Including Women

Professor Laura Gowing (KCL) follows-up her Inaugural Lecture with these thoughts on early modern women and the freedom of the city.

Over the past academic year, the History Department here at King’s has been putting itself under scrutiny.  As part of our plans to apply for the Athena Swan gender equality mark (a scheme extended from the sciences to the humanities in 2015), we’ve been systematically examining how we envisage, support, and facilitate gender equality in the department. It’s been an illuminating process, reflected in the questionnaires on diversity we circulated to students recently, and prompting shifts in our practice as we work out how best to ensure that our curriculum reflects all sorts of histories, that our student body is diverse, and that our staff have equal opportunities throughout the process of appointment, working in the department, and promotion. Like most universities King’s has a gender pay gap, and the proportion of women in the History department sits at around 40%, with many fewer at professorial level.  The staff gender ratio hasn’t changed much since I was appointed in 2002, and reflects that of the sector nationally, though not that of our students. It’s strikingly better than that of the institutions where many older staff did our postgraduate work: at Oxford and Cambridge in the 1980s it was not unusual to be taught by no women at all, and King’s appointed its first permanent female historian, Professor Jinty Nelson, only in 1970.

Alongside Athena Swan,  I’ve been working on my own research project about inclusion in a very different context: the City of London Companies in the late 17th century. The comparison and connections between the two contexts have been nudging me through the year. One of the interesting aspects of gender relations in the early modern era is that so little is actually regulated. Until the late 17th century, nothing told women they could not vote on the rare occasions that parliamentary elections took place, or that they could not hold office, but they rarely did so. Exclusion was customary and property-based long before it was legal and gender-based. Girls could always be apprenticed to skilled trades in the London guilds – organisations like the Clothworkers’ Company, the Mercers’ or the Goldsmiths’. Before 1640 they very rarely were – or at least, they weren’t recorded as apprentices in the records. In the 1640s things began to change – perhaps, as Brodie Waddell over at the Many-Headed-Monster blog has suggested, this was part of the great shift in possibilities of the seventeenth century. A few more girls each decade were apprenticed; many were learning needlework skills with the wives of artisans in different companies, others were becoming pastry cooks or button-makers.

Wenceslaus Hollar,  View of London. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.

Wenceslaus Hollar, View of London.
Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.

But when girls were apprenticed, the institutional barriers to them operating like male tradesmen became apparent. The point of an apprenticeship was, after learning a trade,  to become free of the city: only with that freedom could you practice a trade within the city walls. This was the essence of the citizenship that defined political participation in early modern Europe. Once men had the freedom, they could share its privileges with their wives and pass it on to their sons, and so inheritance of the right to trade became an important part of citizenship. Women, too, had the right to earn the freedom through apprenticeship: but they lost it on marriage, and could not pass it on to their daughters. The institution of marriage, for a woman,  was understood to operate as a fundamental obstacle to the freedoms of a qualified artisan; the same idea of the way marriage blocked careers could be seen two hundred and fifty years later in discussions at the London County Council over apprentice teachers.

Wenceslaus Hollar, A London Merchant's Wife (1643).   Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.

Wenceslaus Hollar, A London Merchant’s Wife (1643). Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.

So looking at women’s work historically involves partly discovering what they did – a mammoth task in itself, which women’s work is doing with the help of legal records. But it also means reconstructing the ideological constructs that defined labour, participation, and earning power – some of which have contributed to the edifice of gender that we are still living in today. 


For more information about Gender in Academia please read this Royal Historical Society report on Gender Equality and Historians in UK Higher Education.

A History Degree in Action: Hangmen: Re-Hanged and Live Cinema Conference 2016

Emily Brown (History student at KCL) reflects on how her degree and her interests have been brought together in the exciting new Live Cinema Conference.

As a history student, one is constantly reminded how the presentation of a strong argument is the key to a convincing piece of writing. Nonetheless, I would find it difficult to be persuaded by any claim that London is not a key epicentre of culture in Britain and that King’s College London, as a fulcrum of cultural research and innovation, is not the perfect setting for a performance which unites historical reality with theatrical fallacy. As part of the Live Cinema Conference hosted by King’s College, a multi-disciplinary performance has been devised to demonstrate the extraordinary ability of live performance, “event” cinema and “live” cinema to captivate an audience and provide a unique theatrical experience.

