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Thursday 19 December 2013

Forthcoming appearances

From deviance to diversity? Finding sexuality and sexual science in the archives  
The National Archives, Kew, 29 Jan, 14:00
‘A night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury’: sexually-transmitted diseases and their history?
Barts Pathology Museum, in Matters of the Heart month series, 18 Feb, 6.30 pm
The Florence Nightingale Museum, 27 Feb, 6.30 pm

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Unglamorous but necessary

Yet another thing that archivists suspect is under-appreciated by, if not completely unknown to, the general public, is the central importance of cataloguing to what they do. (Even if is also the activity that tends, frustratingly, to be the one that gets pushed down the priority list by more immediate demands.)

One still finds people who make an initial contact, or just come in, and think that the way to engage with an archive is to start with the first box and go until they reach the last file in the last box.

A good catalogue performs the function of the London Tube map in providing an overview and showing how the items within the collection are related to one another. It will probably also include helpful background information on the person or institution and a general account of the collection, what it contains, notable gaps, state of order when found, etc.

A recent post by a colleague on the Wellcome Library blog draws attention to the importance of the contextual information about the individual item that the classic archive catalogue provides, and the impact of new online approaches, their advantages and disadvantages.

Sunday 8 December 2013

Another message of caution pertaining to archives

Organisations usually already have archives, and the priority, if they are worried about the preservation of their history, is to do something about those archives that they are sitting on. It's a nice flourish to run around collecting oral histories from aging individuals who have been associated with the organisation from the outset, or at least for a very long time, or to ingather bits of memorabilia. But it's not the most vital thing.

The core action point should be to talk to an archivist about the existing archives. It doesn't necessarily have to be an archivist whose repository might take the archives, just somebody who can give the essential advice about physical storage, what to keep and what to throw away, and someone who can advise on what repositories might be interested,  from either local or thematic collecting policies.

The next thing is to get those archives into decent storage (and preferably not one of the more expensive commercial storage firms) rather than the coal cellar or the loft where pigeons have started roosting and to which entry is restricted to able-bodied persons who can manoeuvre up the rickety drop-down ladder and through the hatchway.

It is always possible that it is quite feasible for the archives to be retained in a secure and safe manner on site, catalogued on the premises (preferably by a qualified archivist, or at least with professional input), and made available for ongoing research by interested parties. In most cases this is likely to present problems (archives take up space which may well be at a premium, who is going to deal with researchers, etc) , and negotiations should be opened with an archival repository.

If an organisation wants its history to be reliably preserved, its records need to be in a secure store with appropriate environmental controls, and the intellectual control over what's there needs to be gained via cataloguing, or at least, an adequate inventory identifying what's there and where it is located.

Once this end has been attained, it provides a sound basis for all those other activities.

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Possibly I am in unduly pedantic mood

Over the past few hours on Twitter I have irked by some simplistic or unthought-through invocations of history.

Just because something has not happened before during one particular (youngish) person's lifetime, doesn't make it a unique phenomenon in history. It is one that can probably even be discernable with other people's living memory (what about the 'New Poor' between the wars or the Great Depression?)

The 1890s/1910s were not a period of uncomplicated British Imperialistic confidence and triumphalism.

Just because a method of contraception exists, doesn't mean that everybody, everywhere, will have access to it, particularly if it's a pharmaceutical product, which will a) be subject to national or regional regulatory licensing systems as to whether it may be prescribed b) is under the control of the medical profession.

Tuesday 3 December 2013

Possibly more than six and sixty ways

Thinking about a conversation I had last week, I wonder how many times I have been asked whether I have some appropriate qualification relevant to the subject matter of the archives I catalogue. To which I think any archivist would respond that there are basic principles of archival practice and it doesn't really matter what you deploy them upon, providing it's an archive of some sort. Actually, I think this has mostly arisen in the context of am I a proper medical doctor (no, my PhD is in fact in history of medicine, so perhaps I am licensed to apply leeches when needful...). I don't think anyone assumed, when I was at the India Office Records, that everybody there was an Old India Hand or had even visited it in the days when it was at the end of the Hippy Trail. (It does help to have some knowledge rather than a completely blank slate to work with.)

That having been clarified, people may want to know if there are rules for cataloguing a particular archive, to which the response is usually, it depends. Just because a particular arrangement was appropriate for one archive, doesn't mean that it can be generalisable to all archives, because every archive is unique, and probably idiosyncratic, outside of certain bureaucracies which stick to protocols laid down in the heyday of public administration. Individual repositories may have local conventions, and certain kinds of records may fall into recognisable structures. But particularly when dealing with personal papers, anything goes, or can go.

Wednesday 13 November 2013

There is no secret handshake

It irks archivists when people talk about 'hidden gems' in the archives, because this lazy cliche tends to mean items which are in fact in the catalogue and may well have been publicised, but have not previously come to the attention of the individual who invokes this expression.

I am not entirely sure whether it is the same people who talk about hidden gems who think that in order to access the riches of an archival collection they need to speak to an archivist, preferably in person. That's actually what catalogues are for. An archivist can probably give you a general sense of what is in a collection, and possibly even more important, what isn't. But on the whole, the information on what we know about any given collection will be included in the catalogue description. I have processed many collections of archives during my career, and not all of them are entirely fresh in my memory by now, should you ring up and ask me about them.

On the whole, and doubtless with some exceptions, what archivists like to do is get the usable information about their holdings out there where people can look at it themselves. It should not be necessary, given a well-run archive, to need to know a specific name and possibly have a secret handshake ready in order to find out what they've got.

Or maybe this is just a version of 'do my research for me': the hope that talking to the archivist will obviate the need to actually look at the archives.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

A couple of interesting events in the near future

Interdisciplinary Workshop on Reproduction (IWR9)

15 November 2013, 09:30 - 17:30

CRASSH, Seminar room SG1, Ground Floor
Limited places,  Online registration required 
Deadline to Register Online is: Friday 8 November at 3.00pm
Student fee £10.00
Full fee £12.00

CIRF’s 9th annual Interdisciplinary Workshop on Reproduction will focus on the theme ‘Communicating Reproduction’, with the aim of considering how reproduction is constructed and communicated within academic institutions and broader society. The workshop will explore this theme and promote contact and exchange among researchers working on various aspects of reproduction in different disciplines. The purpose of the workshop is to provide opportunities for productive interdisciplinary discussion and evaluation, and give speakers and audience members the opportunity to make interdisciplinary research connections, to share ideas, and to begin new collaborations.

Open to all, but places are limited. Please book online.
Fee include lunch, refreshments, and conference material.

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
Keppel Street, London WC1E 7HT

Professor Simon Szreter (Cambridge University) , 'How much Venereal Disease was there in Georgian London? Can we estimate the population prevalence of STIs before the twentieth century?'

The venereal diseases feature strongly in Boswell's diary and consequently Georgian London has passed into literature and popular history as a byword for sexual licence. But is this at all justified as a general description of the capital and its population? Can we hope to know anything about the population prevalence of STIs in Britain before the twentieth century?

Simon Szreter presents new research undertaken in collaboration with Kevin Siena (author of Venereal Disease, Hospitals and the Urban Poor. London's Foul Wards 1600-1800)

The lecture will be chaired by Professor Kaye Wellings, LSHTM and the vote of thanks will be given by Professor Dame Anne Johnson, UCL.

Tuesday, 19th November 2013, 5.30 pm - 6.45 pm John Snow Lecture Theatre B, Keppel Street Building  (Followed by a reception in the Atrium)

ALL WELCOME!  RSVP to Ingrid James: Tel: 020 7927 2434  or email

Funded by the Wellcome Trust 

An undesirable practice

Just had occasion to look something up in a recent work of popular, yet scholarly, history based on a great deal of archival research, since I remembered that when I read it the author mentioned consulting a certain archive at a particular repository.

