Tokens of Love and Loss: Military Sweetheart Brooches of the First World War by Penny Streeter

Several years ago, while reading through some documents in the Mass Observation Archives at the University of Sussex, I came across a survey of London retailers from 1939 that mentioned increasing wartime sales of gold and diamond ‘sweetheart badge brooches’, a term I had not previously come across.  Shortly afterwards, as frequently happens, I heard the phrase again.  On BBC One’s Antique’s Roadshow (11 March 2011), jewellery consultant John Benjamin remarked that members of the public often brought these brooches to him to identify but that they seldom, if ever, knew what they were or anything about their histories.  Further research revealed that many thousands of these brooches were manufactured, mainly in Birmingham and London, from the late 1880s to the present day reaching a peak of popularity during the First World War, yet they had largely disappeared from public awareness.  There seemed to be a neglected subject here ripe for study and, as it turned out, no-one had looked closely at these emotive, personal objects and the feelings and motivations embedded within them.

2 Soldier of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment with his family. Source © British Library.
Soldier of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment with his family (British Library)

These little brooches are miniature replicas of the badges of military regiments, naval units, the Royal Flying Corps and the RAF, generally known as sweetheart brooches because they were often given as romantic keepsakes by members of the armed forces to their wives and girlfriends before they left for the front.  One Londoner recalled that they ‘were received as gifts, love tokens or symbols to display that one of your loved ones was “doing their bit”‘ and remembered that ‘almost every female seemed to wear one’.  Widely sold in retail and jewellery stores throughout the country and in small shops set up in military camps where last-minute gifts could be purchased before embarkation, families visibly articulated their support for their men as they left for potentially lengthy periods of separation in wartime by wearing brooches that matched the soldiers’ insignia.  In the photograph below, a very young recruit to the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment poses in his pristine new uniform before leaving for his posting to France. The whole family wear replicas of his cap badge to support him: his wife wears a brooch at the collar of her blouse and even their baby’s dummy is pinned with another to a length of ribbon.

It had long been customary, of course, for soldiers to adapt pieces of their uniforms into mementoes for their families to wear: metal collar dogs, shoulder titles and buttons were especially popular and army orders had to be issued to prevent the practice.  Hand-made objects, together with items fashioned from battlefield matériel, which sometimes included jewellery constructed from shrapnel or bullets, are known as trench art and often incorporated insignia produced for the purpose: for instance, soldiers could buy printed or embroidered badges to appliqué to pincushions as gifts.  But the first replica badge commercially made as a piece of jewellery for a woman to wear can be traced to a gold, diamond and enamel brooch in the form of the insignia of the 10th Royal (Prince of Wales’ Own) Hussars, commissioned by the Earl of Airlie as a gift for his wife Mabell on their wedding day on 19th January 1886.  Lady Airlie recorded in her diary that she believed she had started a new fashion; she seems to have been correct as no earlier brooch has been identified and by the beginning of the First World War, brooches were available for every regiment of the British army, as well as for units of the Royal and Merchant navies and the Royal Flying Corps, hand-made by goldsmiths and silversmiths at one end of the economic spectrum and mass-produced in factories at the other, in materials varying from brass or paste to costly gemstones. Their material value was always less important, however, than their symbolic and emotive capacity to evoke people and memories.

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The Airlie Brooch (1885 – 1886). White gold replica insignia of 10th Royal (Prince of Wales’s Own) Hussars, encrusted with diamonds (KRH collection, Tidworth)

The brooches’ visible and tangible presence in the quotidian lives of women across all strata of society served as a strong link between front line personnel and civilians on the home front. But these distinctive pieces of jewellery communicated more than simple romantic devotion, expressing sentiments about a range of social and cultural themes, including notions of status, societal solidarity and patriotism.  Contemporary newspaper accounts describe how they were worn as talismans in the hope that they might generate good luck and bring the soldier home safely, thus reuniting the brooch and the original insignia that inspired it.  Photographs from the period frequently depict a uniformed bridegroom ready to leave for the front, while on the bride’s wedding dress can be seen her military sweetheart brooch, a disconcerting visible symbol since it binds the hopeful couple together but also foregrounds the conflict that we understand will soon separate them, perhaps permanently.  Images like these, taken just before the start of the war or during a brief period of leave were sometimes almost the only remnant of hastily conducted wartime marriages of such short duration that they might seem, if the soldier did not return and without even a body for burial, never to have happened.  Many such photographs indicate that women wore their brooches as a constant reminder of a missing husband or son’s absence, often with his portrait in a locket, and that they publicly demonstrated their bereavement in this way.

George Errall Withall enlisted with the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment and was killed in action at Festubert in Northern France on 16 May 1915.  Before he left he had given his wife Annie the sweetheart brooch she wears, with his portrait, in this photograph:

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Annie Gertrude Withall wearing her Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment sweetheart brooch, with her sons Richard Henry (left) and George Thomas, c. 1915

Before he enlisted, George Withall was a farm worker in Frensham, Surrey and the photograph depicts Annie and her two little boys, George and Richard, probably outside the family’s cottage.  The children’s ages (George would have been about five years old at the time of his father’s death and Richard just three) suggest a probable date for the photograph of 1915.  They are all dressed in their best formal clothes and, judging from their sorrowful expressions, it is likely that this image records a service held in Withall’s memory.  His body was not recovered, so instead of an indentified grave he was commemorated on the le Touret Memorial near Festubert in the 1920s. In common with millions of other women bereaved as a result of the war, Annie was denied the consoling ritual of a funeral. To bereaved women like Annie who had no grave to visit and make the focus for their memories, sweetheart brooches given as tokens of love and affection often became dearly treasured commemorative objects.

The unprecedented death toll of the First World War meant that many brooches originally given in quite happy circumstances inevitably became associated with gried as repositories of memory and mourning.  We should also remember that many soldiers were too young to have established families of their own or didn’t have sweethearts to cherish their memory while they were on active service.  For these usually younger men, their mother was often still the most significant female influence in their lives and she would thus be given a brooch to wear.  The reasons why bereaved women wore the military brooches they had been given in happier times were complex and are difficult to unpick.  For some, the brooch was a straightforward symbol of pride while others felt that only a patriotic display could justify their losses and wore their brooches defiantly. But mothers, sisters, wives and sweethearts were strongly encouraged by government propaganda and societal expectations to persuade their men to enlist and to wear a regimental brooch to show they had done so and were thus made complicit in their own bereavement. If women felt anger at the deaths of friends and relatives, however, this was an unacceptable rejection of the code of stoical acceptance to which they were expected to adhere in the interests of maintaining morale on the home front.  For more angry or simply ambivalent women in mourning, the brooches’ military connotations were poignant, unwelcome reminders of the cause of their loved ones’ deaths and a reason for concealing these keepsakes from their families.

This may be one reason why so many sweetheart brooches have become separated from their histories.  Grieving mothers, wives and sweethearts put aside the jewellery given to them by beloved sons, husbands and lovers who did not survive the war because they were embedded with such painful memories.  For example, just before the end of the war, in August 1918, Lt. Charles Bodman of the Durham Light Infantry was killed near Arras. His body was never recovered but the army returned his personal effects, including his photographs, his papers and a sweetheart brooch presumably intended for her, to his bereaved mother in Gloucestershire.  Unable to contemplate these haunting reminders, she put them into a wooden chest and entrusted them to her surviving son, asking that it be kept safe but not opened.  The box was stored in the family grocery shop and only rediscovered in 2015.

Sweetheart Brooch 2
Woman wearing sweetheart brooch of the Prince of Wales Own (West Yorkshire) Regiment, c. 1914 – 1918.

And thus a deeply personal decision to hide away objects with painful associations show us how the stories of sweetheart brooches becomes lost to us as these emotive objects move beyond living memory. Another reason they’ve faded from public consciousness is their status as hybrid objects. From a curatorial perspective, they are neither officially military in design nor simply simply decorative. As such they have largely fallen outside the remit and interest of military museums (where, if they are displayed, their significance is rarely explained to the visitor). Typically, they come into museum collections as part of private donations that include more obviously relevant items such as medals, uniforms and weapons. Whether brooches are displayed or marginalised depends on the importance placed by individual curators (or their trustees) upon the connections between the members of the forces and their families, which is not always accorded much significance.  Neither, however, do they fit easily into the collections of design museums, which perhaps regard them as military items, and no major cultural museum in Britain holds examples. Yet badges and emblems always, or at least very often, convey personal and political messages.

Many, I’m sure, are still kept by their original owners’ families.  Accessing items owned by private individuals is always challenging, but like other wartime artefacts these are fascinating objects with stories to tell about how people lived and felt and memorialised their loved ones at times of unimaginable tension and heightened emotion.  I hope to compile a record of images of brooches, those who gave them and those who wore them, with accompanying stories and any surviving documentation.  If any readers would like to add their family histories to this database, so that they are not lost to history, I would very much like to hear from you.  Please e-mail me at

Penny Streeter is a historian of the First World War. She was recently awarded a PhD in the History of Art by the University of Sussex for a doctoral project that explored jewellery replicating military badges, worn by families of service personnel from the Boer Wars and throughout the 20th century.


