Artistic licence: misrepresenting (Cornish) history

Last week the temperature under my collar was raised twice over. Both times it concerned a poor representation of the past. One probably down to lazy journalism (but with no real excuses) and the other possibly down to poor editing choices and an over-reliance on a ‘pat narrative’. Here I discuss the first of these, a review of a new exhibition of Newlyn school paintings. In my next post, I will discuss the omission of Richard Trevithick, the over-emphasis on Watt’s achievement, and the deeply selective portrayal of British engineering history currently being shown by the BBC in Genius of Invention.

Amongst Heroes: the Artist in Working Cornwall

This exhibition, curated by budding art historian Roo Gunzi, brings together a wide range of paintings from the Newlyn school at the unlikely venue of Two Temple Place, a neo-gothic confection situated on London’s Embankment. The exhibition was made possible through partnership with the Royal Cornwall Museum and significant loans were made by Penlee House Gallery and Museum, home to Cornwall’s pre-eminent collection of west Cornish and Newlyn art. Roo herself was a Hypatia Trust, Jamieson Library scholar last summer, as part of her research itinerary.

So far, so good. This exhibition marks the first time in a while that a significant number of Cornish paintings from a variety of locations have been brought together outside Cornwall, and highlights the work of the west Cornish art communities, including those based in Newlyn. Unfortunately it has been the reporting and reviewing of this exhibition that has somewhat deflated the balloons of those of us who champion Cornish history and heritage.

The biggest culprit is a review by Telegraph newspaper and online journalist Rupert Christiansen (21 Jan). The review came to my attention via Twitter when someone tweeted the link to a letter written to the Telegraph from J Garry Mitchell of Portmellon (23 Jan). In this letter response, Mr Mitchell wrote:

Too often Cornwall gets portrayed as a tourist destination with no substance, but it has always produced clever creators.

The letter took particular umbrage to Christiansen’s flippant comment that Cornwall was by the end of the nineteenth century “largely untouched by industrialism.” The nine, mainly inane, comments that follow this letter are indicative of the deep ignorance that prevails about Cornish culture and history, judged as it so often is, through the eyes of holiday-makers who consume without discernment the Cornwall of inconceivably beautiful sandy coves and ‘quaint’ fishing villages so beloved of Caroline Quentin.

I read the review. I thought it said more about the writer’s preconceptions or misconceptions about Cornwall and Cornish history than it did do justice to reviewing the exhibition.

Here is my rebuttal of Christiansen’s review. As you will read, I didn’t even get around to introducing the reviewer to the coming of the railways in the 1850s, nor did I dwell to take issue with his mindless comment that “What they [the Newlyn paintings] characteristically depict – in a style influenced by masters of the naturalist Barbizon school such as Millet and Corot – is the daily life of peasants and fisherfolk, recorded with an absence of special pleading.”

My criticism

“Around the end of the 19th century, Cornwall remained an undiscovered part of the country, largely untouched by industrialism and not a holiday destination or romanticised by Daphne du Maurier.”

I find it extraordinarily lazy of the reviewer that he should make such an erroneous comment. Or perhaps it has escaped his notice that the mining landscapes of Cornwall and West Devon, largely shaped during the 19th century, are designated as a World Heritage Site? I’m not sure that would be the case if Cornwall had been untouched by ‘industrialism’.

Whether you are of the opinion that the now chocolate-box (or tinned fish) images of working life depicted in Newlyn school paintings are real or romanticised, they only show one tiny part of Cornish life, then as now.

Hardly ‘undiscovered’, then.

Hard rock mining had a profound impact on Cornwall, as did other forms of industry. The towns of Penzance, Camborne, Redruth and St Austell were bustling centres of commerce and banking. Before the London Metal Exchange was established in the 1870s big money wheeling and dealing in tin, copper, lead and other metals took place in Cornwall (and also in Swansea). Cornwall even had its own Stannary Parliament to oversee the financing and taxes levied on tin (yes–it was _that_ important). Cornish mines traded directly and indirectly in a highly globalised economy in metals, particularly copper and tin.

Hardly ‘undiscovered’, then. Did you know that Porthcurno in the far south west of Cornwall, now the site of an excellent museum, was the centre of  Britain’s transatlantic and overseas telegraphy? Operators from all over the world came to Cornwall to be trained in telecommunications until relatively recently.