However, in the 'List of Archives' at the end, all we get are the names of the various repositories, and absolutely no indication of what actual collections in any given repository had been consulted. This is something that strikes me as extremely bad practice. Most of the repositories listed (except where the onsite records of a particular organisation had been consulted) hold very large numbers of archival collections, and in many instances several which the author of this work might have consulted.

I did, in the end, manage to find the information I was seeking through trawling through the footnotes of the chapter in which the archive was most likely to have been referenced. But this should not be necessary.

At least, however, the information had been footnoted in reasonable detail. It is extremely annoying to archivists when scholars cite some item - sometimes not even the actual file, but a single letter within a file or volume - with no reference, except perhaps to the very large collection within which it might be found, or with no indication at all as to the specific collection, only to the repository as a whole. Furthermore, if scholars have been given access to uncatalogued or partially-catalogued material, it behooves them to be particularly meticulous in contextualising any material they cite so that in due course it can be located by other researchers.

Monday 28 October 2013

Sex and the Medical Officer of Health

The Wellcome Library's exciting new project : London's Pulse: Medical Officer of Health reports 1848-1972 (post on the Library blog here) has opened up this enormously valuable resource to a wide range of researchers.

The responsibilities of the Medical Officer of Health were wide, ever increasing for many decades up to and beyond the inception of the National Health Service. However, it may not seem obvious that these reports have anything to offer to the historian interested in sexuality.

In fact, Medical Officers of Health were one group of the medical profession (rather like women doctors) who were taking an interest in the subject of birth control at a period when most doctors were reluctant even to talk about it, and a search across the London MOH reports demonstrates that at least some of their number were mentioning the topic (if not always with approval) from the early 1920s.

They had already been tabulating induced abortion among the causes of mortality within their areas for a much longer period.

Sexually transmitted infections were another public health concern and searching on 'venereal' or 'syphilis' or 'gonorrhoea' produces a substantial number of hits.

By the 1940s and 50s, Marriage Guidance had come to be seen as falling within the purlieu of the MOH's interests and work relating to sex education of young people also features.

There are therefore a number of intriguing research possibilities that spring to mind that could be based on this new resource.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

My recent cataloguing activities

Recent posts at the Wellcome Library blog on collections/items I've been processing lately:

Having a ‘typewritten conversation’: one letter, but a long and important one, from Sir Robert McCarrison to George Scott Williamson and Innes Pearse of the Pioneer Health Centre, Peckham

The Blood is the Life: the Harrison-Howell Blood Transfusion Collection

‘One of the great leaders among medical women in India’  on the papers of Dr Margaret Ida Balfour, (1866-1945), CBE, MD, CM FRCOG.

Monday 7 October 2013

Forthcoming conferences of interest (that I probably shan't manage to get to)

October 12th 2013, British Library
A day of dialogues between Women’s Liberation activists and younger feminists.
Today Britain is experiencing a resurgence of feminist activity. From online activism to protests at the impact of government policies, women are on the march again. What is the relationship between this new feminism and the Women’s Liberation movement of a generation ago?
On October 12th the British Library will host a day of discussion on the British women’s movement. Inspired by the new ‘Sisterhood and After’ oral history archive at the BL, women’s liberationists will be talking about their experiences as feminist activists with younger women who are working on the history of second-wave feminism.
In sessions on race, sexualities, reproductive choice, the rise of women’s history, and class and work, we will both celebrate and critically examine British feminism and its legacies. There will be lots of time for audience members to pose their own questions and provide their own memories of the time, so we encourage anyone with an interest to attend. The day will close with a question: what now for the women’s movement?
For a full programme, please see below.
Tickets will be £15 for the day (£5 concession). Pre-booking is essential, through the British Library’s Box Office, which can be accessed online (http:/, via telephone (+44 (0) 1937 546 546), or in person at the Information Desk at the British Library.
‘In Conversation with the Women’s Liberation Movement: Intergenerational Histories of Second Wave Feminism’ has been supported by the Sisterhood and After: an Oral History of the Women’s Liberation Movement project at the British Library, the University of Sussex, the Raphael Samuel History Centre, and the History of Feminism Network.
9.30-10:00         Arrivals. Refreshments will be provided
10.00-10:30       Introductions
10:35-11:20       Session 1 Women’s History
Interviewees:  Sally Alexander and Catherine Hall
Interviewers:  Lucy Delap (King’s College, London) and Rachel Cohen (De Montfort)
11:25-12:10       Session 2 Reproductive Choices
Interviewees: Denise Riley and Jocelyn Wolfe
Interviewers: April Gallwey (Warwick) and Freya Johnson Ross  (Sussex)
12:10-13:10         Lunch (not provided; sandwiches can be purchased in the BL or locally)
13:10-13:55         Session 3 Sexualities
Interviewees: Sue O’Sullivan and Beatrix Campbell
Interviewers: Sarah Browne (Nottingham) and Charlotte Jeffries    (Cambridge)
14:00-14:45        Session 4 Race
Interviewees: Gail Lewis and Amrit Wilson
Interviewers: Nydia Swaby (SOAS) and Terese Jonsson (London Metropolitan)
14:45-15:15          Coffee Break
15:15-16:00           Session 5 Work and Class
Interviewees: Cynthia Cockburn and Lynne Segal
Interviewers: Bridget Lockyer (York) and Kate Hardy (Leeds)
16:05-16:30       Closing remarks: Susuana Antubam, Women’s Officer of the University of London  Union
Please contact Sarah Crook at or Signy Gutnick Allen at with any questions about the event.

Women as Wives and Workers: Marking Fifty Years of The Feminine Mystique
Saturday 30th November 2013 at Royal Holloway University of London

2013 marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Feminine Mystique’s publication.  From the outset, Betty Friedan’s text had an enormous influence on academic and popular audiences, selling millions and shaping feminist discourse about the housewife throughout the Western world.  Yet at the same time, full-time housewifery was becoming both a less common experience and a cultural battlefield.  Since the 1950s, levels of employment amongst married women (notably white women) have risen enormously.  Women have increasingly been confronted with the ‘superwoman’ paradox, which Friedan herself encapsulated: writing about ‘the zombie housewife’ and ‘the problem that has no name’ whilst being a working wife and mother.  Many other women likewise negotiated domesticity and paid work, but their experiences were by no means uniform and were shaped by various other factors including race, age, sexuality and socio-economic status.
This conference aims to draw these themes together by offering an opportunity to explore The Feminine Mystique alongside discussions of women and employment.  Areas of consideration may include but are not limited to:
Women’s paid employment      
The Feminine Mystique, its impact and critiques, for example with regards to race
The international impact of The Feminine Mystique
Domesticity and the figure of the housewife: experiences, rights, cultural portrayals
Discourses of motherhood and fatherhood        
Evolving notions of family
Gender and education                                                 
Notions of ‘having it all’ and being ‘Superwoman’
The National Organization for Women: its impact, legacy and critics
The development of women's organisations and networks since the 1960s

We invite papers that address these topics either broadly or specifically. While papers with a particular emphasis on mid-twentieth century America may be given priority, we also encourage scholars to present work with a comparative perspective (across time and/or space) or looking at other geographical areas. Panel submissions are also welcome.  A special issue of History of Women in the Americas based on the conference papers is planned, subject to the usual peer review procedure.
‘Women as Wives and Workers: Marking Fifty Years of The Feminine Mystique’ is the sixth annual conference of the Society for the History of Women in the Americas (SHAW) and is being co-organized with The Bedford Centre for the History of Women at Royal Holloway University of London.  The conference organisers are Helen Glew (University of Westminster), Jane Hamlett (RHUL), Sinead McEneaney (St. Mary’s University College) and Rachel Ritchie (Brunel University).
A 250-word abstract and a short biography should be emailed to by Monday 14th October 2013.  Please use the same email address for any other enquiries about the event.

