Old Heritage Archive

Authority, authenticity and interpretation at Tintagel

Panorama from the headland of Tintagel island, with new sculpture in mid-ground.
Panorama from the headland of Tintagel island, with new sculpture in mid-ground.


This week my opinion article “Cornwall, Authenticity and the Dark Ages: Controversy at Tintagel Castle” was published by History & Policy. Following my visit to Tintagel on 30 April, it is an attempt to bring perspective to the key issues that have caused considerable upset and concern amongst Cornish communities, medieval historians and English Heritage.

The hope is that the airing of these issues in a systematic, question-driven way will help everyone learn from the problems with new interpretation at Tintagel Castle. The key issues I raise are summarised below.

They are apposite not just to the situation at Tintagel but more widely concern methods of interpretation of Cornish history, medieval history, and the ways in which sites with multiple protective designations are treated by heritage agencies. I expand on these issues below (with pictures!)

  1. Tintagel Castle and its setting are part of a site with multiple designations: Scheduled Ancient Monument, SSSI, AONB amongst others. English Heritage as property manager has asserted its dominance over the site with its recent and future planned interventions – why?
  2. Tintagel Castle’s early medieval history as the seat of Cornish Dumnonian kings/leaders is over-shadowed by a Victorian populist idea of King Arthur whose links with Tintagel are no more significant than the literary/historical figure’s links with many other sites in Britain and Europe. Why is Tintagel used to propagate this myth?
  3. Tintagel’s early medieval period is branded as the Dark Ages. Dark Ages is an obsolete, value-laden term, not even used by school teachers anymore. For this period in Cornish history some of the richest and most numerous archaeological finds have emerged – so why call it the Dark Ages?
  4. Why were monumental artistic interventions chosen as a method of interpretation? Would English Heritage countenance similar interventions at Stonehenge or at other multipli-designated sites they manage? If not, why at Tintagel?
  5. Why is the indoor exhibition centre so small and the space devoted to the Cornish history of the site under-stated when the shop areas are so large?
  6. Is the occasional use of the Cornish language enough to signal the site’s Cornish distinctiveness?
  7. Inviting audiences to ‘Step into England’s Story’ goes counter to the un-English history of the Cornish and Cornwall. How can English Heritage justify its use at the Cornish heritage sites it manages, and online, especially in the light of Articles 5, 6 and 12 of the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities?
  8. Given the disappointment in the pop Arthuriana presented at Tintagel back in 2010 (see below) who are the audiences for Tintagel Castle? As English Heritage’s fifth most visited heritage site is it being used as a cash cow and therefore privileging the undiscerning tourist over Cornish communities and other communities of interest? How is ‘popularity’ understood and is this a valid measure of success?
  9. What audience development and research consultation were undertaken to inform the new interpretation, including the decision to make several artistic interventions on this multipli-designated site? How are the responses to new interpretation being recorded?
  10. What can be done to improve or mitigate the concerns raised above and those by other professionals and members of the community?


Tintagel is special. The historic complex that comprises Tintagel Castle is part of a rich geological, archaeological and natural landscape that is protected by a number of designations. It is a Scheduled Ancient Monument monitored by Historic England. It is set in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) with Tintagel’s cliffs designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) both monitored by Natural England. Cornwall Council has selected Tintagel as an Area of Great Historic Value in its Local Plan. The island part of the site is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall.

Tintagel Castle itself is one of several historic sites in Cornwall actively managed by English Heritage Trust (now an independent charity licensed to manage the “national heritage collection” on license from Historic England). Many are free to roam/enter while a few are paid entry, such as Tintagel Castle, Chysauster Ancient Village and Pendennis Castle–larger complexes looked after by property managers or seasonal custodians offering visitors a more mediated experience.

As such, there are competing designations at Tintagel and different authorities that have a duty to protect its precious distinctiveness and those same authorities with reciprocal duties towards its communities.

The Home Nations, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, have enjoyed autonomy over their historic environments and how it is interpreted for decades and given the spirit of Cornwall’s (first) Devolution Deal, and the context of Cornish National Minority Status, it seems to be an anomaly that Historic England and English Heritage continue to govern and make decisions on Cornwall’s historic environment (where decisions take place mainly outside Cornwall) without due care to include Cornish communities in decision-making and planning.

While Cornwall Council are currently planning to address the devolution of discussion and decision-making on the historic environment to Cornwall, in the form of a Board and Forum called “Heritage Kernow,” the set-up of this new group is yet to be publicised and its remit and constituents largely unknown.

An ongoing Parliamentary consultation of oral and written evidence called Countries of Culture is questioning how culture and heritage is supported, funded and how services are delivered, with a particular focus on the work of Arts Council England (responsible for central government funding for museums, archives and libraries and arts organisations) which has come under scrutiny for bias towards London, big cities and certain types of culture that may inadvertently be serving a minority elite.

Given the problematic context of other un-devolved English agencies, the challenges facing Cornish heritage and its expression become even more complex.

King Arthur's Great Halls, Tintagel village.
King Arthur’s Great Halls, Tintagel village.


The approach to Tintagel is long and winding. We now arrive at Tintagel the wrong way round as this place was created to face the ocean. As you get to Slaughterbridge on the village outskirts brown signs confidently point you to the Arthurian Centre, an exhibition experience dedicated to Arthur afficioados, and so the seduction begins. From King Arthur’s Great Halls to Spriggans Cove, a mini Glastonbury awaits you.


“Whilst the Arthurian legends are accessible and well-known, the public does not ‘know’ a Tintagel beyond imagination, myth-making and marketing.”

Tintagel village renamed itself/was renamed (apparently for postal reasons) from its Cornish name Trevena and has been identifying with its cultish fame ever since the Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King and the Great Western Railway started to provide easy access for pleasure tourists to Cornwall.

Hilary Orange and Patrick Laviolette conducted an ethnographic study of tourists to Tintagel in 2010, commenting on the interpretation of the time, “Whilst the Arthurian legends are accessible and well-known, the public does not ‘know’ a Tintagel beyond imagination, myth-making and marketing.”

