‘Black Lives’ under the Raj by Sarah Ansari

The 2020 Black Lives Matter movement is rightly reinforcing the urgency of acknowledging in concrete and accurate ways the historical voices and experiences of Black people. That it is taking place against the backdrop of an effervescence in identity politics more generally also underlines the complex ways in which people see and label themselves in contemporary Britain. One of the current criticisms of the umbrella terms ‘BAME’/’BME’, for instance, is that these do not convey sufficiently clearly the spectrum of ethnic and other identities supposedly encompassed by them. What follows here, therefore, is not intended to suggest that people of African and South Asian heritage have had 100% identical past experiences, but simply to remind ourselves that, in the days of the British Raj, Indians could often be marginalised and oppressed as ‘black’. On the one hand, as historians, awareness of diversity is always important; on the other hand, so is the need to challenge ‘divide and rule’ narratives.

The whole business of ‘divide and rule’ (following hot on the heels of its close relation ‘divide and conquer’) is, of course, closely associated with the British Empire, and methods deployed there to limit and deflect the resistance of people subjected to imperial control. Such divisive tactics can be blamed for generating political responses that led – in due course, though never inevitably – to the creation of a separate state for Indian Muslims when South Asia secured its freedom in 1947. By officially sanctioning what were packaged as the ‘separate’ needs of Indian Muslims, British policy directly encouraged political separatism. In this case, the divisions nurtured and exacerbated by imperial policy-making were premised on religious difference, and they eventually helped produce Partition in August 1947: an event marked by enormous human suffering, around a million deaths, and something like 14-16 million displaced people moving between the two new states of India and Pakistan.

A tea party in Calcutta, 1890
Colonists and servants at a tea party in Calcutta, 1890 (British Library)

But back to ‘blackness’ under the Raj. Racial identity (albeit infused with the added complication of class) was always a sticky issue for imperialists, with ‘whiteness’ intimately associated with the ‘running of empire’. Contact between the rulers and the ruled was kept as minimal as possible: for instance, clubs – the social hubs of empire – with few exceptions held Indians at bay for as long as they could. Anyone who has ever read a nostalgic book or watched a nostalgia-tinged film about the Raj, for instance, is likely to have come across the institution of the ‘cantonment’. Originally associated first and foremost with the military, these garrisons often mutated into the ‘separate’ locality within a town or city where the British resided, worked and played, usually with as much physical and psychological distance as possible put between themselves and Indians (other than the legions of local servants they employed). This was not just about creating hypothetical ‘safe cultural spaces’ for themselves. In British-controlled South Asia skin colour was always highly politicised, with the ‘blackness’ of local people contrasted against the ‘whiteness’ of the British and their world.

Map of Madras c. 1710
Map of Madras c. 1710, featuring ‘White Town’ and ‘Black Town’

Look at Presidency port-cities such as Madras (Chennai) and Calcutta (Kolkata), two of the earliest commercial bridgeheads through which British interests established themselves in the subcontinent from the seventeenth century onwards. Both for many years contained so-called ‘black towns’, areas in which local people lived and worked, and where British people rarely lingered for long. In the case of Madras, as a British Library webpage tells us:

‘Black Town was originally the old native quarter and grew up outside the
walls of Fort St George to the north on the seafront. … As Madras grew,
Black Town became the commercial centre of the city and developed a very
high population density. … Its name was officially changed to George Town
after a visit by the Prince of Wales in 1906.’

Calcutta, too, in its early colonial heyday was divided into two main districts – White Town, which was where the British resided and conducted their business, and Black Town, where local Bengalis were to be found. Kolkata today offers a ‘Blacktown walk’, which takes visitors on a guided tour of the old-world ‘heritage’ dwellings that make up this historic part of the city. In a similar fashion, Karachi, with its increasingly cosmopolitan population, came in the second half of the nineteenth century to be ‘demarcated’ along colour lines too, with Saddar Bazaar and Empress Market frequented by the ‘white’ population, and the Serai Quarter serving the needs of the ‘black’ town.

‘Blackness’ was thus intrinsic to how the British and other Europeans viewed Indians, but it was also part and parcel of the derogatory ways in which they frequently described ‘the natives’. People with a mixed European-Indian ancestry (nowadays called ‘Anglo-Indians’) were also troubling, since their very existence embodied ‘racial’ mixing, and, as in the United States and South Africa, those among them who could pass as ‘white’ frequently did their best to do so.

