Breaking Histories @ Shuffle: A Round Up

Caroline Nielson talking at Breaking Histories

Caroline Nielson talking at Breaking Histories

Well, what an event! The week long Shuffle festival is now over and with it the two Breaking Histories events. These events saw eight historians talk about a particular aspect of their research that they felt should be more widely known and discussed – you can see the call for participation here.

Historians spend a lot of time talking to each other, the holiday seasons, particularly summer and Easter, are chock-a-block with conferences, symposium and workshops. These are fantastic and important for us to share, challenge and discuss ideas. However, opportunities to talk directly to the public are few and far between and I was hoping that Breaking Histories would give historians, particularly new historians such as PhD students and early careers, a chance to talk about history in an unusual setting.

The Homestead Pavilion for the first Breaking Histories event

The Homestead Pavilion for the first Breaking Histories event

And Shuffle certainly provided an unusual setting! Located in the Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park, which is also 31 acres of woodland, these historians were part of festival celebrating film, art, food and nature. The theme of this year’s festival was Migration, Movement and Place and gave us plenty of scope to explore the modern relevance of our work.

The first event was on Saturday 25 July in the Homestead Pavilion. We had a great mix of talks with Anna Robinson talking about neighbour complaints in the early 20th century, Caroline Nielson on asylums and mental health patients during the First World War, Bob Taylor on concepts of knowledge in Ancient Rome through the lens of the work of Pliny the Elder, and concluded with Rosa Kurowska Kyffin from Beyond Past on a schools oral history project looking at Velvet Fist, a socialist, feminist choir.

We were all delighted with how engaged and interested the audience was and questions varied from questions about family history to relating the control of knowledge in current debates around intellectual property!

Rosa Kurowska Kyffin from Beyond Past, another speaker, Bob Taylor can be seen in the audience.

Rosa Kurowska Kyffin from Beyond Past, other speakers, Bob Taylor and Anna Robinson can be seen in the audience.

The second event was on Saturday 1 August in the Ecotherapy Grounded Den. There was a fair bit of confusion on our location as we’d been moved from the billed Migration Pavilion and I think some of the Shuffle team thought we were in the Homestead Pavilion again. Unfortunately I think the confusion led to a smaller audience, but it didn’t dampen the discussion and we had a great mix of talks. We had Judith Garfield from Eastside Community Heritage talking about the fantastic collection of 2600 oral histories from the East London community, Richard White discussing the project ‘Honouring Ester’ as part of Forced Walks which transposed a Nazi death march into the English countryside, Stephen Woodhams looked at the work of Raymond Williams and the use of different written forms to tell history and finally Sam Patterson discussed the work of the Stepney Tenants Defence League and notably their role in ensure tube stations were opened as air raid shelters during the Second World War.


I think one of the surprising outcomes from this series of talks was how well they connected with each other. From hidden stories of migration and movements, quickly forgotten or ignored, to looking at different ways to communicate and discuss history either through artist-led performative act of walking or the use of creative writing. I think the discussions could have continued for a long time, but we had to move out of the way for a talk on genes!

Sam Patterson taking questions

Sam Patterson taking questions

Communities came out as a strong theme across both weekends, communities as a subject of research within asylums or council estates, to a source base for oral histories having migrated from a particular place, to a particular place or emerging through political movement or choir, to communities created through the creative practice of history in the act of walking or collaborative work.

Overall, I think we had an audience of 45 people over the course of the two events, which I think is fantastic! I hope the talks have encouraged people to think about history differently and possibly inspired some future collaborations. I certainly learnt a lot, (did you know the borough of Redbridge has the largest Jewish community in Europe?). I hope we can repeat the experience at next year’s Shuffle festival and would be interested in hearing ideas of other ways of using the Breaking Histories model for other events!

Finally, a huge thank you to all the speakers and everyone who attended an event. I couldn’t have done it without you!

