptations of texts from the past.

The reason some people got their collective knickers in a twist about Stormzy, and the BBC’s A Christmas  Carol  and Worzel Gummidge is because they are either ignorant or prejudiced, or both. I’m sorry but that is self-evident.

What worries me is what we are doing to combat this. How do we educate people so that that this racism dies a death now, in the 2020s, along with all the other intolerances that continue to blight our society?

Diversity is a good thing, not something to be afraid of and we have to get that message out there from nursery, to primary and secondary school to university, though the shop floor, in all forms of the media, in sport, culture, and, most of all, in politics.

Racism has no place in our society, none whatsoever, and it is the responsibility of all of us to call it out wherever we see it.

Drew Gray, Subject Lead Humanities

 

 

 

 

Star Wars: a personal history

When The Force Awakens came out in 2015, I wrote a blog about how Star Wars had a strong sense of history, referencing previous times and films about them. After watching the new movie The Rise of Skywalker last Friday, I have been thinking about how the series has a history in a more personal sense.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

I am a child of the seventies and it feels like Star Wars has been with me my whole life. I was too young when the first one came out, but it was on TV once a year in the early eighties so that was the first one I saw. I was allowed to stay up late to watch it, despite my parents’ reservations that the monsters would scare me.

Like many kids at the time, I primarily got into Star Wars through the toys, comics and other paraphernalia rather than the films themselves. The toys enabled children to come up with their own stories, which was a big part of the power of the Star Wars universe. My friends and I would pool our own modest collections in order to stage epic battles – for this reason, I mostly collected the baddies, to even the sides up.

We didn’t have a VCR at that point, so I first saw Empire Strikes Back as part of a triple-bill at the cinema when Return of the Jedi came out. My dad took some arm-twisting to take me. We missed the start of the first film, and popped out after the second for some KFC to fortify us for the third. Having previously devoured comics and novelisations, the big revelation in Empire didn’t come as a shock.

In the later eighties, Star Wars wasn’t cool. I sold nearly all of the toys at car boot sales to buy things like records. But I still enjoyed watching the films, having taped them off the telly.

In the nineties, Star Wars became cool once more. I was then a student, and spent much of my time on the Star Wars pinball machine in the JCR, trying to shoot the Death Star. The films were revived at student film nights: a friend of mine at another campus told me that people would bring torches to their smoky cinema, to use during the lightsabre battles. I remember going to see the special editions as a student. I was unimpressed with the digital ‘improvements’, but just remember the thrill of seeing these films on the massive screen of York’s Odeon rather than on TV.

The prequel trilogy started coming out when I was finishing my PhD. My similarly Star Wars-obsessed friends and I went to see The Phantom Menace full of expectation, and emerged feeling very deflated. In retrospect, this was a bit unfair. It was and is a terrible film, but it plays very young, so people who had grown up with the original trilogy were not really the target audience. The Gungans are no more childish than the Ewoks.

After the disappointment of Episode 1, I didn’t bother with the next one, until I watched it round a friend’s house on his new-fangled DVD player, which showed off the battle scene to spectacular effect. Maybe it wasn’t so bad, so I gave Revenge of the Sith the benefit of the doubt and went to see it at the cinema.

When the third trilogy came around, I had kids of my own so partly experienced it through them. They were too young to see the new films at the cinema themselves (so I went with other parents of young children, on rare nights out). Like me the children experienced the film vicariously through toys. Rather than the action figures, they mostly played Star Wars through Lego, which offers up even more opportunities for imaginative engagement with its universe. Unlike me, though, they had easy access to the films on DVD. They love Phantom Menace, despite me informing them that they are wrong.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Watching the final installment last week therefore felt rather significant. Having been with me my whole life, it felt as though a chapter of it had come to a close. The documentary short before the film, with grainy out-takes and interviews from the first film, added to the sense of nostalgia. In retrospect, my relationship with the nine films (and the two spin-offs, of which there will no doubt be more) is influenced by the points in my own life when they came out.

Star Wars is a very personal thing. Its stories are bound up with the stories we tell ourselves about our own lives. It is therefore part of my own history.

Matthew McCormack

Free Speech for Fascists

On 13 November, David Renton gave a History Research seminar based on his work on the history of fascism and National Front. In this blog he reflects further on issues of free speech raised in his presentation:

 

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For years, I’ve written about the battle between left and right. My interest hasn’t been so much in the structured alternation between two projects for government which gets resolved in a election. I mean rather the conflict between the far right and far left: a story of street-fighters, cultural warriors and intelligence-gatherers.

Recently, I’ve been writing about the rise and fall of one group, the National Front, which in 1976 and 1977 was a mass party capable of winning 100,000 votes in local elections in London and similar support across Britain.

