Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Historical memorialisation in 2020


This August is the 80th Anniversary of the start of the London Blitz. We will no doubt see a mass of stories about brave besieged Britain, standing alone against the might of Nazi Germany. For historians who believe that historical events and commemorations should be more nuanced and the hidden aspects of the mainstream story need to be highlighted, the year gives an opportunity to develop a more balanced view. 


History Press has commissioned Stephen Bourne to write Under Fire: Black Britain in Wartime 1939-1945 which will combine his the two earlier books Mother Country (2010) & The Motherland Calls (2012) into one covering the Home Front & armed services with new additional stories and photos. The aim is to publish it in August for the 80th anniversary.
Inspired by the Gay Liberation Front in the United States and the Stonewall riots in the United States the UK GLF held its  first meeting at the London School of Economics on 13 October 1970. December 1970 saw the start of the Mangrove Nine trial, following clashes between the police and sections of  the black community in Notting Hill.


2020 provides many opportunities to look at past historical events and their significance today.

Leaving aside the Russian Revolution and Civil War in which Britain intervened, 1920 sees the start of the League of Nations, in which Labour’s Arthur Henderson played a key role. In America the clamp down and mass arrests  of socialists and communists began leading to the formation of the American Civil Liberties Union. In Germany Adolph Hitler published his programme and set up the Nazi Party. Britain troops occupied Constantinople. Jerusalem saw riots between Jews and Arabs. In October thousands of unemployed demonstrated in London. During the Irish Civil War British troops burnt down the centre of Cork. Partition in North and South  was approved by Parliament. In July  the London County Council banned foreigners from almost all council jobs. The Communist Party of Great Britain was  formed on 1 August. Among a number of women’s equality initiatives  in October  the first one hundred women were admitted to study for full degrees at Oxford, and a number of former students were retrospectively awarded degrees. October saw a strike by the miners with a state of emergency agreed by Parliament, the strike ending on 3 November. Culturally November  saw the first complete public performance of Holst’s The Planets and William Owen’s Poems were published.

Potential historic commemorations with particular relevance to debates in Britain today, include:  

·       the South Sea Bubble financial scandal in 1720 which reminds us that the Government of the day fined the Directors of the South Sea Company, rather than pumping last sums of money into the financial system as was done by George Brown;
·       the Scottish affirmation of independence in the Declaration of Arbroath in April 1320;
·       the  nationalisation of the private telegraph companies by the creation of the General Post Office on 28 January 1870.

Many labour and women’s historians in particular will want to focus on the Cato Street Conspiracy (resulting from the failure of the Government to take action against the perpetrators of the Peterloo Massacre and the passing of the six repressive Acts against popular action, and after the accession of George IV as King),  the Scottish Radical War and the Queen Caroline Affair in 1820, and from 1870 the passage of the Elementary Education Act creating the School Board system on which women were eligible to stand and vote,  and of the Married Women’s Property Act confirming that wives may own property of their own.

The Challenge of Reaching Out to Wider Audiences

The challenge is how to reach a much wider audience people to influence the way they think about British historical development and what that means for politics today. After all there is no such thing as historical objectivity; things are shaped by the aims and objects, the values and principles people hold and the strategies and tactics they use, and the conflicts between individuals and between and within collective groups, partially influenced by the way in which each individuals brain is wired.

Just as we make history through these processes so we also use history in the controversies  of the present day.

In the General Election the Conservatives survived the Windrush Generation scandal, got away with continuing to blame Labour for austerity, and with the help of the media and sections of the Labour Party discredited the Labour Leader for his past political stands on issues such as Northern Ireland and  Palestine. They got away with presenting itself as patriotically One Nation while stoking up the likelihood of the United Kingdom breaking up. Sections of the Labour Party are trying to give their view of recent history to hide their failure to understand what was happening in the Red Wall constituencies, and their role in undermining their Leader.

North East Labour History Society’s First Tuesday talks for the first four months of 2020 all have relevance to the politics of today. (https://seancreighton1947.wordpress.com/2020/01/15/north-east-labour-history-society-talks-february-april

Labour movement historians reach small audiences, and we have no idea whether increasing people’s knowledge and understanding changes the way people think. This is not to denigrate the efforts of groups like Labour Heritage, the Socialist History Society, the North East and North West Labour History Societies and other local groups and individuals.

We need to find ways of reaching out to more people. Sometimes a lot can be achieved as when John Charlton spoke to thousands across the North East on slavery and abolition between 2007 and 2010. But what we do not know is what lasting influence this had on his audiences.

