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’.
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.
By Eva Schalbroeck
As a historian, I strongly believe in studying history for its own sake, rather than from today’s perspective. As someone who devours news from every type of media outlet, I cannot help but see the connections between the news on the Democratic Republic of Congo and my research on Belgian colonialism. Barely a day passes without news from the Congo. A simple search on Google brings up numerous stories, almost all about conflict, disease and violence. A lot of ink has flowed about the continuing political unrest in the DRC following the presidential elections in December 2018. There seems no end to the stories about the struggle against ebola. Then there is the sad story of the shooting of a ranger in the Virunga national park, barely months after its reopening.
Within the first month of 2019, historians were treated to not one but two blockbuster movies: The Favourite (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) and Mary Queen of Scots (dir. Josie Rourke). Both grossed millions of dollars in the short time since their worldwide release, reminding us that film is by far the most accessible form of historical representation for expert and non-expert audiences alike. In their immediate afterlives, their success and significance are open for debate. As Natalie Zemon Davis has reflected of her own role in bringing sixteenth-century France to the big screen, ‘it’s up to historians, those who have participated in the film and those who have seen it, to bring to the debate both an understanding of the possibilities of film and a knowledge of the past’. In this spirit, last month The Cambridge Public and Popular History seminar invited the historical consultants of these new films, Professor John Guy (Fellow in History at Clare College, whose 2004 book My Heart is My Own was adapted for Mary Queen of Scots) and Dr Hannah Greig (Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of York, and consultant for The Duchess, Poldark, and The Favourite, amongst others) to discuss their experiences.
Thanks to programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? there has never been more interest in family history. Since the turn of the century, family historians have started to look beyond traditional records such as the census, and birth, death, and marriage indices to new scientific methods. DNA tests are now being used to shed light on ethnic or biogeographical origins and to identify genetic relatives. In 2017, more people took an ancestry DNA test than in all previous years combined. Moreover, it is estimated that by 2022, the genetic testing market will be worth approximately £261 million. The ease and reasonably low cost of heritage DNA tests has made this technology accessible to everyone. So, with that in mind, I decided to give it a go.
My experience as a student at Cambridge centred around the feminist activism I chose to get involved in, as part of the Women’s Campaign. I learned that feminist work is legacy work in the physical spaces I shared and created with women and non-binary people. My involvement in these spaces led me to run for my current position as the full-time Women’s Officer on the students’ union (CUSU), where I work closely with people who influenced my feminist activism. Christine Pungong, the current CUSU and GU Welfare and Rights Officer, was one of the first people I met when I joined Cambridge as an undergraduate and has been part of my feminist community during the last four years of our involvement with the Women’s Campaign and student organising. The Our Streets project, a collaboration between the Women’s Campaign and Welfare portfolio, represents these kinds of feminist communities that enable us to survive in these spaces, legacies which are often missing from our depiction of Cambridge as an intensely competitive environment.
By Zack Rose (email@example.com)
Under the Jim Crow laws (1877-1950s), segregation based on race was legally justified in the United States.1 The key Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v Ferguson (1896) was that it was not unconstitutional to enforce racial segregation, so long as segregated facilities were “separate but equal”.2 However, it is well known that the services available to African Americans were extraordinarily inferior and underfunded. By examining three modes of travel, this post hopes to shed light on the realities that African Americans faced under the Jim Crow system.
By Dominic Birch
One of the most pleasurable parts of archival work is discovering new stories, narratives and characters. In the type of work I do (early modern social history) some subjects seem to jump out of the page, demanding attention. Take, for instance, the case of Sara and Elizabeth Mayhew, two women who were taken to court for slander in 1617. The Mayhews were accused of sowing ‘discord, debate and strife’ amongst their neighbours. They had a particular antipathy for Dr. Wells, the vicar of Brockely. The Mayhews interrupted Wells as he attempted to deliver service, sang bawdy songs outside his door, and called his children ‘priest bastards’.
Bored Bluestockings and Frivolous Flirts: The Necessary Adaptations of Early Female University Students in Ireland
Female students were admitted to Queen’s College Cork (QCC) – now University College Cork – Ireland in 1886. One might imagine that these women were innovative and progressive, as they challenged the boundaries placed upon their gender by entering the predominantly male space of the University. But despite their pursuit of higher education, their behaviour was also conventional, as these students sought to preserve their traditional femininity. For these first women students, the primarily male space of the university needed to be navigated carefully.
