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Surveying Dunwich Britain's Atlantis

By Josh Allen - October 30, 2017 (0 comments)

by Dr. Tom Johnson (University of York)

I first visited Dunwich in about 2004 on a school trip for Geography. We were, of course, excited to get out of school. It was an usually long journey for a school trip, taking well over an hour from Ipswich. This afforded rich opportunities for messing around on the coach, and the promise, at the end, of a walk on the beach and a lunch of fish and chips.

Yet when we arrived, on a windswept, overcast day, I remember feeling grimly cheated. We had been told we were going to “Dunwich”. I had imagined a small town, like its more famous neighbours of Aldeburgh or Southwold, or at least a village, a settlement; a place in which one could arrive.

Instead, there was nothing. Just a single row of buildings, a short terrace of Victorian coastguard cottages, serving now as a visitor centre and tea shop (and a holiday rental from the National Trust). And thence, for several miles in either direction, nothing but bare sandy heaths, a typically desolate stretch of Suffolk coast.

Dunwich Heath, the coastguard cottages visible in the distance (image copyright the National Trust)

I would like to be able to say that I recognized, then, the peculiar kind of loss which had taken place. But in fact, so completely has Dunwich been ground away, that it would take a very keen eye to see that it was not simply an un-place, but an absence. Standing on that scrubby heathland, we were at the prospect point of a vista that no longer existed, overlooking a town that is buried offshore, under the waves.

The last visible hints of such a place had disappeared in the 1950s, when one could still find stray pieces of masonry on the beach. Had some giant dredged these fragments from the sands and reassembled them, it would have made the church of All Saints, glazed with the Perpendicular flint flushwork characteristic of the region (a fine example survives just up the coast at Southwold). It had lain perpendicular to the shore too, its chancel end pointing fatally out to sea.

Having stood in rebuke to the sea for so many centuries, the deterioration of the church was rapid. It is captured in a series of postcards from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If we trace the process backwards, we can see just a sliver of stonework in 1920 transformed into a grand, recognizable ruin in 1849.

Going back further still, to around 1830, this same structure appears in the background of a painting by J. M. W. Turner, now owned by the Tate. In the foreground, we see the dramatic, wearying rescue of a small boat by its crew, toiling against the overwhelming waves; beyond, perched on the cliffs, we can make out the ghostly ruin of the church, a looming reminder of the sea’s destructive power.

Postcards from 1920, 1919 and 1914 from Jenkins of Southwold. Sketch of 1849 by Hamlet Watling.

Turner was not the first to draw a lesson from the story of the sunken town. In 1754, when All Saints and some other buildings were still standing, the antiquarian Thomas Gardner had published the first history of Dunwich. He suggested that its ‘great and wonderful Decline’, would serve as a good prompt for his readers ‘to ruminate on the Vicissitude, and Instability of sublunary Things’.

For Dunwich had been great once. During the high Middle Ages, it had been one of the most important ports on England’s east coast, home to several thousand people. Its deep, sheltered harbour supported a thriving port; it was an essential source of ships for the king’s navy, and of customs revenue for the royal coffers; and in return, it had a royal charter confirming extensive liberties, an elaborate civic bureaucracy headed by a mayor, and sent two MPs to parliament.

It was, its burgesses claimed in the middle of the fifteenth century, ‘the chief port town to which merchants could repair’ in the region. Yet already by this time, this was a hollow boast rather than a reality. The town had been devastated by a series of natural disasters over the course of the later Middle Ages, and by 1573, it was described by John Dee as a ‘verie little small towne’.

These disasters were threefold. In the first place, gradually taking place over several centuries, the sandy cliffs on which Dunwich had been built were eroded and hauled into the sea – a process clearly underway in the town’s earliest records, and finally completed when the last debris of All Saints fell in the 1920s.

