By Mobeen Hussain
Whilst searching in the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, London, I came across a pamphlet published by the Black Women’s Action Committee in October 1970. The Black Women’s Action Committee was part of the Black Unity and Freedom Party, one of many anti-racist and black rights campaign groups founded in the 1960s and 1970s in reaction to widespread discrimination. This group highlights a longer history of women of African-Caribbean campaigning in Britain. The committee’s pamphlet was distributed outside places where ‘beauty contests’ were held. Black beauty pageants were instituted in Britain for the very purpose of conveying pride in Black identity and pride. Read more
By George Severs
In 1972, Raphael Samuel wrote of the ‘perils of the transcript’, the potential for mutilation and distortion of the spoken word when it is transferred to the page. In the 45 years since then, oral historians and archivists have been keen to heed this warning, yet inevitably such difficulties persist. Read more
By Aprajita Sarcar, Queen’s University, Canada.
Driving towards a district hospital in Kerala, I find the physical manifestation of what I seek in my research. This mouldy painted image of a husband, wife and a girl child is the family that represents the national population control programme. Since 1951, this family has been changing shape: with three children, then two, one girl and one boy and currently one girl. As a child, I found this pictorial family appealing because it was always happy, each member beaming from walls, posters, postage stamps and magazines. As an adult, I seek the nation within which this image was created and circulated. Read more
By Alex Wakelam | @A_Wakelam
As a quantitative economic historian, a significant amount of my research is impersonal. Studying the functioning of eighteenth-century debtors’ prisons and their effectiveness as a mechanism of contract enforcement rarely brings one into contact with material that connects you to the thoughts, feelings, and lived experience of an individual human being. My principal source material, prison commitment registers, as official documents, shun personal details beyond names and the size of debts. However, the register of Cheapside’s Woodstreet Compter for 1765-66 provides a rare variation. Read more
By Dan Johnson, University of York (@Dan_Johnson19)
While conducting research on public understandings of punishment in British prison museums, the public facing collections and exhibitions often act as the main primary sources that I engage with. One of the elements of the prison interpretation that I do rely on archival material for is the reconstruction of prisoner narratives through digital media on display. In almost every narrative of a specific prisoner and their experience, there are no first-hand accounts written by the prisoners, making sources like the British Newspaper Archive essential for creating a script for the videos in the exhibitions. Sometimes, the museums are transparent about where they find their information, and do not stray from the archival material in the digital narratives. Other times, the museums pick and choose which sources to include and manipulate them to fit into a sensational script to entertain their visitors. This then leads to questions about how much fiction is on display in our museum exhibitions.
Image: Author’s own.
By Harriet Lyon | @HarrietLyon
My favourite archival source is the one I almost missed: a note, less than a page long, pasted into the back of a notebook belonging to the antiquary William Dugdale (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Hist. c 485, fol. 100). Dated July 1652, it recounts a shameful secret told in a private conversation thirty years earlier. Read more
By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)
Queen Victoria’s Golden and Diamond Jubilees in 1887 and 1897 prompted an outpouring of national celebration. The queen received thousands of jubilee addresses from local authorities, philanthropic organisations and societies across the country. These large, colourfully decorated documents were full of patriotic language praising Victoria’s long reign. Trawling through these addresses in the National Archives was an experience in itself. But I was thrilled to discover among the adult-authored documents a Golden Jubilee address from ‘The Children of St. Columb School, Forest Hill.’ Read more
By Tom Smith (@TomEtesonSmith)
For me, the best archival gifts are documents which serve as reminders that you are dealing with real, complex people who are more than a public persona. Take Nathaniel Emerson (1839-1915), for example, born in Hawai‘i to American parents, and best remembered as a man of science, having published significant ethnological accounts of the Native Hawaiian people. Perusing his personal papers at the Huntington Library in California, however, we find him drafting overblown romantic short stories and poetry, thematising lost love, alienation, and his island upbringing. Emerson attempted, unsuccessfully, to have some of this work published, and it appears he suffered on occasion from writer’s block, as evidenced by an attempt at a limerick abandoned after just two lines. Read more
By Mobeen Hussain | @amhuss27
In the last few years, there has been a resurgence of period adaptations based on the British in India. This spat of television and film productions depicts particular historical narratives that romanticise the British Empire and hark back to the good-old-days of British imperialism. Indian Summers (2015), Victoria and Abdul (2017) and Viceroy’s House (2017) reveal a lot about the kinds of narratives that producers and the British public are interested in telling, championing and watching. With the exception of Indian Summers, these productions were post-Brexit and released in the year of the seventieth anniversary of India’s partition. Read more
By Fred Smith | @Fred_E_Smith
‘Like death, like the cemetery which is at the centre of the village, violence is at the heart of life in the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries’.
It is easy for the historian of early modern England to become desensitised to violence and suffering. Studying the religious changes of this period, changes which provoked individuals on both sides of the confessional divide to torture, burn and hang their fellow countrymen, the individuals involved can quickly become mere statistics to be utilised in support of an historiographical point. Read more
By Nicholas Dixon
One of the most memorable sets of items I have found in an archive is the journals and notebooks of William Dixon (1756-1824), a farmer from the village of Holton le Moor in Lincolnshire. Deposited in the Lincolnshire Archives, 54 of these roughly bound volumes survive, some of them with pages recycled from letters and handbills for livestock sales and auctions. In them, Dixon recorded his thoughts on a wide variety of subjects, including religion, politics, agriculture and poor relief. Most pertinent to my own research (on the influence of the early nineteenth-century Church of England) are Dixon’s reflections concerning his Anglican faith, which motivated him to found a house of industry and several Sunday schools in his locality. Yet, despite sharing a surname with one whose writings are highly relevant to my research, I am not (so far as I can tell) any relation!
