Unofficial Histories 2013 – What I’ve Learnt


Since stepping on to the 16:36 train from Manchester to London last Sunday I have been trying to put together some thoughts on the Unofficial Histories Conference, held over the weekend of the 15th and 16th July 2013 at Manchester Metropolitan University and the People’s History Museum. This is a quick summary of my own views of the conference but please feel free to share yours or let me know you interpreted papers etc., differently.

On that train from Manchester I realised that what I really enjoyed about the weekend, was that more than an average academic conference Unofficial Histories felt like a celebration of history as, to quote Raphael Samuel, a ‘social form of knowledge’, reinforcing the importance and power of history in this form. The relevance of history to today’s world was consistently emphasised over the weekend, whether it can inform our views of current political situations or develop our historical practice, and I was truly inspired by the amount and value of the work being done out there by all those who love history.

The opening papers went some way in setting the tone for the rest of the weekend. Adam Gutteridge discussed the value of public history in giving people the tools to question preconceived ideas, and that it was the process more than the product that was important. As historians and archaeologists we have particular skills and by sharing them with the public, and, importantly, giving them intellectual freedom to pursue projects, we could be empowering others. Greta Williams Schultz and Jess Bradley discussed disability history in the context of recent changes in the law regarding benefits for disabled people. It looked at stigmatisation and the creation of two contrasting images of disabled people. That of the ‘worthy’ disabled person, seen as early as Ancient Greece where myths celebrated the disabled people who survived being abandoned at birth, seen again in the the World War One war-hero and Paralympic ‘superhumans’; contrasted to the disabled person seen to be reliant on charity from the community or government, the modern day ‘scrounger’. Through these images the person is removed, and it is important to create a greater awareness of disability issues with the disabled person as a central focus, and history is part of that. David Rosenberg told us about a collection of radical tour guides from across Europe who had recently met up to share experience and histories – through this they were finding parallels in radical histories, this included a match girl strike, months a part in London and Oslo, in 1888/9, as well as drawing similarities to modern day struggles. This group of radical tour guides also tried to put together a manifesto of who they are and what they are trying to achieve. David really made me think about audience and who we are talking to as historians and public historians. He discussed the types of people who we went on his tours mentioning that a lot of the time participants already had an interest in radical history. He also mentioned a weariness of potential elitism of social media and digital technologies. Social media is very useful for increasing or targeting an audience (I am writing this on a blog afterall), but it is not necessarily as universal as we’d perhaps like to think. This international collection of radical tour guides is growing and they hope to eventually produce radical travel guides, something I for one would love to see.

I could easily go through each paper I saw and give a brief description with some points about the main ideas I took from it, they were all brilliant and gave me lots of food for thought, but instead I’ll just mention some broad themes that covered a few papers and try to discuss what I learnt from them.

  1. History can be an important element in the process of healing people or countries after conflict.
    The practise of good historical research can be used in conjunction with other mediums, such as theatre or museum displays, to explore ways to bring fractured communities together. However the manipulation and the writing out of history of particular groups can lead to further tensions and the opening of old wounds. This was exemplified in Laura De Becker‘s paper on how the genocide in Rwanda was being remembered in official and unofficial memorials, between them leaving no space to commemorate the murder of moderate Hutus alongside Tutsis.
  2. Heritage policy should involve people.
    Modern museum practise has developed great ways to ensure that people of different backgrounds are represented in their displays moving away from the dominant White Male history. Though there is always more work to be done, these shouldn’t feel like add-ons but be fully integrated, possibly changing a visitor’s preconceptions, as discussed by David Callaghan when looking at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. In a wider sense local councils could possibly learn a lot from museums, and that audience research is essential, something pointed out by Anna Scott in her paper that looked at a local heritage policy developing around a link to the Pilgrim Father’s, however this heritage appeared to be almost unknown in the local population and little if no research into the number of American visitors to the area.
  3. Emotion can play an important part in historical research.
    We all do research for the love of the topic, but sometimes we can work with something we find particularly emotive, especially when looking to defeat a perceived injustice. This can appear in many ways, through working closely with a community or through nostalgia and can be a useful motivator but it was also acknowledged that it was also necessary to find that space to do research as objectively as possibly – the only way to do your area of research justice is to use your skills as a researcher to the best of your abilities. Two particularly emotive papers were from Holly Gale Millette looking at the boaters community in the midst of attempts from outside to reform and regulate their way of life; and Ian Waites who framed happy childhood memories of living on a council estate within a revaluation of the historiography of the English council estate.
  4. Finally, collaboration is almost essential in reaching out to the public and accessing those unofficial histories.
    Collaboration ran through the whole conference, from a paper looking at using oral history with archaeology from Kerry Massheder; to the collective of radical tour guides; to the film that finished off the weekend looking at a community theatre project in Salford that used Frederich Engles’ The Condition of the Working Classes as a starting point. To me this was a vital factor if we want to encourage the public to see any benefit in historical research and to see it as relevant to them.

As you can probably tell I had a brilliant time at the Unofficial Histories conference and I feel like I took a lot from it. The whole ethos of the event was to spread the historical word, so to speak. Not necessarily pushing one period of history or one method; but to explore how we communicate our art and reminding us of why it is important to do so.