Even if one looks at social groups like students we have to understand that at any University they mostly come from elsewhere. They have no knowledge or understanding of the town or city they are based in. This hit me when I was doing the walk, archive session and talk during last year’s Durham’s Black History Month. How does one build student/community joint action except on  occasional national issues. I am reminded of my own student days (Sheffield 1966-69) when I considered it more important to be politically active on student affairs and did not engage in political activity in the City. While I did have a general overview of the historical development and nature of the City this was only because I had read the British Association for the Advancement of Science volume on Sheffield published for its Conference there in 1956.

Perhaps Universities put compulsory modules for new students on the history of the town/city and region where they are based.  

The Right to Strike - the challenge of history in the coming months



The new Conservative Government’s intention to limit the right to strike will see them on the ideological offensive to discredit Labour and the trade union movement, and to confuse large swathes of the electorate who are not or have not been trade union members in the past.

Strikes have a very negative image with the public, like the  current one between RMT and South Western Trains in London, causing immense disruption to people's daily lives, getting to and from work, and making journeys on alternative routes even more difficult and stressful. Older people still have memories of the Winter of Discontent and the Tories will re-run all that. They will no doubt run the theme that the General Strike was an unpatriotic challenge to Government. They may even point to the violence that often takes place in French strikes as another good reason for BREXIT.

The coming attack on the trade union movement is a reminder that that is what the Conservative Government did from its election victory 50 years ago in June 1970. It is ironic of course that that victory gave Prime Minister Edward Heath the mandate to start negotiations to join the Common Market (now EU) which took effect in 1973. That July saw the Dock Strike with the Government declaring a state of emergency. C47,000 dockers struck for a pay rise of £11 per week. After a court of inquiry a settlement was reached with  an average 7% increase in pay. Heath’s Government went on to reduce trade union rights and the trial of the Shrewsbury 24. It is worth re-reading Paul Mason’s 2015 article on the trial: www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/07/shrewsbury-trials-1970s-trade-unionists-ricky-tomlinson-edward-heath

In 1970 trade union membership stood at 50% of the workforce. According to the National Statistics by 2018 it had more than halved to 23.4% (52.5% public sector; 13.2%  private sector).

The Labour Party and the trade union movement are ill equipped to counter the Conservative propaganda. This is partly because the Party abandoned years ago any serious political education about its history and its historic link with the trade unions, and because of the small number of its members who are trade unionists.

Younger members work experience is not in TU organised employment. A growing section of the population does not understand what trade unions are and what their purpose is. They seem like dinosaurs.

Simply arguing the case for the Right to Strike is not enough. Any campaign has to be founded on the positive case for trade unions, what they have achieved, and a recognition that the right to strike is a last resort, and that the negative aspects of striking, includes the adverse effects on strikers, their families and communities. It is thought that the striking  dockers in 1970 lost £4m in wages. This approach needs to be supported by public information about the positive outcomes of many strikes. e.g. the Match Women's Strike and New Unionism, Grunwick and Dagenham.

Preparing for the arguments inside and outside of Parliament should link to the policy position of the International Labour Office, as discussed in the book: ILO Principles Concerning the Right to Strike by Bernard Gernigon, Alberto Odero and Horacio Guido (ILO. 2000) which can be seen on Google Books, and also the discussion on the ILO’s website: www.ilo.org/actrav/WCMS_245669/lang--en/index.htm

Leslie John Macfarlane made a strong case in his book The Right to Strike (Penguin 1981) which should perhaps be re-printed or updated. The TUC needs to update its 2015 document www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/Activist's%20Guide%20to%20the%20Bill.pdf
Local trade union movements are incapable of reaching large numbers of people. The key challenge is how do they reach into the general population to influence their thinking and counter the propoganda that the Tories will put out? Perhaps a key problem is that most trade unionism is workplace based. Perhaps a shift to community based trade unionism needs to be seriously examined, and supported by work based unions.

In the coming fight between Conservative and Labour and within Labour the myths that Britain was in decline in the 1970s because of Labour and the left will be high on the agenda. The Conservatives role under Edward Heath between 1970 and 1974 will be airbrushed away. John Medhurst’s 2014 article The Myth of the 1970s is an essential read.

The trade union version of events can be read at http://www.unionhistory.info/timeline/1960_2000_3.php and the pages that follow.

Saturday, 23 November 2019

Labour's solution to universal broadband access


The  Labour Party has come under critical attack for its proposal to take over part of BT and deliver nationwide free broadband access.

‘Digital and technological advancements bring challenges, but also huge opportunities. In the age of AI and automation, digital connectivity will underpin our future economy. We will need world-class digital infrastructure in which everyone can share.
Labour will deliver free full-fibre broadband to all by 2030.