More controversial still for us today was the use of the ‘N-word’ to describe Indians under the Raj. As Sam Fortescue has highlighted, in his exploration of material written by British men and women during or soon after the so-called Mutiny of 1857-8, this deeply racist term was bandied about by contemporaries. Take William Russell, the London Times special correspondent, who was sent out to India in early 1858 to report on the Uprising, and who provided many vignettes of the British whom he encountered, satirical no doubt but all the same indicative of perceived realities:

”By Jove! sir,” exclaims the Major, who has by this time got to the walnut
stage of the argument, to which he has arrived by gradations of sherry,
port, ale, and Madeira, – “By Jove,” he exclaims, thickly and fiercely, with
every vein in his forehead swol’n like whipcord, “these n*****s are such a
confounded sensual lazy set, cramming themselves with ghee and sweetmeats,
and smoking their cursed chillumjees all day and all night, that you might
as well think to train pigs. Ho, you! Punkah chordo, or I’ll knock –
Suppose we go up and have a cigar!”

Moreover, as Fortescue goes on to explain:

Atkinson’s famous satire of ‘Our Station’ hinted at a more serious, endemic
double standard in the British. Take, for instance, his sketch of ‘Our
Judge’: ‘There you see him in his court – n*****s – ten thousand pardons!
no, not n*****s, I mean natives – sons of the soil – Orientals – Asiatics,
are his source of happiness.’ The implication is, that in spite of British
evangelism and Utilitarian rhetoric, and notwithstanding Government’s heavy
reliance on servants, native soldiery and pundits, officials tended to feel
that at heart, they ruled a land of ‘n*****s.’

Bengali Babu 2British rule in South Asia, as elsewhere in the world, thus always hinged on the deployment of crude stereotypes, ethnic or otherwise, from the ‘salt-of-the-earth’ ‘martial races’ associated with the plains and mountains of the North-west, to the ‘too-clever-by-half’, inherently untrustworthy Bengali ‘baboo’. Indeed, according to 1890s Daily Mail journalist G. W. Steevens, whereas an Englishman possessed a straight leg, the Bengali’s was unquestionably that of a slave: “Except by grace of his natural masters”, Steevens duly asserted, “a slave he has always been and always must be”.

So whether Indians were “half-naked fakirs” (Winston Churchill’s insulting description of MK Gandhi in 1931) or loyal soldiers volunteering in enormous numbers on behalf of British interests in both world wars, the fact remains that – under the Raj – Indians could very often end up being labelled as ‘black’, with all the exceedingly negative connotations that such categorisations implied at that time.


Sarah Ansari is Professor of History at Royal Holloway, University of London. She has published widely on the history of South Asia and is currently writing a history of Pakistan for Cambridge University Press.

Facing Abe Lincoln: On Black History and Public History by Daisha Brabham

When I was about 10 or 11, I was fascinated with the American Civil War. Indeed, I once begged my mother to buy me a fifteen-hour documentary about the battles and generals. She was convinced that I would not watch the entire thing but nonetheless relented. And I did. History had been a passion of mine from an early age, but I can attribute this indelible fascination with the Civil War to my history teacher, Mr. T. He performed in military re-enactments and had even at one time re-enacted the Battle of Gettysburg. The battles were a consistent theme in the classroom as we examined the various uniforms, the generals, and political leaders. I particularly liked learning about Abraham Lincoln to the point that I memorized the ‘Gettysburg Address’ and watched countless documentaries on him. The Great Emancipator who had defied the odds and saved the nation represented a thread between myself and my country. In a childlike fashion, I liked Lincoln, because he would have ‘liked me’, which made him stand out among the figures we studied. In Lincoln’s eyes, I was an American; the war he had led to free my ancestors proved that for me. So, in his eyes, I was whole.