What, if anything, has changed in the most recent reinterpretation at Tintagel? If visitors were “left disappointed by the lack of authoritative on-site narrative” what is offered today?

Where history sits uncomfortably with legend, new interpretation at Tintagel Castle.
Where history sits uncomfortably with legend, new interpretation at Tintagel Castle.


This interpretation review is measured against the following factors:

  1. My expectations and prejudices
  2. The call to action: From what starting point or philosophy does the interpreter begin?
  3. What expectations are raised before the visit?
  4. What are the key messages?
  5. How much interpretive space is devoted to them?
  6. Who are the audiences?

1. Caveat emptor – Buyer beware

This is not a neutral descriptive review of what you can expect to find at Tintagel Castle but an an analysis of how new interpretation may impact on impressions of Cornish history and heritage.

My concerns as an heritage interpreter and medieval historian were raised before my recent visit following press coverage of new on-site sculptural interpretation, discussions with Cornish campaigners and groups and correspondence with English Heritage regarding their approaches to interpretation at Tintagel Castle.

It was important that I visited to see for myself to what extent the new interpretation enhanced or adversely affected the integrity of the site. I undertook this site visit at my own cost and in my own time.

2. Call to action – England’s story

English Heritage has reinvented its reason for being and marketing is playing a big role in bringing cohesion to its portfolio of 400+ historic sites in the national heritage collection (in England including Cornwall). That cohesion is represented by their strategic priority and call to action to, “Step into England’s Story.

English Heritage is open about its vision and values:

Our work is informed by enduring values of authenticity, quality, imagination, responsibility and fun. Our vision is that people will experience the story of England where it really happened.

I am particularly struck by their commitment to authenticity:

We seek to be true to the story of the places and artefacts that we look after and present.  We don’t exaggerate or make things up for entertainment’s sake. Instead, through careful research, we separate fact from fiction and bring fascinating truth to light.

You have to dig deeply to find out about English Heritage’s attitudes towards community participation. The audience emphasis is on “the service we provide to our visitors.”

Anna Eavis, Curatorial Director says, “Whether on a famous battlefield, in the heart of a medieval castle, among the ruins of a once-great abbey or in the kitchen of a country house, the voices of our ancestors will sing out.” Whose ancestors is not clear, and as we shall see, the feeling of disconnection from local communities is felt keenly at Tintagel Castle.

The Story of England as a strategic interpretive aim of English Heritage is repeated in its manifesto called Our Priorities which includes: “We will create engaging and memorable experiences based on the story of England.” On involving others they say, “We will include the wider community in our work.”

Given the demonstrable upset caused by new interpretation at Tintagel amongst Cornish communities, and wider groups of interest, it is not clear what the extent of community consultation or feedback was, beyond the design consultation for the proposed new footbridge where candidate entries were displayed in the village.

However, the jury that chose the final design did not include any representatives from Cornish groups except for author Philip Marsden who is a trustee of the Royal Institution of Cornwall.

The problem with such admirable ideals is that they can often mask actions which do not match but it remains relatively difficult to call them to account.

Having demonstrated above the growing official recognition of distinctiveness in Cornish identity, culture and heritage, Cornwall’s story does not easily fit into England’s story so what impact is this having on the Cornish historic sites, and their audiences? Is an Anglo-centric approach appropriate?

3. I blow my nose at you, so-called ‘Arthur King’, you and all your silly English K-nig-hts*

I picked up the latest free tourist brochure about Tintagel on the way–the type of literature a large number of the 200,000+ visitors a year are likely to also pick up–to find out some tit-bits of information, trivia, taxi numbers, restaurants and a place for local businesses to advertise.

On page 7 there is a half page advertisement from English Heritage headlined “The Legend Lives On. Explore the myth and mystery of King Arthur in breathtaking surroundings.” The graphic shows a gigantic fantasy sword plunged into an image of Tintagel island. Heritage marketing has improved so much in its authenticity in the last few years. This is seriously disappointing from a national heritage agency which ought to know better.

“Get swept up in the history of Tintagel with new eye-catching outdoor interpretation across the site, including the Sword in the Stone and the centrepiece bronze statue of King Arthur; both perfect photo opportunities. Can you also spot Merlin’s face carved into the rocks near his cave on the beach?”

English Heritage advertisement in local tourist guide of TIntagel 2016

English Heritage’s leaflet on its principal Cornish sites, entitled, “Castles of Cornwall” with Cornish language sub-title “Kastylli Kernow” and footer slogan “Step into England’s Story” highlights “New for 2016” features at Tintagel: “Get swept up in the history of Tintagel with new eye-catching outdoor interpretation across the site, including the Sword in the Stone and the centrepiece bronze statue of King Arthur; both perfect photo opportunities. Can you also spot Merlin’s face carved into the rocks near his cave on the beach?”

English Heritage leaflet of Cornish properties, 2016

It is extremely hard to refute English Heritage’s clear bias towards pulling visitors to Tintagel Castle because of its tenuous Arthurian connections or question the agency’s desire to capitalise on the populism of Arthurian fantasy. By this point I was rerunning Monty Python’s Holy Grail in my head.*Gratitude to the Pythons for inspiring this bit of my review.

This is in spite of the rest of the village and other places mentioned already catering well for consumers of New Age Arthuriana. The only mention of anything else is “Dark Age settlements” and “Find out what inspired Richard, Earl of Cornwall, to build his castle here.”

The Cornishness of the experience is entirely absent in pre-visit marketing if you exclude the use of Cornish language sub-titles.

4. Imagined Arthur and Cornish history

Tintagel Castle, and indeed the broader cultural landscape that stretches beyond it, is widely acknowledged as a 5th-7th century (likely earlier and a bit later) seat of post-Roman kings who ruled over the ancient kingdom of Dumnonia taking up most of the large South Western peninsular of Britain, including today’s Cornwall, large parts of Devon and parts of Somerset. Tintagel represents considerable continuity in power structures, contacts and legitimacy in early medieval Britain.