We will establish British Broadband, with two arms: British Digital Infrastructure (BDI) and the British Broadband Service (BBS). We will bring the broadband-relevant parts of BT into public ownership, with a jobs guarantee for all workers in existing broadband infrastructure and retail broadband work.’


Given that Issues about universal access to telephony and then internet have been with us for over 35 years. Labour's proposed policy makes absolute sense. 

Labour and Cable 1983

Cable and satellite TV were expanding at the time the Labour Party issued its Programme in 1983. It discussed concerns about the how technological developments  ‘pose urgent new problems  for broadcasting policy.’  It opposed Pay TV because ‘we believe that all citizens should receive an equal service regardless of wealth and geographical location. The satisfaction of a wide audience must take priority over the public service broadcasting time than to the introduction of new and competing cable TV.  We will re-establish public control of any national cable system .’ 

Cable was being developed on the basis of local franchises, which then either failed or were taken over by Virgin which became a cable monopoly.

Local authorities in mid-1990s

By the mid-1990s there were still problems with basic telephony access, especially for low income groups. In  work on local authority economic development I was arguing that Councils should include telephone provision in estate and neighbourhood action projects which have a community safety and crime prevention dimension; negotiate utility funding towards local authority telephone provision initiatives.; discuss with local cable companies ways in which they could wire up estates with low telephone ownership, and offer  its customers a free call facility into the  authority's office; and  Install telephones as part of entry-call systems. Ironically over 20 years  and in the new world of mobile phones and broadband Croydon Council has been providing broadband access into its estates.

Access to Bandwidth 1999

The issue of broadband access has been on the agenda for over 20 years. When I was Secretary of the Public Utilities Access Forum it was discussed as part of what Universal Services Obligations should operate in telecoms in a consultation by the then regulator (Oftel) Access to Bandwidth: Proposals for Action.
PUAF submitted the following comments:

      Government Policy. The Government needs to decide how it can achieve its goal of wanting the UK to be at the front edge of the Information Society. If the Government wants broadband to be available to all then it can choose amongst other options to wait for market roll-out to reach say 95% and then require BT under USO to provide the remaining 5%, or have a contractual roll-out (like cable).

      Internet Growth. Internet penetration could be large, but at present in terms of the standard penetration for domestic goods and services such as appliances the Internet is at the bottom of the list. If Internet is to be part of USO then the small % of the population currently subscribing to it will be expected to subsidise the large % who are not.

      Internet Access Providers. BT and Kingston Communications are not the only potential providers of Internet USO, cable could be expected to be providers as well. If provision is limited to BT and Kingston it could be a significant distortion of competition.

      E-Commerce Growth. If the Government wants to have 25% of transactions
electronically undertaken by 2002 then it needs to have the infrastructure. It needs to define what the basic level of service for Internet needs to be.

      Free Access. Internet service has universal flat rate access, and free access is being developed. Dixons free Internet access offer did more to stimulate competition and Internet access.  It came from nowhere. It provides a product meeting needs. But Dixons could withdraw the free access later.

      Timing of USO Internet. Is it appropriate to make it an obligation to provide Internet access in the next few years? Some take the view that it will be entirely inappropriate, but that in 20 years time the arguments for and against will be different if a small % of the population remain excluded from the service.

      How Important Will Internet Be? Is the Internet just another add on? Is there enough evidence to suggest that it is becoming fundamental as a means of information communication? Will people be denied access to jobs in the next century if universal Internet access is not provided? What are the benefits and disbenefits of Internet?

      Public Access. Is access through public places the parallel of public telephone boxes 50 years ago? If there is a strong economic benefit to the country for public access, it can be argued that the Government should pay for access in public facilities. Public access can be regarded as a substitute to access in the home. Schools and libraries are bridging points for access. Primary schools could be the basis for city based provision. Internet provision is fast being put in place in schools. e.g. as a result of the National Grid for Learning scheme. However there are problems. In some schools there are only telephone lines in the Head Teacher or School Administrative Officer's offices. There are financial aspects to whether there can be access. e.g. the cost of terminals, the cost of phone calls.

      Digital TV. Digital TV boxes enabling interactive TV will enable viewers to browse the web. While Internet access will be available through TVs they will have to be plugged into a telephone line. Once the analogue signal is switched off (10-15 years), the population will have access through digital TV; only a minority will have it through a PC. There is a serious problem with regard to use of digital TV for Internet use. It is possible that households will need two TVs. Should everyone be given digital TV access? What other technologies might come along that will enable Internet access?

Communications Workers Views

The joint response to Oftel by the Communications Workers Union (CWU) and the Society of Telecom Executives (STE) contained the following key points.


