Friday, 3 November 2017

Further wanderings...

The loss of the London pub: now that is an ongoing tragedy that will surely be of great interest to economic and social historians in the future. And as a measure of how bad things have got in my part of east London what better place to start than Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, where we find a gem of a document in a somewhat unlikely setting:

L/BGM/A/12/1/13: Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green, Housing Committee: Minutes 1946-48 

  • See 8 April 1947 for a remarkable report that lists all of the licenced premises in the old metropolitan borough of Bethnal Green, giving name, exact location and brewery. A grand total of 175 premises for the discerning drinker to choose from: what, I dread to think, remains - a question of interest for CAMRA members and any other pub historians out there.  

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Wanderings (and wonderings) among the archives

First in a series of random and surprising items that may be of interest to someone somewhere, stumbled upon by chance and hurriedly noted while working in various London archives.

This week's offering from the London Metropolitan Archives, and the political powerhouse that was the Parks and Open Spaces Committee:

LCC/MIN/09014: London County Council, Parks and Open Spaces Committee: Presented Papers 1942-43

The POSC meeting of 26 February 1943 considered the following:

  • Letter from the Ministry of Information, dated 12 February 1943, re proposal to erect a plaque at 8 Gray's Inn Place to commemorate the fact that Sun Yat-Sen had lived there from 1896. The letter makes clear that this was a gesture to keep the Chinese sweet...

Monday, 25 September 2017

A wayward political journey

In spite of all of the evidence to the contrary, I still tend to think of individuals as staying fixed in a political sense, probably because I am myself and most of the the people I know personally are too. But of course such steadfastness/stupidity (delete according to choice) does not apply to many people, and some time ago I came across a striking example in the League of Nations Union papers at the London School of Economics of just how far an individual can travel politically. The Union was the type of rather well-meaning (but, with the benefit of hindsight, hapless) inter-war organisation that is likely to have attracted some acerbic comment from George Orwell: who should be listed as a rather generous donor in the 1922 Annual Report but Oswald Mosley - 'put me down for £50', he probably didn't say. That rather eccentric individual's political journey has been well researched, but this does show just how far people can shift.

There are two ways of looking at these political journeys: either people are so ideologically confused that they themselves don't know and understand what they profess to believe; or they are brave and original thinkers who nimbly react to changing political conditions and refuse to be contained by any orthodoxies. A tough one to decide: it could be the latter, except that the political journey always seems to be one way - rather a sign of simply having given up I fear.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

The working-class autodidact: fact or fiction?

We can get this one out of the way easily enough: don't let anyone ever tell you that the working-class autodidact was a creature of myth. The breed may now have become all but extinct, gone with the particular social cultures of the heavy industries that produced them, but we can still glory in their achievements. How about this for a superb example, uncovered whilst looking at early 20th-century trade union reports among the TUC collections at London Metropolitan University Archives.

National Union of Foundry Workers, Monthly Journal and Report, May 1921.

Why did these industrial cultures - so primitive, limited and limiting in many respects - produce outstanding men such as Robert Dunlop? My own view - based, I sometimes despondently think, more on blind hope that sufficient evidence - is that the desire for knowledge and self-improvement is simply an eternal verity of human nature. But perhaps a more pertinent question for us to consider in our time is why we don't seem to have our own Robert Dunlops: surely somewhere out there, enduring and rising above the petty miseries of call-centre, zero-hours contract Britain, are his 21st century equivalents. For what it's worth I think that they are still with us, but whether they will ever be recognised by a culture that does not seem to revere knowledge and intellectual prowess, let alone be celebrated by future generations is debatable.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

'We already know what happened...'

Thus Lord Tebbit on the recent decision not to hold a public enquiry into the events at Orgreave Coking Plant on 18 June 1984. Well, what else would he say, you might reasonably ask: we can safely predict with some accuracy that individual's views on most issues, and anyway the past is immutable and fixed, is it not? In this case we even have television footage of the events (the plural is deliberate) in question so what else is there to add to what we can see with our own eyes?

Leaving aside the fact that some creative editing can do wonders for reconfiguring the past as it appears to be preserved in moving visual images, what is perhaps most exasperating about this stunted view of history is that it underestimates just how difficult it is to reconstruct a plausible past using inevitably incomplete sources. Any fool can put together a pre-fabricated version of historic events to serve political ends, but try honestly reconstructing even small incidents from the recent past and see how you get on. You'll soon find that the past is actually riddled with black holes which it sometimes seems that no amount of research can fill.

