Perils from the East: Medieval Reflections on Existential Threats in a Time of Crisis by Andrew Jotischky

Almost from the moment that the Covid-19 virus began to spread in Hubei province in China, public discourses about the disease have focused on its geographical origins. As it swept westward to Europe and the USA, the geographical source of the virus became widely politicised. Even when challenged publicly on this point, President Trump has insisted on referring to Covid-19 in speeches and press conferences as ‘the Chinese virus’, while the term ‘Wuhan virus’ has been adopted by members of the US administration, and the derogatory ‘Kung Flu’ has been shared on social media. To an historian interested in identity formation, this desire to label threats according to geographical profiling is nothing new. As a medievalist, I am particularly struck by contemporary congruences about perceptions of the sources of danger and pestilence. It is, of course, a fact that Covid-19 originated in China, just as the bubonic plague of the fourteenth century spread from central Asia to Europe. Yet both in the Middle Ages and today, the source of disease as ‘eastern’ played into fears about existential threats posed by ‘the east’ less as specific geography than as dangerous ‘other’.

Chinatown Protest - anti-racist
Protesters in San Francisco’s Chinatown  last month calling for an end to anti-Chinese sentiment arising from advent of Covid-19 virus (Time)

It did not take the spread of a disease to bring these ideas to the fore in the Middle Ages. In the mid-eleventh century the monastic chronicler Ralph Glaber described a famine ‘that ravaged the whole earth.’ This famine, he declared, ‘began in the east, and after devastating Greece passed to Italy and thence to Gaul and the whole English people.’ Famine, to Ralph, had a pathology in the same way as disease: not only did it require a geographical point of origin, but that point was ‘the east.’

Image from Guibert of Nogent’s commentaries on Hosea, Amos and Lamentations depicting Guibert himself clothed in black offering his book to Christ.

One of the contemporary chroniclers of the First Crusade (1095-9), the French monk Guibert of Nogent, began his account with a reflection on the dangers posed by the east. The east, to Guibert, was an amorphous region that gave rise to all kinds of threats, both spiritual and bodily. It was no coincidence, he thought, that the Turks, the enemies of Christendom, came from the east, a place of confusion, doubt and error. Moreover, Christians living in the east were unable to combat this because they were weakened in body and mind by the lighter atmosphere of the eastern climate. The overriding psychological characteristic of eastern people, according to Guibert, was ‘lightness’ (levitas). This made eastern people, of whatever religion, clever and argumentative, but psychologically and spiritually unstable, and physically weaker than westerners whose blood was heavier. In consequence it fell to Europeans to rally to defend Truth by taking up arms to recapture Jerusalem. The motif of the easterner as essentially ‘unstable’ resonated among medieval Europeans. The early thirteenth century bishop James of Vitry echoed this view when he described Arabic-speaking indigenous Christians as inherently untrustworthy and mendacious, ‘prone to saying one thing while thinking another’.

The idea that western Europeans bore the burden of responsibility for ensuring stability in a dangerous world informed the historical viewpoint of the Cistercian monk and chronicler Otto of Freising (1114-58). Otto’s book The Two Cities was written as guidance for his nephew, Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa. Otto was convinced that successful and wise rulership was only possible if rulers knew their history (and who would argue with that?). Otto saw the history of human society as a geographical progression form east to west. Civilization had begun in the (Middle) east among the Assyrians, but had passed successively westwards to the Greeks, then the Romans, and now lay with western Europeans, whose task it now was to maintain Christian rulership as an earthly simulacrum of heavenly order.

Prester John from 1599 engraving - BM 2
Late 16th century portrait of the legendary Prester John, Christian King of medieval Ethiopia (British Museum)

Medieval Europeans were deeply ambivalent about ‘the east’. Otto of Freising was one of the earliest writers to comment on the legendary priest-king of the Indies, Prester John. This figure, fabulously wealthy and powerful, represented and transmitted a kind of fantasy world for medieval Europeans. At the height of the legend, Prester John was thought to rule over vast territories populated by fabulous flora and fauna, in which precious stones with magical properties could be picked up from river beds. The east was objectified as a place of marvels and wonders unknown in the West, a place of wealth and the source of the spices that Europeans were starting to crave in their diets. But it was also as a place of danger: the spices were guarded by fabulous beasts that included poisonous reptiles, snakes and dragons. Gerald of Wales, describing Ireland in the late twelfth century, contrasted its homely and pleasant but rather tame landscape with the east. There may be no marvels, no precious gems and no spices in Ireland, Gerald acknowledged, but at least one did not have to watch out for danger with the approach of every animal.

A hundred years after Gerald was writing, some Europeans were experiencing the East for themselves. But even the largely factual reports of Marco Polo and others could not dispel the idea that the east was the origin of unpredictable and uncontrollable marvels. One of the most widely-read books of the late Middle Ages, the Travels of John Mandeville, deliberately mixed heavy doses of this kind of fabulous material into an account of travel purporting to be factual. It seems that Medieval Europeans wanted their east to remain a place of fantasy even after more rational truths were available. What might seem merely absurd, even amusing, as a set of attitudes among people hundreds of years ago, however, is far from innocent in the twenty-first century. Social media posts about Covid-19 being the inevitable consequence of exotic Chinese tastes for bat soup and other supposedly ‘traditional’ delicacies using wild food play into stereotypes of the ‘oriental other’. Historians, especially, should know where such racial profiling can lead.


Andrew Jotischky is Professor of Medieval History at Royal Holloway, University of London. His research has focused on religion, especially Christianity, in the middle ages and his publications include Crusading and the Crusader States (2004), A Hermit’s Cookbook (2011) and, with Keith J. Stringer, The Normans and the Norman Edge (2019).

Foundation Stones: Can public participation in national commemoration form the building blocks for the future of Holocaust memory? by Hollie Witton

In recent years, perhaps the most powerful window into the Holocaust, one of the defining events of the 20th century, has been through the memories of survivors. Most are now in their 90s and these invaluable voices won’t be with us for much longer. We have therefore reached a pivotal moment in the sombre legacy of the Holocaust. As oral historians race to record and store the experiences of survivors, living memory is becoming testimony and life stories are being transformed into histories. It is thus worth considering how we will keep such a vital part of history alive and relevant for future generations when those who witnessed the Holocaust are no longer us? In essence, how do we educate and commemorate when we no longer have access to living, breathing history?

Foundation Stones
A selection of Foundation Stones

The power of commemoration at a time when events are passing from living memory can often be underestimated. Foundation Stones is a creative commemoration partnership between the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation and Big Ideas, an innovative community engagement organisation. As part of this ongoing project, members of the public are invited to paint a stone commemorating the six million Jewish men, women and children murdered in the Holocaust and all victims of Nazi persecution. People can also choose to dedicate their stones to victims of subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur. The project draws inspiration from the Jewish custom of leaving stones and pebbles on the headstones that mark the graves of loved ones as a token of respect and remembrance. These stones will be laid in the foundations of the new UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning centre to be built in Westminster in central London.

As far as I am aware, this is a unique approach to the creation of a national memorial and allows each individual participant in the project to make a pledge to remember and learn from the past. In a moving speech he gave at the United States Holocaust Museum in 1993, Elie Wiesel urged people to remember that ‘not only are we responsible for the memories of the dead, we are also responsible for what we are doing with those memories’. Instilling this sense of accountability into those who inherit the testimony of genocide survivors is a significant part of the power of the Foundation Stones project.

'Never again' - London
‘Never Again’

The permanency of stones serves, in the words of Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, to remind us ‘that the memory and legacy of those who perished in the Holocaust will endure forever’. The physical marking of this legacy with a foundation stone is particularly significant, as most of those killed in the Holocaust were not given their own graves. The Chief Rabbi, who supports the Foundation Stones project, has emphasised the ‘powerful and deeply symbolic act’ of incorporating so many individual stones into the foundation of a national Memorial and Learning centre and indeed, the beauty of each foundation stone lies in the individuality of its design. The impact upon the creator of each stone in those already submitted, particularly in the care taken with each mark made, is clear to see. Some stones are stark and simple messages of heartbreak and others a beautiful expression of colour and brightness, love, shock and empathy poured into a small, unexpected token of promise. A promise to never forget.

Although many participants have so far chosen to dedicate their stones in a commitment to peace or to all victims of genocide, some have been inspired by specific stories. One particularly moving tribute is a stone dedicated to the memory of Sonja Jaslowitz, a young Romanian woman who created poetry and art while enduring imprisonment in two concentration camps. Her work, written in a mixture of Romanian, German and French was preserved by her brother, Harry and translated into English by her mother, Lotte. The example below is an excerpt from a poem written on the 7th of March, 1944.