      While there is no proven evidence of unmet demand, it is important to develop the country's communications capability to ensure the UK's competitive edge in the world market.
      Development of a successful technology to deliver higher broadband access to all consumers will be crucial to the UK's success to the information society.
      Investment in the full range of technological solutions to deliver broadband access is essential if the UK is to avoid misjudging the market.
      BT's roll out of ADSL technology is a very significant development which fundamentally transforms the provision of broadband access.

Consumer Views in the USA

In 1999 USA  Consumer Action and the Consumer Federation of America (CFA) argued that open access to the high‑speed "broadband" Internet ‘is essential to preserve the Internet as a vibrant medium for communications and commerce.’ ‘The effort to impose private regulation on the Internet in the form of exclusive, discriminatory access is a dagger pointed at the heart of the Internet, which has thrived by allowing all content providers to have equal access to the wires that connect people to the network.’

Their report Transforming the Information Highway into a  Private Toll Road, explained the harm to consumers inherent in efforts to close the on‑ramps to the nation's information superhighway, including:
      preventing competition for cable TV programming; 
      reducing competition for broadband Internet services;
      abusive pricing and bundling of cable TV and Internet services;
      restriction of universal service.

AT&T Monopoly

"AT&T has set out to amass a monopoly over U.S. cable TV systems and to  extend the cable TV business model to the Internet," said Dr. Mark Cooper,  CFA's Director of Research, and principal author of the study.  "That model includes price increases over three times the rate of inflation, denial of consumer choice through forced bundling of programming, and restriction of  innovation through preferential treatment of affiliated programming."  

The report notes that local cable TV franchising authorities in Portland,  Oregon, and Broward County, Florida, had ordered non-discriminatory access to the cable network as a condition of the  transfer of cable TV licenses to AT&T, and that scores of others currently are taking up the issue.

      "The local governments that have been insisting on open access have stepped  up to defend consumer interests by filling a void left by federal regulators," McEldowney says "Congress and federal regulators have been promising the American people for years that competition will break the monopoly power of cable TV and local telephone companies ‑ and they have been wrong."

      "Our report shows that the Federal Communications Commission has erred again, by not imposing an open access requirement, especially with one company dominating so much of the infrastructure and programming for both cable TV and broadband Internet service."

The report detailed the technological and economic  mechanisms that already are being used to restrict competition in a closed, discriminatory cable network.
  • To maintain a vibrant Internet, ISP access to consumers must be open and non‑discriminatory, regardless of whether the connection is made via a cable or telephone company's network.

      Consumers and the country cannot afford the development of private networks for broadband Internet service.

      A small number of private networks will not provide adequate competition to prevent the abuse of economic power in the commercial market, or to ensure the free flow of information in the marketplace of political ideas.
  






Saturday, 10 August 2019

The Dark Side of the Enlightenment Part 2: Politics, Freemasonry, Music, Women & Digital Humanities


Part 2 continues my review of the International Society for 18thC Studies Congress in Edinburgh in July. 

Radical and Loyalist Politics

There were panels dealing with economic and political issues, such as Relative Liberties, Political Trails in Britain and France in the 1790s, The French Revolution from Afar (inc. London anti-reflationary press), Providing for the Poor, Scotland and the American Revolution, Jacobite Material Culture, Popular Politics and Radicalism, Queen Charlotte in British Caraciactture 1785-1798, and the identity problem of British Radical Expatriates in France. The one on The Force of the State 1789-1819 had Joe Cozens talk about the Dragoon State and riot control in Britain,  Amanda Goodrich on Henry Redhead Yorke, the mixed race revolutionary in Sheffield, and Robert Poole on military intervention at Peterloo. In the discussion I drew attention to the need for local studies of the reaction to and impact of the Massacre and the repressive laws that followed. (Note 5)

The John Thelwall Society organised two panels. There was one on Scottish Clubs and Societies which included a paper on friendly societies. More general panels had papers on forging a transnational radical identify, Mary Wollstonecraft, the limits of Scottish Protestant unity, Presbyterian politics, political songs in  18thC Netherlands, reason and the claim for equal political liberty, the French revolution’s politics of time, the Society for The Suppression of Vice in Lodon 1800-1825, Burke’s use of history after The Reflections juvenile patriotism and identity in Revolutionary France, revolutionary education in Milan, and Professor Penelope Corfield on the urban/commercial/radical handshake.