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
Veganism seems to be the word of the moment. As we come to the end of ‘Veganuary’, it is estimated that a record-breaking number of individuals signed up to ditch meat and dairy for the month, with 14,000 people signing the pledge on 30th December 2018 alone. As scientists are urging us to cut back on animal products, animal rights ethics are coming into play with environmentalism to create a seemingly unstoppable train. However, whilst some people see this as a fad, veganism, or at least the philosophy behind it, has a long history.
By Jeremiah J. Garsha (@jjgarsha)
It is comforting to think of the collecting of human heads as existing in the distant past. When visitors to the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford marvel at the shrunken heads display, they do so under a combination of alterity and distancing. The process of shrinking the heads renders them distinguishable from life-sized heads, as does their distant geographic origins as creations by Amazonian ‘tribes’ bought by Victorians as souvenirs. Visitors to art museums also encounter human heads. Dubbed memento mori, the appearance of skulls in early modern European works of art was a leitmotiv reflecting mortality. Viewers of these paintings can relegate even this artistic practice as existing in a removed history, like the objects themselves.
By Christopher Whittell (@ChrisWhittell)
This post is related to my research for a recent conference paper on the influence of ancient coins on the portrayal of early modern British monarchs. It also highlights the possibilities of catalogues of coins collections as useful sources for early modern historians including insights into a monarch’s thinking and influences. This includes the one compiled by Elias Ashmole of the original English royal coin collection between 1660 and 1662.
2018 was another turbulent year in global politics. In March, Vladimir Putin was, unsurprisingly, re-elected as Russia’s President. Mobeen Hussain reflected in this blog post on how Putin’s popular appeal stemmed in part from rebranding the long-held idea of Russian exceptionalism. Tensions between Russia and the West have continued to increase. Just two weeks before Putin’s re-election, Sergei and Yulia Skripal were poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury. As Fred Smith noted in this DHP post, spying is often associated with modern times, but double agents also operated in sixteenth-century England.
By Eleanor Warren (@elmwarren)
I was shown this sculpture by the local key-holder on a visit to Stanwick Church in 2014. It was a surprise and a joy to see this sculpted stone, which was not on display but languishing in a cupboard in the church vestry.
The stone is the head of an early medieval cross, depicting an image of the crucifixion on one face, and interlaced foliage on the other. Christ’s arms end in three-fingered hands with the thumbs held apart, and a line across the left arm suggests he is robed. The centre of the cross is marked by a boss. Figural representations are the rarest surviving category of pre-Conquest sculpture, but the iconography is similar to a small group of other cross heads from Yorkshire and displays an Irish-Scandinavian influence. It is likely to date from the late ninth or early tenth century. The crude carving shows a low level of skill and a lack of iconographic knowledge from the sculptor, and this, alongside the number of surviving cross fragments found in Yorkshire, suggests that sculptures in this region were produced for secular patrons with varying degrees of wealth and education.
By Emily Redican-Bradford (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The first ‘toothbrush’ is thought to have been invented in China in the 1400s, when bristles from the necks of pigs were fixed onto bone or bamboo handles. Before that, twigs were chewed on or split to form brushes and different flavours were used for freshening breath. The ‘modern toothbrush’ was invented by William Addis, who, whilst in prison in c.1780 in England, decided to improve on the traditional rag method used to clean teeth at the time. He carved a handle from a bone, proceeded to make little holes in it and then attached pig bristles onto it. When he left prison, Addis began producing toothbrushes and they were manufactured in England and aboard. More expensive designs were soon expected for the wealthy, with Napoleon Bonaparte owning a brush with a silver gilt handle and horsehair bristles. It was H.N Wadsworth in 1857 who received the first patent for a toothbrush and, in 1938, the first nylon fibre brushes were made.
Image: Napoleon’s toothbrush, c. 1790-1821, made available under a Creative Commons licence.
 Valerie Strauss, ‘Ever wondered how people cleaned their teeth before they had toothbrushes?’ The Washington Post (2009).
 Museum of Everyday Life, ‘Prison, Suicide and the Cold Climate Hog’.
 Science Museum, London ‘Napoleon’s Toothbrush, Europe, 1790-1821’, Wellcome Collection.
 Museum of Everyday Life, ‘Prison, Suicide and the Cold Climate Hog’ and Made Up In Britain, ‘Tootbrush’.
By Georgia Oman
In May 1876, Margaret Merrifield wrote a letter home to her mother from Newnham College, Cambridge, where she had arrived as a student the year before. The College itself had only been founded a few years earlier, in 1871, with five students living in a rented house in Regent Street, Cambridge. In 1875, the first permanent buildings had been constructed on a piece of land near the village of Newnham, suitably removed from the men’s colleges in the centre of town, and surrounded by expansive grounds, perfect for taking exercise. It was about this that Margaret wrote to her mother.
