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.

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.


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.

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.

To Tweet Or Not To Tweet? Too Late! by Jackie Teale

Having given up Facebook just before Christmas, I’ve found myself scrolling through Twitter more than usual lately. Yesterday evening was no exception. As I scanned through my newsfeed, a story by Katie Hopkins from the Mail Online caught my eye. The headline read: “‘No Trump, no KKK, no Fascist USA’. I’d Wager all 3 Unlikely to Listen to People in Need of a Job, a Shower or Both.” I could see that it related to the protests organised by Owen Jones on Monday evening, and, having attended the protest in Westminster myself, I was almost ready to use my 140 characters immediately. However, recognising this as an emotional rather than a rational response, I convinced myself that it would be better to read the full article first. I didn’t want to write anything that might later prove false. The opening sentences of the story dragged me straight down into the depths of “Katie’s world”; a world where post-truth is the real truth and her followers neither know, nor care, if she knew the real truth in the first place.

After having read the entire story I still felt angry. Without giving it too much thought, I sent the following tweet: j-teale-tweet

My error wasn’t to have tweeted abuse at Katie Hopkins – lots of people do that. My mistake was to be a teacher who had been to a protest with a banner that was made by some students. Was my tweet unprofessional? Possibly. Is it offensive? Only directly to Katie, a woman who herself never hesitates to cause offence. Does it suggest that I was brainwashing children and forcing them to manufacture propaganda to impose my views upon other people? Absolutely not in the real world. But then I wasn’t in the real world. As soon as Katie reposted my tweet, claiming that ‘[she feared] for young minds, brainwashed by liberals pushing their agenda [aged] 8?’ my Twitter account went crazy. The notifications poured in. 50 notifications. 112 notifications. The number of notifications was increasing by the minute, and all of the posts appeared to be filled with hate. I was “Jackie the brainwasher Nazi” and accused of grooming my own “Hitler Youth”. Apparently I had never been “out of an educational institution & [I was] unable to see a distinction between teacher/student”.

k-hopkins-tweetIt was really quite overwhelming and I genuinely started to panic. But, I reasoned, the worst case scenario would see me unemployed by Monday – something that the people tweeting at or about me were not only calling for, but also providing useful links, to direct people to where exactly they should report me: the Department for Education; OfSted; and to Justine Greening on Twitter. The abuse continued to escalate. I was informed that I was in “breach of Section 407 of the Education Act”. I had “broken the law.” It also turned nastier and more threatening. I was “another idiot teacher polluting the minds of the young”. This, I was told in the same tweet, “[was] abuse as serious as sexual or physical abuse.” One man posted that he would “come and kick [me] out the classroom if [I] taught his kids” and another agreed with him. A former teacher, who identifies herself in her Twitter biography as an “Islamophobe” who believes “Islam is evil” told me that teachers like me were the reason the real teachers – like her – had retired. I was also surprised to learn that I am the reason a lady called Ana whom I’ve never met home-schools her child.

In addition to the abuse flung my way, the Twitter community began to flesh out the details of my indoctrination programme. It transpired that there was a lot more to the sentence I had tweeted than met the eye. A young lady stated that I had “abandoned the curriculum” and “brought in my own materials”. I had then used these materials to get the children to make protest banners for me. Yes, they were “Anti-Trump” posters another tweet confirmed. That was instantly retweeted. In Katie’s world it became a “fact”. Katie’s followers kept retweeting these “facts”. Before long, UKIP Party Members started to retweet the material, Suzanne Evans among them. It was a textual version of Chinese whispers, in which the “facts” now circulating about my Year 8 class and I have no basis in reality.

Twitter is not a suitable platform to engage in a meaningful debate, so I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on the best way to respond to some of the charges levelled at me. Not the personal attacks, which don’t warrant a response, but, rather, the ones in which non-teachers thought that they had the right to tell a teacher what – and how – it was acceptable to teach. Every one of the tweets that suggested that children should not be discussing President Trump’s actions could be discounted by referring to the Department for Education guidance booklet Promoting Fundamental British Values as part of SMSC in Schools. Schools, we are told should develop in students “an acceptance that other people having different faiths or beliefs to oneself (or having none) should be accepted and tolerated, and should not be the cause of prejudicial or discriminatory behaviour.” Banning people because of their nationality or religion runs completely counter to this. Should a parent ever question why their child is learning about a particular topic, then a teacher can accurately state that this is what the government prescribes.

