History and Memory: a different approach to the past

For me, the most enlightening aspect of studying history at university is that I have realised there is more than one way to access the past. As much as historians can, and should, rely upon sources produced at the point in time they are studying, memories provide a fascinating alternative angle into history.

Until I came to the University of Essex, it did not occur to me that personal memories recalled years after an event or period in time could be used as a valid primary source. I only came to this realisation in a second-year lecture by Dr. Matthew Grant, where he talked about oral history. This short, hour-long lecture sparked a personal interest in the use of memory for a historical purpose, which I have made sure to utilise in any way I possibly can. However, I soon discovered that memory in history can be used in more than one way.

For my dissertation, I decided to collect oral histories from members of the public who had been children living in Britain during the Second World War. By using these firsthand accounts, albeit over seventy-five years on, I looked to show how children were able to derive enjoyment from the upheaval brought about by total war. In this way, memories from a specific point in time offered me an alternative perspective on the past.

During the lockdown that has resulted from the Covid-19 pandemic, I have written a weekly blog for History Indoors, an online resource run by PhD students in the Essex History Department, which gives the public access to historical talks whilst we are all stuck at home. Much to my delight, I was pretty much given a free reign over what I wrote for these blog posts; consequently, I decided that I wanted to explore the different ways that memory can be used in history.

Consequently, with some expert help from Professor Lucy Noakes, I wrote a piece for History Indoors about how and why the British public remember the First World War and Second World War so differently. This allowed me to look at how the memory of an event or period in time, as opposed to memories from that time, can provide useful historical insights. By looking at how various historical events are remembered today, historians are able to investigate how a particular period in time carries social, historical significance today.

For example, by looking at how and why the World Wars are remembered in a different manner in modern day Britain, I became aware of how the two different conflicts held differing levels of significance for the country. Whereas the First World War was primarily fought in continental Europe against an enemy that needed to be beaten, the Second was fought at both home and abroad, against an enemy that needed to be annihilated to ensure the survival of our island nation. Therefore, the Second World War has assumed greater prevalence in our national history as it was a necessary victory, but you could argue that this was not necessarily true for the First.

Studying a degree in Modern History at the University of Essex, enabled me to access a whole new route into the past. This is particularly significant considering that I am now going on to pursue a career in teaching history; in the future, hopefully I will be able to utilise memory in the history classroom, and show my students how history is a rich, diverse, accessible subject. Without the Essex History Department, this would not have been possible.

Miles Clayton, final year BA Modern History

HistoryIndoors

I have always loved engaging people with history, and those closest to me know that I go on about it all the time.  Thus, if you ever read any first drafts of my work, you will probably find it very conversational, as my supervisor would probably attest!  When we were first put into lockdown, I had the idea to put my love of public history into practice.  After a few discussions with Lewis Smith, and after a bit of practice teaching over the internet, we felt that we could bring History to the homes of other people stuck indoors.  You can find out more about us here!

After seeing the success Emma was having with History@Home, we decided to launch HistoryIndoors, a project which involves 20-30 minutes talks which covers a variety of histories from a variety of PhD students from the department.  Since our beginning in March, we have expanded into a YouTube channel and a blog.

We cover a vast range of subjects with talks on the British Civil War, The Mosquito Coast and Zimbabwe.  Our upcoming talks include the East of England’s Co-operative society, Statues in Suffolk, Mary Famer and her daughters; Quakers in the eighteenth century, Women in the First World War workplace, Witchcraft in East Anglia, Representations of the First World War through art, Golden Age of Football, and the Modernisation of the Railways from 1945-1990.  These talks are usually on Wednesdays at 2pm and 7pm.  You can find out more about the talks here, and can sign up to the talks here

The students involved here at Essex have been amazing; from one email, our team went from two to ten.  Now we are at twelve and are happy to accept more people from Essex.  They all have been active in promoting the site and the project, so it has been an absolute pleasure to work with them all!  You can find more information about our team here.

The biggest issues we face are time, money and reach.  This is a volunteer project so it’s about getting the balance correct with our academic work!  As it’s a volunteer project, we do not have access to better equipment or fancy marketing, so we have to make do with what we have for now. 

Getting our project’s message out has been the most intense part; we have an active twitter account with over 350 followers, a Facebook page and a great website, but it’s hard to reach the general public so we were so grateful when the Colchester Gazette ran an article about us and what we do, followed swiftly by BBC Suffolk and recently the East Anglican Daily Times.  This has been the biggest challenge, and we have to keep thinking of new ways of getting the word out! 