 Live Cinema Conference Image

Martin McDonagh’s first play in over ten years “Hangmen”, first performed during September 2015 at the Royal Court Theatre in West London, became part of the Live Cinema universe following its screening through National Theatre Live in March 2016.  The play opens in the year 1963, to the scene of a hanging, eerily paralleling the case of James Hanratty, one of the last people in Britain to be executed for murder, and defended in court by an alumni of King’s College London, Michael Sherrard. I was brought into the creative process as a researcher, working in collaboration with the writer, to excavate the historical context at the core of McDonough’s play. The process has been immensely stimulating and has ably demonstrated the applicability and utility of history in wider cultural contexts.

The performance aims to re-introduce the original play in a fresh context and through the process of research and writing, Hangmen: Re-hanged was formed. In order to provide a novel experience, it was imperative that the re-playing of the original text was grounded in historical accuracy. The predominant focus of my research was centred around particularly influential miscarriages of justice in the campaign to end capital punishment that ran through the twentieth century. Alongside better known protests and demonstrations against nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement,  protests against wrongly persecuted citizens were also gaining momentum.

Researching the lives of the wrongly executed and subsequently exonerated has brought home to me the moral difficulties and ethical dimensions of the histories we write. Although not included in the final script, the harrowing police statement of Derek Bentley, hanged in 1953 aged nineteen and finally pardoned for his murder conviction in 1998, who had suffered issues of mental health and was categorized with a mental age of ten when he was fifteen, was one of the incredible sources the research un-earthed. Reading the text and Bentley’s own words insisting ‘I did not have a gun’, which was partially written by policemen who coerced Bentley during his initial detainment, began to form part of the larger picture of the little appreciated anti-capital punishment feeling in England. Similarly, the story of the appalling trial of Mahmood Mattan, condemned from the outset by his own defense lawyer as ‘half-child of nature, a semi-civilized savage’ and discovering what lay beyond the doors of 10 Rillington Place, where four bodies were concealed within the floorboards, will always remain with me at a personal level beyond the mere facts and details of historical research.

Using the archives of King’s College London for the first time to uncover connections between the play’s narrative and King’s College, further rooting the production in a historically legitimate setting was an experience that taught me an enormous amount both as a student of history and a student of King’s. It was an indescribably satisfying experience to look back through hand-written minutes of copious Student Union meetings and leaf through the pages of Lucifer, the Student Review Magazine of the 1960s, to learn about the idealism and ambitions for change which permeate student life.

The beauty of a history degree is the diversity of possibilities it enables. As a student who previously studied for ten years at a school for the Performing Arts and currently presides as the Co-President for the university drama society, this opportunity provided the perfect amalgamation of my two passions: performance and history. Most students of history will have experienced the family dinners and meetings with strangers which nearly always result in the question ‘But how is history actually useful?’ If this experience has given me anything, it is an answer to that eternally frustrating, and short-sighted, inquiry.

Visit the Live Cinema Conference event page here.

The Pepys Estate Project and Film

A collaborative project about a south London estate with a rich history. Written by Dr Tim Livsey, Lecturer in Imperial & Commonwealth History KCL.

Watch the film

Together with the film maker James Price, I have been working on a research project about the extraordinary history of the Pepys Estate in Deptford, South London.

Pepys Estate

Pepys Estate map of the 1960s.


Our Pepys Estate Project was rooted in the observation that artists have often responded to history more arrestingly than historians. Unencumbered by the need for footnotes, contemporary artists including Gerhard Richter and Jeremy Deller have engaged with the past in visceral ways that academic historians struggle to parallel. The Pepys Estate Project was an experiment to explore an exceptionally freighted site by bringing together the methods of a historian with those of an artist and film maker.

Where the Pepys Estate now stands was the site of a Royal Navy yard originally established in the reign of Henry VIII. It was regularly visited by the diarist Samuel Pepys in the seventeenth century, whose concerns at Deptford included the threat of fire to the king’s ships and lusting after his subordinates’ wives. By the Victorian era the site was a major centre of navy victualling. A vast warren of warehouses stored the salt beef, ship’s biscuit, and rum that sustained British sailors.

Deptford Dockyard around 1800, by Joseph Farington.

Deptford Dockyard around 1800, by Joseph Farington.

As the navy got smaller in the 1960s, the site was deemed surplus to requirements and sold to the Greater London Council for housing. The warehouses still smelt powerfully of rum as they were converted into flats or demolished to make way for new buildings. An estate of around 1500 homes was constructed with a mix of medium rise blocks and three large towers, all linked by a network of raised concrete walkways to separate pedestrians from traffic. The Estate was formally opened in 1966.

By the 1980s, though, it was clear that the original vision of a harmonious working class community healthily housed in modernist buildings had gone badly awry. The Estate became associated with crime and poor maintenance. In the 1990s, the council demolished the concrete walkways and started to sell off council housing from the Estate to developers, particularly buildings with river views.