Other tweets seemed to suggest that it was beyond the remit of a teacher to teach about topics that were either deemed to be political in nature, or might be considered as current affairs. To put it bluntly, if we were to remove topics that were political in nature, then not much of the National Curriculum for History would remain. The introduction of the National Curriculum in 1991 marked a defining moment in education across England and Wales. Each revision to the history curriculum reduced the amount of prescribed content – the ‘what to teach’ element. In its current iteration, the only mandatory topic for study in the key stage three history curriculum is the Holocaust. This means that teachers have a greater level of autonomy in selecting what content to teach their classes across the rest of the key stage. Teachers will make decisions concerning what to teach based on a variety of factors, including, but not limited to, the resources they have available, the strength of their subject knowledge and passion for individual topics, what they have taught previously and the ability of their classes.

Students typically begin their study of history at secondary school, learning about the Middle Ages. The first time that they will really encounter political ideas is when they learn about the barons confrontation with King John at Runnymede in 1215. They’ll start to develop their substantive knowledge so that when they later learn about other examples of protest they will have some knowledge to ‘think with’, which they can then transfer and apply to different contexts. Students – with guidance from their teacher – are thus equipped to draw out the similarities and differences between political struggles in different eras. For example, one of my Year 8 classes has recently looked at the question of when Britain became a democracy, and while the enquiry is mainly based on events in the nineteenth-century, they were also encouraged, and most were able, to make comparisons with the sixteenth-century. While students are able to recognise the similarities across periods and to understand political problems in different eras, I would suggest that those who posted tweets to say that politics should not be taught in the classroom shows a comprehensive failure in this respect. Is there, for example, a qualitative difference in the nature of the learning taking place when students design campaign propaganda for the contender to the throne of England after the passing of Edward the Confessor, to those completing the same activity to suggest who would make the best leader of the Conservative Party in 1979? I would suggest not, but then I doubt that anyone has ever accused a teacher of trying to brainwash a class into electing Harald Hardrada instead of William of Normandy.

We would also do well to remember that school students are perfectly capable of forming and expressing their own political viewpoints, and indeed protesting government policy. The 1985 School Student Strike, which saw students take to the streets to voice their opposition to the Conservative government’s threat to make the exploitative Youth Training Scheme compulsory, is just one historical example of valid and effective student protest.

The National School Student Strike, April 1985

Finally, the question of making use of current news stories in the classroom can also be justified on the following grounds: one of the most effective ways to get students engaged in a historical topic is to make the contemporary relevance of it explicit to them. Sometimes the best place to start a history lesson is in the present – with a current news story – and then ask how we got here. A few of my Year 8 students went on the women’s march on 21st January. When they came into class the next week and we were learning about the Suffragettes, it all made far more sense to them. I will make no apologies for adopting exactly the same approach over the coming weeks as I teach about the Civil Rights Movement and we ask why there are still protests demanding that we Stop Racism and confirming that Black Lives do Matter going on at the moment. Is this brainwashing or political indoctrination? No, it’s just one way of introducing a topic to students.

Jackie Teale is a secondary level history teacher and 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.

What Are Monarchs For? by Justin Champion

There has been some considerable debate in recent days about the public purse bearing the cost of refurbishing Buckingham Palace to the tune of £369 million while the rest of the country endures austerity, the NHS budget is trimmed and the number of homeless rises. Unsurprisingly, an exploration of the historical the relationships between Crown, finance and the public purse provides us with some valuable context for this discussion.

In the past, kings and queens exercised their majesty through a conspicuous display of wealth and power. The right to rule was represented and reinforced by the sheer opulence of the monarch’s dwelling places and possessions. Magnificent courts, sumptuous homes, golden carriages, the largest jewels, the finest horses, the most splendid paintings, were not just the trappings but the foundations of regal power. Wealth was the cause rather than a symptom of power. Historically there were intellectual dimensions to this material majesty. Kings were thought to be appointed by divine right, the keystone in a natural hierarchy celebrated in a culture of deference. Simply put, the king stood just beneath god in the natural order, and this exalted position was reflected by his extravagant wealth.