The whole project has been incredible so far, we reach around 60-75 homes every week with the talks, and we hope that it will continue to increase.  Our YouTube channel helps us reach even more people, and the talks will be there for a long to come so people can access them whenever they want!

But most importantly, it has been really good fun, and the team are incredible, none of it would have been possible without them.  Huge credit to the team; Steven Bishop, Mike O’Keeffe, Julie Miller, Ryan Clarke, Liam Redfern, Sam Woodward, Christopher Walklett, Percy Lomax, Louise Rodwell, Ben Fuggle, and Miles Clayton. 

Michael Sewell

Meet Mick Ekers – Essex History student and author

‘I think that’s a great idea!’ – Gail Zappa

Last November I received a parcel from the US containing ten advance copies of my first book, Zappa Gear, it was only then that I finally believed it was actually going to be published, after starting the project over nine years earlier! It all started with a chance conversation in June 2010; I was outside a local bookshop with my son Chris looking at a large book in the window devoted entirely to just one guitar – David Gilmour’s black Fender Stratocaster. I said ‘Why doesn’t someone write a book about someone with interesting guitars, like Frank Zappa?’ Chris replied, ‘Why don’t you?’ and some sort of lightbulb went off in my head. I started preliminary research and began to realize what a major task this would be. For those of you who don’t know, Frank Zappa (1940 – 1993) was a prolific American musician and composer, with over 100 recorded albums to his name, recognised as both a unique rock ‘guitar hero’ and band leader, and also as a significant 20th century American composer.

That August there was a special Frank Zappa music festival at the London Roundhouse, I decided I’d go and try and speak to Zappa’s widow Gail, who was the guest of honour. Gail Zappa had a daunting reputation, she was well known for zealously protecting her late husband’s legacy and was not above suing people who played his music or used the Zappa name without permission. On the first day of the event I saw her standing by the merchandise stand and nervously asked if she could spare me a minute. ‘Sure’ she replied, and I told her about my concept for the book; with barely a second’s pause she gave me a dazzling smile and said, ‘I think that’s a great idea!’ She gave me her personal email address and asked me to send her an outline and a sample chapter or two. I was astonished and delighted, was making a pitch for a book always this easy? I duly sent Gail a preliminary table of contents and a couple of draft sections, and received a reply with formal permission to proceed.

It soon became obvious that this should be more than just a book about guitars. Frank was a pioneer user of much of the revolutionary new music technology that emerged during his lifetime, and I knew I could come up with something that would interest musicians and gear freaks as well as Zappa fans. I spent about three years on research, culminating in two trips to Los Angeles in 2012 to visit Zappa’s home recording studio and photograph his instruments and gear. I was able to speak to some of his technicians and musicians, as well as some of the people who had invented and made his equipment. The trips to L.A. were an adventure in their own right, and not without challenges; I talk about the full story in this podcast.

I finished the first draft and persuaded Dweezil Zappa, Frank’s eldest son to write a foreword. Then followed a frustrating few years waiting for the contents to be approved by Gail. What I hadn’t realised is that she had become seriously ill, and her primary focus was on completing some of Frank’s final music projects while she was still able. I last saw Gail in person in 2013, very happy to see his orchestral work 200 Motels being performed at the Festival Hall in London, some 40 years after he was banned from playing it at the Royal Albert Hall in 1972 for its alleged obscenity. Over the next year or so I slowly got sections of my draft back, full of Gail’s handwritten comments and corrections, and managed to arrive at a completed text.

Gail’s death in 2015, followed by a lengthy legal dispute over the estate between Zappa’s children put everything on hold, and I almost gave up on the book ever being published. However in early 2018 I got a call from Ahmet Zappa (Frank’s youngest son) who was now taking care of the business. Ahmet was very enthusiastic, and to my delight set up a publishing deal with Backbeat Books, an international specialist in books about music. I then spent a few months updating the book, as in the intervening years new information had come to light, and then found I had to completely reformat the text to the publisher’s standards! Originally Gail and I had planned to privately produce and distribute the book under the auspices of the Zappa Family Trust; dealing with a large publisher was a whole new ball game, and further delays occurred when Backbeat was bought out by a new parent company, fortunately I had learned patience by now! Happily the final product, benefiting from a professional editorial and design team, exceeded all my expectations.