I have been frequently reminded of this basic truth over the past few months while I've been trying to put together a history of the small allotment association of which I am secretary (don't roll your eyes: the history of land use in London is fascinating and highly relevant - we'll need to be organised if and when the developers come sniffing around the site). The organisation dates from the early 1980s and is still going strong, so yes, we already know what happened, but this seemingly straightforward research task has thrown up some formidable difficulties, many of which are probably insuperable: the people involved are long gone, the local council's records seem to be incomplete and who knows what was lost when the GLC was abolished - an archival retreat from Moscow if ever there was one. In fact, it's a remarkable thing but I've had easier times of it researching events from 200 years ago!
I sometimes think that we'd do well to admit that vast swathes of history - including ostensibly well-documented events - are nigh on irretrievable, but the point is that we shouldn't stop trying: it's what makes the subject exciting.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Muddling through...

Egos and bitter personality clashes, administrative and organisational difficulties, a pervading sense of utter hopelessness on one side and calamity on the other - no, not British/world politics in 2016, the Methodists, of all people, in the 1840s. How do I know this? Well, a recent commission took me for the first time in ages to SOAS Library, home to the Methodist Missionary Society archives. Diligent record-creators and keepers, the Methodists and we have much to thank them for, especially if your bag happens to be the history of the British overseas, and you want something other than the usual Colonial Office fare down at TNA.

But as well as its rich historical value, I was, as I say, struck by another aspect of the correspondence I was looking at: how utterly modern the personalities and issues seemed to be. It may have been handwritten, nineteenth-century correspondence rather than some half-witted tweet from yesterday, but it all leapt off the page at me as if alive: the chancer looking for opportunities for self-enrichment, the decent fellow in office somehow trying to hold it all together at the centre, the hapless mistakes and misjudgements, and the debilitating sense of despair. I recognised it all: be it political parties, work, football clubs, even my allotment association - these seem to be the hallmarks of how all organisations and their component personalities function, or perhaps I should say barely function. Strangely enough, I find that there's a queer sort of comfort in all this: no matter how dire it may all seem at a given moment in time, the fact is we've been here before - probably been here all along - and somehow we muddle through. 'Somehow, we muddle through': not a very inspiring slogan for a political party or a company, but it's probably nearer the mark than most.    

Monday, 25 July 2016

From Mutiny to Music Hall

At its worst, genealogy can amount to little more than an arid exercise in collecting disconnected bits of information: the result of this drudgery is invariably an endless list of names and dates with nothing in the way of context, no colour or detail - essentially meaningless to anyone apart from the compiler. But at its best, genealogy really can illuminate and humanise important historical events and offer a rich and emotionally satisfying connection with the past to those doing the research. 

Which brings me to From Mutiny to Music Hall, a privately published illustrated family history which I had the pleasure to research and write for a client. When commissioned to do genealogical work it's not often that I get asked to settle more than the odd minor point of obscurity in a client's family history, so the chance to research and write a full-blown account of one particular branch of a family tree was too good to miss. And what was even better was that the facts as known at the outset offered so much potential - poverty in mid 19th-century London, soldiering in India during the 1857 Mutiny (with apparently some adultery on the side), Victorian music hall clowning, second-hand furniture dealing in the East End... if I couldn't make something readable out of that lot, I may as well have called it a day.

So great raw material to work with, but the research journey has not been straightforward. Far from it in fact: it not only involved the time and effort required to find widely scattered documents (worth pointing out that most were not available online) detailing something of the family’s history in the first place; it was also necessary to repeatedly analyse the surviving records in forensic detail to try and settle a conundrum caused by an old adversary – inconsistent evidence. In this case, the whole thing hinged on a small point that many genealogists will have come across: who is this person whose name appears on these bits of paper? She may be someone – so to speak – but then again, according to the records she might be someone else. Are we doomed to chase these fleeting shadows through the records, or is it possible to sort this out? And does it really matter? Well, trivial this sort of thing may certainly be, but it was fun to try and come up with a convincing explanation, and it does actually ask some profound questions about the fallibilities of the research process and the art of the historian when it comes to reconstructing a plausible version of the past (at any level) based on very imperfect sources. In the case of From Mutiny to Music Hall I did reach a conclusion about the mysterious person, but only after hours spent sketching possible scenarios and tortuous explanations, discussing them, changing my mind and then going through the whole process again. A tentative conclusion I admit, but I managed to convince my client, and I can happily see it in print without blushing.