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In November, the Churchill Archives Centre took part in the annual History Day held at the University of London’s Institute of Historical Research (IHR).
Cambridge’s libraries, archives, and museums have previously been represented by the innovative Sandra Freshney from the Sedgwick Museum. Billed as the analogue equivalent to the online Discovery catalogue, this year’s event featured 65 stalls and hosts of knowledgeable curators from a range of fantastic national and specialist repositories and had a 'Women's History' theme to mark the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act.
As it was our first appearance at the IHR, we were intent on making a good impression. Armed with our finest women’s history facsimile archive documents, and trying not to get too excited by the prospect of the IHR’s ‘Best Stand’ competition, we set off bright and early for London. We were delighted to join our Cambridge colleagues in the William Beveridge Hall at Senate House, noting with some relief that it had been rebuilt very quickly after recent tragic events.
The location and theme of this year’s History Day gave us an excellent opportunity to showcase one of the Archives Centre’s newest and most exciting women’s history accessions - the personal papers of Mary Agnes Hamilton MP (1882-1966). Hamilton was employed by the Ministry of Information at Senate House to work on literary propaganda and morale during the Second World War, and even wrote parts of her wartime diary while ensconced in the Ministry’s underground air-raid shelter, so we were retracing her footsteps.
“I am in the M. of I. Air Raid Shelter (3 times yesterday: second today - going to miss my train too). The last fortnight has been pretty well dominated by raids and the pick-axe. On Monday we axed nearly all my people, though I survive - and I am now struggling to get G[raham] Greene back…”
Items from Molly Hamilton’s papers are currently starring alongside gems from the papers of Churchill’s other two collections belonging to pioneering twentieth-century female politicians, Florence Horsbrugh and Margaret Thatcher, in our temporary exhibition, Uphill All the Way: A Century of Women in Parliament, which (with a little bit of archive and conservation magic) we also reproduced and brought with us to Senate House in physical form for people to look through at their leisure.
We’d also specially designed a new range of mini-subject guides on aspects of women’s history at Churchill- although only around 50 of the Archives Centre’s 660+ collections are associated with women, our holdings contain important archives relating to women not only in politics, but in the arts, science, and international life. And in what can only be described as a genius move, Andrew ordered two fiendishly difficult jigsaw puzzles of female parliamentarians for visitors to the stand to complete during the day. The sheer impossibility of finding and fitting pieces of the wartime terrace of the House of Commons into the puzzle proved a tough challenge, even to the amazing researchers and historians who came our way.
One of the highlights of History Day for us was finding out about the research projects people are working on, and thinking of ways the Churchill Archives Centre could help answer your questions - which on the day ranged across women’s history, political biography, family history, pacifism, historical geography, and many more. The history of education in Britain after 1918 seems to be a hot topic this year, as does the history of religion and women in the professions. We also loved having a scout around the incredible stalls from other prominent repositories and meeting new archivist and curator colleagues, now styled as our deadly rivals in the pursuit for the title of ‘Best Stand’, which we heard would be decided by public vote.
Whether it was our view of the voting booth, the close proximity of so many facsimile documents from the papers of Margaret Thatcher, or merely the direct line between our stand and the free coffee, History Day 2018 definitely brought out our fiercely competitive streak. And despite early feedback that jigsaws were only for the elderly, the first puzzle proved a huge success. As the sun set in central London and the fair came to an end, one of Heidi’s friends from college (also, to Andrew’s confusion, called Heidi) triumphantly fitted the last piece.
The day was over, but had our A-game been good enough? We waited two days to find out, the organisers maintaining a cruel suspense to keep us waiting. Then Twitter reported that we had victory. Cue polite celebrations, a quick handshake, and back to work? No chance…!
An update: happily, Heidi is now restored to the calm, academic presence we are used to. Andrew is now contemplating a small start-up business selling themed historical jigsaw puzzles. Only the awards dinner and the trip to the Palace remain in the run up to Christmas.
With sincere thanks to Sandra Freshney for being a total inspiration, and to History Day 2018’s wonderful organisers, Jordan Landes and Kate Wilcox. If they will have us after this blog, the Churchill Archives Centre would love to come back next year!
— Andrew Riley and Heidi Egginton
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