But alongside this slow erosion and subsidence, two rather quicker developments hastened the decline of medieval Dunwich. On one hand, the sheltered anchorage around the estuary of the Dunwich river, lying just north of the town, was gradually clogged with sand carried down the coast by longshore drift (that Geography field-trip was good for something).

On the other hand, there was a series of terrible sea storms in the later thirteenth and early fourteenth century, a product, it is now thought, of an extraordinary climactic adjustment. In 1286-7, 1328, and 1347, Dunwich was inundated by storm surges, which not only destroyed whole neighbourhoods, but drove yet more sand and gravel into the town’s harbour.

Together, these three natural disasters combined to reduce the town’s population, tax-base, and shipping facilities, as well as its influence with the Crown. While the borough limped on through the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it increasingly had to contend with the rival claims of smaller settlements nearby – Walberswick and Southwold among them – to act as the main port in the area.

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The placelessness of modern Dunwich, its near-complete erasure by the might of the sea, is particularly poignant because this destiny was recognized so early on. The Domesday entry for the town in 1086 noted that the town used to comprise two carucates of land, but recently had only one – ‘the other has been carried off by the sea’.

Its medieval history is full of such plaintive administrative defiance. In 1435, after the burgesses resolved a dispute with one of the neighbouring ports, a new boundary was agreed. It lay at the midway point of the old, silted-up harbour, now a marshy coastal floodplain. But how to preserve a boundary in the face of such turbulence, with the sands still shifting beneath their feet?

It was agreed a tree should be planted to mark the spot. Therefore, ‘in case it should fortune that the old harbour will grow to gravel and stone, as other places by the sea have done, then the tree shall bear record of the true boundary’.

Yet there was still some uncertainty about this. So the burgesses agreed with their neighbours that ‘for more sureness, and to avoid any trouble in case the tree is felled by the rage of the sea or cut down by men, therefore we have measured the ground according to law’. The distance between the old boundary and the new one was 209 rods, roughly a kilometre.

When I came across the legal documents containing these boundary clauses, these two striking images of marking place – planting a tree, and measuring out the distance by rod – stuck with me immediately (and eventually provided me with the title for my article).

They also prompted me to think a great deal about the relationships they were attempting to describe, between a physical place, a living community and its sense of its history, and a set of legal privileges contained in a set of much older royal charters. How did contemporaries understand the relationships between these things? And how should we, as historians, attempt to conceptualize it?

My article, ‘The Tree and the Rod: Jurisdiction in Late-Medieval England’, considers these issues. I argue that we have, perhaps, been too ready to see automatic connections between medieval places and their legal privileges, enshrined as jurisdiction. With cartography, satellite images, barbed-wire and border guards, we moderns conjure pictures of clearly marked-out territory far too easily.

The tools of place-making in the Middle Ages were far less clear-cut, far more contestable. Dunwich provides a wonderful case study for breaking down the connection between place and privilege, as its burgesses continued to insist on their rights, long after the place itself had been transformed beyond recognition from that described in their charters.

Medieval jurisdiction, I argue, did not simply happen. It was the result of a lot of work – very hard work, in the case of Dunwich – in creating a convincing legal interpretation of the relationship between a place, its people, and their rights, and, perhaps even more importantly, communicating that vision effectively to a wide audience, both inside and outside the community.

The eventual failure of that interpretation in Dunwich, the breakdown of the relationship between the physical place and its legal rights, was unlucky. It was the product, of course, of events and processes that lay far beyond the ken of medieval people, let alone their power to prevent them. In the twenty-first century, it is difficult to escape the feeling that we are any different from them. Confronted by the cataclysmic effects of climate changes produced by man-made global warming, we still seem unable to produce any meaningful response.

Yet there is, perhaps, a brighter message to take from Dunwich’s story. Throughout the Middle Ages, running parallel to the town’s continual and apparently inevitable decline, is a history of remarkable human resilience: a determination by its residents to defend against the sea’s destructive impetus, to stake Dunwich’s place on the coast.