Women’s History Network, Midlands Region:
Military Women
Saturday, 23rd November 2013, 10.30am-3.30pm, University of Worcester
Provisional Programme:
10.30am    Registration and Coffee
11.00am    Keynote address Title TBC
Dr Lucy Noakes, University of Brighton
12.00noon    ‘Arms and the Woman: Memories of Weapons Training in the Second World War’ – Dr Corinna Peniston-Bird, Lancaster University
12.30–1.30    Sandwich Lunch
1.30pm    'Handbags and Hand Grenades' – Dr Kate Vigurs, University of Leeds
2.00pm    ‘Captain Flora Sandes: From Croydon to the Trenches’ - Louise Miller, Independent scholar
2.30pm    ‘Cultural Transformation Associated with Women’s Integration into UN Peace Missions – Chilean Case Study’ - Fabiana Santa Rosa Pierre, PhD candidate, Universidad de Chile
3.00pm    ‘Gender in the Secret World: Women Workers and Secrecy at Bletchley Park during the Second World War’ - Dr Chris Smith, Aberystwyth University
Conference Fee:    £15
Concessions [unwaged/retired/postgraduate students] - £7.50
University of Worcester and local School/College students - Free
Postal address:    Dr Wendy Toon, Department of History, University of Worcester, Henwick Grove, Worcester, WR2 6AJ.
For further details, please contact: Dr Wendy Toon or 01905-855305

Monday 23 September 2013

An original misreading of the Labouchere Amendment

In spite of the amount of historiography there now is on homosexuality in C19th Britain and the ways it was controlled and policed, one still comes across people asserting that the 1885 Labouchere Amendment to the Criminal Law Amendment Act 'made homosexuality illegal' (even though male-male sex had been a capital crime until 1861 - with the last actual executions taking place in 1834 - when life imprisonment was substituted under the Offenses Against the Person Act).

But this is in entirely new realms of misunderstanding the Amendment:
An 1885 legal reform known as the Labouchere Amendment had an unforeseen loophole that suddenly made masturbation (as well as fellatio) legal. 
As if masturbation had previously been legal and as if the law had taken specific cognisance of fellatio before 1885. Variations on penetrative sex between two men had usually been subsumed under 'attempted sodomy' or 'indecent behaviour'. Demands for oral sex within marriage sometimes featured a part of a plea of cruelty in matrimonial cases.

But masturbation, as opposed to indecent exposure, was not illegal. The 'solitary vice' would surely have presented particular difficulties in policing. But, as I argue in Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain, 1880 to the present it provides a particularly striking example of a sexual behaviour which, though not illegal, was nonetheless highly stigmatised and subjected to other forms of control.

Perhaps the author of the article believes that the law mandated the imposition of similar preventive devices upon conviction?

Thursday 12 September 2013

Forthcoming appearances

Giant Microbes: Syphilis
'Sex and the City: The STDs of Old London Town' (scroll down) at History in the Pub, A London Historians Event, Tues 8 October, 7pm, doors open 6:30pm. The Bell, Middlesex Street, Spitalfields. Tube: Aldgate, Aldgate East or Liverpool Street. Booking form here

A version of this talk will be reprised at an event at Barts Pathology Museum, 18 Feb 2014, details tba

'“Send in the Clones”? Naomi Mitchison (née Haldane)’s Musing on Reproduction, Breeding, Feminism, Socialism and Eugenics from the 1920s to the 1970s', Cambridge Interdisciplinary Reproduction Forum Mon 4 No, 5 pm

Wednesday 11 September 2013

Lucy Bland, Modern Women on Trial: Sexual Transgression in the Age of the Flapper (Manchester University Press, 2013)

I have fallen sadly behind in writing up my reading of recent months, but hope to repair this omission. Starting at perhaps the wrong end, i.e. the most recent book bearing on my general research interests read.

Lucy Bland's long-awaited follow-up to her classic and pioneering Banishing the Beast, Modern Women on Trial, does not disappoint. While some of the material may be familiar from the various articles and chapters she has previously published, this is not just one of those volumes which appear to consist of lightly-edited articles put together within one cover, and with the gentle reader apparently expected to draw out the connections between them. It is  a very good thing to have Bland's insights altogether in one volume and not to have to chase up  the original articles, but this book is a good deal more value-added than that. Modern Women on Trial effectively links the matter in the separate chapters together throughout, not just in a brief covering introduction or conclusion, by emphasising the common themes and threads that join these scandals and causes celebres of the period 1918-1924.

It is a very good read: I was reading it in the interstices and the aftermath of a fairly intense conference but still found it compellingly engaging.

The various cases dealt with are the Maud Allan 'Cult of the Clitoris' libel suit against the sleazoid journalist Pemberton Billing; the flurry of concern, focusing around the drug-related, or allegedly drug-related, deaths of two young women, the actress Billie Carleton and the dancer Freda Kempton, over 'white women' associating with 'Chinamen' as well as narcotic use by women; the well known trial of Edith Thompson and Freddie Bywaters for the murder of her husband; the shooting of her Egyptian husband by Madame Fahmy; and the extraordinary convolutions of the Russell divorce case. Several of these have been the subject of rather sensationalist popular accounts, but Bland provides a deeper analysis of the responses to these cases across a range of voices, and the resonances with wider social concerns of the time, in particular the changing roles of women, the allure and the threat of modern life, and the continuing impact of  the Great War upon British masculinity.

Thursday 5 September 2013

O O O Shakespeherean Rag

Yet more depressing news about a major library of a major educational institution selling off rare historical items for short term profit: The Director and Trustees of the University of London’s Senate House Libraries are proposing to sell copies of the Library’s first four Shakespeare folios

This is a very disturbing trend: what next, cherry-picking over collections of archives for letters signed by Famous Names that can be flogged off as autograph letters for immense sums? That's really not what care of a collection means.

It seems particularly egregious in the above case since Sterling provided an endowment when leaving his rare book collection to Senate House. As an archivist I thoroughly concede that cataloguing, storage and general collection maintenance are not insignificant invisible costs to accepting a collection. And that potential bequeathers should probably engage in discussions with the place they're intending to leave their stuff before they write the will. But Sterling appears to have done the right things.

Nor can I imagine that these folios are somehow not a good fit with the Library overall. I have certainly come across instances of collections in places which are perhaps not the most appropriate home - where they are one-offs, isolated from related special collections. The importance of the synergy between related materials cannot be over-estimated. Thought should always be given to whether a given repository is really suitable for any particular collection. But the Sterling Library at Senate House is 'an unusually integrated resource for research on the transmission of English literary texts from the 14th century to the present day.... an acknowledged international resource in its area'. How getting rid of well-known gems of the collection will add to its reputation I cannot imagine.

Monday 2 September 2013

Women's Histories: the Local and the Global IFRWH/WHN conference 2013

This international conference held jointly under the auspices of the International Federation for Research in Women's History and the (UK) Women's History Network took place at Sheffield Hallam University, last Thursday to last Sunday, and what a very good, if sometimes overwhelming, conference it was.

There was a plethora of panels in a wide range of parallel strands, three excellent plenary lectures from Catherine Hall, Jacqueline van Gent, and Mrinalini Sinha providing much food for thought, and a concluding roundtable discussion: 'After the transnational turn: what future for nation-based histories of women?' There were also good informal discussions over coffee, tea, and lunch (and I really must praise the catering, even if there weren't any peppermint tea bags). A very rich experience altogether.