Image: Author’s own, by kind permission of Lincolnshire Archives.
By Emily Ward | @1066unicorn
How did Isabella of Angoulême, queen of England, greet her son, King Henry III, when she wrote to him in the years following the nine-year-old boy’s succession to the throne in 1217? A desire to answer this question, and to resolve two conflicting modern transcriptions of a letter sent from Isabella to Henry in 1218/1219, led me to The National Archives. Letter SC 1/3/181 opens, quite traditionally, with a greeting. Isabella addresses Henry as ‘her dear son, by the grace of God illustrious King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, Count of Anjou…’ Read more
By Zoe Farrell | @zoeffarrell
In 1534, a man named Michele died in Venice and an inventory was taken of his possessions. Proceeding through the different rooms in his casa, Michele’s inventory details a large variety of material goods. Starting with precious objects of gold and silver, it proceeds to detail his fine clothing and furniture. From this inventory, we can see that Michele lived in a world surrounded by luxurious material items. He owned, for example, una vesta de pano negro alla dogalina fondra di vari – which was a gown typically worn by noblemen, with a lining of fur. He also owned many items made of fine materials such as velvet and damask, as well as several Moroccan rugs and painted and woven wall hangings. He kept books, paintings and a large amount of wooden furniture, in addition to silver knives, forks and spoons. 
This list is enviable even by today’s commercialised standards. However, Michele was not a nobleman. Instead, he made a living by making casks and barrels. He was a craftsman, an artisan, of modest means, yet he was able to possess an extraordinary number of material items in his home. Michele’s inventory is one of many like it and he was certainly not alone in his level of material consumption. Instead, he is representative of a trend which is strongly evident in sixteenth-century Venetian inventories, where men in the middling classes surrounded themselves with a wide variety of material objects, many of which were simultaneously functional, decorative and devotional.
 Archivio di Stato di Venezia: Canc. Inf., Misc. Not. Div., b. 36, n.10, f. 1r – f. 6r.
Image: The Grand Canal from Palazzo Flangini to Campo San Marcuola, Canaletto, about 1738. J. Paul Getty Museum (J. Paul Getty Museum) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c7/Canaletto_Grand_Canal_from_Palazzo_Flangini_-_JPGM.jpg
By Carys Brown | @HistoryCarys
5 December 1730
You are desired to leave 19 pounds in the church yard under the further…tree by one a clock to morrow night if you put any Watsh on [or] Disobey our commande by G-d you and your family shall be outerly Destroyd and your house burnt as Jacks was
From your humble Servant
C: F: Esqre
These words, sent to Thomas Bechier, a Catholic gentleman and merchant of Monmouth, greeted me one sunny morning in Cambridgeshire Archives. Scrawled on a scrap of paper in an untidy hand was the chilling threat of an apparently murderous serial blackmailer. Four days later, Belchier received another note ‘From Your Loveing Friend’, which acknowledged receipt of the money, but stated that it ‘will be of ill consequence for by G-d we will murder you the first opportunity and if possible burn your House…for we are not to be fooled’. Who was this frightening individual? And what had Belchier done to incur his wrath? Read more
By Laura Flannigan (@LFlannigan17)
‘To London once my stepps I bent,
Where trouth in no wyse should be faint,
To westmynster-ward I forthwith went,
To a man of law to make complaint.
I sayd, “for marys love, that holy saynt /
Pyty the poore that wold proceede.”
But, for lack of mony, I cold not spede. 
This vivid tale of a Kentish husbandman seeking legal redress in the Westminster courts comes to us through ‘London Lickpenny’, an anonymous, fifteenth-century popular poem. It stands out for the insight it provides on the litigant’s experience of the late medieval and early modern legal system – something which, it might be assumed, we cannot gather so easily from the formulaic and arcane court records for this period. Read more
By Helen Sunderland (@hl_sunderland)
The recent success of The Vietnam War, a television documentary co-directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, shows the enduring legacy of the conflict in popular memory. Broadcast as a ten-hour series in the UK on BBC Four and originally aired with an even longer running time on PBS, the series is ambitious in its detail and scope. That such an in-depth history can still prove gripping, accessible and popular shows how the Vietnam War continues to loom large in the psyche. Read more
By Dan Johnson, University of York (@Dan_Johnson19)
Prison museums are becoming a popular form of dark tourism around the world. In the last few decades, infamous prisons that have been in use since the beginning of incarceration as a form of punishment in the nineteenth century have begun to close their doors to make room for more modern prisons. In the UK, many former prison buildings have been saved and repurposed, rather than torn down. Some former prison buildings have even been transformed into boutique hotels and student accommodation. Although there has been a recent rise in the closures of Victorian prison buildings, there was a first wave of closures of some of the first British penitentiaries following the nationalisation of the prison system in 1878. In the nineteenth century, many prisons were destroyed, however, some became tourist attractions. One of these prison buildings-turned-tourist sites is the Victorian Prison at Lincoln Castle. Read more
by Eleanor Russell
This famous sketch of a rhinoceros was created in 1515 by the influential German artist, Albrecht Dürer, reflecting the growing interest in foreign curiosities that had emerged in tangent with the overseas voyages of exploration, commerce and conquest by the Spanish and Portuguese. The rhinoceros had been given as a gift by the ruler of Cambaia to Afonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese viceroy in India, who in turn gifted it to king Manuel I of Portugal.
While the drawing itself provides a great deal of information about art and Orientalism in the Renaissance, among other things, the backstory of the painting is equally as fascinating. How did Dürer, then living in Nuremberg, ever come to make such a sketch?