One of the best things about the taught MA is that, like a BA, you get to work on a number of smaller projects in the run up to the mighty dissertation (a meaty 20,000 words rather than the 10,000 at BA level). This introduces a level of variety that I, for one, really enjoy. In the last two years I’ve worked on the medieval landscapes of Ludlow and its environs; the relationship between Thomas, Lord Coningsby and the town of Leominster; a project evaluating what a small country churchyard in the south of Shropshire can reveal about the community and culture of the parish it serves; and finally, a project asking what Joyce Jeffrey’s Household Accounts could reveal about her local identity. Each of these has resulted in a document numbering around 5,000 words and each one has been great fun to research and write – the bigger word count means there’s more room to play with and to explore complex themes. Continue reading
As part of my MA dissertation I’ve been researching the case of Robert Foulkes, and I gave a paper on a part of my research at the University of Leicester’s School of History Postgraduate Conference on May 17th. The full title was ‘Every step thou makest in sin, brings thee in greater danger’: The penitential sermon of Robert Foulkes‘, and I’d like to write a little bit about that paper here.
I’ve written about Robert Foulkes before, and his affair with Ann, and the dreadful circumstances that led him to commit murder. In the paper I gave, I focused on two different theories around execution, and explored which I thought Robert Foulkes’s case might be more relevant towards. Continue reading
I’ve not blogged in quite some time – been ferociously busy. Easter, of course, and then the last of my MA assignments (analysing a churchyard to see what it could reveal about the culture and community of the parish it serves) has taken up much of my time … just the dissertation to go on the Master’s degree – which I’m hoping to get done and handed in by the end of July, but we’ll see. (It’s actually due Sept 6th, but I need a holiday!)
I’ve also had the welcome event for the PhD funding that I won. Time to be a little clearer about that, I think! This is the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and Midlands3Cities DTP (Doctoral Training Partnership) funding (aka M3C). They will be covering my living costs and tuition fees for the next three years, starting from October when the PhD kicks off, and I have to submit my final thesis before September 2020. I’m trying very hard at the moment not to think too much about that, if I’m honest! Eighty thousand words seems like an awful lot, but, as I keep telling myself, it doesn’t need to be researched and written next week. I have time. Andddd breatheeee….!*
Thesis panics aside, M3C is a fantastic opportunity. It’s a consortium of 6 universities, from 3 cities in the Midlands region: University of Leicester (my home uni), De Montefort University (also in Leicester), University of Nottingham, Nottingham Trent University, University of Birmingham, and Birmingham City University. Their focus is arts and humanities; the actual range of subjects they accept is incredible. It isn’t just about the money (nice as it is) or the opportunity to study at this level (which, honestly, many would love to do, but simply cannot afford). There are other opportunities that come through M3C – additional training opportunities, opportunities to work with partner organisations, opportunities to be involved in various student led projects. I jokingly referred to M3C as ‘miracle-gro for academics’ in my interview; I’m convinced now that it’s not that far from reality! Their aim is to help support and develop ‘the next generation of arts and humanities researchers’, and one of the key strengths of the project is that it’s multidisciplinary … and draws on the strengths of a range of universities. This has it’s impact in a number of ways, but the main one as far as I can see (at present) is that I have three supervisors, from two universities. The lead is from the University of Leicester, as my home university, the second is from the University of Nottingham, and both will be supervising the part of my project that is focused on politics – here I mean politics in the sense of relationships between people, the imbalances in power, not national politics. I also want to see if the politics are reflected in the built environment, which the third supervisor will be helping me to explore – he’s from Nottingham as well, and is an archaeologist (the other two are historians).
So what AM I going to be researching? I’ve been asked this question an awful lot; I expect I will be asked it an awful lot more. I have an answer that rolls neatly off the tongue: ‘I’m going to be looking at the relationships between clergymen and their parishioners in seventeenth-century Herefordshire’. Most people (non academics, I hasten to add) sort of go, ‘um’, and change the subject, REAL fast. Heh. That’s okay. Although it’s telling me that perhaps I need to make it a bit more user-friendly! It’s succinct and to the point – and for me, at the moment, that’s a big step forward (you know those old comedy sketches of someone going ‘come back, I haven’t explained… ‘ as someone flees into the distance? That’d be me). But.. I digress. So. lets try this more user-friendly approach now. How about – The seventeenth century was a period where vicars were often one of the most powerful people in their parishes, but were also subject to fluctuating control from above. In addition, the entire century saw massive upheavals, with civil war, tremendous political, cultural, social and religious changes. I want to explore how the relationship that the average vicar had with his parishioners changed through all that. Did the means by which he coped with problems change? What was the impact of the war on the vicars themselves in Herefordshire? Was any of this reflected in the church architecture, or the churchground, or even the wider landscape of the parish? Lots of questions – and its very exciting! I’m going to be working a lot with Herefordshire Archive and Research Centre (which I blogged about before – beautiful building), possibly also with Hereford Diocese and Hereford Museum. I’m going to be exploring the parishes themselves – I’m trained by the English Local History centre at Leicester, which encourages you to walk the ground whereever possible! I’ve lots of ideas and plans and it’s all very exciting….!