‘How can the sunshine glare so bright, when in my heart, there is no light?
Lilies of the valley, with fragrant breath, while my sobbing soul, embraces death.’(1)

Sonja was killed later that day, during a British Air Raid. She was 17 years old.

The Jaslowitz family, from left Sonja, Adolf, Lotte
Sonja Jaslowitz with her parents before the war [Wiener  Holocaust Library Collections]
Although she was clearly talented, Sonja’s circumstances render her words all the more powerful. She suffered unimaginably through her short life but her work shares her experience of being a sister, a daughter and ultimately a child. The ‘ordinary’ stories of people who were victims of the Holocaust serve to remind us how quickly disaster can strike when intolerance is allowed to thrive. In understanding the horrors of that time, we must acknowledge the number of people who were complicit in the suffering of the past and ask ourselves how we can make the choice not to be. Sonja’s story and those of literally millions of others are now the responsibility of all of us, a generation who, for the most part, have never had to live through such persecution and, we hope, never will.

Sonja Jaslowitz Stone
Foundation Stone dedicated to Sonja Jaslowitz

What can we do with this responsibility? Collective acts of commemoration such as the Foundation Stones project provide an excellent impetus for people to engage in public history, as the stories of so many individuals, both living now and living in memory, are given space to come to the fore. The construction of any new public building has the potential to be divisive, but the Foundation Stones project has a unifying sense of purpose and allows for the creation of a memorial that will be built on the hopes and commitments of people who have painted stones. A selection of Foundation Stones was exhibited at the reception to the Gedenkstunde zum Volkstrauertag (national day of mourning memorial service) held in the Bundestag in Berlin on 17 November, 2019. The positive response to the project at such a deeply moving and significant event suggested that the appeal of Foundation Stones is not only personal but universal. In the process of creating their individual stones, participants are encouraged to explore not only local history but the extensive existing pool of historical knowledge relating to the Holocaust. The stones displayed in Berlin were in part designed by young football players from England, who were also attending the commemoration. The young men were delighted to see that their contribution to the project had travelled so far and were keen to share their stories of commemoration with others at the service. This touching moment perfectly demonstrates the unifying potential of Foundation Stones, a project that enables people to make links that are both intergenerational and international.

Commemoration has the potential to provide a powerful connection not only with others in our own time but with history, allowing individuals to creatively engage with past events and, just as importantly, to question the present. Big Ideas is in the process of creating a digital record of all the stones created, in the hope that when participants visit to view their own stone, they may also engage with the stories that have inspired others. Throughout the darkest days of her life, Sonja Jaslowitz, as described in Memory Unbound, retained a ‘persistent sense of hope in the future’. With the ambitious commemoration project of the new UK Holocaust Memorial and Learning Centre, significant public attention will be drawn to her story and those of so many. Each Foundation Stone that is made in connection with this memorial is the opportunity for a personal pledge about standing up against all forms of hatred and prejudice, both in honour of the past and in hope for the future.

(1) Harry Jarvis Family Papers 1617/3/4. Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

Hollie Witton is an Assistant Producer of projects at Big Ideas, a London-based community interest organisation dedicated to promoting engagement with history and culture

Gender, Service and the Extraordinary Story of Leslie Joy Whitehead, Female Soldier of the First World War by Natasha Stoyce

As the first post-centenary Remembrance Sunday approaches, it seems timely to reflect on a remarkable but surprisingly overlooked figure who had a very full and colourful experience of the First World War. Although the work of all-female wartime organisations such as the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH) and Women’s Hospital Corps (WHC) have been recognised, the stories of individual Allied women and their contributions to the Great War have very rarely been brought to public attention. The Western Front was officially forbidden to women not serving in the military as nurses or auxiliaries. Conflict zones were deemed far too dangerous a place for the ‘weaker sex’ to be, with some considering it an abomination that the female life-giver should enter a battlefield where she could stand witness brutal and unrelenting death.

Milunka_Savić 2
Milkuna Savić, a peasant woman who joined the Serbian army in 1913 and served throughout the Great War.

On the Balkan Front, however, women soldiers were not unheard of and a number of Serbian peasant girls took up arms in the early months of the war to avenge fallen fathers, husbands, and brothers. It was thus that Yorkshire-born Flora Sandes was able to live out her childhood dream of being ‘storm’d at with shot and shell’ when she enlisted as a soldier in the Serbian Army, following her separation from her ambulance unit during the Great Serbian Retreat of 1915. For many years, Sandes’ story has been considered unique. And yet she was not the only Allied woman to enlist in the Serbian military during this conflict, as the case of the extraordinary Canadian, Leslie Joy “Jo” Whitehead, reveals.

Born on 26 February 1895, Jo was the eldest child and only daughter of Charles Ross Whitehead, a successful cotton manufacturer from Montmorency, Quebec, and Winifred Thomas Stevenson. Growing up with two younger brothers in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, Canada, Jo seems to have been something of a tom-boy in her childhood and adolescence. Indeed, her pursuits in adult life centred largely around what would have been deemed traditionally male activities. She took a keen interest in shooting, driving, and the great outdoors, and prior to the outbreak of the Great War spent ‘a couple of years’ living an ‘outdoor life’ alone ‘in the Laurentian mountains at Val Morina’. During her time in the Canadian Wilderness, the Toronto Daily Star reported that Miss Whitehead ‘wore semi-male garb on her tramps through the woods, and could handle a canoe or shoot better than most men’ and was ‘extremely fond of outdoor life’.

Jo Whitehead
Whitehead in her Serbian Relief Fund uniform, 1915.

It is not entirely surprising, then, that when war broke out, Jo resolved to get herself into the thick of the action. Though she ultimately aspired to work ‘as a motor transport or ambulance driver’ on the frontlines, a twenty-two year old Jo initially started her war-work in London. It was there that she, alongside ‘a batch of young ladies from Canada’, busied herself by ‘working long hours over the card index and the typewriter in order to,’ as the Yorkshire Evening Post reported in June 1915, ‘keep the people of’ her ‘own country informed of the condition of the wounded among the Canadian contingent’. The Post described ‘Miss Whitehead’ as ‘a lady volunteer of a very different kind,’ however, because she could ‘do almost anything in the out-of-door life’, and was ‘desirous of putting her handiness at the disposal of the military authorities’. Female auxiliaries would not be formally incorporated into the British forces on the Western Front until the end of 1917, so Jo decided to offer her services to Canada’s Balkan Allies in Serbia. It was thus that, in May 1915, she enlisted as an ambulance driver with the 1st Serbian Army via the Serbian Relief Fund (SRF).

Once in Serbia, Jo found herself more able to live the life of a man than ever before. Her time with the SRF, however, was to be cut short when on 8th October 1915 Serbia fell to the forces of Central Power. In a private letter she wrote to the President of the Great War Veterans Association of Montreal in August 1918, Jo states that the occupation of Serbia led her to serve with the 9th Serbian Regiment Danube Division ‘as an ordinary Infantry soldier having volunteered for this duty at the beginning of the retreat of 1915’. By the beginning of November 1915, Jo was working under occupation in the central Serbian city of Krushevatz (Kruševac), having ‘enlisted as a man’ in the Serbian Army. Under occupation, her masculine appearance, marksmanship and outdoor skills were to prove more vital than ever before and came in particularly useful for the SWH units, who had themselves become prisoners of war in occupied Serbia. Finding themselves frequently targeted by thieves in the form of desperate locals, prisoners, and enemy servicemen, the SWH recruited Jo as a ‘guard’ in the hope that she would help to deter the near-daily pillaging of resources and supplies.

And, in spite of her youth, she proved to herself to be a fearless soldier. When she encountered ‘three or four thieves trying to steal […] goods’ from within one of the SWH’s tents, ‘she chased them off, fired her revolver to scare them, caught one, and gave him in charge’. According to the SWH Valjevo Unit’s Dr Catherine Corbett, Jo was ‘quite ready to tackle any difficulty that [came] along’. In addition to scaring away thieves, Whitehead’s masculine gender performances and androgynous appearance proved useful in safeguarding the SWH from threats of sexual violence too. With her short hair and trousers, the occupying soldiers often mistook her for a male and on occasion, this led the enemy to confide in Whitehead their lewd desires for SWH members. With such inside knowledge, this female soldier was able to protect unit members from acts of sexual violence. She therefore proved to be a genuinely invaluable member of this organisation during this period.