Bordering Empire, Crossing Frontiers: Exile, Extraction and Expediters

By Josh Allen - October 16, 2017 (0 comments)

by Manjeet Baruah (Jawaharlal Nehru University) , Jasmin Daam (Universität Kassel) & James McDougall (Oxford)

“Bordering Empire, Crossing Frontiers”, our panel, addressed the issue of empire’s spatialities.

Empires have often been conceived of as primarily spatial configurations due to their obvious geographical extent. These three talks, however, questioned the assumption of imperial spaces’ unity. Their overall argument might be subsumed under James McDougall’s observation that “unity in diversity” is not necessarily the most defining feature of empire. His talk on deportation and migration in the French colonial empire demonstrated that in the French case, empire did not simply mean the unification of a huge landmass, although imperial propaganda routinely highlighted this image. To understand the French empire’s spatial structure, McDougall instead focused on citizens’ and subjects’ actual movements, concluding that such mobilities constituted an imperial space which differed significantly from geographical mappings of empire. The patterns of movement and circulation – both voluntary and coerced – of imperial subjects suggested a maritime rather than a land empire. Moreover, the space of empire itself was produced less by the extent of an idealised sovereignty, which was often more theoretical than effective, than by these patterns of movement and of embodied experience. Not only the overall characterization of the French Empire, but also the location of its ostensible “centres” and “peripheries”, and the relations between them, needs to be reconsidered accordingly.

Manjeet Baruah’s talk developed the debate on imperial spatiality by reversing the perspective. Rather than focusing on spaces constructed through movements and communications, he examined how a particular imperial territory, namely, the frontier space of Assam in colonial India, shaped human interactions. Baruah’s analysis of the colonial encounter between a British tea plantation manager and his servant revealed that the very same section of imperial space was perceived, accessed, and transformed differently by the protagonists. In turn, their distinct appropriations of space in the specific context of the frontier shaped the relationship between the two actors. While exploring the question of what produced such a social-spatial context, Baruah highlighted that the Assam-Burma “frontier” developed during the imperial period as a specific form of historical geography, marked by the relations engendered by state and capital which encompassed and intermediated the social worlds of the region. In the process, while such intermediated relations allowed the imperial penetration and the making of a resource frontier, it also allowed the multiple social actors, both imperial and native, to negotiate with or appropriate the frontier and produce meanings, depending on their location. Everyday relations were also part of this overall dynamic and manifested in the interactions between the tea planter and his servant.

The meaning of imperial space for individual imperial subjects at certain localities seems to be as heterogeneous as the places and subjects themselves. The structural diversity of empires has been acknowledged by most scholars. However, to assume that empire implied unification, driven by the imperial centre and aiming at the successive integration of ever more remote parts, does not seem to correspond to the practised and lived realities on the ground. Therefore, an understanding of empires’ structures requires an analysis of the ways imperial citizens and subjects endured, perceived, and shaped space in their interactions, reflections, and movements.

“Postcard showing the excavation site of Jbeil (Byblos), Lebanon. It was sent to Paris by a French tourist in 1938.”, postcard from the personal collection of Jasmin Daam

Jasmin Daam’s talk highlighted this important aspect in terms of the movement of travellers and circulation of postcards in the French and British Middle East Mandates in the early 20th century. The cultures of travel and postcards were located in the dynamic inter-connection between European travellers and local societies. But, through the encounters with changing ideas and practices of representations in and of the region over time, cultures of representing travel through postcards also underwent changes. Daam’s talk highlighted how, when imperial spaces and their social worlds are seen from such dynamic contexts, the forms or structures through which empires affected and entered into the imaginations and lives of people become evident. In this regard, Daam also pointed out how the cultures of travel and postcards allow one to study the individuals themselves as the concrete illustrations of the wider socio-political experiences of imperial spaces. For example, this is exemplified through a careful reading of the image-text relation that comprised any given postcard. While the relation between images and texts could produce representations of the colonial “other” in terms of their social, cultural or everyday worlds, these relations could also be subverted precisely through the disruptions produced between the image and text. Such disruptions were inscribed into the image-text relation by the travellers based on their personal encounters with the social or everyday worlds of the region. There were also occasions when the image itself, produced by local photographers and postcard editors, sought to subvert the colonial discourse. In the process, an important point that Daam’s talk underlined was that though empires were connected to processes of state and capital that produced imperial “orders”, their social and cultural contours were nevertheless diversely experienced and articulated, which in turn led to the production of multiple meanings of imperial spaces.