I’ll finish with an image of the Collective of International Radical Tour Guides’ proposed manifesto, as it has many points I think we could all agree on.


Some related links:

Unofficial Histories website –

The Condition of the Working Class film website –

David Rosenberg’s guided tours website –

Manchester Peace and Social Justice Tour –

People’s History Museum –

London Boaters Community: London Boaters –

Ian Waites’ blog: Instances of Social Change –

Anna Scott’s blog: Heritage Research project –

Kerry Massheder’s blog: Community Archaeology, Industrial Archaeology & Oral History –


Brief Historiography of Submarine Telegraphy

Charles Bright, 'Submarine Telegraphs - Their History, Construction, and Working', (London 1889),

I haven’t done a blog for a while, mainly as I’m still trying to get my head round such a huge topic that just seems to be growing and growing. Last week I put together a short paper look at where and was and thinking about where I’m going. As part of this I wrote a very brief historiography of the Submarine Telegraph and Submarine Telegraph cables. This is probably the section of that paper that made the most amount of sense so I thought I’d share it with you:


There are some key areas that work on submarine telegraphy tends to focus. These include the technical aspects of the cable which looks at the science behind the invention, application and development; this works spans from nineteenth century work up to more modern titles.[1] It is for these sorts of works that I believe the sections of submarine cables still held at museums have been predominantly used for; they are records of the materials and techniques used over the course of the submarine telegraph industry.

A more recent, but very popular, area of work looks at the political and imperial aspects of the cable i.e. how policy and empire was affected by the cables or vice versa.[2] Themes of empire and technology seem to have grown and developed of the years, and it is interesting that I have found one of the earliest examples of this sort of work, Kennedy’s ‘Imperial Cable Communications and Strategy, 1870-1914’, one of the most informative of the relationship between the British Government and the submarine telegraph. Another strong body of work are the narrative histories of cables and biographies of dominate players; these histories tend to focus on the most famous cable, the Atlantic cable and have been written since the cable began to be laid in the latter half of the nineteen century.[3] In recent times the subject of the submarine telegraph cables has been revisited by other disciplines, appearing to become increasingly relevant to the modern world reliant on fiber-optic submarine cables for transmitting information around the world.[4]

Cultural aspects are touched on in some of the above works, but it on the whole the history of submarine telegraphy has been untouched by postmodernism. There are a couple of exceptions which includes Gillian Cookson’s paper given at the Science Museum in 2006 entitled ‘Submarine Cables: Novelty and Innovation, 1850-1870’ in which the theory is argued that by 1870 the submarine telegraph was no longer a novelty to the public or commerce. There have also been some interesting avenues of research in an overlapping area of study, the regular overland telegraphy. I. Rhys Morus’ ‘The Nervous System of Britain’: Space, Time and the Electric Telegraph in the Victorian Age’ looks at the imagery associated with the telegraph and consequential meaning, suggesting that the embodiment of the telegraph through nervous system metaphors underlines its intelligence and speed but also suggests a system of management and a network of surveillance and discipline.[5] R. Menke’s Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems takes an alternative route of looking at language by using Victorian fiction as the starting point. Menke uses the idea of Media Ecology, the concept ‘a culture’s range of technologies and codes of communication dramatically shape and are shaped by human experiences, thoughts and values’,[6] to suggest that the Victorian idea of networks stemmed from the natural structures and so was then translated to technical structures, also the increase in data available through the telegraph helped develop the idea of information instead of knowledge.[7] These are features that can be seen in Victorian fiction, though Menke also points out that though Victorian novelists, like Dickens, were interested in the technology it was only from the 1860s and 1870s people ‘begin to imagine the fictional possibilities of electric telegraphy’.[8] This appears to be a growing area of study as I noticed at a workshop held by the Commodities and Culture network on ‘Commodities in Motion’ in July 2010 Clare Pettitt gave a paper entitled ‘The Telegraphic imaginer: Scrambled Messages in the 1860s’, that explored the forms of address and authority constructed by the technologies of the telegraph and the realist novel in the 1860s and 1870s, considering ‘the ways in which both proclaim themselves as representative of an ultimately knowable world susceptible to infinitely connective network’.[9]

Clearly the themes of imagery, representation and metaphor with regards to submarine telegraphy have only begun to be explored by historians, and as I am mainly focusing on objects these areas are central to my work.