I have considered whether I would approach things differently in the light of my experience studying history at Essex. On reflection I wouldn’t change much, although certainly not a formal academic work I’m happy that it stands up well as a reference book. What I have realised is that there are many aspects of the history of popular music, and particularly the technology involved, that have been seriously under-researched. The attitudes and work practices of the many fledgling music equipment companies reflected the developing culture of West Coast America from the late 1960s to the 1980s, and there is a wealth of social and technological history to be explored in this area. Ultimately the most important lesson for me was that if you have an idea for a project, don’t be afraid to ask your subject or their representatives, no matter how daunting their reputation; you may just get the response ‘What a great Idea!’

Mick Ekers (final year BA Modern History) – April 2020

Zappa Gear – The Unique Guitars, Amplifiers, Effects Units, Keyboards and Studio Equipment is published by Backbeat books, an imprint of Rowan & Littlefield Publishing Group – ISBN 978-1-5400-1202-9




Photo of author by Gaz de Vere

‘Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do and die’: Why I Chose to Study War

Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ personifies the humble British soldier marching (or riding) to war unquestionably, whilst their superiors miscommunicate key orders and tactical doctrine of the time is ignored. War it seems is a human obsession. More has been written about the First World War than any other conflict, recent films like 1917 and The Battle for Midway proved extremely popular. Books, plays and TV series reimagines the human sacrifice in a chaotic world engulfed by war and is still popular with audiences today. Yet as a soldier and as a medic for almost 12 years, having experienced combat zones and humanitarian missions, my obsession with understanding the complex phenomenon of war has not abated. My name is Ashleigh and I am a 31-year-old mother of one, occupying a unique position of being a soldier-historian.

Whilst Tennyson writes that a soldier ‘is not to reason why, ours is but to do and die’, I found myself striving to reason and analyse my military experience. My father was in the Royal Air Force and my Grandad the Royal Navy; thus, I completed the triad by joining the British Army. Fascinated with history ever since I was a little girl and on reaching a zenith in my military career, I wanted to truly study history and formalise this long-held passion. Having completed a BA(Hons) via distance learning I wanted to continue my education and study a MA full time. I wanted a break from military life and to fully immerse myself in a diverse, lively and opportunity laden environment; Essex certainly provided that. Initially I contacted Professor Lucy Noakes regarding the MA History and it was Lucy that drew my attention to the MA War, Culture and Society and how fortunate! The course has been wonderfully challenging with a diverse range of modules, that would suit many research interests. One day I could be discussing with my fellow postgraduate students the meaning of conflict, and the anthropological relationship with war, the next day I might be discussing psychological theories of trauma, debating the Anglo-centric dominant image of the First World War in literature or discussions on war and gender. The course also brought the postgraduate students across the History Department together in our Research Methods module. This created a lovely communal feel to the course and initiated permanent friendships.

The MA War, Culture and Society allowed me to mobilise my military experiences ‘and sent it into battle’. I was able to analyse my understanding and experience of war alongside my own research interests in a safe and academically challenging environment and I believe I, my fellow students and professors have reaped the benefit. It has helped me build the academic repertoire of skills to feel confident to pursue a Doctorate. It has been a humbling and wonderful experience and I am very glad I broke Tennyson’s stereotype and did strive to ‘reason why’.

Alumni spotlight: Chantel Le Carpentier

I learned one valuable lesson at Essex.

I graduated almost three years ago, but this weekend I spent 28 hours in the Albert Sloman Library. Why? Because it’s still the only place in the world I can truly concentrate. I wasn’t a normal student (whatever that is), instead of the three-year Essex experience, I spent six incredible years on campus. Some of you may think (others have told me), that I tactically avoided the ‘real world’ for as long as possible, taking sabbatical years and studying abroad, and maybe I did, but it doesn’t matter because I learned something that has served me well in my life post-graduation so far – be yourself.

‘Oh great – thanks Chantel, really deep and meaningful advice there, been myself for years and still don’t know what I’m doing with my life – nice one.’

Yeah well, listen up. I grew up poor, like proper poor, like we didn’t have carpets or central heating poor. I was the first Le Carpentier to go to university but I never really saw a difference between my peers and I at uni, maybe I wasn’t very class-conscious or maybe, Essex students are so diverse, that I saw a lot of people who looked and sounded like me? Probably the latter.

I should probably add here that I’m also part of the LGBT community and that as I write this in the reading room of the library, I am reminded that this is the exact spot where I came out for the first time almost exactly 8 years ago (apparently courage comes at 3am and 100 words into a 2,000 word essay on the First World War).