Camborne School of Mines was world famous and again people from all over the globe came to Cornwall to be trained in mining engineering, surveying and other scientific skills throughout the nineteenth century and twentieth century.

The Royal Geological Society of Cornwall will be celebrating its bicentenary next year, is one of the oldest geological societies in the world.

It was the hotbed of technological innovation and the demands of a cutting edge mining industry that provided the right environment for engineers such as Richard Trevithick to invent the high-pressure steam engine (a feat far more impactful than Watt’s earlier effort) and scientists such as Humphry Davy to identify important rare metals, and solve serious safety problems by inventing the miner’s safety lamp.

This review is typical of the huge assumptions people make about Cornwall as a place that is on the margins rather than at the centre. Certainly concerning nineteenth-century innovation, science and industry quite the opposite was true.


I circulated the link to the review and my letter to colleagues and this in itself elicited a variety of responses, many of them more astute than my own criticism. The consensus was that we ought to be doing more to get good history out there and much more easily accessible. We live in a world now where most people turn to Google rather than the local library to answer their most pressing questions. We have to respond to it. I should like to reproduce an excerpt of a further criticism, this time related to how the Newlyn school is portrayed, worth pondering:

“I also take issue with the persistently isolationist approach of British ( and probably other) curations of such exhibitions which too often suggest that such movements sprang up by chance through largely local factors. Newlyn was not found by accident – it was deliberately searched for and found by artists seeking somewhere in Britain to compare with the Breton centres such as the famous Pont Aven or the lesser known Cancale, Le Faouet etc,  which themselves were part of the wider European movement of rural art schools inspired by Barbizon.”





Copper research funding success!

Excerpt from a copper ore book
Excerpt from a copper ore book

I was delighted to hear on Friday that I had been successful in my application for a small research grant from Glamorgan County History Trust for continued research on my project entitled, Biographies of British copper: The heritage of a global commodity, c.1700-1980. The Trust supports research into any aspect of the history of Glamorgan, south Wales.

The specific aspect of my research this funding will benefit is for further work into business archives relating to the copper industry found in Bangor University Archives. Following my survey of copper business archives held in Swansea, I identified related papers held in Bangor which not only have direct relevance to understanding the supply chain between mines and the Glamorgan smelters but also to further my knowledge about how the Grenfells operated during the formative 1800-1830s period.

The key relation to the Swansea Grenfell Collection are the records in the Williams and Grenfell Copper Smelting Firm collection, 1829-34, held at Bangor University Archives. I will use the grant to enable me to travel to Bangor and study the records and then use copied material for furthering this project in subsequent months. Having already consulted the small number of business records relating to the early years of Grenfell involvement as mine agents and speculators in the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies in Aylesbury last winter, this will be a crucial stage in gathering evidence for reconstructing supply chain information through the development of one company.

The most valuable part of these fonds are twelve bundles of ticketing documents dating 1829-34 which document a formative period in the growth of the copper industry and the centralisation of smelting and refining processes in Glamorgan, especially Swansea.

These documents are rare survivals which have hitherto escaped the attention of scholars. They bear testimony to the business negotiations that took place between smelters’ agents (overwhelmingly based in Swansea, Neath and Llanelli) and mine companies. The ticketing events took place in Cornwall (Redruth) for Cornish ores and in Swansea for the sale of Welsh, Irish and foreign ores.

While statistical synopses are available for this period in contemporary editions of the Mining Journal and other serials, analyses of these documents will enable me to map actual relationships between specific mining companies and smelting concerns. It will also help to establish how the supply chain centred in Swansea compared with that of Cornwall.

Combining this new research with that I have already undertaken on the Swansea and Buckinghamshire documents, I hope to publish an article on these archives that will also highlight their value as sources for understanding the nature of how business was done and also more about how industrial history can be better appreciated through tracing the biographies of the commodities themselves.

Hidden Treasures of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection

Books of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection, Hypatia Trust
Books of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection, Hypatia Trust

This week I am leading tours of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection on Women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly at Hypatia Trust HQ at Trevelyan House, Penzance. Hidden Treasures is a national campaign organised by the Collections Trust in association with the Independent newspaper who featured the campaign in the 2 June edition. About 54 organisations are taking part, mainly museums. Hidden Treasures aims to help give special access to collections that are usually not available to the public. The Hypatia Trust is the only Cornish organisation to open up its collections for Hidden Treasures!