Some useful links:

Shuffle Festival

Raphael Samuel History Centre call for participation for Radical Histories Public History Festival

Friends of Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park

Beyond Past – oral history project on Velvet Fist

Eastside Community History

Forced Walks

History Today review of Samantha Patterson’s book on the history of Stepney

Here are some more photos from the two events:

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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 –

The Importance of the History of Portobello Road Market Today

Jesse Smith's Greengrocers and Florists, now where Admiral Vernon Antiques Arcade on Portobello Road. HistoryTalk

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve attended two of the free history events held by North Kensington’s community history group, HistoryTalk. Both of these events have looked at Portobello Market, the first consisted of a community discussion on the history of the market. Discussion was prompted by a slide show of photographs of Portobello through the years and led by two local historians, Eddie Adams and Tom Vague. The lack of a structured talk didn’t diminish the obvious knowledge and expertise of Adams and Vague, but allowed the group to discuss memories, ask questions and generally express their love of the area. I learnt a lot, including that the Antiques arcade ‘Admiral Vernon’, used to be a large greengrocers and florists called Jesse Smith’s, and also where Tesco’s is now used to be a dairy, run by recent Welsh arrivals to the area. Immigrant communities have been central to Portobello’s history, to its development and character, and though I knew about the Spanish community escaping Franco’s regime and Civil War, and of course the West Indian community, but I didn’t know there has also been a Welsh community of settlers who ran the local dairies.

The second event was a screening of the film ‘Stall Stories: A History of Portobello Road Market‘. This was billed as a documentary made by the children at the local Colville Primary School, so I didn’t really know what to expect. Needless to say I was very impressed. We learnt afterwards that the film was a result of a HLF funded project led by an arts and educational charity, Digital:Works, which worked with four primary schools to make a film about their local market. The children did the research in the archives, spoke to local historians and then made the film, which meant they conducted the interviews and filmed them, their involvment didn’t reach into the cutting room, though they were shown a rough edit to give them a chance to make any changes. Some of the children who were involved came to the screening and also answered questions on the making of the film afterwards, and it was really inspirational to see the joy and pride they got out of the process, not only were they proud of their finished product but they also clearly enjoyed the historical research and practice of oral history. I was overjoyed when one of the girls said if she had to make another similar film her topic would be local black history, mentioning Claudia Jones and Kelso Cochrane.

What was also notable about the film, was that it wasn’t just a straight narrative history, it demonstrated the significance of history to the present day and the strong sense of heritage today’s stall holders felt. Stall holders past and present where the celebrated feature of the film and were presented as being responsible for creating and sustaining the character of the area. It made a strong case for why Portobello should continue to be a place for local independent traders, with a regret for the continued increase in rents and establishment of corporate chains along the road.

The film tells an emotive story and records a snapshot of life on the market today. It was good to hear that after it was made it was not only shown to the filmakers’ fellow students at Colville, but also to the market holders working on the market day by setting up a screening on it’s own stall one weekend. Some of the audience felt it needed to be shown to local Councillors, and I’m sure it does have some political strength, though I think it can also act as an inspiration to other children. History on TV, in a variety of forms, is at an all time high, from ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ to ‘Downton Abbey’, and work like this can encourage students to engage with history in an alternative way, as well as giving them training and ideas of how historical research and knowledge could be useful in a future career.

As you can see I liked the film, so it would be wrong of me not to share it, so please find it below. It would also be wrong of me not to mention that there is a campaign to ‘Save Portobello’ from the torrent of commercial chains and retain its historic character, more information can be found on the campaign’s facebook page:

The project has also looked at Brixton, Leather Lane and Petticoat Lane, you can find more information at their website:

Also for more information on HistoryTalk and their events go here:

Finally some articles on the Save Portobello campaign: (18 Oct 2011) (12 Nov 2010) (14 April 2010)  (22 March 2010)


Free Talks & Courses at HistoryTalk

A very quick post to mainly promote my local history society: HistoryTalk!

