MA Work Placements: An Interview for the Great War Archive Project

MA Students at The University of Essex previously completed a placement at the Essex Record Office (ERO) in Chelmsford for the Great War Archive Project. Through various interviews, which have been posted fortnightly, they share their experiences and thoughts on the placement.

1. Could you tell us about the placement that you took part in and why you wanted to do this placement?

‘It was at the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford as part of their Great War Archive Project, the Friends of Historic Essex bought a scrapbook for the ERO. It was created by a lady who was from the County ‘Wood’ family, Minna Bradhurst and documents her life during the war like the things she found interesting or significant and her family’s war activities. It also shows how much of everyday life continued during the war. It is part of a set of 4 scrapbooks, the others all being in private hands although the ERO has microfilm copies of them, along with copies of other scrapbooks put together by Minna Bradhurst.
As part of my placement, I am researching the Bradhurst and Wood families, the Red Cross in Essex during the war, Rivenhall Place (the family home) and Field Marshall Sir Evelyn Wood (uncle of Minna Bradhurst) amongst other things. I am also looking at the activity of scrapbooking itself.

I applied for the placement on a whim, not really expecting to get it (I thought lots of people had applied and that I probably wouldn’t get it). I came to the ERO and spoke to Hannah, the placement supervisor, and found that what I would be doing was interesting and with a large degree of free reign over what was to be produced, so I took it!

2. What was your favourite part of the placement?

Being able to delve into the ERO archives and discover all the other documents that are held there, and bringing my children in for a tour – which they loved!

3. What did you learn from your placement?

That I love archives and collections and old books and researching fascinating people.
I have learnt a huge amount about myself – my abilities and limitations, and how to overcome them.

Academically, I have learnt about different styles of writing, and how they are different from academic essays.

4. Did you have any exciting or interesting things happen during your placement?

Not really – I’ve just found the whole experience exciting!!

5. What would you say to any students who are considering doing a placement?

Make sure you think about how much time you will spend travelling to and from your placement, and the cost involved (even though many of them have bursaries, you still need to budget for travel and food). This was something that I had to factor into my day-to-day life, especially as I have other commitments (children, employment). However, having other commitments has driven me to make the most out of my placement.

6. Do you have any advice for students thinking about doing a placement?

I am doing my MA on a part-time basis and I don’t think I could have done it as a full-time student, although someone full time may say it was fine. I am lucky that my placement provider has been very flexible, but others may not be so, again, take time for researching and writing into account.

Treat the placement as work experience and grab every opportunity given to you there.

Just apply and see what happens!!!

7. Was there anything that you would have like to be told before you started your placement, that could be useful to future students?

It would have been nice to have the assessment guidance from the university at the start of the placement, just so I knew what was expected of me from them. Maybe this could be given out/made available online along with all the other module details.

8. Has doing your placement influenced any career planning that you might have?

It has helped to think about what I definitely do not want to do!

For more information, or if you are interested in doing a placement please contact Alix Green on






Olivia Smith’s Experience with the Western Front Association (WFA)




Student at The University of Essex , Olivia Smith, was lucky enough to obtain an internship at the Western Front Association. The Western Front Association (WFA) in a non-profit organisation which insist on furthering  interest in World War I, also known as the First World War, the Great War, or the War to End All Wars in 1914-1918. The WFA aims to perpetuate the memory, courage and comradeship of those on all sides who served their countries in France and Flanders and their own countries during the Great War. In this interview, she not only shares her experience, but portrays her thoughts and feelings on her experience with the WFA.

What did the experience entail?

“So, it wasn’t the usual process for an internship as I took the initiative. In August I went over to Belgium with my Dad for the centenary events commemorating the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). Upon the main event, we were escorted to the main Passchendaele museum grounds in Zonnenbeke and I was so inspired as to how people there were able to be a part of such a historical event. After the commemorations at Tyne Cot, we went back to the Passchendaele museum grounds and there I went around the tents exploring the historical companies who were there.