Our film, which is called Reading Pepys, offers an impressionistic take on this history. It combines footage of the Pepys Estate today with texts documenting different stages of its history, which are read by local residents. It is available to view online, and will be shown this summer as part of the celebrations marking fifty years of the Pepys Estate.

The project was funded by King’s College London Cultural Institute, and was a collaboration with Field Studies Ltd with additional help from the Pepys Community Library. Very many thanks to everyone involved.

Beyond the SS Empire Windrush: London’s Black History in the Archives

An invaluable London resource for reconsidering black British history, explored by Charlotte Taylor (KCL).

Earlier this year I, along with my fellow classmates on Dr Alana Harris’ module Society and Culture in Twentieth Century London, visited the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. Officially established in 1981, the archive hosts not only records from (mainly) the twentieth century, but it also operates as a ‘living archive’ actively taking in (or generating through oral history interviews) records every week. The historian Laura Miller describes archives as ‘cultural touchstones to the past’, and this statement holds particular resonance for this archive – without it, a significant proportion of black British history may well have been forgotten amongst the vast sources for white British history.

Amy Barbour-Jones, born 1906 in Acton, West London.

Amy Barbour-Jones, born 1906 in Acton, West London.

When considering black British history, the popular narrative marking the 1948 Windrush voyage from the Caribbean to England as the beginning of a collective and definitive black British presence in Britain seems to dominate. However, the records at the BCA provide resources for the scripting of a different narrative – for example, the original photo of Amy Barbour-Jones that we examined (alongside others of her mother) contradicts this typical chronology by demonstrating a young, black toddler in a photograph reminiscent of those we saw in our visit to the London Metropolitan Archives to view the Victorian London in Photographs exhibition. The Barbour-Jones family were a middle-class black family from Guyana who settled in London around 1904, whilst still conducting business abroad through imperial connections, and who increasingly became involved in black British affairs. For example, the pictured Amy went on to become Secretary of the League of Coloured Peoples in 1942, an organisation which aimed to promote racial equality and black achievements.

Excavating the stories of individuals such as Amy is incredibly important as it complicates seemingly settled histories: the Barbour-Jones family defy the typical assumptions of an early twentieth-century black British family both through their class and wealth, but also through their pre-1960s political engagement. This theme of activism fits perfectly into the ethos of the BCA itself – its origins lie in a grassroots movement to create and maintain a distinct Black British history. Throughout our exploration of other archival materials, we discovered rich resources for writing about black presence and activism in 20th century London, such as the black women’s movements of the 1970s, and collectives such as the Organisation of Women of Asian and African Descent (OWAAD).

Ban the Jab poster from OWAAD’s campaign against the Depo-Provera jab.

Ban the Jab poster from OWAAD’s campaign against the Depo-Provera jab.

OWAAD, the organisation set up by Stella Dadzie, was an organisation aiming to promote equality and protest specific issues for African and Asian women. One particularly prominent instance was their ‘Ban the Jab’ campaign in which they rallied against the testing of the Depo Provera contraceptive jab on African and Asian women.  Some examples included women being unwittingly given the jab immediately after giving birth, being too exhausted to properly give consent. OWAAD in their 1979 Conference highlighted the pressure placed on African and Asian women to take contraception, contrasting it to the reluctance that doctors had providing birth control to white women. Such targeted, racialist practise seems abhorrent (and almost inconceivable) now, but OWAAD also identified key issues that sadly remain all too relevant to today.  For example, the pressure on black women to meet beauty standards that equate whiteness with beauty, and the structural exclusion of black and Asian children from the best standard of education. When reading these original conference papers held within the archive, it seemed astounding to us all that issues so hotly debated in 2016 were already being aired back in 1979.

The Black Cultural Archive is an invaluable (and highly accessible) institution which is crucial to the development and maintenance of black British histories. Its records demonstrate the narrowness of many ‘British history’ narratives which neglect the importance and contribution of black British individuals and organisations as black history is often still relegated to the position of a recent, and sometimes contentious side note within the wider narrative. All of the records we examined on our fieldtrip explored themes we were familiar with from our module, however this visit complimented and complicated these perspectives through allowing us to interrogate fascinating primary sources – such as Stella Dadzie’s satirical feminist board game, Womanpoly, devised as a humorous consciousness-raising tool as well as a rallying call to action. Our immersion in primary source materials relating to Black Edwardians and Black (and Asian) feminists allowed us to ensure that race and ethnicity, alongside gender, class and locality, remain central in the histories we will write about 20th century London.