The same question is more difficult to address with clarity today as debates about heritage and national identity get mixed up with constitutional issues. Whether the current monarchy is a greater asset for the nation as part of the tourist industry, or simply because defending it seems to save us the time of thinking of an alternative, is still a debatable point. For some, even raising the question implies sedition, subversion and immorality. Certainly beyond those die-hard loyalists, besotted with the ineffable mystery of the crown, and firmly wedded to principles of deference reinforced by royal hierarchy, it is difficult to contrive a robust philosophical defence of the institution today. If we pose the same question in the historical sense – what were monarchs for? – it is perhaps easier to arrive at plausible and persuasive answers.

In the past kings and queens were warriors, symbols and enactors of military might, dispensers of justice, makers of law, and, very commonly, representatives of God on earth. From its foundations in the act of William I’s conquest, through to the Imperial majesty of Victoria, the English monarchy has acted as if they were the centre of political power. Competing with the Papacy and later the Church of England, the monarchy erected a powerful jurisdictional claim to be not only the source of morality but also the arbiter of true religion. Despite two revolutions in the seventeenth century, (one, in 1649, which saw the most radical act of anti-monarchical reform in the act of decapitating Charles I; and the other in 1689, a more decorous affair, but nevertheless clear evidence that kings and queens were reliant upon a broader political constituency than simply God) claims to divine right legitimacy have still not been discarded by ardent monarchists, even though the political constitution finally abolished the notion in 1701. It is quite clear that one cannot engage with the English past without considering the nature and power of the monarchy. The powerful material remnants of the institution lie all across the land: castles, forests, parks and ancient and relatively modern placenames. The Royal imprimatur can also be found on everything from caviar to toilet paper. Almost silently these monuments, buildings and spaces plead a royalist cause.

Execution of Charles I in Whitehall, January 1649 [Barnard’s History engraving c. 1781]
In the past apologists for monarchy adopted a number of justifications. Many of these were based on appropriating the most effective political document of the pre-modern world – the Bible – to the case for the defence. Arguments in favour of legitimacy included radical claims for political dominion based on conquest, the Biblical figure of Nimrod being a particular favourite. Others claimed even as late as the seventeenth century that since God had given all dominion over the world to Adam, and all kings were direct descendants of the first father, so they had supreme power. Although kings might be morally bound to govern in the reasonable interests of the community, the subject had no claim against arbitrary behaviour. The difference between absolute authority and arbitrary power was quite subtle. Despite a conceptual distinction between ‘tyranny’ and monarchy, many defenders of kingship furiously underscored the principle of both passive obedience (put up with what ever happens without complaint) and non-resistance (never, even in the most extreme circumstances, even imagine raising a finger against the king). This world was shattered in 1649 with as much cultural trauma as the attack upon the Twin Towers in New York. Killing the King was understood by contemporaries as a blasphemy equivalent to the sacrifice of Christ. English republicans have struggled with this legacy ever since.

The strongest claims for the monarchy appear to be those that invoke tradition, historical continuity and the sanctity of the ancient constitution. A thousand years of regal majesty, evident in the still robust and bewitching spectacle of Royal funerals of Lady Diana and the Queen Mother, seems an almost unanswerable argument. We should remember that despite invoking the sonorous authority of tradition, the past is as much a projection of present-centred aspirations, an invented tradition, as it is a persisting truth. Put another way, celebrating the past does not necessarily mean living in it. Turning to the past may however give us something with which to compare current institutions. By asking historical questions – What did kings and queens do in the past, what was their function in the polity? How did subjects understand their duties and obligations to regal figures? Where did their authority to rule come from? – it might be possible to raise legitimate questions about the nature and function of the modern institution. However, the mere act of broaching these issues has commonly been dismissed as insolent and inappropriate mischief.

