My first history conference: Celebrating Asa Briggs

Lord Asa Briggs

This week I went to my first ever history conference. It was hosted by the Institute of Historical Research and was held to celebrate the 90th birthday of the renowned historian, Lord Asa Briggs.

I first came across Briggs work when writing my essay on the Chartists, and consequently considered him an authority in the Chartists and the Nineteenth century. What I learnt from the conference was that you can’t pigeon-hole Briggs, he is a man of considerable energy (buzz word of the day) and a prolific writer. Just based on the number of projects he worked on over the course of his academic life, many simultaneously, I can’t imagine he had a single day off in about 40 years! Though I did gather he was partial to a bit of travel, and apparently you were more likely to bump into Asa at Heathrow Airport than anywhere else.

With such tales, it would be easy to assume a little exaggeration from the speakers in terms of Briggs accomplishments and abilities. However in the presence of Briggs it was easy to imagine this was possible, as though impaired physically (though still able to get around on just a stick) he was still obviously enthusiastic and full of energy.

As this was a celebration of Asa Briggs it was not surprising that most of the audience consisted of former colleagues and students, giving Briggs the appearance of having a constant entourage! I think this led to the event being a lot more inclusive than I imagined a history conference to be, as after papers were read audience members were invited to share their thoughts and memories. This also gave breaks and lunchtime a great buzz as you heard people sharing stories, and catching up, perhaps not your average conference networking.

Victorian Things by Asa Briggs in Bookfinder.com

The day itself was split into three sections: Victorian Studies, Communications and Universities, and each section had three or four papers. The speakers offered insight into Brigg’s contribution to these areas, which was quite substantial. His work still sits a core texts for Victorian or Chartist studies as well as for the history of media or broadcasting, an area in history he effectively invented when writing the 5 volumes of a history of the BBC. For universities I discovered the pioneering work of Briggs helped revolutionise how history was taught at the University of Leeds, where he gained the nickname ‘Asia Briggs’ for promoting non-European history, establishing Sussex University and later the Open University, as well as encouraging interdisciplinary history demonstrated by his History of the Book seminars at Oxford University.

This being my first history conference I don’t have much to compare it to, but I imagine aside from the reading of papers and presence of many prominent and respected historians, this wasn’t your normal history conference. There was a celebratory atmosphere exemplified by the presenting of a birthday card from the Imperial War Museum at the beginning of day and the bringing out of cake (okay not an official birthday cake but brownies and flapjacks) at the tea break, admittedly I didn’t stay for the reception but I wouldn’t be surprised if they sang ‘Happy Birthday’.

Below is the list of papers and speakers of the day, and I know the IHR was recording the day so I expect the podcast to be available soon. Below that is a link to a list of the key works of Briggs, including his most recent work about his time at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.

The more I find out about Briggs the more fascinated I become. The question of why there is no ‘Briggs’ school of history came up and it was answered by the fact that Briggs didn’t dictate how history should be studied, instead he encouraged difference and the use of a variety of methods looking at a variety of topics. As I said before you can’t pigeon-hole the man or his ideas. Almost predictably one of the questions at the end of day was if Briggs had chosen his own biographer, obviously having written many biographies himself. It turned he hadn’t, but surprisingly all his papers are held by Boston University, chosen because of their ability to catalogue papers. So it’s uncertain who will write Lord Asa Briggs biography, but it is clear that with such achievements and range of interests it will be a fascinating read. His drive and pioneering efforts in his own study as well as how history should be taught really is inspirational, and I can only hope to be half as good a historian as Lord Asa Briggs.

Programme
10:15 Registration and Coffee
10:45 Introduction Professor Sir David Cannadine (Princeton University)
11:00 Victorian Studies (Chair: Rohan McWilliam, Anglia Ruskin)
A little bit of a Victorian? Asa Briggs and Victorian Studies Martin Hewitt (Manchester Metropolitan University)
Victorian capitalists and middle-class formation: reflections on Asa Briggs’s Birmingham Francesca Carnevali (University of Birmingham)
Asa Briggs and the remaking of Australian historiography, 1955-1985 Frank Bongiorno (King’s College London)
12.30 Lunch
1.30 Communications (Chair: Robert Seatter, BBC)
From the Daily Mail to the BBC: communications in Britain, c.1896-1922
James Thompson (University of Bristol)
Broadcasting carries on: reflections on the BBC in WW2 Sian Nicholas (Aberystwyth University)
Asa Briggs and the writing of the history of the BBC Jean Seaton (University of Westminster)
3.00 Tea
3.15 Universities (Chair: Miles Taylor, IHR)
Back to Yorkshire: Asa Briggs at Leeds, 1955-61    Malcolm Chase (University of Leeds)
The idea of a new University: Sussex in the 1960s Matthew Cragoe (University of Sussex)
Asa Briggs and the opening up of the Open University Daniel Weinbren (The Open University)
Oxford, the Worcester seminars and the History of the Book James Raven (University of Essex)
5.00 Afterword

Lord Asa Briggs in Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asa_Briggs,_Baron_Briggs

List of Asa Briggs publications on bookfinder.com: http://www.bookfinder.com/author/asa-briggs/

Link to the other events being held to celebrate the IHR’s 90th birthday: http://www.history.ac.uk/ihr90

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