Hidden Treasures of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection tours take place throughout the week at 2.30pm on each listed day:

Monday 4 June, Tuesday 5 June, Wednesday 6 June, Thursday 7 June and Saturday 9 June (no tours Friday 8 June).

Tours are free. All welcome. Visitors to Trevelyan House can also view the Redwing Gallery and browse the bookshop. Cornish books available at sale prices! All profits in aid of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection fund.

Find out more on the Hidden Treasures tours in Penzance.

What can you expect?

The Elizabeth Treffry Collection is comprised of books and archives and therefore are not always visually appealing exhibits in the same way as a rare vase or exquisite painting. During the tours I try and get people interested in the subject, explain why collecting on women is important to Cornwall and Scillonian heritage and what’s in store for the collection in the future.

The Hypatia Trust has just started a campaign to fund a new permanent home for the collection in Cornwall and contribute towards creating a free online Index of Women in Cornwall and Scilly that will make a major impact on the way Cornish and Scillonian history, culture, art and literature is perceived, researched and used. We need funds to conserve rare items, especially archives, apply a better standard of curatorial care, furnish a new home and promote the collection to everyone with an interest in women’s and Cornish-Scillonian heritage.

Remember: we are talking about better representation for 51% of the population, past and present!

How’s it going?

The tours were featured in the local press, the Independent, promoted online through our very recent entry into the worlds of Twitter and Facebook and circulated via flyers, emails and word of mouth. Guess what? Word of mouth has won out so far. Today was the first day and we had 14 people turn up, albeit at various times of the day. We are treating the event quite informally and are happy to accomodate and chat to people at any time I or another Hypatia volunteer is available. We want to use this opportunity to get the word out there that the collection exists and what we wish to achieve with it. I’ll look forward to seeing what the rest of the week holds in store.

Paddington history for kids

Paddington Station
Paddington Station (credit: Tehmina Goskar)

Last November I blogged about my experience demonstrating the wonders of history school children at Hallfield Primary School, my first alma mater.

I continued the theme with the local Cub Scouts Group based at another Paddington primary school, St Mary Magdalene (5th Paddington). My tack was slightly different here. The incentive to listen and learn was to earn the Local Knowledge badge. Team competition is also important to the Cubs and while initially they were suspicious of any sit-down activity, when they realised points meant prizes (and these were really good–all my old arcade toy wins). So over two sessions we swotted some Paddington history. I drew up a ‘Top 10 Paddington history facts’ and based a Q&A session around that. Another leader brought in the film The Blue Lamp (1950), largely filmed in Paddington before the A40 Westway–a massive flyover that has forever divided Paddington into an area stark social contrast–was built to demonstrate the idea of change in the built environment. The next week they had to complete the ‘Local Knowledge Quiz’, a series of pub quiz style questions.

Rather than sitting on my computer hard drive I wanted to share these. I found it hard to find a decent source of information on Paddington history, save for the trusty Paddington Wikipedia entry which is of decent quality.

So here you are, reproduced and downloadable, free to use non-commercially, please do give us a mention if you use this material.

10 things you never knew about Paddington…

Download 10 things you never knew about Paddington… (PDF, 34KB)

1. Paddington Green Police Station is the most important high-security police station in the UK. The most dangerous suspects are brought here to be questioned.

2. The Tyburn Gallows were near Marble Arch. Until the late 1700s criminals were brought here to be hanged. London slang, ‘Paddington Fair Day’ meant a public hanging day and ‘To dance the Paddington frisk’ meant ‘to be hanged’.

3. Lord Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouting movement, was born in Paddington on 22 February 1857.

4. Edward Wilson was a scientist and a doctor who worked in Paddington. He was part of the famous expedition of Captain Scott who tried but failed to reach the South Pole in 1912. Everyone died. Edward Wilson school was named in his honour.

5. Paddington Stationis one of London’s most famous railway stations and was designed by a famous engineer called Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1854. It was one of the destinations of the world’s first underground railway, called the Metropolitan Railway, established in 1863. There is a statue of Brunel at one of the station’s entrances.

6. Paddington Bear is the most famous fictional character from the area. The story begins that the bear was from ‘deepest, darkest Peru’ and arrives at Paddington Station with a note saying ‘Please look after this bear, thank you’.