It is the community history society for North Kensington and I have volunteered for them as part of the Britain at Work project, and I also had the pleasure of a giving a talk in Spring on the centenary of the Electric Cinema on Portobello Road.

They have their series of Autumn seminars and courses up on  their website:

But thought I’d copy and paste some of the details below as well – hope to see some of you there!
(Please contact HistoryTalk for locations and further details).

Evening Talks

Thursday 13th October 6.30pm
Portobello Roots the market in the 1920s and 30s.
With local historians Eddie Adams and Tom Vague.

Thursday 20th October 6.30pm
Portobello Today and its Future children from Colville Primary School present their documentary Stall Stories.
Following this there will be a panel discussion with speakers from Save the Portobello Road Market campaign.

Thursday 3rd November 6.30pm
Murder in Notting Hill.
A talk by Mark Olden about the murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959, based on his new book.

Thursday 10th November 6.30pm
Britain at Work oral history project update.
With speakers Jeff Howarth (project worker at TUC Library Collections) and Dave Welsh (project co-ordinator at HISTORYtalk.)
Britain at Work Project Page & a blog I’ve written about my involvement so far.


North Africa, from Morocco to Egypt; Revolution and Upheaval
An introduction to the history, politics and culture of North Africa. Ten free sessions.
Starts Monday 26th September 6.30-8.30pm. Ends Monday 5th December. Break on 24th October.

Migration and the Arabic Language
The course will discuss the contribution of North African migrant and refugee communities to Britain and Europe as well as teaching participants the basics of written and spoken
Arabic. Complete beginners welcome. Six free sessions.
Starts Saturday 29th October 3-6pm.Ends Saturday 3rd December.

Spanish Memories
Join a lively group of Spanish speaking people who work together on projects that draw on
their experiences and memories. This term the focus will on bilingual publication and music.
Ten free sessions. Starts Friday 16th September 1.30-3.30pm. Ends Friday 16th December. With some breaks.

Between the Boroughs: Shepherds Bush to North Pole Road
Local history and reminiscence looking in particular at Norland Market, Latimer Road, Wood Lane, Frestonia, White City Stadium and more.
Eight free sessions. Starts Wednesday 5th October 2-4pm. Ends Wednesday 30th November. Break on 2nd November.

Between the Borough:
walks & talks through the Eastern edge of North Kensington (into Westminster) Look at old photos and maps, share memories of more recent changes and go out on visits and walks.
Eight sessions. £2.50 per session. Starts Monday 12th September 10.30-12.30pm. Ends Monday 14th November. With some breaks.

Contact HistoryTalk on 020 7792 2282 or





Celebrating the working lives of the Thames Gateway


Working Lives of the Thames Gateway reception. Jonathan Eudall

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the opening of the new exhibition at the London Guildhall Art Gallery, Working Lives of the Thames Gateway. I was there for Culture24 and my review of the exhibition can be found here.

The exhibition is the result of a three-year oral history project focused, as the title gives suggests, on the working lives of people who lived and worked in the Thames Gateway area, an area that was once the industrial heartland of East London. As a volunteer on two oral history projects (see my previous post) I found this exhibition particularly interesting.

Listening Point, with snippets of oral histories. Jonathan Eudall

It is popular for exhibitions to use and integrate oral histories into their narrative, but this exhibition is slightly different as it is based on an oral history project. Consequently the objects and panels were supporting the oral histories and the historical research done in tandem with that.

With two listening posts at either side of the exhibition offering snippets of a total of 16 interviews, and transcript extracts as part of the panels I was very aware that the history on offer was only a fraction of that contained in the over 250 interviews conducted.

I get the feeling the exhibition is only an introduction to the work done by the Eastside Community Heritage group and their volunteers. The exhibition itself does cover some interesting aspects of life working in the Thames Gateway, the sense of community and recreational activities organised by the companies, but it is understandable that the output of the project is an exhibition, a book, a documentary and an education pack.