I never felt like an outsider for being working class at uni (or for being gay), I understood a bit later that some students whose parents had gone to university were able to get them to proof read their essays, (I once got my mum to read an essay I did on Rousseau: ‘that was great Chantel – didn’t get it but it sounded really smart’) but generally, there weren’t huge differences. This was a time before 9k fees and maintenance grants and loans were plentiful – I appreciate that this unfortunately might not be the case anymore.

In the academic year 2014/15 I was the President of the SU and what scared me the most initially was being able to talk to the Vice Chancellor and all the senior university staff. My fears were immediately alleviated. They didn’t just accept me, they embraced me and my background. No one was making an effort to include me, I just naturally fitted in.

Unfortunately, the world outside of Essex isn’t always so embracing, it doesn’t mean you should change who you are; you just need to find the right people to be around.

Since graduating from my BA in Modern History in 2017, I’ve been working for a political polling and market research company and it’s safe to say it is my dream job, but it hasn’t always been easy. On any given day, I could be talking to MPs, working with a think tank or just chatting with my colleagues about what we did at the weekend. It would be really easy in the short-term to go back into the closet with my class (and my sexuality), I could put on an act and pretend I was someone I’m not. But I don’t.

I don’t because being myself got me my job.

I initially started in the company working in commercial market research and I hope I don’t lose my job for saying this, but I really didn’t enjoy it. I wanted to do the political stuff. One day, there was an opportunity to do a presentation for a commercial client who was starting an LGBT staff network. I asked if I could do it and the bosses said yes.

So I stayed late after work for two weeks, researching and putting together a presentation on the experiences of LGBT people as consumers. I wanted to take a group only seen in terms of the political and show how their experiences were relevant to businesses, not just the ballot box. A week later, the Director of International Politics offered me a job.

I suppose I lied, there’s a second thing I learned at Essex – be keen. Take every opportunity and always get involved in everything.

My boss offered me a job because I was able to combine things that wouldn’t ordinarily be understood together. There’s real value, especially in politics in having a mixed or non-traditional experience; for example, being working class with a higher education qualification.

Besides not knowing what certain foods are and missed location-based references to ski slopes in the Alps, there have been a few points of genuine tension in terms of my class identity and the professional workplace – nothing that would make me want to button up my shirt and put on a posh accent but there have been times when I’ve questioned myself. But I’ve persisted and I’ve felt the rewards in my career already.

I lied again, there are three things – the third is that you can do anything with a history degree.

If I could tell undergraduate Chantel anything, I’d say always be around people who embrace you, not just tolerate you. An Essex degree gives you the power to be a certain amount of picky when it comes to jobs. Don’t work somewhere where you feel uncomfortable being yourself – don’t be afraid to stand out.

That being said, even if you don’t land your dream job straight out of uni, stay true to who you are – the benefits of being authentic might open doors for you. Good luck!

Oh and why was I in the library this weekend? I’m doing my Masters part-time in London and left an essay to the last minute. Be yourself, but please do your essays on time!

Community Fellow Spotlight: David Grocott

In 1921, the American historian James Westfall Thompson, writing in the American Journal of Sociology, contemplated the impact of the great mortality of the First World War and the ensuing ‘Spanish’ Flu and looked for parallels in history.

Having dismissed the Napoleonic period of a century before as not severe enough for any form of meaningful contrast he alighted instead upon the fourteenth century Black Death.

Among the post-war clamour for female suffrage and the impending arrival of the first Labour Government in the UK under Ramsay MacDonald in 1924, Westfall’s conclusions were that after each great mortality event through history there has been a desire for social change, for an economic and social readjustment to ensure those who survive a great dying are able to inherit a better world than the one that went before. A survivors’ guilt, he argued, powers an intrinsic human desire to improve life in the aftermath of a great moment of mortality.

This predictable human behaviour or societal trait was of course – Westfall argued – manifest in the fourteenth century in the desire for improved labour terms for the survivors of the bubonic plague.

As with the political discord and dialogue that followed the First World War, or the establishment of the NHS following the loss of life of the Second World War, the calls by the survivors of the plague for greater socioeconomic equality were not without critics – this time in the form of repressive legislation, violence and political scorn by the establishment of the time.

The loss of perhaps as much as sixty per cent of the population in some regions (3.2 million dead across the whole British Isles in the course of 1348 – 1349) led to a labour shortage and the pre-eminence of cash rather than feudal duty as the main motivator for the surviving workers. Edward III was beyond his prime yet still on the throne in 1350 when the Statue of Labourers was created seeking to put the genie of workers’ salary rights back into the bottle by dictating that no worker should receive any more in salary than they had before the pestilence had arrived.