This excitement really emerged last week at the M3C welcome event in Nottingham. It was a great day! 100 pending PhD students gathered in a room, talking happily and excitedly about their researching – the noise level was stupendous. My sign language interpreters had issues hearing at a couple of points, and I was quite glad for a quieter spell during lunch. We had a thorough introduction to M3C and what it offers, then midmorning we were asked to sign up to twitter, tweet our research topic (that succinctness came in handy there, I can tell you, with twitter’s 140 character limit) and then go talk to other people and find out/tweet something about them! It was fun – that’s when the noise levels got a bit loud….! But the range of what this year’s group is studying was incredible (If you’d like to get a glimpse of that, go to Twitter and search for #M3C16, or even look at https://twitter.com/Midlands3Cities – around May 11.). After lunch we had workshops and talks from PhD students ahead of us in the programme, explaining some of what they’ve been doing and how we can make the programme work for us. We got to meet the movers and shakers within M3C as well, put faces to names. We have a 2-day residential course in September, and then, on October 1st, it begins.
And I cannot WAIT.
As a student historian, I’m always juggling projects in various stages, some related to specific assignments, others are more vague, not connected to my MA or PhD. One of the things I do as part of this is to manage the social media page of a local history related group, which involves researching local history stories.
In the course of doing that, I stumbled across one newspaper story that rather surprised me, and that I wanted to dig into further (although it’s not really suitable for use on the local history social media group, so I’m doing it here instead). I think this quite often happens for historians, by the way – something small, a spark, that triggers a question or a sense of curiosity that sends us chasing down the research tunnel. It was a small story, reported in The Illustrated London News, from Saturday April 26th, 1862. A lad had been hauled into court; he’d given a potato to two children and forced them to eat it. It eventually transpired that what the two children had been told was ‘pepper’, sprinkled on the potato, was actually arsenic. Bit gruesome, bit unusual, attempted murder via poisoned potato, but so far, not unduly eyebrow-raising. Then I read the unusual bit. ‘The boy was taken before the magistrates and discharged with an admonition’.
Uh…. discharged? He committed what amounted to attempted murder and he was discharged?
Naturally, I had to dig further! Delving into newspaper reports via the fabulous British Newspaper Archive, further details soon came tumbling out‡. The lad in question was ten years old, with the surname of Letts. The two children he poisoned were listed as being the Hales children, a boy, aged 5 and a half, and a girl, aged 2 and a half, who were on their way home from school down Harvey Lane, around midday. The Letts boy told the Hales boy that it was a nice potato and that he was to eat it there and then. Hales did, and gave a little to his sister, but when they got home, they began to vomit so their mother went for the doctor. He applied the usual remedies. When they recovered, they told their mother about the potato and the boy and she went looking for the Letts boy, and met a girl with the surname of White, aged 8 years old, who told her that the Letts boy had earlier offered her the same potato and when she refused, he struck her on the nose and made it bleed. This led to the discovery of the Letts boy who admitted giving the Hales children the potato but could not say why he gave it to them. It turned out that the mother of the Letts boy had bought arsenic coloured with soot to kill vermin, and he had put it on the potato to make it appear peppered. The children being ‘quite recovered’, he was released with the already mentioned admonition.
This story was reported in a number of newspapers around the country – the Glasgow Herald, 19th April, 1862; the Nottinghamshire Guardian, 18th April, 1862; and the London Evening Standard of the same day, and the Glasgow Herald reported that it got the story from the Daily News, and the London Evening Standard that it got it from The Leeds Mercury. It was clearly well, and widely reported.
No further news sources were found, so I turned to the census to see if I could obtain christian names for the people involved. I was delighted to find that I actually could: It soon transpired that the Letts boy was in fact Oliver Letts, the son of John and Sarah Letts; he was a foundry man and she was a baker, and he was part of a large family living on 42 St. Nicholas. The two Hales children I soon identified as Francis and Mary Emily Hales, the children of Edwin and Elizabeth Hales, a labourer and seamstress respectively, living at 51 Thornton Lane. This, and Harvey Lane, the scene of the ‘crime’, no longer exist – they were part of the old parish of St. Nicholas in Leicester, and they were possibly taken out by the development of the ring road in the 1960s. They probably lay somewhere around what is now the Holiday Inn on St. Nicholas Circle, near the Jewry Wall. The picture, which shows Thornton Lane from Harvey Lane in 1965, prior to their destruction, shows how close they were. Sadly I was unable to conclusively identify the White girl – there are five possibilities living in Leicester at the time.
The ‘coloured with soot’ part of the articles intrigued me, so I kept digging further, and came across a book called The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play by James C Whorton (Oxford, 2010). In it, he described the easy availability of arsenic for multiple purposes, including killing vermin, from pharmicists, and the way that society seemed to accept its readily availability and use as a tool of murder (and suicide). It was the March, 1849 murder of Henry Marchant in Bath that seems to have been the trigger for the removal of this ready availability. He was murdered by his wife, through colourless arsenic, but three days after his funeral, she married another man, which aroused suspicions. Eventually Marchant was exhumed and inquest carried out; the wife was tried and convicted by August. Pleading pregnancy, the death sentence was commuted to transportation for life. The 1851 Arsenic Act followed; pharmacists were required to keep a register of sales of arsenic, and arsenic sold in quantities of less than ten pounds in weight was to be coloured with soot or indigo to prevent accidental consumption. The thought of it being used as a ‘pepper substitute’ seems not to have occurred to lawmakers!
