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Posts from the ‘British history’ Category

A familiar tune: the Proms affair highlights Britain’s reluctance for critical self-reflection

By Daniel Adamson (@DanielEAdamson)

Controversy was caused by the recent announcement that orchestral versions of Rule, Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory would feature at the Last Night of the Proms, in a break with the traditional singing of the anthems. Eventually, this decision was reversed by the BBC.  According to the broadcaster, the original change was made in response to COVID-19 restrictions. However, concern had previously been raised that the lyrics of both patriotic songs contained troubling references to Britain’s history of imperialism and slavery.

Boris Johnson dismissed the decision of the BBC, demanding instead that ‘we stopped our cringing embarrassment about our history’. Johnson’s rebuke was symptomatic of a trend which is endemic within British public historical memory: a concerted reluctance to engage in critical self-reflection.

It could be argued that Johnson’s reaction represents an avoidance technique which, in turn, betrays an acknowledgement of the difficult conversations to be had. Consistently, national historical narratives within the United Kingdom have avoided meaningful engagement with problematic aspects of the past. The Coronavirus pandemic has allowed society the time for existential debate. It is troubling, therefore, that the inability to grapple with uncomfortable facets of British history is still afflicting those in the highest offices of power.

A case in point: British Holocaust memory

A dearth of national reflexivity is perhaps no more pronounced than in the sphere of British Holocaust consciousness. The British response to the Holocaust in the 1930s and the Second World War was, at best, ambiguous. Certainly, there were redemptive episodes during this period of history. The Kindertransport scheme in 1938-39, for example, facilitated the passage of thousands of child refugees from Europe to the United Kingdom. However, British efforts were also marked by apathy and inaction, both in the social and military responses to the persecutions in mainland Europe. This was illustrated by the prolonged obstinance evident in governmental responses to the refugee crisis of the 1930s.

Despite this, public memory of the Holocaust has only recently begun to engage with the incommodious strands of British involvement. In the immediate post-war years, mainstream discussion of the Holocaust as a whole was limited. In turn, the subsidiary issue of the British response was largely occluded from public view.

Even as the general sphere of Holocaust remembrance grew in the United Kingdom throughout the 1990s, critical appraisal of the British response to the genocide did not feature heavily in public memory. Although the inaugural Holocaust Memorial Day occurred in the United Kingdom in 2001, the historian Donald Bloxham has noted how the narrative presented failed to ‘turn the mirror around’1. Little mention was made either of how Britain responded to the Holocaust, or whether more could have been done at the time. In other words, a sense of historical and geographical detachment between Britain and the Holocaust facilitated the pervading tendency of British society to ask difficult questions of its past.

Naturally, there are several factors which are likely to have contributed to the limited critical engagement with the relationship between Britain and the Holocaust. The issue is placed within the wider framework of public memory of the Second World War. Triumphalist narratives of British victory in 1945 have overshadowed most other contemporary issues. The entrenched impression of British involvement in a ‘good war’ is not easily compatible with more discerning evaluations of national actions during the conflict. The typically ‘black-and-white’ nature of public memory offers little space for gradation within theorisations of Britain’s complicated history.

In 2016, a school-based survey conducted by the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education found that some ‘34.4 per cent incorrectly believed that the Holocaust triggered Britain’s entry into war and a further 17.6 per cent of students thought the British drew up rescue plans to save the Jews’2. In the same survey, nearly ‘23.8 per cent’ also incorrectly thought the British government did not know about the Holocaust until the end of the war in 1945’

More promisingly, recent historical research has started to erode the stubborn lack of self-reflection within British Holocaust consciousness. Through the collection of Kindertransport testimonies, Jennifer Craig-Norton has shed light on the unpleasant experiences of some refugee children once they had arrived on British shores3. Elsewhere, Gilly Carr is spearheading a reassessment of native complicity during the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands4. Some 22 islanders from Jersey alone are believed to have died following deportation to Nazi concentration camps and detention centres. In the weeks since the BBC Proms controversy, the National Trust has published an equally provocative report on links between its historic properties, colonialism, and slavery.

In conclusion, the BBC Proms affair brought into focus an entrenched reluctance within British society to confront troubling elements of our national history. Whether concerning slavery, colonialism, or the Holocaust, for the most part British historical consciousness has displayed a distinct unwillingness to acknowledge less triumphant moments in the ‘Island Story’. This is not a phenomenon limited to the United Kingdom. In East-Central Europe, Holocaust complicity remains a continual bone of political contention. Likewise, France has long struggled to reconcile narratives of victory in the Second World War with those of Vichy collaboration.

