Asa Briggs: helping people to become producers of knowledge and consumers of education

Guest takeover with Dr Dan Weinbren

Friday 7 May marks the centenary of Asa Briggs’ birth. Prolific historian and active in numerous historical societies, many may be wondering who he was, what legacy he left behind, and the impact he made during his time as Chancellor of the OU between 1978–1994.

The OU honoured Briggs with a Fellowship in 1999 and his name was subsequently given to both a building on the Walton Hall campus and a Chair in History. Much of his focus was on the Victorian period but he also wrote a five-volume history of UK broadcasting, which covers the relationship between the BBC and the OU. 

While a Cambridge undergraduate, he also attended the LSE, which was evacuated there and was awarded two degrees in 1941. Wartime Bletchley Park codebreaking was followed by academic appointments in Oxford and Leeds and a Chair at the University of Sussex.

In 1964, Labour government Minister Jennie Lee established and chaired an Advisory Committee  which developed an idea of the PM’s and produced a 1966 White Paper for a new ‘University of the Air’. Briggs sat on the Planning Committee during 1967–69 for what was to become The Open University and chaired its working group on students and the curriculum. 

To develop the accessible, interdisciplinary curriculum that he desired, Briggs drew on a sophisticated historical understanding of the OU’s role. He also built on his work on the University Grants Committee and his years as a contributor to the BBC’s liberal education series. After the Planning Committee was wound up Briggs continued to contribute to the OU. For the Arts Foundation Course, he presented a television programme, ‘Leeds: A Study in Civic Pride’. Those new to studying and with only one opportunity to watch the programme (this was before access to video playback machines was commonplace) could see an expert use film and music to place everyday lives within broader regional, national and international perspectives. 

As an academic, Briggs provided a sense of why history is important, relevant and can be created by ordinary learners everywhere. As OU Chancellor, he made support for learning central and provided learners with opportunities to construct their own understandings, and to be producers of knowledge as well as consumers of education.

Briggs employed his historical and pedagogic understandings and experiences and his heterogeneous networks to help shape and bolster teaching and support learners at the Open University.  I am confident Briggs’ important legacy within the OU still lives on in the way we continue to champion the importance of cross-generational knowledge, and make our course materials as accessible as possible.

Written by Dr Dan Weinbren, Associate Lecturer and author of The Open University. A history.

Sandip Hazareesingh’s presentation at Heritage and Our Sustainable Future

Dr Sandip Hazareesingh gave a presentation on ‘Millet heritages and climate adaptation in southern India’ in the context of a conference on Heritage and our Sustainable Future held 22 February-2 March 2021, and hosted by Praxis at the University of Leeds and the UK National Commission for UNESCO. The presentation focused on how millet farming cultural heritages, accessed through oral history, have enabled local communities to adopt climate mitigation strategies to ensure food security. You can watch a video of Dr Hazareesingh’s presentation here.

Blaenau Gwent arts project celebration event

Aspiring Poets, musicians and artists from across Blaenau Gwent got together over video last month in a cultural celebration of their area, history and people.

The group are part of BG REACH (Blaenau Gwent Residents Engaging in Arts, Culture and Heritage) a celebration of the heritage, history and people of Blaenau Gwent past and present, led by Dr. Richard Marsden, Senior Lecturer and Staff Tutor in History. The group met for the first time in February 2020 at creative workshops in Aberbeeg. The pandemic cut short face-to-face sessions, but the group kept in touch over video and carried on working together.

‘Back then we didn’t anticipate the imminent challenges to come in the form of severe flooding and then a global pandemic,’ explains Sarah Roberts, the OU in Wales’ partnerships coordinator for south-east Wales. ‘But by working together and mainly down to the commitment and passion of people within the Aberbeeg community group, here we are today to share and celebrate some of the creative work that’s been happening during these challenging times.’

During the online celebration, the group shared a music project, poems, art and photography with each other and the Open University academics who had worked with them. Linc Cymru Housing Association staff, who also supported the project, were among the attendees alongside family and friends. Cynefin2, a video created and recorded remotely by the group during the pandemic which celebrates in words and music the beauty of the area, was also premiered during the event.

