Monthly Archives: March 2016

50 objects 12: Working class autobiographies: Alice M. Collis

A post by Tala Birch, Library Assistant.

The Burnett archive of working class autobiographies is home to over 230 items. These range broadly in format, content and timespan. The archive documents the lives of working class people in England, Wales and Scotland between 1790 -1945. The autobiographies vary from verse like Kathleen Hilton-Foord’s thirty-six page Grannie’s Girl to extensive prose like James H. Mackenzie’s Strange Truth: the autobiography of a circus, showman, stage & exhibition Man. McKenzie’s 50,000 handwritten words include a contents page so you can flick easily to one of the many “weird, pathetic, amusing, tragic and informative incidents” in his life.

But just as interesting as Mckenzie’s promise of outlandish stories are the accounts of people with less exotic occupations such as Charles Lewis Hansford’s Diary of a Bricklayer, 52,000 words on the construction industry, life in different towns, pubs, trade unionism, the London lockout of 1914 and unemployment. Dig a little deeper in the collection and you find much more fragmentary and brief, but still fascinating, accounts.

One such account is that of Alice M. Collis, written in retrospect about a strike at a printing firm in 1911. Collis writes “I’ve often wondered if I was the youngest trade union representative ever”. At 15, she began working on envelope machines for low pay. Two years into working at the unnamed firm, Collis along with “other girls” who worked on the machines decided to go on strike “although [they] had no idea what this would mean”.

The girls did not belong to any trade union but soon received support from the compositor’s union once word had gotten around the firm about the strike, and then from Mary MacArthur, an important figure in the labour movement. The direct action resulted in a 50% pay rise for the girls. Following their success, they formed a branch of the National Federation of Women Workers (the general women’s union founded by MacArthur 3 years earlier), with a 17 year old Collis being elected as their representative.

The Burnett archive contains many first-hand accounts of the development of the labour movement in England, told by workers, people who, like Collis, are often left out of mainstream historical narratives. The archive is a valuable resource where you will also find details of people’s domestic lives, insights into the popular culture of the time, descriptions of factory and farm work as well as people’s experiences of unemployment and poverty, stories that might otherwise go untold.



50 objects 11: World War One as it happened.

John Hammerton & Herbert Wrigley Wilson, ed. The Great War: the standard history of the all-Europe conflict (London: The Amalgamated Press, 1914-19).


The first volume of this work was published in 1914, and sets the tone with the first sentence: “The greatest war of modern times, and perhaps in the whole history of the human race, was begun by Germany using the crime of a schoolboy in Bosnia as her excuse” [Volume I, page 3]. The work claims to be “a standard history” but, written so soon after the individual events it narrates, cannot give a truly balanced view as there was no way for the authors to be in possession of all the facts surrounding them.

The great interest of this work lies in its immediacy. It shows what the general public in Britain knew about the war during the war, and what they were encouraged to think. The tone and content reflect the attitudes and social structure of the time, as when prominence is given in lists of casualties to those men who were related to peers. Naturally the text is full of patriotic language – chapter titles make frequent use of words such as “glorious” and “triumphant” – and admiration for British troops’ bravery and skill, and for the design of their ships, planes, and weapons; but recognition is made of the German forces as a formidable enemy with admirable qualities.

Title page from Volume I

Title page from Volume I

The volumes are, as the title-page indicates, “profusely illustrated”. There are maps and plans to show defences and strategy; photographs of events and of key people; diagrams of submarines; illustrated spreads on forces joining the war from overseas; and, most poignantly, drawings of battlefield scenes based on sketches sent by eyewitnesses.

As well as the narrative of the war itself, there are chapters on broader topics including “Influence of the war on English Literature” [volume XII], and “Marvels of the British Transport Service on the Western Front” [volume VIII], to address wider and longer-term issues.

The twelfth and final volume, published in 1919, ends with a “roll of honour” detailing the numbers of men killed, wounded, and missing, with the numbers analysed in various ways; civilian casualties are estimated too, and a swift overview is given to show the range of men who died, and some of their talents and achievements in sports and professions.

The work that started with grandiose phrasing about “the greatest war” ends, fittingly, in tribute to those who bore the greatest cost: “To praise those who gave their lives for their country would be an impertinence, but they cannot be left entirely without a tribute of respect and thanks.” [volume XII, p. 600].

50 objects 10: A history of Brunel University London’s Library building

A post by the Library’s Graduate Trainee, Becky Tabrar.