The big take-home thoughts were the complex 'entangled histories' that bring together the local and the global, that very specifically located micro-histories can illuminate transnational issues, and that bringing new actors into the narrative produces, or should produce, a new history with an altered perspective.

With 9 strands over 9 sessions there were surely many wonderful papers and discussions that I missed. However, I did get to a very exciting panel on 'Disentangling evangelical missionaries: gender, sexual and domesticity in globalised localities', the one on 'Prostitution in comparative perspective' (despite the loss of one speaker, this worked very well), and the extremely stimulating one on 'Art and the Making of Cosmopolitan Identities' which provided me with a lot of things I need to follow up. I had hoped to attend the 'Gendered professions, gendered challenges' panel but two speakers had had to cancel, so went to 'Imperial webs and the influence of women', in which I was particularly interested in the paper on female missionary doctors.

My paper on Stella Browne as an internationalist featured in the panel on 'British women internationalists at home', and I found Ruth Davidson's paper on the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in Croydon raised some issues particularly pertinent to my own current interests. I was, however, feeling rather thwarted at being scheduled at the same time as the panel on 'Mixed-race children and their mothers' including Lucy Bland talking on GI babies after World War II, not to mention that there was also a panel I should have liked to have heard on feminist campaigns against licensed prostitution in the same slot. Always a problem with stranded conferences.

The panel 'Cultural exchange and imperial power'  continued the theme of complicating the missionary narrative. 'International political and cultural exchange among women: Australia and beyond' demonstrated yet again what very exciting work in this area is being done by Australian historians and what large questions it raises. Australia also featured in the very well-attended panel on Sunday morning that I chaired, 'Between Britain and Australia: transnational women's lives': with a very nice paper from Emma Robertson on British skilled women workers from Cadburys going out to Tasmania in the 1920s when the British chocolate firms set up a factory there, and one from Rebecca Jennings on the quite complex cultural exchanges involving Australian lesbians coming to London in the 1970s - this perhaps counter-intuitively revealed that the British women's and gay and lesbian liberation movements of the period were less important than encounters with other Australians passing through London, and with newly available publications from the US movement.

The social side of the conference included two receptions, and a conference dinner at the very impressive Cutlers' Hall.

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Noted for own reference, and possible interest to others

Just around the corner at UCL, The Key Ingredient: Food in Social Relationships at The Institute of Archaeology, and Panopticon: Experimental Tales of Jeremy Bentham.

Via The Middlebrow Network:
Women writers of the 1930's - a one day course at the City Lit
Cultures of the Suburbs International Research Network, with information about its forthcoming conference next year on 'Imagining the Suburbs' 

Via Damaging the Body:
Body and Mind: Mesmerism in Nineteenth Century Culture and Literature at  Barts Pathology Museum

Revealing Lives: Women in Science 1830-2000 International Conference 2014
TrowelBlazers, which aims to both highlight the contributions of women to geology, palaeontology and archaeology ... while also building a positive, supportive community for women and men working together in those fields today

Monday 12 August 2013

The pre-history of virtual communities

I was thrilled to see this guest post on the Kinsey Institute blog by Samantha Allen,  Plugged In: Sexual Fetish Communities 1970s to the present since it provides further evidence for something of which I have been aware, the existence of 'virtual communities' not necessarily mediated by face to face contact, going back well before the widespread use of the internet.

While as Allen makes clear it might take a certain amount of effort and know-how to obtain the niche publications she describes, they did exist and provided a point of contact between individuals with common interests.

Similar phenomena can be seen in a range of different areas, whether around limited circulation newsletters, somewhat more conventional periodical publications (the shortlived but influential radical feminist journal The Freewoman forms a prime example), or even correspondence clubs, such as the Cooperative Correspondence Club. The problem is, of course, that except in the case of journals such as The Freewoman, where copies survive in public repositories and the researcher can see the vibrant interchanges that took place via letters to the editor, archives of these kinds of material very seldom survive. Samantha Allen was fortunate that the Kinsey Institute had made a conscious effort to acquire the materials she worked with, while when I interviewed Rose Hacker on an entirely different matter and discovered that she still had the records of the CCC, I strongly advised her to contact a suitable repository (I think I may have mentioned what was then the Fawcett Library) to ensure that this valuable set of documents was preserved and accessible to future generations.

Although communications through these networks moved at a more leisurely pace, nonetheless, by these means, virtual communities were created.
Plugged In: Sexual Fetish Communities 1970s to the Present - See more at:
Plugged In: Sexual Fetish Communities 1970s to the Present - See more at:
Plugged In: Sexual Fetish Communities 1970s to the Present - See more at:
Plugged In: Sexual Fetish Communities 1970s to the Present - See more at:

Thursday 8 August 2013

Is this the birth of a factoid?

It's not Victorian, so doesn't really fit on my Victorian Sex Factoids page, but it's quite a doozy, nonetheless. It's bad enough when articles are 'researched' entirely via Google, but this one seems not even to have been run past Wikipedia

Last week an article in The Spectator asserted that Dr Helena Wright was providing an insemination service for women deprived of motherhood by the Great War.

As the very first comment below the line points out, a few seconds on Google would have shown that the story as given was patently impossible. Wright only qualified in medicine in 1915, and far from setting up a classy Knightsbridge practice, was doing the usual kind of hospital house jobs that were the lot of the recently-qualified doc, at fairly non-elite institutions at that. In 1921 she and her husband went to China as medical missionaries and did not return until the late 1920s, and it was only then that Wright set up a private practice, while also being active with the (already established) North Kensington Women's Welfare Clinic, a pioneer in birth control and marriage guidance provision.

Her manual of marriage advice - which was more about orgasms than motherhood - The Sex Factor in Marriage, did not appear until 1931. Not only, therefore, did she not have lots of grateful readers in the aftermath of the War, she was not even around in the UK to deal with their requests if she had been.

Her papers, and those of her biographer, Dr Barbara Evans, are available in the Wellcome Library.

This does not entirely rule out the veridicality of 'Derek' (this may well be a pseudonym for the purposes of the article anyway: so my cavil about this not apparently becoming a popular British forename until the C20th may be irrelevant) and his superstudly prowess, but the narrative within which it is embedded cannot possibly be true. I have, in fact, come across a mention of a scientist of that name who was a 'super-donor' but this would have been around the 1950s-60s (the Derek in question had barely reached puberty by 1920).

It is always possible that there has been some confabulation and chronological slippage - for example (as I noted in the relevant chapter of Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain since 1880) there was a minor furore around AI in the late 1940s, a decade before the setting up of the Feversham Committee by the government. Wrong War?

Wrong doctor? While Marie Stopes did, in the early editions of Married Love (1918), mention the possibility of AI (or non-A I by a sympathetic family friend) for women with infertile husbands, this passage was subsequently dropped, and few if any of the 1000s of letters received by her now in the Wellcome Library even mention the topic. It's quite possible that Norman Haire may have included it in his practice, but this is only speculation. Even by the late 1940s a mere handful of gynaecologists were providing AID to their infertile patients.

Sunday 4 August 2013

Digitisation: not the answer to the space problem with archives

There's recently been quite a furore about the controversial decision of Barnado's children's charity to digitise its remarkable collection of photographs by Dr Barnardo of the 'waifs and strays' whom he was providing with a refuge in Stepney, dating back to at least 1875. While digitising these will provide much wider access to this important collection, concerns have been raised that the original photographs were in line for destruction once this had taken place.

As I have previously commented, digitisation, though a tremendous asset in increasingly availability of historical records to those unable to visit them in person, cannot be considered a robust preservation medium. Photographic and other historians have also raised the issue that the originals may well provide evidence which is not going to be harvested through the digitisation process.