Recent events – namely Black Lives Matter and the Coronavirus pandemic – have provided a crucial opportunity to redress an imbalance in British historical consciousness. As a society, the United Kingdom is at a juncture where it is possible to complicate the past. There is a chance to acknowledge where mistakes have been made. However, if those in political power continue to rebuff attempts at historical re-evaluation, there is only limited hope for the development of more nuanced interpretations of the rich history of Britain.  


  1. Quoted in Pearce, in Sharples, Caroline, and Olaf Jensen. Britain and the Holocaust : Remembering and Representing War and Genocide, (2013), p.203.
  2. Foster, in Pearce, A., Remembering the Holocaust in educational settings (Routledge, 2018), p.241.
  3. Craig-Norton, Jennifer. The Kindertransport : Contesting Memory. (2019).
  4. For example, see Carr, G. (2016). “Have you been offended?” Holocaust memory in the Channel Islands at HMD 70. Holocaust Studies, 22(1), 44-64.

Image: ‘Proms in the Park’ by Neil Rickards in the Public Domain via Wikipedia Commons

Cherry-picking the past: empire through a public lens

By Liam Grieve @LiamGrieve4

For all academia’s ‘independence’, historians remain tied to one immortal axiom: the past serves at the pleasure of the present. In this sense, history is underpinned by an informal social contract. Yet what happens when the terms of this contract are rewritten without the historian’s consent? Spike Lister recently did a commendable job at examining the current ‘crisis’ which historians face: the fight to resist history’s appropriation by political elites. This represents a trend, he rightly cautions, which is not unique to recent populist movements.[1] Yet beyond the upper echelons of ‘Western’ political discourse lies an even greater challenge.

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Knitting the Archives

If you walk into any charity shop, you are more than likely to find, somewhere, a box or folder full of old knitting patterns. The majority of people would overlook these – to those that cannot knit, the sheets look like indecipherable code, but even to those that can, the patterns are considered dated. But these publications are an archive of everyday material culture of their own, which merit engagement.

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Suffrage, Arson, and the University of Bristol

By Georgia Oman (@Georgia_Oman)

Founded as University College, Bristol, in 1876, the awarding of a royal charter in 1909 allowed the University of Bristol to officially come in to being. In that time, the institution had earned a reputation as a trailblazer in the higher education of women. During the College’s first year, there were 69 women day students registered, compared to 30 men.[1] In 1882, outgoing Professor J. F. Main declared that Bristol ‘had been the first amongst the colleges of England to open its doors to all persons anxious to obtain instruction within its walls, without any distinction of sex’.[2] With this strong legacy of gender equality, it is perhaps not surprising that, in 1913, the women of the university began to think of forming a Women’s Suffrage Society. At a meeting held on the 11th of February of that year, a motion that such a society be formed was passed by 34 votes to two, and the meeting ended in the hope that ‘this Society will be formed during the present term.’[3]

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Victim Personal Statements: Are We Restoring a Wrong Right?

By Kevin Bendesky

Beginning in the 1960s, the Victims’ Rights Movement had profound impacts on English law. One result, Victim Personal Statements (VPS), raised the important question of whether the victim should have the chance to say how the crime affected them. A VPS happens after the adjudication of guilt, but before the sentence is determined. It is not supposed to influence the sentence, yet judges often refer to the VPS in their sentences.[1] Some studies demonstrate that the statements do not harshen penalties; but still, victims report that they sometimes hope their VPS will affect the sentence.[2] Clearly, then, the VPS is still a topic of debate. The Victims’ Movement was grounded in the common desire to “restore” the rights of crime’s many victims.[3] But what was there to “restore”? A careful retracing of the victim’s role in English history complicates this effort.

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The Cancellation of Christmas

Philippa Carter (@extispicium)

In The accomplisht cook (1660), the English chef Robert May recommended to his readers a feast ‘to be used at Festival Times, as Twelfth Day [of Christmas]’. All the budding cook had to do, May explained, was to construct – in pastry – a castle, a ship laced with gunpowder, a wine-filled stag impaled with an arrow, one pie containing live frogs, and another live birds. Once served, it was simply a matter of persuading ‘some of the Ladies’ Read more

Virtual electioneering: echoes of the 1883 Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act

Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)

On Thursday, voters across the UK will head to the polls in the third general election in less than five years. This contest suggests numerous historical parallels. It’s the first December election since 1923 – an election which incidentally brought in Britain’s first ever (minority) Labour government under Ramsay MacDonald. Brexit continues to upset traditional party allegiances, leaving both Labour and Tory heartlands vulnerable. And never before has the environmental crisis featured so prominently as an electoral issue.