7. St Mary’s Hospital dates from 1845 and is one of the important places for learning medicine in the world. Part of the hospital used to be multi-story stables for horses that worked for the Great Western Railway. You can still see the ramps for the horses today. Many members of the Royal Family were born at St Mary’s Hospital, including Prince William, and Prince Harry.

8. Before the building of the Grand Junction Canal in 1801 Paddington was just fields. The canal brought goods and people from the countryside to the growing city of London. The canal flowed into Paddington Basin. This area is currently being developed into one of London’s most important business districts.

9. William Whiteley created Whiteley’s [department store, now shopping centre], situated between Queensway and Westbourne Grove in 1867. He was the Lord Alan Sugar of his day and called himself ‘the Universal Provider’ selling everything from ‘a pin to an elephant’. In 1897 a huge fire burnt the store down and flames could be seen from Highgate Hill in north London. The store was completely rebuilt and the building we see today was reopened in 1911.

10. There are two areas called Paddington in Australia, one in Sydney, New South Wales, and another in Brisbane, Queensland. A gold mine in western Australia was named Paddington Gold Mine.

Now take the Paddington Local Knowledge Cub Quiz…

Download Paddington Local Knowledge Cub Quiz (PDF, 6.8MB)

[Answers: Round 1: 1. TR 2. FA 3. FA 4. TR 5. TR Round 2: 1. FACT 2. FICT 3. FACT 4. FACT 5. FICT Round 3: 1. Dome of Whiteley’s shopping centre 2. Paddington Bear 3. Paddington Station 4. St Mary’s Hospital 5. St Mary Magdalene Church Round 4: 1. marmalade 2. horses 3. Blue 4. canals 5. Metropolitan]

Curating the Elizabeth Treffry Collection on Women in Cornwall and Scilly

La Demoiselle Sauvage From King Arthur's Wood by Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes
La Demoiselle Sauvage From King Arthur's Wood by Elizabeth Armstrong Forbes (credit: Hypatia Trust)

My first commission since relocating to Penzance, Cornwall was an audit of the little-known Elizabeth Treffry collection held by the Hypatia Trust that serves to document the lives and works of women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

Meeting Hypatia

Having heard much about the Hypatia Trust and its founder, Dr. Melissa Hardie, publisher, author and collector, I wandered into Trevelyan House on historic Chapel Street on a cold January morning to find out more. A warm welcome and two hours of chat resulted in the start of a working relationship and friendship that I hope will last for many years.

…to collect, and make available, published and personal documentation about the achievements of women in every aspect of their lives.

(Ethos of the Hypatia Trust)

The situation I was greeted with goes something like this. The Hypatia Trust exists to further the knowledge of and about women and her achievements. It has a strong basis in understanding women in their regional or geo-historical contexts and so Hypatia exists in several locales, including Hypatia in the Woods in Shelton, Washington in the USA. Its ethos is strongly based in academic and intellectual pursuits and so collecting, especially books, is central to its activities.

Melissa Hardie, in the name of the Hypatia Trust, has already donated significant collections to libraries across the world from Exeter to Bonn, with the sole motive to improve the knowledge and visibility of women in social and historical studies. Other landmark achievements are the creation of the West Cornwall Art Archive with Newlyn Art Gallery and the innovative Cornish Artists Index, a freely accessible online database of artists in Cornwall and their works, past and present.

Elizabeth Treffry Collection
Elizabeth Treffry Collection at Trevelyan House

Finding a room of one’s own

And so the Elizabeth Treffry Collection is one of Hypatia’s several efforts to turn the tide of male-dominated narratives of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly by actively gathering knowledge about women’s lives and works in Cornwall and Scilly (not just those of Cornish and Scillonian women but all those who have made their lives and home there) and communicating it to a much wider audience through publication, education and participation. The collection’s strengths are in art and literature of the 19th and 20th centuries but its stretches far beyond Daphne Du Maurier and Dolly Pentreath, embracing the Cornish Land Army, women scientists, religion and more besides. And this was part of the attraction of wanting to get involved, to learn more about the relatively silent women’s stories in these enigmatic regions.

The collection comprises books, journals and archives (and a few artefacts) and mainly resides at Hypatia HQ at Trevelyan House with more stuff kept at the Jamieson Library of Women’s History, based in rural Newmill just outside Penzance. Melissa Hardie and the Hypatia Trust wish to tackle the urgent need to find it a new, permanent home where the collection can be publicly accessed, intoning Virginia Woolf’s essay on ‘A Room of One’s Own‘.