So the soot question was easily settled. The motive, however, was much less clear cut. Was the arsenic employed because Oliver Letts was trying to make the potato look like it had pepper on it, and he didn’t understand that arsenic was so deadly, i.e. a prank? Or did he fully understand that arsenic would make someone ill, and was trying to pass it off as pepper? The newspaper reports are less than illuminating on the subject, and sadly, a search for Oliver Letts after the date proves less than illuminating. An Oliver Letts is found in the 1871 Census, ‘visiting’ the Doores family with a Robert Letts – both were described as ‘Shoe Finishers’. He doesn’t hit the news again – at least, as far as I was able to find in the British Newspaper Archive – and there is no Oliver Letts listed in the 1881 Census. No Olivers are listed as having died, but there is a William O Letts who was born in the same year, who died in Wednesbury in June 1937, which raises the possibility that Oliver, perhaps tired of his notoriety, or perhaps for more nefarious motives, changed his name and moved on. Regardless; the fact that he offered the potato to more than one child, and thumped the girl who refused, suggests that this was important to the ten year old Oliver for some reason, and it goes beyond a mere joky type prank. It also suggests that it wasn’t the Hales children themselves that were in any way a particular victim, although the fact that Elizabeth Hales, the mother, was able to find Oliver Letts with no real difficulty suggests that perhaps the White girl and Francis Hales knew Oliver Letts – by sight at least. It may have been a cruel-type prank; perhaps Oliver wanted to make his ‘victims’ vomit in the street or something like that, which would explain why it seemed so important to him that someone ate the potato. From here, we can move into the area of Victorian working class children; how much were pranks a prevalent part of their culture, and what type of pranks prevailed?
But for The Case of the Peppered Potato, there it ends. These research quests quite often end this way because of the limitation of documentary sources. Sadly, the reality of documentary historical research is that unless you have a diary or some similar document where the writer has poured out their heart and soul, questions of inner motive and emotions and ‘whyyyy?!’ quite often remain unanswered. The historian can speculate, sometimes with some accuracy when they’re able to build up a solid picture of a person and their life, but no more. To some, perhaps, that’s deeply dissatisfying. Like a crafty, mystifying whodunnit with no answer. To me, it speaks of the enormous variety of human emotions and human lives. The reasons why we do anything are always myriad, and although it can be tempting to think that emotions largely do not change over time (we all love, feel sadness, anger, and so on), and therefore can be detected in the documentary record, the Case of the Peppered Potato shows quite clearly that it can’t. I don’t know why Oliver Letts did what he did. For that matter, even HE might not know what he did. But part of me wants to have faith that that Victorian Mayor, who let Letts off with a ‘stern admonition’, Mr Samuel Viccars, knew what he was doing. That the Peppered Potato was accidental, a prank gone wrong, rather than the ugly alternative, a glimpse of a ten year old psychopath-to-be.
‡ The British Newspaper Archive has a £1 offer on for a month till 2nd April this year – well worth a mooch around!
Edit: typo on the dates corrected. Thanks due to my eager proofreader!!
An email fell into my email box yesterday.
You know… that gives the wrong impression. Like I didn’t care if it arrived, like I wasn’t eagerly watching for it. Like I hadn’t spent the entire previous 28 hours watching for it.
Wednesday and Thursday of this week proved to be agonising. For one reason or another, I’d gotten the date wrong for the result – I thought it was Wednesday, turned out to be Thursday. Feeling of total doom and conviction all day Wednesday that the answer was going to be NO led to tears and upset on Wednesday evening as I reached out to someone to find out that the correct date was the following day. I consoled and medicated myself with Ben and Jerry’s and snuggles with my partner. And on Thursday morning I decided, after a day of agonisingly, continually hitting the refresh button on my email, to approach it differently.
I got on with stuff. Went to the doctors, picked up a routine medication prescription, took it to the pharmacist to get it filled, went to the shops to get food for dinner. Went home. Did some prep work for the next project. Refused to look at my phone except every hour, on the hour. Ran a bath, and went downstairs to get my lunch (a salad). Came back up.. and there it was.
sitting my email inbox. blinking. The email that would control the rest of my career.
I took a deep breath, a very deep breath, and opened it.
The first line revealed the result, no, the second WORD revealed the result. ‘pleased’. Funny how the pleasantries and manners of official documents like this reveal results far more than words like ‘offer’ and ‘successful’ and ‘congratulations’. No, my brain fixed on ‘pleased’.
A moment where the world went still, and I tried to take in the enormity of it. What it meant, how my life would change. Totally failing in that, but still struggling to deal. Tears pouring down my cheeks. A moment where I hugged it to myself, tight, a precious jewel of knowledge that … just for a moment, I didn’t want to share with anyone else, not even my nearest and dearest.