My love for Abraham Lincoln resurfaced as I happened upon some of my old DVDs at 22. I began to research the Lincoln I had met in my seventh-grade classroom using the skills that I had since acquired as a historian To my horror, though, I discovered the real Lincoln; the Lincoln who believed in separatism; the Lincoln who would have preferred that my ancestors return to Africa, leaving the county to mend in our absence. Ultimately, Lincoln began to resemble the rest of the characters in the story of the Civil War. In the words of Fredrick Douglass, ‘In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man’. It was only then that I began to revisit my childhood memories and realize a terrifying fact. The one aspect missing from Mr. T’s and my own vision of the American past: slaves. I still cannot remember a single lesson on slavery. It seems we both ignored that part, but for distinct reasons. I had overlooked this distortion of the past in the same way I had I ignored the fact that Mr. T had once told me ‘I was one of the good ones’ compared to my black and brown classmates. It was easier to disregard those moments than to confront them. I simply cannot describe the gut-wrenching feeling I felt as that childlike thread that had once sewn me securely to the fabric of my country was severed. I cried like a child for the loss of belonging that had grounded me.

Douglass-Lincoln Mural (1943)
Mural on Recorder of Deeds Building, Washington DC, depicting Frederick Douglass meeting Abraham Lincoln, painted by William Edouard Scott, 1943

My first reaction to this revelation was to shed all materiality of an American heritage to which I was no longer tethered. I began to identify as an African, abandoning that hyphen that never truly fit. I at once felt whole embracing a new, more authentic history. I turned my focus to the Black Diaspora and its unique past and wrote and produced an entire play to immerse myself and others in the stories that I had never learned about in school. In many ways, my experience of dealing with the past mirrors the major shifts now occurring in America and across the Western world. The resurfacing debate about race has resulted in commercial brands, sports teams, and even States trying to distance themselves from their sordid history. While some have dubbed these shifts corporate activism, the sentiment is a common reaction to dealing with a problematic history. We believe that if we can all at once shed the physical ties of the history in which our narrative has been unsettled, we can rectify a past that has left so many broken. This process of unlearning or confronting a wretched past is by no means unique to the United States, as European countries try to burn some of the uncomfortable iconography of their own histories. As statues across the West are defaced and hurled into the sea, there seems to be a widespread desire to divest ourselves from what were once considered the good old days.

This process of severance worked for me until I arrived in the UK in 2019 to pursue an MA in public history. In this new world, I was American, and my history was a valued asset in discussing race. During my time in England, I was struck by how much African American history was referenced. Our history was discussed in my courses through the slave narratives and the role of slavery in shaping American culture. Our figures were highlighted in the curriculum for secondary school students. About mid-way through my time in England, I began recognising a similar method of elision to the one to which I had been exposed at school, and I realised that outside of America, our history has often been used to discuss race from a comfortable distance. It is far easier to discuss the KKK South or the white backlash against the African American Civil Rights movement than to address the financial investments of the slave traders or the ribbon-tied racism that is still prevalent in the Europe. My narrative supplies a comfortable distance to discuss race without confronting the pervasive structures that continue to marginalize the black community in the UK. In conversations with my black and brown British friends and through my work with the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, the results of this method of dealing with the past seem very similar to those I had experienced. For the first time in over five years, my closest friend Alex and I had a conversation about how dominant my African American narrative had been for him as a London boy, a dominance that meant he could never truly feel whole and a part of his country. His narrative could never be properly explored if ‘Black history’ was so inextricably linked to ‘African American history’. His past was in a sense erased by mine. History has a cost.

Daisha Brabham at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington DC

But what does this journey through various approaches to the past provide in the way of instruction for the public historian? Can we genuinely help in the current process of dealing with the past? Or are we solely fire starters who cause havoc and leave our public to grapple with flames? If the traditional approaches to uncomfortable pasts that I and others encountered at school have no substance, then what innovative approaches should we employ? To these questions, I can supply no concrete answers concerning the way forward. Many of the issues I am raising are not new or even unique to the profession. It often seems, however, that many of my colleagues feel no particular duty to contemplate them. What I do know is that none of us are free from or above the debate. There is no history that has no power. There is no aspect of our field that should remain untouched by this conversation.

So, where do we go from here? In the words Edward Baptist, the first place to start will be in asking the right questions and imagining a new way of doing and telling history. It is my belief that much of this work should focus on the classroom, an area often neglected by historians. If Mr. T had been armed with the proper educational tools, would we have covered slavery and not just the uniforms? If Alex could have learned about OWAAD in his secondary school, would he feel whole? Decolonisation must be a verb. It is a process of tearing down, but also a process of repositioning what we once thought was fixed and settled.