Brunel University Library was opened on the 10th December 1973. Until this point, there had been no centralised library on the newly formed Brunel University campus, with resources temporarily held in the engineering and lecture centres. The intake of students vastly outnumbered the library spaces available, and the growing demand on library resources was detailed in an April 1969 Brunel Library Report, which estimated 40,000 books would be borrowed in 1969, compared to the 33,000 borrowed in 1968. By 1971 this number had risen to 75,000, and so the need for a standalone library building was evident.

The building that emerged, and now forms part of the Bannerman Centre, was designed by Richard Sheppard CBE, and his partner John Heywood, who together envisioned a functional building, at the centre of the university, which would complement the brutalist architecture of the Lecture Centre.

The Library after completion

The Library after completion

This vision is still present today, with the Library standing within the heart of the campus, directly opposite the Student Union, and with the older sections of the Bannerman Centre equalling the imposing nature of its brutalist styled neighbour, the Lecture Centre.



Architectural sketches of the planned Library

Architectural sketches of the planned Library


Nick Childs, Brunel’s librarian at the time, consulted with architects to ensure the Library environment would be cheerful, flooded with light and accommodative of every student’s needs; an ethos that the Library maintains today. The initial architectural brief stated that the building should be ‘fully open plan, with no internal walls’, and that study spaces should be arranged to allow the reader ‘a feeling of privacy’, but should avoid the appearance of an examination room. Plans were also made for a sound-proof typing room, a reading area for smokers (quite unimaginable today), and a ground floor area that would remain open, even when the Library was closed; perhaps the beginnings of our 24 hour service of today. The contractors chosen were William Moss, and construction began in April 1971, lasting for two years, at the cost of £532,682.

This image was taken shortly after completion and shows Sheppard and Heywood’s vision of an open plan library.

This image was taken shortly after completion and shows Sheppard and Heywood’s vision of an open plan library.

By 1976, 1,000,000 visitors had passed through the Library’s turnstiles; it had space for 1,200 readers; there were 16 kilometres of shelving; and 140,000 volumes lining these shelves. However, following Brunel University’s merger with the West London Institute of Higher Education in 1996, library provisions on campus were again insufficient for the growing student body. A library extension was designed by Rivington Street Studio, and construction began by Bluestone contractors in June 2003. The Bannerman building, in its current form, was opened by Lord Melvyn Bragg on 24th February 2005.

The 2004 extension of the Library.

The 2004 extension of the Library.

The Library has been a part of Brunel University’s skyline for 42 years, and in that time has served generations of Brunel graduates, and due to it being listed by the local authority for its unique architecture, long may it continue to do so.

50 objects 9: Views from trains

Sitting on the train looking idly out of the window, many people wonder about the identity and history of the buildings they see, and the details of the places they pass through.

"On Either Side", published by LNER

“On Either Side”, published by LNER

Railway companies soon tapped into this need, producing booklets to go with popular lines. The publications gave information about the route, the physical features that could be seen, and the histories of places passed through.

An early edition of “On Either Side”, produced by the London and North Eastern Railway in 1906 to describe and enhance the journey from London King’s Cross to stations in Scotland, describes itself thus: “The booklet not only shews where all the beauties and special objects of interest may be seen, but gives reliable data respecting them, and with the aid of the camera brings many into even closer range.”

Virgin Trains' Windowgazer Guides, 2003.

Virgin Trains’ Windowgazer Guides, 2003.

The Transport History Collection at Brunel has a range of these, dating from the early twentieth century to 2003, produced by various railway companies.

The page layout of many is informative but prosaic. In contrast, however, is the Southern Railway’s description of the journey from London to Padstow on the Atlantic Coast Express, written by S. P. B. Mais and illustrated by Anna Zinkeisen, and published in 1937.
This work has a pull-out map, with black and white photographs of places of interest, but the main text is a lively narrative, giving entertaining anecdotes about the historical figures, local legends, and ghosts that populate the landscape surrounding the line, and about the traditions and industries of the towns passed through. The illustrations are given equal space and add an enticing whimsical glamour to the real and imagined scenes discussed in the text.

Ships in Cornwall, from the Atlantic Coast Express guide 1937

Ships in Cornwall, from the Atlantic Coast Express guide 1937

Added value is given for the holiday-maker in the descriptions of day trips that can be made via branch lines, and places that should be visited rather than just seen from the train. Southern Railways built on this by publishing separate books of walks that could be accessed via the Atlantic Coast Express.


Illustration from the Atalntic Coast Express Guide of a Devon legend of ghosts and skeletal horses.

Illustration from the Atlantic Coast Express guide of a Devon legend of ghosts and skeletal horses