And then it began: notifying people. Family. friends. Facebook. My email went crazy. Social Media went crazy. Invites out to celebrate (which I couldn’t take up as I had my final MA class). Congratulations. Well dones. Sending emails to say thank you to those people who had helped with advice, with support.
And ‘pleased’. Yes. I’m pleased. I’m happy. I’m overjoyed!
((and truth be told, just a little bit scared.))
The last couple of weeks have been extremely busy – I’ve had two paid jobs to work on, one is very temporary (lasting only a week, but almost full time work during that week), and the other is also temporary but only 5 hours work per week over the course of about 5 weeks. Between the first two jobs I’ve spent almost an entire week on campus, and my studies have had to fit inbetween those jobs. And if I’m honest, they’ve fitted in quite well. The week-long job required me to do some survey work, which was around 15-20 minutes out of every hour. I managed to find a computer most days at uni which I could use, and the remaining 40-45 minutes out of every hour I succeeded at working – transcribing or making notes, the kind of thing where the constant stop-start doesn’t matter too much.
One of the documents I’ve been working on is called ‘An Alarme for Sinners‘. This was a long document written by a chap called Robert Foulkes during January 1679, and published after his execution on 31st January 1679. Foulkes had been found guilty of the ‘horrid murther’ (murder) of his just-born child on 15th January 1679(1), and had been sentenced to be hung. What was unusual about Foulkes is that he was a married vicar, and the child had been born to one of his parishioners, not his wife. Indeed, the relationship with his mistress (Ann Atkinson) had been subject to a lengthy court case in Herefordshire (the parish they lived in was subject to the Hereford Diocese), and Foulkes and Atkinson had celebrated their way when they thought the case was defeated, leading to pregnancy and, eventually, the scaffold. Atkinson pointed the finger squarely at Foulkes when they were arrested and she was found not guilty of the baby’s murder. Before his execution, Foulkes receved a number of visitors from the leading authorities in the Church of England; because the scandal had occurred during the Popish Plot/Titus Oates affair when the Church was still feeling under seige, the divines who visited had asked Foulkes to write a document extonerating the wider Church from all blame. An Alarme for Sinners is the result.
The copy I had saved onto my computer was made up of a series of PDFs; each double page spread being saved as one file. This, together with the problematic print and preponderance of fs instead of s made me decide to retype it – not difficult for me, as I learned to touch type years ago. In the event it took me slightly over a day and a half to type the entire thing, inbetween surveys. This is for my MA dissertation, and my research is focusing more on the relationship that Foulkes had with his parishioners as a whole, and what the case can reveal about clergy-lay relations rather than the scandalous behaviour of Foulkes and Atkinson. Still, having gone through the process of typing the document, a number of thoughts have come to mind. At least one of these is the difference by which we regard a document like this now, compared to 1679, and what the document reveals about general society and crimes in that period.
In An Alarme for Sinners Foulkes had – or so he said – a number of objectives. His primary objective was to ensure that the church was not blamed for his crimes. His pamphlet decried his actions and attempted to warn other people from following on his path. He gave thanks that his sins were discovered so that he had a chance to realise his errors before he died (and was inevitably sent to hell), and he addressed those people who he thought had done wrong (on a general level), to try to advise them on where to go right from that point on.
One thing that was very clear in Foulkes’s document was that sexual relations with prepubescent children was regarded as a horror; something very very wrong, especially when said child had been handed into one’s care. In his pamphlet, Foulkes went to some length to deny a group of accusations which said: that Akinson’s father had made Foulkes her guardian; that he had that he had used his position as her minister to persuade her that polygamy was lawful (a persuasion that today might be referred to as grooming); and finally, that he had ‘attempt and endeavour to vitiate’ Atkinson when she was nine. The accusations clearly upset Foulkes a great deal – it ‘imbittered my Cup both at my Trial and at my Sentence’. He also said that while he accepted that he was guilty of many other things, he took comfort in being innocent of both of these accusations, even though he had sins that had ‘exceeded’ them – i.e. the murder of his child. What is clear is that Foulkes’ horror of the charges, and his anxiousness to deny them, despite already being found guilty to hang for murder speak volumes about how those crimes were regarded by his contemporaries and society at large.
[While it is impossible to be sure at this remove, it has to be said that recent work by historians does support Foulkes’s claim of innocence of these charges. Foulkes was not made the incumbent of his parish until Atkinson was around ten years old, although Klein felt he first met her when she was around seven. He was certainly never made her guardian, (although he was, of course, her minister), and the two historians who have written about the case regard the affair has having begun around 1669 – when Atkinson was around 19 or 20.]
Interestingly, the document seemed to suggest that it was because Foulkes was placed in a position of trust, that the accusations were so serious. In other words; it would not have been deemed so serious if Foulkes had attacked a stranger. Did they regard the breach of trust as the more serious crime, or was the breach of trust deemed more as what we would now call ‘an aggravating factor’ in the sexual assault? Interesting questions. I have to admit that I have done no research into this topic at all; but it certainly shows, for those non historians that bewail a ‘plague of modern paedophilia‘, that social awareness of the crime existed at least as far back as 1679.