The BG REACH team hope to keep gathering more creative work which celebrates heritage in Blaenau Gwent. This can include photography, creative writing, artwork, or music which will be shown in an exhibition in 2021. If you live in the area and interested in sharing your work email to find out more.

Funding success for Community Research and Engagement Project

Dr Richard Marsden, Lecturer in History, with Sarah Roberts of the OU in Wales and partner Linc Cymru, have been successful in their bid for funding for a community research and engagement project with participants in Blaenau Gwent (South Wales).

The award of ÂŁ37.5k, from the UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) “Enhancing place-based partnerships in public engagement” competitive ÂŁ500k pathfinder funding, will be matched by a further ÂŁ18.5k in kind from the OU and project partner Linc Cymru housing association. The UKRI fund supports eligible research organisations UK-wide to pilot place-based public engagement partnerships and activities. Of 91 bids from universities across the UK, just 19 were successful

The project – BG Reach (Blenau Gwent Residents Engaging in Arts, Community and Heritage) – will enable participants from marginalised communities to explore their own sense of heritage and identity through the creative arts. A series of workshops facilitated by Open University tutors are at the heart of the project. These will support community members to reflect on local heritage and its relevance to their own sense of identity. Participants will be supported to articulate those reflections through creative endeavours such as fiction, art, song-writing and oral history.

At the end of the project, a multi-media exhibition of participants’ work, designed by community members, will be toured and made available online. The team will produce a report on the challenges, and their solutions, to community-based co-production experienced by the project, and a journal article using the exhibition to explore links between heritage and identity in the South Wales Valleys. Pathways towards formal study will also be created for those participants, enthused by the informal learning in the creative workshops, who wish to further their studies.

The intention is to seek further funding which would enable widening the project out to other disadvantaged communities across the UK.

“This is one of 53 pilot projects that we have funded, all using exciting ways that researchers and innovators can involve the public in their work. In 2020 and beyond, we will build on the lessons we learn through funding these pilot projects to help us achieve our ambition of making research and innovation responsive to the knowledge, priorities and values of society and open to participation by people from all backgrounds.” – Tom Saunders, Head of Public Engagement, UK Research and Innovation.

UK Research and Innovation works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish. It operates across the whole of the UK with a budget of more than £7 billion.

Richard Marsden’s article on Antiquarianism, Archaeology and History in Late Nineteenth-Century Scotland

Senior Lecturer in History and Staff Tutor Dr. Richard Marsden has published “In Defiance of Discipline: Antiquarianism, Archaeology and History in Late Nineteenth-Century Scotland” in the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies. The nineteenth century is often seen as the period in which old-fashioned antiquarianism gave way to modern archaeological science. Whilst that is certainly the case, this article argues that in Scotland that new emphasis on material evidence and prehistory remained part of a broad antiquarian sphere until the early twentieth century. Even towards the end of the 1800s, antiquarianism continued to encompass the study of both material culture and documentary sources. It was also, for a time at least, a major influence on narrative history-writing. Throughout this period, it was primarily in Scotland’s antiquarian community, rather than its academic or professional institutions, that collective understandings of the nation’s history were advanced. The article thus uses the Scottish case study to question common assumptions about the decline of polymathic antiquarianism and the rise of specialist disciplinarity in the later part of the nineteenth century.

Professor Clive Emsley’s obituary

Historian with an international reputation as the foremost scholar of police history
By Prof. Paul Lawrence, reprinted from The Guardian

Almost everything we know about the development of policing in Britain and beyond can be attributed to the curiosity and intellectual endeavour of Clive Emsley, who has died aged 76. Through a prodigious tally of publications, Clive defined and laid claim to the field of police history, challenging longstanding myths and creating an international network of scholars in the process.