After the consolidation of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 10th century, the rump of this kingdom retained its territorial integrity up to today with its border with England consolidated along the River Tamar but the territory was not absorbed and pretty much left as a kind of protectorate and retained its specific constitutional status when the territory was retained as an earldom and then a Duchy in the 14th century.

The archaeological evidence, much of which still remains unexcavated, overwhelmingly supports the paradigm that Tintagel was a seat of power based on international maritime commerce that connected western Britain with the Mediterranean world in a big way.

This is a hugely significant story for Cornish communities and for scholars of early medieval culture but also for anyone wanting a better understanding of how different the topographies of Britain, Europe and the Mediterranean were in this period.

It is also extremely exciting history for any heritage interpreter to get their teeth into and for local and visiting audiences to learn about. It is unique to Tintagel and cannot be adequately told elsewhere. The popular stories of King Arthur can be told elsewhere.

The nature of publication in archaeology is hard-to-access and expensive so the social imperative of heritage interpreters must be to do as much as possible to convey the extent and distinctiveness of a site and its material culture to wide and diverse audiences and bring that scholarship to bear.

The tiny number of finds displayed in the exhibition centre do not do justice to the vast site archive that has been uncovered over the decades that Tintagel has been investigated. (Not sure where the remaining “several thousand pieces of pottery” and other site finds are.)

Display on Tintagel in the Cornish Dumnonian period (5th-7th centuries).
Display on Tintagel in the Cornish Dumnonian period (5th-7th centuries).

In my opinion, this part of Tintagel Castle’s story should lead the key messages. At present it plays only a supporting role in the interpretation presented in the small exhibition centre and is further denigrated by being branded under the banner of the Dark Ages.

Further, there are back references to Arthur in the interpretation, particularly in the interpretation of the so-called “Artognou Stone” presenting this period as part of an inevitable teleology leading to the more comfortable realms of Arthurian fantasy that continues in the section of Richard, Earl of Cornwall’s 13th century castle and Victorian re-imaginings in the 19th century.

The 3D model with unusual projections showing the contrast between early medieval and 13th-century Tintagel (era of Richard, Earl of Cornwall’s castle) did attract the eye but it was hard to understand the passage of time being presented unless you also had half an eye on the flashing images surrounding the model. I did feel however that here was some effort to convey messages that were firmly rooted in the archaeology of the site and not in an imagined version of it, like we find outside.

Merlin carving created in 2016 as part of new interpretation at Tintagel

Outside the small exhibition centre and on-site the privileging of a neo-Gothic version of King Arthur is undeniable.

English Heritage spokespeople were quick to point out that the carving of Merlin’s face into the SSSI-designated cliffs of Tintagel was really very small and admittedly it is very hard to find.

But then what is the point of it? If it is an activity to engage visitors especially families with young kids to search for Merlin’s face, what is the lasting imprint on that visit meant to be? And why does Merlin look like that? Surely the most popular depiction of Merlin in the modern day was that represented in the eponymous BBC fantasy drama.

Since my visit a bit of the nose of Merlin either fell off or was deliberately chipped off. Sadly the immediate reaction was that it was the responsibility of someone who didn’t like EH’s new interventions. However it may equally have been caused by someone wanting a souvenir, from natural causes, or by someone wanting to cause mischief with no sense of the controversy surrounding its creation. Whichever reason, it would seem disingenuous for this to be considered an ‘act of vandalism’ when the original carving may also be considered destructive because of the protected designation of the cliffs.

Already, the controversy surrounding this item of interpretation has started to remove people from its intentions and from representing Tintagel authentically. With Merlin’s Cave (a name for the beach only dating from the 19th century Victorian imagination) just below, was it really necessary to damage the cliff face to create a corporately-approved anthropomorphic image of Merlin? Was there another way to pique people’s own imaginations?

Bronze statue of King Arthur or other figure.
Bronze statue of King Arthur or other figure.

any king or leader using Tintagel as a seat of power would certainly not have his back to the sea

The statue of King Arthur or the figure it’s meant to represent in audience imaginations is an attempt to create a photo opportunity for visitors.  The figure is 8 feet high and looms awkwardly on the headland. Sculptural interventions at ancient and historic sites will divide opinions in taste and how in-keeping or proportional it is with surroundings. In this already spectacular environment with imagination-provoking remains what is the interpretive purpose of this statue?

King Arthur’s association with Tintagel in legend principally concerns his conception and the machinations of Uther Pendragon as presented in the stories of 12th-century Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. He bears a close resemblance to Gandalf in the recent film adaptations of Lord of the Rings. King Arthur as an old wisdom-figure does not have associations with Tintagel in medieval tales.

The legend of Tristan and Iseult (Eselt in its Cornish form) with its associations with Tintagel could have provided an opportunity to gender-balance interpretation, at least of legend, at Tintagel which, as it stands, is distinctly male.

In an interview with the Financial Times Jeremy Ashbee of English Heritage asserts the importance of balancing historical and legendary aspects of an historic site such as Tintagel. This is true and a challenge for any heritage interpreter. However, the authenticity of the figure is questionable, even when privileging the Arthurian legend of Tintagel over the site’s other histories.

Why does Tintagel need such visual focuses when, for example, Stonehenge does not? Who is making these value judgements?

If, as has also been suggested, that the statue could even represent the presence of Cornish kings from the post-Roman Dumnonian period when England did not yet exist and borders and frontiers were fluid and fought over, why is he represented like this?

Any king or leader using Tintagel as a seat of power would certainly not have his back to the sea–the source of contact, connections and wealth that is represented spectacularly by the archaeological finds from the site.

Overall this statue can only serve to reinforce populist acceptance of a Victorian version of King Arthur. It lacks the interpretive power to make any of the subtle points that perhaps the interpreters may have hoped it could make.

It is rooted in a fundamental lack of understanding or interest in the audiences and communities English Heritage has a responsibility to serve through its custodianship of monuments in our national heritage. Still less does it serve the Cornish stories of Arthur or the Cornish history of the site.

Part of curtain walls of Richard, Earl of Cornwall's castle at Tintagel.
Part of curtain walls of Richard, Earl of Cornwall’s castle at Tintagel.

