Helen Sunderland – Historian Highlight

By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland) & Cherish Watton (@CherishWatton), Series Editor

Historian Highlight is a new series sharing the research experiences of historians in the History Faculty in Cambridge. We ask students how they came to research their topic, their favourite archival find, as well as the best (and worst) advice they’ve received as academics in training. History is all about how we tell stories – this series looks at the stories we have to tell as graduate students researching in unprecedented times. In the first post in the series, Helen Sunderland explains her research looking into the history of schoolgirl politics in late Victorian and Edwardian England.

What are you currently researching?

My PhD looks at how schoolgirls interacted with politics in late Victorian and Edwardian England. Schools weren’t isolated from the outside world. At school, girls saw themselves as part of the political system decades before women had the parliamentary vote. Girls developed political knowledge and skills in school debating societies. They practised politics by re-enacting elections and holding their own pretend parliaments. Their political education also took them beyond the school gates, on school trips to the Houses of Parliament. Schoolgirls debated whether women should have the parliamentary vote. In school plays, fancy dress, and creative writing they participated in a popular culture that mocked the militant suffrage movement. Schools and young people were also embedded in the racial politics and material culture of the British Empire.

What led you to research this topic?

There’s often an assumption that young people’s politics fall into two opposing categories: apathy or protest. Instead, I wanted to write a history of young people’s engagement with democratic politics. Young people could have their say in powerful ways not only outside of the existing system – by ignoring or rejecting it – but within it.

Youth politics have become more visible in recent years, with the climate strike movement and last summer’s exam results fiasco. Conflicting responses to today’s youth activists are grounded in age-based assumptions about political capability that my work tries to put in a historical context. 

How have attitudes towards young people’s political ignorance been inflected with long-held ideas about childhood innocence? Was young people’s political activity always understood as precocious? Were politicised children a threat to the status quo or well-equipped for future adult citizenship?

What’s the most interesting historical material you’ve read, listened to, or watched in the last month?

I enjoyed watching Our Friends in the North, a BBC2 drama series that recently marked its 25th anniversary. It tells the story of a group of friends from Newcastle and how their lives intertwine with political and social change from the 1960s through to the 1990s. I was really struck by the concept of an intergenerational fiction structured around major political events. 

Most episodes correspond with a general election year. It’s a story of personal lives told through political grand narratives – generational divisions and factionalism within a struggling Labour Party, political corruption, and the rise of popular capitalism. Other generation-defining moments feature, like the 1984 Miners’ Strike and Great Storm of 1987. 

In my research I spend a lot of time thinking about how far people are aware of political issues and how they make sense of their lives in relation to major events in the world around them. To a contemporary viewer, the series tells a jarringly male, white, and heteronormative late-twentieth century story. 

Re-writing it for today’s TV audience, what moments would we choose? The decriminalisation of homosexual acts in 1967? The UK’s entry to the European Economic Community? The Grunwick Dispute? Greenham Common? Race riots in 1981? The HIV/AIDS epidemic? Section 28?

What’s one of your favourite historical sources?

I love working with school magazines. They give such rich insights into the history of school culture. From playful rivalries between school classes to the everyday incidents of school life, they flesh out our sense of educational history beyond the curriculum. It’s relatively rare for children’s writing to be preserved in archives, so school magazines are a treasure trove for young people’s creativity, emotions, ideas, and experiences. 

Our understanding of political life at school without these magazines would be so much more limited. There’s also something fascinating about the tone of teenage girls’ writing in the late-nineteenth century. It’s a strange mix of earnestness, dry humour and sarcasm which always keeps me on my toes when it comes to interpretation.

And what’s the best or most unusual experience in an archive?

The absolute archival highlight of my PhD was finding a school-girl made ballot paper from a mock London County Council election held at Central Foundation Girls’ School in 1910. I’d read about the election from the school’s magazines and knew that girls mimicked all of the details of the procedure enthusiastically. But the material culture of school politics very rarely survives. 

Looking through a school scrapbook in Tower Hamlets Archives, likely made by the headmistress, I was overjoyed to spot the ballot paper. Recognising the names of candidates, I immediately linked it to the event I’d been researching. There’s something so special about that moment of archival discovery when you just want to shout out and tell everyone in the silent room about what you’ve found.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given as a historian? 

For a perfectionist, it’s been really helpful to be told to let things go. You could work on a PhD for ever or endlessly finesse a piece of writing. You’ll never close off all the possible avenues of research. There’s an art to learning how to accept that you’ve done enough and that you can return to the same questions in the future.

And the worst?

It hasn’t been said to me directly, but I think the general ‘publish or perish’ culture that postgraduate students can easily get caught up in is enormously damaging. The state of the academic job market is so dire that frankly publishing won’t make the difference – it is purely a lottery. 

With that in mind, I’d really like to see more emphasis on the quality and diversity of research outputs. True, I wrote a PhD thesis I’m proud of. But I’ve likely had more ‘impact’ by enthusing a group of teenagers about Edwardian political culture and learning from their re-enactment of the 1910 general election. 

Why are these activities – so easily labelled as ‘public engagement’ – seen as optional extras? How can we continue to see our most accessible, engaging work as of secondary value to the sometimes impenetrable, pay-walled pieces of writing to which we devote far more of our time? 

What would it look like if PhD History programmes were reoriented to reflect the reality that they’re no longer training the future academy, but rather a generation of researchers who’ll go on to use those skills to contribute to the richness of professional life outside it?

Leper Chapel, Cambridge, taken by author.

What’s your must-do Cambridge experience? 

I’d really recommend making a visit to the Leper Chapel on a day when it’s open to visitors. As one of the oldest complete surviving buildings in Cambridge it now seems curiously out of place next to a busy road, railway line and industrial estates – a remnant of the medieval landscape. I have fond memories of my visit there last summer, my first trip to a heritage site after months of lockdown! Visiting a built symbol of the (limited) support system given to a community living with disease and the barriers put up to protect the rest of the city from contagion was especially poignant mid-pandemic. 

It made me rethink the geography of the city and I was fascinated to learn about the history of Stourbridge Fair. The names of the nearby residential streets still bear traces of it – Garlic Row, Oyster Row, Mercers Row and Cheddars Lane – and you can follow these to a gorgeous riverside walk on Stourbridge Common. 

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