As well as writing standard historical works such as Policing and Its Context (1983), Crime and Society (1987) and The English Police (1991), Clive subjected all aspects of the development of policing to his forensic gaze. His research documented the arduous daily lives of police constables (expected initially to patrol without stopping at a steady three miles an hour, while forbidden from talking to members of the public) and the gradual professionalisation of their work. But he was equally at home analysing the high politics of police control, unearthing the political chicanery that led to the inception of the Metropolitan police and the various scandals leading to reforms such as the Police Act (1964)

At times he adopted a broad statistical view (providing one of the first robust discussions of the validity of police statistics) but he was equally adept at using a biographical approach to illuminate wider themes. His latest book, A Police Officer and a Gentleman (2018), used the little-known career of Chief Constable Michael Wilcox to demonstrate the important role British police officers played in the reconstruction of Europe after the second world war.

Clive always worked internationally, his linguistic ability enabling insights barred to others. In comparative histories such as Gendarmes and the State (1999) and Crime, Police and Penal Policy: European Experiences 1750-1940 (2007), the comfortable myth that British policing – local, unarmed and “by consent” – could be smugly contrasted with a more centralised, political and armed police in Europe, was firmly but politely debunked. Through painstaking archival research, Clive demonstrated that the British police had always been armed if necessary and undertook “political policing”, and that European systems of policing were not that different.

Later in his career he took on other myths, investigating crime and policing in military contexts. Soldier, Sailor, Beggarman, Thief (2013) was the first serious history of criminal offending by members of the British armed forces in the 20th century. Its unflinching gaze demonstrated the involvement of soldiers in black-market racketeering, sexual violence and homicide, while also concluding that, as in wider society, such actions were perpetrated by a small and unrepresentative minority.

Such pioneering research into policing is perhaps unsurprising given Clive’s background. Born in Dulwich, London, he was the son of Evelyn (nee Ing) and Ernie Emsley. His father had worked as a police constable in south-east London before joining the RAF in 1942. Ernie’s first operational flight ended in his death, three months before Clive was born.

The Met looks after its own, however, and Evelyn received a pension and an allowance from the Met orphan fund to assist with Clive’s upbringing. He received annual Christmas boxes from “P” Division and regular visits from a local inspector to ensure he was thriving at school. This he did, attending Alleyn’s school in Dulwich. There he developed a love of acting, joining the National Youth Theatre. Despite performing alongside Helen Mirren in a production of Antony and Cleopatra (1965) and offers of professional acting work, Clive chose academic life.

Clive Emsley receiving an honorary doctorate at Edge Hill University, 2016
Clive Emsley receiving an honorary doctorate at Edge Hill University, 2016. Photograph: Edge Hill University

Following a degree in history at York University, and research for a master’s at Peterhouse, Cambridge (entitled Public Order in England, 1790-1801), in 1970 he joined the Open University at its inception, first as lecturer and then professor of history, staying until his retirement in 2009. There he was instrumental in the development of an entirely new method of teaching history, eschewing face-to-face lectures and tutorials in favour of written course books and BBC broadcasts.

Over 50 years, Clive built an international reputation as the foremost scholar of police history and was a supportive mentor to those who followed in his footsteps. He travelled widely, and his erudition and warmth helped to link archivists, budding historians, curators and police officers. A former president of the International Association for the History of Crime and Criminal Justice, he also co-founded the bilingual journal Crime, History & Societies in 1997.

His house in Bedford, where he lived with his wife, Jenny (nee Noble, whom he married in 1970), was a home from home for scholars from around the world. Alongside academic life, engagement with general audiences formed a significant part of Clive’s career, with books such as Hard Men: Violence in England since 1750 (2005) and The Great British Bobby (2009). He worked with the Police History Society and police museums, surveying police archives and lobbying for their preservation. He lectured for Historical Association branches, engaged with practitioners as well as students, peers of the realm as well as his peers, in the service of his goal to show that an understanding of the history of crime and criminal justice is both useful in the present and a fascinating end in itself.

He is survived by Jenny and by their children, Mark and Kathryn.