‘From November 1915 until February 1916’, Jo writes, ‘I was captured [by the Bulgarians] and held as a prisoner of war at Krushevatz’. During her captivity, Jo is reported to have ‘aroused the suspicions of an Austrian officer’ because ‘she was not wearing skirts’, but ‘wore a Serbian hat’. According to a statement made by Nurse Hiney for the Irish Times, this officer believed Jo ‘was a spy,’ so ‘put her under confinement, and I understand that she had a very unfortunate experience’.

JW Serbian uniform
Whitehead in her Serbian Army uniform.

Life for a Serbian soldier as a Bulgarian prisoner of war would have been appalling. Vengeful following their defeat in the two Balkan Wars, the Bulgarians would routinely torture and maim their Serbian prisoners. It is likely that as a ‘male’ soldier of the Serbian Army, Jo suffered serious ill-treatment. Fortunately, however, her handiness did not go unnoticed by the enemy and by 24 November 1915, she found herself under the employment of ‘a German doctor’, for whom she tended to ‘some large and complicated disinfectors’. As German treatment of Prisoners of War was decidedly better than Bulgarian, this work would have been a ‘lucky break’ for this female soldier. Indeed, internment was by no means a completely unhappy experience, as Jo met and married her first husband, Vukota Vojinović (Voyinovitch), a lieutenant of the Serbian Army from the city of Užice, while held captive.

In February 1916, Vojinović and Jo were repatriated to Canada where she gave birth to their first child, a daughter named Mila, in October 1917. The couple went on to have a second child, a son named Miladin in 1923. The marriage was not to last, however, and Jo and Vukota divorced in the 1930s. By 1937 Jo had re-married a man named George Andrew Vaughan. Around this time she gave birth to a son named David John Vaughan, though it is uncertain if the child was fathered by her new husband. The pair remained married until George’s death in 1944. According to living descendants, Jo spent the entirety of her post-war life in Canada living as ‘a non-binary’ individual. She maintained her androgynous appearance and frequented a barber who was not aware that Jo was actually a female until after her death. Jo passed away in Princeton, Vancouver in 1964, aged 69 following a battle with carcinoma of the stomach. She died a widow and her final occupation has been noted down as a rancher.

Jo’s story, though a fascinating one, has been overlooked by the public and historians alike for over 100 years. This may, in part, have been due to her own desire for anonymity. In her 1918 letter to the Great War Veterans Association of Montreal, Jo states that she wishes for her war-work ‘to be considered confidential as I wish to avoid all publicity’. It is unlikely in any case that her example would have been widely publicised by the authorities during this period as it was strictly prohibited for women to become combatants and fight in the theatres of war. Yet although the true reasons for the relative lack of interest in this extraordinary female soldier are difficult to discern, one thing is certain. With the revelation of Jo’s history it becomes clear that the presence of Allied women as soldiers on the frontlines of the Great War was more prevalent than previously believed. This, in turn, suggests there is more work yet to be done on the subject of Allied women’s military service during the ‘war to end all wars’.


Natasha Stoyce is a final year doctoral student at the University of Leicester. Her PhD project is the first to explore the Scottish Women’s Hospitals’ Serbian Unit’s (SWHSU) gendered and medical experiences during the Great War.

Reflections on Brexit, ‘Britishness’ and ‘British’ institutions by Sarah Ansari

The issue of ‘Britishness’ clearly underpins much of the current crisis facing the UK: how, in these uncertain post-Referendum/pre-Brexit times, is ‘Britishness’ understood, who belongs, and, importantly, who is excluded? With 31 October looming ominously, the future well-being of core British institutions is generating enormous anxiety. In the case of the UK’s ‘flagship’ National Health Service (NHS), doctors’ representatives and members of the public alike are warning that a no-deal Brexit poses an existential danger to public health, threatening shortages not just of trained staff but of medicines ranging from flu vaccines to anti-cancer drugs. Earlier this month, an open letter to MPs written by the chief executives of three key health charities (the King’s Fund, the Health Foundation and the Nuffield Trust) jointly summarised the major areas where a no-deal Brexit would be felt most sharply in health and care, which included increasing already serious workforce problems in the NHS and scarcity and seriously increased costs of essential medical supplies.

NHS Immigrant Staff 2
Immigrant staff at Homerton Hospital in London celebrate their diverse national and ethnic backgrounds, June 2016 [posted on Facebook by Junaid Masood]
However, while many of us are collectively holding our breath when it comes to what will or will not happen next on the Brexit front, it is worth taking a moment to think historically about what constitutes a ‘British’ institution. Let’s take the Royal Navy, for example, which defended the nation against its continental foes during the early 1800s. Perhaps more than any other institution, the Royal Navy in its heyday epitomised ‘Britishness’ – in the words of its own website, ‘the history of the United Kingdom is the history of the Royal Navy’. But we should not forget that over 20 nationalities are recorded as having fought on Nelson’s ship ‘The Victory’ at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. As the very timely research undertaken by Sarah Caputo, a PhD student at Cambridge, has highlighted, during the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) the Royal Navy recruited thousands of foreign – non-British – sailors, but the national status of these men did not diminish or prevent their contribution to what at the time were seen as Britain’s vital interests.

The Hero of Trafalgar
‘Trafalgar’, an 1898 print by William Overend depicts Nelson on the deck of the Victory, shortly before his death [Greenwich Maritime  Museums]

Ever since it emerged ‘kicking and screaming into life’ in July 1948, the NHS has come to symbolise the kind of ‘Britishness’ about which many people in this country have felt justifiably proud. For the first time anywhere in the world, completely free healthcare was made available on the basis of citizenship rather than the payment of fees or insurance. But like its nineteenth-century naval predecessor, this particularly British institution came to be increasingly staffed by people who arrived from elsewhere to work in it, and sustain its reputation. The early recruitment of nurses and doctors from the Commonwealth, for instance, is widely recognised as having underpinned its operation over the last seven decades. This is not to say that the public response to the NHS’s diverse workforce has always been a positive one. Roberta Bivins has recently highlighted the extent to which it was the work of so-called ‘racialised migrants’ in the NHS that was most frequently visualised in the press, and often in a negative fashion, something that was highly revealing of perceptions of race and ethnicity in post-war Britain. But as of March 2019 13.1% of NHS staff reported a non-British nationality, hailing collectively from around 200 countries.

Cartoon by ‘Giles’, Sunday Express, September 1958. Roberta Bivins has explored this and other images that interpret the theme of race in the NHS [20th Century British History]
The history of British universities looks pretty similar. For decades UK higher education has been touted as one of the country’s finest exports to the world. International mobility has for long been integral to this ‘national’ success story. UK universities have indisputably benefitted from possessing a highly international workforce, which before the Second World War included refugee scholars fleeing from Nazism. If we fast-forward to 2015, over a quarter of academic staff (28% of nearly 200,000) were non-UK nationals, 60% of whom hailed from the EU. Only Switzerland at that time could boast a more internationally mobile set of people working in this sector. By 2017-18 (that is after the Brexit referendum) the proportion of academic staff coming from outside the UK had risen to 31% according to HESA ‘facts and stats’. The study of History, like many other academic disciplines, is hugely enriched by being able to draw on the range of historical perspectives that a diverse workforce offers. As with the NHS, however, uncertainties over Brexit have taken a direct toll on the global standing of British universities, adding to existing financial pressures that were already creating problems as far as sustaining their collective reputational status was concerned.

So while many of us may well be focusing with trepidation on what ‘Britishness’ in a recalibrated post-Brexit future will look like, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the deeply international character of institutions, both past and present, that have been or currently are regarded as quintessentially ‘British’.


Sarah Ansari is Professor of South Asian History at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her latest book, Boundaries of Belonging: Localities, Citizenship and Rights in India and Pakistan, will be published by Cambridge University Press in November 2019.


Mere Bodies No More: Hallie Rubenhold’s The Five by Felicia El Kholi

During the night of the 30th of September 1888 – almost exactly 131 years ago – two women were struck by a terrible fate that would bind them together forever despite never having known each other in their lifetimes. One of them was Elizabeth Stride, a Swedish immigrant who’d once run a coffee house, and the other was Catherine (Kate) Eddowes, who used to tour the country with her partner, writing and selling ballads.

Today, Elizabeth and Catherine are not remembered for who they’d been during their lives but only – if at all – for the tragic circumstances of their deaths. Everyone, however, will recognise the name of the man who brutally took their lives, Jack the Ripper. The lives of Elizabeth, Kate and the other three women whose murders have been attributed to the Ripper, are rarely considered in any detail, while their killer has been elevated into modern mythology. He has become a legend, and as such still captures the imagination of many, over 130 years after he committed his gruesome crimes. Even in the historiography of the Ripper, the women’s life stories are often little more than a side-note in the quest to uncover the killer’s identity. In death, the women are reduced to mere bodies that serve the sole purpose of illustrating their murderer’s ‘MO’.