Amongst the Arthurian interventions the most prominent remains at Tintagel Castle are those of the 13th-centry symbolic castle built on the orders of Richard, Earl of Cornwall. Herein lies an exceptionally important milestone in the history of Cornwall. A most significant omission in interpretation is the castle’s potentially continued symbolic importance as a place of ancient legitimacy and power not just for Cornwall but for Britain and Europe.

The caption for a small illumination from a medieval manuscript showing the Black Prince being made Duke of Cornwall (an elevation from Earl) by his father Edward III in 1337 does not make the connection between this key date and the creation of the Duchy of Cornwall in the same year. By this date the Ricardian castle was already in a ruinous state but was clearly still important enough as a place of power to have a third phase of building in the 1340s.

Cornwall’s constitutional status was cemented as being different from the rest of England with the creation of the Duchy of Cornwall to directly benefit the first born male heir to the throne. The Duchy of Cornwall, and not the Crown, still owns the land at Tintagel Castle. The current Duke of Cornwall is Prince Charles and he remains a major landowner in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, originating from this period.

We are told in the exhibition centre that Richard chose the site at Tintagel for his symbolic castle because of its associations with King Arthur and to place himself in the “long tradition of Cornish kings, demonstrating his power over the Cornish people.” While the subject of the Cornish kings remains contentious because of partial and fleeting documentation, the lack of explanation as to why Richard would want to demonstrate his dominance over Cornwall, and how this led to the institution of the Duchy of Cornwall as a territory distinct from England in 1337 is a missed opportunity to emphasise the site’s importance in Cornish history.

Illustration on outdoor interpretive slab showing Edward, the Black Prince being made Duke of Cornwall.
Illustration on outdoor interpretive slab showing Edward, the Black Prince being made Duke of Cornwall.

In another post I outline problems with the interpretation of the early medieval period at Tintagel Castle, particularly its categorisation as the Dark Ages. They do no need re-stating  except to reiterate that heritage interpreters must be careful of using value judgements in their presentation of historical subjects.

By and large the textual interpretation at Tintagel is even and un-provocative; this is in sharp contrast to the sculptural interventions outside which are provocative. The use of the headline term Dark Ages is provocative and generally degrades a modern understanding of this well-studied site for which there exists much historical and archaeological commentary. From a Cornish perspective, some historians have argued that it was more of a Golden Age for Cornwall than a dark one.

Choices in interpretive delivery are crucial here and wide research and audience understanding are needed to make those choices as well as possible within the resources available. For example, not even in the school curriculum is the term Dark Ages used to teach children about the early medieval period stretching from the end of Roman rule to the 11th century. Perhaps local schools are not a key target audience for EH at Tintagel?

The accompanying guidebook is really a post-visit souvenir. I would not recommend using it (as it recommends you do) while you clamber around the rocks and steep stair cases at Tintagel or you will fall over and do yourself an injury.

The key messages in the guidebook and the website are broadly reflective of what you find on site with Arthurian connections dominating the narratives that are presented, the presence of some Cornish history but not much, and the emphasis of Cornwall’s distinctive chronology, as compared with “England” assumed but not stated.

5. Interpretive value

Currently, the entire back wall of the exhibition centre currently serves to display different words in English and Kernewek–lending an air of Cornish authenticity that is not rooted in the history of the place and has low interpretive value except to suggest some distinctiveness to the place in which the visitors find themselves. What was the logic behind this? There is no call to action.

A version of the Cornish language in use today was certainly spoken throughout the medieval period here. The common language of the aristocracy in the 13th and 14th century of Richard Earl of Cornwall’s period and after was medieval French. Cornish is a protected minority language today and while it is good to see it in use at heritage sites it would have been more powerful to make this connection overt.

Wasted space? A large part of the Tintagel exhibition centre shows low interpretive value.
Wasted space? A large part of the Tintagel exhibition centre shows low interpretive value.

The displays in the exhibition centre are roughly equally balanced to reflect different phases of Tintagel Castle’s history. While a tiny display serves the early medieval period of the site from where there certainly hails the largest amount of evidence in terms of artefacts, when compared with the exhibits used to illustrate the 19th century, there could have been the opportunity here to create the centre around these more prominently, and more widely, and an opportunity to diversify the range of interpretation currently on offer–particularly when it comes to the role of women in the early medieval period of the site.

I am sure there were lots of logistical problems for English Heritage undertaking this, not least negotiating loans and organising their mounting and care, but I can’t help but feel that this was a lost opportunity to use this space more specifically to emphasise the huge number and range of evidence found in archaeological investigations at the site, even if they were exhibited in surrogate form. Perhaps this could be part of a future refurbishment of the centre together with some opportunities for audience interaction?

Outside the interpretive value of the artistic interventions have been stated above. There is not a huge amount more to say on this except that the choices that were made have monumentally privileged an inauthentic narrative over the chance of a more authentic one.

Generic English Heritage branded medieval souvenirs in one of the Tintagel Castle shops.
Generic English Heritage branded medieval souvenirs in one of the Tintagel Castle shops.

Perhaps the greatest concern I have about interpretive value at the site is the space devoted to merchandising and shopping opportunities, raising the stakes on the claim that Tintagel is being used as a cash-cow to finance other aspects of English Heritage’s work. The English Heritage branded goods and medieval souvenirs are generic and I could find none relating specifically to Tintagel.

This shop could be anywhere and serves to reduce the site’s distinctiveness in place. There is a lack of access to reference works to buy in the shop where a visitor could, if they wished, read more about Tintagel and its related history and archaeology.

I am a big museum shop aficionado. Museum shops are great opportunities to continue interpretation and permit visitors to take some of the authenticity of the place they have visited home. I would be interested to see what future lines emerge and whether they will default to the kind of Arthuriana you can already find in the rest of the village.

6. Audiences and communities

Many of the problems I have highlighted above contravene the rights of the Cornish National Minority to have a say in how their heritage is presented and used.

Everything I have described above has at its root the diverse audiences and communities that historical sites, museums and others with authority are entrusted by society to serve.