But it was too late. The Statute tripped in trying to walk a line between social conservatism and repression and precipitated, along with a series of unfortunate causal factors, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. This great cry for social and economic reform, arguably the closest England has ever come to a popular revolution, was led by the egalitarian and visionary Colchester priest John Ball who famously questioned privilege and predicted later egalitarianism and even socialism with his famous challenge to social structure: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?’

When I prepared to speak about Ball to an audience of close to 100 people at the Firstsite gallery in Colchester on 12 March 2020 only six people in the UK had died from Covid-19. As I write now the number has topped 6000 and we are unsure how much further this pandemic has to run. My lecture had been on Ball and how, in the aftermath of the Black Death, he had led a wave of social change demanding a new future for the country. I had little understanding at the time of how prescient this subject was.

Earlier, in February, I was made an Honorary Community Fellow of the University of Essex Department of History for my research into Ball and how his life in the fourteenth century – until his execution in July 1381 – was merely the warm up to his fascinating afterlife of mythologisation as a totemic figure of political egalitarianism through six centuries of English history.

Although he is referred to in numerous early radical texts as either a villain – by the 1642 pamphlet ‘The Just Reward of Rebels’, for example – or as hero – in Gerard Winstanley’s The New Law of Righteousness of 1649, for instance – it is not until the nineteenth century that his afterlife matures.   

William Morris, editor of the Commonweal, the magazine of the Socialist League, was quick to appropriate Ball’s legacy when he wrote “we need make no mistake about the cause for which Wat Tyler and his worthier associate John Ball fell; they were fighting against the fleecing then in fashion, viz.; serfdom or villeinage, which was already beginning to wane before the advance of the industrial gilds.”

Not only was William Morris making the association with John Ball as a man striving for English egalitarianism but he sought to make a connection and parallel between the perceived oppression of the fourteenth century serfs and the workers in nineteenth century mills.

Other socialists like Keir Hardie then further used the name of Ball to justify a religious imperative for equality, while H. M. Hyndman used Ball to support his belief that English socialism was a ‘home-grown’ ideology, not imported.

What is immensely fascinating is how in the Imperialist climate of the 1880s English exceptionalism perhaps extended to a ‘home-grown’ socialism. If the Britain of Kipling and Baden Powell were to be socialist at all it was not due to the influence of Marx but, early English socialists may have candidly argued, because of an intrinsic socialism hard wired into the British people and manifest as early as the fourteenth century in the actions of Ball.

That identity, that late Victorian association, even mythologisation, of insular English socialism came from Ball and powered the first Labour Government of MacDonald in 1924 and later evolutions of the organised political left in England and Britain. His memory was evoked at the end of the First World War in the drive for a Labour Government and at the end of the Second World War in the drive for the Welfare State. In 1981 Tony Benn stood on the platform at Blackheath at a rally to mark 600 years since the Peasants’ Revolt – and specifically Ball’s sermon on the same site – wearing a badge stating “Peasants’ Revolt 1381 – 1981. Let’s finish the job”.

There was no apparent irony.

In England large leaps in terms of socialism and social change may be triggered by great mortality events but they are justified as the long sought for bounty of Ball’s original vision.

Ball of course is therefore two men: a figure of the fourteenth century, a man of mortal deeds and yet also a timeless myth who has permeated British thought for over 500 years and who has been appropriated by each generation to represent, to ridicule and to champion egalitarianism.

To misquote a reference to another landmark of British history, however, each generation has received the Ball they deserve. Or to put it another way the figure Ball is revealed to be in different time periods shows the extent of belief in – or antipathy towards – his myth and ideals.

Ball is at times a crack-brained religious man, a pious man, a social engineer and a radical proto-Marxist.  If Ball is the personification of the struggle for egalitarianism then the Ball that is depicted shows the meaning of egalitarianism at differing periods of time.

It will be fascinating to see if the spirit of Ball is evoked once again in the debates that will doubtless emerge in coming months of what sort of society should rise from the cloud of Covid-19. I am researching history that is in part yet to be written.

David Grocott is a teacher of history and Honorary Community Fellow of the Department of History at Essex University.

He is preparing a PhD proposal on John Ball and how he has been appropriated by the socialist movement of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Britain.

As part of his fellowship he is delivering a series of lectures at the Firstsite on aspects of Colchester history. For more information visit the Firstsite website.