I was unable to go to the panel on political participation in 18thC England at which Matthew Grenby (Newcastle) spoke on election ballads in Newcastle, and Edmund Green ((independent scholar) on electoral participation across Metropolitan London 1700-1832. (Note 6)

Freemasonry

This was another cross cutting theme. A panel on assembly, association and sociability had a paper on the Masonic Stage, In the Slavery and Identity panel Susan Snell (the English Grand Lodge’s archivist) spoke on black freemasons, and I talked about Loveless Overton, a Bajan soldier and freemason, the non-foot noted text of which is now on the North East Popular Politics Project database which I edit: ppp.nelh.net.

Music

There was a fascinating panel on song, with papers on William Shield, the Tyneside and Court composer, who turns out to have been a radical and a freemason. The  annual William Shield Festival on Tyneside takes place later this year. Amelie Addison (Leeds Uni) who gave the talk will be speaking at it. Joseph Darby (Keen State College, USA) spoke about subscription based Scottish music publishing. Kirsteen McCue (Glasgow) spoke about the Romantic National Song Network project on national songs published across the British Isles during the period 1750-1850: https://rnsn.glasgow.ac.uk. The site includes a posting by Amelie about Shield: https://rnsn.glasgow.ac.uk/?s=Newcastle
Reference was made to Durham’s musician and music teacher Simon Fleming’s project on subscribers to music. So far he has been able to publish Gender of Subscribers to Eighteenth-Century Music Publications, which can be seen at https://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/Qm6rMAJunEQ43hgDiHuQ/full?target=10.1080/14723808.2019.1570752. He writes: ‘One of the most important and valuable resources available to researchers of eighteenth-century social history are the lists of subscribers that were attached to a wide variety of publications. Yet, the study of this type of resource remains one of the areas most neglected by academics. These lists shed considerable light on the nature of those who subscribed to music, including their social status, place of employment, residence, and musical interests. They naturally also provide details as to the gender of individual subscribers.’

For some time I have been drawing attention to the use of subscribers’ lists in other forms of publishing and in a range of organisations lists of paid up members and donors, examples of which are on the North East Popular Politics database. This links back to Joe’s talk on the Dragoon State with the List of Subscribers to the Fund, for the Relief of the Widows, Wives, and Children of Killed and Wounded British Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines in the Expedition to Holland in 1799 ... Together with an abstract of the regulations ... for the management of that fund (1808) (on Google Books), which I have come across since the Congress,  the subscribers including the Ayrshire Fencibles when Loveless Overton was with them.

Women

There were panels on Aphra Behn, Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen and Women’s Artists as well as on a wide range of women’s literature, artists, and writers, and other panels inc. papers on women in business, cross dressing,  and Ann Lister (in panels on The Cries of Queen Identities and Homo- and Heterosexual Identities). (Note 7)

Digital Humanities
Issues relating to digital humanities have been a growing topic of discussion at the Annual British Conference. They were an important feature of the ISCECS Congress. There were sessions on the issues,  one on getting started and some on specific projects such as the Sterne Digital Library, Scottish case law, and the Georgian papers in the Royal Archives at Windsor. Although Andrew Prescott (Prof of DH, Glasgow), was at the Congress, he gave a talk on freemasonry having previously been the Director of the Centre for Research into Freemasonry at Sheffield University. (Note 8)

The Scale of the Congress

The 1,600 delegates included large contingents from North America and across Europe but also many from China, India (where a Society has recently been set up), Japan and Korea. The organisation of the Congress was highly complex with 477 panels and roundtable discussions spread across several University buildings, plus plenary sessions and evening events including receptions, a concert, a quiz and a Ceilidh. The organisation committee did a fantastic job, supported throughout the week by a group of student volunteers and the University’s Edinburgh First team.

The Costs

The Congress was expensive, so a lot of students were able to be there thanks to a large bursary fund, plus some academics without alternative funding. The Congress and the BSECS Annual Conference remain costly for independent historians who have no funding support mechanisms they can apply to. It is to be hoped that a bursary could be set up, especially for those who want to give a paper. (Note 9)

What Next?

It is to be hoped that many of the issues discussed will continue to be debated between participants, especially the dialogue started at the BAME round-table. One method will be through essays based on talks in a proposed special issue of journal of the British Society. The January annual conference of the British Society will enable further discussion, particularly in relation to issues relating to nature and the change of environments as a result of industrialisation, the re-shaping of country estates, new forms of transport and enclosures, but particularly the exhaustion of soils on the West Indian islands as a result of sugar mono-culture. The next Congress in 2023 will be in Rome.

Notes

(5)    See for example John Charlton’s The Wind from Peterloo. 1819 - Newcastle’s great reform demonstration, which I published last year under my History & Social Action Publications imprint. I have also published The Importance of the Peterloo Massacre of 1819: A personal discussion triggered by Mike Leigh’s film and a Long 18thC Seminar. I will be giving a talk on Croydon’s Peterloo links for the Croydon Natural History & Scientific Society in November. Joe and Katrina are reaching a wider public audience through their articles on Peterloo in the August issue of History Today.