The interpretation at Tintagel Castle does not feel like it is rooted in the community nor a result of good audience development work. Orange and Laviolette highlighted the problem of disappointment in their ethnography of Tintagel in 2010 (see above) and yet in 2016 after a new interpretive effort we are left with a similar feeling of disillusionment about not really being able to “know” a Tintagel beyond the imagination, myth-making and marketing.

Where exactly is Tintagel’s place in the histories of Cornwall, Britain and Europe and how can the communities that are connected to those histories better relate to the site in their lives and world views?

Tour group at Tintagel.
Tour group at Tintagel.

While visiting there were not many other visitors except for a large group of mixed-nationality students. They were being guided by a tour-guide who was presenting some questionable history to the audience. I would have loved to have surveyed the group afterwards to see what impression of Tintagel and Cornwall they left with.

Authority is certainly asserted by the tone and finish of the interpretive work at Tintagel Castle which leaves very little room for what different audiences, especially local ones, can bring. How is the new interpretation at Tintagel relevant to Cornish communities? Why is the tourist leisure family audience privileged, and if the new interventions were for their sake to drive more of them through the turnstiles, what impressions of Cornish heritage will be left with them?

What of the programming at Tintagel? Activity at historic sites, while potentially more expensive, can be a far better tool for interpretation than words on boards.

In 2014 the unique identity of the Cornish was officially recognised by the UK Government  under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (Council of Europe, not EU) affording them the same right to officially self-identity as as the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish, amongst others.

A significant part of the protection of the Cornish National Minority concerns the State’s (UK Government) undertaking to “undertake to promote the conditions necessary for persons belonging to national minorities to maintain and develop their culture, and to preserve the essential elements of their identity, namely their religion, language, traditions and cultural heritage.” (Article 5).

Articles 6 and 12 contain further obligations that are relevant to all public bodies who have responsibility for cultural heritage in Cornwall.

Many of the problems I have highlighted above contravene the rights of the Cornish National Minority to have a say in how their heritage is presented and used. As English Heritage is de facto an arm of the state via license from Historic England, these responsibilities are particularly incumbent upon them.

But this is not about recriminations and blame, it’s about needing to open up lines of communication that are honest and transparent between all communities of interest so that the best result (there is no perfect) can be achieved. Having a say is important even if the point being made may be misguided. Agencies like English Heritage have a responsibility to listen and take action accordingly.

The growing need to mainstream diversity in our culture is apposite to this argument. A lack of consciousness of, or ignoring, the diversity in our communities will lead to poorer interpretation and a lack of engagement with heritage. We all want that not to be the case.

In conclusion, I should like to reiterate that a site as special as Tintagel, meaningful to Cornish people, meaningful to the millions that visit Cornwall every year, meaningful to those that have the privilege of being custodians, and meaningful to those with a love for good history, ought to have been treated with more loving care and respect in its interpretation that is currently evidenced.

I have presented Tintagel Castle as a case-study of Cornish heritage in conflict. There are others and it is about time we debated openly about why this kind of thing happens and how we can improve the situation. Can we expect better at other Cornish heritage sites, those run by English Heritage and those that are in the care of others?

Old Heritage Archive

The Aftermath of Suffrage – New for Reviews in History

My review of an important volume of essays on the impact of the Suffrage Movement on British politics after 1918 has just come out in the Institute of Historical Research’s Reviews in History.

I was delighted that one of the editors Julie Gottlieb had the opportunity to respond.

Should we be returning to women’s history and is there scope for getting women’s history “out of the ghetto” and into the mainstream?

Read the review and the response.

The Aftermath of Suffrage: Women, Gender, and Politics in Britain, 1918-1945
edited by: Julie Gottlieb, Richard Toye
Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, ISBN: 9781137015341; 268pp.; Price: £19.99.

Aftermath of Suffrage cover (Palgrave Macmillan)



Old Curatorial Archive

A Companion to Mediterranean History out now

(credit: Wiley Blackwell)
(credit: Wiley Blackwell)

A Companion to Mediterranean History, part of Wiley Blackwell’s acclaimed Companions to History series has just been published.

The book project, led by editors Peregrine Horden and Sharon Kinoshita, is a culmination of at least three years’ work and a coming together of 29 contributors from across the world.

Each contributor is a specialist in their field, but we are united by an interest, for some a vocation, in testing the Mediterranean paradigm as a way of interrogating the history of the region (including the sea itself) in a meaningful and coherent way.

From climate to nautical technology, and cave dwelling to language, this volume is trailblaizes themes in history unfettered by the conventional parameters of the accepted canons of period, place and politics, or indeed disciplinary expectations.

It is a great credit to the editors that they have succeeded in bringing together such diverse scholars of varying experience, approaches and opinions and produced a coherent and thought-provoking book that will surely be argued over (we hope) by scholars and students alike.

My contribution was the chapter on material culture from prehistory to now, on which I will be writing a separate blog post.

About the book

Mediterranean history has never been more widely debated or practised, yet there remains no consensus about precisely how this history should be written, the definition of its parameters, or the breadth of topics it should include. In summarising the latest scholarship and reappraising key concepts, contributors to this volume enable fruitful interdisciplinary dialogue on subjects ranging from climate and cartography to material culture and heritage politics. A Companion to Mediterranean History represents an invaluable guide to the current state of Mediterranean scholarship that will also help to redefine the field for a new generation.

Buy now from Amazon.


  • Hardcover: 498 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (12 Mar 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0470659017
  • ISBN-13: 978-0470659014
  • Product Dimensions: 24.6 x 17.6 x 2.8 cm
  • RRP £120 Hardcover, £99.99 Ebook.
Old Heritage Archive

In defence of history by women

The visibility of the resurgence of women’s voices has launched into the stratosphere these last two weeks, from the triumph of the campaign to get a woman back on a UK banknote, to the rather seedy and distasteful rape and bombing threats aimed at women by anonymous so-called trolls.

But what is worse than all that is the society-sanctioned, media-fuelled defence of such revolting behaviour because ‘you can just ignore it’. I am assuming the same people who ignore such things probably in a past life also ignored the inhumanity of slavery – if you don’t want a slave just don’t have one! For there is no virtual world and real world. Twitter, Facebook and anything else online is the real world.

