The Churchill Archives Centre opened to the fanfare of trumpeters on 26 July 1973. Fifty years on, it hosted a two-day conference which reflected on its past, highlighted the breadth of research being undertaken in the present, and examined some of the opportunities and challenges to be faced in the near future. This was a chance to celebrate with some of the many former researchers, By-Fellows and Roskill lecturers who have used the collections in our first half century.

Professor Mark Goldie got day one off to a fantastic start with a brief but comprehensive and often humorous review of the origins of the Churchill Archives Centre, tracing them back to a casual remark over high table between Churchill’s last Private Secretary, Anthony Montague Browne, and Senior Research Fellow in Naval History, Captain Stephen Roskill. He then chaired a discussion on the Centre’s first three decades with Patricia Ackermann (Archivist, 1974-78), Margaret Williams (Archives Centre Secretary, 1984-89), Dr Piers Brendon (Keeper, 1995-2001) and Professor Jon Sumida (the first Archives Fellow Commoner in 1984).

Current Director Allen Packwood’s panel revisiting some of the research undertaken by former Archives By-Fellows. The common thread was the use of personal papers. Professor James Muller (who had flown in from Alasaka) described travelling into the mind of Winston Churchill, while Graham Farmelo discussed the challenges of writing about Paul Dirac and Stephen Hawking, and Gaynor Johnson spoke about editing the journals of Sir Eric Phipps, British Ambassador to Nazi Germany 1933-37.  

Reconvening after lunch, Dr Alix Green gave a summary of her research on collaborative approaches to the history of work with particular reference to joint projects involving both historians and archivists. This led into a panel on ‘Different Perspectives: New research and varied audiences’, chaired by Dr Lise Butler. Professor Myriam Boussahba Bravard, Professor Lawrence Black and Dr Jackie Uí Chionna used their research projects to illustrate how archives can be interrogated in novel and interesting ways.

The focus then switched to some of the more recent research on the collections of the Margaret Thatcher era, with presentations by four of the By-Fellows who have been sponsored by the Friends of John Antcliffe. Lord Boateng, a Labour politician during the period in question, took the chair for short talks by Dr Emma Barrett,  Dr Thomas Kelsey  Dr Stephen Kelly  and Dr Tom Hurst. 

The final session of the day revisited some of the College’s prestigious Roskill Lectures, with Professor Paul Kennedy reconsidering his 1997 address on The Boundaries of Naval History, Jonathan Fenby taking us back to 2014 and his talk on China’s Unfinished Revolution, and Margaret MacMillan reflecting once again on the contemporary legacy of the First World War.

Day two started with presentations by two of the By-Fellows sponsored by Churchill Fellowships (formerly the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust). Trustee and former alumnus James Williams introduced the session by explaining the important work of the Fellowship in funding vocational research trips by UK citizens. Dr Pieter van Houten then chaired the session which saw Dr Jayne Gifford introduce her work on Lady Lloyd before Claire Knight gave a highly visual presentation about the exchange of wartime films between Britain and the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1945.

Archives Assistant and Cambridge PhD student Cherish Watton’s presentation on the research value of scrapbooks, preceded a panel discussion about the British Diplomatic Oral History Programme. This was hosted by Professor Patrick Salmon and Lady (Abbey) Wright, and featured two current Cambridge Heads of Houses with long Foreign Office careers – Lord McDonald of Christ’s and Alison Rose of Newnham.

After lunch, we turned to the future. Cambridge University Librarian, Dr Jessica Gardner, took the chair for a session on the challenges facing archives. Jessamy Carlson of the National Archives, Dr Mari Takayanagi of the Parliamentary Archives and conservator Chris Woods led us through some of the opportunities and challenges: developing computer literacy, skill sharing, greater community engagement, working collaboratively on PhDs and moving away from air conditioning plant in archive strongrooms were among the issues raised.

Proceedings were brought to an end with an excellent keynote from Richard Ovenden, the Librarian at the Bodleian in Oxford. Posing the question What’s in the Stacks? The research library in the twenty-first century, and concluding that they are a key part of the infrastructure of democracy. A suitably powerful and inspiring note on which to end!

The Archives Centre would like to thank all the presenters and attendees. The sessions can be viewed online on the College You Tube channel. Sessions were interspersed with short video stories featuring a cross section of Archives Centre team members and researchers, past and present. These can be viewed at 50 Stories for 50 Years – Churchill Archives Centre (

You can also watch recordings of the different sessions on our Churchill College YouTube channel.