Historians@home: Sharing history during Covid19 lockdown

The last few weeks have been strange by anyone’s standards.  The change from dropping my children off daily at school and working on my PhD, to staying at home with my whole family and home-schooling them was a very rapid transition, which thankfully we adapted to very quickly.  However, what I did notice was that while the key school subjects such as maths and English were being covered at home, there was nothing really outside of these subjects.  At the same time, universities were closing and I noticed that more and more academics were having to stay at home, and had some spare time.  It seemed to me that this was a natural opportunity to reach out to primary school children and give them an opportunity to talk to a “real life” historian, a professional they would probably never meet otherwise.  I also know that historians have lots of knowledge and for the most part they are extremely keen to share their work and research!

Using social media, mainly Twitter, I reached out to a number of historians (whom I had never met!) and sounded them out about a mad idea to run group Skype calls for children age 5-11, which would consist of a talk and perhaps a five minute Q&A session.  The response was resoundingly positive!  Then it was the turn of the parents – would their children want to tune in?  And the answer again was affirmative.  Within 24 hours, I had 100 local families signed up!

I did the first session myself about Britain in 1920, to see if the concept and technology would work.  I can’t deny that there were some technical glitches, but the children listened and had a lot of questions.

Since then, other historians have been generously volunteering their time and knowledge, and we have covered subjects from witchcraft to measuring time to “What does a historian actually do?!”.  The Q&A after the talk has been incredibly popular: without fail, I have had to stop the questions after 15 or 20 minutes, otherwise I think the historians would still be on Skype now!  The level of engagement and interest from such young children has surpassed my expectations again and again.

I record each call, so that those who cannot make a live session can watch it back at a convenient time on Youtube.  We are taking a break over the Easter holidays, but are returning on 20th April when the schools “go back”, with topics including Irish migration, Roman families, Royal fashion and the Celts.

More information and sign up is available at https://historiansathome.wordpress.com/ and you can follow me on Twitter @historian_home

I’d also like to thank the amazing historians who have helped make Historians@home a success so far.  (Twitter handles in brackets)

Dr Rebekah Higgitt (@beckyfh)
Dr John Woolf (@drjohnwoolf)
Dr Will Pooley (@willpooley)
Dr Katrina Gulliver (@KatrinaGulliver)
Dr Liz Gloyn (@lizgloyn)
Dr Sophie Cooper (@SophcoCooper)
Siobhan Fedelm (@SiobhanFedelm)
Dr Kate Strasdin (@kateStrasdin)
Dr Laura Wood (@cooksferryqueen)

Historians at Home – Emma

Meet Abigael Fagbolagun: final year BA History

WELL, HELLOOOO!

I feel like every blog starts like “HI MY NAME IS blah blah blah’ and I am a BLAH Blah BLAHH, which is understandable, because how else are you supposed to introduce yourself?!  But I don’t want to do that, so I left y’all with a GIF!

 I AM a final year historian, who spent the last academic year bathing in California’s glorious sun on my year abroad. (It was amazing; I’ll tell you about it later!)

SO, I was supposed to come to Essex for Law, but God had different plans. I ended up calling Essex on results day and through clearing, I was able to start my journey as a Historian here!

I’ve always found History fascinating and would always ask the question WHYYYYYY and how?! Why would a state commit genocide? How did that coup succeed in overthrowing that government? I had so many questions when historical facts were presented to me and as I grew older, I truly started to understand that our yesterday has such an impact on our today and that we are shaping History RIGHT NOW! And that made me really love the discipline!

I have truly loved History at Essex, I’ve been able to do some really cool modules such as ‘The African American Experience: From Slavery to Freedom’ and ‘Tudors and Stuarts in Film’, which have allowed me to explore topics I have only heard about! My experience at Essex, including my year abroad in California, has allowed me to cultivate my understanding of the importance of History to the individual life, and has given me a deeper love for the Study. That is why after Essex, I hope to do a Masters in Black British History in London. All of the history I have ever learnt about my heritage has been though my parents, or through my own research and for someone like me, that loves academia, this course would be perfect for me. And shows other Black people that their History is also important!!

After that, I want to pursue Teaching, I do not only want to share my love for history with young people, but I want to encourage students and allow them to understand how important they are to the world and their potential! I had a teacher at school that really believed in me and that made a difference to my approach to her class and I would love to be part of that in someone else’s life.

Now that is me for the next 5 years, I do not know what the rest holds but I wish to continue to pursue Black British history and the Black Diaspora, to assist those already pushing for Black History to be taught in our schools, to create platforms that people can use to create more history and continue to research!! So, watch out for me in the next few years, you might see me in a documentary or my name on a book!