She’s rubbish because I don’t like her

So amongst the flurry of comment and opinion about all this I read the latest post on Prof. Mary Beard’s blog A Don’s Life reflecting on her latest TV programme about Caligula, the First Century Roman emperor. I must admit that I have not seen any of Mary Beard’s programmes but I have heard a lot of good things about them, and about her, and I have read some of her published work. I don’t have a TV but I do sneak the occasional fix well after the event on iPlayer etc. so maybe I will watch them some time.

In her post Mary was rather putting her own experience of being a woman on TV, and that too a woman presenting much of her own research, in a serious history programme, in the context of the overt and aggressive sexism experienced by so many women in their everyday lives both online and offline.

Distaste for her TV history manifested in a dislike of her and how she looks. But what really got her goat was the flippant accusation by someone who called her history like that of Wikipedia.


Now, there are two problems here. The first is that Wikipedia is not a source of original information, that is, first time published thought, argument or opinion. It is, if you remember them, meant to be like a set of encyclopaedias (-paediae??), and is entirely reliant on the sources the writer references as to how decent an encyclopaedic entry it is. So some are good and some are bad.

Mary Beard’s chagrin came from the fact that, albeit she is a Cambridge Don with over 40 years of experience in Caligulan history, she is still not taken seriously by those moved to damn her and her work by calling her ‘Wiki-lite’. The second is that if you find yourself not understanding what a historian means then they are not explaining it properly. This is not uncommon and many historians make a career out of being obtuse to dazzle their audience and get promoted in the process. On the opposite end of the spectrum if you find a ‘historian’ enthusiastically saying a lot but not saying very much then they probably don’t know their stuff.

So this post was shared on the Women For Cornwall group on Facebook and there has been a bit of debate about it and the problem women have in being, for want of a better term, taken seriously simply because they are female.

Part of the debate was also about how history is taught in schools. I’m going to blog again about this and the Govian view of school history so won’t dwell on it here. Someone brought up the old S-Level – remember them? I came at the tail end when they had just scrapped the examination but we went through the motions of it anyway. The idea was that those most able to grasp key concepts could spread their wings by inserting some original thought into debates and learn to construct their own arguments rather than clutching a knotted string of others’ opinions. Until this time, apparently, A-Level students were just taught ‘facts’ [those who have taught history undergrads in recent years may feel this comment still stands].

Why don’t you prove it?

I reflected on my own experience. Until GCSE I really did not get school history very much. I enjoyed it but it was not on top of my list. I was after all going to be a scientist of some sort. But I had a cracking GCSE and A-level teacher who did teach us to critique, challenge established facts, learn to understand historical opinion and find bias according to authorial origins. Even my fourth-year primary school (inner London comp) teacher (today’s Year 6) stopped a lesson one day and said, “why don’t you ask me to prove it?” I think we were talking about the troubles in Northern Ireland, no less. God bless you, Mr Hadfield.

That was a turning point in my understanding of the world. The interesting predicament Mary Beard finds herself in is that people’s dislike originates in the fact that she is damn good at both argument and backing it up with evidence – such as being a good historian entails unlike the Starkeys of this world. But saying they don’t agree would be putting the critics on the same level as her, whereas dismissing her as opposed to her arguments is much easier, it’s lazier but hey, it’s online and you can say anything and a few people will Like you for it.

So you think you’re a historian?

And I would like to have a continued go at people who think they are historians because they watch it on TV or cherry-pick information on the web or indeed osmotically absorb other people’s ideas and frankenregurgitate them as their own.

On two recent occasions I have had my own thoughts and ideas quoted back at me, and even ascribed to another speaker, following my giving a paper!

Good historians do argument and evidence very well. They compare. Then then explain by creating a narrative which can be followed. I have said in other fora that one of the main problems with the way that Cornish history is done is that it lacks comparison and lacks an audience in journals and books outside Cornwall, but that’s for yet another post. It is also unsurprising that the arch-narratives of Cornish history, the good and the bad (and there is an awful lot of bad), are all written by men. This has to change.

Would you have a hernia operation by someone who dabbled in a bit of Holby City and YouTube or someone who had studied abdominal surgery for many years? Sorry, in defence of my profession a bit. Especially those women who are in it.


Cornish heritage is a man’s game

Geevor, near Pendeen, one of Cornwall's last mineral mines, now a heritage site and museum.
Geevor, near Pendeen, one of Cornwall’s last mineral mines, now a heritage site and museum.

Cornwall Councillor Bert Biscoe today published a really thought-provoking article on the recommencement of mining in Cornwall:

To manicure or mine, Cornwall’s modern dilemma.

Amongst other points he raises the issues of the tensions between preservation, environmental sustainability and economic gain; he also makes the point many of us have been thinking about not really articulating, that will this perceived economic boon really benefit the Cornish economy in terms of jobs, incomes and keeping a fair share of the profits? Considering the international consortium that is spear-heading the prospecting who is asking the right questions and seeking these assurances of local communities and Cornwall as a whole?

Surely our politicians can’t be so naïve to assume that any mining back in Cornwall is somehow a manna from heaven?

But that is not the point of this post. I have no quarrel with these excellent points.

Cllr Biscoe’s article begins with this sentence:

“Good news that Cornish tin has quickly become economic to mine. It is no shock to those who, like many Cornishmen all over the World, closely study the metals markets and geology. It offers an opportunity to rekindle skills and wealth generation and also to place Cornwall once again in the forefront of economic life – innovating, supplying, managing risk and prospecting.”

That such a statement could come so naturally, and be made without need for qualification in this day and age seems to me astonishing.

The Hypatia Trust recently commenced a project called History 51: Unveiling Women in Cornwall and Scilly. History 51 aims to rebalance Cornish narratives about the past by flooding public consciousness with information on the lives and achievements of women both in traditionally male industries and walks of life, as well as those dominated by women. The project is based on the Elizabeth Treffry Collection whose books, archives and reference material bring together just some of the work of and about women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

Yesterday I attended an excellent field trip organised by the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall to Wheal Jane, Baldhu, near Truro. I later posted to the Elizabeth Treffry Collection’s Facebook group  how heartening it was so see so many women working at Wheal Jane in internationally-important laboratories processing and analysing minerals and ore, and much more besides.