The murder of George Floyd was familiar. I opened the video reluctantly because I had seen it before. I had seen it when Tamir Rice was gunned down for having a toy gun. I had seen it when Freddy Gray was killed. I had felt it when 7-year-old Aiyanna Jones was shot for sleeping on her grandmother’s couch. I needed no reminders of what it means to be black in America, especially amid a pandemic in which my demographic had been disproportionately affected. I needed no rendition of the cost of my skin. But I still cried. I still thought of the reality of what it feels like. This was the America from which Mr. T, and I were running; the result of a tumultuous past, that left victims in its wake.

DB & Lincoln
Daisha Brabham contemplates the Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC

When I think about my revelation about Lincoln, it was at that moment that I had finally reached adulthood, at least in a historical sense. I had finally faced the reality of my past. Against the backdrop of a nation on fire, it is still unclear if my country has, less to act on that revelation. But this work is inevitable, whether it is carried out peacefully or in turmoil. A couple of months after my discovery of the real Lincoln, I went down to Washington DC to take in the new African American History Museum constructed to remind the public of the impact of the African American past. The museum is massive, with over four centuries worth of history and culture within its walls. A visit can easily last a day, if not more. It stands as a physical reminder that African Americans have always been tethered to the fabric of the country. We have always been present. It is the legacy my ancestors fought for. But it is also offers method through which we can refocus our lens to see a different narrative. A different America. The retelling of the past.

After touring through the galleries, I made my way down to the Lincoln Memorial. I stood under the great statue of the man, rather than the myth of my childhood. I stared at him for a long while, taking in the weight of his existence and the hundreds of people who had come to visit him that day. The Great Emancipator. Eventually, I smiled and whispered, “It is great to finally meet you Mr. Lincoln.”


Daisha Brabham is a former teacher from New Haven, Connecticut, currently enrolled on the MA in Public History programme at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Justin Champion, Historian (1960 – 2020) by Graham Smith

What we need is radical social change that redistributes the wealth of the very few to the many, and that will change life. We are inheriting, at the moment, the consequences of a long form of decolonisation. The British Isles, throughout the 18th and 19th, and most of the 20th century, colonised the world, raped it in one sense, and we are now confronted with the consequences of that. (Justin Champion, ‘The Big Questions, BBC1, 12 June 2016; 22.16-22:40).

Justin Champion was a consummate scholar, producing works that offered new ways of seeing the early modern world that were based on novel approaches to reading the past. In his writings, many of which he made open access, he broke new ground in the study of early modern radical thought. His debt to Christopher Hill was obvious and acknowledged. In his 2018 memorial lecture he restated the long tradition of civil rights struggle in England, countering revisionist criticisms of Hill by pointing out that he had pioneered a new way of looking at neglected materials that, in turn, had opened new possibilities for further research into radical discourse and action. Indeed, in Justin’s work, Hill’s project is followed so that space can be found for the voices of the marginalised and for their language of dissent to be heard. This was a part of the golden thread of liberty that Justin grew ever fonder of talking about. It was also why he became a valued ally of oral history and a proponent of public history,

There are multiple versions of the Hill lecture. There is a published version, ‘Heaven Taken By Storm’, which is a fantastic read, but it is the earlier spoken presentation that I like best. Justin’s lecturing style, with its autobiographical asides and occasional self-deprecation, points to his belief in communicating complex histories with a sense of humility and fun. It is also testament to his conviction that the historian’s life experience influences their methods and their understanding of the past. Conversely, it was people’s lives in the past that sparked his curiosity. His radio programmes included biographies of well-known historical figures such as Francis Bacon, but also less recognised individuals, such as Jacques Francis. It was this interest in Francis and Southampton, where he went to school, that led to his interest in black history.

There will be still other varieties of the Hill lecture recalled by colleagues and friends, as he regularly tried out how he might express his thoughts by casually dropping nuggets of weighty historical analysis into everyday conversations. Indeed, there must be hundreds of people who have fragments of Justin’s developing radio, television, and lecture ideas lodged in their memories. His radical networks were not only social networks that existed in the history he studied, but also were part of his everyday social relationships.