'Not Soul but Stomach (and Stench)'

By Josh Allen - October 9, 2017 (0 comments)

by Dr. Sarah Frank, University of the Free State

Our panel on ‘Plumbing in the Metropole: Time, Memory and the Senses’ drew the Everyday Empires conference towards its close. The panel delved into the visceral, often unpleasant lived experiences of colonial subjects across two different time-periods and empires. The papers, “A Colony in the Metropole? Daily Experiences of French Colonial Soldiers Interned in Vichy France” by Dr. Sarah Frank (University of the Free State) and “The Filth of the Abode of Felicity: Sewers, Stinks, and the Late Ottoman Empire” by Dr. Michael Talbot (University of Greenwich) drew methodologically on labour history, among other approaches, to explore the textures and odours of imperial subjects’ varied quotidian experiences in locations close to the centre of imperial authority.

Labour history in both cases proved generative of deep, strong and nuanced case studies, connecting the local scale to the national to the international. In the Ottoman case, local officials in Istanbul petitioned municipal and central government to build sewers to overcome the threat posed by sewage and stinks, while workers in the area around the naval arsenal went on strike against the risk of cholera. Michael Talbot showed how workers’ everyday experience of foul smells became a site of historical intersection between varied dynamics: negotiations between imperial and local agents, scientific development of bacteriological understandings of health in the late nineteenth century, the beginning of international agreements on fair labour practices in wartime and racialized ideologies of sanitation and health in a colonial world.

Many of these questions and themes returned in Sarah Frank’s paper looking at the experiences and politics of colonial prisoners of war (POW) interned in Vichy France, a century and a half later. After being captured by the Germans in June 1940, approximately 85,000 soldiers from across the French empire were interned in POW camps across occupied France, while white prisoners went to Germany. The German fear of colonial diseases and desire to protect the supposed ‘racial purity’ of the Reich influenced this decision, which would help define the POWs’ experiences in captivity.1 The colonial prisoners quickly became an important labour force. Indeed, regulating their work was a significant political consideration in the creation of the terms of the Franco-German armistice and one which drew on the 1929 Geneva Convention for the Protection of Prisoners to define the work they could do, illustrating how internationalist agreements intersected with inter-imperial practices.

“Group of Senegalese prisoners of war, Melun, France, August 17 1940”, ICRC archives, V-P-Hist-03440-35

Starting with the everyday and working up through various scales of analysis revealed the different dimensions of these imperial histories. The workers, from those building sewers in Istanbul to those working as POWs in the French countryside, were, of course, subject to macro-level political negotiations and imperatives, but they were also independent actors whose agency was often limited by and tied to the materiality of their work product. Michael’s paper demonstrated that workers could and did strike to protest sanitary conditions. In the French case, the colonial POWs were caught between the Vichy regime’s desire to collaborate with Germany, and its hope that returning colonial POWs could positively influence the discourse of French defeat in their home communities in the colonies. To these ends, in hopes of gaining more ideological and political control over the colonial POWs, the French state took on many of the financial responsibilities for their captivity.