Why I chose to study at Essex and why History

Boris

My name is Boris Dyulgerski, I am from Bulgaria and I am 21 years old. I am currently in my second year studying BA Modern History and Politics with the History Department at the University of Essex.

When you sit down and think about it, it is quite difficult to figure out why you chose one university and one course over another one. My time in the University of Essex, as well as in the Department of History can be described as incredibly busy but also incredibly joyful, efficient and exciting, even though I have my third year in from of me and the fact that I must write my dissertation!

There are numerous reasons for why I chose Essex, but the main reasons would have to be that it offers brilliant opportunities such as researching as part of my degree, and also the sense of community that the campus and the University creates. Before I even got here, I viewed Essex as a small town that has everything that you need in it. This imaginary vision that I had turned out to be a reality and that is the thing that fascinated me the most. Even though some people might be 5, 10 or even 20 miles away from home, they will still feel at home at Essex. I came to Essex to experience that and in all honesty, it has not disappointed me!

As a student at Essex, I have received every kind of opportunity and support that I could think of. I have been involved in various projects (both paid and voluntary) and activities. From the SU Education team as a Course Representative for the History Department, where I was tasked with solving existing problems and issues with modules, to being a Student Ambassador that shows the University to future students at Essex, to being a Debater in the University of Essex Debating Society and more! This depicts the various opportunities that are {insert English pun} everyone’s cup of tea!

Lastly, the History Department has been so supportive and has offered so many exciting opportunities; they have provided me and my fellow students chances to participate in research events related to our degrees, as well as casual events which you can attend just from pure curiosity or if you want to learn something new for a certain period of history. Since becoming a member in the History Department, I have been a member of the History Society, being a Course representative, Peer Mentor, Research Assistant and this year I was connected with the Student Ambassador Team and became part of it.

I came to the University of Essex at 18, hoping to make new friends, experience the community and the “town” that the university creates and learn more about history and politics. I will come out at 22, as a changed, resilient and developed person that is ready to bring change to the world.

Boris 2

If Covid-19 takes hold in Britain, what lessons from history might help us cope?

Professor Lucy Noakes  is Rab Butler Professor in the Department of History at the University of Essex

As cases of Covid-19 increase, the British government is releasing its plans for how society will cope with the impact of this new virus.  These include closure of schools, new NHS priorities, self-isolation, and the eventual possibility of placing regions and cities in lockdown. But how will the country cope in this worst-case scenario?  It would not be the first time modern Britain has had to plan for, or manage, the impact of events that threaten hundreds of thousands of deaths. In both the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918-19, and in the wave of air raids known as the Blitz in 1940-41, the threat of mass death came to modern Britain.  In both events, trust in government was key to avoiding panic and confusion.  And in both events, mistakes by government partially undermined this trust, and may have led to further fatalities.

The (misnamed) Spanish Flu pandemic probably started in the large army camps of the First World War, most likely in Kansas where large numbers of new recruits from across the United States mixed with one another and with the pigs, chickens and ducks which had been brought in to feed them.  By the time the seriousness of the disease had been recognised it was too late: troopships had spread the disease to the Western Front, and wartime governments, keen to uphold morale, had suppressed news of its spread.  As the war ended troops, workers and refugees returning home across the world took the virus with them.


Spanish Flu Image: A monster representing an influenza virus hitting a man over the head as he sits in his armchair. Pen and ink

In Britain the initial reaction of the government and the public health authorities was underwhelming.  Sir Arthur Newsholme, the Chief Medical Officer of the Local Government Board and the leading public health official of his day, wrote that ‘there are circumstances in which the major duty is to ‘carry on’ even when risk to life and health is involved.’  In debates and decisions which have been echoed in current concerns about the economic impact of Covid-19, the government decided not to close cinemas and theatres, where closely packed audiences could spread the virus, but instead to simply air them, and spray auditoriums with disinfectant between shows.

In the absence of clear guidance from central government on whether or not to close schools, public transport and other sites where people gathered in large numbers, local authorities made their own decisions.  While A.K. Chalmers, the Medical Officer of Health for Glasgow, argued that there was little point in shutting state schools unless other public sites also closed, Dr James Niven, Manchester’s Medical Officer for Health, thought otherwise.  Alarmed by the growing fatalities, Niven advised Mancunians to avoid crowds and, if they fell ill, to self-isolate at home.  But in Manchester, as elsewhere, the Armistice celebrations in November 1918 bought large crowds to the city centre, shortly followed by a surge in the number of deaths from the illness.  Although Niven was unable to persuade cinema owners to close, he did convince the city’s councillors to close all schools, probably saving many lives in the process.