Image of Chemicals and Engineering panels. Jonathan Eudall

It really highlighted for me the difficulty in presenting a thought-provoking and engaging exhibition on such a large topic with a massive source base, but with restricted money and space. With this in mind I think the exhibition does very well, and its setting at the Guildhall is striking, the use of images on the windows really draw you up to the landing. Also the juxtaposition of the exhibition with the portraits and busts of kings and queens is interesting, its like two historiographical traditions having a stand-off, top down vs social history. For me social history wins every time.

Hopefully in the coming months there will also be some events that can explore some of the related topics of the Working Lives of the Thames Gateway in more depth, or maybe I’ll just have to buy the book.

As a final point, here’s a link to an interesting blog asking: What is the Thames Gateway? An interesting point regarding the framework put upon this oral history project. Boundary choices are always interesting for defining a history project’s standpoint, and as the Thames Gateway is designated area for regeneration it could be seen as a nostalgic look at an area before it fell into decline, or perhaps seen as slightly more forward looking and political objective. I’m defiantly going to have to get the book to decide.

Volunteering for London Oral history Projects

British Library Sounds Archive webpage

For a while now I’ve been interested in oral history, wanting to learn more about its contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the past. Consequently last year I started volunteering on oral history projects.

Oral history was a practice that was first cultivated by the folklore and linguistic scholars. With the popularity of social history in the middle of the twentieth century, it began to talk to social historians. Oral history was initially seen as a way to discover ‘hidden histories’, to give a voice to the every-man (or woman) in industry or agricultural.

With the cultural turn came a new critical and literary understanding of the technique. Cultural history encouraged the use of oral history, especially as a way to research the everyday, but underlined that it’s value is best realised alongside other sources to help evaluate its reliability and factual content.

Advert for Female Telephonists, Museum of London

Today oral history is used to cover a breadth of people and topics, made all the easiesr by the growing British Library Sound Archive and other smaller archives. It is also extremely popular in museum exhibitions and in community projects, this may be because it is one of the simplest ways to get communities involved and engaged in history. I have been volunteering on such community two projects, based on opposites sides of London to try to learn more.

The first project is Britain at Work: 1945-1995, and focuses on the employment history of ordinary people in the West London area after the Second World War. The idea is to record how ordinary people helped rebuild the country after the War through their jobs as factory workers, teachers, bus conductors etc. It is run by the local history society, HistoryTalk and funded by the TUC, which also leans the project towards an interest in union history, but it is an overwhelming influence.

The other project is a bit different and mainly focuses on an area in East London called the Hackney Cut, part of the canal that cuts away from the River Lee, and now sits in the shadow of the new Olympic Park. This is an artist lead project, so we volunteers conduct the oral history interviews with locals who have memories/experience of the Cut and the artists use them as inspiration for art work. This is run by [SPACE], an arts organisation, based in Hackney that provides studio spaces for artists to work in and exhibit work, and is funded by the HLF.

Olympic Stadium from the Hackney Cut, Jonathan Eudall Nov 2010

Both projects, though quite different in style and focus have one main objective in common, to record a part of history that may otherwise be forgotten or at least not recorded in some way.

Many interviewees ask why their story is important, and it’s my job to explain that in years to come we’ll have the official record of how a company functioned, or where houses were built, but that isn’t the same as an account of the atmosphere of a factory, or why they enjoy living on the canal. The small human details.

Consequently through these projects I feel that I have learnt a lot about oral history, what it is and how it is used. I also feel that I have helped contribute to worthwhile historical projects and through my role as interviewer become a part of those histories.

Please feel free to get in touch if you’d like to get involved with these projects, I’d be happy to forward the project coordinators details. It would also be great to hear about any other Oral History projects going on in London, or indeed the country or world!!