The most important French contribution was feeding the colonial prisoners, through both Red Cross deliveries and French civilians bringing meals to prisoners working nearby. Yet even with the French supplying most of the colonial prisoners’ food, the Vichy regime feared setting ‘dangerous precedents’ where colonial prisoners might believe they were owed something even as limited as food. Strikes or work related protests among the POWs were punished swiftly. And disobedience, for instance a short-lived hunger strike by five Indochinese prisoners, was interpreted as the result of German propaganda, and never considered a legitimate protest.2

Michael argued that while complaints to the imperial government about the stench in Istanbul did cite fears of disease and bacteria, the appalling smell itself became a reason to protest and the imperial regime became an object of angry criticism for subjects who felt their leverage was being lost to increasingly unresponsive systems of municipal government. While many historians examine everyday life in terms of its physical conditions — food, work, health, personal interactions and so forth — Michael’s work pushed further into the question of sensorial experience, drawing on a tradition established by historians such as Alain Corbin.3 He argued that smell was at the centre of the urban and labour experience in imperial Istanbul and in doing so he combined histories of health, sanitation, the constitution of spatial boundaries between those exposed to smells and those spared, and between those who benefit from and control technological advances in sanitation within and across imperial formations, and those who do not.

French colonial POWs, meanwhile, had more contact with French civilians during their captivity in the imperial metropole than they had in the colonies or while in the French army. French men, women and children came to feed the workers, bring them extra clothes or supplies, and in some cases, help them escape from captivity. Some civilians were responding to Vichy’s call for imperial solidarity, while others viewed helping the colonial POWs as a form of resistance under German occupation. Sarah argued that during captivity, most colonial prisoners blamed the Germans captors for the difficulties of captivity and were grateful to the French efforts to improve conditions. It was only after release and during the long repatriation home, where the French reinstated the strict racial hierarchies, that the former prisoners’ anger and disappointment turned against the French colonial authorities. While some former prisoners, like Leopold Sédar Senghor, would go on to illustrious political careers, most tried to return to their former lives. Yet their everyday experiences during the war changed them and how they viewed France, which had huge consequences for the post-war world.4

Overall, it was through the lived experience of everyday lives, with their difficult working conditions, their nauseating smells wafting through the confines of long, dry summers, their demanding employers and their contact with colonial and imperial authorities, that the complex and connected nature of empire was revealed in imperial Istanbul and rural France alike.

Footnotes

1Nancy Lawler, Soldiers of Misfortune: Ivoirien tirailleurs of World War II, (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992), pp 104.

2Archives Départementales de Mayenne, 227W6, Commune of Beaulieu-sur-Oudon to Prefect of Mayenne, 11 June 1941.

3Alain Corbin, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination (Cambridge; Mass: Harvard University Press, 1986).

4See for example Ruth Ginio, The French Army and its African Soldiers: The Years of Decolonization (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017).

Reflecting upon Everyday Empires

By Josh Allen - October 4, 2017 (0 comments)

by Dr. Nathan Cardon and Simon Jackson, conference organisers (University of Birmingham) with Josh Allen (Past & Present) 

Over the summer of 2017; Nathan Cardon and Simon Jackson, the co-organisers of the Everyday Empires conference, edited a series of blog posts that reflected upon, responded to and rifted off; the intellectual conversations sparked at the two day event.

Highly ambitious in terms of its global sweep and desire to make legible the ways in which the process of imperialism in the modern era wove its way into the material fabric of everyday social existence. Past & Present was very pleased to support the conference, speaking as it does to exciting new ways of approaching questions that have exercised the journal ever since its foundation over sixty years ago.

Image from the American Colony in Jerusalem Collection, Library of Congress

To this end we were delighted when the co-organisers approached us to jointly host-alongside hosting on their own platform-a series of rapid responses by panellists and other attendees to the themes under discussion at the conference. Generally taking the form of panel reports serving to make accessible in concise and engaging form the ongoing work being undertaken by those who spoke, whilst also forming a permanent record of the event, the blogs published as part of the “Reflecting Upon Everyday Empires” series serve to point towards exciting new and ongoing discussions in the field.