Considering Motherhood, Loss and the First World War with 21st Century Women by Sarah Giles

The unprecedented death toll of the First World War led to such widespread bereavement that the loss of loved ones can rightly be regarded as one of the defining experiences of the conflict. Millions of mothers across Europe and the wider world lost sons and, in some cases, daughters serving in the military between 1914 and 1918. They experienced unimaginable loss, yet relatively little is known about them today and, with some notable exceptions, historians haven’t had a great deal to say about loss during wartime. Nor have the centenary commemorations of the conflict over the past four years generally acknowledged the experiences and hardship of these bereaved mothers. To shed light on this much-overlooked aspect of the war, Big Ideas has led a major community commemoration project entitled Motherhood, Loss and the First World War. This project has invited community groups across the UK to discover the experiences of mothers who lost sons or daughters whilst serving in the First World War, to respond creatively to these stories, and to share these with their wider community. The project has encouraged community collaboration, bringing groups together through shared understanding of grief, an emotion that resonates with and connects many of us today.

The project launched on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour just before Mothering Sunday in March of this year, with a call for stories from individuals and community groups about mothers who lost children serving in the military in the First World War. We were greatly moved by the responses, as people shared stories of their grandmothers, great-grandmothers, aunts and other relatives who had suffered the loss of children during the war. Many of these testimonies are now included in our free resource pack, joining a series of heartbreaking stories of mothers whose lives and losses we discovered.

Sgt. Wakedield - Ramparts Cemetery
An epitaph composed by a mother, British soldier’s grave, Ramparts Cemetery, Ieper/Ypres

Given the relative youth of many of the men and women who went to war between 1914 and ’18, a lot of them were unmarried and their relationship with their mother was often one of the strongest and most intimate in their lives. To help community groups explore this relationship, we shared a series of letter exchanges between mothers and their sons who were serving during the First World War. Letter-writing was very much part of everyday life and the main form of communication during the period. An extraordinary number of letters were sent to service personnel from Britain – as many as 12 million each week. Most mothers kept the letters sent by their sons, but in many cases the letters from mothers carried by their sons and daughters did not survive wartime conditions, especially if their child never made it home. These letter exchanges reveal the significance of the everyday, and we find servicemen and women asking their mothers for updates on family illnesses, car repairs and enquiring about the changing of the seasons at home, as well as asking for comforts, such as chocolate, cigarettes and socks, to be sent out to the front. One letter asks for another pack of peppermints. What is revealing in these letters is the way they shed light on the mother’s role as an anchor to the normality and comfort at home, and the degree to which the horrors and general deprivation of war were usually concealed by their children to shield their mothers from the realities of their hardship. The letters kept by mothers often remained in the domestic and personal realm, kept in an attic somewhere, rather than entering official collections.

This is a project with discovery of unknown stories and remembrance at its heart. Community groups are invited to discover these mother’s stories through the resource pack and letter exchanges and respond creatively to them. This can be done through any medium they choose, including music, drawing, painting, sewing, gardening, or creative writing. Importantly, these groups are exploring not only the experiences of British mothers, but also mothers of service personnel from across the world, including Nigeria and the Caribbean. By remembering together within our communities, we have been able to shed light on these stories and commemorate the contributions made from across society.

Beyond Conflict
Members of the Beyond Conflict support group for women affected by the Troubles at a Motherhood, Loss and the First World War workshop in Belfast

To bring the story into the current day, the project connects with women’s groups across the UK through personal advocacy and skills-building workshops, helping them to gain the confidence to share their own stories. As a key part of these workshops, groups discover the stories of the mothers of the First World War, reading the letter exchanges and responding creatively to them. The participants have created care packages of items that they would share with a loved one serving in wartime, crafted sweetheart cushions, created unique postcards with messages of love, realisation and loss. They have cried together as they discovered more of these stories and indeed learned about one another. Each workshop has been unique, yet what has resounded in all of them is the empathy and sensitivity of the participants discovering these stories and sharing their experiences through community and creativity. The workshops have also revealed that, although the First World War was a particular moment in time, the experience of the mothers and their grief remains universal and continues to resonate.

To develop a better understanding of the experiences of mothers during the period, a major collaborative conference has been organised by Big Ideas, the London Centre for Public History and Heritage, and the Institute of Historical Research, which will be held at Senate House on 5 and 6 September. The conference will bring historians and community groups together to explore maternal bereavement as a result of the war, an experience that was understood to be particularly painful and difficult to come to terms with. A dedicated session will showcase the important work of community groups across the country who have give up their time to discover and remember these stories, and to share them with their wider community.

Two free public evening events have been incorporated into the conference programme. Professor Susan Grayzel, one of the world’s leading commentators on women in modern war, will deliver a lecture on the experiences of mothers in the First World War on 5 September. On 6 September, a world premiere of a specially-commissioned series of pieces by acclaimed violinist and composer Clare Connors, accompanied by letter readings from the First World War, will bring to life the voices of mothers and their sons and daughters serving in the military.

As legacy of the project, Big Ideas is installing a unique piece of playground equipment in the UK, bearing a message to remember bereaved mothers of the First World War for generations to come. The Motherhood, Loss and the First World War project runs until the end of November 2018, yet our hope is that these stories will continue to resonate with communities across the UK.

Sarah Giles is Director of Partnerships at Big Ideas, where she develops programmes, connects networks and helps community groups get involved in historical and cultural initiatives.


To join the Motherhood project and access free resources and funding information, please email the Big Ideas team at

To attend the Motherhood, Loss and the First World War conference on the 5 and 6 September, please follow this link to book your tickets.

Two free, public evening events have been incorporated into the conference programme: a keynote lecture by Professor Susan Grayzel on 5 September, and an evening of music and readings exploring the relationship between mothers and their children on 6 September, composed and led by acclaimed violinist Clare Connors. Free tickets can be booked on the IHR website.

The Motherhood, Loss and the First World War project is led by Big Ideas and funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) with additional funding from a National Lottery grant from the Big Lottery Fund to work in the Home Nations. The project is part of Remember Together, a series of First World War community commemoration programmes led by Big Ideas and funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), with additional funding for select projects to work in the Home Nations from a National Lottery grant from the Big Lottery Fund, and RAF100, through the Chancellor using LIBOR funds. Discover more at

Srebrenica Memorial Day: Shattering the Illusion of “Never Again” by Jackie Teale

I don’t remember much of the history that I was taught at school, which is a sobering thought for a history teacher, but I do remember learning about the Holocaust. I remember watching footage of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and I remember my history teacher, who was visibly moved by the footage, charging us with the responsibility to ensure that nothing like that ever happened again. It’s easy to commend her compassion and when you consider the enormity of the crimes that constitute the Holocaust, an emotional response is perfectly understandable. But in that very moment she had unwittingly provided us with a sense of closure; the camps had been liberated, the Holocaust was over and the world had said “never again”.

No mention was made of the physical, material, or psychological challenges encountered by those who had survived extermination in the weeks, months and years that followed, or the more than 13,000 former prisoners who died in Bergen-Belsen after liberation. There was no indication that the Nazis had not invented the act of genocide, nor any suggestion of its recurrence after the fall of the Third Reich. When you consider that this was the 1990s, the decade in which approximately 800,000 people were brutally killed in the Rwandan genocide, this omission is all the more striking.

It was also the decade that saw genocide return to the European continent during the Bosnian War of 1992-95. Next week marks twenty-three years since Ratko Mladić, the commander of the Bosnian Serb army, ordered his tanks to advance on the UN-designated “safe area” of Srebrenica, rendering it anything but safe for the Bosnian Muslims who had sought refuge there. Families were torn apart as women and young children were separated from their male relatives. In the days that followed more than 8,000 people (mostly men) were transported to nearby execution sites and murdered. The youngest among them was a new-born baby whose name would have been Fatima had she been permitted to live.

Amel Emric EXODUS
Bosnian Muslim refugees desperately trying to enter the UN safe zone at Potočari (Amel Emric)

In Britain today, crimes fuelled by Islamophobia are on the rise, which is hardly surprising when you consider the persistent misrepresentation of Muslims across some sections of our media. While teachers have limited control over societal prejudices and education may not inoculate people against hate, teaching and learning about genocide does involve a critical engagement with what human beings are capable of and what it means to be human. Teaching students about the historical context in which previous genocides unfolded and encouraging them to think about genocide as a process, gives them the knowledge that the Holocaust was not in fact the epilogue to “man’s inhumanity to man” but simply another chapter. And that’s an important lesson in a world still haunted by the spectre of genocide.

We can’t teach everything, but we can help students make sense of the world they’re growing up in by drawing explicit connections between the past that they encounter in history class and the world outside their window. Whether that means highlighting the legacy of imperialism and the continued impact of the slave trade, pointing to the significance of the Crusades for today’s Middle East, or casting a light on the recurrence and persistence of genocide since 1945, it is incumbent on teachers to make the past appear relevant to their students. Historical anniversaries and memorial days can provide a useful vehicle for this.

In 2009, the EU designated 11th July as Srebrenica Memorial Day and in 2013 the charity Remembering Srebrenica was established to raise awareness of the genocide in the UK. Teachers in particular can take this opportunity to discuss the subject with their students, something that many of them will know little about. Teachers wanting to improve their own subject knowledge, can use the charity’s website where they will also be able to download educational resources for use in both primary and secondary schools. The charity also runs a ‘Lessons from Srebrenica’ initiative and to date they have taken more than 1,100 British citizens to Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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Earlier this year, I was privileged to be part of an education delegation that travelled with the charity to Bosnia-Herzegovina, where we were fortunate enough to meet with some of the survivors of the genocide. As you would expect, the experience was incredibly humbling, but when our tour guide, Suvad Cibra, shared his experiences of the war years with us, we were reminded that the majority of people in Bosnia harbour memories of the war, even if not all of them are willing or able to share theirs. Suvad was just four years old when the war broke out and his testimony was a poignant reminder that then, as now, the ‘Rights of the Child’ mean nothing in a country ravaged by war. It was particularly jarring to hear that Suvad considered himself lucky as he had only lost one member of his family – his father. He was quick to suggest that in eastern Bosnia things had been far worse than where he had been, and he described cases where several generations of the same family had been wiped out, a sad fact borne out by the names inscribed on the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial.