Cover of the Five 2.jpgIn her latest book, The Five, Hallie Rubenhold attempts to redress this imbalance, and offers some truly revelatory insights. Most of what is known about the five women is derived from witness statements given during the coroners’ inquests; however, these are superficial and generally unreliable accounts. Rubenhold therefore delves deep into other forms of archival material, tracing the women’s lives through their ups and downs. By reconstructing their lives from beginning to end as best as the records allow, Rubenhold presents the women in their full human experience. They were living, breathing, feeling beings, leading real lives. They were daughters, sisters, wives and mothers, who have been reduced to empty shells by an unjust, sensationalist society. By tracing the lives of the Ripper’s five victims, the author skilfully untangles the “web of assumptions, rumours and unfounded speculation” in which they had been trapped for well over a century.

Rubehold dispels perhaps the biggest assumption of them all when she asserts that there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that three of the women killed by the notorious serial killer – Polly, Annie, and Kate – ever prostituted themselves. What’s more, considering the evidence, she convincingly argues that all of the women were murdered while sleeping rough in the streets of Whitechapel, and not, contrary to what we’ve all previously accepted as fact, after they were lured into dark places for sex. It had been established that the women were killed while in a reclining position, and at least three of the women were known to sleep on the streets on nights when they didn’t have the money for a lodging house. This quite ground-breaking claim is strongly supported by the evidence Rubenhold has uncovered. It also simply makes sense. Even though the police were known to be unable to reliably identify sex workers, the narrative about a killer deliberately targeting women of ‘bad character’ suited them as well as the newspapers. But it seems utterly inconceivable that this narrative has been perpetuated for well over a century without anyone really questioning it, until now.

There have been many glowing reviews of The Five, and in my opinion, it deserves all the praise it gets. It is a triumph. Not only is it thoroughly researched, it is also beautifully written. Rubenhold’s careful assessment of the evidence, compassionate and empathetic prose, and incorporation of wider historic context that is detailed enough to really get a good impression of the era, but not so overwhelming as to lose focus, all make for a spectacular micro-history. The Five not only paints an image of life in that ‘human awful wonder of God’ that was nineteenth-century London, but also seeks to give voices to those who can no longer speak for themselves, or indeed never even had the opportunity to do so during their lifetimes. Rubenhold reveals the complex lives of five women who descended into poverty and shared a fate that was not particularly uncommon among their contemporaries. By telling their stories, re-evaluating the evidence and peering beyond the surface, some humanity is at last restored to Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate, and Mary Jane.

Ripper Press 2
The ‘Whitechapel Murders’, as reported in the Police News, September 1888

Having studied the Victorian period extensively, I am familiar with the ‘inner circle of hell’ that was the East End of the nineteenth century. I’ve studied many of the sources on which Rubenhold draws to illustrate the harrowing conditions in this part of town, many of which I found difficult to read, leaving me feeling everything from slightly uneasy to utterly appalled and heartbroken. Reading these women’s stories was certainly not the first time I’d been confronted with the fragility of life in this age, particularly for the poor and particularly for poor women. I’ve come across plenty of accounts in which people’s circumstances changed quite literally overnight, usually with catastrophic repercussions. But The Five just demonstrated all of this perfectly, and its sympathetic narrative is deeply moving even to someone who’d been aware of both the lack of structural support as well as the horrendous conditions in Whitechapel, where, by the end of the nineteenth century, 78,000 people lived crammed into lodging houses. Rubenhold invokes these images in a masterly fashion and takes the reader on a deeply immersive journey. Shifting the focus away from sex to issues such as poverty, addiction and social inequality makes the experience even richer. She has once more shown that the values of the Victorian world were male, authoritarian, and middle-class – nothing new for people who’ve engaged with this period to some extent, rendering the fact that this narrative has not been questioned until now even more inexcusable. Indeed, as I read The Five, I felt disappointed in myself for simply accepting the narrative that’s been perpetuated for so long. But apart from making me feel guilty, it’s also been a great inspiration and is exactly the kind of history I would want to write. For me – and I know I’m not alone in this – The Five is a game changer.

Annie Chapman - wedding day
One of the Ripper’s Victims, Annie Chapman, on her wedding day, 1867

Despite all the praise the book has justly earned, one particular group has taken offence at Rubenhold’s claims. A huge wave of negative comments from the Ripperologist community – self-proclaimed Ripper experts – followed the book’s publication. Indeed, even before that point, they were not too shy to voice their grievances. What seems to irk these Ripper ‘enthusiasts’ so much about The Five is that Rubenhold – an ‘outsider’ – dares to question the conventional narrative, revisits and uncovers evidence, and ends up with new conclusions that happen to conflict with theirs. Their reactions have often been extremely hostile; pages upon pages of attacks and abuse have been written in online forums dedicated to the serial killer, seemingly picking apart every page of the book. And many have, rather impressively, managed to do so without actually reading the monograph.

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Hallie Rubenhold, author of The Five

Not a member of their community, Rubenhold apparently has no right to challenge the ‘facts’ that were established over a century ago. They clearly feel a strong sense of ownership over the Jack the Ripper narrative, and consequently also over these women’s lives. It’s unsurprising that Rubenhold’s assertion there is simply no reliable evidence that three of the women were professional prostitutes causes particular affront to them. They are unwilling to accept the facts that the author exposed because believing that the Ripper’s victims were sex workers, and, as such, fallen women, somehow means that these ‘bad’ women somehow had it coming, or were people for whom getting killed was an occupational hazard, lending the Ripper’s crimes a certain legitimacy. It’s plain misogyny, really.

Although Rubenhold herself said that she’d anticipated some backlash and has proven to be perfectly capable of dealing with trolls – her sparring with the openly sexist Trevor Marriot was particularly admirable – no one could have foreseen the viciousness of these attacks. She has, believe it or not, even been compared to Holocaust denier David Irving. She’s been accused of both pursuing a feminist #MeToo agenda as well as ‘whorephobia’. Not infrequently, it has got very personal. Even as an observer, it’s tiresome to say the least, and I do worry that reactions such as the ones exhibited by the Ripperologist community will deter young historians and writers from re-examining conventionally accepted narratives. But this is important work and a significant part of being a historian. Considering just how well known the Jack the Ripper murders are, and the vast literature and other resources available, it’s shocking that it’s taken this long for a thorough biography of the women to appear. It’s a blatant omission.

Yet, the women whose lives had been considered unworthy of closer investigation have finally had their stories told. And they’re being heard, too. Judging from reviews and comments on social media, The Five has had a huge impact on those who’ve read it. People have organised walking tours that focus on the five women’s lives rather than deaths, teachers have amended lesson content, and many have started conversations about how we view murder victims for our own entertainment. ‘True crime’ shows and podcasts are incredibly popular while serial killers such as, a more recent example, Ted Bundy still exert a peculiar fascination. Rubenhold’s mission to reclaim the women whose disturbing autopsy photos can be easily accessed on the internet from the “pornography of violence” into which their identities have disappeared, and to encourage conversation about this topic is truly inspirational. No amount of online trolling will diminish her achievements, nor will it stop her research from spreading. The truth is out!


Felicia El Kholi is a graduate of the MA in Public History programme at Royal Holloway, University of London and Heritage Intern at the Association of Anaesthetists Heritage Centre.


We need to talk about the Good Friday Agreement … by Sarah Campbell

There has been a lot of talk and speculation recently about Brexit undermining the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement (GFA) because it may impose a hard border, and the current peace process is predicated on an open border. Indeed, the bomb explosion in Fermanagh on 19 August has been linked to ongoing negotiations over the backstop and the political stalemate in Stormont. Some of these assertions are problematic. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but GFA is not a buffet. You can’t pick the bits you like (its position on the border, for instance) and ignore the parts that are complex and take more energy to implement (such as cultural rights and transitional justice).

Bono joins hands with Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble and Nationalist Leader John Hume at pro-Belfast Agreement concert, 1998 [Paul Faith]
For the last two decades, both the Irish and British governments, and the media, have congratulated themselves on a job well done, missing the fact that the 1998 agreement was merely the start of the process, not its conclusion. Indeed, what we currently have is more of an armistice than a peace process. There may be a reduction in large-scale violence – and this is a good thing – but meaningful reconciliation seems as unattainable now as it was in the 1970s, and a genuine commitment from the British and Irish governments has slipped far down both of their priorities and agendas.

