Category Archives: Collections

Working class stories

Author Tony White introduces a series of new works by Brunel creative writing students inspired by the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. We’ll be posting a story or poem per week for the next 8 weeks.

This spring I’ve once again been a visiting lecturer at Brunel University London, where I’ve been privileged to teach two groups of postgraduate students from Brunel’s Creative Writing masters courses on an MA module called ‘Writers at Work’ that explores creative writing projects in education and in the community, giving postgraduates the skills and tools needed to design, run and evaluate writing workshops and other activities, including residencies and live literature events. Part of the module has involved the students undertaking archival research in the Special Collections section of Brunel Library.

Students taking part in one of the ‘Writers at work’ module workshops using the Burnett Archive in Special Collections

Brunel Library’s Special Collections is located on Level 3 of the library, and is home to a varied range of collections, used by students and visiting researchers, and to support teaching. The collections cover a wide range of subject areas, including transport history, the Channel Tunnel, poetry and dialect, equality and advocacy. You can read descriptions of them on the Collections page.

For ‘Writers at Work’, the creative writing postgraduates focused on the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, which contains more than 230 memoirs of working class life, some dating back to the late 18th century.

The Burnett Archive is a fascinating resource, and the texts are rich in day-to-day detail of family lives and relationships, politics and work, expressive language and dialects, and the realities of poverty and working class life in the UK during the 19th and 20th centuries. These memoirs make for fascinating reading. There are stories of orphanage and school life, migration, of running away to the circus or to sea, of town and country, and of forgotten customs and folklore. There are wounding encounters with two world wars and a merciless class system, as well as truly heartbreaking stories of extreme poverty, homelessness and domestic violence.

Dr Nick Hubble of Brunel’s English Department – and author of the recent The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question (Edinburgh University Press, 2017) – has been undertaking British Academy-funded research on the Burnett Archive, exploring the relationship between working-class autobiography, proletarian autobiografiction and social change. For Hubble the Burnett Archive is:

a window on to the relationship between self and the world as understood by ordinary people in often extraordinary times, which sheds light on how structures of feeling evolve and new socio-cultural values emerge.

For me, it has been really heartening to see a new generation of emerging writers responding to, and gaining confidence from these rare documents from the past: voices that but for the work in the early 1970s of John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall, might otherwise have been lost. Working with the Burnett Archive gives the creative writing students a working introduction to archival research, learning transferable skills and protocols that they may take up in their own professional lives as writers, but it is primarily an invaluable reminder that working class and other marginalised voices are often excluded from literature and mainstream culture; and an opportunity to address and counter such exclusions.

Brunel creative writing postgraduates have used the historical texts as the inspiration for new pieces of writing, which in turn may create new kinds of insights and focus into the worlds held within the Burnett Archive, as well as finding new ways to relate these historical accounts to contemporary life. For the next 8 weeks, as part of the ‘Writers at Work’ module, we’ll be sharing a selection of these new works here on the Special Collections blog: stories, autobiographical accounts, and poetry by Brunel postgraduates Caren Duhig, Kathryn Gynn, Marie-Teresa Hanna, Katie Higgins, Ella Jukwey, Josa Keyes, Iris Mauricio, Alisha Mor, and Anna Tan.

Tony White’s latest novel The Fountain in the Forest is published by Faber and Faber. He is the author of five previous novels including Foxy-T and Shackleton’s Man Goes South, several novellas and numerous short stories. White has been creative entrepreneur in residence in the French department at King’s College London, and writer in residence at London’s Science Museum and at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies. White has worked in the national office of Arts Council England, and in 1994 he founded the artists’ book series Piece of Paper Press. From 2010–2018 Tony White chaired the board of London’s award-winning arts radio station Resonance 104.4fm.

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The Cowkeeper’s Wish

We’re always delighted in Special Collections to hear about how researchers have used our collections. So we were very pleased when Kristen den Hartog, who had used our Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, got in touch to say that the book written by her and Tracy Kasaboski, had already been published in Canada, and was due to be published in the UK in March 2019.

hThe Cowkeeper’s Wish follows the story of the descendants of a young cowkeeper and his wife who arrive in 1840s London, having walked there from the Welsh coast with their cattle. They are hoping to escape from poverty and find themselves plunged deeper into it. The books tells the story of those descendants moving in and out of slum housing, workhouses and asylums. Nearly a hundred years later, their 3 x great-granddaughters in Canada begins to piece together their story and the path they trod to Canada.

Congratulations to Tracy and Kristen on the publication of your book!

Do get in touch and tell us about your research in Special Collections. You can see other examples of research done using our collections on our blog.