One was the Commonwealth War Grave Commission of which I simply enquired as to who I could speak in regards to internships- unfortunately, they hadn’t at the time set up that area within their business. We moved onto the Western Front Association (WFA) tent, it was very busy, but I enquired to those who were working there about internships and they pointed me into the direction of Andy Tonge, who was busy at the time. I took a business card and exchanged emails, coming away with some hope.


Once I was home I immediately emailed Andy and expressed my desire to work within a historical event that focuses on public history and teaching history to the masses through new modern forms. A few days later I received an email and at first, a phone call had been arranged to discuss what I could do. I had been told I was put forward on the main WFA meeting agenda so I knew it was serious. From the phone call, I knew exactly what was done, they had created this internship for me. Following this, there was a meeting in London which confirmed the details

I am still working with the WFA, this is something that will carry on until next summer. However, I am also a member so that means I can join the WFA over in Ypres for the final centenary months next year, and for as long as I may wish. Many people told me when I was in Ypres two weekends ago, that I am the new generation of historians who will be taking over, and I think it is important to keep history alive.”


OncconfirmedI   the details ”

I am still working with the WFA, this is something that will carry on until next summer. However, I am also a member so that means I can join the WFA over in Ypres for the final centenary months next year, and for as long as I may wish. Many people told me when I was in Ypres two weekends ago, that I am the new generation of historians who will be taking over, and I think it is important to keep History alive.”


I am (still in the process) to create a booklet containing this historical information, to then


A) have it published by the WFA and be an accredited Historian

B) have extracted from the booklet to go up around the site of The Butte De Warlencourt, so when tourists, schools etc. visit they will have information boards (of my work) to read up on.”


How you found it and what were you ‘day-to-day’ jobs/task?

“What was required of me was to dig deep, look into the history of the Butte, before 1914, during the start of the war, The Somme, and the events that followed. For me, this involved three days in the Imperial War Museum sifting through regimental diaries, personal letters, diaries, photos to piece together what it was like around the Butte during the First World War. Some of the accounts were amazing, just reading through certain diaries really puts you in their shoes and their experiences. This mainly got underway around September time, and I was doing the research and putting together the text for the booklet whilst I was still at home and working as a waitress; my luck of doing split shifts meant I had the daytime free to work.”

“I want to go into areas of Public History that communicate and most importantly educate History to the masses…”


Does this experience fit it in with your future career?

This type of work certainly fits in with the idea of my future career. I’ve realised that in our modern world we have to change the way we teach history, so I want to go into areas of public history that communicate and most importantly educate history to the masses- whether this is through media etc. I am determined to find a way.”

Did you enjoy your time working there?

“I am still working with the WFA, this is something that will carry on until next summer. However, I am also a member so that means I can join the WFA over in Ypres for the final centenary months next year, and for as long as I may wish. Many people told me when I was in Ypres two weekends ago, that I am the new generation of historians who will be taking over, and I think it is important to keep History alive.”


Would you recommend this internship?

“I would highly recommend taking that initiative and asking, I believe I was lucky, however it has inspired me to always take that choice and ask because you really do not know until you ask.”

How were the people you worked with?xx

Andy Tonge was just amazing, he gave/gives me a lot of advice if required, and it is all very independent quite like doing a dissertation through choice, so I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting all the people behind the scenes of the WFA yet. Although, going over to Ypres did help in obtaining new contacts, and meeting new people who would benefit from my historical career.”


How do you feel about your experience?

“Lucky. That is probably the best way to describe it. Not many opportunities like this come up and this really is something that I believe can kick-start my career.”


What have you learned through this internship?

“I’ve learned to view History differently in a way. To really focus in on the micro-history, as that’s where the interesting stories lie. It is very similar my required task, as to what a certain assignment could be like so I’ve tried to not to make it seem so unknown by treating it like a piece of coursework.”


What was one of the best moments of your experience?

“Standing in a trench in Shrewsbury Forrest, nearly knee-deep in watery mud (thank god I always carry my Hunters in my car as you don’t know when they would be required), exploring where the German front line was on 31st July 1917. That and bringing back to life the soldiers who fought during the “Great War”, as the unquiet histories really should be brought back to life.”


Who should I contact if I want an internship in the Western Front Association?