The public reception of the past was of key importance to Justin. He proselytised against academic insularity and for university engagement as a public utility. As far as he was concerned, people’s deep passion for the past was an opportunity for historians to help enhance and improve contemporary debate. He often found ways to gently chide those historians who thought that the past was too foreign a land for the masses. This was the view of a man whose father had found his way to study at Cambridge through the Workers’ Educational Association. Good history, for Justin, explained prejudice and inequality; it was critical and provoked debate. This passion for public history led him to fight for the founding of a pioneering MA in Public History at Royal Holloway, University of London, the institution at which he was based for most of his career. The MA was ultimately launched in 2009 is currently the most well-established programme of its kind in the UK. Justin’s collegiality and the warm-friendship he enjoyed with the editors of the site also led him to make numerous highly engaging contributions to Historians for History.

Justin in RHUL 2
Justin Champion discussing Black History Month, Founders Buildings, Royal Holloway, 2017

His search for historical truth was an inherently aesthetic and ethical project and Justin’s public history was as much a moral as an intellectual venture. History mattered, because it has the capacity to produce better human beings, he told his peers in 2007. History could help the public deal with the difficult and the unknown, and quoting Hugh Trevor Roper from five decades earlier: ‘History that isn’t controversial is dead history’. His art of history was not only to be found in uncovering past lives but in conveying their historical significance. He rejected empiricism and objectivity, yet he loved his numbers, not only in his earlier work on ‘epidemics and the built environment in 1665’, but in later years, when he could quote visitor numbers to heritage sites in support of his argument for a citizens’ history.

He could also note in passing in an article about history on television that in A History of Britain (BBC, 2000), Simon Schama had spoken 300 times directly to camera. Justin’s ability as a public intellectual was based on studying the limitations and opportunities of different media and how others presented historical concepts through them. He was interviewed for many programmes, and appeared in at least seven television mini-series and documentaries from Fire, Plague, War and Treason (2001) to Charles I: Downfall of a King, which aired just last year. He loved making television programmes and would enthuse on the craft of production and revel in reaching new audiences. He enthused about television as a ‘platform for communicating its learning and moral integrity in an energized and enthusiastic public sphere’.

He was engaging on television, but he truly excelled on radio in explorations of complex historical ideas. A regular on In our time, the BBC Radio 4 flagship programme presented by Melvyn Bragg, he contributed to episodes on miracles, Calvinism, the trial of Charles I, the apocalypse, divine right, Bedlam, The Putney Debates, and the Quakers. There were other programmes on duelling, and toleration and a programme on the history of reading, based on marginalia and the defacing of books. He reviewed for Nightwaves and commented on various historical issues for the Today Programme and Radio 5 Live.

He also took his own responsibilities as a citizen historian seriously. As the President of the Historical Association from 2014 to 2017, he used his position to highlight the paucity of black historians working in schools and universities. In response to being awarded the Association’s Medlicott Medal in 2018, he offered a hugely insightful lecture on ‘Defacing the Past or Resisting Oppression?’ in which he described the alterations and removals of statues and public art depicting controversial historical figures and actions.

He spent his final years dealing with cancer: ‘It is a bit annoying to say the least’, he noted in a memorable interview for Royal Holloway’s college radio, explaining, ‘that is the reason I’ve taken early retirement, and that’s a big loss for me. Not so much the routines of academic life, but the opportunity to distort and corrupt young minds is one, you know, you could never get tired of that’, he said, making one of his favourite jokes. ‘And the moments of revelation when someone gets it and goes on to have their own careers is just fantastic’. He had an infectious love of teaching and a deep respect for students’ perspectives.  While understanding the validation we receive from our teaching, he asked his colleagues to think beyond themselves. Passing a room where he was holding a class lightened the darkest of moods, such was the noise of laughter and discussion. He would frequently regale colleagues with insightful points students had made in class or tell of how they had responded to one of his teaching exercises. He wanted to learn from his students and was genuinely interested in their thinking, and the response to Justin’s death on social media has demonstrated the affection he was held in by former students as well as colleagues.

Listening to his voice again has made me deeply sad at his loss, but personally and profoundly grateful that we spent time together in long discussions that ranged from memories of music and politics, to food and sport, to College governance and union business. Listening to his voice reminded me that he excelled as a storyteller. He was so much more than a partial obituary can cover. The love for his daughter Alice and his partner Sylvia. The pride he took from managing Abbey Rangers Football Club Ladies team, a resilient and robust football team that was a personal passion for him. The loyalty to his friends, even when they did something stupid. If Justin had been asked if he had a role model, he might have said Joe Strummer or Stormzy, rather than an eminent historian, and we are greatly diminished by the loss of his cool rage against the ‘filth’, as he described it, of racism, inequality and inhumanity.

