Scrapbooks. Most, if not everyone, reading this blog will know a friend or family member who has created a scrapbook, or has produced one themselves.
Made out of photographs, newspaper articles, and other ephemeral material, scrapbooks are a treasure trove of memories. They are like a diary, a form of life writing, providing a window into how someone wants to record their life. They are also a collection, whose contents are carefully accumulated over several years ready to be immortalised into the pages of a book.
Back in 2016, I had the pleasure of meeting Bridget Moynihan, whose PhD research looks at the scrapbooks created by poet Edwin Morgan. Bridget’s research sparked my imagination. Could I work with scrapbooks as source material? If so, where could I find them? An initial search on the Janus search engine led me to the holdings of Churchill Archives Centre. They had a plethora of scrapbooks made by politicians, diplomats, and their families. And, no one had analysed them as a source of life writing before. I decided to narrow down and focus on women’s scrapbooks on political and diplomatic activity from 1890 to 1939.
Questions, questions, questions…
Fast forward to October 2017 and I joined Churchill College as an MPhil student in Modern British History. In 9 months, I had to turn my spark of an idea into a 20,000 word dissertation. My first challenge was to find out what I really meant by a scrapbook. How was a scrapbook different from a photograph album, a news clippings album, an album? Standing on the shoulders of giants springs to mind as I began to engage critically with the works of historians and archivists who debated this very question. Suddenly I was no longer searching for just scrapbooks in the search engine, but a variation of all of the above terms. After visiting Girton College Library Archives, as well as West Sussex Record Office, I had seen or photographed over 30 scrapbooks. How was I to make sense of these eclectic volumes?
As every researcher knows, everything hinges on the questions you ask. Who created the scrapbook? Over what time period? What sort of material did they paste in? How did they arrange the material on the page and across different volumes? Did they have any help? As well as mining a scrapbook as a form of life writing, I also had to treat it as an object in and of itself. What could the materiality of the scrapbook tell me? What sort of condition was the scrapbook kept in? What did the choice of scrapbook say about women’s archiving practices more broadly? These were just some of the questions which my MPhil dissertation sought to answer.
In the end, my research entered on 3 types of scrapbooks. The first set of scrapbooks were those made by women involved in the suffrage movement – a timely focus with the Vote 100 celebrations this year. I looked at scrapbooks made by Jane Cobden-Unwin (the daughter of nineteenth-century Corn Law campaigner Richard Cobden) and Helen Blackburn, who sat on the Executive committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage among other achievements. Both women made important contributions to the women’s suffrage movement, whether speaking at events, or in being serious organisers. I looked at how they self-fashioned themselves as campaigners through the way they pasted in pamphlets, financial records, and other suffrage memorabilia into their scrapbook. By creating a scrapbook, Blackburn and Cobden-Unwin engaged in a form of history-writing, charting their personal journeys in the movement and the value of family and friends.
Political women’s scrapbooks
Following this focus on suffrage campaigners, I moved on to explore scrapbooks on women’s political careers. Here, the archival holdings at Churchill came into their own. I focused on 6 scrapbooks kept by Florence Horsbrugh, one of the most notable female politicians of the twentieth-century. She was pioneering in several ways. She was the first woman to: move the address against the King’s Speech in 1936, become the first female Conservative Cabinet Member in 1953, and serve in both Houses upon becoming a Life Peer in 1959. Despite her valuable local, national, and international work, her archival collections were quite small. She didn’t save many letters, nor did she write a diary. In fact, the scrapbooks are some of the most personal documents that remain about the way she wanted her political contributions to be remembered. She methodically included newspaper articles which commented on her work, alongside formal and informal press photographs. I compared these scrapbooks with Jane Cobden-Unwin’s scrapbook on her time as one of the first female county councilors for London County Council. Both women were aware of the significance of their contributions and wanted to document these for posterity, focusing on key moments in their respective careers.
Diplomatic wives’ scrapbooks
The final chapter moved from politics to diplomacy, centering on those scrapbooks created by diplomat Maurice Hankey’s wife, Adeline, and Alexander Cadogan’s wife Theodosia (Theo). Adeline and Theo poured a huge amount of time, energy, and love into these scrapbooks, taking seriously their role as memory keepers for their husbands. It was in this latter chapter that I became increasingly intrigued by the archival history of the scrapbooks and delved into some of the history of the Churchill Archives Centre. I read letters sent between Stephen Roskill and the Hankey family as he wrote Maurice’s biography. The letters charted the donation of the scrapbooks, their return to Adeline, and their re-entry into the archives upon her death – showing the emotional significance they had for the Hankey family. I’ll be writing about this exciting archive experience in another blog post, so I won’t give too much away here. Nevertheless, both Adeline and Theo used their authority as scrapbook-makers to look at what the reality of their husbands’ work for the government looked like in public and in private. Though these are documents of family history, historians shouldn’t sideline their value.
Overall, I wanted readers of my dissertation to come away thinking just how invaluable scrapbooks can be to the study of British history. They provide a tantalising window into what political and diplomatic activity looked like for men and women in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century.
I look forward to sharing more detailed findings from my MPhil research in other blog posts and as part of the Churchill History Lecture Series in 2019. In the meantime, I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College and the History Faculty in Cambridge for an inspiring, engaging, and rewarding year at Cambridge.
— Cherish Watton (G17)
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