The Extraordinary Life of Ordinary Women

Nadine Rossol, Senior Lecturer at The University of Essex ran a blog forum on Moodle for her Public History course (HR213). As her course is dedicated to the life and work of women in 20th century Britain, her students were asked to write a blog based on women, their lives, and the general issues which women face. In this three-part series, Sophia Pinheiro Vergara is seond to talk about the extraordinary life of ordinary women!

Have you ever thought about ordinary women in history? Throughout time, writers and historians have mostly focused on leaders, the elite, royalty, celebrities, influencers. And very often, these people were men. It’s very easy to forget about the wives, sisters and mothers of those significant, illustrious people – because most of the time, that’s all they were portrayed as. That’s why I’d like to shed some light on the extraordinary lives of ordinary women. Women who maybe were not famous, leaders or royalty, but still have amazing stories to tell. I think it’s time they were heard and celebrated, as they should be.

This story is about Marcelle Vergara, Marcelle Guillemot and Suzanne Spaak. Marcelle and her husband Paul Vergara were both part of the resistance, and he led a centre to hide Jewish children during WWII called La Clairiere. Though Marcelle was not the leader of this resistance group, she helped her husband and their associates, Suzanne and Marcelle Guillemot. Marcelle Vergara often welcomed and hid Jewish children in her home, and with her husband, they would procure false identification papers to send them to safer places. One of the people she hid was a half Jewish young girl, Yvonne Van Nierop, who eventually became her daughter-in-law (Needless to say, Yvonne Van Nierop’s story is a remarkable one as well).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Suzanne found out that there were threats to the children under the protection of a network and contacted Paul and Marcelle Vergara. It was confirmed on the 12th February 1943 that the Jewish children would be deported from the UGIF (Union Générale des Israélites de France) where they had been placed by the Gestapo. The members of La Clairiere asked people loyal to the cause to take out a Jewish child or two from the UGIF for the day – only to never return them. This mission singlehandedly saved 63 children, aged three to eighteen, who were given new identities and taken to safe homes.

On the 16th of February 1943, only days after the miraculous mission, the Gestapo sent agents to La Clairiere community centre, and Marcelle Guillemot was found. She quickly destroyed all compromising information regarding the rescue of the Jewish children and her links to the Resistance. She somehow managed to flee and escape the Gestapo.

Marcelle Vergara, not long after, was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Fresnes prison, a special location used by Germans to hold and question members of the Resistance. She was released later that same year. Her own son was captured and taken to Buchenwald

Suzanne Spaak had to flee and take her children to Belgium in October 1943, only to be arrested later on the 8th of November. She was tortured and sentenced to death in January 1944. On the 12th of August that same year, two weeks before the liberation of Paris, Suzanne was executed.

Suzanne Spaak, Marcelle Vergara and Marcelle Guillemot were all recognised as “Righteous Among the Nations”. It’s an honorific used by Israel to recognise non-Jewish people who helped Jews during WWII and the Holocaust by risking their lives.


Plaque of honour for Marcelle and Paul Vergara, “Righteous Among the Nations”

These three women, though not particularly famous, had amazing stories to tell. Their bravery and resilience in the face of oppression is a tale to remember and celebrate, as are other countless women’s stories. Though my goal is to share the extraordinary stories of ordinary women, I have to admit this one is special to me because it’s personal, as Marcelle and Paul Vergara are my great-grandparents. Yvonne Van Nierop (now Vergara), the half-Jewish girl they hid, is my grandmother.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There is so much more to these women’s stories to tell, and other women’s stories – which is why I asked at the very beginning: ‘what about ordinary women in history?’ There are many fantastic voices undiscovered, only left to the memories of their families. Most of history has been a world led by men, so much so that women’s history is often cast aside for grander tales of men’s deeds. But women’s lives and stories are no less grand or extraordinary, simply often left to the shadows – they should be celebrated and remembered. To the readers out there, I highly encourage you to share your untold stories for them to never be forgotten, and to remind others that ordinary women have extraordinary lives.






