Cherish Watton first joined Churchill College in 2017 to complete an MPhil in Modern British History. Now in the second year of a PhD at the College, her research offers the first history of scrapbooking in Britain during the twentieth century. She is the founder of www.womenslandarmy.co.uk and made her national television debut when she was interviewed on BBC Breakfast to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day.
My love of History was sparked by a dynamic and enthusiastic teacher, who really brought the subject alive, from acting out key moments from the period we studied, to asking us to make our own Elizabethan magazine. Amazing History lessons, together with my love of period dramas and museums meant that History seemed the obvious choice for me. I applied to Cambridge when I was a fresh-faced 17-year-old and didn’t make it past the three (!) interviews. After a couple of years running a business in environmental education and communications, I applied again. This time was I was successful and just needed to wait to be old enough to enrol at Lucy Cavendish.
I spent the summer of my first year at Cambridge pouring over a series of diaries written by an eighteenth-century cleric, and his niece, Nancy Woodforde. Nancy had been repeatedly miscategorised as her uncle’s housekeeper, but my research showed otherwise, as I became a fly-on-the-wall of their clerical lives. My interest in women’s labour history continued when I wrote a dissertation on the Women’s Timber Corps – an organisation set up during the Second World War to increase the nation’s supply of timber through the felling and planting of trees. This interest stemmed from my work running a website and online archives on the work of the Women’s Land Army and Timber Corps. Supportive of my wider public history projects, my supervisor, Prof Lucy Delap encouraged me to apply for the Royal Historical Society’s Undergraduate Public History Prize, which I was astounded to win.
In my third year I recorded a podcast with Dr Bridget Moynihan, who was researching a multi-volume scrapbook collection crafted by the poet Edwin Morgan. Bridget so eloquently and passionately described how she approached scrapbooks as sources in and of their own right. Bridget had planted a seed which began to grow during my MPhil in Modern British History, generously funded by the Churchill College and Archives Studentship in the Arts and Humanities. I had already visited Churchill Archives Centre for my undergraduate dissertation, avidly reading a cache of letters penned by a Lumber Jill about her wartime work. I ended up spending even more time in the Archives for my MPhil, which provided me with an array of material to explore how scrapbooks were used by elite diplomatic and political families to document their lives.
During my MPhil, I was the MCR Publicity Officer for the Churchill History Society, meeting some fantastic speakers and students. Part of a much larger History community, I hugely appreciated, and still do, the talent which the college, and the Archives Centre attract. As a historian of modern Britain, Churchill College is one of the best places to be studying and thinking about what this history means today. Another benefit is Churchill’s relaxed, friendly atmosphere which makes such a difference when balancing an intensive workload. I also love the space that we have here, whether it’s the large buttery or beautiful gardens.
Before too long, my 9 months as an MPhil student raced by and I began working at the loneliness charity, WaveLength which happily coincided with its 80th Anniversary. I spent some of my working day delving into boxes of minutes, photographs, and objects to share the charity’s journey. As the country went into lockdown, I started a new job as Communications Officer for the think-tank the UK in a Changing Europe. During this time, my interest in History didn’t wane. I began giving talks to various local women’s groups on the Women’s Land Army, both in person and on Zoom. I also made my national television debut, being interviewed on BBC Breakfast to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day.
I am now delighted to be back at Churchill as a PhD student. My research, funded by the Wolfson Foundation, offers the first history of scrapbooking in Britain during the twentieth century. Scrapbooks are physical books in which paper scraps and other items are saved. Women, men, and children from an array of backgrounds, ages, and occupations made scrapbooks during the twentieth century, using newspaper clippings, photographs, leaflets, and material objects to document the unusual and mundane events of their life. Though they are called scrapbooks, they are far from worthless sources, but a gateway into somebody’s world, a way of reading a history, curated by their own hands. While we have entire books dedicated to histories of photograph albums and diaries in Britain, scrapbooks have been largely ignored despite being one of the most accessible forms of archiving used by lots of different people.
Thinking about my time at Churchill, there have been quite a few highlights over the years! One of the top ones must be receiving a Distinction for my MPhil and later sharing some of this research at the seminar series run by the Archives. This was a particular achievement as I actively tried to get more of a home/work life balance, made easier by a thriving and social group of fellow MPhil students and a supportive College environment. I also met two close friends whilst living in the “Pepper Pots”: I’m so grateful to the lottery of the College accommodation ballot for making our paths cross. I also began working the other side of the front desk at the Churchill Archives Centre as an Archives Assistant. One of my favourite projects to date has been working with History BA students at Anglia Ruskin University to produce an online exhibition of diaries in the run up to our conference which took place earlier this year. Students selected an incredible array of diaries and brought them to life for our online readers.
Looking ahead to beyond my current studies, I’m still figuring out what post-PhD life looks like for me, but I imagine it’ll be working in some role which allows me to combine my love for Comms with my passion for History and research. Watch this space….
The story behind www.womenslandarmy.co.uk
It was during my time at Dereham Sixth Form that I first began interested in the work of the Women’s Land Army – the women who worked on farms during the First and Second World Wars. With a love for research and web design, I created a website on the stories I’d uncovered during the summer. A few years after submitting the website as a school project, I then published it and was surprised by the response. I began to receive questions from budding researchers, as well as donations of historical material, which I’ve since digitised and uploaded onto the website. My school project has turned into the national online space for commemorating this important aspect of women’s wartime participation. I’m thrilled that visitors to the website are as wide-ranging as school students, teachers, journalists, researchers, as well as the general public primarily in the UK, US, Australia, and Canada. It’s even recommended by the Museum of English Rural Life, the BBC, as well as key academics in the field.
On a day-to-day basis, I respond to quite a few e-mails, often from family members, who are looking to find out more about their mother or grandmother’s time in the WLA. I’m also constantly adding new material to the website, whether new photographs, or entries for former Land Girls and Lumber Jills, sharing this on Twitter and Facebook. And if any media enquiries land in my inbox, then I respond to those too – and occasionally appear on radio or television!
Published articles, podcasts and news features
- Cherish Watton, Suffrage scrapbooks and emotional histories of women’s activism, Women’s History Review (2022)
- Tiia Sahrakorpi & Cherish Watton, Coming of Age in Postwar Germany: Young Women’s Search for New Emotional Subjectivities, 1946–50, Journal of Social History (2022)
- I’m the producer of The Scrapbook History Podcast, which explores the history of scrapbook making in Britain during the twentieth century: https://www.scrapbooks.org.uk/
- Pieces published in The Conversation on scrapbooking on activism and scrapbooks as family objects