“Andy Tonge ( or just email the WFA, they are a very welcoming historical association”.


How did the university help you with your endeavours?

“The History Department was fantastic in the fact that they helped with fees when I went over to Belgium, so as a student that really took off some stress and made the opportunity for me to go over for the 99th Armistice more possible.”

MA Work Placements: An Interview with Deborah Wiltshire

A number of our MA students have recently completed work placements which made use of their unique skills as Historians.  In the second of three interviews with our MA students, we talk to Deborah Wiltshire, who secured a place at the Essex County Hospital supported by the local NHS Trust. She shares her experiences below.


1)Could you tell us about the placement that you took part in and why you wanted to do this placement?

The project is based on the at the Essex County Hospital which closes next year. The project is to archive as many materials from the hospital before it closes, including photos, records and other materials.

I wanted to do the placement to get some work experience, well I have many years of work experience, but not in the field of history so I really wanted to gain some experience there and it just sounded like a good and interesting project. At the very start of the project, it was nice to see how the project got off the ground and I wanted the experience really.

2)What was your favourite part of the placement?

I have two favourites. I have really enjoyed working with the team at Essex County Hospital (ECH) as they are just really nice and enthusiastic and they have been a real pleasure to get to know and to work with. I also just really enjoy rummaging through boxes of photos and find it fascinating. I will happily rummage through photographs for hours anyway.

3)What did you learn from your placement?

So far, I am just part way through so I think that I like learning about the history of medicine. I have done a module on medicine last semester soDSC00284 I was already interested in that area so it was nice to see more modern history especially how the hospital, medical equipment and nurse’s uniforms have evolved. This has been fascinating to learn and will be an area that I want to find out more about.

4)Did you have any exciting or interesting things happen during your placement?

The most interesting thing has been to get the website going, nothing dramatic has happened luckily but it has been interesting because although I deal with social media for work I never actually see something start from scratch like ECH so that has been nice. I have found it interesting to watch.

5)What would you say to any students who are considering doing a placement?

I would say that it is definitely worth doing and it is very interesting. It is also a good opportunity to get some work experience especially if you are younger and have not been in the workplace before. I also think that then it is a valuable way for someone to get work experience especially if research, especially, historical research is something you want to aim for. It is always important to get some experience on your CV as early as you can.

I think that it is fascinating, you find things that you don’t expect to find and if you do a standard dissertation you have a set idea of what you are going to do but with a placement, it evolves a little bit more naturally and that is a good experience to have.

6)Do you have any advice for students thinking about doing a placement?

I think my main advice is quite practical. I would advise that as you go along through your placement that you keep a journal so that any thoughts or feelings you have at that time you write down.

We all think that we will remember stuff a couple of months after we do it but the reality is that we don’t. that would be my biggest piece of advice to keep lots of notes so that you can relax and enjoy your placement as you go along and if you have a level of detail in a journal, then it will write itself and it will make writing up a lot easier.

7)Was there anything that you would have like to be told before you started your placement, that could be useful to future students?

No, I don’t think so. The projects were quite clearly presented so I think in that sense we knew what we needed to do but perhaps for future students to help outline on timetables especially for full-time students the time is quite short so to have a structured timetable might be useful.

8)Has doing your placement influenced any career planning that you might have?

Yes, quite possibly. I have thought about changing disciplines which is why I am doing an MA in the first place but I don’t know if it has my changed my plan wildly. It has confirmed that I would like to make changes once I have finished my placement and MA so it has confirmed what I had in mind.

For more information, or if you are interested in doing a placement please contact Alix Green on

Need Help? Contact The Talent Development Centre !

Do you need help with your assignments, or just want to strengthen certain skills ? No need to fear, Essex’s Talent Development Centre can assist you.

The Talent Development Centre is a service at The University of Essex, which offers help with work or any chosen identified skills/talents. The Talent Development Centre also offers a service which identifies your talent and strengths for development and help can xalso be offered for development in the form or a workshop, one on one session, online resources, and more. This service is offered to every student studying at The University of Essex, and offers mathematical and English support with research for UK, EU or International students. As well as this, The Talent Development Centre offers Peer Assisted Learning schemes, so you can ‘be the best you can be’.