•AJPN, available at:, [Accessed 30th November 2017].

•AJPN, available at:, [Accessed 30th November 2017].

•AJPN, available at:, [Accessed 30th November 2017].

•AJPN, available at:, [Accessed 30th November 2017].

•Yad Vashem, available at:, [Accessed 30th November 2017].


Top tips for new students

Welcome to the Department of History at Essex! We hope you enjoy welcome week, and that you’re excited about joining the vibrant community here. We know from personal experience that it can be daunting embarking on a new stage in life, so here are our top tips for new undergraduates to help you settle in and make the most of your time here right from the start.

  1. Don’t worry if everything seems confusing at first

It’s widely acknowledged that moving is one of the most stressful events in life. Even if you haven’t moved house, you’re still moving from one way of life to another – from college, school, or a previous career to university. There’s a lot of practical things to do, from getting a library card to finding your way to lecture theatres, and it’s not surprising if you feel overwhelmed at first. You will survive! In only a few weeks’ time, the building blocks of your new life will be in place. There will be new challenges in the years ahead – after all, that is the point of university – but the bewilderment of your first few days will soon be gone.

  1. Get organised straight away

Even if you have never owned one before, buy an academic diary. Write in the times, topics and locations of your lectures and seminars, as well as any welcome events, and when you receive your essay deadlines, put those in too. It’s much better to do this in a physical diary than on a calendar on your phone. As the semester goes on, you will quickly realise that it really helps when you can see at a glance what’s happening over the week ahead. Writing in this information also has a great psychological benefit in making you feel organised – which is half of the battle.

  1. Be prepared for new learning experiences

Most academic modules are taught through a combination of lectures and seminars. Different tutors approach lectures and seminars differently, but most often lectures provide a broad overview of a topic, while seminars provide an opportunity to discuss a particular topic in more depth. Both formats are typically more open-ended than the kind of teaching you were accustomed to at college or school. It might take some time to get used to this style of teaching, and to ensure that you are preparing and taking notes in the most effective way. There are lots of study guides that can help, and it is definitely worth reading at least one.

  1. Be open-minded

By the time most students arrive at university, they have usually spent at least seven years formally studying History. Although this is a long time, History is an enormous topic – it covers the entire human past, from the dawn of time to the present, in every region of the globe. No matter how much you learn, you will never get to grips with all of it – but what a great challenge it is to try! When selecting modules, it can be tempting to fall back on the topics that you have studied before and that you know will interest you. There is a place in any History degree for deepening your knowledge, but you should also try to extend it – take a risk on topics and modules that you have not encountered before, and that you might not have another chance to study.

  1. Ask questions, lots and often

Historians, whether undergraduates or professors, need to ask questions all the time – who, what, when, where, and, perhaps most importantly, why? Of course, part of what we do as historians is try to find answers to those questions – but most often, those attempts at answers just generate more questions. Don’t be afraid to keep asking questions, and don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t have all the answers. The really good historical work, whether that’s a 2,000 word essay or a 600-page scholarly monograph, won’t have all the answers, but it will ask the right questions. If your History degree at Essex teaches you anything, it should be that curiosity is one of the best attributes you can take through life, because it will always reward you – often in quite unexpected ways.


Dr Tracey Loughran is a historian of twentieth-century Britain. She is the editor of A Practical Guide to Studying History: Skills and Approaches (Bloomsbury, 2017), a book aimed at helping students make the transition to degree-level study. You can read an extract from it here.

Reflections on the Centenary: Professor Lucy Noakes on the inaugural ‘Reflections on the Centenary’ workshop

As we move towards the final year of the Centenary, we are beginning to look back on not only the First World War, but the ways in which the centenary of this global conflict has been marked, both in Britain and across the world.