Members of the Orange Order marching in Belfast, July 2016 [Business Times]
In recent months, I’ve lost count of the number of politicians and political commentators who have warned that Brexit is jeopardising the peace process, and a return to direct rule will ‘put the Good Friday Agreement in the bin’. Without downplaying the impact that Brexit will have in Ireland, North and South, I think it’s time we were realistic about the health of the Agreement. At the risk of stating the obvious, the problems in Northern Ireland predate Brexit. The suspension of the Stormont Parliament in 2017 had nothing to do with the border or Britain’s imminent departure from the EU. The backstop, a soft Brexit, or even the overturning of the 2016 referendum result, will not solve the problems there. Rather, the collapse of power-sharing is the result of two decades of political neglect by the British and Irish governments.

The increase in activity by dissident republicans in the last two years is not due to Brexit, but rather to poverty, inequality and austerity – the same problems that existed in the 1960s. Some may argue that Brexit will exacerbate these issues, and while that may be true, it is disingenuous to put all the blame there. Those who voice these concerns do so because the ceasefire is under threat, not the peace process. In truth, it is arguable that Northern Ireland has even experienced a peace process in the last two decades.

Twenty years on, and the Assembly, the Northern Ireland Executive, the Consultative Civic Forum, and the North-South Ministerial Council are not working. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference has held just two meetings in twelve years and the Assembly has been suspended as often as it has been in operation. Indeed, in 2013 Richard Haass, the American diplomat who was tasked with finding a way forward on the intractable issue of dealing with the past, warned that Northern Ireland could no longer be held up as a model of conflict resolution because, despite some movement in terms of residential segregation and shared schooling, the fundamental divisions remained unchanged: over 93 percent of children are still educated separately, interface walls continue to divide communities, and sectarian riots are accepted as routine annual events. Both unionists and republicans/nationalists remain entrenched in their imagined pasts. Since 1999, there have been annual disputes over Orange Order parades, with a violent standoff at New Lodge this summer, with paramilitary undertones. Dissident republicanism has been on the rise since 2009, when the Real IRA shot dead two soldiers at Massereene Barracks in County Antrim. The latest bombing in Fermanagh may be using Britain’s difficulty over a no-deal Brexit to grasp an opportunity at Irish unity, but dissident republicans would have found other opportunities had the issue of Brexit not developed.

Like other societies transitioning from conflict, Northern Ireland continues to be haunted by legacy issues and the intractable question of how to deal with the past. It has not been for the want of trying. Since 1998, there have been numerous attempts to create the ‘architecture’ needed to deal with the past, including Sir Kenneth Bloomfield’s ‘We Will Remember Them’ report, the Eames-Bradley Report, the Haass-O’Sullivan negotiations, and the Stormont House Agreement. The main problem is that political parties keep getting bogged down in issues of blame, and the legal, political, and societal strands of the process are entangled. This means that progress on issues like an oral history archive, a timeline of events, and information recovery are log-jammed.

British Soldiers on Patrol in Belfast, 1972 2
British Soldiers on patrol in Belfast, August 1972

It is not denied that both the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement (2006) have prevented the return of large-scale violence; however, the model on offer from the top is peace without reconciliation. It is not just intractable issues of flags, parades and dealing with the past that are hampering progress; there is also a failure to advance ‘bread and butter’ issues such as health, welfare and education, and the region ranks among the slowest in its recovery from recession for the UK as a whole. There has been little change in poverty rates over the past decade, and welfare reforms currently being rolled out by a Tory government, whose economic policy for the last ten years in power has been one of austerity, will have a negative impact on the most vulnerable households and will result in increasing child poverty and destitution rates.

What is jeopardising the return of a functioning Executive to Northern Ireland more than Brexit is the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement between the Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party. Whether this arrangement would have been made if the Tories were not trying to get their Brexit deal through the Commons is debatable, but it confirms beyond doubt that the British government is not a neutral, non-partisan broker between the protagonists in Stormont, and this realisation puts the future of the GFA in doubt. Both the Downing Street Declaration (1993) and the Good Friday Agreement unequivocally stated that Britain had ‘no selfish or strategic interest’ in remaining in Northern Ireland and agreed to the principle of self-determination on the basis of consensus of the people. In January 2019, the British government declared that it would ‘never be neutral in expressing our support for the Union. Our steadfast belief is that Northern Ireland’s future is best served within a stronger United Kingdom’. While the language change is subtle, the increased tensions between the British and Irish governments in recent months, as well as Boris Johnson’s dismissal of Sinn Féin’s suggestion that there should be a referendum on Irish unity in the event of a no-deal Brexit, demonstrates that this significant advance of the peace process is now in doubt. Not only that, but it is also becoming alarmingly clear that the Irish government is getting cold feet on the issue of Irish unity, despite accepting it as a legitimate political position in 1998.

It is difficult to predict what might happen in Northern Ireland if Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal. What is clear, however, is that Brexit or not, the Good Friday Agreement is on life support, and it’s hard to see it pulling through.


Sarah Campbell is Lecturer in Modern British and Irish History at Newcastle University and author of Gerry Fitt and the SDLP: In a Minority of One (2015).

Operation Pied Piper and Inter-generational Learning: Using Second World War Evacuee Letters to Teach History by Claudine Fortin

During a particularly rainy summer seventy-five years ago, the largest evacuation of people in the history of Britain was being planned. As Europe edged ever-closer to war, the government put its plan to move vulnerable members of society out of harm’s way into action. A strategy for evacuation in the case of enemy attack had been sketched as early as 1931 and the government ultimately opted against forced last-minute evacuation, which officials feared would lead to countrywide panic. Instead, everything was planned to the minute and on a voluntary basis, the authorities circulating multiple calls for the registration of children and their mothers and the elderly. Families were openly informed of ongoing plans and it was decided that the children should be evacuated according to their schools in order to ensure a more orderly process.

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Evacuee children from Myrdle School in Stepney make their way to the local station with their parents early in the morning of 1 September, 1939 [IWM D 1939A]
The planning and organisation of the evacuation was left to a sub-division of the Imperial Defence Committee, known as the Anderson Committee, and implemented by the Ministry of Health. The children that were sent abroad were under the supervision of the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB), a government-sponsored organisation which was ultimately shut down when several ships carrying children were torpedoed while crossing the Atlantic.

The first rumblings of what would become known as Operation Pied Piper began at 4.00 a.m. on the morning of 1st of September 1939, fully two days before the British declaration of war against Germany. During the first few days of that fateful month, more than 3.5 million British people left the major cities to seek refuge in the countryside and overseas. Of this number, at least a million and a half were schoolchildren and mothers with young children, many of them leaving London and the other cities for the first time. An unusual sight, as they carried pillowcases full of essential belongings, while grasping gas masks and wearing tags indicating their name and home addresses,  neither children nor parents knew the final destination, but at least they were with their classmates.

Some children returned to London just a few weeks later only to be evacuated again. Others came home at the very end of the conflict to piles of rubble where their homes had once stood.

One of the key bodies of primary evidence for exploring this extraordinary moment in British history was produced by the evacuated children themselves. Many of the hundreds of thousands of letters they wrote home are easily accessible and offer us a unique insight into the thoughts, emotions and survival instincts of these often very resilient children. Several hundred of these letters have been preserved by the Imperial War Museum and are invaluable as historical sources and fascinating in simple human terms. Not only do these letters give us an idea of life in the countryside at the time, they also tell us what the children understood of the world at war and shed valuable light on the ways in which the conflict affected their everyday lives.

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Poster announcing disruption to rail services during evacuations [IWM PST 3362]
I recently had the privilege of meeting Kitty Baxter, who was herself evacuated on September 1st 1939, which also happened to be her 9th birthday. Along with her classmates, she was told to pack for a little trip, and each day they brought their filled pillowcases to school since the administration did not know the exact date of evacuation. She was evacuated with her two older sisters with the precise instructions from their mother that they should not be separated at any point. Evidently, at the other end of the voyage, this request wasn’t fully respected, and Kitty was sent out with her older sister only, her middle sister, Mary, being chosen first by an influential family who decided they only wanted one child. To make sense of her experience, Kitty assigned one word to each of her three evacuations: the first, horrible, the second, interesting, and the third, fun. She attributes this variety mainly to the basic elements of the environment and the different people with whom she lived. The first family made her work like a servant, the second one didn’t really care for her and let her explore all the time, whereas her third billeting was in a brothel. She tells these stories as though they happened yesterday, remembering small details and forgetting major ones.