Our History Frontrunner, Nanette, set up her own appointment with the Talent Development Centre and she has shared her experience in this blog post.

Nanette’s Talent Development Centre Log

2/11/17 – Talent Development Centre was contacted – I emailed them enquiring an interview

2/11/17 – 12:08 – TDC head office- passed on message to applicable person

2/11/17- 13:41 – TDC answered – easier to come in but emailed them a time and date and were able to book m in for my chosen date and time which was 11:30 on 9th November 2017 for half an hour.

9/11/17-11:30 –Was interviewed by Christopher – 1:1 session – He read my work thoroughly and gave me constructive criticism.

9/11/17- 12:00- Finished interview and was given feedback sheet.

What Nanette liked about the experience?

The Talent Development Centre was very fast at answering my email. They answered on the same day. I was also able to book an appointment for my chosen day very fast, so I recommend to anyone who is looking to book their appointment for something which is due quite soon to still try their chances at booking with the Talent Development Centre, but leave at least a week before due assignment just in case as the Talent Development Centre can get very busy especially for one-to-one sessions. I was told that the easiest way to see someone and book an appointment in minimal time was to actually go to the Talent Development Centre (so if you need their help urgently go see them in the Student Centre).

What I also liked was that I was sat down in a one on one session with a PhD student called Christopher, who not only gave me advice about my blog writing skills (what I initially came to ask for), but also advice on how to elevate my writing skills in my essays to a more academic and professional style, something which will not only benefit me in my third year but also in any of my future endeavours.  One thing which Christopher said which stuck with me was that it doesn’t matter if you mix 1st and 3rd as it adds more xxnarrative. I also liked that Christopher was a PhD student. This meant he had been in my position, as a 3rd year, not so long ago, and understood the trouble juggling tasks as well as trying to strengthen a skill. This meant his advice was not only student-focused but also revolved around how I could build my blog writing skills keeping in mind time management and organisation for other work.

Christopher also informed me that the Talent Development Centre can also help with assignment preparation, assignment presentation, organisation, structure and arguments language, style and expression as well as non-academic texts like emails, letters, filling in forms and blogs!

” I could put any suggestions forward to improve the service that the Talent Development  Centre was issuing to student such as myself, younger or older. “

Last, but certainly not least I liked that I was always asked if I understood what was going on and if I felt comfortable with the advice and positive constructive criticism I was receiving. At the end of my session I was given a feedback sheet which first asked me to rate my experience at the Talent Development Centre  (very helpful, helpful and not helpful), but also asked if I could put any suggestions forward to improve the service that the Talent Development  Centre was issuing to student such as myself, younger or older.

Advice Nanette was given by Christopher for her blog writing

  1. Title – Grab the reader
  2. Narrative questions – This engages the audience
  3. Doesn’t matter if mix first person or 3rd person – ‘quoting’- This gives the piece life
  4. Short and sweet answers – summarise answers, as it keeps the reader’s attention
  5. Order of presenting answers – beginning and the end must be the most important questions

What they offer TDC tdcdccc

  • Check you’re on track
  • Getting more out of your study
  • Creating something new
  • Building current skills
  • English and Maths development
  • Analyse, discuss, succeed
  • Say more with writing


Contact Talent Development Centre

The Silberrad Student Centre

Ground Floor

Open 10am-4pm Monday –Friday







Phone: 01206 874834


MA Work Placements: An Interview with Kyle Cameron-Symes

A number of our MA students have recently completed work placements which made use of their unique skills as historians.  In the first of three interviews with our MA students, we talk to Kyle Cameron-Symes, who secured a place at the Essex County Hospital supported by the local NHS Trust. He shares his experiences below.

Could you tell us about your placement at Essex County Hospital. Why did you choose this placement?

Initially, I first heard about the placement through my MA. With another student, Deborah Wiltshire, we were tasked with recording the two-hundred year history of Essex County Hospital as it is closing down in 2018. I was enthusiastic when I saw the placement being offered as MA students, like me, were needed to collate the history of the Hospital. I thought it would be good to work with an external organisation, and to engage with the public on such a great project.