For the survivors of the genocide, 1995 didn’t mark a happily-ever-after any more than 1945 had for the survivors of the Holocaust. And so next week when we commemorate the more than 8,000 individuals whose lives were cut short, we should also consider the impact that their absence continues to have on their family members who survived them. Not all of the bodies of their relatives have been, or ever will be, fully recovered. This is because several months after the Bosnian Serb forces executed and buried the victims, they uncovered the graves to remove and rebury the bodies in an attempt to hide the crimes they had committed – the final stage of genocide. This led to a situation in which the bones of one victim could be found strewn across several graves. To this day 782 bodies remain missing and the partial remains of hundreds more lie at the Podrinje Identification Project forensic facility in Tuzla. The remains of at least 25 victims will be buried this year in the annual ceremony held on the 11th July at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Complex. It has already been reported that Peter Ivancov, the Russian ambassador to Sarajevo has been refused permission to attend this year’s ceremony on the grounds that he denies the genocide, reminding us of another burden the survivors have to bear – the denial of this crime by the perpetrators and their allies.

ICMP-PIP Photo Credit Jasmine A Wikimedia Commons 3
Podrinje Identification Project at Tuzla, where the remains of hundreds of victims are stored in plastic bags and netting while the identification process continues (Jasmine A: Wikimedia)

Remembering Srebrenica hopes that educating people in the UK about the consequences of what can happen when hatred goes unchecked will help to bring about a better and safer society for us all. This seems particularly salient in the current climate, where both at home and internationally evidence of racism, xenophobia and intolerance abounds. The real power to prevent genocide, or to help the 68.5 million people who have been forcibly displaced worldwide, rests with politicians, individual states and the international community and not with students. But precisely because those with real power are far more adept at invoking the rhetoric of “never again” than they are at promoting policies in the spirit of that idea, it’s important for teachers not to close the book in 1945 and allow students to leave the classroom armed with the illusion that “never again” meant precisely that.

For ideas about how you could mark Srebrenica Memorial Day with your students or in your community and to find out more about the important work being done by Remembering Srebrenica you can visit their website

Jackie Teale is a doctoral student at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her thesis is supervised by Professor Dan Stone and focuses on the ways in which press photography has shaped public responses to genocide.

Lest We Remember: Poppy Proliferation and British Commemoration in 2017 by Edward Madigan

I spent a couple of days last week at Thiepval Barracks in Lisburn, where I’d been invited to speak to the personnel of 38 (Irish) Brigade about the history and memory of the First World War. It was an odd but fascinating trip. There was a time in my life when a British army base in Northern Ireland was the last place on earth I would have expected to find myself, but today it seems like a natural enough destination for someone interested in the complexities of the British commemoration of war. The barracks must have been a real hive of activity during the Troubles when there were over 22,000 British soldiers stationed in the region, but it’s a remarkably quiet place now, with an atmosphere that feels either peaceful or foreboding depending on the hour of the day. It was named after the village in the Somme Valley through which the 36th (Ulster) Division advanced and suffered terrible losses on 1st July 1916. For many in the Unionist community, the blood sacrifice of Ulster soldiers on that day purchased the right of the six counties to remain within the United Kingdom, and the memory of the battle is still extremely resonant in Northern Ireland. An elegant granite memorial in the grounds of the barracks commemorates ‘the splendid action fought by the 36th Division’ on the Somme, and servicemen and women stationed there have always venerated those who died in France.

The 36 (Ulster) Division Memorial, Thiepval Barracks, Lisburn

A small museum in Lisburn town, just a short drive from the barracks, tells the story of the area during and after the Great War. It also features a refreshingly objective and engaging exhibition on the impact of the Reformation in Ireland. The advent of evangelical Protestantism in Europe cast a very long shadow in places like Lisburn and historical episodes of ideological violence and sectarianism are still very publicly remembered in the town. One of the panels in the museum gives visitors a fairly unvarnished account of the killing of Detective Inspector Oswald Swanzy of the Royal Irish Constabulary in August 1920. Swanzy had been implicated in the murder of Tomás Mac Curtain, the Republican Lord Mayor of Cork, and was shot dead by IRA gunmen in Market Square. His death provoked an outburst of violence against local Catholics, many of whom were forced to leave Lisburn forever. Swanzy was buried in Dublin, but a brass plaque in the Anglican cathedral across the road honours his memory and that ‘of all his gallant comrades who gave their lives in the unfaltering discharge of their duty’. Just outside the entrance to the museum, a memorial to the Ulster Defence Regiment acts as a very stark reminder of the violence and division of the much more recent past. The memorial was erected just six years ago and takes the form of two larger-than-life statues of a male and female soldier. The UDR recruited locally and was composed almost exclusively of men and women from the Unionist community. Despite a vetting process, the regiment was infiltrated by Loyalist paramilitaries and was viewed with suspicion and distrust by nationalists. There should be little doubt, however, that the UDR, whose headquarters used to be at Thiepval Barracks, suffered a great deal during the conflict. Almost 200 members of the regiment, including four servicewomen (or Greenfinches), were killed between 1970 and 1992.

Ulster Defence Regiment Memorial, Lisburn

Lisburn is a pleasant market town with an interesting and complex heritage, by no means all of which is bleak and divisive. I found its people warm and friendly, and the officers and men of 38 Brigade couldn’t have been more welcoming to me. But territorial understandings of the past have divided communities there for four hundred years and history hangs quite heavy in the air. The poppy, it need hardly be said, is not worn lightly in this part of the world and remembrance is still loaded with the weight of historical injury. Commemoration of the two world wars is always political in Northern Ireland and can still be very divisive. And yet people in the North, and indeed across the border in the Republic, have shown a great willingness in recent years to revisit and re-imagine their history. Cross-community and cross-border acts of commemoration are reasonably common today, and public gestures that would have been unthinkable a couple of decades ago are made every year. It’s not enough, of course, and we’d be naïve indeed if we thought that perfect harmony could prevail in a region in which so many were killed within living memory. The devolved government at Stormont has ceased to function, and the now likely return of a hard-border with the Republic threatens to jeopardise years of bridge-building and diplomacy. But the conflict in Northern Ireland has forced people in both communities, and on both sides of the border, to try to adopt a more complex and inclusive view of their history, and the tone in which people talk about the past tends to be much less rancorous than it used to be.

Back in Britain, the challenges of commemoration seem less visceral and certainly less fraught with the potential for violence than in Northern Ireland, but, in cultural terms, the way British people remember the dead of the world wars is a more important issue than we perhaps realise. And it definitely seems to be changing. When I returned to London, I was struck by the bitter tone of much of the media commentary on remembrance in general and the poppy in particular. Statements about the importance of supporting the armed forces past and present on the one hand and denunciations of ‘poppy fascism’ on the other are nothing new, but the public conversation about commemoration seems more antagonistic now than ever. A nasty undercurrent of righteousness has crept into the online commentary on remembrance and the act of wearing the poppy now seems to be dividing people along political lines. Those who wear the symbol ‘don’t want to be told’ that they shouldn’t wear it, and those who choose not to wear it ‘don’t want to be told’ that they should. The reality, of course, is that no one is really telling anyone else what to do, but the ubiquity of the poppy and the transformation of a solemn moment of reflection into a ‘remembrance season’ understandably makes some people uneasy. The frankly absurd spectacle of a muppet wearing a poppy, as the Cookie Monster did on the One Show last year, rightly led to mockery and derision, and some bizarre cases of poppy proliferation have been highlighted on social media over the last few weeks. The poppy ‘onesies’ sold on the Royal British Legion website strike me as particularly weird and incongruous. When the poppy is everywhere, the act of wearing it inevitably becomes less meaningful and less dignified. Indeed, the constant call to remember doesn’t really seem to make people more conscious of the past, but it does increasingly seem to wind them up in the present. I may be wrong, but commemoration seems to have become more about performance and making a statement than it used to be. It’s as if we’re less interested in remembering and more concerned with pinning our colours to the mast in an increasingly polarised political and culture and landscape.

Poppy Onesies
Poppy Onesies, now on sale at the RBL Poppy Shop

And that’s a shame. I grew up in a country that was fundamentally transformed by the First World War but where there was no popular or political interest in remembering the conflict. People were constantly, obsessively aware of the past, but their understanding of it was selective and they didn’t really ‘come together’ to remember anything. Those who wore poppies did so discreetly, behind the closed doors of Protestant churches and schools. So when I first started coming to Britain – about fifteen years ago now – I was quite struck by what appeared to be a genuinely unifying national force. The annual wearing of the poppy seemed to transcend political, cultural, regional and racial divisions. As such, it seemed like a truly ‘British’ custom. I don’t wear a poppy myself and I remain ambivalent about the real meaning of the symbol, but I have been impressed, as an outsider, by the dignity, and the genuine unity, with which the British have traditionally remembered their dead. I realise now that many people probably always felt alienated in the weeks leading up to Remembrance Sunday, and also that the wearing of the poppy became much more of a public obligation after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But the great majority of people who wear the poppy do so because they want to express solidarity both with their ancestors and with the servicemen and women of today. They certainly shouldn’t be condemned for this. But nor should those who don’t feel comfortable wearing the poppy, for whatever reason. The stakes are perhaps higher in Northern Ireland, but commemoration of the past has clearly become quite a contentious issue in Britain too. Remembrance doesn’t have to be divisive, but if we treat it as a parade or a civic duty, it most certainly will be.