On the 13 September 2017 Gateways to the First World War hosted the ‘Reflections on the Centenary Workshop’ at the University of Kent. The workshop was led by Dr Emma Hanna (University of Kent), Professor Lucy Noakes (University of Essex), Dr Catriona Pennell (University of Exeter) and Dr James Wallis (University of Essex). Together with Professor Lorna Hughes (University of Glasgow), they have been awarded three years of funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to explore the multiple experiences, projects and legacies of the First World War Centenary.

The workshop was attended by a range of centenary project participants, together with students and historians of the First World War. In the morning we heard fascinating presentations from two projects that have received funding from the Heritage and Lottery Fund:

100 Miles for 100 Years: Kent in World War One and

Theatre of War, the King’s Theatre Heritage Project, Portsmouth.

Both projects have been supported by Gateways, and the presentations illustrated just two of the range of imaginative and informative ways in which community led projects are contributing to and shaping our knowledge of the war in Britain. Local histories, such as these, provide us with a means of linking the often individual and local experiences of the conflict with the war on a global scale. For example, the 100 Miles for 100 Years walking tour of Southborough and High Brooms highlights the tragedy that was the sinking of HMS Hythe off the coast of Gallipoli in 1915. On board were many of the men of the Third Kent Fortress Royal Engineers, formed of volunteers from the area. Of the 154 who died, 129 were from these small communities, devastated by losses on the border between Europe and Asia. The Kings Theatre meanwhile gained funding from the Arts Council to stage some of the ‘lost plays of World War One’, rediscovered by volunteers working with Gateways historian Dr Helen Brooks in the archives of the British Library, and with the support of Gateways Co-Investigator Professor Brad Beaven, and Gateways Network member Dr Melanie Bassett, both of the University of Portsmouth.

Professor Sarah Lloyd, the Principal Investigator of the Everyday Lives in War AHRC First World War Engagement Centre at the University of Hertfordshire gave the workshop’s keynote lecture, in which she discussed the relationship between the changes of the war, so often seen as a ‘watershed’ or seminal break with the past when examined on a global scale, with the continuities of daily life for many of those who lived through it. These intimate, local histories – the ‘voices less heard’ – provide both a means of complicating our understandings of the war, and act as a way for us to engage more fully with the people of the war years. Stories, she argued, help us to understand the complexities of the past.

This point certainly proved true in the reflective workshops with which we ended the day. Members of community groups came together with historians and students to discuss and reflect upon our experiences of the centenary. Amid discussion of a wide ranging and impressive series of centenary projects, two features really stood out: the empathetic connection that many felt with those who lived through the war, and the multiple meanings of the war in the early 21st century. One participant reflected on her pride at seeing the Belgian national flag fly over her local town hall to mark the refugees from that country that the town had hosted during the war, an important reminder of our shared past in the age of Brexit and anti-refugee sentiment in much of the popular press. Others discussed the ways that researching local history had helped them to more fully understand their contemporary community, and being deeply moved when they met descendants of those who had previously been a name, or a photo, in an archive.

As the day drew to a close it was clear that the experience and legacies of the centenary are numerous; shaped as much by the experience of living in the early 21st century as they are by the histories of the First World War being explored and shared. It is these experiences, and their legacies, that that Reflections on the Centenary team are keen to explore between 2017 and 2020. On November 11, 2017 we will launch an online survey asking participants to consider their both their experiences of the centenary, and their understandings of the First World War, and are also keen to interview centenary project participants alongside heritage professionals, students and educators. If you would like to know more about our project and to get involved by recording your centenary reflections, please email Lucy Noakes at

Of dirty books and bread: a guest post from The Recipes Project

Dr Lisa Smith is a founding co-editor of The Recipes Project, a blog on the history of recipes in science, medicine, art, magic and cooking. She brought this archive post to the attention of History at Essex, which reveals a most unusual use for bread.


