Northamptonshire

Exploring the Archives

There are many skills a historian acquires: distilling information, debates and arguments; finding, reading and analyzing primary sources; writing and publishing research; dressing smart but casual; finding obscure conference venues; looking marginally interested in endless administrative meetings (with full knowledge that each second saps a small piece of our zest for life – See here for helpful advice: Rules for a Successful Meeting). Our skills are fine tuned primarily in the archives, that’s where the most fun is to be had. That’s nirvana, where all the good stuff is.

At Northampton we introduce history students to these gems as early as possible because we want them to research history rather than just study it. In that spirit we organize lots of visits to archives, museums and libraries.

We offer trips for our second and third year students to the National Archives, the British Library, the London Metropolitan Archives, the Wellcome Library, Bletchley Park and the Imperial War Museum.

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Students with Searchlight documents

Our first years begin more locally by visiting three archives in Northampton: the National Leather Collection, Northamptonshire Central Library and Searchlight (University of Northampton). This is part of our first year skills module, ‘Themes and Perspectives.’

The students made some interesting discoveries this year. One group found an innocuous looking leather-bound cane in the National Leather Collection, only to discover (to the tutor’s alarm) that there was a sharp blade concealed within: this was a sword cane, of the type often carried by British military officers in India.

Another group used the a microfiche reader in the Central Library to look at Northamptonshire General Hospital’s birth records, and one student found his own record in there. Microfiche readers are old technology – none of the students had used one before – but they are still useful for consulting large datasets like newspapers and the census.

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Using a microfiche at the Central Library

We also explore digital archives. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s oral history deposits are a particular favourite: US Holocaust Memorial Oral History. We aim to show students the great quality and volume of sources available to them. We want to equip them with all the skills they will need to succeed in their studies.

The students blog on their visits and the module concludes with a public poster presentation on campus. In groups the students summarize their experiences and their findings in the poster and answer questions from the audience. It’s a nerve-racking experience but a tremendously valuable and rewarding one.

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The poster presentations

This year the students chose to focus on topics including W.J. Basset-Lowke (Northants businessman), Charles Bradlaugh (MP for Northampton), Poor Houses and Northamptonshire Hospital, Tunderbolt (a Far Right magazine), and Spencer Percival (MP for Northampton, PM 1809-1812, assassinated 1812). All of them local themes with national significance and context.

The students were struck by the diversity of primary sources in each archive (material objects as well as documents). They appreciated the value of handling original documents, as students often do in this digital age. They were interested in the range of different archives available and the numbers of people accessing and using them (note to Northamptonshire Council: Council Spending Cuts).

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Discussing the posters

In their second year these students will hone their research talents on the ‘Research Skills’ module. Finally in the third year they are let loose on their own dissertation project. Topics this year have ranged from courtship ballads in the seventeenth century to Comintern control of Harry Pollitt (General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain, 1929-56).

When they graduate students tell us that researching their dissertations was the best part of their experience as students. We’re with you on that! Researching is not an addition to academic life, it’s a crucial part of what we do. The closest-range social impact that research has is to enrich the experience of our students.

Mark Rothery – Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century History

Matthew McCormack – Professor of History

Kelmarsh Hall and the Heritage of Country Houses

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I recently made a visit, with my colleague, Dr Caroline Nielsen, to Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire. Kelmarsh was built in the 1730s to a Palladian design by Francis Smith with the architect James Gibbs for the Hanbury family. The Hall retains many of its original features and 1000 acres of the original estate, including working farms. It has been interpreted by the present guardians, the Kelmarsh Trust, in a sensitive, innovative and intelligent manner.

The aims of the Trust are to preserve the buildings and estates and to educate the public about country houses and the natural environment. This is a tricky balance, both preserving but also interesting young people in what these sites represent. Country houses need to survive, but retain the authenticity that underpins the unique experience that they can offer.

Guided tours of houses can be quite dull and boring for youngsters (and some adults!). Children generally want to move in different directions on their own timescale and explore spaces on their own terms. I’ve visited lots of country houses over the years and seen a lot of stressed parents. The Trust, and their education officer, Tiffany Brownell, have thought about this and done an excellent job.

Servants Hall

Lots of attention has been paid to the ‘below stairs’ areas of the House: http://www.kelmarsh.com/BelowStairsLaundry.aspx. There are reconstructions of the laundry, the servants’ quarters (including a 3D projection of a servant explaining his daily routine), a wine cellar, a brewery, a bell system and the servants’ stairs. The gendering of these spaces is emphasized, such as the specifically female space of the laundry.

Country houses pay more attention to these working spaces nowadays, quite rightly. As my research with Jon Stobart has shown the aristocracy spent far more of their income on the day-to-day running of their houses than they did on the more glitzy objects on show upstairs: Consumption and the Country House. So there is an intellectual rationale for showing the areas of houses where the servants did their work. Tours of the downstairs areas of the house begin on 1 April 2018.

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The main house upstairs is an elegant series of rooms, from the Hall to the Salon, the Chinese Room, the Dining Room, the Library and the Ballroom. There is much more sense of space and ease to these areas.

The Trust has chosen to focus on the story of Nancy Lancaster and her choices, in the twentieth century, of wall colour and decoration, drawing on her connections to the society decorators Colefax and Fowler. So the story we are presented with at Kelmarsh is layered and complex, but so too is the history of these houses. Choosing where to focus the attention of visitors is a result of a number of different priorities.

Dining Room

The most exciting things going on Kelmarsh are their education projects using the story of the house, and they are telling an uncensored and honest one. No happy chappy servants and benevolent aristocracy here, just the truth about the hard work servants did to keep the house running and, ultimately, help preserve it for us.

The journey from the dark areas downstairs, treated to only partial glimpses of the landscapes around the house, to the light sweeping views upstairs is a reminder of the different lives led by masters and servants.

A new learning centre has been installed in the old coach house, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Here school visits allow children to explore history with a hands-on and fun approach to learning. They ‘work’ in the laundry and explore the house and the natural environment.

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Future plans include projects focused on Premium Plus A Level students in the local area. The aim is to educate these students about the heritage of their local area and add value to their learning more generally, to show them, for example, the opportunities that Universities can offer them.

Kelmarsh Hall and the Department of History at the University of Northampton are planning a collaborative project with four schools for the academic year 2018-19. After an introductory visit to the schools, the students will visit Kelmarsh Hall for a day of learning activities, using the excellent facilities the Hall has there.

The project then moves to the University’s Waterside Campus: http://hellowaterside.northampton.ac.uk/. The students will get a flavour of Higher Education with a workshop on the history and heritage of country houses. They will take a heritage tour of the city centre, beginning at the ‘engine shed’ site on campus, and finishing with a lunch on campus.

There are also plans for history students from the University to take up work placements at Kelmarsh as part of the History Department’s ‘Research Skills’ module and for a programme of student volunteers helping at the Hall during vacations.

These are important initiatives not only for the younger generation but also for the survival of the country house as heritage. After all none of the stock-in-trade consumers of country house visiting, the ones often annoyed by the presence of children, are getting any younger. Cream teas are not really a sustainable economic model. Kelmarsh Trust is showing what the future model should look like.

To find out more about Kelmarsh Hall and the activities on offer there email the Education Officer, Tiffany Brownell at learning@kelmarsh.org.uk or visit the website: http://www.kelmarsh.com/

Watch this blog space for updates on the ongoing projects…

Dr Mark Rothey: Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century History