That research has taken me to the Searchlight archive at the University of Northampton. Searchlight was a monthly magazine, with a predominantly left-wing readership which reported on the activities of the Front and other groups on the right.

You find in its archives all sorts of reports – sent in by regular informers, wavering former fascists, or individuals who came into contact with the British right and felt a need to tell someone else what they’d seen.

An example of the committed anti-fascist spy is the individual who attended a meeting of the Front at the Shakespeare pub in Birmingham in June 1975 and who recorded not merely the names of all the speakers, but the content of their speeches:

‘A short discussion was held on infiltration and meetings. Tom Finnegan gave a report on the proposed bulletins for various areas – displaying a map with several hundred coloured pins on it he outlined how things would be done – the communist cell system would be applied with several people in each branch covering a set number of members … John Finnegan then took up the question of trades unions and said that National Front members must gain trade union posts. Communist training classes were referred to and possible emulation commented on.’

Or, if you want an example of the opportunistic anti-fascist spy: here is a one-off letter sent to Searchlight a couple of years later, at a time when the National Front held weekly paper sales at Chapel Market in Islington and the group’s National Organiser Martin Webster was a frequent visitor:

‘Please find enclosed Martin Webster’s passport, diary and a couple of letters. I came into possession of these items as a result of stealing his bike from outside a pub in Islington. I don’t normally steal things but as a committed anti-Nazi I thought I would take it first to wind Webster up.’

The next project I’ll be working on is about silencing and speech. The National Front wanted to see Britain become a one-party state on which everyone who disagreed with the Front would be silenced.

Anti-fascists also had their own idea of silencing, ‘no platform,’ which held that the Front should be prevented from speaking because the Front was a fascist party, and had as its defining purpose the destruction of democracy. As Alan Sapper, General Secretary of the broadcast workers union ACTT put it. ‘Democracy is threatened. We don’t need to bother with philosophical arguments. We can discuss democracy until the concentration camps come in.’

I am only just beginning my research but the things which intrigue me include the resistance of the Front to posing as free speech martyrs. They were desperate to be seen as a virile force capable of beating any opponent, literally or metaphorically, into resistance. Therefore, they declined to play the role which the far right had played in earlier decades: of demanding free speech for themselves but not their opponents.

On the left, meanwhile, no platform was not a single political position but a range of arguments whose resolution was never properly resolved.

Should no platform be restricted to fascists or could it be applied universally to anyone who championed racial or sex discrimination?

Was no platform only appropriate for places controlled by social movements (eg student unions, trade unions, politicised black communities), or did it apply everywhere (eg to party political broadcasts watched by anyone)?

Linked to that question, was no platform something to be carried out ‘from below’ (eg by people themselves blocking the road to prevent a speaker making their way into a meeting) or ‘from above’ (eg by petitioning the local authority to have a particular speaker’s invitation rescinded?

The confused outcomes of these debates is, I’d argue, something which was apparent even after the Front had gone into decline, and its legacy remains with us today.

Should we teach ‘difficult’ history in schools?

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One twenty-two-year-old (Instagram ‘influencer’ Freddie Bentley, pictured above) recently caused consternation by suggesting topics such as climate change and Brexit should be taught in schools rather than the history of the Second World War. It followed comments by contestants on the reality show The Apprentice that revealed that they weren’t sure of the dates of the conflict. Not surprisingly Bentley drew down a wave of criticism (much of it from tabloid newspapers and their readers) for suggesting current events were more important than historical ones.

Naturally, as a historian, I would argue that history is important, and should be taught in schools but surely children ought to learn about current affairs as well? Of course, there is a debate to be had about what history (who’s history perhaps) is taught and what lessons are drawn from it, and how it is taught.

Bentley commented that learning about the horrors of the world war and the deaths of millions of people had been traumatising and he worried for children’s mental health.

That shouldn’t mean it isn’t taught.

Future generations need to understand the sacrifices made by previous ones and they need to understand how something like the Holocaust could come about. Teaching should always be age appropriate, but we can’t completely shield our children from the tragedies of the past. Human history is shot through with inhumanity and the next generation is entitled to know about it.

However, I am a little suspicious of the reaction to Bentley’s Good Morning Britain interview. It seems as if those commentators have been quick to say that history is important whilst at the very same time ignoring or misrepresenting history when it suits them.

Surely one of the lessons of the second world war is that we should have a closer relationship between European nations to avoid future wars? Surely the lesson to be learned from the Holocaust is that singling out people on account of their religion, race, sexuality or disability leads to state sponsored murder and is abhorrent?

Surely the lesson we might draw from the war in the Pacific is that nuclear weapons are disproportionally destructive and should be banned?  Indeed, we also might learn that warfare is abhorrent and so all arms manufacture should be tightly restricted at least, and perhaps even prohibited?