(6)    The North East Labour History Society’s North East Popular Politics Project database which I edit contains a great deal of information about electoral politics in the long 18thC in the North East: ppp.nelh.net. The electoral politics project to be co-ordinated by Matthew Grenby received its funding approval two weeks before the Conference. The detailed brief about it is awaited.

(7) Since the Congress I have come across the report from Bath about a colleague of Loveless Overton, Sarah Penelope Stanley, who was discharged from the Ayreshire Fecibles following her sex being discovered after being kicked by her horse. The Bath Mayor funded her return back to the City. (The Lady’s Magazine. September 1799. p. 428)

(8)    What happened to the digital archive Andrew set up is a cautionary tale. Years after he left the English Grand Lodge ceased funding the Centre. This was particularly galling for me as a graduate member of the Sheffield University Court of Governors I had successfully lobbied for Chinese walls between the Centre and the Grand Lodge. Some time after the Centre was closed the University took the digital resource off the internet. Interestingly the joint paper that Andrew and I wrote as an introduction to black freemasonry was put up on a Lodge website in the United States at:
A collection of Andrew’s papers have been posted on http://www.themasonictrowel.com/ebooks/freemasonry/eb0067.pdfFollowing a workshop on DH issues Andrew organised last year I discussed some of the issues in two blog postings at:

(9)    Another cost facing students is that of the books they should be reading on the 18thC. A good source is Postscript Books of remainder books at knockdown prices. Its August catalogue includes books on the British Museum in the Enlightenment, the Castlereagh/Canning duel, Carline of Ansbach, Jane Austen's notebooks,  Whatley on gardening, Gainsborough, Canaletto and Hogarth, Krystyn Lach-Szyrma, Sir John Pringle, Arago’s voyage round the world, William Buchan and medical advice, Regency women, and British ceramics, as well as military books on the French Wars. www.psbooks.co.uk

The Dark Side of the Enlightenment Part 1 - Colonisation, Slavery and Black History



Referring to the massacre of indigenous people in the Iberian American colonies and the impoverishment of the masses in Spain and Portugal as a result of colonisation Voltaire argued that therefore ‘no one has won’.

Colonialism and slavery were central themes at the International Society for 18th Century Studies held in Edinburgh from 14 to 19 July.  Voltaire’s views were discussed in the closing plenary session on Enlightenment Legacies by Maria das Gracas de Souza of the University of Sao Paolo.

Indigenous peoples and uneven development

Voltaire believed that Europeans were more advanced peoples, and regarded the power of reasoning and understanding of indigenous people’s as not being well developed. The development of science and the arts in Europe had divided people into the ‘enlightened’ and the ‘underdeveloped’, although progress was uneven and not inevitable.

This mix of superiority and pre-‘Marxist’ uneven development theory is interesting at a time when Western Europe’s economy depended on the exploitation of indigenous people, including the enslaved Africans forcibly transported to the Americas. They produced the wealth that afforded the elite, the ‘middle classes’ and the intellectuals to develop the Enlightenment in all its facets. It was 400 years ago that the use of enslaved Affricans by the English began in Virginia. (Note 1) One of the dark aspects of the Enlightenment classification system was the beginning of racial hierarchy developed by Carl Linnaeus, with Africans as the lowest form of human beings, giving pro-slavery advocates justification for it.

It can be argued that the ‘good/light’ side of the Enlightenment in history studies until recently has masked the ‘evil/dark’ side of its colonial economies, ethnic cleansing, brutal treatment of the enslaved and impoverishment of European workers and peasants.
A different perspective on the Enlightenment comes from North, Central and South American and Caribbean historians. They help to challenge those who inhabit the ‘good/light’ Enlightenment comfort zone. The growing evidence of the depth of Scottish involvement in the slavery business is a challenge to those involved in studying the Scottish Enlightenment, given even much respected authors like Thomas Smollett had links with the business.

Colonialism, African Slavery and the Black Presence

The ISCECS programme had panels of talks and roundtables  on Writing Black Atlantic Lives, Caribbean Connections, Jamaica Connections, Colonial Space – Colonial Power (4), Reckoning with Scotland’s Slavery Connections, Fashioning Slavery, Scots, Empire and Identity, 18thC Constructions of Race, Black British Writers, Colonial Encounters, Slavery & Identity (2), and Researching, Writing and Teaching Black and Minority Ethnic Identities: Where are We now? (at University level). There were also individual papers in other panels inc. on Mary Prince, two black female slaves in Buenos Aires 1764-1773, Black British Women in 18th Portraiture, and concepts of culture and race. One of the German Slavery Identities panels had three papers on black people and non-Europeans.