As with Covid-9, there was no immediate cure for the Spanish ‘flu.   While today we are vulnerable to the fake claims to cures and prevention that circulate on social media, in 1918-19 people were subject to similar claims in the press.  Products like Oxo swiftly saw the potential for profit in the illness, promoting the health-giving nature of the beef-supplement appearing in newspapers and magazines.  Adverts for Veno’s Lightning Cough Cure claimed instantaneous relief while the makers of Pinkobolic Soap stated it would not only ‘effectively combat diseases’ but also ‘rid the air of noxious germs.’  While people struggle to source face-masks online, and hand sanitizers in shops today, our ancestors self-medicated with beef supplements, miracle soap  and quack medicines.

Just over 20 years later, the country found itself once again contemplating a threat to many thousands of lives, this time in the air raids of the Second World War.  Unlike 1918, the British government had spent many years planning for this eventuality.  Despite this, it was in some ways woefully underprepared to cope with the wave of air raids that hit British towns and cities between September 1940 and May 1941.

Almost as soon as the air raids started, rumours that local and national governments were failing to bury the dead with due respect began to circulate.  In September 1940 a Mr Flashman, a volunteer driver with the London Auxiliary Ambulance Service, wrote to City Hall to resign his post.  His reason was a story published in the Sunday Chronicle claiming that the bodies of a group of civil defence workers, killed during an air raid, had been taken to the nearest cemetery in a lorry, and buried in a common grave.   When Clydebank, a small industrial town west of Glasgow, was hit by devastating air raids in March 1941 the town’s infrastructure, and with it the community’s ability to respond to the crisis, was thrown into turmoil.  A lack of information meant the town was fertile ground for rumours:  chief among these was the belief that the government was deliberately suppressing the numbers of those killed, which stood at approximately 528.  Local MPs and press claimed the actual numbers were around 1,200, and that the belief that authorities were lying about this was ‘incredibly bad for morale.’ The higher numbers still circulate online today, and are still widely believed by many in the local area.

The belief that local and national government were failing to protect people was widespread.  In London crowds began trying to use the London Underground as an impromptu shelter almost as soon as the air raids started.  To begin with the government, which had decided against building deep shelters before the war, tried to prevent this.  At one point the Cabinet considered using armed troops to prevent people entering the Underground stations at night, fearing that once people felt safe underground, they would fail to leave in the morning and essential wartime industries would collapse.  As today, the weighing of potential fatalities against economic impact may be understandable, but it does little to encourage confidence in the government’s ability to keep people safe.

In badly bombed east London many died in their homes, amidst rumours that the local street shelters had been built cheaply with poor quality cement, and would collapse if a bomb fell nearby.  Others ‘trekked’ out to Epping Forest to spend the night in the open, a pattern also seen in other badly bombed towns and cities like Plymouth, Southampton and Portsmouth, where families packed up their bedding night after night to sleep in nearby countryside.  Lacking clear guidance from government, many made their own risk assessments, erring on the side of caution and avoidance, rather than simply ‘carrying on’.

Tube shelter in London’s West End apx 1940-41

At times, the lack of clear information from government, often withheld in order to prevent accurate news of casualties becoming known to German High Command, led to a belief that immigrant communities were somehow to blame for the suffering, echoed today in the way that British-Chinese people have sometimes been targeted during the Covid-19 outbreak.  When the government censored coverage of a disaster at Bethnal Green Underground Station, where 173 were killed in a crush on the stairs in March 1943, rumours swiftly circulated blaming the area’s Jewish community for panicking and rushing to the station.  Local fascist sympathisers helped to spread this rumour, feeding on the anti-Semitism that had deep roots in mid-century Britain.  The withholding or censoring of information by local or national authorities provides a fertile breeding ground for rumour, and for scapegoating of ‘the other’.

Approximately 200,000 Britons perished during the waves of Spanish ‘flu that followed the First World War, and just over 63,000 died in air raids.   The dead of both events were largely forgotten in the public imagination, if not in their families and communities.  With better foresight and planning in government however, fewer would have died.   And with more accurate and reliable information, and a greater trust in government, harmful rumours would have circulated less freely.  If the country is to avoid the worst of Covid-19, then today’s government needs to learn from the mistakes of the past, working to provide clear and consistent information, and working hard to build trust among a deeply divided people.