The British Embassy in Stockholm, 1956: Jane Holliday was considering her resignation from the Diplomatic Service. Precipitated by her anger at the treatment of women and a burgeoning romantic relationship with a senior diplomat, Holliday felt it was time to work elsewhere. Having spent some time in Sweden as a secretary and mastering the language, she came back to Stockholm after joining the Foreign Office. She arrived as the Personal Assistant to the Air Attaché and then worked for the Counsellor (No. 2 in the Embassy hierarchy). That very Counsellor ended up, as Holliday recalled ‘my future husband (though I didn’t know it at the time)’. The Embassy was a space of mixed emotions.
Despite her linguistic talents, Holliday was often asked to venture beyond her job description. The Counsellor in question – who had been married twice with a son – felt the burden of being a bachelor and asked Holliday on numerous occasions to serve as his hostess at formal dinners. Yet the Foreign Office soon sent him to Laos. The Queen was due to make a State Visit to Sweden and Holliday suspected the ‘squeaky clean’ Embassy removed the Counsellor as he was filing for divorce. Holliday decided that she would resign after the Royal Visit. She was responsible for preparing the ‘Ceremonial’; the lengthy programme of The Queen’s trip. The visit marked a personal accolade in Holliday’s career, prior to becoming a diplomatic wife. Granted an audience with The Queen, ‘who was charming’, Holliday was presented with ‘a signed photo and a solid silver powder compact’ for her services. Male colleagues would not have received gifts. Both objects were reminders of Holliday’s short but exceptional work in the Diplomatic Service. Only seventeen years later could talented women, like Holliday, serve Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service as wives and mothers.
 Jane Holliday, Cocktails and Cockroaches: A Diplomatic Memoir (Milton Keynes: Author House Ltd, 2009).
By Taushif Kara (@taushif)
Of the many ornate wooden doors spread throughout Zanzibar’s ‘stone town’ – and there are many – the one I find the most intriguing, and indeed the most beautiful, is the door to the Khoja caravanserai, built in 1892. The door itself opens to a musafarkhana, a hostel of sorts, meant to house Khoja travelers (a trading community from western India) who would arrive in Zanzibar from around the Indian Ocean littoral. Countless migrants and their families would pass through this door upon arrival, usually after what was often a long and treacherous journey by sea. Crafted in a style that is quite unique to the island, with intense floral carving juxtaposed with beautiful calligraphy and ominous brass studs, the door is at once both welcoming and intimidating. Arabic inscriptions exist alongside Gujarati and English, a testament to the polyglot and diverse nature of the island.
While it is indeed very beautiful, that’s not really why I chose it; in fact, it is quite mundane – doors are everywhere! This one, however, despite its ornamental grandeur, was meant to do something relatively humble: provide a space of shelter to those on the move.
Image: Door to the Khoja caravanserai in Zanzibar, author’s own photograph.
By Tamara Fernando (@TamaraFernando3)
The historians’ job is akin to the detectives’: we ferret out clues, evaluate evidence and make deductions. But what do we do when trails run cold? My doctoral research is on the pearl fishery in the Gulf of Mannar. Sometime between 1820 and 1830, the painter Hippolyte Silvaf made twelve water-colours of the fishery in Ceylon. As sources, these paintings would have offered incredible visual insights into the industry long before the advent of photography. Unfortunately, in 1989, all the paintings were stolen from the Royal Commonwealth Society (RCS) where they had been held since 1908. No one has been able to track them down since. But perhaps we needed to broaden our search.
On 25 May 1868, Captain James Steuart donated a box of 11 oyster specimens to the British Museum. Although the box is rarely consulted by historians, mounted on the inside lid of the box is a painting of the fishery titled ‘Boats returning from the Ceylon Pearl Banks in March’. * Although it is unsigned, we can compare it with Silvaf’s oeuvre and with the description of his paintings recorded by RCS librarians to deduce that this is a copy of one of the lost paintings, ‘Scene at Silawatorre: boats returning from the Pearl Banks’. The box of specimens, which, bound up with colonial practices of collection and documentation, has ensured that at least one of these remarkable paintings survives today!
*My thanks to Tom White at the Museum of Natural History and Rachel Rowe at the Royal Commonwealth Society for their help putting the pieces together.
Image: Edwin William Streeter, ‘Auction of Pearl Oysters in Ceylon’ from Pearls and Pearling Life (London: George Bell and Sons, 1886). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.