What was your favourite part of the placement?

I must say that my favourite part was engaging with the public, and working in a team. This included meetings with people from the NHS Trust and setting up a website. I enjoyed this, especially because we were all working to a common goal. Also, I enjoyed hearing recordings on the website, from nurses working in the 1960s and 70s, which wouldn’t have been available for the public to hear without the website.

What did you learn from your placement?

I learnt a lot even though it was only three months long. One of the things I learned was the value of teamwork, especially in a hospital within the NHS. Working with others was a crucial skill, and something that I would take away from the placement. As well as this, time management was something crucial as the project required meeting at specific times with the NHS Trust. All the skills that I learned were vital, transferable, and very important when it comes to employability.

What was the most exciting thing to happen during your placement?


One of the most interesting things was that Dr Alix Green spoke to Dave Monk on his show on BBC Essex Radio to advertise and explain the project. This showed the project was getting off the ground. It was interesting to listen to, and was a proud moment of mine during the placement.

” I would say get in early, and start asking questions and even look at people who have done placements before”

What would you say to any students who are considering doing a placement?

The placement for me was a fantastic opportunity, and I am glad they offered it however; I would say to think about why you want to do the placement, and make sure that this is what you want to do. You could do this by contacting the department, and the placement coordinator as well as Alix Green. I would say get in early, and start asking questions and even talk to people who have done placements before.

Get to know the people involved early, so you know whether this is the route for you or not. As well as this, learn more about the placement which is important at the start. Lastly, read what the specific placement requires, mine focused on social media and blogs, so if you are passionate about these things, enquire for this or your specific interest when you apply. Make sure you read the criteria when you apply for it.

Has doing your placement influenced your career plans?

Doing the placement has made me realise how much I would love to do a PhD. I would also love to develop this through researching Essex County Hospital in more detail. I also learnt a lot of skills whilst working with the NHS Trust. I also learnt how to use historical sources as resources; all which I enjoyed can be transferred to my future career.

For more information, or if you are interested in doing a placement please contact Alix Green on


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.

You asked, we answered

If you didn’t manage to make it to our Open Day on Saturday, never fear! Our academics have put together a list of some of the most frequently asked questions by students, along with the answers.


How do joint programmes work in practice?

Our joint programmes are very popular because they offer students a chance to study two different subjects in-depth. Two Departments coordinate with each other to put together a programme tailored for students with particular interests in their areas of study. In practice, this means that students spend about half their time in one department and half in another.

How does Study Abroad work in practice? (How do you choose the institution, do the marks count toward degree, fees, etc).

All our undergraduate students have a fantastic opportunity to study abroad, for either a term or a year. We have exchanges with about 150 institutions all over the world from Canada and the United States to East Asia, Europe to Australia and New Zealand. For students beginning their studies in 2018/19, fees for the year abroad are 15 % of the standard tuition fees. These students take a four-year degree with their third year spent at a university in another country. They go through an application process in their second year with help from the Study Abroad Office.

How many contact hours will I get with lecturers?

Most of our students spend about 8-10 hours a week in the classroom, but they also spend much of their week reading and preparing for classes. This can be on their own or in groups – perhaps in one of the many informal learning spaces we have at the University or off campus. Students are also encouraged to see their tutors on a regular basis in their Academic Support Hours, two hour-long slots are held every week when students can seek guidance and feedback on work and any other matters they want to discuss.

How much teaching is by GTAs?

Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) teach some seminars, mainly at First Year level. The vast majority of our teaching, however, is done by full-time academic staff. All of our staff – from lecturers to professors – are engaged in lecture and seminar teaching at all levels, from first to final year.

What are the most common graduate job destinations?

Essex History graduates go into a wide variety of different careers in the public and private sectors. These include careers in the Civil Service, in museums and archives, in journalism and human resources management. Of course, some of graduates also go into teaching and some continue with their studies, going on to do graduate work in a variety of fields. Further information about what some of our graduates have gone on to do can be found here.

If there’s another question not listed which you’d like answering, feel free to email us at and we will get back to you as soon as possible.