Members of Republic demonstrate near Tower Bridge, in central London, during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations.jpg
Republican protest at Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee River Pageant, 2012

It has never been fashionable to be a republican in England, even in the heady days of the 1650s when the country was ruled by a Lord Protector in the name of the sovereignty of the people. The history of English republicanism, despite the persistent charges of conspiracy levelled against successive figures such as Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Paine, the Chartists and Willie Hamilton, has not been a lineage of subversive king-killers. In fact, the history of English republicans have traditionally been more interested in making good citizens than neutering extravagant monarchs. The persisting cultural memory of 1649, mixed in with nightmarish images of French sans-culottes, the guillotine and 1789, as well as twentieth Russian and Spanish revolutionary traditions, has always successfully tainted republicanism with regicide. This political stereotyping has its origins in an eighteenth century tabloid creation known as the ‘Calves Head Club’ – a clandestine fraternity that gathered each January 30th to celebrate the execution of Charles the Martyr, in a drunken and impious manner. The Calves Head men, almost certainly an invention of the fevered imaginations of loyal clergymen became a powerful way of neutering any public political discussion of the rights, prerogatives and power of the monarchy. Any such discussion would lead inevitably to regicidal action. The same logic still applies today in many quarters. That it does provides simple proof of the enduring centrality of the institution of monarchy in England.

English republican thinking, even in its most radical years, was very rarely regicidal. Admittedly the great apologist of the English Republic, John Milton, defended the execution of Charles I in robust and comprehensive arguments. But the intellectual origins of the majority of these arguments were not necessarily ‘republican’. A defence of popular sovereignty (that the safety and common good of the community is more important than that of the monarch), a description of both the rights and duties of resistance to illegal government, were all central components of a ‘democratic’ theory of government which we all subscribe to today. Very few people realise that the trial of Charles I was as much a religious matter as a political one. Indeed, the Old Testament was as important a document in his condemnation as the writings of republicans.

Although Kings were subject to restraint, it should be noticed that one of the major targets of this republicanism was ‘tyranny’ – corrupt courtiers, corrupt government, self interested and immoral ministers were the targets of hostility. Bad government irrespective of institutional form, was tyrannous. In other words, one did not have to live under a monarchy to experience tyranny. The same is true today when any of us can have republican values and aspirations without starting with the immediate issue of kingship. Republicanism in the British Isles since the 1650s has very often been more concerned with making good citizens than punishing wicked kings. Indeed, for many thinkers and writers, the issue of monarchy after 1689 was a side show to the bigger business of eradicating inequality, deference and oppression. The distemper of deference, and the extravagance of the costs of supporting a monarchy, were sometime perceived as contributing to a more general political oppression, but the focus of ambition was turned (and continues to turn) on providing the political institutions that cultivate an active, virtuous, tolerant and just community. The problem with monarchy was not personal, or even financial; rather, it was resisted and criticised because it was a symptom of an ancient constitution riddled with anachronistic prerogatives and privilege. Given the extraordinary year that is now slowly drawing to a close, we may do well to remember that, in this view, the Houses of Parliament are just as corrupted and ‘monarchical’ as the Royal Family.


Justin Champion is President of the Historical Association and Professor of the History of Early Modern Ideas at Royal Holloway, University of London. His publications include The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken. the Church of England and its enemies, 1660-1730, now in a second edition (University of Cambridge, 2014).

An Ungovernable People or Friends of Liberty? Poldark and 18th Century Social History by Justin Champion

The autumn is upon us. And Poldark is back! The images of the beautiful Cornish coast around Treen, Porthcurno, and St Michael’s Mount are a welcome visitor to the screen as the grimy dark nights draw in. The television series, reborn from the novels of Winston Graham and the earlier screen adaptations of the mid-1970s, continues to attract considerable attention from the general public and historians alike.

Recent posts on this blog from Sarah Crook and Graham Smith have raised some very interesting questions about gendered perceptions of public history, both in popular books and on television. Following on from this commentary, I’d like to consider the ways in which historical writing and research have inflected the production and reception of BBC’s very successful fictional history of eighteenth century Cornwall.