But before this search could begin in earnest, and an associated fundraising campaign could commence, a better idea of what the collection comprised and what its future might look like was required. And so I was invited to help Hypatia establish a professional basis for the curation of the collection by conducting a basic audit to quantify it, describe it and make recommendations for its future care and uses.

You can download and read the report to understand more about the collection and what I think its future could look like but I wanted here to write down some of my thoughts about auditing collections and the value of collections in our cultural lives.

Download Curating Elizabeth Treffry Collection report (PDF, 976KB)

Continue reading “Curating the Elizabeth Treffry Collection on Women in Cornwall and Scilly”

When did William the Conqueror burst? Or Back to School History

My school history kit
My school history kit
This afternoon was spent back at my old Primary School. The chairs and tables have shrunk but everything else is pretty much the same. That more or less is what the study of history is like. We look for things that changed and can’t help but notice what hasn’t. The reason I found myself faced with 60-odd Year 3s (7-8 year olds) was because I happened to get in touch with the teacher in charge of history and geography at the school who thought it might be fun for the children to learn from an ex-pupil while also hearing about what it is like to work in, for want of a better term, the historical industries (or as one pupil said, ‘a historician’). I didn’t have a lesson plan, I didn’t really know how I was going to go about this until I got there and could gauge their interest, which, I will confess, I expected to be middling to polite (or not so polite). The result was quite a contrast. We went on for double the time intended and they still hadn’t run out of questions some of them literally seemed bursting to ask (though not in the William the Conqueror way).

I did what all good historians do and gathered together my sources. In the process of moving, I have had occasion to go through a lot of old stuff. It’s amazing what I have kept, or not thrown out. Perhaps more amazing what my parents have kept, or not (yet) thrown out. If I was going to help inspire these foundlings with history I needed not to give them a career lesson (and I would not exactly be a great exemplar) but just to understand the satisfaction that understanding the past can bring. So where better than to start with self, family and locality.

‘A little bit of TRUE information can be used to make people believe something which is UNTRUE’

My bag of sources contained:

  • A newspaper article from about 1984 headlined ‘And they spoke with many tongues’, probably from the Sunday Express no less, about the school and the 32 languages spoken by its pupils, ‘a modern day tower Tower of Babel’. Our headmistress was an early exponent of the school’s cosmopolitanism but stressed how a few weeks at the school got everyone speaking and reading a good standard of English.
  • My first junior school report (handwritten).
  • A selection of photographs, of family, school outings and assemblies and friends, including one of my father as a little boy who had also attended the school.
  • My grandfather’s standard issue heliograph.
  • My first swimming certificate (which one pupil mistook for an ‘achievement award’).
  • A letter of thanks from the Queen for a poem I wrote for her 60th birthday.
  • The programme from my final year school play, signed by our teachers.
  • Some badges relating to notable local places that exist or no longer exist (e.g. the long lamented London Toy and Model Museum).
  • My first story book from the equivalent of Reception/Year 1 (age 5-6).
  • My handwriting book. I was banking on them still having a handwriting book as an example of things that don’t change.
  • The school’s first ever computer-based project, undertaken by a friend and me in our final year (equivalent of year 6) in 1989. Print-outs of pie-charts and summary reports were mounted on what was once purple sugar paper. It is now faded and torn but one of the most interesting personal and social documents I have. It was based on a survey made of computer use by girls and boys in our year. If ever I can pinpoint my attitude towards history and historians it is the conclusion we wrote, clearly with a little help from our teacher: ‘A little bit of TRUE information can be used to make people believe something which is UNTRUE’.
  • A copy of a book I wrote on medieval food and feasting.
  • A book on the local area.
  • Postcards of Edwardian images of people who worked in the local area.

I think it is fair to say that this would rival any loan box the school could have got hold of and yet all the items are relatively mundane, relatively for someone to procure. Without my museum or archive hat on I could also let them touch the things, although I was careful to guide them to the notion that old things are more fragile and therefore need a little more care. My intention was simple. By relating my own life and that of my family to both the school and locality and then to these documents and objects I wanted to show how studying history was as much finding out who we are and the truth of our past as it was to know what the Romans ate for breakfast.

