I arrived at the coach station early, thanks to the excellent fool-proof map a good friend drew me. So I took the opportunity to enjoy a Chai Latte and jot down a few thoughts on the past three days I’ve spent in Portsmouth at the annual Social History Society conference.
It was my second time at this sizeable yet friendly conference, which always seems to bring out a surprising number of common threads across a diverse range of topics. How well this worked is a testament to the last contribution made to the society by Dr Neil Armstrong, whose sad and sudden passing last week left many here stunned. He put together a programme that showed a real understanding for how ideas are shared in academic life. Although nobody could avoid the problem having to choose repeatedly between numerous fascinating papers up against each other.
This time I didn’t manage to see Jen Evans’ paper, although hers was my highlight last year. Nor any in the strands on ‘Life-Cycles and Life-Styles’, ‘Deviance, Inclusion & Exclusion’ or ‘Narratives, Emotions and the Self’, spending most of my time in ‘Political Cultures, Policy and Citizenship’ or ‘Economies, Culture and Consumption’. I made only a brief visit to ‘Spaces & Places’, where the social value of the work done in different environments was a strong theme – whether providing philanthropic support in Victorian Dublin and Edinburgh (what Joseph Curran nicely termed ‘stateless capitals’), teaching botany in eighteenth-century gardens or helping the unemployed to work the land on Scottish allotments. We also heard about the treacherous road to the healing waters of seventeenth-century Bath, nicely reminding us that not all landscapes are ready to be shaped by social action and interaction.
The importance of ideas and social context popped up a few times. In the ‘Global and Transnational Approaches’ strand, Maria Franke posed the question: “what happens when an anti-colonial movement steps in and provides humanitarian help?” Responses to between 300,000 and half-a-million refugees arriving in India from Burma in 1942 suggested a balancing act between using operational independence to demonstrate ability to govern and the necessary co-operation with the imperial state. Understanding the wider context helped us make sense of what it meant to prosecute fraud or fear a new generation of highly-skilled burglars in the nineteenth century, and why the Labour Party’s 1918 Clause was less about the state than ethical socialist views of society. The relationship between ideals and pursuing them led George Stevenson to note that, although the 1970s saw many defections from organisations of the far left to those of the Women’s Liberation Movement, rejecting the institutions was not to reject the cause of tackling class inequality.
But if there was a key recurring theme intellectually across the papers I saw, it was the relationship between past and present – not so much for us looking back today as historians, but the ways in which those we’re studying actively used the past in framing and understanding their own lives and circumstances.
A panel on youth culture and politics brought Barbara Crosbie’s work on the support for young reformist parliamentary candidates in 1774 Newcastle into conversation with Charlotte Clements’ on youth clubs in 1960s/70s Liverpool and London. As Barbara noted, customs are most susceptible to reinvention at the point of transfer from one generation to the next, and this was true – in terms of fashion, politics and consumption – as much for a young breed of politicians in the late-eighteenth century as for a new generation of youth workers in the late-twentieth. Theirs was an active break from tradition that resisted the practices of the recent past, whether the expectations by voting for 30-something reformers or in setting up a youth club without a clubhouse.
Penny Summerfield blew open a discussion on wartime rationing, now commonly commemorated on fridge magnets, by asking whether nostalgia is a critique of the present. Karen Hunt brought it into focus when she noted that what we know (or think we know) of rationing in the Second World War serves to frame what we can’t know of the First. Although, as Hayley Cross’s oral history participants made clear, for many rationing was only one facet of a longer working-class experience of domestic hardship, meaning what looks to us now like a striking development might actually have been embedded in mundane lived continuities in practice. Meanwhile the change after 1945 in Singapore, described by Daniel Schumacher in an excellent session on humanitarian relief in 1940s Asia, was one that saw Chinese ladies take over from colonial wives as poppy sellers – an affront to the imperial ownership of memorialisation that makes us question the boundaries of Britishness.
For me there were some fascinating parallels to my own work, especially that on the social functions and meanings of payment historically. Sarah Flew noted the introduction of paid collectors in London’s religious charities at the end of the nineteenth century, an act of distancing born of a discomfort of the ladies collecting the money. Meanwhile, Kathleen McIlvenna discussed some of the differences between nineteenth-century attitudes to pensions based on ideas of having made a financial contribution, rewarding loyal service and paying off aged and inefficient workers. Ruth Davidson noted the re-imagining of poor rate as a form of insurance, recasting payment in social-moral terms that has more to do with the values of those paying than what they’re actually paying into.
Meanwhile Kate Bradley and I both addressed postwar developments in voluntary action, identifying greater continuity than might be expected. For Kate, this was the long charitable involvement in legal advice. For me, the subject was the Child Poverty Action Group, established almost exactly 50 years ago. I complicated the picture we have of the CPAG as a classic example of the new wave of media-savvy, expert-led pressure groups in the 1960s, suggesting a greater role for a grassroots campaigning and a focus on achieving change away from the policymaking debates of Whitehall – ultimately a more familiar brand of campaigning. This was my valedictory in a sense, as I gave the presentation on the same day Ruth Davidson officially started work, taking over from me, working under Professor Pat Thane on the CPAG project. But on the same day as I handed over one role, I took on a new one.
I was very pleased to be elected (in a tough, unopposed election) as the Society’s Communications Officer. So I’ll be getting involved looking ahead to next year’s conference, as we ask for suggestions on how we might adapt our conference model for our 40th anniversary. Back in 1976 Harold Perkin set up the Social History Society, and in 2016 we’ll be returning home to Lancaster University. Recent conferences have seen the arrival of the ‘global and transnational approaches’ strand, the postgraduate poster competition, Q&A sessions including on numerical skills, and advice sessions on the REF and submitting to the SHS’s journal Cultural & Social History, and sea shanties. But what further developments or one-offs might be appropriate for our 40th? Please do feel free to use twitter, facebook, email or comment below to let us know if you have ideas.