Graham Smith is Professor of Oral History at the University of Newcastle and co-editor of the Historians for History site.

‘No Votes, Thank You!’ The women who campaigned against their own suffrage by Chloe Binderup

“We’d like to invite you to sign our petition regarding the question of women’s suffrage. Nearly three hundred thousand others have already signed their support; we do hope you’ll join us.”

It’s 1909 and three well-dressed women approach after your latest London lecture. As you’re handed a page already filled with scrawled signatures, your eye catches on the headline at the top of the petition, printed in bold block letters: WOMEN’S NATIONAL ANTI-SUFFRAGE LEAGUE.

Hang on a second – women’s anti-suffrage?

No, you haven’t stumbled into an alternate historical fiction or wacky Dr. Who episode. Indeed, by 1910, this British women’s group would collect over 337,000 signatures not in support of their right to vote, but against it. Four years later, the Anti-Suffrage Review announced that membership in the British National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage (or Women’s National Anti-suffrage League, WNAL) stood at 42,000 people, and five out of six of those were women.

no votes 1
Sticker and pin-badge of the British Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League, c. 1910 – 1912

Around the turn of the 20th century, as the campaign for women’s right to vote gained momentum, large numbers of women in both Britain and the United States wrote, argued, and campaigned actively against suffrage. And this was no weak or meek opposition either, but consisted of well-organised groups and included many determined, educated and passionate middle and upper-class activists. These ladies were serious.

From the vantage point of the 21st century, just after the hundred-year anniversaries of the UK’s Representation of the People Act and United States’ 19th Amendment, it can be difficult to understand these women. Why would they work, often passionately, against their own self-interest? Wouldn’t women invariably want to support women’s rights?

In their minds, they did: those who argued most stridently against female suffrage actually presented themselves as defenders and supporters of their fellow women. Writer Violet Markham worked for social reform and societal improvement, and saw her campaign against the vote as part of this mission. In 1912 she wrote of her fellow ‘Antis’: “We do not depreciate by one jot or tittle women’s work.” It was rather a matter of encouraging “proper channels of expression for that work”.

Interestingly, similar arguments emerged on both sides of the Atlantic as the United Kingdom and the United States grappled with increasing public debate on female suffrage. Just as suffragists from either country visited one another to educate, fundraise, and support, so too did anti-suffragists gain inspiration from visiting sisters across the sea. Numerous letters from future leading Antis show that American anti-suffragism was an important influence on the founders of the WNAL. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that British and American anti-suffragist women shared the key arguments against their vote:

Women are Not Men

“We believe that men and women are different – not similar – beings, with talents that are complementary, not identical, and that they therefore ought to have different shares in the management of the State”
WNAL Manifesto

no votes 3
Postcard depicting a very feminine personification of womanhood politely declining the vote. Behind her, a much less demure figure storms by with hammer in hand (Bird, Harold and J. Miles and Co., 1912)

To understand anti-suffragists, it’s essential to understand the rigidity of their society’s perceptions of gender, and how important they thought it was for men and women to stay in their respective lanes. As they saw it, men were in one sphere of society doing their manly things (government, industry, military, religion), and women were in another doing theirs (raising families, managing households). “Because the spheres of men and women, owing to natural causes, are essentially different”, argued the WNAL, their relationship to government should be different.

Anti-suffragist women did not necessarily believe that men were better or smarter – they just weren’t women, and this meant they naturally ought to do different things. So, if men could influence the state by voting, women could contribute in the domestic sphere.


Women are Better Than That

“It would be a bigger feather in a woman’s cap – a brighter jewel in her crown – to be the mother of George Washington than to be a member of Congress.”
Jeannette Gilder, Why I am Opposed to Women’s Suffrage

British writer Ethel Harrison viewed herself as a strong supporter of her own sex, and saw no irony in titling her 1908 book The Freedom of Women whilst arguing passionately in its pages against their vote. In her mind, women had much more important tasks than dirtying their hands with politics: they were the moral guides of the family, and so had a special role to play in guiding society and the nation. “It is in no sense because we undervalue the importance of women’s contribution to public life that we depreciate and deplore the agitation for the vote,” she wrote. Rather: “We think women can do better for themselves and the world.”