If you know of any other works that I’ve missed here, and I know I’ve missed many, please do let me know. It’s worth mentioning that the Atlantic Cable website has quite an extensive bibliography, this includes references to biographies and local histories that I haven’t quite got round to:

[1] C. Bright, Submarine Telegraphs, (London, 1898); V. T. Coates & B. Finn, A Retrospective Technology Assessment: Submarine Telegraphy. The Transatlantic Cable of 1866, (California, 1979); K. Haigh, Cable Ships and Submarine Cables, (London, 1968)

[2] B. Finn & D. Yang, ed., Communications under the Seas: The Evolving Cable Network and Its Implications, (Massachusetts, 2009); D. R. Headrick, The Tools of Empire: Technology European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1981); D. R. Headrick, The Invisible Weapon: Telecommunications and International Politics 1851-1945 (New York, 1991); B. Hunt, ‘Doing Science in a Global Empire: Cable Telegraphy and Electrical Physics in Victorian Britain’, in E. Lightman ed., Victorian Science in Context (Chicago, 1997); R. Kubicek, ‘British Expansion, Empire, and Technological Change’, in A. Porter ed., The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Nineteen Century, Vol. 3 (Oxford, 1999); Y. Bektas, ‘The Sultan’s Messenger: Cultural Constructions of Ottoman Telegraphy, 1847-1880’ in Technology and Culture, vol. 41 (2000); and finally P. M. Kennedy, ‘Imperial Cable Communications and Strategy, 1870-1914’ in The English Historical Review, vol. 86 (Oct. 1971)

[3] G. Cookson, The Cable: The Wire that Changed the World (Wiltshire, 2003); B. S. Finn, Submarine Telegraphy: The Grand Victorian Technology (Margate, 1973); J. Steele Gordon, A Thread Across the Ocean: The Heroic Story of the Transatlantic Cable (Bath, 2002); S. Carter, Cyrus Field, Man of Two Worlds, (New York, 1968); B. Dibner, The Atlantic Cable, (Norwalk, 1959).

[4] E. J. Malecki & H. Wei, ‘A Wired World: The Evolving Geography of Submarine Cables and the Shift to Asia’ in Annals of the Association of American Geographers vol. 99 (2009) and M. Sechrist, ‘Cyberspace in Deep Water: Protesting the Arteries of the Internet’, in Harvard Kennedy School Review, vol 10 (2009-2010) are good examples of articles written in the past two years looking at modern-day cables with reference to the Victorian invention.

[5] I. Rhys Morus, ‘The Nervous System of Britain’: Space, Time and the Electric Telegraph in the Victorian Age’ in The British Journal for the History of Science, vo. 33 (2000)

[6] R. Menke, Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems (Stanford, 2008) p. 12

[7] Menke, Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems p.18

[8] Menke, Telegraphic Realism: Victorian Fiction and Other Information Systems p. 163

[9] Abstracts from papers presented at the workshop: (22 June 2011)

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

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.

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:,_Baron_Briggs

List of Asa Briggs publications on

Link to the other events being held to celebrate the IHR’s 90th birthday:

History: an Art or Science? How different are they?

Conrad Shawcross is the Artist in residence at the Science Museum, London. The Science Museum is one of many scientific institutions that see a value in having artists in residence to engage their audience.

This is an age old question, and as I was trying to put together a presentation on it for University, I’m not planning on trying to answer it at length here.

But while mulling it over I began to realise just how intermingled the two disciplines are today.

History is a bit of a confusing subject, it sits under the branch of learning called Humanities (defined as the study of human culture), different History masters courses can get you a MA or a MSc, and funding for the Arts and Humanities Research Council comes from the Science and Innovation Group, part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. None of these points help.

Most arguments of this nature seem to focus on whether or not History is a science, assuming that if you are not a science you must be an art. But I’m not entirely convinced they are exact opposites. Both generally speaking build on previous knowledge or thought, and Postmodernists are able to demonstrate cultural influences on scientific thought as much as artistic, I’ve included a picutre of a piece of work by Conrad Shawcross, and here is a link to an interesting article about Salvador Dalí’s relationship and interest in science. Some of the most interesting pieces of modern art can come out of scientific influences, and scientists can get inspiration or that spark from the arts. Thomas Kuhn demonstrated that even scientific discoveries have been influenced by cultural factors, and it is clear that some sciences are heavily influenced by interpretation. It seems to be increasingly important for science to borrow from the arts to help engage a wider audience with their work and from the large amount of ‘popular’ science books out by authors like Brian Cox and Robert Winston it seems to be a healthy relationship.

I’ll finish up with a letter by Gregory Petsko, a Professor in Biochemistry and Chemistry, recently published in the Genome Biology journal arguing that science needs the arts and humanities:

One of the things I’ve written about is the way genomics is changing the world we live in. Our ability to manipulate the human genome is going to pose some very difficult questions for humanity in the next few decades, including the question of just what it means to be human. That isn’t a question for science alone; it’s a question that must be answered with input from every sphere of human thought, including – especially including – the humanities and arts. Science unleavened by the human heart and the human spirit is sterile, cold, and self-absorbed. It’s also unimaginative: some of my best ideas as a scientist have come from thinking and reading about things that have, superficially, nothing to do with science. If I’m right that what it means to be human is going to be one of the central issues of our time, then universities that are best equipped to deal with it, in all its many facets, will be the most important institutions of higher learning in the future. You’ve just ensured that yours won’t be one of them.

The rest of the letter can be found here.

This letter was written in reaction to the State University of New York at Albany deciding to get rid of its departments of French, Italian, Classics, Russian and Theater Arts. As cuts loom over the UK and both the sciences and arts feel the need to defend their purpose and position it is worth remembering the similarities and benefits of both.