Professor Margot Finn (UCL) “Material Turns in British History III: Collecting: Colonial Bombay, Basra, Baghdad and the Enlightenment Museum”
RHS Presidential Address 6 December 2019
On 11 May, Prof. Lynn Abrams (Glasgow) presented an RHS lecture entitled ‘Pursuing autonomy: self-help and self fashioning amongst women in post-war Britain’. A podcast of Prof. Abrams’ lecture is available here, and her abstract is available below.
The 1960s has been dubbed the ‘do-it-yourself decade’. This was the era when the women of the so-called ‘transition generation’ began to discover the gap between their expectations and the realities of their lives and in most cases took it upon themselves to fill that gap with autonomous activity rather than looking to existing organisations or the state to act on their behalf. This lecture examines the place of do-it-yourself women’s organisations – the National Housewives’ Register, National Childbirth Trust and Pre-School Playgroups Association – in the emerging history of postwar womanhood in the United Kingdom and seeks to rescue them from the condescension of those who have regarded them as not being sufficiently critical of gender relations and thus not part of the postwar feminist narrative. I argue that these organisations which emerged at a grass roots level from women’s dissatisfaction and frustration, came to offer thousands the opportunity for self-development, self confidence and independence.
On 9 February, Prof. Diana Paton delivered an RHS lecture entitled ’Mary Williamson’s Letter, or: Seeing Women & Sisters in the Archives of Atlantic Slavery’. You can watch the lecture and read Prof. Paton’s abstract below.
“I was a few years back a slave on your property of Houton Tower, and as a Brown woman was fancied by a Mr Tumoning unto who Mr Thomas James sold me.” Thus begins Mary Williamson’s letter, which for decades sat unexamined in an attic in Scotland until a history student became interested in her family’s papers, and showed it to Diana Paton. In this lecture, Paton will use the letter to reflect on the history and historiography of ‘Brown’ women like Mary Williamson in Jamaica and other Atlantic slave societies. Mary Williamson’s letter offers a rare perspective on the sexual encounters between white men and Brown women that were pervasive in Atlantic slave societies. Yet its primary focus is on the greater importance of ties of place and family—particularly of relations between sisters—in a context in which the ‘severity’ of slavery was increasing. Mary Williamson’s letter is a single and thus-far not formally archived trace in a broader archive of Atlantic slavery dominated by material left by slaveholders and government officials. Paton asks what the possibilities and limits of such a document may be for generating knowledge about the lives and experiences of those who were born into slavery.
(Image used with the kind permission of Nicholas James)
On 24 November, RHS President Margot Finn presented her first annual Presidential address, discussing the subject of ‘Loot’ in her series on ‘Material Turns in Modern British History’. You can watch the lecture, and read Prof. Finn’s abstract below.
The first of four annual addresses deploying methodological approaches associated with the ‘material turn’, this lecture focuses on the relationship between imperial warfare, on the one hand, and the writing of History in modern Britain, on the other. It does so by tracing the entangled histories of booty, plunder and prize in the Third Anglo-Maratha or Pindari campaigns of c. 1817-1819, and by examining the material afterlives of Indian loot in late Georgian and Victorian Britain. Not least among the consequences of military men’s efforts to regulate (and profit from) the vibrant indigenous and imperial plunder regimes of the East India Company era was an efflorescence of historical research conducted on the subcontinent under the Company’s aegis. Co-produced with Indian scribal and princely elites, the historical writing that flourished in the Pindari War and its aftermath was caught up in and fostered by wider processes of material exchange that saw plundered jewels, weaponry, textiles and manuscripts fuel , rationalize and reward both Indian and British combatants. The history-writing of these campaigns differed sharply from the Whig verities which were to dominate later Victorian historiography. But these earlier and later varieties of historical interpretation are viscerally related—most notably in the biography and the material possessions of the Royal Historical Society’s fourth President (1891-1899), Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff. On the eve of the Society’s 150th anniversary, it is timely to render more visible History’s connection—by blood, capital, and the spoils of war—to earlier practices of archiving, researching and writing the past born on the battlefield.
On 22 September, Prof. Chris Marsh (Queen’s University, Belfast) delivered an RHS lecture entitled “The Woman to the Plow and the Man to the Hen-Roost”: Wives, Husbands, & Best-Selling Ballads in Seventeenth-Century England. Prof. Marsh’s lecture included musical performances by himself and the singer Vivien Ellis. You can watch the lecture and read the abstract below.
This lecture grows out of a research project that aims to identify 100 hit songs from seventeenth-century England. Two historians are working with a group of musicians to produce new recordings of the period’s most successful broadside ballads (single-sheet songs that were sung and sold on the streets), and the results will eventually appear on a website. Today, we will concentrate on ballads about marital relations, and the importance of these sources for our understandings of early modern culture and society will be assessed. The talk will feature murder, adultery and monstrosity, though it will also be suggested that a tendency to concentrate on the exotic and extreme in early-modern balladry needs to be held in check. Some of the ballads will be performed live by the singer, Vivien Ellis.
Professor Simon Dixon (UCL) presented this year’s Prothero Lecture, ‘Orthodoxy & Revolution: The restoration of the Russian patriarchate in 1917’ at University College London on 7 July. You can watch the lecture, and read Professor Dixon’s abstract below.
At the height of the October Revolution in Moscow – a much bloodier affair than the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd – the Orthodox Church installed Tikhon (Bellavin) as Russia’s first patriarch since 1700. At the most obvious level, this was a counter-revolutionary gesture aimed at securing firm leadership in a time of troubles. It was nevertheless a controversial move. Ecclesiastical liberals regarded a restored patriarchate as a neo-papal threat to the conciliarist regime they hoped to foster; and since Nicholas II had explicitly modelled himself on the Muscovite tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, the potential for renewed conflict between church and state was clear long before 1917. This lecture will emphasise the extent to which a single individual haunted the whole debate. For, until the last moment, it was widely assumed that the new patriarch would be not the little-known Tikhon, but Archbishop Antonii (Khrapovitskii) [pictured above], whose attempts to model himself on Patriarch Nikon – the most divisive of seventeenth-century patriarchs – helped to make him the most controversial prelate of the age.
Ordinariness was a frequently deployed category in the political debates of 2016. Brexit was, according to one political leader, ‘a victory for ordinary, decent people who’ve taken on the establishment and won’. In this lecture I want to historicise recent use of the category by returning to another moment when ordinariness held deep political significance: the years immediately following the Second World War. I explore the range of values, styles, and specific behaviours that gave meaning to the claim to be ordinary; consider the relationship between ordinariness, everyday experience and knowledge; and map the political work ordinariness was called upon to perform. I conclude with some thoughts about how historians use the category today.
Prof. Claire Langhamer is Professor of Modern British History at the University of Sussex