Last year Churchill College’ set up a new fully-funded MPhil studentship in the arts and humanities linked to the Churchill Archives Centre, with the aim of attracting more graduate students in Politics, International Relations, Modern History or HPS.

The first holder of this studentship, Robert Littleton, has just completed his MPhil in Modern British History. We asked Robert to reflect on his research and his time here at Churchill.

Robert Littleton

Last July I received an unexpected email from Churchill College offering me an Arts and Humanities Studentship to support my place on the MPhil in Modern British History. After a tour around the college, I accepted the offer immediately. The generous grant made my dream of studying at Cambridge possible, while the fantastic repository of historical material available at the Churchill Archives Centre ensured my research over the nine-month course was both interesting and stimulating.

In addition to three Option Essays, my course required the submission of a 20,000-word thesis on an original historical topic. My research concerned interwar politics in London, with focus upon the evolution of municipal Conservatism at the London County Council (LCC) and Borough Council levels. As a political scientist by training, I was relatively inexperienced in using archives. The Churchill Archives Centre was one of the first such places I had visited. Yet even as a Labour man, the sight of Margaret Thatcher’s old handbag and the original transcripts of Churchill’s wartime speeches was enough to spur my enthusiasm for archival research.

I centred my study around three selected localities across interwar London in an attempt to explain changes from the pre-First World War period and to refine established narratives of Conservative decline in the capital. This sent me scavenging across Southern England for archival material, allowing me to enjoy both a pleasant trip to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and a rain-soaked endurance test in the depths of suburban Croydon. Yet as the home of countless papers and memoirs from prominent Conservative party figures, the Archives Centre provided me with an invaluable glimpse into the activities of London’s key ‘movers and shakers’ on the 1920s political scene. I spent most of my time studying the papers of Sir William Bull, a little-known MP at the margins of national Conservative politics who kept a surprisingly detailed – and rather useful – account of community and political life in London from the end of the Nineteenth Century to the beginning of the Twentieth. Though navigation of his somewhat clunky recordkeeping proved challenging at times, it was nonetheless a pleasure to read Bull’s insider observations of the LCC, municipal election campaigns, and even his predictions of life in the capital in the year 2001.

Bull’s detailed portrayals of government in Hammersmith and the internal workings of the London Municipal Society – the de facto Conservative Party at the municipal level – illuminated my understanding of West End politics, the first of my selected case studies. In the West End, I uncovered a dominant brand of middle-class Conservatism underpinned by a remarkably active party machine, which socialised its members through cricket clubs, swimming clubs, and even dramatic societies. This electoral constituency was constructed through a prosaic anti-socialist appeal which drew heavily upon the incidence of ‘Poplarism’ occurring just a few miles down the Thames. This attempt to ferment anti-socialist sentiment was, I argued, the latest manifestation of a historic caricature of the East End, which came to represent the phenomenological antithesis of the West End’s imperial opulence and grandeur.

After conducting similar expositions for South London and the East End, I found that continuity and change in the Conservative traditions across London could best be explained by the interaction between questions of social class, locality, and London government. The existential problem facing Conservatism was that London’s diverse social milieu, which produced a discursive Conservative political culture, was being tied ever closer by the growing remit of the LCC. Therefore, as more ambitious social and infrastructural projects were required to ameliorate the capital’s stark poverty, questions of unemployment relief and transport quality were played out on a pan-London platform. This transformation was encouraged by many leading Conservatives who felt that a carefully managed process of ‘nationalising’ certain functions of municipal government would depoliticise local democracy and thereby undermine the advance of Labour’s ‘gas and water’ socialism in the East End and beyond.

Yet the growing centralisation of London government created huge electoral problems. As the 1920s progressed, West Enders were infuriated by the increasing rates required to help-out Londoners in the East: presaging the sort of conflicts which would ultimately strain the precarious, yet historic, Conservative alliance which had held majorities on the LCC and many local councils for decades. By the 1930s, the party’s image of frugal administration in opposition to socialist patronage could no longer balance the interests of working class populations in the West End and East End, and the ratepayer populations in the West End and South London. As the 1934 LCC elections approached, the political landscape of London had been transformed by an evolution in the relationship between Whitehall, the LCC, and borough councils. Never again, after 1934, would London be the bastion of Conservatism it once was.

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to all the archivists at Churchill for their fantastic support over the duration of my course, particularly Andrew Riley and Allen Packwood, whose meticulous knowledge of the archive material enabled me to broaden my research coverage considerably. I also owe a great deal to my supervisor, Peter Sloman. The Studentship at Churchill enabled me to connect with some of the finest minds in the country, to access a superb array of historical resources practically on my doorstep, and to meet some amazing people, many of whom I hope will become lifelong friends. It is an opportunity I would urge all prospective Cambridge postgraduates to consider.

—Robert Littleton

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Find out more about the Studentship