Presented in order of publication the full series can be read below:

Rob Fitt;Imperial nostalgia, aesthetics, and the contemporary ‘everyday’: thoughts on Everyday Empires and selective historical memory

Past & Present; Looking Back at Everyday Empires

Nathan Cardon, Simon Jackson; Everyday Empires: Descriptive or Analytical Category?

Charles Fawell; “Engineering Imperialism, Building Empire”

Shahmima Akhtar, Carmen Gitre, Vernadette Vicuña Gonzalez; Everyday Performance/Performing the Everyday: Exhibitions, Leisure and Hospitality

Stephen Tufnell; Accelerated Mobility: Travel and the Culture of Everyday Empire

Ruth Morgan; Everyday Empire’s Tools

Sarah Frank; “Not Soul but Stomach (and Stench)”

Manjeet Baruah, Jasim Damm, James McDougall; “Bordering Empire, Crossing Frontiers: Exile, Extraction and Expediers”

 

J.W. Lindt, Irrigation at Mornington plantation, Mildura, 1890. H96.160/1915, State Library Victoria, Australia.

Past & Present was pleased to support this event and others like it. We welcome funding applications from historians of all fields and time periods at any stage in their career. More information can be found here.

Beyond the home: new histories of domestic servants

By Josh Allen - September 22, 2017 (0 comments)

by Dr. Sacha Hepburn (IHR, London) and Olivia Robinson (University of Oxford), conference organisers

Two weeks ago, the conference we had been planning for the last 10 months finally came into being. When we first drafted the Call for Papers, we wondered just how many people we could get around a table for a day of discussions about servants’ lives ‘beyond the home’. We were not prepared for how popular this call turned out to be: by the deadline in March, we’d received more than 40 abstracts from researchers on 6 continents. By 7th September, as conference delegates took their seats and we began our opening address, the event had grown to a two-day conference of papers and special sessions, including a keynote address from Carolyn Steedman. We now know that the subject is of interest to a wide audience, including those within and outside of the academy. We share here our thoughts on what we’ve learned, and what comes next.

Sociability panel: Stephen Sparks, Kathryne Crossley, Sacha Hepburn, Paul Borenberg, courtesy of “Beyond the Home 2017”

Aims & ethos of the conference

The conference aims were twofold: to place servants’ lives centre-stage and push beyond the boundaries of existing research on domestic service, and to gauge the appetite for developing a network of researchers to continue working on this topic. While servants have never been accorded the place in social and economic history that their numbers deserve, there is a rich body of scholarship on domestic service for many parts of the world, and particularly Western contexts. Existing studies have successfully explored the servant experience in their place of work, with servant-employer relations central to most analyses. While there are still exciting things to be done in these areas, there is another aspect of the history of domestic service which has received far too little attention: servants’ lives beyond the homes in which they laboured and the contributions that servants have made to social, cultural, economic and political life. We were motivated to understand how others have considered these issues so that we can better understand our own specific research areas, and we were guided by three central ideas: to explore a broad range of chronologies and geographies; to engage with diverse voices, including those working outside of the academy; and, ultimately, to ensure our findings are shared as widely and freely as possible.

Papers and panels

Speakers explored servants marital and familial relations (Butler, Keithan); servant participation in the immediate and wider communities around the places in which they worked, and the friendships and activities they developed in those communities (Clapperton, Hepburn, Mansell, Wallace); what servants did in their limited spare time, be that attending fairs, dancing, gambling, fighting or writing poetry (Borenberg, Crossley, Davidson, Dyer, Louvier, Rastén, Steedman); servants’ involvement in unions and struggles for suffrage and civil rights (Dussart, Hansen, Haskins, Klots, Schwartz, Sen); servants’ experiences of mobility and travel, whether across racial boundaries in segregated societies or across oceans and continents (Robinson, Sparks, Walchester); and the ways in which servants are represented today, either in museums (Chynoweth and Humphreys) or through other cultural mechanisms such as film (Randall). We were delighted to welcome speakers from the USA, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, South Africa, India and Australia; from historians of the early modern down to postcolonial periods; from those who focus specifically on servants to those who do not; and from those working in History but also Anthropology, Area Studies, Literary Studies, Geography and Cultural Heritage. Such diversity made for lively and engaged discussion and we thank everyone who attended for their contributions and ideas.