A lifetime of experience has passed and Kitty is now in her mid-eighties, but the memories are still there, especially those linked with her senses. With each memory, she conjures a scent, a sound, or even a specific taste. She remembers her mother crying when they left the station the first time and when her little brother died of shelter cough. She remembers coming back home for the second time because her dad was killed in action in Italy. And although she received many letters from her mother during her first evacuation, she never got to read them because the housekeeper didn’t give them to her so as to keep her busy with work. She shares the memory of how her middle sister was crying when they were reunited with her because she didn’t want to go home. Mary had apparently enjoyed a perfect life at her billet, with a whole new family with money. The Baxter sister each had three different stories, and three different narratives of evacuation, and the same could be said of every child evacuee.

Evacuee letter
Letter written in November by 1941 by Alan, an evacuated boy, about what he’d like for his birthday [Lewisham Archives]
Kitty didn’t actually get to write letters during her time away from home, but there is an abundance of material available to us from other children. The archives at the Imperial War Museum are home to numerous boxes of letters that map the individual experience of evacuees. For the final project of my MA in Public History, I decided to drawn on these letters to build a workshop/educational pack about Operation Pied Piper for children aged 9 – 11. The benefit of this type of material is the direct link between the past and the present, since we can access the letters and read directly what the person was thinking. For children today, learning about a dramatic episode of their country’s past through the words of another child presents a wonderful opportunity to create a bridge through time.

They get to learn about what it meant to spend a birthday away from mum and dad, how Alan from Lewisham had to thank his parents from a distance for his birthday presents as it was too dangerous for him to travel in the middle of the Blitz. They get to understand how frustrating it was to have to wait at least two days for the mail to arrive, like Kathleen who had to wait anxiously for news from her parents when their home was bombed. To read these letters is to realize what an extraordinary impact the war had on everyday lives, despite, indeed often because of, attempts to physically put children at a remove from danger. Surprisingly, the letters almost never mention the actual conflict, apart from talking about planes and the V1/V2 rockets that could see in the daytime sky later in the war. This allows the children participating in the workshop to learn about the war on a level that would not have been available in a standard context.

As part of the workshop, 21st century children also get to connect with their past even more with a letter-writing activity, allowing them to fill the shoes of an evacuee billeted in Kent, away from everything familiar and facing the prospect of life on a farm. The next step is to find more former evacuees who would be ready to share their experience of writing home from a strange environment directly with the children in the classrooms, of being sent far from home for reasons that must have been quite unclear to the average eight year-old at the time. The power of oral history can thus be used to create a deeper connection and a broader understanding of the impact of the conflict.

The multiplicity of experiences the evacuated children encountered make this moment in time particularly worthy of study, since it touches on social, cultural, political and childhood history. For now, the evacuations remain very much within living memory, and many former evacuees are willing to share their experiences with the children of today. The 75th anniversary of Operation Pied Piper thus presents a unique opportunity for intergenerational exchange and learning about the past.


Claudine Fortin is a graduate of the Université de Montréal and is currently enrolled on the MA in Public History programme at Royal Holloway, University of London.

The Edinburgh Fringe: Where It Began and Where It Might Go Next by Tasha Kitcher

Over the past couple of weeks, a number of Edinburgh Fringe venues have announced their 2019 programmes. With just three months to go until the city opens its gates once more to thousands of artists and audiences, questions over the legitimacy of the festival have been coming to the fore and I’ve been thinking about the historical origins of this extraordinary event. The Fringe emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War, on the outskirts of the high-brow International Festival, with a philosophy of open access woven into its roots. And yet today, it is the biggest arts festival in the world with daunting accommodation costs and an undeniable commercialisation to boot. Are we losing the Fringe?

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Billy Connolly and the Offshore Theatre Company performing at the Fringe, 1972 (The Scotsman)

I have had the pleasure of visiting the Edinburgh Fringe festival twice; once as an audience member and the second time (2018) as a front of house volunteer. During my time as a volunteer I was lucky enough to have a pass that granted me free access to a wide variety of venues. In exchange for this, I shared a bedroom with five strangers, in a house with around thirty other individuals. I worked six to eight hours a day, six days a week, and experienced the underbelly of the Fringe. From the hardworking artists, to the vomiting audience members, to the irritated tourists who had seriously mis-timed their visit to Scotland’s city of culture; I saw it all.

At one point during last year’s Fringe, renowned theatre reviewer Lynn Gardner tweeted “Edinburgh is full”, suggesting that the whole thing had simply become too big. It is this phenomenon, of a city that has truly reached capacity, that now threatens the future of the Fringe. My experience alone, in a crowded house with a frustratingly busy commute to work, was definitely coloured by overpopulation.

So it seems worth remembering that the Fringe wasn’t always like this.
The story of the birth of the Fringe festival is, fittingly, a story of uninvited guests. In 1947, as part of a movement to celebrate European culture and provide entertainment for a country struggling after the horrors of the Second World War, an International Festival was formed in Edinburgh; the same festival which still runs today.

While the International Festival invited the some of the world’s best performers to the Scottish capital, eight theatre companies took it upon themselves to reap the rewards of a city overflowing with culture-vultures. Performing in smaller venues around the ‘fringes’ of Edinburgh, these companies attracted audiences that the curators of the International Festival had not expected. Drama had been excluded from the International Festival’s programme because it was considered too low-brow; not cultured enough for their international audience. However, the success of these eight companies proved there was an audience for drama whether the elite thought there should be or not, and the Fringe Festival was born.

1971 Festival Fringe Club Membership Card
Festival Fringe Club membership, 1971 (WikiCommons)

Throughout the 1950s, the Fringe developed its identity. Often defined by what it wasn’t more than what it was, the Fringe was firstly dramatic, not musical, and secondly contemporary, not classical. Crucially, the festival was open to all, with cheap tickets and a friendly atmosphere for anyone who wanted to engage with the arts. A stark contrast to the International Festival, at which artists performed by invitation only.

In the 1960s, the International Festival brought the now famous Cambridge Footlights and Oxford Theatre Group to an event called Beyond the Fringe in an attempt to rival the success of the low-brow upstart. In response, satire boomed at the Fringe and remains an essential element of the entertainment today.

The Festival Fringe Society formed in 1958 and brought a certain amount of administrative order to the annual event. The society provided information to artists, published a programme of events, and created a central box office which still exists (although now with updated technology). In 1971, 78 companies performed at the Fringe – a big step up from the eight that started it all twenty years earlier, but still nothing compared to the huge numbers that take to the Fringe today. By the eighties, it was the largest festival in the world.

Now, all of this seems to be under threat.

Street performer at the 2008 Fringe (Sappybex – Flickr)

Last year there were 3,548 shows at the Fringe; meaning approximately 57,000 performances occurred over the three weeks of the festival. To understand the pressures this puts on the city, you only need to consider that the population of Edinburgh, according to the 2016 census, is approximately 465,000. Last year’s Fringe alone attracted 4,500,000 audience members to the city. It is not surprising that people are pressed for space. I may have slept in a house with thirty people, but, by all accounts, this was a privilege in comparison to the performers’ annual pilgrimage to Scotland. With increased demand for living space, prices are naturally rising and now the festival is faced with a dilemma. Originally a festival designed to celebrate art and make it more accessible, whatever the elite might say about it, the Fringe is now a festival where creatives struggle to make ends meet.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this crisis started. The Herald has suggested that fears the Festival is too big for the city “is a question almost as old as the first posters for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.” But, with ticket sales increasing by 5% between 2017 and 2018 alone, it seems that the rate of growth in Edinburgh today is an unprecedented and unsustainable issue. I wonder to what extent the creation of the Festival Fringe Society can be held accountable for the current crisis. After all, the Fringe was born naturally out of spontaneous action and companies ignoring the opinion of cultural and administrative elites. The society formalised the existence of the festival, and today has three goals: to support participants, assist audiences, and promote the festival. This seems to suggest that the group’s primary objective is audience participation rather than artist performance.

The society has tried to avoid influencing the intended spontaneity and open access philosophy of the performances. Indeed their constitution dictates that they should not play any role in vetting the programme.