Cllr Biscoe’s starting sentence of course did not intend to be sexist but in the context of the above, what does it say about Cornish identity and heritage more generally? That such a statement could come so naturally, and be made without need for qualification in this day and age seems to me astonishing.

To me this highlights the great gulf between our public narrative, dominated by (small c) conservative politicians and the fear-mongering media, and reality. The irony here is that much of the management of Cornish heritage is under the care of women.

We clearly have a lot of work to do. The parlance of Cornish history, identity and heritage is entirely dominated by stories of men and a masculine take on the past.

You seldom read the words of women who have something to say about Cornwall and Cornishness.

You will note that women make up more than half of our population, always have done and always will–we are the 51%.

One commentator on Facebook said:

“A lecturer on Cornish mining told me (this century) that women didn’t use to work underground in Cornish mines because a Cornishman was too much of a genetleman [sic].”

Cornwall used to a hotbed for radicalism and thinking differently. Think about what Methodism and Non-Conformism used to be about?

This conscious and unconscious privileging of some occupations over others has just reinforced the partial narratives of our past. Why do we romanticise and get nostalgic about those at the rock face but not about our midwives? Why do we privilege ‘bread winning’ occupations over ‘bread making’ occupations?

Women are just as much to blame for maintaining the silence of their female ancestors because they loyally adhere to what they have been made to believe are the most ‘important’ aspects of their heritage.

The emphasis on Cousin Jacks in the parlance of the World Heritage Site is regrettable. This stems both from folklore and school education. It then enters our history books, then onto our heritage interpretation and then into the vocabulary of the marketeers and PR officers.

Cornwall used to a hotbed for radicalism and thinking differently. Think about what Methodism and Non-Conformism used to be about? I find it very frustrating that this has been displaced by a general feeling of apathy, lack of aspiration and fear. Its impact on girls and women, boys and men, is plain to see in almost every Cornish town.

If only both boys and girls in Cornwall were given the opportunity to learn more about the diversity in their heritage, things may start to change. But while we privilege the vocabulary and narratives of men  we are a long way off.

Old Heritage Archive

History 51 and All Our Stories

History 51 logoIn November 2012 the Hypatia Trust was awarded £10,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s All Our Stories programme for a project entitled History 51: Unveiling Women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

History 51 has been designed as a community-led project  based on the Hypatia Trust’s Elizabeth Treffry Collection to trace the journeys, make things inspired by, and document and publish the life stories of historical Cornish and Scillonian women.

Why we applied

At the instigation of Hypatia Trust Founder-Chairman Melissa Hardie, I was commissioned to design the project and write the application. This was my first attempt at writing a funding application for someone or an organisation other than myself and so I was personally delighted that it was successful. However, on a more altruistic level, I was pleased that the subject of women’s history was deemed worthy enough to fund.

Is it really a niche or minority subject to study and promote the history of 51% of our population?

Part of the Judith Cook archive, Elizabeth Treffry Collection.
Part of the Judith Cook archive, Elizabeth Treffry Collection.

The small team that runs the Hypatia Trust has long lamented the seeming dearth of women’s history in history curricula across school, further and higher education. Many women’s history courses have been displaced by more theoretical programmes on gender history, which is not at all the same thing. Is it really a niche or minority subject to study and promote the history of 51% of our population?

With the recent appalling treatment of the Women’s Library in London we felt there was no better time to do our bit to raise public awareness about the importance of women’s history for everyone, women and men, old and young.

When I became Honorary Curator for the Hypatia Trust my immediate priority was to find a way to dramatically raise the profiles of the historical women that the Elizabeth Treffry Collection represents. This, in my view, was more important than immediately focusing inward on cataloguing the collection itself. Melissa Hardie and previous Hypatia volunteers had already undertaken significant work through the Trust’s publishing and indexing activities. What was needed now was a project that had the potential make a much wider impact.

History 51 and me

Cornwall is a deeply patriarchal part of the UK. This is reflected in our politics, media, industries and job market.

History 51 is also personal voyage of discovery. I have not undertaken women’s history, to speak of, for many years. However my curiosity and sense of duty have been peaked. Cornwall is a deeply patriarchal part of the UK. This is reflected in our politics, media, industries and job market.

That’s not to say women aren’t doing anything. They are, but their work is not recorded or noted in the same way as that of men. I want this HLF project to be the beginning of a radical new movement to raise the profile of women and women’s heritage.  Women are in the majority and yet the structures of traditional historical study do not allow for the subject to be considered as anything other than a marginal element of social history. This is wrong.

Designing History 51

We had two unique selling points. Firstly that our project would represent the biggest under-represented group in the UK, i.e. women, and secondly that it would advance the history of a currently marginalised aspect of British history, that of Cornwall and Scilly.

HLF’s All Our Stories programme (now closed) was a fantastic opportunity for many local groups, networks and societies to contribute to ‘grassroots’ or people’s history. It was pitched as part of Michael Wood and the BBC’s Great British Story which aired in 2012. In HLF’s words:

“From researching local historic landmarks, learning more about customs and traditions to delving into archives and finding out the origins of street and place names All Our Stories will give everyone the chance to explore their heritage and share what they learn with others.”

Early and formative discussions suggested very strongly that the project’s activities should allow participants to both contribute and discover. The classic platitudes of a funding application, you might say.

We had two unique selling points. Firstly that our project would represent the biggest under-represented group in the UK, i.e. women, and secondly that it would advance the history of a currently marginalised aspect of British history, that of Cornwall and Scilly. In addition, HLF South West identifies South East Cornwall as being one of its five priority areas.

Early and formative discussions suggested very strongly that the project’s activities should allow participants to both contribute and discover. The classic platitudes of a funding application, you might say. However for me this meant that the open sharing of information about women represented in the Elizabeth Treffry Collection, and elsewhere, was paramount. It also meant that we would emphasise the team, the network and the community that would produce the information as much as History 51 and Hypatia Trust themselves.

