Tag Archives: burnett

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.

References:

Explore Archives

Special Collections at Brunel University London is home to a wide range of both printed and archival collections.

Why use Special Collections?

Delving into the sources in Special Collections can take your research (whether for an undergraduate essay or dissertation, to postgrad work) to the next level by making it more original, as well as helping you to develop your research skills.

Recent topics that people have researched using Special Collections include:

  • London during the First World War
  • Communists in the 1920s and 1930s
  • Clothing of the poor
  • Perceptions of fascism in the inter-war period
  • Feminism under Thatcher
  • Colonial and post-colonial writers at the BBC
  • Presentation of women in the media
  • Feminism in the US in the 1950s

and the Burnett Archive of working class autobiographies has been featured in Radio 4 programmes about the history of friendship and the lives of working people during the industrial revolution.

Find out about our collections:

Special Collections is home to a huge array of material that can support your research. You can find out more by using our A-Z list of collections, or consulting our Special Collections guide, where we’ve highlighted collections of particular interest to English or History students.

You can search our collections by subject or keywords – use the library catalogue for printed material and the archive catalogue for manuscript.

Browse the Special Collections blog, you can use the tags to find posts on particular themes, such as the First World War or trains.

Contact the Special Collections Librarian if you need help finding suitable material.

If you are looking for collections beyond Brunel you will find a list of resources on our guide.

Using Special Collections

Our collections are kept on closed access, so you will need to make an appointment to come and see them. If you haven’t used Special Collections or archival material before there is a guide on our blog.

 

A student’s research

Blog post by Grace Nelder, undergraduate student at Nottingham Trent University.

I completed my undergraduate dissertation in April 2015. I study History and Spanish BA (Hons) at Nottingham Trent University and my dissertation was worth two modules of the six of my final year. The research project needed to be 15,000 words long. The final title of my piece was: The Servant Problem in Interwar Britain.

In the research for my piece I used many sources. Luckily, the delving into many footnotes and references led me to the Brunel Special Collections; in particular, the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies. From the plethora of records in this archive, there were four that were relevant to my study. I enquired about visiting the University, upon which I received a very accommodating and friendly reply. When I arrived, I was greeted by an enthusiastic member of staff who explained to me the procedure of how I would be able to use the archives. I had researched what I needed beforehand and the staff member brought me one document at a time. I was able to  view the documents and photograph all of them if I deemed it necessary.
In my dissertation, I used extracts from personal accounts from those who worked as domestic servants in the interwar period in Britain to evaluate and analyse their experience in a historical context. I used the records of Katherine Henderson (2: 384), Grace Martin (2: 515), Winifred Relph (2: 657) and Lilian Westall (1: 746). Although seemingly few from the myriad transcripts, the four I used were instrumental to my research project. Despite Brunel University not being near to where I studied it was completely worth the journey down and I felt much more confident when I had these primary sources to help me with my project. I also felt that because the collection is not something that can be found online or at the National Archives for example, my work and research measures would have been valued more highly.
I can thoroughly recommend the use of these archives and this Special Collections, they will give flavour to any research project or are highly interesting to browse through. As a history student, I always find that I spend far too long reading perhaps irrelevant information, but information that is terribly intriguing. This was certainly the case during the day I visited the Special Collections.

 

The Engineer’s Corset

A blog post by Janet Goddard, writer and director of The Engineer’s Corset.

 

“I wanted the genuine voices of working people of the 1840’s to play a substantial part in The Engineer’s Corset. While I love reading histories and biographies of the Brunels and spending many a happy hour trawling through old newspapers in library archives one of the most inspirational sources in terms of listening to the voices of ordinary working people and their experiences is John Burnett’s Useful Toil.

John Burnett worked at Brunel University in the 1980’s when my father, Prof Crook, was Vice Principal and he alerted me to his work for another of my writing projects. A friend then gave me Useful Toil, she having found a copy at a car boot sale. It is one of my favourite books for dipping into whatever the reason so The Engineer’s Corset has given me the opportunity to turn my leisure pursuit into my work.

Having read the book cover to cover I came to Brunel Special Collections to look in the archive of working people’s diaries and journals kept there and while I didn’t spend as long or read as many as I would have liked – there’s always a next time – the information I gleaned has gone into the play – both in the voices of the working men and in the references the maids make to a range of fabrics and textiles and the means to keep them clean and well presented.

Horror stories of household fires and swirling skirts are also a shocking reminder of the risks women took when they dressed in highly flammable, voluminous clothing and sat of an evening in front of the fire sipping gin! Keeping up appearances is also well recorded in the working people’s voices – and it’s these forgotten voices that, along with Mary Brunel, who is always centre stage, that permeate The Engineer’s Corset and the message of the play – that history is rarely recorded as it was – and fictional interpretations can be as illuminating as factual ones. A proviso in this is to start with factual information and the Special Collection, John Burnett’s archive and Useful Toil, all entirely factual, have been the best starting off point for my fictional telling of the incident involving IK Brunel and his swallowing of a gold half sovereign in The Engineer’s Corset.”