Edward Madigan is Lecturer in Public History and First World War Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London

Returning to the Flames of Hate: Bonfire Night, Terrorism and British Memories of Religious Persecution by Justin Champion

As I watched an episode of Question Time on the BBC last week (26 October 2017), the uncanny and disconcerting frisson between past and present was too pressing to ignore. Members of the audience were demanding a response to the question of how the British state ought to handle the problem of IS fighters returning to the UK from the Middle East. The issue was raised in the light of a government minister suggesting that such people should be killed without hesitation. The audience and panel responses were split between those who simply agreed with the draconian policy of state sanctioned murder, and those who defended the British tradition of the rule of law, human rights, and trial by due process. The latter, more restrained position was countered by demands for a reinvigoration of treason legislation to deal with those militants who were also British citizens. One panellist pointed out that the British state had just as much responsibility for garnering intelligence from returning combatants, as for ensuring that no further threats to security, anywhere in the world, were imminent. The programme, which aired less than ten days before 5 November, and thus came to viewers in the same week as BBC’s Gunpowder and various documentaries about the Elizabethan deep state, resonated profoundly with me as an early modern historian.

The language of fanaticism, holy violence and conspiracy, used to demand a more reactionary security policy today, has echoed down the centuries from its birth in the post-Reformation wars of religion. Historical accounts of antichristian plots against the British Isles, whether from Spanish Jesuits, or in contemporary times from IS ‘death cults’ use the same narratives to justify extraordinary punishments as a response to alien threats. Whether hanging, drawing and quartering Roman Catholic priests for their illegal allegiance to a foreign Papacy, or unleashing American drones on brainwashed fanatics in Raqqa, the legitimations for the mobilisation of state violence against these perceived enemies within does not seem to have changed much over the centuries, although technology has made the ethics of usage more complicated. Killing those who are convinced they have a religious duty to kill others, whether they pose a direct danger or not, is regarded somehow as a sensible, efficient and morally acceptable policy in the name of ‘security’. This approach fails, however, to understand the motivations and psychological motors of such dissidence.

Execution of the Gunpowder Plot Conspirators, German Engraving 1605, Nat. Portrait Gallery

Commemorations of past events in which the perceived enemies of the state were put to death can potentially fan the flames of hatred embedded deep in modern memory. Of course, this unthinking mobilisation of historical memory ignores the nuance of the debates undertaken in the past. Many 17th century minds came to believe that persecution of tender conscience, whether Roman Catholic, Protestant or sectarian, was a troubling and dangerous policy. Indulgence would make peaceable citizens out of those tolerated, whereas persecution and penal laws would breed hostility and perhaps eventually destructive resistance. Tolerance, forbearance and freedom, some believed, would bring economic advantage and a deeper respect for order. The outcomes of such a policy of state indulgence might enable a more profound collective understanding of how subscription to varieties of religious truth could combine to produce a communal and cosmopolitan culture. The potential result would be the emergence of a civil religion for the 21st century, which recognised and even celebrated religious difference rather than stigmatising and penalising that natural human diversity. But where do we start to achieve this sort of historical reflection on contemporary problems?

Some years ago, not long after the London bombings, I was invited to comment on the persisting commemorative moment of bonfire night, having just been involved in the publication of a collection of essays on the subject. The substance of the article is reproduced below, with some expansion and reflections upon more recent representations of the persecution Roman Catholic communities faced in the early modern British Isles. We’ve been treated to a spate of historical and drama documentaries on the period of late, most notably BBC’s Gunpowder, which has attracted mixed responses from historians, but also productions such as Elizabeth I Secret agents (Monday 23 October 2017, 9.00pm-10.00pm, BBC TWO), which explored the Queen and her spymaster servant William Cecil’s attempts to prevent acts of conspiracy and terror.

In broad terms, my Guardian comment, received positive responses, including a supportive message from a young Muslim woman who felt it had offered a useful perspective for the contemporary experience of oppression suffered by stigmatised and innocent communities after acts of atrocity and terror. Yet the piece also elicited a number of highly aggressive and critical replies from individuals in Spain and the US condemning my sympathetic support for the experience of Roman Catholics in British culture: ‘Was I in favour of the inquisition?’, or a Francoist?, were questions posed by the anonymous posters. Such readers seem to have been clearly incapable of distinguishing between historical analysis and personal and contemporary commitments. The wilful misunderstanding of both the historical tradition, and my perspective, was striking indeed, but it confirmed my belief that the contemporary world is only too ready to make political capital out of miss-readings of the past. Commemoration is always a political act, especially when condoned by the establishment. Bonfire night festivities are not simply an excuse for setting off fireworks, bobbing apples, or burning garden refuse (often at the cost of killing hibernating tortoises and hedgehogs): they also marginalise those who are not invited, or are excluded by their own religious or philosophical commitments. The commonplace comment that most people have no idea of the historical origins and tradition is not a good enough excuse to ignore those potential resonances in others’ minds.

The recent drama documentaries will conjure up those dormant historical memories for many who watch them. Indeed, there has been condemnation for their representations of violent executions and torture, and formal complaints have been directed to the BBC. Yet one only needs to spend a little time in the seventeenth century to understand that corporal and capital punishment was routine, and indeed in some cases a festive moment for communities, reinforcing their collective identities against the imminent threats of invasion and tyranny.

The suffering of the victims of the July bombings and more recent atrocities in Manchester, London and elsewhere poses an historical question of how such events might be commemorated in an appropriate way in decades to come. Given the British predilection for bonfires, one can imagine that commemoration might be folded into the Guy Fawkes moment, with the burning of effigies of the bombers, identified by backpacks, or, even more unfortunately, representations of stereotypical bearded Islamists. Such commemorative displays would draw a line between one part of the community and the stigmatised minority. Thankfully, given the attempts to build bridges within communities in Manchester and London, we might have a reasonable optimism that no such bonfires will be kindled, although the rising influence of post-Brexit culture of open bigotry and racism could potentially feed a poison into public events. Although bonfires have been a persistent feature of our culture every November since 1605, and with new commercial developments the possibility of it being adapted to new circumstances remains on the cards.

Despite the popular view that bonfire night is a harmless, festive occasion, it is in fact a despicable relic of a culture that commended, in the name of Christian duty, the persecution of religious minorities, the burning of witches and the ritual desecration of suicides. A supposed celebration of the immolation of an individual became a political device exploited by successive governments in the name of national security.

The tenacity of the ritual in the 21st century is for many (even today) a residual act of anti-Catholic hatred, which reveals the Protestant foundations of modern political culture in the UK. The 1701 Act of Settlement established the British constitutional monarchy as a Protestant regime. William III, as the decorations on Hampton Court display, was a Protestant Hercules cleansing the British state of the filth of popery. The fact that the Williamite invasion was timed to coincide with Bonfire night was no accident. Protestant communities in Northern Ireland have reinvented historical memory, with the marching season and the communal activities that recall the defiance of the Apprentice Boys at the Siege of Derry. Few among the broader public on the “mainland” would acknowledge that, from the perspective of theRoman Catholic minority in England, bonfire night may have had as much oppressive force as the militaristic marching of the Orange Order. We might be invited to remember, remember – but, it seems, not too much.

Procession of the Martyrs’ Crosses in Lewes on Bonfire Night

Guy Fawkes’ night is a celebration of torture and execution. It might also be remembered that Roman Catholic communities, both in Ireland and in Britain, have borne the brunt of paramilitary and judicial punishment, just as Muslim communities are being subjected to abuse and hate crimes today. By placing the memory of such atrocity at the forefront of our mind’s eye, it may be possible to recognise that Fawkes’ end is a strange act to remember. In our pluralist age, we are encouraged to exercise tolerance for other faiths, but there are moments when the bare bones of earlier ages puncture the fabric of modernity. There are also lessons to be learnt about the effectiveness of a policy of persecution and oppression. The ‘Troubles’ were fed by these historical moments, and the fears generated by the Irish Rebellion of 1641. John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments (published first in 1570, but frequently reprinted into the nineteenth century) provide images of Papist atrocity to reinforce commonplace antipathy to the Roman antichrist.

Bonfire night is, to many, a prompt to memories of persecution, punishment and martyrdom. As good citizens merrily set fire to effigies of Guido Fawkes, they might usefully pause to consider the suffering that Catholic communities in England, Scotland and Ireland experienced over the past four centuries. English Protestant society was until fairly recently a persecuting culture. In the name of defending Protestant liberties, the freedoms of Catholic minorities were sacrificed. Sound familiar? Just substitute “democratic” for “Protestant” and “Muslim” for “Catholic”.

Recently, watching footage of the bonfire societies in Lewes on 5 November – masked figures marching in procession, carrying burning crosses – a black US based visitor remarked how uncomfortable it made him feel; was this the Ku Klux Klan in Sussex? It’s a difficult point, but one that every minority ought to ask itself: how long does it take before such rituals are safely emptied of their significance? As recent events in Charlottesville and elsewhere in the US confirm, these symbols, rituals and public expressions still carry hateful contemporary meaning. While some may claim that 400 years is long enough for the brutal meaning of bonfire night to become a harmless bit of fun; but will the burning crosses or burning victims ever lose their cultural virulence? It’s difficult to approve of a world in which so much pain and injustice could be forgotten.