Both classes I took part in had just done the Romans and had some rudiments of local history. A pupil in the first glass greeted me with an in-character Roman Centurion soliloquy. I was seriously impressed. After a brief introduction as to who I was, my connection with the school, and why I love history started the many and several questions. ‘How old are you?’, ‘do you know what carpe diem means?’ [yes really], ‘how old was Claudius when he invaded Britain?’ [gulp], ‘why did you want to become a historician?’ and ‘when did William the Conqueror burst?’ [excuse me?]. Following these and several more, they were split into groups to come in turn to my history table.

The groups in the first class were most curious about my story book and handwriting book. Others pored over the photographs, particularly impressed with our school outing to Buckingham Palace and the photography of one of my school assemblies. One pupil thought it looked exactly the same, the other thought it was totally different. Go figure how differently we interpret the same sources. The first ever school computer project was however beyond them, perhaps more of interest to the teachers. They were not familiar with pie charts and they couldn’t quite understand why it was such a big deal, ‘I have a computer at home’. Quite so. A photograph of my great-grandmother, grand mothers and mother caught their eye, particularly when I explained that I had been named after my great-grandmother. One girl piped up that she was named after her grandmother and a light switched on. I asked them to read the date on the letter from the Queen and work out how many years ago it was. 1986 to 2011 presented them a problem.

At an age when we all remember the almost interminable summer holidays, working out how many years ago that was was something mind-blowing. One of them eventually got to 25 years but the appreciation of the passing of time was clearly still not there. It was all I could do to get them to figure out that I was four times their age. This made me appreciate most acutely how hard it is to teach chronology and the scale of time to people who have existed for such a short time. I could only convey distance in time by emphasising the number ‘fifty years ago!’ ‘three HUNDRED years ago’ ‘I’m not that old’.

A better appreciation of the passage of time came with discussing what in the local area had changed and what hadn’t. The big shopping centre that was closed for most of my early life, previously a department store (that took some explaining), reopening on my last day at the school (and here is the badge we were given), the toy museum that is now no longer next to the school (alas from all of us), the library which they all still go to, that I also went to, the swimming pool we learnt to swim in, the carnival we went to. For some of them it may take many years for the ideas to be absorbed. This was history but it wasn’t the kind of history they knew or would even recognise.

The second class’s personalities were completely different. They were most interested in my book and generally about food, and of course, the Romans. ‘Did you know that July is named after Julius Caesar?’, ‘Did all Romans wear togas?’, ‘how old are you?’, ‘when was paper invented?’ Showing the group my photographs I asked how long they thought there had been cameras and photographs. Estimates included 5000 years, 2000 years, 10 years and 2 years until a small voice hesitantly hazarded 100 years. Ok, let’s not quibble about 50 years. What got them all singing was the shock that medieval Europeans did not eat crisps, chocolate, tomatoes or sweetcorn. A veritable travesty they thought. An appalling affront to their sensibilities. When asked where they thought the potato came from, keen responses included ‘England’, ‘Asia’, ‘Pakistan’, ‘Australia’ and finally ‘America’. Finally they had a flavour of when the Middle Ages were and largely what it was lacking. They also correctly identified the epoch as being after the Romans.

Class 2’s group work was not dissimilar to the first. They were enthralled by my exercise books and complemented me like the previous class had on my handwriting. Even the teacher said that she couldn’t believe how high the standards were. I didn’t want to enquire further. This group were more interested in the objects, the badges and heliograph. One of their fathers was in the army and they understood the concept of morse even though they hadn’t yet been taught it. One pupil was so enamoured with the badges that she scooped them up and admired them livingly on her jumper before asking where each came from. Another one asked if I drew all the pictures in my book on medieval food. I thought it beyond the pale to explain manuscript illumination in such a short space of time so just relented and said someone else did them.

Most of all both classes were pleased at being able to identify me in the Tower of Babel newspaper article. One of them even said I looked nice in the picture. Historians in the making?

I cannot predict what the learning outcomes for these children will be. There is no instant result in this kind of learning. It is what it is. I remember certain episodes in my primary school education that had a definite effect on me and my choices but I didn’t know it then.

Reconstructing the historic global copper industry from business archives

Upper Thames Street, site of 27
Upper Thames Street, site of 27, at Paul's Walk, previously Paul's Wharf, headquarters of major copper firms in the 19th century (Tehmina Goskar)

On 9 November I will be participating in the Historical Metallurgy Society‘s Research in Progress meeting in Sheffield. The day promises to be extremely varied where experimental archaeologists, historians, scientists and others will be getting together to share various aspects of their work. Subjects will range from the excavation of a medieval smithy in Oxfordshire to the lead and copper ‘isotope signatures’ of North American native copper.