BAME Academics

In the BAME session Amanda Goodrich (Open University) mentioned the fact that British history BAME academics are now overburdened with requests to attend conferences/workshops etc to talk about diversity and that bursaries are needed to cover their attendance.  She also mentioned that not all BAME academics want to be automatically identified with BAME history and expected to research or teach it and some feel overburdened by this expectation.  They want to choose their area of history. She mentioned the growing issues of  ‘whose history is it’, and whether there should be ‘black history’ and what that means. She  also raised questions about how we research and write BAME history and the difficulties that might arise in the process. 

Margot Finn (UCL) summarised the Royal Historical Society’s Race, Ethnicity & Equality Working Group report identifying barriers to equality and diversity in the discipline of history, seeking to achieve on positive change in the environments in which historians of colour in the UK work, and enhancing the wider practice and discipline of History by increasing the presence of racial and ethnic minorities in university: https://royalhistsoc.org/policy/race. Regulus  Allen (Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo) explained her experience teaching in the United States and the work she was undertaking to develop good practice. Srividhya Swaminathan (Long Island University) ) discussed the dangers of ‘ghettoisation’ and the artificial construct of ‘whiteness.’ Ryan Hanley (Bristol) reviewed the development of British Black History studies and publishing and the leading role of non-academics. Several of us at the panel have been involved in such discussions for a long time through the Black History networks and at BSCECS Annual Conferences. (Note 2)

Britain and Suriname

The third paper by Hilde Neus (Anton de Kom University of Suriname) was about 72 coloured women who attempted a court case against the civil guards in 1779. It is a reminder that England and the Britain had direct dealings with Suriname in the 17thC (e.g. colonial control and Aphra Behn), and colonial rule for the Dutch in the French Wars. It was also the subject of Stedman’s book illustrated by William Blake, There will also have been trade links directly between Britain and Suriname and via the Dutch ports given so many merchants trading links. It is possible that most users of the UCL based Legacies of British Slave-ownership database will not realise that if they put into the search box for notes, 72 individuals are listed with Suriname links, including the Austin family, the Scots born James Balfour, John Bent who also owned land in Sussex, the Scots MP James Blair, Colin Campbell of Glasgow and Rotterdam, including those who received British West Indies compensation, and some who became slave owners in Suriname after emancipation in the British West Indies. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs. The Legacies project has helped to revolutionise our understanding of Britain in the long-18thC. (Note 3)

The relationship between academic and non-academic historians

The discussion at the BAME roundtable allowed me to classify two groups of academics: those who value the contribution by non-academics (several of whom were present), and those who do not.   I challenged those academics, whose books weave theories and conclusions on thin evidence, who consider non-academics as not being academically rigorous. I was also critical of large funded research projects which seek to involve non-academic historians and volunteers but do not have enough money in budgets to meet expenses and pay people. (Note 4)

(1)    The purchase of 20 Africans at Jamestown, Virginia during 1619 occurred weeks before the first meeting of the Virginia House of Assembly. The 400th anniversary of the simultaneous beginnings of slavery and democracy in British North America, and the continuing dilemma of democracy and race, provide a context to discuss the experiences of Africans brought here to labor under a brutal system of slavery. This panel examines the history and nature of this first landing of Africans in America, as well as legacies down to our own time. What was the meaning of liberty and community for 17th Century Americans? What does it mean to be American for their descendants and fellow minorities? What resonance do these issues have as the United States faces a Presidential election threatening to become the most racist appeal to voters in living memory?’ Two years later Anthony Johnson was brought to Virginia, but by the mid-century was a slave owner himself .  (Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance & Abolition enewsletter 29 July 2019)


(2)    See my blog postings:

 (3)   The Legacies success rested on the retiring Director Nick Draper, a former banker, whose PhD study opened up the compensation records, and whose academic rigour has been first class. The team’s collaboration with community, family, independent and local historians has been a key part of the project. Without it  I could not have written Croydon’s Connections with the British Slavery Business in Strange Bedfellows. Croydon’s Slave Owners and Historians (Croydon Natural History & Scientific Society. Proceedings. Vol. 20. Part 1. September 2017). Nick’s successor is Professor Matthew Smith, Head, Department of History and Archaeology at the University of the West Indies at Mona, Jamaica. His publications include Liberty, Fraternity, Exile: Haiti and Jamaica After Emancipation (2014) and Red and Black in Haiti: Radicalism, Conflict, and Political Change (2009). The Mona campus is on the former slave plantation owned for a while by Bonds of the Park Hill Estate in Croydon. Without the Legacies project it would be more difficult for Miranda Kaufmann, the author of Black Tudors, to research her current newly commissioned book on Heiresses: Slavery & The Caribbean Marriage Trade. Miranda was at the Congress and is also co-organiser of the What is Happening in British Black History workshops and network which is meeting again on 14 November: http://www.mirandakaufmann.com/blog/call-for-paperswhats-happening-in-black-british-history-xi-deadline-16th-september-2019