Justin Champion is Emeritus Professor of early modern ideas at Royal Holloway, University of London.


The Jurors and the Queen: Memorialising Magna Carta at Runnymede by Steven Franklin

Memorials and the process of memorialisation have been the subject of intense public and academic debate in recent years. In 2015, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign sought to remove statues of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes from the University of Cape Town and Oriel College, Oxford. More recently, controversies surrounding confederate memorials in America have reminded us of the highly charged and intense debates that public statues can elicit. These events underline the public resonance and contested nature of both memorialisation and historical memory. On the one hand, memorials form part of the historical record and are physical reminders of the people and values past societies held dear. On the other, the values and people represented is fixed at the point of construction. If contemporary audiences no longer feel reverence for what or who is being commemorated, they might question the validity of such memorials, and call for either their reinterpretation or complete removal. The removal of public statues can make the historian uneasy and raises issues surrounding the cleansing of the public record. Faced with this prospect, the preference seems to lean towards the reinterpretation of memorials instead of their complete destruction. However, memorials remain an important part of our commemorative culture.

King John sealing Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215 – Cassell’s History of England (1902)

Magna Carta, a document sealed by King John at Runnymede in 1215 at the behest of his revolting Barons, was designed to avert civil war. In its time, it was a complete failure and it was annulled almost as soon as it had been sealed. The text of the charter, however, endured, and its sealing continues to resonate in British society and culture to this day. But the legacy of Magna Carta has been protean and characterised by its capacity to lend authority to wildly differing worldviews. It was, for example, cited in justification for the causes of both radical reformers such as Francis Burdett and John Wilkes, and to parliamentarians. Attempting to explain the charter’s very broad appeal in 1965, J.C. Holt summarised its legacy as the ‘history of an argument’. Given the complex nature of Magna Carta’s legacy, the process of memorialisation has been almost inevitably difficult because of the numerous ways in which the charter has been interpreted over the past eight centuries. The complexity of the document has by no means prevented its memorialisation, however, and in 2015 two installations were unveiled in the fields at Runnymede, close to where we believe the charter was originally sealed. Each sought to physically represent and engage with the charter and its broader legacy. The result was the unveiling of two very contrasting installations.

Statue of Queen Elizabeth II unveiled at Runnymede in June 2015

The first memorial, supported by Runnymede Borough Council, took the form of a statue of Queen Elizabeth II. The four-metre tall statue, situated on the curved bank of the River Thames looking towards Windsor, was the gift of a newly formed charity, Runnymede Magna Carta Legacy. As early as 2010 the Council had been vocal supporters of the anniversary and had actively pushed for the construction of a Magna Carta interpretation centre at Runnymede. But by the summer of 2014, following two failed Heritage Lottery Fund applications, the Council was at risk of not making any meaningful contribution to the anniversary celebrations. It was at this stage that the Council was approached by RMCL about the prospect of the gift – the statue of the Queen. The offer was greeted with a mixed response by the borough councillors, and some were quite critical. Much of the criticism of the offer centred on one key issue: the suitability of a statue of the current monarch to commemorate a document many believe was deeply anti-monarchical. Despite these protestations, RMCL continued to develop their proposals. By March 2015 no clear decision had been made and it was decided that the plans would be put to a public consultation. The public response to the consultation was limited, with less than 55 respondents in total. However, the majority of those that replied indicated that they were against the erection of the statue. The council ignored their objections, pointing to the insignificant number of respondents as justification.

On the morning of the 14th June, 2015, in front of a small gathering of invited guests, including the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, and local MP, Philip Hammond, the completed memorial was unveiled. For many members of the public the Statue of the Queen remained divisive and historically incongruous. Those most opposed to the project felt that it was completely inappropriate, and decried it as a desecration of democracy. However, the memorial also had its supporters, who stressed that the statue was not a celebration of Queen Elizabeth II. Instead, they suggest that it deliberately contrasted the absolute monarchy upon whom the charter was imposed to the modern constitutional monarchy of today.

The memorial itself does not offer much in the way of interpretative explanation. The little description that does exist echoes and reinforces the view that the sealing of the charter was the first moment on a centuries-long journey toward the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. Inscribed in the stone pathway that connects the river to the statue is a ‘democracy timeline’ that highlights significant evolutionary milestones from Britain’s democratic heritage. These democratic moments sit alongside a role of monarchs and rulers which is intended to provide political and historical context for the gradual evolution of democracy. As a method of engaging and educating the public about Magna Carta and its legacy, the success of the memorial is questionable. The memorial is quite traditional in the sense that it clearly embodies and represents a specific view of the charter – one that might to some seem historically incongruous for many and those that visit the statue learn little about Magna Carta’s history or the nuances that shape its legacy.

The second memorial or public artwork, was unveiled by HRH the Duke of Cambridge on Monday 15th June 2015. Its interpretative and creative approach to the charter and its legacy could not have been further removed from that of the Queen’s statue. Created by the internationally acclaimed artist and sculptor Hew Locke, The Jurors was commissioned and financed – at great public cost – by Surrey County Council, which had invited artists to tender for the commission. Locke was notified of his success in the summer of 2014; he had under a year to complete the project and so needed to work quickly. His pitch drew from Clause 39 (trial by peers) of the 1215 charter and featured 12 bronze chairs, representing the demotic concept of the jury. The fronts and backs of the chairs became his canvas and he used these to depict moments from across history. His artwork incorporates symbols and imagery that represent the law and explores the struggle for freedom alongside the evolution of human and environmental rights.

Hew Locke’s The Jurors

Locke was presented with the challenge of selecting the 24 scenes to depict on the chairs, a task he apparently found extremely difficult. Partly, this was a result of his passion for history; indeed, he has said that if he had not been an artist he would have been a historian. This passion fuelled a detailed level of research not normally undertaken for his art, in an effort to present the most nuanced interpretation of the subject matter. He also hoped the sculpted chairs would encourage those who visited them to question accepted societal norms. Some scenes, such as Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment, came to him quicker than others, and he recalls that representing women’s rights approprirately was difficult; as a man he wanted to avoid being cliché or making an overt feminist statement.

The twelve chairs appear unassuming as they stand facing each other at Runnymede. When empty, their presence effortlessly reminds the public of the events of 1215 without compromising the beauty of the memorial’s surroundings. As the artwork’s dedicated website explains:

The chairs seem to be awaiting a gathering, discussion or debate of some kind: an open invitation from the artist for the audience to sit, to reflect and, to discuss together the implications of the histories and issues depicted.[1]

The Jurors has received much critical acclaim for the thought-provoking way the subject has been approached and carefully framed. The scenes depicted are both universal and multi-cultural, ranging from the Confucian Principles of the Han Dynasty of 206 BCE to Tim Berners Lee and his call for a digital Magna Carta in 2014. The completed installation engenders a sense of multi-cultural inclusivity that the Queen statue does not, a fact that separates The Jurors with other more traditional memorials. Its multi-culturalism did not happen by chance. Instead it came about because of Locke’s vision for the project and the sensitivity to which he approached his research.

However, set within the context of recent public discourse on memorials, the underlying creative principles of The Jurors offer new methods of memorialisation for the 21st century. Firstly, Locke did not want his artwork to be merely, as he termed it, ‘a collection of heroes’ and he intentionally included figures and moments in history that would stimulate public debate and divide opinion. The figures and values represented on the artwork are neither glorified nor celebrated but simply left there for public reflection and consideration. By adopting this approach, the problem of remembering past heroes, such as Cecil Rhodes, is somewhat negated. Secondly, Locke maintains that his artwork is only truly complete once people are sitting on the chairs, discussing and debating the issues and histories depicted. The purpose of his artwork then is to encourage public debate and reflection rather than present its audience with a specific, non-negotiable, interpretation.

Unsurprisingly, both installations will have their supporters and critics, and as such they reflect the contested nature of history and memorialisation. However, as questions concerning the nature and purpose of memorialisation continue to dominate public and academic discourse, one feels that Locke’s innovative artwork provides a method of remembrance that will be of more use to an increasingly historically aware and critical public. In comparison to the statue of the Queen, the conversations which The Jurors inspires are much less restricted, open to the evolution of public values and conversations across time, whilst remaining multi-culturally inclusive.



Steven Franklin is a doctoral student and teaching fellow at the Department of History, Royal Holloway, University of London. His thesis explores the evolving historical interpretations, commemorations, and public understandings of Magna Carta in the modern period. Steven will be giving an IHR Public History seminar on the theme of this blog-post at Senate House on Wednesday 25 October. All are welcome to attend.


Gunrunners and Gangsters: Peaky Blinders, the IRA and Historical Drama by Brian Hanley

Historians often have understandably mixed feelings about historical drama on television. On the one hand, it’s great to see wider public attention drawn to aspects of the past about which we are intimately familiar. On the other, however, it can be hard to watch complex historical phenomena simplified, sensationalised or air-brushed in the name of entertainment. And yet an engaging period drama can shed valuable light on fascinating but hitherto obscure fragments of history and enrich public knowledge of the past for a bigger, more diverse audience than that commanded by most popular or academic historians. The depiction of IRA gun-running during the Irish War of Independence in BBC Two’s Peaky Blinders provides a good case in point.