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‘Experience doesn’t pay the bills’: a lesson from medieval England

By Rhiannon Sandy (@RhiannonSandy)

A few weeks ago, in my daily perusal of Twitter, I came across a retweet which made me angry enough to write a blogpost. Questioned as to why interns should be paid if they’re ‘getting experience for their résumé’, US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posted a short video answer – ‘experience doesn’t pay the bills’. This was retweeted by Piers Morgan, who called it ‘nonsense’ because ‘the free teaching is the salary’.[1] This is a very privileged stance. Unpaid internships are exploitative and exclusionary, limiting experience to those whose financial situation allows them to work for free. This limits diversity and prevents institutions from being enriched by new ideas and perspectives, because their interns are almost always going to come from a similar background.[2]

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Serving ex-servicemen? Demobilisation schemes in India after the Second World War

By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)

The demobilisation of soldiers has always been fraught with questions regarding jobs, re-skilling, pensions, rehabilitation and transition into peace time society. Such challenges were particularly pronounced at the apexes of the First and Second World Wars due to the sheer scale of demobilisation. Read more

Gallipoli and national memory

By Stephanie Brown (@StephEmmaBrown)

On 22 May 1915, ‘a gay-hearted youth’, William Fielding Sames, sat outside his dug-out in Gallipoli (modern-day Turkey) drinking a cup of tea.[1] Even though he was just 22-years-old, William had been in the Army for five years, been promoted to Lieutenant and served in Egypt.[2] Yet, the decision to sit and drink this cup of tea was to prove fatal. While he sat with his tea a bullet penetrated his lung.[3] William died nine days later while on the way to a military hospital in Greece. He was buried at sea on 31 May 1915.[4]

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Royal babies: a late-nineteenth-century perspective

By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)

Last week, the world’s media was fixed on the arrival of another royal baby. At less than a week old, pictures of Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor, the first child of Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and the Queen’s eighth great-grandchild, have been shared around the globe. Although the birth took place in the relative privacy of the Windsor estate – avoiding a repeat of the now-familiar press camp outside St Mary’s Lindo Wing – the royal couple were still expected to present their new baby to the world within days. Royal Instagram followers were even treated to a photo of Archie’s feet on Sunday to mark Mother’s Day in the US. This level of exposure might seem unique to the internet and social media age, but royal childhood was followed just as eagerly at the turn of the twentieth century.

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From the Jarrow Crusade to the Brexit Blues: historical protests and expressions of direct action

By Aoife O’Leary McNeice (@aolmcn)

Petitions, marches and referendums have been in the news a lot lately, manifestations of frustration from people who do not feel represented by those in power, and so undertake direct action in an attempt to gain leverage, produce change, or simply quell an increasing feeling of powerlessness. I am of course referencing the online petition to revoke article 50, which as I write has amassed 6,065,623 signatures and rising, comfortably securing the title of most popular online petition in the history of online petitions. The government responded to this petition on the 26th March, asserting ‘this Government will not revoke Article 50. We will honour the result of the 2016 referendum and work with Parliament to deliver a deal that ensures we leave the European Union’.

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Constitutional history’s new public moment?

By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)

Over recent months I’ve watched more parliamentary debates than ever before. I imagine I’m not alone. This is perhaps a bold confession for a historian of political culture – admittedly, I’m more familiar with nineteenth-century Hansard than BBC Parliament. Numerous historical parallels have been drawn over Brexit, some more accurate than others. I won’t dwell here on what the EU referendum result says about the legacy of empire, whether Brexit will split the Tory party like the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, or politicians’ astonishing displays of historical illiteracy over Ireland. But with media attention fixed firmly on Westminster as the drama continues to unfold, I’ve been reflecting on the place of constitutional history in the public imagination.

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Collecting for Good Causes in Seventeenth-Century England

By Jacob F. Field (@jakeishistory)

Charitable giving is an intrinsic part of contemporary British society. In 2017 the total amount given to charity in the United Kingdom was £10.3 billion, with the most popular causes being medical research, animal welfare, children or young people, hospitals and hospices, and overseas aid and disaster relief.[i] Early modern England was no different – donating to charity was widespread, although the causes deemed most worthy, and the methods of publicizing and administering collections, were slightly different. Read more