Hannah Greig, historical advisor on Poldark, and Greg Jenner, of Horrible Histories fame, have already offered some very insightful views regarding the role of the historical advisor in contributing to the ‘accuracy’ of fictional representations of the past. For both Hannah and Greig, the priority of a television drama is precisely that – dramatic structures must take priority: ‘drama is there to entertain us. Dramatists are there to spellbind us, to make us laugh and cry and fear for our favourite characters’. Hannah confirms and explains ‘the most important thing is to have great story. That has to be the priority. A historical adviser can help to drive that story forward, informed by what we know about the past’. Historians are thus not invited to ‘determine what that story is’, but to inform the ‘look’ and conduct of the action. And yet I feel we should at least consider the idea that complementing the programmes with further historical context might make the drama all the more compelling and resonant.

Aidan Turner in BBC’s Poldark

The historical preparation for the portrayal of mid- to late-eighteenth century rural, coastal and town life on Poldark has been meticulous: attention to the details of dress, commerce, urban sociability and gentry etiquette have been scrutinised by the learned and the expert. Whether a pasty contained rabbit or deer might depend on the local ecology or the skill of the poachers, and the details of costume, deportment or the pistols and rigging are useful markers of historical ‘accuracy’, if not necessarily carriers of truth. In strictly dramatic terms, the narratives in Poldark are compelling, blending the personal, the emotional and the political in a very challenging and provocative way. Over the course of successive Sunday evenings the heroes and villains, the scoundrels and the indigent, encounter each other in a variety of social, institutional, cultural and legal settings. These encounters also expose the deeper seams of eighteenth century life: the rule and administration of law by local elites, the impact of commerce on the routines of customary economic practises and the complexity of popular and parliamentary politics. Yet while much has been made of the visual reconstruction and the marvellous acting, the more profound themes of gender inequality, class war, the ‘old corruption’ of public politics before the days of the secret ballot, and the abject poverty of rural labour have not been teased out in the reviews, although they are, in effect, the sinews of the power of the narrative which keep us engaged.

As those familiar with the early-modern social history of ideas and crime may have realised, the narrative of Poldark conveys very powerfully one of the key insights of Edward Thompson’s work: that although the rule of law in the eighteenth century was contrived to protect property, it was also bound by its own authority. The role of the jury in freeing Ross Poldark from the noose, for example, represents the significance of the tradition of trial by jury in the administration of justice enshrined in the birthrights of freeborn men and women. The radical John Wilkes’ freedoms were preserved by this process in his defence of liberty in the 1760s when Middlesex juries repeatedly protected him from conviction. The current episodes of Poldark engage with the histories of the complex processes of social mobility which drove, and were driven by, the marriage market; the crises of familial relationships that shaped reputation and authority; the dangers of gambling and the financial markets, and the hard grind of the everyday lives of ordinary people.

Although the original novels were written in the immediate post-war contexts of the mid and later 1940s, they have been made more directly historically interesting by the growth of social history in the 1970s. The ages of Walpole, and then the Pitts, elder and younger, were not simply made up of stories of meticulously landscaped county houses, glittering society balls and the routines of polite culture: they were times of revolution and turbulent class struggle. The American wars of Independence saw a great diffusion of radical commonwealth ideas across the Atlantic. At home the popular resistance manifest in the campaigns of John Wilkes for the liberties of the freeborn English, and later in the French revolution, offered radical opportunities for protest and freedom in Europe, including in Ireland during the bloody United Irish rebellion of 1798, and for the ‘Black Jacobins’ of Haiti (see C.L. R. James’ powerful study of Toussaint L’Overture). In Britain, ‘riots’ prompted by political ideology or economic desperation reflected the increasing dominance of ‘King Property’, and the progressively rapid destruction of what the great historian Edward Thompson called ‘customs in common’. Labourers, artisans and skilled workers – both men and women – saw the traditional means of regulating their working hours, and providing for their families, constrained and disrupted by the demands of the market and the ever powerful coercive legal code which led to Douglas Hay referred to as ‘Albion’s fatal tree’. Smuggling, poaching, and wrecking were all subjected to criminal codes of brutal savagery.