There are certain things that even the most innocent manuscript scholar cannot avoid, among them dirty books. This post will discuss the traces that careless readers have left on manuscript pages since they were first filled with writing: smudges and splodges created through physical contact between books and readers. Blemishes and damaged manuscripts have occurred to me recently in different guises as I was tracing alchemy across Cambridge manuscript collections. The following three observations may amuse and inspire the current audience – not least because they connect codices with bread, cheese and other foodstuffs.

Bad And Good Dirt

Failed attempt at book conservation in the 19th century: the opposite of cleaning (Wikimedia Commons) Failed attempt at book conservation in the 19th century: the opposite of cleaning (Wikimedia Commons)

Richard de Bury, cleric, bibliophile of the early fourteenth century and author of a book-lover’s guide to books, wrote passionately about the correct handling of codices. Books were meant to be seen but not touched. In the appropriately entitled Philobiblon, de Bury exemplifies readers’ common if damaging behaviour in the figure of ‘some headstrong youth’:

He does not fear to eat fruit or cheese over an open book, or carelessly to carry a cup to and from his mouth; and because he has no wallet at hand he drops into books the fragments that are left.

Many modern users of libraries observing fellow-readers will find this scenario familiar.

But in recent years scholarship has made visible previously hidden signs of historical book usage. An excellent article of 2010 demonstrates the use of a densitometer, ‘a machine that measures the darkness of a reflecting surface’, e.g. for revealing traces of medieval readers’ kisses of saints’ images.[1] One can only imagine, and deduce from obvious stains, what a similar analysis of recipe books would uncover.

Medieval Bread and Books

Image of a man feeding a dog with bread (according to the library catalogue), with unidentified stains. French manuscript of Christmas carols, early sixteenth century. Free Library of Philadelphia, MS Lewis E 211, f. 8r. Image of a man feeding a dog with bread (according to the library catalogue), with unidentified stains. French manuscript of Christmas carols, early sixteenth century. Free Library of Philadelphia, MS Lewis E 211, f. 8r.

Dirt on book pages did not need to wait for modern technology to be noted. Late medieval book owners remarked upon and tried to find solutions for the appearance of unwanted substances on their manuscript pages. Recently discovered examples include paw prints and bodily fluids left by cats in manuscripts, but after the fact, at a stage when these manuscripts were beyond hope of cleaning.[2]

I was, therefore, delighted to find the following instruction for cleaning books in a manuscript at Cambridge University Library (CUL MS Ee.1.13, f. 141r).

ffor to make clene thy boke yf yt be defouled or squaged[3]

Take a schevyr of old broun bred of þe crummys and rub thy boke þerwith sore vp and downe and yt shal clense yt

Formally a recipe text, this advice relies on just a single ‘ingredient’: bread. And while bread features widely in culinary and religious texts, in the proverbial diet of prisons (bread and water) and the pairing of ‘bread and salt’, this early mention of bread in cleaning instructions deserves more consideration. It bridges the recipe genre, bread as a culinary product of the kitchens and its alienated, secondary use that relies on its texture and other material qualities. Moreover, this text draws silent parallels with contemporary instructions for the cleaning of pots and pans, tools and instruments. I wonder whether the abovementioned technology might discover trails of bread across manuscript pages?

Modern Books and Wonder Bread

An early advertisement for Wonder Bread. Found on the Blog of the Tenement MuseumAn early advertisement for Wonder Bread. Found on the Blog of the Tenement Museum

Bread as a cleaning device for books continues until today, and may be familiar to some readers of this blog, especially those dealing with books or paintings in a professional or otherwise intense capacity. The American loaf known by the modest name of Wonder Bread is said to have particularly good cleansing power. Pertinently, the V&A, however, includes this practice in its category ‘What not to do…’:

Don’t use old fashioned cleaning remedies

Bread is a traditional dry cleaning material used to remove dirt from paper. If you rub a piece of fresh white bread between your fingers, you will see that it is quite effective in picking up dirt. The slight stickiness of bread is the reason why it works and also why it can be a problem. It can leave a sticky residue behind that will attract more dirt. Oily residues or small crumbs trapped in the paper fibres will support mould growth and encourage pest attack.[4]

This piece of advice forms the antidote to the abovementioned instruction for cleaning books: conflicting advice across the centuries.

