Monthly Archives: August 2016

50 objects 34: Bill Griffith’s work on prisons

prison1Have you been following the BBC Radio 4 series “Rethinking Clink”, about the history of prison reform? Did you know Brunel holds primary sources on this subject, in the papers of polymath Bill Griffiths?

Until his death in 2007 Dr Griffiths was active in a wide range of spheres including classical music, publishing, creative writing, medieval studies, dialect, and local history.

He was also a correspondent with, and advocate for, several prisoners. As previously described on this blog, “One of the key relationships in Bill Griffiths’s life was with the several prisoners he wrote to. He began communicating with a number of prisoners after encountering a stall with prison literature which motivated him to write and support them. Chief amongst them was the prisoner Ray Gilbert, who served time in a series of English prisons from the sixties, while protesting his innocence for a murder sentence. There are hundreds of letters in the collection that document these exchanges, focusing on the period 1996-2004, which reveal many of the daily details of prison life.

Bill Griffiths additionally campaigned to improve conditions in prisons and the appeals prison3process. Various folders in the archive contain letters that deal with his attempts to address Gilbert’s and others situation, as well as the short tracts and essays he published on the subject.”

Shown here is the cover from Griffiths’ work Star fish jail, the title inspired by the physical shape of prisons such as Wandsworth, with wings radiating from a central point and so resembling a starfish.

You can see more details of this material by consulting the finding aids on our Bill Griffiths collection page.


His understanding of prison life reflects in other aspects of Bill Griffiths’ work; his poetry uses language forms drawn from prisoners, and he writes for the marginalised and against the establishment, using poetry as social commentary to combat injustice.



50 objects 33: Norah Elliott’s autobiography

The collection of documents on Norah Elliott is number 2:242 in the Burnett collection of working-class autobiographies, held in Special Collections.

Norah was born into the Pilch family in 1903, and writes of her early life and her memories of her grandparents. Disaster struck in 1913 when her father was drowned; the family went to the workhouse, and Norah was adopted. She recalls her work as a teacher, and her life in Australia, sending food parcels home to her siblings in the UK, during the second world war.


Norah’s poem on her Aunt Susan

Her file includes several handwritten workings not only of her own story, but also of substantial research by her and other family members into her family history. The writing is interspersed with maps, copies of primary sources, family trees, and poetry by Norah, and accompanied by original documents including a birth certificate, a union card, and burial records.norah2

There is a vaccination certificate, made out in 1879 for Norah’s ancestor John Pilch, in linenorah3 with the legal requirement to demonstrate that children were vaccinated against smallpox: see  for more on these records.

Another interesting aspect of this collection is the insight given into Norah’s writing and editing process: there are several drafts, with footnotes and amendments, and a few comments on the writing process. A late diary entry states “I’ve finished last night’s crossword and got up to date with this mish-mash. I don’t think I want to read what I’ve written”. She may not have wanted to, but the file is well worth reading.

50 objects 32: Poetry of the Now

Poetry of the Now is a collection of contemporary poetry and text-based work, including small press publications, chapbooks, and magazines. It was founded at Brunel University’s Centre for Contemporary Writing by Dr William Watkin and Dr Angela Brady in 2005. William Watkin is Divisional Lead, Creative Writing and English, at Brunel.  Angela Brady is now a Professor in the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary University London.


Part of the Poetry of the Now collection

The print collection of poetry and related materials remains at Brunel and can be consulted in the Special Collections reading room, but the closely related collection The Archive of the Now is held at Queen Mary University London. Both collections aim to preserve material that could otherwise be lost, to represent the diversity of poetic practice, and to support emerging artists.


Amongst authors represented in both these collections is Angela Brady; you can find out more about her work at her page.

Much of her work is also held in the main library collection at Brunel: search the library catalogue.

50 objects 31: South Africa and the 1968 Olympics

This Friday, the 2016 Olympic Games open in Rio. As well as promoting excellence in sport, the Olympic movement has a much wider remit to seek friendship and fair play worldwide.  The IOC states “The goal of the Olympic Movement is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

Sometimes that ideal has been hard to reach. In the 1960s there were issues surrounding participation in the Olympic Games by teams from apartheid South Africa, where athletes were racially segregated and had to compete in separate trials. South Africa was banned from the 1964 Games, but controversy resurfaced concerning involvement in the 1968 Games in Mexico City. Various athletes threatened a boycott if the team from South Africa was allowed to compete, and South Africa was eventually banned from the Games and from the Olympic movement, not reinstated until 1990.

The Dennis Brutus collection held at Brunel is a valuable resource for the study of this controversy. Dennis Brutus (1924-2009) was a South African-born poet and human rights activist who spearheaded a successful campaign to ban apartheid South Africa from international sport competitions, including the Olympics. He was a founder of the South African Sports Association in 1961 and of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SANROC) in 1963, of which he became president. He was refused a passport and later imprisoned; other members of SANROC suffered similarly, but the organisation was revived in London in 1966, when Brutus managed to move to Britain.

Pictured are a range of documents on this topic from the Dennis Brutus collection.


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For more on Dennis Bruits and his human rights activism, see for instance