Category Archives: Burnett Archive

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.

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.

Looking for inspiration?

for Hillingdon Literary Festival’s creative writing competition? This year’s theme is Outer limits: hidden lives and in Special Collections you’ll find some collections that mark the perfect jumping off point for your creative writing on this topic.

Bill Griffiths would probably have identified himself chiefly as a poet, but he was also an academic, small press publisher, local historian, linguist and scholar of English dialect. For some of his life he lived locally, on a houseboat not far from the campus here at Brunel. After a fire he relocated north where he became an advocate for prisoners, an organiser against council schemes and an unearther of things on the edge of mainstream culture. His archive, housed here in Special Collections, showcases this diversity, containing hundreds of examples of his work and correspondence, along with the sources, research notes and labour behind them.

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Read an earlier blog post about Griffiths’ research into dragons.

Another series of hidden lives well worth investigating is our Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. These highlight the lives of ordinary people, for example Alice Collis’ account of a strike in a printing firm in 1911 or the lives of servants.

Industrial heritage month: urban housing

A blog post by Emma Smith, history student and Special Collections volunteer.

In light of our focus on Urban Environment as part of the 2018 Industrial Heritage theme months, we have delved into our records here at Brunel Special Collections in pursuit of details about urban housing. One common theme present throughout the majority of records is the sheer variation in accommodation: the juxtaposition of the slums and poor institutions of the penniless, and the mansions and townhouses of the affluent, accentuates the considerable difference in housing within urban localities.

Mckenzie slum to mansion

‘It was a complete transition from slum to mansion’ – extract from McKenzie 1:473

James McKenzie’s account emphasises the stark contrast between deprived and luxurious dwellings within urban London (an extract of which is shown above). McKenzie details his childhood experiences of the slum housing of Battersea adjacent to a river ‘poisoned with waste’ from surrounding factories; undoubtedly symbolising his housing conditions. Due to orphan-hood, however, McKenzie soon finds himself residing in a ‘rather weird old mansion’ in Kensington, only a stone’s throw away over the old Battersea Bridge. With its ornamental gates, fashionable Victorian drawing room and antique paintings, such a mansion was a world apart from the destitute Battersea slums, despite its geographical closeness.

Castle goal

‘More like a goal than anything I could imagine’ – extract from Castle 1:134

John Castle also illuminates another prevalent type of urban housing: the workhouse. Castle certainly harboured strong opinions toward Leighton Buzzard Union workhouse as an abode, as shown above. By producing a detailed structural plan of the workhouse, including the location of the Master’s House, Board Room and segregated living quarters of men, women and children, Castle’s memoir provides a personalised vision into the construction of one of the most recurrent, yet often ill-defined, urban living abodes throughout Britain. Emphasis on the presence of factory equipment within the institution arguably highlights the industrial nature of nineteenth-century housing and living areas.

Balne Greenford

‘Lovely leafy lanes of Greenford’ – extract from Balne 1:137

Similarly, Edward Balne provides insight into another, relatively rare, category of urban housing. Residing in a Hanwell ‘Cuckoo School’ (a Poor Law School, officially!), Balne emphasises the juxtaposition between the urbanity of this institution and adjacent ‘lovely leafy lanes of Greenford;’ highlighting the presence of both rural and industrial influences in urban living quarters. Though inferring that the School was superior in comparison to other housing, citing its swimming bath, onsite hospital and ‘large and lovely garden;’ Balne contends that it was still ‘pretty grim.’ While pupils were cramped into dormitories (ten allocated to each side of a room and another ten to the centre), their designated dormitory nurses enjoyed private ‘comfortably furnished’ cubicles. Any luxury in urban living, again, seemed to remain in the hands of those more well-off.

You can see any of these autobiographies or our other collections by contacting Special Collections to arrange an appointment

Burnett Archive
1:473 J. H. McKenzie
1:134 J. Castle
1:37 E. Balne