As this argument went, women’s moral and emotional strengths gave them better and stronger political influence by not voting: instead, they could effectively and appropriately influence politics as really excellent mothers who raised and married responsible voters and good politicians.

Danger! Danger!

“The admission to full political power of a number of voters debarred by nature and circumstances from the average political knowledge and experience open to men, would weaken the central governing forces of the State, and be fraught with peril to the country.” -WNAL Manifesto

Finally, it would be outright dangerous for women to have a say in state affairs. Women, the argument went, did not and should not take part in the business of government. Without experience in financial, diplomatic, industrial, or military careers, how could they tend to affairs of state? It would be dangerous for their votes to affect arenas about which they knew nothing, and make laws they could not enforce.

In hindsight, of course, votes for women seem inevitable, and historical narratives mostly focus on the heroic struggles of the triumphant suffragists against misogynist male efforts to block equality. But history continually refuses to obey the simple categorisations and reductive assumptions it is so easy to make.

Women's first vote - F. Matania
‘Women Voters Recording their Votes for the First Time’ by former war-artist, Fortunino Matania, December 1918

The journey towards female suffrage in the US and the UK involved substantial debate, discourse, and disagreement – even violence – but was not a clear-cut battle between the sexes. Suffragists could be either men or women; so too could the anti-suffragists who opposed what they viewed as a radical and problematic idea. Certainly, they grew up and lived in a world reinforced with fixed views and beliefs, and it would be easy to dismiss these women as brainwashed pawns in an unequal, unenlightened era. But to do so belittles a huge number of passionate and intelligent women who truly believed they were supportive of, and working for, their fellow women.


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


Further Reading:
Incredible Pro-and Anti- Suffrage Memes in The Atlantic
The British Library’s Votes for Women Archive
Women Against the Vote: Female Anti-Suffragism in Britain by Julia Bush

Mickey Mouse History? Disney’s America: The Theme Park that was Never Built by Tom Farrell

With twelve parks worldwide, Disney have an empire on which the sun never sets, and the fun never stops – until now. Back in March, all Disney Parks worldwide were simultaneously closed for the first time, due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis that has impacted just about every aspect of our lives. In time, of course, their gates will reopen, and Mickey will welcome us back with open arms (or perhaps just a friendly wave if social distancing is still in force). But for one park, its gates will remain firmly closed regardless of the coronavirus pandemic, because they were never opened in the first place.

Imagine this – a Civil War re-enactment pitting brother against brother; a Native American village, soon to be razed by the encroachment of the federal government; a nineteenth-century town where slaves are auctioned off like animals amid the reverberations of the crack of the whip. Welcome to Disney’s America, the theme park that was never built!

In 1993 Disney announced plans to build a park based entirely on American history – Disney’s America. It was due to be built near the town of Haymarket, Virginia, twenty miles from Washington D.C., and was expected to draw 30,000 visitors daily who would be able to enjoy various themed areas or ‘playlands’, including a Civil War fort, an authentic family farm, and a reconstruction of Ellis Island. However, just one year later the project was dead in the water. Why did the park never materialise, and how are the central issues it highlighted relevant to public historians today?

Logo for proposed Disney’s America park

Sacred Soil?
Almost immediately, Disney’s America came under fire from historians who opposed the project on the basis of its proposed location. The park would have been situated four miles from the Civil War battlefield of Manassas and so many scholars mobilised against the project, forming the Protect Historic America (PHA) organisation. Drawing on Lincoln at Gettysburg, they argued that the Virginia Piedmont region was hallowed ground, and that Disney would not add, but would certainly detract. Historian David McCullough’s forecast was almost apocalyptic: ‘Once this commercial blitzkrieg comes, it will never be the same again.’ However, it seems this “Sacred Soil” argument is somewhat of a red herring. Had this been the only reason for opposition, surely another site could have been found; America is not short of vast open spaces ripe for development. Indeed, focus on the preservationist movement detracts from another, potentially more important reason the project never came to fruition – the question of who owns history?