International Women’s Day

As part of International Women’s Day today we’re celebrating women’s achievements by launching our new subject guide to women’s history resources. This is aimed particularly at undergraduate students, and offers an easy way in to discover the rich resources about women’s history held in our collections. We’ve featured a couple of highlights below, but do have a look at our guide for more inspiration.

World War I ‘Canary Girl’

Lottie Barker was a ‘canary girl’ in a WWI munitions factory, making shells which turned her skin yellow. Part of the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, her account includes the description of an explosion in the factory, which killed many of her colleagues. We have more information about her account in this blog post, and many other accounts of women’s work during both WWI and WWII are waiting to be discovered in the Burnett Archive.

Women travelling alone

The Travellers’ Aid Society poster is part of our Transport History Collection, dates from about 100 years ago and features advice to women travelling alone to ensure they able to find safe, respectable accommodation when arriving in a new town. You can find out more about the Travellers’ Aid Society in this blog post. This poster was digitised last year as part of a student volunteer project to digitise our railway posters collection.

Other resources

Do contact us to make an appointment if you would like to see any of these items

Life vs fiction research seminar

The Brunel Centre for Contemporary Writing (BCCW) presents a session on the relationship between fiction and autobiography inspired by the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies held in the Special Collections of Brunel Library. Philip Tew will discuss writing about his relationship with his working-class father in his new novel, Afterlives, and Nick Hubble will talk about the relationship between working-class autobiography and proletarian autobiografiction revealed by his British Academy-funded research on the Burnett Archive.

This event will feature Brunel MA Creative Writing students opening the evening with readings from their work, as well as complimentary refreshments and free admission – please register here.

It will be held in Bannerman Centre 226 (in the library) Wed 20 March 2019 17:30.

Philip Tew’s debut novel, Afterlives, published in February 2018, is about university lecturer, Jim Dent, who, nearing retirement, is inspired by the death of a friend known in the 1970s, writer Sue Townsend, to review various premature deaths over the past fifty years of others once close to him, and recollect their lives. They include a school-friend, his working-class father, and other talented chums all denied their creative potential. Among scenes featured are his work with Sue on a local arts magazine on her stories of Nigel (later, Adrian) Mole, and a trip with an oddball scholar of the Beats to interview poet, Basil Bunting. Afterlives is no old man’s lament, rather a poignant and yet comic narrative of eccentric, talented people whose lives are celebrated. Commenting on the novel, Fay Weldon said “The father’s episode is a fine and moving piece of writing.”

Nick Hubble’s latest book The proletarian answer to the modernist question is out this month in paperback from Edinburgh University Press.

Anniversary of the publication of A Christmas Carol

175 years ago this month Charles Dickens’ book A Christmas Carol was first published – it sold out by Christmas Eve! We are celebrating the anniversary in Special Collections by holding a drop in on the anniversary itself, 19 December (12 noon – 2pm), where you can encounter Dickens’ works for yourself. This is free to attend and open to all.

“superstitious pies and porridge, ransacking pots, robbing ovens, and stripping spits”

DSC00429 - CopyYou will be able to see an account by Charles Dickens of the time when Christmas was banned in England. As well as writing A Christmas Carol, Dickens published articles on the history of Christmas in England and made observations on the traditional ways in which Christmas was celebrated around the world. He published these in All The Year Round, a literary  magazine founded and owned by Dickens. In Special Collections we hold every edition published between 1869 and 1979 (part of our Rare books and periodicals collection).

The December 1870 edition of All The Year Round included a piece on the prohibition of the celebration of Christmas in the 17th century and the methods by which the Puritans attempted to enforce this ban. During the first half of the 17th century England was ruled by a Puritan parliament, headed by Oliver Cromwell, who put huge amounts of time and effort into reforming the moral and spiritual character of the country. The festival of Christmas came into their firing line as it was not seen as a Christian or religious festival for two main reasons

  • it was a time of feasting, drinking and extravagance, whilst the Puritans advocated fasting and sobriety
  • it was a Catholic festival, and Catholicism was viewed as an heretical strain of Christianity by the Puritans. In 1642 the Puritan parliament abolished Christmas and ordered that it should instead be “observed as a day of fasting and of humiliation”. (Dickens, All the Year Round Vol. 5, December 1870 p. 101).

“Holly, ivy, mistletoe, bay and rosemary were accounted branches of superstition. To roast a sirloin of beef, to touch a collar of brawn, to bake a pie, to put a plum in a pottage-pot, to burn a big candle, or to lay one log more upon the fire for Christmas’ sake was enough to make a man be suspected and taken for a Christian and punished accordingly.”