Poldark addresses many of these themes in the social history of crime and society explored in the great and formative works of historians like Edward Thompson (Whig and Hunters, 1975), and the collection of essays exploring the lives and deaths of labourers and city workers (Albion’s Fatal Tree, 1975). Markus Rediker wrote a wonderful book on the Atlantic world of pirates and seamen some thirty years ago (Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, 1987), while Peter Linebaugh’s London Hanged (1991) explores the lives of those that were victims of Tyburn in the struggle between rich and poor. The criminalisation of what were regarded as customary rights, in the name of defending property and order, is the backcloth to the struggle of Poldark and his friends. Commerce and maritime innovation may have brought new commodities to the banqueting tables of the gentry, but they also destroyed the system of regular employment which enabled the poor and labouring to survive by helping themselves to reasonable benefits of their labour (known then as perquisites, or in our modern world ‘perks’). Exploring these histories will make the viewing of the series even more exciting.

For those interested in the histories of smuggling, poaching and the highwayman there is an alternative fictional series which seems to have been forgotten. The ‘Dr Syn’ novels of Russell Thorndyke, written during and after the First World War, and set in the smuggling culture of Romney Marsh in Kent and Sussex, combined smuggling, piracy and politics. Thorndyke’s novels travel widely, involving Caribbean characters, pirates and American revolutionaries: this might provide a much more diverse palette for the modern viewer. These novels have been serialised on the radio (read by none other than Rufus Sewell who recently starred in Victoria), and indeed were turned into a series of graphic novels and reasonably gentle Disney films. There was a ‘Carry-on’ version in the 1970s, the great Led Zeppelin recorded a song, ‘No Quarter’, drawn from the stories, while ‘The Day of Syn’ is a festival held in the town of Dymchurch to fund-raise for local community activity. A modern script-writer might work with the novels, but also explore them alongside the new Atlantic history inspired by the landmark histories of Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, whose work, The Many Headed Hydra: The hidden history of the revolutionary Atlantic (2000) explores the communities of slaves, commoners and sailors who resisted economic and social oppression from elites and mercantile interests from the West Indies, Africa and North America. Weaving those ‘real’ narratives into a fictional narrative would be a great challenge but it would also produce a very attractive and diverse series that allowed different voices and characters to perform in mainstream viewing. Perhaps and enterprising commissioner at the BBC or Channel 4, will explore the possibilities of creating a further series? Let’s hope so.


Justin Champion is President of the Historical Association and Professor of the History of Early Modern Ideas at Royal Holloway, University of London. His publications include The Pillars of Priestcraft Shaken. the Church of England and its enemies, 1660-1730, now in a second edition (University of Cambridge, 2014).

Is Victoria just for Women? Sexism and Sunday Night TV by Sarah Crook

Sexed-up television histories, it seems, are just for girls. Histories, that is, that embellish and dwell on human relationships, that exalt the tactile thrill of the inadvertent touch, that are attentive to the colour a frisson of desire can add to the way we tell stories. Or so a recent article in The Spectator by James Delingpole would have us believe. The article, which was subsequently amended to remove some of its more outlandish claims, put forward some quite brazen generalisations about how men and women approach the past. ‘Boys’, the author postulates, ‘being of a more trainspotterish disposition’  would be more critical of the recent ITV series Victoria, for they are ‘more jealous of their facts and period detail’.

The critical response to the unamended article from historians on Twitter was swift and brutal. This was followed by a more critical approach: Delingpole is a provocateur, it was claimed, and the academic community should not engage with his trolling. But as other historians pointed out, Delingpole’s view that women’s interests are less intellectually rigorous and factually oriented than men’s are less unusual than we might hope. My own view, and that of others, is that we have a responsibility to attack sexism as and where we find it. Beyond this, the article raises two issues for historians interested in the public representation of the past. First, and perhaps less controversially, that the purpose of popular portrayals of prominent figures is to inform as much as to intrigue and entertain. Second, that women are driving the ‘MillsandBoonification of history’ while men are the dispassionate stewards of historical fact.