A post on the Voluntary Action History Society blog summarises the current state of play and raises the continuing issue of 'third sector' bodies which hold historical archives which are no longer relevant to their work in the present. While Barnardo's may no longer adhere to Dr Barnard's own practices, but is still closer in aim than some other bodies - the archives of the National Association for the Prevention of  Consumption (prior to their transfer to the Wellcome Library) remained in the custody of a successor body whose concerns had shifted considerably with the decline of TB as a pressing public health problem.

The blog post suggests the sale of the archive as one option, a strategy that raises significant concerns given that much of it must surely remain subject to Data Protection issues. However, it appears that there have been some expressions of interest in providing a home for the archive, and it is to be hoped that it will be placed in some suitable repository where it can be adequately cared for and made available for research.

Saturday 27 July 2013

A brief taste of the ICHSTM in Manchester

The International Congress of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine took place in Manchester this week and is still going on. While I didn't have the time - or the stamina! - to attend the whole week-long event, I did get in a very enjoyable day and a half of participation.

I travelled up on Tuesday afternoon, had a preliminary meeting with the other members of the two-panel symposium The science of man? Bounds of knowledge in the twentieth century within which I was presenting my thoughts on Naomi Mitchison engaging with the issues around reproduction and breeding which had been so salient in her own life, and in the circles in which she moved, in her late-life move into science fiction. I then attended the Civic Reception in Manchester Town Hall, a neo-Gothic monument to Victorian municipal pride: very crowded, rather hot, and the acoustics/PA system not perhaps all they could have been for the speeches, but I managed to spot, and chat with, some people I knew.

The next morning I popped into 'Governing minds and bodies with the human sciences' in order to catch Alice White's fascinating paper on Constructing consensus: human relations and the War Office Selection Boards in World War II but then panel-hopped into Expanding women’s sphere: knowledge and the re-definition of women’s work in the twentieth century and stayed with this for the following session, in which I found Rosemary Wall's paper on British nurses in the field of tropical medicine of particular interest.

The 'Science of Man?' symposium on Wednesday afternoon went very well, I thought (kudos to Graham Baker for organising this) and I thought raised issues about complexity, muddle, and definitions that recurred in the following morning's papers. Sometimes looking back we draw lines and create categories that were not there, or at least not taken into account, by the people there in the past moment. And thinking about Graham's paper on Julian Huxley, the useful interrogation of the mainline/reform eugenics dichotomy suggested to me that this (like Old/New Feminism in the 1920s) has perhaps outworn its usefulness.

There was an excellent reception in the Fossil Gallery at the Manchester Museum to launch WISRNet - I think sipping fizzy wine (and eating delicious canapes) under a tyrannosaurus rex skeleton known as Stan adds tone to an event, even before the splendid inaugural speech by Ludmilla Jordanova.

On Thursday morning I made a special effort to get up in time to get checked out my hotel and to the conference venue to catch the first session of the symposium From patronage to biotech: new perspectives on medicine and commerce. Given my own research interests, I was particularly excited by Claire L Jones' work on the supply and marketing of contraceptives in Britain in the late C19th-earlyC20th, as I have long felt that understanding of the industry and its activities has been a major lacuna in the history of birth control. Even if artificial contraception played less of a part than previously thought in bringing about population decline, enough people must have been using it to make manufacture and distribution a profitable, if marginalised and stigmatised, commercial proposition. All three papers were looking at forms of health activity within the home: I am interested to see where James Stark's work on the Overbeck Rejuvenator goes!

I then ventured into the Science as Public Culture revisited symposium session on media, which again, was indicating that narratives of science have tended to impose a clear but sometimes simplistic picture of what was actually happening. I did perhaps want to suggest, in response to Katherine Pandora's lovely paper, that there are some instances of the laboratory becoming an intimate and perhaps quasi-familial space rather than an austere location for the solitary scientist (e.g. Honor Fell at the Strangeways, and her 'tea ceremony' for researchers there). Also, on thinking further about Rebecca Onion's intriguing work on environmentalism in children's picture books, early 1970s, I wonder if this relates to wider issues of children's literature expressing concerns over contemporary problems, but also to the longer tradition of didacticism and purpose in books for children.

All in all, a very stimulating experience which has provided me with a lot to keep thinking about.

Sunday 21 July 2013

Not, alas, the kind of story completely foreign to archivists

Italian police said on Friday they had recovered 36 manuscripts by novelist Giovanni Verga worth some four millions euros ($5.25 million):

Italian police said on Friday they had recovered 36 manuscripts by novelist Giovanni Verga worth some four millions euros ($5.25 million). The manuscripts were stolen in the 1930s. Police also recovered drawings and letters between Verga and the poet Gabriele D'Annunzio, philosopher Benedetto Croce and dramatist Luigi Pirandello. The documents were lost when Verga's son, Giovanni Verga Patriarca, lent them to a historian in the small town of Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto in Sicily who then refused to return them and hid them. "The precious documents were never returned and attempts to retrieve them have always failed as they were very well squirrelled away," Antonio Coppola, who led the police operation, told AFP. 
The lead to this material was their listing in an auction catalogue.

As an archivist one certainly encounters cases where papers have been 'loaned', not always with the drawing up of a formal contractual agreement, to biographers or other historians, or 'temporarily' to a university department or library. Also instances of depositors who want to embargo a collection until the official biographer/historian has finished with them. This is just marginally acceptable if the biographer or historian is going to complete their task within a reasonable length of time, but there have been cases where slow-moving scholars have sat on papers for years if not decades. (There are also issues around the physical conditions under which papers are kept, whether the biographer is rearranging them for their own research purposes, etc, etc.)

Scholars have been known to be unduly possessive of archives in their possession or even just on which they have worked, and to be anxious lest someone should 'steal' their research. However, I would argue that it's less a matter of the particular material and more about what the scholar is doing with it, and it's very unlikely that two scholars would want to be using the same papers for exactly the same purpose. (There is perhaps a somewhat reasonable concern in the case of biographies, but even then, the biographers will be bringing their own interpretation to the material.)

I also find a number of questions evoked by this report: Unique transgender archive sent to Canadian university after offer to LSE is rebuffed but I don't have enough information to say anything particularly useful. It's distressing that they're not remaining in the UK, certainly.

And while it was satisfactory that the threat to Croydon's archive services did not come to pass, the Council's attitude to heritage collections is still problematic: Historic collection worth millions threatened with dispersal as Croydon council looks to raise funds for arts complex

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Gender, Sex and Sexuality in 20th Century British History: save the date!

New Directions – Gender, Sex and Sexuality in 20th Century British History
Tuesday 8 April 2014, University College London
With a keynote address by Professor Laura Doan, University of Manchester
Call for Papers
This one day workshop looks to bring together scholars, at any stage of their career and working on any aspect of gender, sex and sexuality in 20th century Britain, and to provide a forum for both the presentation of new work and the beginning of a dialogue about the past, present and future of the field.

The workshop addresses the field at a critical juncture in its development. The decades since the publication of Jeffrey Weeks’ Sex, politics and society (1981) have seen histories of gender, sex and sexuality become increasingly central to historians’ understanding of 20th century Britain. There has been a corresponding march through the institutions: no longer regarded as involved in a fringe pursuit, scholars of gender, sex and sexuality have found homes in departments; non-specialist periodicals have watched and sponsored new research with interest; and the UK’s major presses have published groundbreaking work, exemplified by the inauguration of Palgrave Macmillan’s ‘Gender and Sexualities in History’ series in 2009.