You can also check when our next Open Day is on our website.



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.


Tackling Gender Inequality in the History Department

Before Christmas, the History Department here at the University of Essex submitted an application for a Bronze Award from the Equality Challenge Unit’s Athena SWAN programme. We’ll find out at the end of April if we are successful, but I thought I’d provide some thoughts as to why we applied and give some background to the award we are applying for.

Athena SWAN began a programme to increase women’s participation in the STEMM subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine. These subjects were traditionally male dominated at every level, but research showed that women were less likely than men to reach to the level of academic members of staff and even less likely to get to the top of their profession and become a Professor. The Athena SWAN programme was designed to help those subjects overcome such gender inequality. Since its launch in 2005, academic Departments in STEMM subjects have been able to apply for an award that proves their commitment to ensuring women have an equal chance of succeeding as men. Athena SWAN is not concerned with favouring women over men, but rather understanding the cultural and workplace factors that have traditionally benefited men and discriminated against women. You can read more about the principles behind Athena Swan here. Since 2013, Athena SWAN has been expanded to cover the Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences, Business and Law (AHSSBL) disciplines, and in 2014 the University of Essex was one of only five Universities to receive an award for work expanding the aims of Athena SWAN into all subject areas. Two staff members from the History Department were involved in the Self-Assessment Process.

At first glance, the History Department might not seem to have the same issues as STEMM areas. After all, there are many more women working in history than in the sciences. In fact, History here at Essex has had three female Heads of Department since 1993 – very few Departments across the country could equal that figure. There are also a lot more female history students than in many of the STEMM subjects. Yet many workplace cultures have the same problems: structures that seem to benefit those with characteristics usually associated with men (such as ‘self-assertiveness’ and ‘confidence’).

So for gender equality to come in the workplace we need a system which encourages and rewards all the activities of all staff and which seeks to both eliminate the barriers to women’s careers and provides a supportive atmosphere that allows people to flourish. This is where Athena SWAN comes in. Since 2014, the University of Essex has worked hard as part of its Institutional Bronze Award to change the structures and practices that entrench gender bias. For example, an analysis of the pay of Professorial staff led the University to announce in 2015-16 that it would remove the gender pay gap at Professorial level by raising female professors’ pay rise – the first University to do this.  These actions can be attributed directly to the University’s desire to tackle inequality on campus and outside it: and it is these values that underpin the University’s support for Departments applying for Athena SWAN recognition.

So when the History Department thought about Athena SWAN we were aware that traditional working cultures have been inherently discriminatory against women. We also knew that of the senior Professors in the Department, nearly all of them are men. But we wanted to find out if there any barriers to women succeeding in our Department, and to tear them down if there were. Quite simply, we must be able to honestly state that men and women have genuinely equal chances of promotion, and that the excellent staff in the Department are properly rewarded for the work they did.

We also wanted to be absolutely confident that we were providing our students with a learning environment that was supportive of everyone. So the process of applying for our award involved us investigating if there were any barriers to the success of our students. This started with the realisation that of the students studying History at Essex, rather fewer of them were women than might be expected by looking at both the subject nationally and at other Departments in the University. Across the country, around 55% of History students are women. At Essex, that figure is around 45%. Not a vast difference perhaps, but one that made us think: was there more we could do to ensure women wanted to apply to study here?

So, we seemed to be confronted by some key facts, or rather one basic fact – we didn’t have as many women as men either teaching modules or taking them. So we thought we should try to understand why this was the case and to think about ways of dealing with it. For the historians here at Essex, it was an affront to our core values that inequality might exist in a Department that prides itself in researching the history of ‘ordinary’ people and their struggles in the world. In a future post, I’ll describe how we did this, but I’ll finish here at the point when we had taken the first and most important step: understanding that there was a problem and taking the responsibility both for the fact that the problem existed and for dealing with it – because nothing changes unless people are prepared to work together in order to bring that change about. As of March 2017, no History Department in England holds an Athena SWAN award. We hope that changes very soon.

Matthew Grant, convener of the History Department Athena SWAN self-assessment team.