Moving now to the issue of charitableness, as promised in the title – when I first read the entire document, I reflected on how it would be regarded if an equivalent document was produced today by a man condemned to life imprisonment for the same crime – infantcide. Foulkes is clearly trying to restore his honour and the honour of the Church in this document and admits as much. Today, a document like this would be regarded with a great deal of cynicism. (Just imagine the tabloid newspaper headlines!) In 1679 there was some cynicism – Foulkes even anticipated this, as he preceded one section with: ‘For satisfaction to those who were at my Tryal, and may have their belief warpt to uncharitableness…’ and then addressed various accusations (including the ones discussed above). At the same time, Foulkes clearly believed that publishing this pamphlet would let his voice be heard. He admitted to horrible crimes, crimes that he abhorred, and even a crime that he was not charged for, a crime that he said no one else considered or felt was a crime at the time. As he pointed out, he murdered his child without baptising her first. In doing so, he ‘murther its Soul’. In 1679, as it had been for centuries, it was strongly felt by many – including Foulkes – that unbaptised children could not enter heaven (which is why midwives had long been permitted to baptise children where it was clear that a child would not live long enough to permit baptism by a clergyman, although this permission was starting to disappear by the seventeenth century (2)). By murdering his child before baptism, Foulkes ensured his child could never enter heaven. He had failed the child on two levels, as both a father, and as a minister. His sheer anguish and pain at having failed his child on both levels leaps from the page; the reader almost has to accept that he felt as he did, his misery is utterly convincing.
He did not have to write this. He was originally asked to assist the wider Church by making it clear that she played no role in his crimes – no more, no less. Foulkes made the choice to try to reach out to people, to show them where he had gone wrong, to confess where he had gone wrong (and where he had not gone wrong). In this, he succeeded in his aim of restoring his honour; he was prayed for throughout the City of London on the night before his death – a day that also marked the anniversary of the death of Charles I. (3) Public pamphlets, which widely published not only the Alarme for Sinners, but details of the crime, his sentence, and pre-execution actions, also suggest that Foulkes succeeded in restoring his honour. The final line of one reads: ‘Thus ended this unfortunate Gentleman, who by the temptations of Satan was thus brought like Holy David into the horrid sin a Adultery, but as his sin resembled his, so did his Reptentence, and we hope they are now both singing Hallelujahs in the glorious Region of Eternal joy’ – i.e. we (the publishers) hope that this chap has gone to heaven. The message here is: if he, who committed such a dreadful crime, can repent and reach Salvation … maybe we, who are guilty of much lesser crimes, can too.
And therein lies the main difference between 1679 and today, I think. Today, we – as a society, I mean – regard a document like this, and cynically ask what the author got out of it, and question it no further; any thought of repentance is dismissed with ‘well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?’. In the Early Modern society, perhaps, people were more charitable, more willing to accept that there could be multiple motivations for it, but that they are not all ultimately self-seeking and self-serving, and that perhaps repentence could be real. Perhaps, in the western society that we have today, more charitableness towards people’s motivations would not be a bad thing.
In any research project larger than, say, 8-10,000 words, from an academic article, or an undergrad dissertation, right through to a PhD thesis or monograph, have a number of required elements which need to be considered at the beginning of the research project.
I’m actually starting the research for my 20,000 word MA dissertation now. I’m in a funny position because I’ve known for some months (since early last summer) what the subject would be, and I’ve been collecting source material for it for a while – it’s researching something that has already been covered by another historian, but I’m going to be tackling the same material, with totally different questions, so it makes for an easy beginning to the project, because all I need to do is to follow the other person’s references to the source material (to begin with, at least). But only now am I actually considering the planning of it, which is quite the wrong way to do things. I was struck by this yesterday, as I drove to pick up my partner at the end of the day from the station (good thinking time that, driving), and it occurred to me that knowing the subject, and having that list of references and source material making it easy, meant that I’d not really stopped to think about really key elements that do have to be considered in any research project, and at a fairly early stage.
First up – its not enough to say, for example, that you plan to research XYZ. Anyone can say that, can say, oh, for example, that they plan to research the impact of the Queen on British Society in the twentieth century. However, attempting to research a project with only a topic like that will struggle to succeed – at least, at academic levels – partly because it’s a huge topic that would be difficult to do well in a smaller project (e.g. dissertation) and partly because it’s unlikely to undertake the critical analysis that is required at these levels. A good way to do that is to have Research Questions (caps intentional!). These serve to both limit the project so that more indepth analysis of the subject is possible, and to prod critical thought. One way to think of research questions is to think about the wider themes that the material or subject includes. So, to take the Queen again, these could be women, fashion, monarchy, society, economics, politics, political structures (there are more), then slowly narrow the themes down till at a point where its sufficiently narrow that a question can be constructed. So, going with our previous example, Research questions for this might be: Did the Queen have an ongoing impact on what society thought was socially acceptable during the period (politics, political hierarchy)? How much influence did her style of clothing have on British fashion (fashion, economics)? It is possible to see the expression of her own opinion in her Christmas broadcasts (politics)? These kinds of questions lend themselves well to further restriction and definition, such as – what’s ‘socially acceptable’? what period of British fashion are we discussing? Should we include, for analysis, the audio-visual material that is presented as part of the Christmas broadcast as well?