• Clive Emsley, historian, born 4 August 1944; died 5 October 2020

Silvia De Renzi’s lectures in Italy

Senior Lecturer in the History of Medicine Dr. Silvia De Renzi has give a number of talks in Italy. On 2 September she presented on ‘Teaching surgery in seventeenth-century Rome: Guglielmo Riva’s printed tables’ at the annual conference of the European Society of the History of Science held in Bologna. On 23 September she gave a lecture as part of the seminar series on the theme ‘Scienza, sapere, potere’ (Science, knowledge, power), organised by the consortium for postgraduate studies in history of the Universities of Udine and Trieste. The lecture was titled ‘Ippocrate sul Tevere:  medici, ambiente e politica a Roma nel XVII secolo’ (Hippocrates on the Tiber: physicians, environment and the politics of seventeenth-century Rome).

Sandip Hazareesingh’s article on Oral histories, millet food culture, and farming rituals among women smallholders

Research Fellow Dr. Sandip Hazareesingh has published the Open Access article ‘Our Grandmother Used to Sing Whilst Weeding: Oral histories, millet food culture, and farming rituals among women smallholders in Ramanagara district, Karnataka‘ in Modern Asian Studies.

The cultural and historical dimensions of rural lives matter. However, development practitioners and writings tend to play down these aspects. This article demonstrates the significance of oral history in revealing the meanings of women smallholders’ millet-based foodways in southern India. It argues that women farmers’ cultural practices around food constitute fundamental ‘capabilities’ nurtured over a long historical duration, and are essential to any meaningful articulation of ‘development’. Drawing on age-old spiritual beliefs and practices involving non-human entities, the women demonstrate fine-tuned skills in nurturing seeds and growing crops, in preparing and cooking food, and in discerning food tastes, particularly in relation to the local staple ragi, or finger millet. They also express their creativity in the joys of performing songs and farming rituals linked to the agricultural cycle. In this way, cultural capabilities express significant dimensions of women’s agency exercised in the intimately related spheres of food and farming. Oral history thus emerges as a research method capable of generating insights into concrete manifestations of culture over a significant historical duration, one that is particularly conducive to reclaiming the voices and life experiences of subaltern groups such as women smallholders who are either not heard or are marginalized in written contemporary and historical documentary records.

Sara Wolfson’s book on The Wedding of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, 1625: Celebrations and Controversy

Dr. Sara Wolfson, Staff Tutor and Lecturer in History, has published a co-edited volume with Dr. Marie-Claude Canova-Green on The Wedding of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, 1625: Celebrations and Controversy .

The union of 1625 between Charles Stuart, the Protestant king of Great Britain, and Henrietta Maria, a Catholic Bourbon princess, was a unique cross-confessional alliance in post-Reformation Europe. The volume brings together literary, art, music, and political-cultural scholars to explore for the first time the variety of celebrations that accompanied the match.

On 11 May 1625 Charles I married Henrietta Maria, the youngest sister of Louis XIII of France. The match signalled Britain’s firm alignment with France against Habsburg Spain and promised well for future relations between the two countries. However, the union between a Protestant king and a Catholic princess was controversial from the start and the marriage celebrations were fraught with tensions. They were further disrupted by the sudden death of James I and an outbreak of the plague, which prevented large-scale public celebrations in London. The British weather also played its part. In fact, unlike other state occasions, the celebrations exposed weaknesses in the display of royal grandeur and national superiority. To a large extent they also failed to hide the tensions in the Stuart-Bourbon alliance. Instead they revealed the conflicting expectations of the two countries, each convinced of its own superiority and intent on furthering its own national interests. Less than two years later Britain was effectively in a state of war against France.

In this volume, leading scholars from a variety of disciplines explore for the first time the marriage celebrations of 1625, with a view to uncovering the differences and misunderstandings beneath the outward celebration of union and concord. By taking into account the ceremonial, political, religious and international dimensions of the event, the collection paints a rounded portrait of a union that would become personally successful, but complicated by the various tensions played out in the marriage celebrations and discussed here.