Alongside this professional maturation, events in wider society have demonstrated the continued power of ideas about gender, sex and sexuality to shape popular understandings of British history. Indeed, the recent past, whether as a dark age of intolerance or, conversely, a golden age of “family values,” has loomed  heavily in debates about equal marriage, the Savile affair and the “sexualisation” of childhood. The voices of
historians have been present in some of these debates. Yet in others they have been largely absent, even when scholars from other disciplines – sociology, education, gender studies, science and medicine – have been prominent.

The workshop therefore asks participants to consider “where have we got to, and where do we go from here?” What contributions have we made, through British examples, to understandings of gender, sex and sexuality in history? What contributions have we made, through a focus on of gender, sex and sexuality, to understandings of 20th century British history? Finally, what contributions have we made to understandings of gender, sex and sexuality in Britain outside our profession, both in other disciplines and, importantly, the wider public conversation? And in all three cases, what contributions, in new and ongoing work, might we make in the future?

To help address these questions, the workshop organisers welcome proposals for papers presenting new work on any aspect of gender, sex or sexuality in twentieth century British history as well as those that reflexively engage with the past, present or future of the field. The organisers particularly welcome papers looking at non-marginal experiences, as well as those looking to challenge marginal/non-marginal distinctions altogether. We are also especially interested in contributions from postgraduate and early career scholars.

If you are interested in presenting a paper at the workshop, please email a short proposal (max. 300 words) and CV or short bio to by 1st September 2013. If you would like to discuss possible topics before submitting a proposal, please get in touch at the same address. Registration details for non-speakers will be publicised later in 2013 at
Kevin Guyan and Ben Mechen, UCL History (organisers)

Monday 17 June 2013

Very tempted to head off to New York in the autumn...

Extraordinary Women in Science & Medicine: Four Centuries of Achievement
At the Grolier Club
              September 18 – November 23, 2013

The Grolier Club is pleased to present a landmark exhibition exploring the legacy of thirty-two remarkable women whose extraordinary scientific accomplishments in physics, chemistry, astronomy,mathematics, computing, and medicine changed science. Extraordinary Women in Science & Medicine: Four Centuries of Achievement will illuminate the often little-known careers and accomplishments of these female scientists, examining their work and lives over four centuries. More than 150 original artifacts, including books, manuscripts, serials, authors’ separates, Ph.D. theses, and laboratory apparatus(such as that used by Marie Curie during her earliest work o nradioactivity) will be on view, providing a remarkable overview of the scientific contributions of this eminent group.
Included will be numerous items with special attributes and provenance. Of particular interest will be Emilie Du Châtelet’s 1759 translation of Newton’s Principia with the bookplate of Talleyrand; copies of all of her other scientific publications; a mathematics workbook and a letter, both in her hand; and materials about her fourteen-year relationship with Voltaire, including a book she co-authored—although without her name on the title page. A scientific breakthrough in genetics written on a brown paper bag is displayed. The exhibition also serves to announce a falsely attributed firstedition due to a typesetters error in the seventeenth century and a variety of other bibliographical discoveries.
Extraordinary Women in Science & Medicine: Four Centuries of Achievement highlights such luminaries of the physical sciences as Marie and Irène Curie, Marietta Blau, Lise Meitner, Maria Goeppert Mayer, C.-S. Wu, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, and Rosalind Franklin in physics and chemistry. Astronomers  include Maria Cunitz, the most advanced scholar in mathematical astronomy of the seventeenth century, and Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, whose Ph.D. thesis in 1925 was the beginning of modern astrophysics. Among the mathematicians highlighted are Sophie Germain, Sophie Kowalevski, Emmy Noether, Emilie Du Châtelet, Maria Agnesi, and Florence Nightingale—for her work in statistics. Grace Hopper, the creator of many fundamental concepts in digital computing, is featured. Represented also are Laura Bassi, Hertha Ayrton, Marie Meurdrac, Marie Thiroux d’Arconville, Elizabeth Fulhame, and Ada, Countess of Lovelace.
Among medical scientists, the exhibition features Gerti Cori, instrumental in unveiling the fundamental mechanism of metabolism; Gertrude Elion, the first to design medicines effective in the cure of cancer and viral diseases; Rosalyn Yalow, developer of the powerful analytic tool, radioimmunoassay; and Florence Sabin, whose discoveries form the basis for our current understanding of cellular immunity. Two game-changers in medical science are Rita Levi-Montalcini, discoverer of nerve growth factor, and Barbara McClintock who discovered that genes are not fixed but move—the key paradigm shift in modern genetics. Great and influential clinical physicians include Louise Bourgeois Boursier, midwife to King Henry IV and Marie de Medici of France; the pioneering pediatric neurologist Mary Putnam Jacobi; and Helen Taussig, designer of the life-saving “blue baby” operation. 
The exhibition is designed to pose questions about women’s recognition—or lack thereof—in the sciences. Topics treated include educational opportunities, role models, the use of social capital, individual styles of doing science, and gender issues associated with society norms of the periods. The viewer may consider such questions, for example, as who deserved and who received Nobel Prize awards among the modern women. The intention is to raise awareness about how women’s roles have been limited in the development of the sciences. 
The exhibition was organized by Curators Ronald K. Smeltzer, Ph.D., Paulette Rose, Ph.D., and Robert J. Ruben, M.D., 
LOCATION AND TIME:  Extraordinary Women in Science & Medicine: Four Centuries of Achievement will be on view at the Grolier Club, 47 East 60th Street, New York, from Sept. 18 – Nov. 23, 2013. The exhibition will be open to the public free of charge, Monday – Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 
CATALOGUE: An illustrated catalogue in conjunction with the exhibition will be available at the Grolier Club. 
And flagging up as a related longer-term project, particularly relating to the UK: WISRNet: Women in Science Research Network and their forthcoming workshop  Fractured Histories – Discovering Women Scientists in the Archive.

Wednesday 5 June 2013

National differences, and the possible role of colonialism

I had a query today about clitoridectomy (as one does), with what I think may be a confusion between UK and US attitudes - there is some evidence that this continued to be deployed on girls as a 'cure' for masturbation in the USA into the mid-twentieth century but as far as one can tell, the famous scandal over Isaac Baker-Brown performing this operation at his London Surgical Home in the 1860s led to its rapid vanishing within UK medical practice. I have been told that it was being performed in Scottish lunatic asylums some time in the C19th but as I never got a detailed citation on this, and no specific dates, the jury is still out on this.

I also wondered today whether the British imperial context made a difference. In a number of areas of the Empire female genital mutilation was being practised for religious and cultural reasons and by the mid-1920s in Kenya there was a movement spearheaded by missionaries and supported by a number of feminists in the metropole against this 'barbaric custom'. This must have created an association for the operation with savagery rather than advanced civilisation.

However, there is the additional factor that, although as Rob Darby has delineated in A Surgical Temptation, male circumcision made the transition from a minority religious requirement to a hygienic recommendation against self-abuse and other ailments in the course of the C19th, it never became as routine a practice as it did in the USA, which may also have inflected attitudes.

Sunday 2 June 2013

Sex in the local record office

Found via that invaluable historian and documenter of LGBT history and its sources, Rictor Norton, a useful little page from the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre on sources for LGBT history in local record offices.

I am particularly interested to note that they recommend caution in assumptions that lunatic asylum records will be a fruitful source  - my own impression from the records of private lunatic asylums held in the Wellcome Library is that any such cases were few and far between, and such instances as I've come across of individuals incarcerated where there appeared to be some same-sex component to their behaviour manifested other issues which must have contributed probably even more strongly.

The sexual practice that crops up most frequently in records of C19th asylums is (as one might predict) self-abuse, mostly in terms of the strategies for its prevention.

One of the reasons why I would not expect men who had been engaging in same-sex activity to be found in poor law and voluntary asylums would be that non-elite men would have been primarily subjected to the various criminal and vagrancy penalties and thus be dealt with within the judicial system rather than the emergent discipline of psychiatry.