In addition, further elements need to be decided on. A line of argument is absolutely critical – whether a simple one, which you might have in a smaller essay – through to a much more complex piece of work, a line of argument is what keeps you focused on maintaining a tight thread all the way through. In the former example it might be that the Queen had a massive impact on British Society – but it could also be that the Queen only had a massive impact after a certain date, or before a certain date, or that she had no impact at all. Whatever your line of argument, every point, every paragraph has to contribute to that argument, even if you temporarily take another perspective to show why an alternative argument just won’t wash.
In larger projects, an extension of the line of argument is how you’re going to break it down – what chapters are you going to have, how many, how big will they be, what are their individual lines of argument, how do those individual lines contribute to the larger whole? Some academics correlate a key research question to each chapter, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. In the Queen example, the book could take a chronological approach, discussing her contribution to social mores, fashion and the christmas broadcasts in first the 1950s, then the 1960s, then… you get the idea. It could also do a chapter on each – the social mores, then fashion, then the christmas broadcasts.
Needless to say, I’m not researching the Queen’s impact on British society in the twentieth Century! I’m actually examining the case of a vicar who, in the post-Restoration period, had an affair with a parishioner. His other parishioners found out, and took him to court to try to get him removed from the parish as their clergyman. There are a number of different ways in which this material can be approached, exploring different themes. In writing and thinking about this blog post, I’ve had the themes playing in my mind, and I’ve been slowly writing ideas down in a seperate file. I still don’t have all the answers, but I do have a better idea of how I’m going to take this material forward. Suddenly, my 20,000 word MA dissertation doesn’t seem quite so daunting after all!
[I think it’s important to say – I don’t claim to have all the answers when it comes to doing research. I’m still learning myself! I just enjoy the process of learning by writing: by explaining here, to some imaginary, nebulous blog reader, I’m also explaining to myself. If, however, you are interested in reading something by someone who does know what they’re doing when it comes to research, then these two books may be a good starting point:
- B. Ballenger, The Curious Researcher: A Guide to Writing Research Papers (Pearson Longman, London, 8th ed., 2014).
- M. Petre and G. Rugg The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research (Open University Press, Maidenhead, 2nd ed., 2011).
I hope they’re of use!]
I spent last week immersed in the archives in Hereford, and I had a great time while I was down there. I am lucky enough that my mother lives nearby so I at least have somewhere to crash; this makes doing this research vastly easier. I went there with three aims:
- to check out the sources for my proposed PhD subject, to ensure that there are enough sources for me to study what I plan to study, and what kind of sources there are;
- to look at (and photograph) some of the sources for my planned MA dissertation;
- to look at (and photograph) some of the sources for an article I’ve got in mind.
But before I get into that, I want to spend a little bit of time writing about Herefordshire Record Office. It’s a great place to work! They’ve recently moved into a new, purpose-built building (with a coffee machine that absolutely rocks!) that is… well. Don’t take my word for it.. !
The main working room is lovely and bright – behind me, the room extends a little bit further, and since someone there needed the blinds drawn, it has made the area around where I’m standing, holding the camera, a bit dark. But otherwise, it’s lovely – certainly more than enough natural light to take photographs without a flash on a good digital camera. The building also has good toilets, smaller meeting rooms, a display area, and best of all… a mixed reception and small area where you can sit to eat your packed lunch or sip coffee from the aforementioned machine!
Outside is just as nice, a modernist building but I think those wooden tiles are going to colour beautifully, shading to a lovely silvery colour – they’re already on their way. The archivists are so fortunate to be working there – I know other record offices around the country are really struggling with space and with their working environments, not just for themselves, but for the people that visit their offices. I wish more record offices were able to have similar working conditions – hopefully one day. But in the meantime, its to HRO’s credit that they DO have these lovely offices, and I for one will be taking as much advantage as I can!
But onto my work. I left home Wednesday morning, and after a quick pub lunch, got there early enough to fit in about 3 hour’s work. They were immensely helpful and I was able to quickly assess what kind of records they have there. More importantly, I was able to assess that the methodology that I have in mind should work too, hopefully! I won’t know for sure until I actually try it and I don’t have time for that at the moment, what with my MA studies about to kick off again. But it is good news.
Thursday I was there all day, working on the second of my three aims, copying material for my MA dissertation. This is very much linked to my PhD proposal, in that its covering similar material (the MA, of course, being much smaller than the PhD) but since the MA gives me an ‘in’, it’s a way to get used to handling material that is notorious for being difficult to read and transcribe – namely church court records & depositions. Some of what I copied was in Latin, but I was able to make out enough to work out which records out of the stack were to do with my subject, I think, so I only copied those. I came home with a phone that was almost full of data and had to upload everything to dropbox that evening, hammering my mother’s internet connection in the process!