Rowan Atkinson Fringe 1976 (BBC) 2
A young Rowan Atkinson performing at the Fringe, 1976 (BBC)

I wonder, though, is it enough for the Festival Fringe Society to simply avoid limiting artists’ access to the festival? At a time when the festival has become beyond the reach of so many, should someone be actively trying to make the festival more accessible to performers? If not, I suspect its death might be as sudden as its birth. On March 16th this year, the society launched its “put up a performer” campaign, seeking to place performers in spare bedrooms of residents throughout the city. They claim they want to connect residents with artists, for experience, rather than to pave the way for residents to turn more profit from the transaction. A nice idea, although I must admit I am a little sceptical about it. Last year I met many Edinburgh residents who moved outside the city boundaries during the Fringe, to rent their flat for an extraordinary fee while they simply commuted to work for the month. And why shouldn’t they? While the over-population of the Fringe is clearly a problem, completely overwhelming the city every August, the £280 million of revenue it produces for the local economy is surely enough to enable many residents to see some virtue in the event. The society’s attempts to reduce these profits while allowing the Fringe to continue growing is almost counterintuitive.

Ultimately, the issue at stake here is not really one of overcrowding. The bigger issue is who is forced out once the city reaches capacity. As demand for space increases, only one thing can happen; prices will go up. I doubt the Fringe Society will overcome the economic law that increased demand for a limited resource will create inflation. As prices go up, working-class artists will be forced to find an alternative space to perform and experiment. It is simply too expensive to live in Edinburgh during the Fringe, while facing the costs necessary to put on a show.

And this is the one thing of which I am quite confident – once these groups are forced out of Edinburgh, they will go somewhere else. I think much of the fear-mongering surrounding the Fringe today orbits the idea that if the Fringe becomes too expensive for artists, the art will stop happening. We only need to look to the history of the festival itself to see this is false. If artists are not invited to perform, they will perform somewhere else. Just as the eight companies were not invited to the International Festival in 1947, these artists today will find their own space and their own audience whether the powers that be help them or not.

Art will always find a home, and the Edinburgh Fringe has plenty of years left in it yet. This is not to say that the festival won’t continue to evolve through time. And, perhaps, just like the eight groups that invited themselves to Edinburgh in 1947, a new festival will emerge to rival the Fringe. If it does, I’m sure it will be started by someone you didn’t invite, and made by someone you didn’t expect.


Tasha Kitcher is a student on the MA in Public History programme at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Body Worlds: An Open Dissection by Darcy Rae

Upon entry to the Body Worlds exhibition in its new home in London, the dark lighting and vast ceiling only heighten the sense of anticipation at what lies ahead. A short video at the beginning of the exhibition highlights the stresses and strains of a modern-day life and the pressures it puts on our mind and body, and quickly establishes that the exhibition is designed to be an educational, thought-provoking experience. Around the corner, and setting the scene of the true attraction of Body Worlds, the first plastinated body is seated, posing nonchalantly. The skin on the model has been stripped away to reveal the muscles and tendons which stretch over every bone. The information card told me that this was the body from a public dissection performed by Von Hagens in 2002, the first in the UK for 170 years.

I have followed the work of the Gunther von Hagens’, German anatomist and the creator of plastination, for a number of years online and his work was every bit as spectacular as I had hoped when I finally got to see it. His first public dissection in Britain was highly controversial at the time and Von Hagen’s work continues to be just as provocative and contentious today. Over 1,000 people were on the waiting list to view the autopsy in 2002, and, despite being issued with a warning under the 1984 Anatomy Act, Von Hagens boldly declared that he would rather be imprisoned than cancel the display. During the dissection, Von Hagens announced to his audience that he had ‘liberated’ the lungs and heart. This idea of liberating organs is echoed in Von Hagens’ compelling Body Worlds exhibitions where bodies donated to be plastinated are modelled to show the innermost intricacies of human anatomy. These plastinated bodies have been displayed in Britain, America, Germany and the Netherlands, with other touring exhibitions around the globe. In October, Body Worlds found a permanent home in Piccadilly Circus where I was finally able to experience the display for myself.

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Gunther von Hagens poses with one of his plastinates (The Independent)

The plastination process is a laborious one, and it can take up to a year for just one cadaver to go through the many stages. First it is injected with formaldehyde to preserve tissue, then dehydrated in acetone before being submerged in a liquid polymer bath where a vacuum is created to allow the polymer to permeate every cell. The body is then dissected and positioned as desired before the final curing process. After being permanently hardened, the specimen is then ready to be displayed. The plastinates, stripped of their skin and visceral and subcutaneous fat layers, do not reveal anything about the age, weight, or ethnicity of the donor. Only very keen observers or visitors with a background in medicine or forensic science would be able to make rough estimations of these features by analysing the structure of the plastinate’s bones or cranium. Even so, I was struck by how expressive the plastinates could be due to the manipulation of facial muscles, lips and tongue.

Joseph Kahn portrait
Joseph Kahn, 1850s (Wellcome Collection)

The history of anatomy on display extends far beyond Von Hagens, and has always blurred the lines between education and entertainment, the prudish and the perverse. In England, the nineteenth-century public had a complicated relationship with their bodies which was expressed in their disgust and fascination towards anatomy museums. These macabre institutions had been around since the eighteenth-century but were reserved for training medical professionals and were not open to the public. The notorious Burke and Hare bodysnatching scandal in 1828 and the Anatomy Act of 1832 brought the public’s attention to the world of anatomy and triggered people’s desire for a deeper understanding of their own bodies. The self-appointed ‘Doctor’ Joseph Kahn was the Gunther von Hagens of his day; an Alsatian-born, German-educated showman showman touring with collections of anatomy, and embryological and surgical samples. Kahn established his famous anatomy museum in London in 1851 and opened it up to the paying public, including women. Alongside the exhibits, there were lectures on healthy living and displays of venereal diseases, which provided a lower-class population with examples of ‘healthy living’ as well as the opportunity for a method of self-diagnosis.

In many ways, Body Worlds is no different to this museum. Like Kahn’s museum, it uses the body to educate. Every section of the exhibition is about a different part of the body, with examples of healthy and unhealthy organs in striking side by side comparisons. This method of education seems to be effective to public health given Body Worlds’ claim that 68% of the people leave wishing to pursue a healthier lifestyle. There are also interactive stations where visitors can take their blood pressure, measure their stress levels with a handheld biometric ball and learn how to perform CPR on dummies next to a display of two plastinates engaging in the same exercise. A blackboard and pens are provided near the end for visitors to record what they hope to achieve before they die, which seems fitting given the omnipresence of death in the exhibition. There is something deeply chilling about coming face to face with your own mortality, yet these reminders of death serve to encourage visitors to learn about and examine their own lifestyles and bodies. A section about the brain and hormones taught me that only 10% of what affects our happiness is circumstantial – the rest is genetic and depends on our conscious outlook. Another section teaches about behavioural patterns and how we can rewire our own choices and thought processes. There was a certain comfort in these sections that came from the feeling of having the control of your body and emotions being handed back to you through education.

It’s hard to remember that these figures are real human cadavers, as plastination gives the muscles a dull artificial sheen and renders them odourless. The eyes of the plastinates are the only artificial part of the exhibits due to the high water content which makes eyes difficult to preserve. There’s something unsettling about staring into vacant glassy orbs framed by real eyelashes and I almost expected them to blink or to follow me around the room. Another body has been plastinated and sliced into 5-8mm thick sheets. Five full cross-sections of the cadaver hang in a row, suspended by wire like a shower curtain and spectators can see everything from head to toe in a progression of visibility as each sheet shows a deeper cross-section of the anatomy. Whilst some of the plastinates are in glass cases, others are in open view with signs instructing visitors not to touch them, but I wasn’t the only one who felt the need to be as close as I could without coming into contact. And yet some displays are hard to look at, and one section shows the progression of a foetus from the fifth week of development all the way to a new born baby. Personally, I thought the most moving piece was a standing woman with her stomach and uterine wall opened to show a foetus of five months gestation. Her lips are turned slightly upwards in a dreamlike smile and her hands cradle her stomach. In the reflection of the glass casing I found myself lightly touching my own belly in a subconscious display of feminine solidarity. Whilst it was easy to forget that the plastinates had been living people, certain examples were stark reminders of their previous lives.

anatomical venus
Kahn’s Anatomical Venus (JRSM)

There is also a warning sign for the reproductive room which shows a couple engaged in sexual intercourse and is perhaps the result of the substantial backlash to this display at a Berlin exhibition in 2015. But it wasn’t just Germany that had responded to Von Hagens’ work with outcry. The introduction of the exhibition in England brought a sense of public unease, and some commentators were doubtful about what could be learnt from an exhibition that seemed nothing more than a freak show for the macabre. Joseph Kahn’s nineteenth-century exhibitions, in contrast, were initially met with positive responses. Upon encountering money troubles, however, Kahn began selling ‘quack’ remedies for venereal diseases. This turned his previous advocates into adversaries who declared that Kahn was corrupting the minds of the public and encouraging sexual immorality. The lack of bodies for scientific research in nineteenth-century Britain has arguably had a lasting effect through to present day about attitudes towards anatomy. Whilst the public expressed displeasure at both Von Hagens’ and Kahn’s museums for different reasons, there remains a deeply rooted anxiety regarding our own anatomy that has transcended through the centuries.