The situation is somewhat fuzzier if one considers the class which could have afforded to keep family members perceived as deviant in a private institution. Nonetheless, as already mentioned, these constitute a statistically meaningless number of cases (this is borne out by Charlotte Mackenzie's meticulously detailed analysis of the copious surviving records of Ticehurst House in the Wellcome Library, published as Psychiatry for the Rich). Perhaps the disgrace of having a certified lunatic in the family, and its impact on, for example, the matrimonial prospects of other family members, led those who could afford it to seek other expedients to contain potentially scandalous relatives, for example sending them to live abroad as 'remittance men'.

Friday 17 May 2013

Phoenix seeds spread by the wind

Nearly 2 weeks ago I had the honour to be one of the keynote speakers at a conference in Berlin, Das Erbe der Berliner Sexualwissenschaft: Eine Fachtagung sexualwissenschaftlicher Archive
held in the impressive surroundings of the Humboldt University Graduate School, formerly the Imperial Veterinary College. This took place on the exact 80th anniversary of the destruction of Magnus Hirschfeld's Institut fur Sexualwissenschaft by the Nazis in 1933.

I gave a brief summary of the matters I addressed in my talk over on the Wellcome Library blog  in a post on Sexology in the Wellcome Library.

This was a fascinating, wideranging and interdisciplinary day, as the programme indicates (although sadly Erwin Haeberle was unable to be there) dealing with a range of issues around Hirschfeld and his institute, the continuing problems that beset institutions building up research collections in what can still be a controversial area, and the wider impact of his legacy. There were also some excellent and thought-provoking panel discussions involving speakers and the audience in lively interchanges. While my German is, alas, too rudimentary to keep up with scholarly papers and debate, the organisers had very kindly provided me with an interpreter whose services meant that I was able to follow the outlines of what was being said.

Tuesday 14 May 2013

I sort of wonder what Foucault would have thought of this

Learnt today that the French Ministry of Culture has sent out an appeal for sponsorship to raise 3.5 million Euros to purchase the Foucault papers, which have already been given the status of National Treasure in order to inhibit their export.

Presumably somebody is asking that amount for the papers? this is not clear from the reporting.

I would rather hope that any sum raised will include the consideration of processing costs, an often-overlooked invisible necessity to make archival collections actually usable by researchers.

The trouble with these enormous sums being reported in connection with the papers of super-starry names is that it leads other people who are perhaps not quite such luminous figures in the pantheon to get an entirely unrealistic idea of the amount of money that repositories will pony up for their records.

It has also been my experience, over my years in the archives, that the papers of Big Names, while bringing a lot of cred and media coverage to a repository, may by no means earn their keep in the task of pulling in the punters over the long term, whereas other collections, by names less familiar to the general public, e.g. the papers of Frederick Parkes Weber (who he? probably most people's response), which have been for many years reliably among the most requested holdings in Archives and Manuscripts, Wellcome Library, prove far more valuable to a wide range of researchers.

Sunday 28 April 2013

Enjoyable colloquium

This was not part of the 'get out more' project, as I'd been asked to give a keynote at the 'Civilising Bodies: Literature, Rhetoric and Image, 1700-present day' colloquium run under the auspices of the Centre for Medical History, University of Exeter. It was a rather full (24 short papers in 8 panels + 2 keynote talks) two days, run as one strand without parallel panels, which was an excellent decision, as so many of the papers had things to say to one another, a resonance which would have been lost in parallel sessions.

Everything ran most admirably to time, and there were ample scheduled coffee, lunch and tea breaks facilitating less formal exchanges, as well as an extremely convivial conference dinner.

The speakers were mostly postgraduates and it was very exciting to hear some of the very fresh work that is being done. I was particularly intrigued to observe that Norbert Elias and his theories on the civilising process appear to be making a comeback - though perhaps this was to be expected given the conference theme.

There was a considerable range of material presented, from eighteenth century masquerades to very recent media phenomena such as makeover shows, emerging from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds. Particularly resonant with my own interests were an examination of the 1894 Massage Scandals both in the context of professionalisation and the wider concerns of the period, and an analysis of reports of rapes by medical professionals in the mid-C19th when the profession was going through a turbulent era, with increasing regulation. I was also very interested by the paper on 'Western public toilets and private bodies since the C15th', though unfortunately the author of the paper was not present (it was read out by the session chair) and I therefore did not have a chance to ask how issues of gender inflected this story (in the light of Clara Greed's important work on this topic). But a great deal to think about emerged from all the session.

Mark Jackson's keynote on 'An Age of Stress: myth or reality' was a delicious taster for his new book The Age of Stress: Science and the Search for Stability, suggesting that present-day anxieties about the debilitating pace of modern life as a result of developments in technology reiterate similar concerns expressed in very similar terms going back well into the C19th (at least).

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Could this have been Naomi Mitchison?

Glancing through The International Journal of Sexology II/1, 1948, I noticed in the introduction by Norman Haire to a lengthy article by an anonymous young man, the claim that he had expurgated it of at least one Anglo-Saxon monosyllable which would have led to the suppression and prosecution of the journal, and adding:
I remember having to insist on the deletion of that same four-letter word from the text of a paper read, at the International Congress of the World League for Sexual Reform, held in London in 1929, by one of our leading women novelists--no, it was not Ethel Mannin.
Given that, in her discussion of sexual relations in The Home in a Changing World, Naomi Mitchison complained about the conventions that meant she could not speak as directly, clearly and forcefully as she would have liked due to linguistic restrictions, I wonder if she was the 'leading woman novelist' in question (since I can't imagine Vera Brittain, who also presented at the WLSR Congress, ever even thinking of such a thing).

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Overlooked Stella letter

In looking through Edward F Griffith's files relating to his work as UK editor of the Bombay-based journal Marriage Hygiene (Wellcome Library, PP/EFG/A.4-7), for an entirely different reason, I came across a rather stroppy letter from Stella Browne, 14 Jun 1936, about being expected to undertake translation work for the journal for free.

This intersects with correspondence I did see and cite between Max Hodann and Norman Himes (the US editor of Marriage Hygiene) and between Himes and Pillay over the question of paying Stella for translator services (the journal itself being so penurious, payment was not forthcoming).

Stella opens in conciliatory style, thanking Griffith for his services in publicising the ALRA conference, and for the notice he gave Abortion: three essays in Marriage Hygiene, especially given that he did not share her position on the subject. She then moves on to Hodann's request for her to translate an article of his on the White Slave Traffic, which 'quite frankly' she is unable to do gratuitously.

What is particularly interesting about this letter (given that she had complained around the same time to Havelock Ellis about the financially unrewarding nature of work for 'causes', and that the Himes papers include correspondence on the issue) is that she quotes the rates she would charge: 3 guineas (equivalent to £167 in present-day purchasing power) for the long article on white slavery, and £2/12/6d (equivalent to £139) for a shorter one on the Icelandic laws relating to abortion and contraception, and requires cash on the nail on receipt of the article to be translated - 'I have constant expenses & difficulties in this way, & cannot give my work, much as I admire & agree with Marriage Hygiene'. This is the only instance I have come across of what she considered a going rate for translations, though I also wonder whether she was quoting a preferential scale to a cause she approved of.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

For a change, good news about archives

The impending disastrous effects of cuts to Croydon Local Studies and Archives appear to have been avoided, with what sound like actual improvements to services.

And, from the Voluntary Action History Society, the archives of Oxfam are to go to the Bodleian, with cataloguing funding (v important for large complex organisational archives). Though how familiar and resonant to an archivist is the phrase of 'after several years of protracted negotiation'!