In April 1920 James Delaney, an Irish immigrant living and working in London, observed nightly protests outside Wormwood Scrubs prison in support of a hunger-strike by republican prisoners, one of whom, Tom Treacy, was from Delaney’s home county of Kilkenny. During the protests there were a number of clashes between between local IRA members and ‘rowdies’ who tried to disrupt the rosaries recited each night by female republicans. Delaney, a tailor’s cutter, resolved to become involved and, after the strike ended, visited Tom Treacy, who was recovering in a hospital in Highgate. Delaney had served in the British Army during the Great War and now offered his services to the IRA. Treacy suggested that if he provided funding, Delaney might be able to procure arms and have them sent to Kilkenny (local republican units, frustrated by a lack of arms, often utilised their own resources rather than those of IRA Headquarters). Delaney then approached two former London policemen, Lynch and Cooley, (both Irishmen) who had been dismissed as a result of the recent police strikes. They agreed to put him in touch with a London Irishman named Conroy, a bookmaker with criminal connections. Conroy introduced Delaney to two men, Ginger Barnett (described by Delaney as a ‘Jewman’) and a mixed-race gang leader known as ‘Darby the Coon’.

IRA Staff officers - Ballykinler 1920 (1)
IRA Staff Officers at Ballykinlar internment camp, Co. Down, 1920. Tom Treacy is standing in the back row, second from right.

Using £100 supplied by Treacy, Delaney began purchasing weapons through these criminal contacts. Every week he bought handguns from sailors (paying usually between £2-£4) who stayed at lodging houses in Petticoat Lane (where Barnett was based), Limehouse Causeway, Pennyfields (the Chinese Quarter) or the ‘negro lodging houses’ in Cable Street in the East End. He was usually accompanied by either Darby or Barnett when he visited the lodging houses. Delaney himself operated from a boarding house near Victoria Station but never brought weapons there. Instead he handed them over to another Kilkenny emigrant named Annie O’Gorman who he would meet at Marble Arch. At her residence they would wrap the guns in tailor’s wadding and post them to a fake address at Kilkenny’s town hall where the town clerk knew to bring these parcels to a local republican. This scheme worked until November 1920, when in the course of a plan to buy a large amount of weapons, Delaney was betrayed to the police. Though questioned at Scotland Yard, the police failed to find any incriminating evidence and Delaney was released and returned to Ireland, managing to bring three revolvers on his person.

Here we have at a micro-level an illustration of how sections of the IRA sought to arm themselves using their personal contacts among the Irish diaspora. We also have interaction between an emigrant radicalised by clashes in his adopted city, brought into contact with disgruntled former employees of the Crown, themselves radicalised by post-war unrest. The would-be republican gunrunner was in turn introduced to an underworld with an immigrant and multi-ethnic dimension in a city at the heart of a global empire. And Delaney’s story was by no means unique. In the same period Irish revolutionaries in Britain also dealt with gangs such as the Sabinis in north London and others like them in Birmingham. They also made contact with the disaffected migrants from Britain’s imperial possessions. Irish revolutionaries’ pursuit of a steady supply of arms would bring them not only to Boston and New York but also to Gabriel D’Annunzio’s Adriatic state at Fiume and the giant arms bazaar that was post-Versailles Germany. Politically promiscuous, they would scheme with Italian fascists and German communists, Freikorps freebooters and Russian Bolsheviks. Indeed, IRA operatives established front shipping companies to transport arms from ports such as Hamburg to Ireland and substantial amounts of their cash would go missing on the continent. Recriminations about who was responsible for the failure of certain operations would last for decades. Among those attempting to purchase material in Germany during 1921 were Roddy Connolly, son of the executed 1916 leader James, who had recently been to Moscow and met Lenin; Robert Briscoe, a Jewish Dubliner who would later help arm Zionists in Palestine; and Charles McGuinness, a sailor and adventurer who would side with Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Many of their escapades read like plotlines from the BBC’s hugely popular Peaky Blinders.

The Shelby Gang in BBC Two's Peaky Blinders.jpg
The Shelby Gang in BBC Two’s Peaky Blinders [BBC]
The first series of that show revolved around an attempt by Birmingham gangsters, the Shelby family (the ‘Peaky Blinders’ of the title), composed largely of veterans of the Great War, to successfully offload a large consignment of arms. Unfortunately for the Shelbys the IRA, communists and the British security services were all equally invested in locating these weapons. It’s probably fair to say the success of that show lies less in its depiction of the politics of post-war Britain than in its stylised violence, explicit sex, deliberately anachronistic Nick Cave soundtrack and excellent performances from Cillian Murphy, Helen McCrory, Sam Neill, Tom Hardy, Sophie Rundle and Paddy Considine among others. The haircuts and clothes worn by the male characters also correspond neatly with aspects of ‘hipster’ fashion (even inspiring a line by former Kerry GAA star turned designer Paul Galvin). Subsequent series have introduced Italian and Jewish mobsters, the Bolsheviks, White Russian émigrés and right-wing employers organizations, all against a backdrop of industrial unrest and contemporary political change.

Again, Historians can often be quite precious about how ‘their’ subject is presented on screen. But though Peaky Blinders makes little claim to historical accuracy (the original Peaky Blinders gang for instance, operated during the late 19th century not after the Great War) its depiction of a post-war world turned upside is strikingly similar to the evidence contained in IRA pension statements dealing with gunrunning (a storyline which also featured in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire). Indeed, it might be the case that ensuring audiences are entertained makes Peaky Blinders more believable than shows that see themselves as self-consciously based on historical truths.

In 2016 Rebellion was marketed as Irish broadcaster RTE’s flagship contribution to the Centenary year of the Easter Rising. Indeed, for the 50th anniversary in 1966 the station’s drama Insurrection had been an original and innovative production. Unfortunately, Rebellion, a substantial budget notwithstanding, was anything but. Despite being based on a wide reading of the sources concerning Ireland in the pre-Rising era it fell flat as a drama. While it was laudable that women were central to the story, the attempt to address almost every aspect of contemporary Irish opinion was laboured. The depiction of Padraig Pearse was very clichéd and owed much to the psychological critiques of the man that were in vogue thirty years ago. The contrast between the Volunteers (Catholic nationalists reciting the Rosary) and the Citizen Army (quoting Lenin) was also hackneyed. Finally, the streets of Dublin depicted in the TV show seemed devoid of people and little of the sense of drama mentioned in numerous contemporary accounts of the Rising was conveyed. While some critics saw the series as implicitly anti-republican, the greatest problem with it was that it was just not entertaining. Rebellion looks set to return, however, this time looking at the War of Independence. Its writers might take a leaf from Peaky Blinders and not take themselves so seriously (the emergence of Frances as an assassin in the final episode of the last series might suggest they realise that); they might also attempt to convey how people caught up in extraordinary times can be inspired to act by a variety of motives, some of them quite contradictory. Most of all, they need to entertain.


Brian Hanley is a Research Fellow at the School of Classics, History and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh, where he is currently working on the AHRC funded project ‘A Global History of the Irish Revolution, 1916-1923’. He has published widely on 20th Century Irish republicanism; his books include The IRA: A Documentary History and, with Scott Millar, The Lost Revolution: The Story of the Official IRA and the Workers’ Party. 


July in Northern Ireland: Representing Difficult Pasts in a Troubled Present by Olwen Purdue

It’s that time of year in Northern Ireland. Early July. Those weeks during which one section of society visibly and noisily gears up for the Twelfth of July celebrations, while another resigns itself to the disruption caused by local band parades or the mass parades of ‘the Twelfth’. A third group, mainly the professional middle classes, pack their cars and suitcases and quietly slip off to the continent.

It’s a time when the past seems all too raucously present, when the events of centuries ago once more occupy the streets and public places of cities, towns, and even the smallest villages across Northern Ireland as the triumph of the forces of William of Orange over those of James II at the battle of the Boyne in 1690 is represented on decorative arches, on the banners of Orange lodges and on Lambeg drums, matching those images more permanently displayed in the murals adorning gable walls.

William of Orange Mural - Sandy Row Belfast
Mural dedicated to William of Orange and his victory at the Battle of the Boyne, Sandy Row, Belfast [©John McDonald]

In many ways the Battle of the Boyne was just one battle (albeit a significant one) in a much more complex war, a battle that just happened to have been fought on Irish soil and which galvanised the enmity between Irish Catholics, who fought with James, and Irish Protestants, who fought on William’s side. It was a war about the rule and religious status of England, Scotland and Ireland where William, a Dutch Protestant, had recently deposed the Catholic James II (his uncle) over the fear that James was trying to establish a Catholic dynasty in the three kingdoms. It was also a war on a European scale, a war about power and the rule of church and state. James was backed by the Catholic King Louis XIV of France, then one of Europe’s superpowers, while the Protestant William, somewhat ironically, had the support of Pope Alexander VIII, part of a ‘Grand Alliance’ trying to curtail Louis XIV’s expansion in Europe. Even in an Irish context it was not as simple as is generally represented; as Bill Roulston has pointed out, the establishment of Protestant supremacy in Ireland left Presbyterians as well as Catholics out in the cold. In Northern Ireland today, however, the narrative is generally kept very simple indeed.

It is, of course, in this very over-simplification of the past that its symbolic capital lies. Moments, events and characters from history are appropriated and depicted in monochromatic tones in order to reinforce identity, to denote community and belonging for those on the inside, or the ‘otherness’ of those on the outside, to legitimise a particular present view of society, culture, and politics. William was the defender of Irish Protestantism against the machinations of Catholic King James, and his victory at the Boyne the decisive moment in establishing the Protestant faith in Ireland. It is no surprise, then, that the memory of King Billy and the strength of the Orange Order today are greatest in areas in which Protestants feel at their most vulnerable, among marginalised urban working-class males and remote rural areas close to the border with the Irish Republic.