(4)    Community led projects like the Kennington Common 1848 Chartist project run by Friends of Kennington Park, have had academics helping, including  Katrina Navikas (Hertfordshire Uni.) The project is perhaps one of the best models I know about. Details can be seen at www.kenningtoncharter.org. At the Friends AGM on 23 July two pamphlets were launched: one about the project, and another containing essays including one by Katrina. As a supporter of the project I published last year my introduction to Lambeth Chartism, and will be publishing one on Lambeth radicalism before Chartism to sell at a talk I am giving at this year’s Lambeth History Fair on 7 September. 

Friday, 9 August 2019

The Heathwall. Battersea's Lost River


Heathwall St was one of the stopping points on the Battersea & Wandsworth Trades Union Council annual John Burns Walk which I led  on  Saturday 3 August.

I explained that it was named after Battersea’s lost river, the Heathwall, also known as Heathwall Sluice, which is buried underground running from the Falcon Brook (also underground) through the Este Rd and Falcon Park, Shaftesbury Park and Queens Rd areas and parallel with Wandsworth Rd to Nine Elms. Its name also survives in Heathwall Park at the end of Robertson St and the Heathwall Pumping Station on the Thames at Tideway. Its course marks the boundary between Wandsworth and Lambeth.

The Heathwall is little known as one of many of the Lost Rivers of London. Jon Newman has now produced a book, part history, part a do-itself yourself walk, about it: The Heathwall. Battersea’s Buried River (Backwater Books).

Its History

Over the centuries its name evolved from Hese/Hyse in Saxon/Norman times to Hethe/Heath. It was one of the many water courses and drainage channels through Battersea’s the waterlogged fields. Its repair and upkeep was left to the individual landowners and its walls to  Westminster Abbey the principal one. From its establishment in the 16thC the Surrey and Kent Sewer Commissioners had to deal with legal squabbles over who should pay for works to improve the drainage system.  By 1700 the fertile and well watered fields of the Heathwall level were some of London’s most productive market gardens.

As the number of buildings grew the system had to cope with more and more household and industrial waste.  From 1774 there was a general sewers rate. In 1847 the Commissioners were replaced in 1847 by the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers, and then in 1855 by the Metropolitan Board of Works. Under its chief engineer John Bazalgette all the rivers in South London bar the Wandle and Ravensbourne were turned into underground sewers. It took 20 years to complete the work. The scheme was not a success and flooding continued. In the end the Heathwall pumping station was opened in 1898. Further capacity was added in 1959/60 and more is being worked on at present.

The Walk

The majority of the book is a description of the walk through the area the Heathwall had flowed. In keeping with Jon’s other walk books it is rich in detail and atmospheric. ‘Outside the gatehouse and to the right, the boundary wall of Glycena Road sits over the line of the Heathwall….. but one can almost re-imagine it flowing past their Gothic castellations like a fantasy moat, defending its respectable tee-total working class residents from the horrors without.’ (p. 19)

It’s a delight to read for those who want to know more about the parts of Battersea and Lambeth along the walk. Readers can use it to do the walk themselves, although it may be advisable to do it in two sections from Price’s Candles to the end of Heathwall Park and then from there to the pumping station via Vauxhall/Nine Elms. For local historians it is an important contribution to our knowledge.Jn'istdle and Ra

Inevitably in order to keep the book to 56 pages and not to overload it with too many details of any particular section of the walk, there is much more information than Jon could not include.

The book is nicely illustrated by David Western, and maps are included.
The Heathwall can be ordered from me sean.creighton1947@btinternet.com

Jon’s Other Books

Battersea’s Global Reach. The Story of Price’s Candles  (History & Social Action Publications)


River Effra: South London's Secret Spine


Battersea Nocturne. A walk through Whistler's Battersea intercut with journal writings and images.

Death on the Brighton Road. An account of a nine mile bike ride from the gallows at Kennington to the gibbet at Smitham Bottom.

Lovely Lambeth. A walk through Blake's Lambeth intercut with poems and images.

Lost in Herne Hill. A walk through John Ruskin's childhood home of Herne Hill - backed by the Herne Hill Society