Disney's America Site Location
The proposed site was just four miles from the Manassas National Battlefield Park

Another source of hostility was a certain intellectual arrogance that questioned Disney’s right to teach history at all, bearing in mind that the company has a long history of providing the public with romanticised representations of the past that have featured prominently in their motion pictures and theme parks. Influenced by this utopian track record, some historians were concerned that Disney would be disseminating “Mickey Mouse” history and therefore wished to gag the world’s most famous rodent before he gave any history lessons. Linda Shopes was one such censor, arguing ‘I simply do not believe such ventures can do good history.’ In fairness, there was some cause for concern. Firstly, the name Disney’s America implied the park would be a Disneyesque view of American history. Then there were the park’s nine “playlands”, suggesting that history is a toy, designed for entertainment and distraction, not a serious intellectual discipline. Fears were further fuelled when Peter Rummell, president of the Disney Design and Development Company, said Disney would not apologise for its belief that ‘the American story is profoundly positive and uplifting’.

Disney tried to address these concerns but did not help themselves. Rummell promised ‘the park will not whitewash history or ignore the blemishes’, but was soon undermined by Bob Weiss, Disney Senior Vice President, who dropped this clanger: ‘We want to make you a Civil War soldier. We want to make you feel what is was like to be a slave …’ In his attempt to appease critics, he only managed to trivialise issues of great historical significance. One African-American journalist was moved to report that if he ever visited, ‘my main concern there will be keeping the kids away from the slave show’.

Yet, despite all these blunders, were scholars right to appoint themselves as the gatekeepers of history? As the great proto-public historian G. M. Trevelyan said, ‘if historians neglect to educate the public, if they fail to interest it intelligently in the past, then all their historical learning is valueless except insofar as it educates themselves.’ Whilst opponents were right to worry about historical accuracy, Disney’s America undeniably had great potential to get people interested in the past.

Walt Disney - Disneyland Plans
Walt Disney with plans for the original Disneyland, Los Angeles, 1954

“The Greatest Pedagogue Of All”
In 1965 the American educationalist, Max Rafferty, described Walt Disney as ‘the greatest pedagogue of all’, and he had a point; Disney’s educational potential is immense. Over one billion people have passed through the gates of Disney theme parks since 1955, and historian Mike Wallace has suggested that ‘it’s possible that Walt Disney has taught people more history, in a more memorable way, than they ever learned in school’. Bearing this in mind, perhaps if historians truly want to educate the public, they should help plan Disney’s history lessons. There is some precedent for such a collaborative relationship. In 1993 Columbia history professor Eric Foner worked with Disney on The Hall of Presidents renovation, helping to transform the show from a glorification of the presidents and the Constitution, to a story of America’s constant struggle to extend democratic rights, which is still an unfinished agenda. Such partnership could also have helped ensure Disney’s America was a responsible historical medium and it was even something Disney appeared to desire. After retreating from Virginia, project chairman, John Cooke, claimed the company would be ‘reaching out to historians who have opposed us to make sure our portrayal of the American experience is responsible’.

“Join the Jamboree”
All in all, it is a shame that Disney’s America never materialised. Although we can speculate what it would have been like as an outlet for public history, we cannot actually experience it and say for certain whether it would have been a success in terms of historical education as the concept is a relatively unique one. Whilst living history attractions such as Colonial Williamsburg have demonstrated that education and entertainment are not mutually exclusive and that history can be “brought to life”, other institutions do not have the might of Disney at their disposal. With Mickey’s piggybank and the combined creative genius and technological wizardry of all the Disney imagineers (those who design and build Disney attractions), a completed Disney’s America would have been in a category of its own. Indeed, “Mickey Mouse history” or not, there is no denying the great potential the project had as an innovative approach to teaching history. Walt Disney once said that he wanted Disneyland to be a place ‘for teachers and pupils to discover greater ways of understanding and education’, and it appears Disney’s America was envisioned in the same vein. Crucially, for historians, joining the jamboree does not have to mean chanting M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E. Perhaps through collaboration the chant can change to R-E-S-P-O-N-S-I-B-L-E H-I-S-T-O-R-Y. Indeed, if we move beyond academic cynicism and achieve positive co-operation between scholars and creative partners, this attempt to bring the past into the present could become the future.


Tom Farrell is a  history graduate of the University of York currently enrolled  on the MA in Public History programme at Royal Holloway.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Foundation Stones
A selection of Foundation Stones

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

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

'Never again' - London
‘Never Again’

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

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

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

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

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

Sonja Jaslowitz Stone
Foundation Stone dedicated to Sonja Jaslowitz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JW Serbian uniform
Whitehead in her Serbian Army uniform.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hallie Rubenhold, author of The Five

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

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

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


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