Monday 8 April 2013

That's not quite what happened

I've just got my hands on the new biography of Rebecca West. I'm by no means a West scholar but as a besotted fan of Dame Rebecca for getting on for half a century, I have read, I think, pretty much all of her work that has been published and is obtainable (including some things that are quite hard to get hold of) and a substantial amount of the biography and criticism.

I have also had occasion to look at the Dora Marsden files relating to The Freewoman among her papers in the library at Princeton University, which the latest biographer does not appear to have consulted.

The standard narrative for the reason for Cicely Fairfield's switch to the pseudonym of Rebecca West, and the one which features in the Prologue to the new biography, has tended to follow her 1926 essay in Time and Tide and to state or at least imply that she chose to publish under a pseudonym because The Freewoman was considered so scandalous that her family (in some accounts, specifically her mother) refused to have it in the house. It is, of course, possible that this version is substantiated by correspondence I have not personally seen in one of the several collections of West papers.

However, according to an early letter to Dora Marsden about writing for The Freewoman, over the signature of Cicely Fairfield, she wrote:
I should like to reply to Lady Mayer's letter, but I cannot do it over my own signature. She is a power on the L.C.C. [London County Council] and it might conceivably happen that my sister [the doctor Letitia Fairfield, employed in the Public Health Department of the LCC] would be sacked for my heresies. If you will allow me to answer it over a pseudonym I will send something in by Monday morning at latest.
This suggests rather different motivations, and a concern for her sister's career that might not have been anticipated given their fraught relationship and much-recorded fallings-out.

It's possible to wonder if she improved the narrative in later telling - the idea of a young woman writing hard-hitting journalism in a shockingly radical feminist publication barred from the house by her mother makes a much better story - or whether, looking back after a dozen years of significant personal turmoil, she simply misremembered and conflated her mother's disapproval of the journal with her decision to take a nom de plume. It's also possible that the reason given to Marsden could have been a face-saving excuse.

Friday 5 April 2013

STDs in the city

There was an excellent turnout for my Wellcome Library Insights presentation yesterday on 'Sex and the City: The STDs of Old London' and a very good response from the audience. I was particularly gratified that nobody invoked the very problematic 'syphilis/genius' trope, which combines a couple of my pet (faux) history of medicine hates: the dreaded parlour game of retrospective diagnosis (of which there was recently a notable example), and the characterisation of some disease as particularly related to creativity (see also tuberculosis) because, of the millions of people who suffered from diseases which were epidemic in the past, a handful were indeed artists, intellectuals, philosophers, etc. The vast majority were not.

This particular Insights session will be reprised at the Wellcome Library on 13th June.

And also on this theme, a recent post of mine on the Wellcome Library blog on our recent acquisition of the archives of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV, incorporating those of its predecessor, the Medical Society for the Study of Venereal Diseases, founded in 1922.

Wednesday 27 March 2013

Queer London last Saturday

In spite of the horrendously horrible weather (cold, windy, sleet and snow) there was a good turnout for the Queer London interdisciplinary conference at the University of Westminster on Saturday, although alas a few cancellations by advertised speakers.

This was a rich day of thought-provoking papers from a variety of fields and perspectives - the large number of good papers offered meant that all sessions apart from the keynote and the final round table were organised as parallel strands, and I am entirely sure that I missed some excellent presentations through a failure to master the art of bilocation.

A motif raised in Matt Cook's extremely juicy keynote which recurred in a number of other contexts during the day was the significant role of of subcultures or counter-cultures which weren't 'queer' in the sense of being specifically LGBT, but which were unconventional and accepting enough to provide a place of possibilities, a community of support and warmth mixing up different groups.

Similarly, Anne Witchard's exciting paper on early C20th lesbian nightclubs in Soho located these within the relatively late development of a London nightclub scene (by comparison with the cosmopolitan metropolises of continental Europe) and the connection between these and a wider raffish bohemian, 'arty' subculture widely perceived as transgressing conventional barriers of race, class, and gender.

The organisers, who are to be congratulated on the success of the day, hope that this will be only the start of further initiatives on Queer London, and on the basis of last Saturday, there is a substantial amount of interest in taking this further.

Thursday 21 March 2013

Continuing to get out and about

This week there was a lovely book launch at the Artworkers' Guild in Queen Square of Carol Dyhouse's exciting new book, Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women (Zed Books):
Horror, scandal and moral panic! Obsession with the conduct of young women has permeated society for over a hundred years. Be it over flappers, beat girls, dolly birds or ladettes, public outrage at girls' perceived misbehaviour has been a mass-media staple with each changing generation.
 O so very true. It just goes round and around. A journalist was asking me about 50 Shades of Grey the other day, and my mind immediately went to a rather obvious, when you think about it, historical parallel, EM Hull's notorious The Sheik, with its sado-masochistic themes and very similar plot trajectory (now available free through the good offices of Project Gutenberg).

From girls to ordinary devoted mothers: yesterday evening to an excellent and very thought-provoking paper by Anne Karpf in the Psychoanalysis and History seminar series, 'Constructing and addressing "the Ordinary Devoted Mother": Winnicott's BBC broadcasts, 1943-62', which I found particularly fascinating for its elucidation of the important part played by his BBC radio producers, Janet Quigley and Isa Benzie, in the production, not just in style but in content, of these broadcasts, which formed the foundation of Winnicott's acclaimed work on motherhood and good enough mothering, and eventually published by Penguin as The Child, the Family and the Outside World. My mind went to a rather tangential place about women and BBC radio, following some archival encounters with Hilda Matheson's work in the 30s and a paper at the Women's History Network conference last year on early women's work at the BBC, and this possible unsung tradition of women pioneers in the field. But it was also interesting about the circumstances of production as very situated within a particular (popular) context rather than within the more elevated realms of psychoanalytic theory.

Sunday 17 March 2013

Ann Oakley, A Critical Woman: Barbara Wootton, Social Science and Public Policy in the Twentieth Century (2011)

I'm woefully behind about posting about things I've been reading recently. I was behindhand enough with actually reading A Critical Woman, because between one thing and another I had it on my to-read pile but was not feeling in the right headspace for a big fat biography of twentieth century woman economist, social scientist and activist.

Even though it did, in fact, turn out to be very readable on the whole (and I did have a few historian-type niggles, like occasionally feeling a need for more chronological anchoring than I was getting). I was very struck by the family origins - far from coming from generations of Cambridge scholars or intellectuals her father came from a humble background yetended up a renowned classical scholar.

It's got a bit of an uphill struggle given that Wootton was obviously a very reserved and private woman and it probably quite hard to get know to know her beyond the formal level even when she was alive. I wondered, however, how much of that reserve and forbidding air was a necessary stragety, given that, while still quite young she was widely regarded as an outstanding economist, and as a result was interacting with a lot of much older men, many of them of considerable political or social distinction. How far would her being  a war widow would have discouraged displeasing attentions, quite apart from a reasonable desire to be taken seriously? Her surprise marriage to a much younger man (and the occasional hint at other affairs) makes one wonder if there was a friskier aspect that she kept well-concealed.

I was very taken by Wootton's firm line that the death and devastation caused by the motorcar was a much greater evil it was than many menaces against which contemporaries fulminated,  and her insistence upon on having actual evidence-based data  in order to produce government report on cannabis.

Given her troubled relationship with her mother, and her lack of interest in feminism, I think there's probably a whole study waiting to be done about generations and feminists and suffragist/suffragette mothers and their daughters and how the second generation do or do not consider themselves feminists or different kinds of feminists.

Probably about as thorough an account of a rather opaque woman as one is likely to get, paying particular attention to what she would have considered most important, i.e. her intellectual work and her politics.