Jenna Coleman in ITV’s Victoria

It is impossible to lay the sexism of the article to one side. The dichotomy between men and women trespasses from their representation of history and into their representation of characters. Rufus Sewell ‘smoulders so tastefully’ as Lord Melbourne (he acts) while Jenna Coleman ‘looks gorgeous’ as Victoria (she exists). Moreover, a collective sigh surely arose at the declaration that the author ‘blamed the ongoing feminisation of culture’ for the direction of the series. This feminisation, the author suggests, drives an ‘irresponsible’ history. But if we scale out from the article to examine the landscape of historical dramas more broadly, can we really say that this attentiveness to desire and romance is a peculiarly feminine trait? Are women responsible for driving men off the sofa on a Sunday night? The author makes it clear that they are – and not to bed with a serious historical tome, either – rather, he argues, men are driven off the sofa by romantic dramas to ‘cavort with rent boys’.

The briefest of journeys through films situated in the (sometimes mythical) past suggests that men happily sex up their representations: Troy (dir. Wolfgang Petersen); Pearl Harbor (dir. Michael Bay); Braveheart (dir. Mel Gibson).  Male directors and writers evidently find it just as easy to elaborate, extemporise and appeal to emotion. When men take the reins they are inclined to emphasise the human relationships that underpin events regardless of whether they envisage a male or female audience. In dramas emotions often do the work of explaining complex historical convergences. Does it matter if these desires are fictitious, that it is unlikely that Queen Victoria and Lord Melbourne ever exchanged looks charged with sexual intent? While this might grate for historians (we are, after all, ‘for History’), we must first be wary of doing a disservice to viewers by infantilising them as an uncritical public.

My own view is that the best historical dramas do inform as they entertain. As historians are only too aware, and at the risk of being platitudinous, the truth of history is often more scandalous and more intriguing than dramas allow. It is a shame that Victoria marginalises the genuine political and social tensions in favour of a fabricated romance. But laying the blame for this at women’s feet is simply laughable to today’s historians. Rather, Delingpole’s piece brings to mind the anxiety raised by novel reading in the eighteenth century or the consternation over the proliferation of girls’ magazines in early twentieth century Britain. A culture that indulges fictive representations of lust is often considered risky and threatening. As for his claim that ‘mostly men … value history’? Just imagine how he’d react if he found out that some women not only value it, we also teach it.


Sarah Crook is the Cox Fellow in History at New College, Oxford. She completed her PhD on mothers and depression in post-war Britain at Queen Mary, University of London in September 2016.



From Bloomers to Burkinis: The Same Old Story? by Sarah Ansari

Bathing Dresses, as featured in Godey’s Lady Book, 1864

The recent photos in the media showing armed police apparently forcing a Muslim woman wearing a burkini on a French beach to remove it, or alternatively some of her outer clothing, in public, and then seemingly fining her, highlight beautifully the challenges facing historians in a post-modern historical world. What the ‘facts’ of the matter really are is no longer relevant. It is what we believe to be happening that counts, and so it is our interpretation of those facts that matters.  Whether or not it was really a dreaded burkini (an outfit “not respecting good morals and secularism”) – at best, unhygienic, or at worst, to quote the French Prime Minister, part of the “enslavement” of (Muslim) women, this episode underlines yet again how central Muslim women’s bodies are to wider questions of identity, community and ‘modernity’. For the last couple of centuries Muslim women have been under close scrutiny in terms of what they wear, or do not wear.  Their sartorial choices have not been individual choices. Rather they are so often the litmus test for ideas about progress versus non-progress, however these two terms might be understood.  Interestingly, back in the 1850s, when the US activist Amelia Jenks Bloomer pioneered the wearing of the loose pantaloons that came to bear her name, western women followed the example of so-called eastern (Muslim) women and adopted ‘the Turkish dress’ in order to liberate themselves from the restrictive clothing – complete with bone-crunching corsets – that dominated at that time. Of course, bloomers in due course retreated to the private world of Western women’s underwear. Burkinis, like other supposedly threatening forms of covering worn by twenty-first century Muslim women, have to be seen, like the women who wear them, in public.  Surely their public presence is a good thing?

See here for an informed discussion of when and why items of clothing have caused political storms.

Sarah Ansari is Professor of South Asian History and head of the Department of History at Royal Holloway, University of London.