Undecided on the issue I will, however, continue to make sure my hands are clean as I continue through manuscripts with recipes, especially the alchemical ones. You never know what may have left that stain in the margin.

By Anke Timmermann


I would like to extend my thanks to the Free Library of Philadelphia for the kind permission to use an image from their collections in this blog post.

The Tenement Museum’s blog post on the history of bread (whence the second image above originates) is not directly connected to this particular post’s themes but an interesting read for different reasons: Judy Levin, ‘From the Staff of Life to the Fluffy White Wonder: A Short History of Bread’ (19 Jan 2012).


[1] Kathryn M. Rudy, ‘Dirty Books: Quantifying Patterns of Use in Medieval Manuscripts Using a Densitometer’, Journal of Historians of Netherlendish Art 2:1-2 (2010).

[2] See this guest post by Thijs Porck at medievalfragments: ‘Paws, Pee and Mice: Cats among Medieval Manuscripts’.

[3] ‘squagen (v.) [Origin unknown; ?= squachen v.] To make a stain, smudge; also, dirty (sth.), smudge, stain.’ MED.

[4] V&A, ‘Caring for Your Books & Papers’ (accessed 25/11/2013).


Anke Timmermann is a former academic, is an antiquarian book specialist and historian of science, with a scholarly focus on the history of alchemy and medicine. She recently set up as an independent bookseller as A T Scriptorium in London, and is an Associate Member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association as well as a Fellow of the Linnaean Society.


What to do with your degree

It’s a common misconception that the subject of your degree will limit you in your career choice. This may be true for some subjects, but not history.

A history degree is one of the most versatile. The analytical skills that you gain in history, as well as the project management skills you learn doing your final year dissertation are sought after by employers. We’re also great at arguing (but we knew that already), which is a necessary quality in many jobs; the ability to effectively put your point across, or deal calmly with a difficult customer are what will set you apart. On top of this is the problem solving, time management, and independent research skills gained in any good degree.

So what jobs can you get?

Retail, analysis, accountancy, banking, law, publishing, writing… there are so many possibilities.

Take a look at the Prospects website to give you an idea.

And to the people who don’t know yet, no problem! Take the quiz on their website to find out the perfect career for you.

University is also the time to gain valuable work experience in the field you are interested in. Take your degree and tailor it, and your experiences at Essex to the life you want to lead.


To take away from the stress of considering your future, here’s a picture of the campus ducks!


History Department Tips

History, Blackboard, Chalk, Chalkboard, Teacher, School

Our history department has a few hidden gems that can help make your life a lot easier, and your time at Essex even better.  So instead of letting you slowly discover them over a few years (it took me two to find the department library) here they are:

  1. The History Department library

I know it looks small but don’t judge a book by its cover, this place is a Tardis of useful materials for your modules. The chances are that for any reading you have to do, for any history course, there will be a copy of it filed under the course title. You don’t even have to spend ages sorting through material, our wonderful volunteer librarians will help you find what you’re looking for.

  1. The History common room

If you’ve been to the History Department you may have noticed the first room on your left as you walk in, with a coffee machine and some chairs and tables, that’s it! And if you’re new and a little shy there’s no need to avoid it if there’s people already there, they’re actually very friendly. It’s a good place to go if you’d like to do some work, either alone or with some friends, or to just hang around for a bit.

  1. Department Office

I’m about to save you some time, check the opening hours before you walk all the way to campus to hand something in, only to realise its closed (While we’re on topic the same goes for the campus post office and post room). But the office is only closed for an hour for lunch (between 1-2pm) and anyone there will be more than happy to help you with any problems or questions you may have about your course.