DSC00430 - CopyDickens describes the measures the Puritans would take to enforce this ban and what actions they considered as breaching their legislation. He writes that on Christmas Day officials would search the entire city of London, looking for “superstitious pies and porridge, ransacking pots, robbing ovens and stripping spits” (ibid.), believing that these things were wicked and against Christianity. Religious observance was equally unacceptable and all churches were ordered to close over Christmas, with anyone who tried to preach or give a sermon served with an arrest warrant.

Despite all this, the people of England found means to celebrate and make merry, one way or the other. It might be a small personal rebellion, such as making a Christmas pudding or singing a carol. Sometimes there were larger, public, rebellions. Riots would break out, mobs would form and attack the officials working for the Puritan parliament. Dickens describes an incident in 1647 involving forbidden festive decorations and how they were fiercely fought for by the people in the local area. He tells us that Cornhill conduit had been dressed in evergreens, holly and ivy, rosemary and bay were set on top of the tall building. The city marshall and his men were set to pull down the decorations, but the decorated building was defended by local lads, who attacked the marshall and caused his men to flee for their lives. Although some men were seized and sent to prison for the day, there was still a feeling of triumph as the Christmas decorations remained upon the building. (Dickens, All the Year Round Vol 5, December 1870 p. 101).

Also on display will be illustrations of Christmas festivities from 1870s England:

1870 Ill London News

to 1950s America:

Santa's Cooky shop LHJ

and you can discover when the Christmas tree first came to England.

ILN xmas tree

 

Armistice centenary

Today we are commemorating 100 years since the signing of the Armistice that ended the First World War by launching our new topic guide to the war. This is intended to help students to find material from Special Collections relating to the war – do let us know if there is anything you would like to discover more about.

Some highlights from the guide are featured below, and there is also a chance to see them in person by visiting Special Collections (BANN 328) on Tuesday 13 November between 12 and 2pm. This event is free and open to everyone.

William Belcher – naval diaries

Serving in the navy between 1903 – 8 and 1914 – 19, Belcher was then an electrician from 1919 onwards. Much of the interest in his autobiography lies in the supporting documents that accompany his notebooks: his school certificates, shorthand qualifications and his naval career record. His autobiography is part of the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies (BURN 1:53)

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

GreatWar1

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

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.

This series is part of the Rare books and periodicals collection.

Through the Dardenelles

On the 26th March 1915, J. T. Haskins was first informed of the mission that would earn him a Distinguished Service Medal. He worked as the leading Stoker on the E.14 submarine, the first submarine to steer through the Dardanelles to the Sea of Marmara and back again. They went through enemy subs, torpedoes, minefields just to get to there.

His diary (part of the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies) tracks the whole mission. The diary starts with him receiving orders “to prepare for long trip” all the way to the end of the mission and hearing about the Distinguished Service Medal.

The Dardanelles is a dangerous narrow strait in northwest Turkey that connects the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara. It separates Europe from Asia and, on a side note, also holds the site of ancient Troy. This mission was part of the Gallipoli Campaign of World War I. It was first conceived by Winston Churchill as a way of supplying the Russians through the Black Sea. In the same swoop Churchill intended to drive the Ottoman Empire out of the war. Unfortunately it was a loss.

The Campaign has now become one of the Ottoman Empire’s greatest victories and a major defeat for the Allied forces. Yet the success of Haskins’ Sub shows a glimmer of triumph for them leading Haskins to end his entry on the 19th May 1915:

“I was with the E.14 through the Dardanelles”

When corpses fell from the Nottinghamshire sky

One of our autobiographies from the Burnett Archive  featured in the Independent’s series on A history of the First World War in 100 Moments. When corpses fell from the Nottinghamshire sky  is based on the account of Lottie Barker, who worked in a munitions factory in Beeston, Nottinghamshire during the war. She was one of the ‘Canary Girls’, who made shells in the factory and for whom repeated exposure to toxic chemicals turned their skin orange-yellow like a canary.

On the day of the explosion she wasn’t on shift, but was at home washing up, and felt the house move and saw a huge column of smoke. The explosion caused the loss of 134 lives, although the full extent wasn’t made clear at the time as the news was suppressed. Lottie’s account includes details of the aftermath of the explosion.

National Sporting Heritage Day 2018

Today it’s National Sporting Heritage Day and we’re blogging about one of our collections which is particularly relevant to this theme.

Dennis Brutus Collection

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Dennis Brutus was a South African human rights activist, sports campaigner against apartheid, and poet. He is perhaps best known for his campaign to have apartheid South Africa banned from the Olympics. 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 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 above are a range of documents on the Olympic boycott.