Read the draft programme for information on all the contributors (opens or downloads PDF).

My contribution to the day will focus on recent work I have been conducting on the business archives relating to major copper concerns that operated smelting and refining works in Swansea. These copper archives add essential information and colour to a broad picture historians have been building up of the global copper industry, predominantly in the 18th and 19th centuries, since the 1950s. However many of these histories have been reliant on runs of statistics from mining and geological journals, import and export information from mercantile shipping records and occasionally, official records government records and occasionally, correspondence and letter collections of prominent figures such as Thomas Williams of Anglesey and the Vivians.

Business archives are found in many county and special collections all over the country. Their content often relates to more than one firm and more than just local activity. For example, the Grenfell Collection held by the Richard Burton Archives, Swansea University, comprises records relating to their head quarters at 27 Upper Thames Street, London and many of their dealings abroad, including with Spain, in addition to important detail about their major smelting works at Upper and Middle Bank in Swansea.

My Research in Progress paper aims to give an outline and a few examples of the way in which these archives can be used and linked together to reconstruct the elements of the historic global copper industry that remain obscured in mainstream histories that have not delved into these records in any great detail.

Continue reading “Reconstructing the historic global copper industry from business archives”

Turning History into Heritage: Shaping Perceptions of Copper’s Past

Brass sheet manufactured by Vivian and Sons, Swansea for the Indian market
Brass sheet manufactured by Vivian and Sons, Swansea for the Indian market (credit: Vin Callcut,
The ESRC-funded Global and Local Worlds of Welsh Copper Project achieved its third milestone on 30 June when the gallery exhibition Byd Copr Cymru-A World of Welsh Copper was open for preview at the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea. The exhibition will run until 15 October 2011 and a travelling version will tour Wales and other venues in the UK. I will blog more about my experience curating this exhibition in due course.

Shortly after the exhibition’s opening I gave a paper at the informal workshop, also organised by the project, on 14-15 July. The workshop title took its name from the project with the aim of bringing research into various aspects of the historic industry up to date. There was particular emphasis on examples of the global impact of the Welsh copper industry, particularly that centred in the Lower Swansea Valley. I hope to make abstracts of the papers available in the research section of the (still in development) Welsh Copper website soon.

Analysis of access to copper heritage on Copper Day
Analysis of access to copper heritage on Copper Day
My paper examined the current place that the copper industry occupies in our local and global heritage and then went on to make a preliminary analysis of two of the project’s major outcomes, Copper Day and the exhibition. The aim here was to set a benchmark for understanding how our knowledge-transfer initiatives worked in practice. This will then form the basis to a longer-term project to gauge professional and public perceptions of the historic copper industry with a view to conducting a survey over the next 12 months. I intend to publish this paper in an expanded form and am currently looking for appropriate journals or editorial collaborations.
Continue reading “Turning History into Heritage: Shaping Perceptions of Copper’s Past”

Material worlds of the Mediterranean coming soon

Traditional dress from Bari, Apulia
Traditional dress from Bari, Apulia, 19th century, Museo Civico
I recently received the happy news that my article, ‘Material Worlds: The Shared Cultures of Southern Italy and its Mediterranean Neighbours in the Tenth to Twelfth Centuries’, will be published in the peer-reviewed journal Al-Masaq. Islam and the Medieval Mediterranean, published by Routledge. It will appear in the third issue of volume 23 later this year.

I wrote the article based on a paper I gave at the Society for the Medieval Mediterranean conference in Exeter in July 2009. It compares the dress and textile cultures of southern Italy, Fatimid Egypt (through the Genizah document archives) and the heartlands of Greek Byzantium. Several points of similarity and affinity existed between the vestimentary systems of the ‘consuming classes’ of the Mediterranean in the central Middle Ages but there were also notes of difference that are illustrated in some of the comparisons I make. I argue for a more social anthropological approach to be taken with descriptions of dress and textiles and suggest that the Mediterranean does work as an heuristic device for such an exercise. We lose sight of comparisons when we only work within our disciplinary traditions, in this case, ‘western Latin’, ‘Byzantine’ and ‘Islamic’.
Continue reading “Material worlds of the Mediterranean coming soon”