Of course the Battle of the Boyne is not the only historical moment to be simplified and appropriated for present purposes or political ends. Other key episodes frequently portrayed in loyalist areas of Belfast include the First World War, and the Battle of the Somme in particular, the signing of the Ulster Covenant in 1912, along with scenes from era when Belfast was an industrial powerhouse and a city at the heart of the Empire, all of which reinforce a sense of Northern Ireland’s British identity.  In nationalist parts of Belfast, by contrast, the Great Famine of 1845-49 features on several gable walls. Sidestepping the tortuous historiographic debates over causation, impact, and the role of ideology, they simply present the Famine, as An Gorta Mór, the Great Hunger, ‘Ireland’s genocide by the English’.  Presented thus, the Famine speaks of the oppression under which the Irish have suffered at the hands of the English, a theme that continues to resonate strongly. Another event that is frequently depicted in nationalist murals is the Easter Rising of 1916, an event that is significant not only in marking the birth of independent Ireland, but in representing a tradition of militant republicanism. As with the Twelfth, Easter 1916 is celebrated by annual marches and parades. So these representations of history are by no means unique to one community or the other. Rather they represent common ways of using representations of the past in public spaces, even if the narratives of that past are in some cases mutually exclusive.

Famine mural - Whiterock Rd. Belfast (1)
Memorial to An Gorta Mór (the Great Hunger), Whiterock Road, Belfast

Neither are they static. It would be inaccurate to see these representations of key historic moments and personalities as remaining constant in terms of their significance or meaning to the communities or identities they represent. As new, more emotive or less remote, historical moments begin to resonate with the people of the city, they can supplant traditional images. Among loyalist communities, for example, representations of King Billy have largely given way to representations of the Somme, or the First World War more generally. Despite the fact that Irishmen and women of all persuasions fought and died, the war long been associated with the unionist and loyalist community. While murals of King Billy have often been allowed to fade or have been painted over, new and often quite sophisticated representations of key moments in the Great War are being created, or old ones refreshed. Images associated with the ‘war to end all wars’ are even beginning to replace those of William III on Orange banners. Likewise in republican parts of Belfast, murals representing the Republican Hunger Strikers of the 1980s are now more common than images of the Famine. They tend to be very complex, in some cases accompanied with religious imagery or placed in a shrine-like setting. In Derry, murals depicting the events of Bloody Sunday provide a powerful statement of identity and outlook, a message about the ways in which the Troubles are remembered and how this impacts on attitudes to developments in Northern Ireland in the present.

Memorial mural dedicated to Bloody Sunday victims, Bogside, Derry [Keith Ruffles]
These images of historical events are, therefore, a constant and visible reminder of contested senses of the past, ones that represent and reinforce a very divided present. This contested view of the past poses a major challenge for public historians. How do academics and professionals whose job it is to represent such contested historical narratives to public audiences, whether in museums, at heritage sites, or through various forms of media, negotiate the deeply divisive nature of Ireland’s history, and, in particular, of Northern Ireland’s recent past? It certainly presents some interesting case studies for the budding public historian, something we’re encouraging our Public History students at Queen’s University Belfast to explore. How do you represent the past to the general public when the prevailing historical narratives of that public are deeply contested.  Students are encouraged to think about how as public historians we can negotiate these divisions over interpretation. It has been interesting, for example, to hear their responses to the way in which the Northern Ireland conflict has been ‘officially’ represented through the Troubles exhibition at the Ulster Museum. As part of National Museums of Northern Ireland, the Ulster Museum has a mission to represent the entire community in an inclusive and balanced manner, something that has had a significant impact on the institution’s depiction of something that is both deeply divisive and at the same has touched so many people’s lives in painful ways. The general conclusion is that, by trying to avoid alienating one side or the other, the museum has ended up with a very sterile form of history, one from which the emotions have been carefully extracted. This is something the the museum is now trying to address, working with communities to develop a new, more reflective and meaningful representation of the thirty years of conflict. One way to address the history of the ‘Troubles’ without dwelling on the violence is to explore the social and cultural context within which the conflict occurred. To this end, some of our students have recently worked with the museum on a major photographic exhibition ‘Conflicting Images: Photography during the Northern Irish Troubles’. Featuring over 140 images by international and local photographers, it examines the role photography played during ‘The Troubles’. The photographs that have been selected present a shared vision of the past, serving as a means to explore the experiences of ordinary people, of whatever background, during this time.

Our students also visit Derry/Londonderry (the divided past evident even in the disputed name of the city) in order to explore a very different way in which the past is interpreted and represented, this time by and for a particular community. The Museum of Free Derry is a particularly interesting example of a museum which is free from the constraints of official status. Situated in the Bogside, on the exact spot on which British troops opened fire and shot 28 unarmed civilians of Bloody Sunday, this community-run museum represents the events of that day in a raw and unfiltered way. The museum effectively uses video footage, audio recordings, images and artefacts in a dark, claustrophobic room, creating for the visitor an almost immersive experience of the chaos and violence of the day.

This is followed by a visit to the museum of the Apprentice Boys of Derry, where a very different narrative of the city’s story is told. Using artefacts, banners, images, and a narrated video the museum tells the story of how, during the siege of Derry which preceded William’s victory over James, a band of loyal apprentice boys closed the city’s gates on King James. It tells the story of the city holding out against James’ army, but also examines the role the Apprentice Boys, a Protestant fraternal society, have played in the city up to the present day. Both the Museum of Free Derry and the Apprentice Boys’ Museum have recently renovated or rebuilt their premises with the aid of equitable government funding for both organisations.

Effigy of Governor Lundy (‘the traitor’), traditionally burnt on 12 July, and other artefacts at the Museum of the Apprentice Boys of Derry [Olwen Purdue]
From the highly regulated, controlled, and balanced context of the Ulster Museum, through community-run institutions where the historical narrative is controlled and presented by one particular group or the other, students are then encouraged to consider the totally unregulated form of public history represented in the murals of Derry and Belfast. All of this gives plenty of food for thought about issues of ownership and interpretation of public memory and history, and the challenges of representing troubled pasts to public audiences. In an environment in which contested interpretations of the past feeds the divisions of the present that is a challenge indeed.

As we go through the week of the Twelfth, Northern Ireland’s devolved government once more finds itself in a state of crisis. With the Executive suspended due to the political fall-out over the flawed and exploited Renewable Heating Scheme and the main parties failing to reach agreement that will restore powers, the threat of Direct Rule is very real. Funding to essential services is being held up and, ironically, an important proposal for a consultation process over how to deal with legacy issues is left to languish in the political vacuum. The ostensible sticking point in negotiations between the two main parties appears to be legislation around the Irish language, while legacy issues also play a big part. Both parties, each of which represents the more extreme ends of the political spectrum, continue to draw on representations of the past to legitimise their stance. In Northern Ireland there is no doubt that representation of the past in public, by the public, or for the public, remains deeply problematic.


Olwen Purdue is an urban historian and lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast where she will be directing the university’s new Centre for Public History, which will be launched this autumn. QUB will also be launching an MA in Public History in September 2018.

Celebrating the Centenary of Women Lawyers by Katie Broomfield

When I was admitted as a member of Lincoln’s Inn in 2003, it didn’t occur to me that I could have been refused entry merely because I am a woman. Yet this is what happened to any woman who applied to join the Inns of Court or the Law Society before 23 December 1919, when the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act received Royal Assent. This ground-breaking piece of legislation removed any legal barrier to women, including married women, working as lawyers on the grounds of their sex.

Women Lawyers PosterThe approaching centenary of the passing of the 1919 Act is an opportune moment to look back and consider how much has been achieved by women in the legal profession over the past one hundred years. I am therefore delighted to announce a new exhibition, Celebrating the Centenary of Women Lawyers, which will be on show at The Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn in collaboration with the First 100 Years project and Royal Holloway, University of London. The exhibition will place the emergence of Britain’s first female barristers and solicitors in the broader context of the women’s movement and the opening of higher education to women in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Rather fittingly, Royal Holloway was established following the merger, in 1985, of two pioneering women’s colleges: Bedford College and Royal Holloway College. When it opened in 1849, Bedford College was the first institution in Great Britain to offer higher education to women, and Royal Holloway has its own proud history of producing pioneering female practitioners across a range of professions. Come along to the exhibition and find out who among the first women lawyers had links to Royal Holloway and the University of London. Among the women who will be profiled are Bertha Cave who, when her application to Gray’s Inn was refused, sought (unsuccessfully) to appeal that decision; and Gwyneth Bebb, whose application to be admitted to the Law Society ended up in the Court of Appeal. ‘In point of intelligence and education and competency’, the Court of Appeal acknowledged that Miss Bebb was ‘probably, far better than’ many male candidates but, because she was a woman, in 1913 she could not be admitted to the Law Society.

Daily Mirror Cartoon - Dec 1903
‘Miss Cave, the would-be Lady Barrister, before the judges at the House of Lords’, Daily Mirror, Dec. 1903

Today, one third of all practising barristers and approximately half of all practising solicitors are women.  More than half of British judges aged under 40 are female and over the course of the last five years more women than men have been admitted to the profession. This represents a remarkable female presence in the legal field, considering that 100 years ago women were barred from the profession altogether.  Inequalities, of course, remain but by taking the opportunity afforded by the forthcoming centenary to consider what has been achieved in the last 100 years, we can hope to look forward to greater equality in the century to come.

The exhibition will be launched on Wednesday, 19 July 2017 and all are welcome to join us for a drinks reception in the Old Hall Crypt at Lincoln’s Inn anytime from 6.00-8.00 pm. There will be informal talks at 6:30 and 7:30 pm.