What we are promising

We want to make sure that HLF gets its money’s worth and that we aim for both high impact and sustainable deliverables that will also contribute to the long-term objectives of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection.

£10,000 is not a lot of money. However it is more than we started with. We want to make sure that HLF gets its money’s worth and that we aim for both high impact and sustainable deliverables that will also contribute to the long-term objectives of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection. This is what we are going to deliver:

  • Train volunteers to explore, research, catalogue and create information
  • Develop a Wikipedia-style Cornish Women’s Index that will create hundreds of free, publically accessible records of women
  • Hold six local community workshops on different women and themes in locations across Cornwall (and hopefully Scilly too).

What we are asking from contributors and correspondents

Information comes in many forms and it should be expressed in as many different ways as possible.

We do want well-researched, well-considered information to result from this project. However it is not intended as a scholarly study or library project. Information comes in many forms and it should be expressed in as many different ways as possible. So what we are asking of our contributors and correspondents is any of the following:

  • Researching the life stories of women who have lived, worked or come from Cornwall or Scilly
  • Photographing and scanning historical documents and artefacts
  • Producing transcripts of documentary sources
  • Creating art, music, poems or literature inspired by Cornish and Scillonian women
  • Conducting oral history interviews
  • Work on our social media channels and blog (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube)
  • Writing copy for short Wikipedia-style biographies
  • Entering information into the Cornish Women’s Index (a free online database of words and images)
  • Organising, leading or participating in informal and fun workshops scheduled for venues across Cornwall in 2013.

What the History 51 army can expect in return

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

… it is very easy to feel used and to feel absorbed into the corporatising identity of a heritage organisation or project.

I know from my own previous experience of working on ‘other people’s projects’ that it is very easy to feel used and to feel absorbed into the corporatising identity of a heritage organisation or project. I do not want this to happen to all those who have so warmly and enthusiastically already given of their time to History 51.

We stated in the application that we want History 51 contributors and correspondents to become ambassadors for women’s heritage in Cornwall and Scilly and so we, as the Hypatia Trust, have to provide the support they need in return. So this is what we have promised them:

  • Free training and ongoing support, including by email and online
  • Free access to the Elizabeth Treffry Collection and other resources at the Hypatia Trust
  • Access to equipment such as cameras, scanners, photocopier and laptop
  • Your name next to contributions on the Cornish Women’s Index and Elizabeth Treffry Collection website
  • Limited travel expenses for those who lead or help organise a History 51 workshop
  • VIP guest entry at the History 51 party in November 2013
  • A certificate of participation for those taking part as part of a qualification or undertaking CPD, which will outline the skills they have gained.

Promoting the project and recruiting interest

… we hope that the workshops, which are aimed at highlighting local women in their communities, will rebalance this and indeed we will be using all the methods we can to reach those who do not explore their past through digital heritage.

History 51 was officially announced at the end of November 2012. We started recruiting volunteers in December 2012, mainly via our website, where interested contributors could submit an expression of interest, and will be able to for the duration of the project.

The Cornishman newspaper, read by an estimated 75% of the west Penwith population, covered the project in a feature on 6 December. The story was also syndicated online which reaches a much wider audience. This considerably boosted our visibility and we received a number of requests for more information on the back of this.

The project was covered again on 31 January with the launch of a campaign to get Alice De Lisle officially recognised in Penzance. I have posted more about the Alice De Lisle Campaign on the Elizabeth Treffry Collection blog.

A steady stream of news and posts circulated on the Elizabeth Treffry Collection blog and its social media channels on Twitter and Facebook have seen a steady increase in interest, judged by the numbers of Likes and Shares we have been receiving. Nothing dramatic but visibility is certainly higher than it was when we launched the Elizabeth Treffry Collection website early last year.

To date we have approximately 20 people willing to be active contributors or correspondents. We are unashamedly embracing digital media and communication for this project so that we are not limiting ourselves to those who can physically get to Penzance to use the collection. So inevitably we are excluding people who are not online regularly. However, we hope that the workshops, which are aimed at highlighting local women in their communities, will rebalance this and indeed we will be using all the methods we can to reach those who do not explore their past through digital heritage.

Inaugurating History 51

I don’t think I have been in a room full of more articulate people in my life! And that includes the very many academic conferences I have attended and at which I have presented.

On 9 February we invited all those who had expressed an interest in the project to attend an open afternoon at the Hypatia Trust in Penzance. Several were not able to make it but we still had a room of about 18 people (all women) eager to share their passion, thoughts and ideas about how their own experiences could be brought to bear on this seminal project. I think everyone would agree that the local rug hookers really made our meeting, they turned up in force!

I don’t think I have been in a room full of more articulate people in my life! And that includes the very many academic conferences I have attended and at which I have presented. I will post about this on the Elizabeth Treffry Collection blog very soon.

Each person was given a folder with an information pack aimed at familiarising contributors and correspondents with History 51 and answering questions I predicted they may have. This pack will be emailed to all those who were not able to attend.

Next steps are to start recording who is interested in what and sharing this information amongst our group. The great thing about History 51 is that even those running the project are getting stuck into some new research and exploration.

The online database for the Cornish Women’s Index is being developed and will be due for testing early next month and then it will be time to organise some training. I am also contemplating using screencasts and Google Hangouts for live online training.

Our events co-ordinator, Jo Schofield, is currently scouting venues for our workshops. We already have one in Liskeard Museum confirmed and another almost confirmed in Fowey.

So for now I am occupied with buying the equipment we need, making sure that History 51 is regularly promoted online and in the press, and commissioning some quirky bookmarks or postcards to be widely distributed across Cornwall and Scilly, and beyond.

Switching between this project and my more usual exploits in industrial heritage is constantly challenging. Sometimes it is a downright pain to have to change modes so frequently. But it is all the more worthwhile because of that broad perspective you get when you don’t just plough one furrow but take a step back and contemplate the field, and the moors beyond.


Old Heritage Archive

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.

Old Curatorial Archive

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)

Old Heritage Archive

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.

Old Heritage Archive

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.