100 years ago today

Blog post by Kyra Bains, work experience student

I was with the E.14 through the Dardanelles

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.

Here in Special Collections you can read part of his diary that 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”

Haskins’ account is just one of the collection of working class autobiographies housed in Special Collections. We have other blog posts about the autobiographies and some about the First World War too.

Why use Special Collections for your dissertation?

Why use Special Collections?

You’ve chosen your dissertation topic because it’s something you’re really interested in discovering in more detail. Then delving into the sources in Special Collections can take your dissertation to the next level by making it more original, as well as helping you to develop your research skills.

Recent topics that people have researched using Special Collections include:

  • London during the First World War
  • Communists in the 1920s and 1930s
  • Clothing of the poor
  • Perceptions of fascism in the inter-war period
  • Feminism under Thatcher
  • Colonial and post-colonial writers at the BBC
  • Presentation of women in the media
  • Feminism in the US in the 1950s

and the Burnett Archive of working class autobiographies has been featured in Radio 4 programmes about the history of friendship and the lives of working people during the industrial revolution.

Find out about our collections:

Special Collections is home to a huge array of material that can support your research. You can find out more by using our A-Z list of collections, or consulting our Special Collections guide, where we’ve highlighted collections of particular interest to English or History students.

You can search our collections by subject or keywords – use the library catalogue for printed material and the archive catalogue for manuscript.

Browse the Special Collections blog, you can use the tags to find posts on particular themes, such as the First World War or trains.

Contact the Special Collections Librarian, or your Subject Liaison Librarian for help.

If you are looking for collections beyond Brunel you will find a list of resources on our guide.

Using Special Collections

Our collections are kept on closed access, so you will need to make an appointment to come and see them. If you haven’t used Special Collections or archival material before there is a guide on our blog.

Don’t forget to drop into Special Collections (level 3, access via green staircase) to find out more between 10 and 12 on Tuesday 20 January 2015!

Disability History Month

Disability History Month is an annual event which runs from 22nd November to 22nd December, covering AIDS day (1st Dec), International Day of People with Disabilities (3rd Dec) and International Human Rights Day (10th Dec). Its aim is to raise awareness of the fight for equality that has been taken up throughout history by and for those whose lives are affected by disabilities. For more information on UK Disability History Month, visit their website.

In honour of this month, Brunel Library’s Special Collections would like to draw your attention to the remarkable items we hold which give insight into the lives of disabled individuals over the last two centuries.

The Burnett Archive, a collection of fascinating working class autobiographies, contains several accounts of lives affected by disability. To give an example, one autobiography is written by a man who suffered from epilepsy in a time when it was not well understood. Born in 1914, this man tells of his struggle to live a “normal life” and hopes that in doing so he can provide others with hope that they will be able to do the same (Wally Ward, Burnett Archive 2;798).
The autobiographies provide very moving personal life-experiences, and expose prejudices and discrimination which we may be shocked to discover today. Born in Manchester in 1912, Jim Ingram remembers being made an “other” even as a small child due to his physical disability. He recalls adults arguing over the worth of “crippled” children: “Once I overheard the older people arguing that a crippled child was evidence of sin and had no right to be alive. Things like me should be destroyed at birth.” (Jim Ingram, Burnett Archive 2:430)

Sadly, this discrimination often came from inside the family, as highlighted in one autobiography which tells of a brother resenting the birth of his severely disabled sister whom he feels stole his childhood and tore apart his family. This narrative gives insight into the effect that the lack of support and understanding within the wider society had on individuals. (Charles Esam-Carter, Burnett Archive Part 4)

The Burnett archives also hold fascinating but disturbing accounts of the treatment of people suffering with mental health conditions and their experiences in “lunatic asylums”. (H .J. Harris, Burnett Archive 2:363)

For more information on what the Burnett archive holds visit our webpage about it and arrange to visit and read these accounts for yourself.

In addition to these documents, we also have a modern collection of Transcription Poems, Neglected Voices, written by a former poet-in-residence at Brunel University, Allan Sutherland. These poems were created from life-interviews which Sutherland carried out among six individuals with different disabilities. The audio recordings and the full transcriptions of these interviews are held in Special Collections alongside the poetry collections themselves. ‘Proud’ is a poetry collection based on the words of Jennifer Taylor, who has a learning disability. ‘In Memory’ is formed from an interview with Catriona Grant, whose life was affected by a stroke at a young age. The collection, ‘This Hearing Thing,’ is based on the words of Wendy Bryant who gives an account of living with a hearing impairment, and lastly ‘Dan Dare Braces’ is a collection of poems on the life of Peter Moore, a survivor of abuse.

To access these invaluable first-hand accounts of living with a disability both in the modern day and in previous centuries, come and visit Special Collections and read these life histories for yourself.