Overarching themes

The papers on each panel spoke both usefully to each other and to those in other panels, and a number of overarching themes emerged. These included elements of the spatial (what constitutes the home, or the domestic? A room? A house? An estate?); considerations of time (when were servants engaging with non-work activities? On days off? While at work?); and the impact of the global on the individual servant (how did servants engage with ideas and concepts from other parts of the world and, particularly, with Empire?).

A series of engaging and thought-provoking discussions on these issues led us to ask new questions about servants’ lives beyond the home. It became clear across the papers and discussions that in order to develop a more holistic understanding of servants’ lives, we need to think more carefully about the impact of domestic work itself. Mere access to free time is governed by working hours; writing letters relies on access to writing technology; the ability (and indeed desire) to engage in sports or other leisure pursuits is determined by the level of exhaustion caused by performing hours of manual labour. The list goes on. A major learning outcome was therefore that the contributions made by servants beyond the home cannot be fully understood in isolation from their work contexts. This is one of the key issues that we hope to explore further in future.

Conference pack, courtesy of “Beyond the Home 2017”

Learning points

Two broader points for reflection relating to our approach became apparent during the conference. Firstly, we found that exploring diverse chronologies and geographies, while illuminating in many ways, can be a barrier to engagement, especially given the constraints of presenting via 20-minute papers. Important parallels and points of comparison between our work can at times get lost in translation if delegates are unaware of the political context, economic conditions or social constructs relevant to each paper’s argument. This is, of course, a key challenge to collaborative approaches, particularly when a global framework is adopted. We aim to address this by developing the scope and content of the conference website, of which more below.

Secondly, it became clear that accessing servant lives beyond the home was invariably dependent upon highly personal source material. Letters, diaries, oral histories, interviews, individual legal records, etc., painstakingly pieced together, offer a glimpse into the ways in which servants interacted with and shaped the world around them. This common approach bound much of our work together but, as is true of researching marginalised groups more broadly, this is a challenging task. Thankfully, the rewards are worth it. We plan to reflect further on this issue on our website in due course.

Next steps

The enthusiasm for the subject of servants’ lives beyond the home and the supportive atmosphere of the conference have left us convinced that there is scope to develop this project further. We are currently working on an online hub designed to both keep the conversation going among those who attended the event and to bring in a wider range of voices: from within and beyond academia; those working in and on geographically diverse areas; researchers across disciplines; and those not necessarily working directly on servants. This should enable us to grow and sustain a network of people working on servants, a central goal of which will be to foster individual and collaborative scholarship. There is certainly scope to build on the themes addressed at this conference. Some ideas raised by our delegates included social and geographic mobility; servants’ cultural and artistic practices; representations of servants beyond the academy; and the impact of the labour process and the materiality of domestic labour on servants’ lives beyond the home.

We hope the conference and online hub will encourage historical research, writing and, indeed, teaching that takes a holistic approach to servants’ lives, considering not only their experiences of work, but how they as individuals interacted with and shaped the world around them. More broadly, we hope to encourage historians of all places and themes to consider how servants have impacted social life, politics, and culture in the places and periods on which they write. There is still so much to explore, and we invite anyone with an interest in this area to join the ‘Servants Beyond The Home’ network via our website.


This blog post draws on ideas that emerged from conference discussions and delegate feedback forms. Sacha Hepburn and Olivia Robinson both welcome enquiries relating to the conference and to the online hub.

Past & Present was pleased to support this event and others like it. Applications for event funding are welcomed from scholars at all stages of their careers. Additional support to run Beyond the Home was received from the Royal Historical Society, The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH), and the University of Oxford Faculty of History.