Friday I went with my mother to Brampton Bryan. Herefordshire Victoria County History had arranged a fantastic afternoon there, with two talks, one by Professor Timothy Mawl on eighteenth century garden design in Herefordshire, and the other by Dr. Jane Bradney on the Historic Gardens at Brampton. Both really interesting talks, then we got to see the castle and grounds at Brampton, in what is now a private home, so this was a real treat. I was also fortunate enough to meet some of the people who do a lot of work on local history in Herefordshire. The day was really good, although tiring, and I slept really well that evening. Many thanks to the people who organised the day!
Saturday I was back into the archives, researching the working woman in the seventeenth century in Herefordshire. My most productive foray that afternoon seemed to be in weights and measures – these are the records of people who have been flagged up for arrest as selling items with incorrect weights or measures (a form of scam), and since there are women’s names on the list, it shows that women were working in that period. I did a lot of photographing, so after this, I need to transcribe the names and then start doing further work from there, but still, it is a starting point.
What became very clear over the last week is that I am going to be spending a lot of time in the record office over the next year or so, if not the next 4 years! It’s probably a good thing I DO like it there, and that I have access to a readily available bed. In some ways being a historian is a bit like being in the armed forces. There, the oft-quoted quote is: “long periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror”. For historians, it’s “long periods of nose-to-the-grindstone, not seeming to achieve too much, punctuated by moments of sheer exhilaration, excitement, and joy”. I think the latter is better, personally, even if it does mean the next few weeks will see long periods of nose-to-the-grindstone…!
… maybe not. Not so sure that particular style is working for me – as evidenced by the lack of daily posts. There is only so much one can say about reading articles after all (I may as well post my notes), and I suspect at this point that won’t change until the second year of PhD studies.
Quite how this is going to shift, I don’t know. But it is a young blog, and blogs often take a while to find their feet, to settle down into their style. I’m not too concerned about that. Maybe a weekly post would work better. Let’s try it, for now:
Monday morning was primarily spent away from my studies, catching up with a few necessities like food shopping and so on. I still have to eat! I spent the afternoon working through a few ideas for increasing the social media use and engagement of a project that I’m going to be working on, in preparation for a meeting on friday. I started to read through an article, but had to leave to collect my partner from the station before I could finish it, unfortunately. In that respect, its a forced ending to my day – 6.15pm or so, is when I more or less have to down tools. I can’t decide whether that’s a blessing or not – I suspect it both is, and isn’t.
Tuesday… Tuesday was amazingly productive actually. Every single thing on my to-do list was crossed off, plus some additionals, making for a very positive end of the day. I finished reading, and making notes on, the article from Monday. I use the Cornell notes method at the moment, which helps a lot in terms of not only getting it straight in my head what the article is about (active, rather than passive reading), but also helps me to relate the material to my own research topic. Then I made some rough notes, starting to draw together the plan for the lit review, starting to think about how to frame and position various historians and theories with relation to my research topic.
I got quite a few emails done as well, in a veritable blizzard of productivity. Some of these I had been putting off for too long, but they got back to me fairly quickly, and they turned out to be relatively painless. I did a little housework (such as the ever-eternal washing up!) and prepared for a trip to the Record Office in Wigston, on Wednesday.
Wednesday… the planned trip to the record office. I’m doing a little voluntary work as part of the Charnwood Roots Project, where I’m researching the history of stage coaches and small carriers in parishes in the Charnwood Forest area (to the North West of Leicester). I’m well overdue in doing work on this, but I’ve been looking forward to it for a while, so … time to knuckle down. I managed to make serious inroads on the trade directories, which I think will be the main source for this project, starting from 1794 and I managed to get to 1849. It seems that although the stage coaches died fairly quickly after the introduction of the railways, the small carriers, going between the parishes and the towns, survived much longer – serving the equivalent of the rural bus network today. It will be interesting to trace the services for each parish, see how much continuity there was. I’ve already seen that with coach builders, there was a continuing trade from one particular street in Leicester, for example, although the actual business changed hands at least once. I suspect, that for parishes where the same person/family did this role for decades, they would have been seen as of key importance to the parish, like the parish clergyman or school teacher – if they weren’t disreputable in other ways. I have found evidence in local newspapers, later on (latter part of the 19th Century) that the carriers sometimes had a relationship with alcohol that was, well, lets describe it as less than healthy! Anyway, I’ve scanned/photographed the relevant pages with my phone and camscanner (more about that in another post), so what needs to be done now is a) extracting the relevant information out of the trade directories into parish format, and b) organising the photographs so that they’re ready for turning over to the wider Charnwood Roots project, ready for someone else to incorporate as part of the parish histories. So that will be a day or two’s worth work – probably starting next week.