Indeed, as I walked around the exhibition, I was fascinated not only by the plastinates but also by the responses from other visitors. The attending public ranged from primary school children to the elderly and Body Worlds advertises itself as encouragingly inclusive. The younger students and teenagers showed a detached, clinical interest, without any disrespectful jokes or laughter. There was mostly an absorbing silence throughout as people immersed themselves in their audio guides and the exhibits, and the ban on photography meant that everyone was present in the moment without viewing it though a camera lens.

When Dr Kahn’s museum was closed under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act and most of his specimens were destroyed at his trial, something of a turning point was established in the public’s perception of the body on display. The medical profession decided to once again monopolize their knowledge and argued that these public and commercial exhibitions encouraged loose sexual morals. Dissection returned to being an activity carried out behind closed doors for the eyes of doctors and paying elites only. With his 2002 dissection, Von Hagens marks the cyclic pattern of restoring the display of human anatomy to the public eye, allowing us an intimate portrait of our own bodies and visually educating ordinary people about their own health. Controversies aside, I think that Body Worlds is a brilliant way to encourage every generation to see past the old taboo of death and open up discussions of health and lifestyle.


Darcy Rae is an MA by Research student at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Twelve Angry Men: The Forgotten Militancy of the Women’s Suffrage Movement by Amy Swainston

‘The argument of the broken window pane is the most valuable argument in modern politics.’

So read the faithful audience of the Suffragette publication Votes For Women one February day in 1912. The words were those of Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), and the message was clear: violence was the only way forward. The WSPU, nicknamed the Suffragettes, had been set up in October 1903. Their more militant tactics marked a definite departure from the peaceful campaigning of the members of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage (NUWSS), known as the Suffragists.

Westminster Abbey; St. Paul’s Cathedral; The Bank of England; Kew Gardens. The list of national landmarks the Suffragettes targeted with bomb and arson attack sites in the years before the Great War was ambitious indeed. Yet as you approach the imposing Victorian Palm House through the Rose Garden at Kew, there is no commemoration of the fires that were started there in 1913 by two angry female Suffragettes, Olive Wharry and Lilian Lenton.

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Letter from Emmeline Pankhurst to members of the WSPU in which she refers to female militancy as a ‘moral obligation’, 10 January 1913 [TNA]
The sanitisation of the Suffragette image has been criticised by Fern Riddell in her recent book Death in Ten Minutes, which tells the story of Kitty Marion, a particularly radical member of the movement. Riddell explains the way in which the genuine threat posed by the Suffragette campaign to national security has been systematically whitewashed from official narratives – reduced to a few ‘broken window panes’. It is perhaps unsurprising that representations of the morally questionable actions of militants fighting for a noble cause poses a challenge for historians today.

Indeed, I have to admit that, up until recently, I would have been quite sceptical about the notion of commemorating the acts of the militants. Yet surely this is an anachronistic stance to take? It’s perhaps difficult for myself and other modern women to appreciate the impulses that led to Suffragette violence, partly because we grew up in a world in which we take the rights for which the Suffragettes fought for granted. But the story of the campaign for votes for women is often dark and occasionally violent, and if we want to understand the Suffragettes, and not simply remember them, we should acknowledge their radicalism.

And so with the recent centenary anniversaries of the Representation of the People Act and the first General Election in which British women were allowed to vote and run for office, it feels like a good moment to remember all those who fought for the vote. That should include those who were determined to use violence to achieve their political goals, and the current exploration of female militancy really doesn’t seem to go far enough.

*        *        *

The month is June, the year 1913, the scene is a racecourse, the main character an angry militant determined to stop the leading horse. Everyone thinks that they know the ending to this story. But do they? Because this is not the Epsom Derby, and the protester is not Emily Wilding Davison. It is, in fact, the Gold Cup race at Ascot.

And the perpetrator is a man.

Harold Hewitt sustained severe head injuries as a result of the incident and was treated at the Royal Victoria Nursing Home in Ascot. He had been clutching the Suffragette flag and appears to have been an ardent supporter of the cause of female suffrage. Indeed, he had attended Emily Davison’s funeral just four days before his own racetrack protest. And yet an article that appeared in the Daily Mail on 20 June reported that Hewitt’s collision with the leading horse, Tracery, was ‘unconnected with the women’s movement’. The official narrative, it seems, was that Hewitt had been taken up in a ‘wave of folly’ and the most popular broadsheets of the day described him as a ‘madman’, ‘crazy’ and ‘wild’ – a state of affairs supposedly proven by his subsequent internment in an asylum.

But he was by no means the only ‘madman’ who carried out an act of militant protest in support of the campaign for suffrage. Just two months before this copycat incident another attack had been sensationally reported in the press.

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Harold Laski (1893 – 1950): economist, political theorist and supporter of women’s suffrage

As I stood in the bustling foyer of Oxted Station in Surrey recently, I wondered how many of the busy commuters and tourists were aware of its hidden past. In April 1913, a bomb was planted in the male toilets by ‘two well-dressed men’ who escaped into the night. The bomb duly exploded at 3 a.m., damaging the wall and sending glass and wood splinters flying. Contemporaries were stumped as to the identity of the mysterious culprits, but Professor Harold Laski is now widely believed to have been one of them. The Times was quick to assert that ‘no message was found’ connecting the attack to the Suffragette movement, even though Laski was an enthusiastic advocate of votes for women and the bombing followed a string of similar incidents undertaken by Suffragettes at stations across the UK. At Oxted Station today, the male militancy that occurred there in support of the movement remains unrecognised.

And it didn’t stop there. Men were involved in acts of violence throughout the Suffragette campaign. Hugh Franklin was arrested following his attempt to assault Winston Churchill on a London train in 1910, for throwing a rock through the window of Churchill’s Eccleston Square residence in 1911, and for setting fire to a railway carriage at Harrow in 1912. He paid the price during his incarceration at Wormwood Scrubs, where he was force-fed three times each day after fears that his drastic weight-loss would cause his death. Franklin joined Frederick Pethick-Lawrence as one of the first male hunger-strikers. They were, like Hewitt and Laski, ex-Oxbridge students and members of the establishment.

These rather colourful characters merely scratch the surface of male participation in militancy during the Suffragette campaign. Many more in the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and the Men’s Political Union also resorted to force to make their opinions known. So why has their contribution been forgotten?

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Article about Hugh Franklin in The Times, 21 February 1913. No mention is made of his support for the suffrage campaign.
Modern ignorance is a partial reflection of contemporary representations. As we’ve seen, newspapers were hasty to pass off most incidents of male violence as acts of clinical insanity rather than any serious effort to contribute to the Suffragette cause. This was part of the conservative media’s desperate attempt to underplay the true extent of support for the movement.

But the popularised tale of the Suffragette movement as a fight of women versus men – the downtrodden versus the establishment – has led to an over-simplified narrative into which these male militants do not easily fit. Emmeline Pankhurst herself was guilty of encouraging generalisations, declaring starkly in her memoirs that:

‘Men make the moral code and they expect women to accept it.’

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Photograph of a man mockingly dressed as a Suffragette. Images like this reinforced the idea that the campaign was a struggle of women against men [TNA]
Despite its strengths, the ‘Me Too’ movement of recent years has in many ways emphasised the need for female voices to be heard in opposition to men’s. It is this mentality which has perhaps provoked a reluctance to associate male militants with the attainment of the female vote, which was such an obviously historic achievement in women’s history.’

It may appear counter-intuitive to highlight that some of the male elite supported women’s suffrage, and hence it is an argument seldom made by historians. A simplified version of the story of the women’s suffrage movement is easy to market; one has only to note the obvious lack of male roles in the 2015 blockbuster ‘Suffragette’ to realise this.

And yet, as I think many historians of Suffragette militancy would agree, we should not cleanse history of its nuances and complexities for the sake of easy-reading. Thus, to make a sincere effort to come to terms with the violent side of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, we must not ignore the angry men who played a vital role within it.


Amy Swainston is a student on the MA in Public History programme at Royal Holloway, University of London and a member of the London Centre for Public History and Heritage.