 Tickets are free but to join us for what promises to be an interesting and engaging evening celebrating the history of women in law please register at:

From 20 July 2017, this free exhibition will be on display on the east side of the hoardings around the Great Hall, Lincoln’s Inn and you are invited to view the exhibition and explore this hidden heart of legal London.


Katie Broomfield is a postgraduate student on the MA in Public History at Royal Holloway, University of London.  This exhibition will form the final project for her MA.  You can contact Katie for further information via @KRBroomfield on Twitter.

First 100 Years is a ground-breaking history project, supported by the Law Society and the Bar Council, charting the journey of women in law since 1919. Work is currently underway to produce a digital museum made up of 100 video stories that tell the story of women in law.  To find out more and to donate to the project please click here.


Making a Missing Museum: Jack the Ripper and Women’s History by Sarah Jackson

History matters. Our histories warn us, inform us, and inspire us. More than that, they help us know ourselves, and shape what we believe we know about each other. As I was getting ready to go to the first protest outside the newly-unveiled Ripper Museum in Shadwell, I started looking for a quote which could express what I was struggling to say. The quote I found was from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s excellent TED Talk about the ‘single story’ of Africa:

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.

The infamous Whitechapel Murders have long overshadowed the many stories we could tell about east London, and the obsession with ‘Jack’ means that the story most people associate with the area is one of violence against women and failed justice. Yet if our single story is about the brutal, unsolved murders of five working class women, how does that shape the way people see us? How does it shape the way we see ourselves?


Protest at Jack the Ripper Museum, Shadwell, 2015


The Ripper Museum has offered plenty of reasons to be angry: not least the mythologising of a misogynist serial killer, and the insult of swapping a museum presented to the local community and council as about women’s lives for a tourist attraction about their violent deaths – complete with a mannequin of one of his victim’s corpses, ‘Ripper’ cupcakes, and an audio loop of women’s screams.

The museum is, however, just the latest and most egregious example of London’s Ripper tourist trade (although the London Dungeon seems to be challenging them for the crown). And yet contrary to the narrative presented by many of the institutions and individuals involved in this ‘trade’, violence against women hasn’t gone the way of gaslights and top hats. It is incredibly common and frequently lethal, and Ripper tourism helps to trivialise it. The story is told again and again with no reference to the wider context of violence against women – especially violence against women sex workers – and usually in an insensitive, sensational, titillating way.

Poster for Women’s March against Male Violence, September 1988

The protest at the Ripper Museum in 2015 wasn’t the first such protest by a long stretch. One of the local historians who has inspired me most, my co-author Rosemary Taylor, recalled a women’s march that took place 25 odd years ago in protest at the Ten Bells pub which had essentially reinvented itself as a Ripper theme pub, with t-shirts for sale behind the bar. More recently, the Women’s Library (when it was based in Aldgate) and the LIFT campaign both ran Alternative Ripper Tours which told the stories of the women who were murdered – their lives, their communities – and put up temporary plaques to honour them. Protests have also been staged online, including one by the Everyday Whorephobia blogging collective, which ran an online campaign condemning Ripper tourism in 2013.

Feminism is cool now?

One of the things that has set the ‘museum’ on Cable Street apart, attracting criticism from so many sources, is their baffling attempt to pass off the attraction as a genuine celebration of women’s history – even after the logo of a top-hatted man standing in a pool of blood was revealed, and the contents of the museum exposed. It was a bizarre strategy, which they thankfully now seem to have abandoned. It was particularly eerie for us to see the language we were using to describe our fledgling East End Women’s Museum co-opted for their press releases. Indeed, it’s interesting that the Ripper Museum’s owners felt that a museum of women’s history would be more likely to receive interest and support than a museum about Jack the Ripper, a longstanding staple of London tourism. On the one hand this is a testament to the strength of the current resurgence of feminist activism, and to decades of work by pioneering women’s historians. On the other, it reveals the extent to which a particular aspect of feminism has become depoliticised and absorbed into the mainstream. Perhaps the Ripper Museum is an extreme example of ‘femvertising‘. Much has been written about the oil industry’s support for museums, and the ‘halo effect’ they hope to glean from sponsoring exhibitions – could it be that the Ripper tourist industry was seeking out the same respectability?

Missing women

At primary and secondary school level the history curriculum is not particularly concerned with women’s experiences. A recent survey by Girlguiding UK revealed that over half of girls aged 11-21 say that the role women have played in history is not represented as much as the role of men. In higher education women’s history is typically something to be sought out proactively, as an ‘added extra’ or specialism. Yet the problem is by no means confined to our classrooms; women are underrepresented on a local and national level in public history, in museum collections, archives, and academia. Just 2.7% of UK public statues feature historical women who weren’t royalty, with only one statue of a named black woman in the entire country. Just 13% of English Heritage blue plaques in London honour women and only four of the 50 bestselling history books in 2015 were written by women. Unsurprisingly, where women do appear they tend to be those with the most privilege, with women at the intersections of oppression rendered almost invisible. The histories of women of colour, women with disabilities, lesbian and bi women, trans women, and working class women have not only been pushed to the margins but right off the page.

History for resistance

Why does this matter? Unsurprisingly, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said it better than I can, in the same TED Talk:

Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.

Marginalised histories can be powerful tools to dismantle stereotypes and counter myths, to challenge assertions that ‘this is how it’s always been’. Sometimes a story can get through where an argument can’t. Uncovering hidden histories can also play a part in consciousness-raising. Recognising shared experiences across decades, even centuries, help to make the deep roots of inequality and structures of power visible. It means something to discover that your struggle is not only individual but shared, not accidental but systemic. That’s not to suggest that there is a single shared female experience or history, but simply that there are many common threads. Besides, examining the differences between women’s experiences is as illuminating as looking for similarities. We mustn’t simply replace Top Ten Kings and Generals with the Ten Best Ladies, but rather widen the lens, enlarge the story, and examine the power structures which cut across women’s history too.

Something else women’s history can offer us today is inspiration. Studies suggest that women and girls respond better to role models who are also women and girls, and there is something especially magic about a local hero. (I’m writing this in a cafe in Stratford less than 100m from a statue of my most local hero, Joan Littlewood.)

The East End Women’s Museum

While we hope that the lessons we learn through the East End Women’s Museum may be useful to women’s history projects elsewhere, our focus is firmly on east London. Although we do use a deliberately loose and ahistorical definition of the area, rather like John Strype in 1720 when he described the district as “that part beyond the Tower”.

Our reasons are practical – this is a big enough job as it is! – but also because east London has incredibly rich social, political, and cultural histories, and will allow us to explore many themes which are supremely relevant today, such as housing, migration, poverty, and dissent. Besides, it’s overflowing with brilliant stories of pride, pleasure, creativity, humour, resilience, resourcefulness and of course, resistance – from the Bow Matchwomen’s Strike to the Battle of Cable Street, the Ford Dagenham machinists’ walkout to the Bengali families squatting empty buildings in Spitalfields.



Challenges ahead

We’ve been very lucky to have had such a lot of goodwill and enthusiasm for our project, but there are some challenges ahead. One of the most pressing is lack of funds. We’ve reached a point where we can’t expand the project until we have funding to cover things like volunteer expenses, travel, and printing costs. Aside from practical challenges, there are other issues to contend with: for example, as our profile grows we are encountering more criticism and hostility. We’re more often reminded that some people feel very threatened by the idea of throwing a spotlight on women’s history, as if by including more stories about women everyone will suddenly forget about Henry VIII, Newton, and Brunel. While it’s frustrating and sometimes unpleasant, the backlash tells us that we’re on the right track.

What we hope to achieve and how

Our goal is to research, record, and represent women’s histories from across east London, and in doing so celebrate a shared local history, challenge gender stereotypes, and offer inspiration. We want to create opportunities for women and girls to gain the skills and confidence to tell their own stories.

Our hope is that we can build a long lasting resource for historians, schools, curators, and community groups. We know that many museums have slender resources and little support to diversify their collections, especially as past decisions about what is ‘important’ influence what is available to us today. We want to partner with more fantastic archives, collections, and community heritage projects and work together to get the girls to the front. We’re drawing on approaches including oral history, family history, social history and narrative history. Our ultimate aim is to co-create the content of the museum with groups from across east London, and to make it as accessible as possible, collecting and sharing stories in public spaces – parks, streets, schools, pubs, places of worship – as well as in our own museum space and online.

We’ve already started doing a lot of this, thanks to the support of some fantastic partners and volunteers. Over last year we’ve helped to develop two joint exhibitions – with Eastside Community Heritage and the East End Women’s Collective – and begun working on a third with Hackney Museum. We’ve also staged a sell out history event for local feminist activists, organised a pilot schools workshop with 70 year seven students in Hackney, and launched a research project that explores the history of women and East End markets with University College London and King’s College London. This year our main focus is putting some firm foundations in place while we continue to listen and learn about what would make the best possible museum for the women and girls we aim to serve.

An East End mystery

Returning to the idea of the ‘single story’ of east London, I often hear that what makes the myth of Jack the Ripper so irresistible is the element of mystery. I don’t doubt that’s the case. But here’s another mystery for you: why aren’t the other stories better known? Who does it serve to sideline women’s voices and experiences? Or to present working class people as powerless, to suggest trans identities are just a recent ‘trend’, to portray sex workers only as helpless victims, or to paint a picture of London in which every face is white?


Sarah Jackson is co-founder of the East End Women’s Museum and author, with Rosemary Taylor, of East London Suffragettes: Voices from History.