None of these suits the agendas of the politicians that most tabloid editors give their support to however. These lessons from history are simply ignored or reinterpreted to suit a narrow world view that allows race hate, unbridled arms dealing, nationalism, and economic inequality, to persist.

Moreover, the real challenge to our children’s future – the climate emergency – is side lined and relegated to a discussion of the rights of people to protest. Climate change is the single most important issue for our society and I think Bentley was probably right to say that it should be taught in schools. Not at the expense of learning about WW2,, however, but as well as.

The reality is that Climate Change is terrifying, and we risk traumatizing our children just as much as learning about Belsen and Auschwitz does. But since the general public doesn’t seem to have woken up to the dangers of the climate emergency, and the tabloids and most politicians don’t seem to be doing a very good job of educating us on it, the only hope we have is for our schools to inculcate a concern for the planet at an early age.

History is vital to a rounded education but if we don’t look – and look urgently – to the future no one will be around to learn the lessons that history teaches us anyway.

Drew Gray, Subject Lead Humanities

Taking teaching outside the classroom: crime and punishment in situ

 

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On Monday this week I removed my second-year class on crime and punishment from the confines of a Waterside campus classroom (lovely as they are) and transported it to a real life courthouse in the centre of Northampton.

Northampton’s Sessions House was built after the fire that destroyed much of the town in 1675. This gave the local authorities the opportunity to create a purpose-built space to hold the biannual county assizes and the quarterly sessions of the peace.  There are two courts in the complex – one for criminal and one for civil cases – both have had some significant modernization since the late 1700s but plenty of the original courtrooms have survived.

Below the courts are holding cells, and it is still possible to access the ‘walk of shame’ that would have conveyed commended prisoners to the gallows that was situated towards the rear of the complex.  Still possible, that is, so long as you have a friendly and well-informed guide like Dr Alan Clarke, our friendly expert in local English history.

About 30 history undergraduates take my level 5 module (HIS2010) at the University of Northampton and in last week’s class we had looked at the nature of the court trial in the eighteenth century, at the role of the judge and juries, and considered the importance of architecture in the process of the administration of ‘justice’.

This is quite limited in a modern classroom when your key resources are contemporary written accounts and images like this one (of the Old Bailey in the early 1800s).

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My students have just embarked on a project that will see them reenact a real trial using the published records of London’s Central Criminal Court in the past and so I was keen to let them get a sense of what a trial might have been like. I rather enjoy the idea of ‘experiencing’ history where possible, even if (thanks goodness) I can’t begin to experience the fear of being tried for an offence for which I might pay with my life if convicted.

Alan took us on a tour of the court complex – the cells (where evidence of their recently past can be seen in the surviving graffiti from the 1970s and 1980s), the judge’s chambers, and the nineteenth-century gaol block.

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He also described the interior of both courts, pointing out and explaining the symbolism woven into the intricate plaster work (the work of Edward Goodge). Over the judge’s chair in the criminal court are emblems representing truth, justice, material wealth (and its opposite), as well as the image of the devil complete with a tongue which supposedly wags when someone tells a lie in court.

Having settled the class back down after our tour I now gave individuals roles to play as we reconstructed two short cases from the Old Bailey Proceedings in the 1700s. The first was the trial of a domestic servant who had given birth in secret and was accused of ‘destroying’ her illegitimate child. The trial took hardly any time at all to find her guilty and to condemn her death and anatomization. The evidence was limited, the few witnesses that spoke up for her were ineffectual, and this made a deep impression on the class as we unpacked it afterwards.

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The second case was no less brutal; another young woman, this time accused of killing man because he called her ‘a whore’. Despite the evidence of intent being almost nonexistent and contentious (the knife she used had a rounded blade, hardly likely to have inflicted the wounds described by the witnesses that spoke against her) she too was convicted and sentenced to hang.

Both cases revealed that respectability and class played a more important role in the eighteenth-century courtroom than evidence did. But more than this the very act of voicing the words spoken in a real court space helped us understand how the various actors were perceived. There is a very different perspective sitting (as the student playing the judge did) at the apex of the court looking down on everyone else, than there is looking up from the dock, knowing that behind you is a staircase (merely ladder when the court was built) to the dark cells below.

In January these students will be back in court so that they can put on their own assessed trials. They have 15-20 minutes to reenact a case of their choosing before myself and a colleague will discuss what they have learnt from the process and how it has shaped their understanding the criminal justice system of the past.

Of course, we can’t possibly experience history in the way that people did in the past: there were plenty of giggles as students placed in the dock or ‘locked’ into a cell but engaging with history in this way does bring it alive. Taking students out of the comfort of a classroom changes perspectives, mine as well as theirs, and I think we ought to do it more often.

Drew Gray (Subject lead, Humanities)

 

 

 

 

 

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

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.

papon

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.

Here_are_drown_the_Algerians

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.