One thing that I should really note is how good it felt to get into the record office and back into primary sources. I reflected on this in a comment on this post, by someone else who is doing a DailyPhD style blog, although in the sciences rather than the humanities like me. Stewart commented on how he got ‘far too excited’ because he was doing real science (for a change, rather than other stuff) and it immediately struck home for me, because I felt the same way in the record office. Nothing quite like the smell of a record office in the morning… (!) but in all seriousness, I think most people who work as serious historians will recognise what I mean: the excitement that comes when handling old documents, primary sources, of figuring out how to make them relate to your theory, of the implications of them… For me, however, there’s the ‘ding’ moment when you find a document or something that completes the puzzle, makes your theory work, makes you understand something that you were trying to work out… how it contributes to the ding isn’t so important, but the ‘ding’ moment is this moment of incredible clarity where the world, just a little bit, a tiny little bit, suddenly makes sense, or more sense than it did before, and I just feel on cloud nine when I get that. I don’t know whether other historians feel the same way – its not something that I think most people would feel comfortable discussing!
Anyway, back to the week’s review. Thursday, I uploaded the photographs and PDFs (of the trade directories) from my phone to my laptop, so they’re in a better format for working with next week. This was easier said than done as previously I had done this on a one-by-one basis – not suitable when you’re dealing with several hundred photos! So I had to research, investigate and download a suitable app for downloading large amounts of material, and finally found one, then had to sort them out – what with one thing and another that took most of the afternoon. I also did some final preparation for Friday’s meeting, then rounded off the day with a little reading of an edited book.
The meeting on Friday went well – that was discussing a new job that I will be doing, very part time, working as a social media officer for the Leicestershire Victoria County History project. This is something I’m looking forward to getting involved with – even did a little work on it on Friday afternoon and was very happy to see results immediately, so that’s good news. I’m also hoping to put in for another part time job doing research – it all looks good on the CV and its something I enjoy doing, so why not?
Next week: More work on the social media project, applying for that other research role, more work on Charnwood Roots, starting to pull together that Lit Review, more reading, and more research work in the record office – can’t wait for that day, at least! My mother is dropping by for a cup of tea tomorrow, on the way past, so it will be good to see her too 🙂
Just spotted on the BBC, this rather lovely article by Adam Gopnik, entitled ‘Points of View: The guilty thrill of reading other people’s emails‘ – and not at all what I thought it would be from the title. Instead, he muses about the difference between reading letters and diaries from people long dead, which he adores, and reading emails from people still living which he regards with a queasy distaste.
Gopnik doesn’t directly address the ethical issues on the difference between them – technically, unless the individual gave permission for them to be published after death – for example, with Alan Clark’s diaries – there should be no difference, although there often is. I, for example, just did a project using the household accounts of Joyce Jefferies of Hereford, and while there is no way to be sure, I suspect she would have been horrified had she known that 450 years later, anyone would be able to examine the intimate details of her life (however, if we were to ban all material that had not been given ethical permission, then much of the study of history would just stop, overnight. This is what I meant yesterday when I said, sometimes, there just are no right answers.).But despite that, Gopnik clearly differentiates between the missives of the dead and the living, exploring the differences between the way each make him feel, touching on the moral (and therefore ethical) imperative behind the two, the uncomfortable queasiness of reading emails from the living, as opposed to the guilty pleasure of reading letters from the dead. As he says: ‘So why does privacy seem essential to living people – and then suddenly seem to vanish as a value when we die, leaving us with an eager appetite for more disclosure?‘
His answer is to regard this kind of material much like a crop – it does no good nibbling at it, like a goat does grass – and which will effectively destroy the crop in the long run anyway. Instead, you have to back up… allow the crop to grow, to develop the flavours/seeds/fruits/ that you want, to reach the stage of maturity that you want, and then you can swoop in, knowing that there will be a rich source of … whatever it is you grew it for. As with crops, so with source material.¹
But my favorite bit by far, is this:
In order to have private lives to share in the long run, we need to have private lives kept private in the short run. If we did not have diaries and letters to read then history would be dull indeed. But if we make every diary public and publish every letter now, then life will become dull very quickly. All conversations would be whispered in secret, as they are in totalitarian states. In this sense, the destruction of privacy and the rise of tyranny are part of the same package.
‘history would be dull indeed’. In this, I think perhaps Gopnik doesn’t fully understand the mind of the academic historian, the kind that can take delight in the kind of dry, staid and – to most – boring material that would send non-historians into a coma. But at the same time, historians are humans too, and I fully admit, despite all I wrote about ethical issues the day before, that I too get a little thrill when I learn something new, perhaps something a little salacious, about someone who I admire. It removes them from an unrealistic pedestal, makes them fully human, and rationalises them – if they can reach those lofty heights, even with their peccadilloes, then perhaps I, with all my very human foibles, can surely do the same.
¹ ‘Historians & biographers as gardeners of human life’… hmmm. I quite like this analogy. Although, ‘historians and biographers as farmers of human life’? not so nice, is it? And that alone is an interesting thought, although the latter is perhaps more accurate. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the perceived difference between the two – that farmers are simply more ruthless than gardners, in the pursuit of profit and commericialisation. Although, anyone who truly thinks that has never seen a gardner with a pair of secateurs, on a pruning mission! Perhaps too it reflects the overriding view of both. Farmers are about profiting from the land. Gardening is about aesthetics, beauty, and thus appears, somehow to be more acceptable, less crude. The pursuits of beauty being more lofty than coarse money.