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The ‘What if’ Women of Munich-The Edge of War

Munich – Edge of War

During the past eight decades there have often been historical parallels with the Four Powers Conference and the so-called Munich Crisis of September 1938, when Britain, Germany, Italy and France met to decide the fate of Czechoslovakia and acceded to Hitler’s territorial demands for the Sudetenland in a bid to avert war in Europe.Munich—The Edge of War, out on Netflix on 21 January, is not a dramatization of this pivotal event but a work of ‘what if’ historical fiction, based on Robert Harris’s 2017 political thriller. What about the ‘what if’ women of Munich? The vast majority of ruminations about the historical plausibility of the film will focus on the characterisation of the leading great or guilty men. The fictional male leads Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann are loosely based on the British A.L. Rowse and the German Adam von Trott, a good deal of poetic licence taken regarding their respective political insights and foresight and their proximity to the centre stage of diplomatic events.

The film aims to be relatable by subtly but no less deliberately framing the strategic and ethical quandaries faced by the appeasers and the would-be-anti-Nazi resistors in ways that will resonate with audiences in our own age of crisis and rising extremism. Indeed, some commentators are comparing the current crisis in the Ukraine to the Munich Crisis.

The portrayal of Neville Chamberlain is nostalgic, highly sympathetic and (perhaps, too) attractive. Jeremy Irons’ Chamberlain is the saviour of peace, the epitome of respectability, good manners and tradition— a striking foil for the current resident of 10 Downing Street, a PM who uses the same austere spaces for, we now know, far less serious business. 

Munich-The Edge of War speaks to modern audiences in other ways too, for instance, with integrated casting (casting without consideration of the actor’s ethnicity). In a similar vein, the filmmakers have worked on what we might call ‘gender-blind’ casting. What I mean by this is creating strong, intelligent, well-informed women characters whose actions have a direct bearing on events. The ‘what if’ genre allows for an attempt to right the wrongs of the very real male-exclusivity and unexamined sexism of interwar diplomacy. 

There are four key but still supporting women characters in the film, serving important symbolic, romantic and dramatic functions. There is Lenya, the German-Jewish friend of both fictional male leads, whose body will eventually wear the marks of Nazi persecution. There is Pamela Legat, the protagonist’s wife, who stands in for British mothers, faced with the terrifying prospect of a war from the air, making wrenching decisions about evacuating children, and looking at this new world through the dehumanizing visor of newly acquired gasmasks. Third, the film takes one of Chamberlain’s typists on a flight of fancy, so to speak. She is given the name Joan Menzies. While women typists did accompany Chamberlain by airplane to the Munich Conference, as far as we know none served overt or covert functions in the negotiations. Fourth, on the German side, there is Helen Winter, widow of a General, holding some kind of administrative ministerial post, and both von Hartmann’s love interest and co-conspirator—the pretty face of German anti-Nazism. 

These token women are all ‘great’ rather than guilty women, with assorted qualities of courage, heroism, pathos, insight and intuition, not to mention sex appeal. They are all variations of the mythical Cassandra, speaking truth to power and issuing predictions about the consequences of the naive acts performed by men. 

To their credit, the filmmakers have included a number of reminders that the Munich Crisis was not an all-male affair in its impact on the population at large. Women are evoked as the ‘millions of mothers’ who will be thanking Chamberlain for saving the peace. Women are extras in the scenes of political protests. An anonymous German girl presents Chamberlain with a bouquet upon his arrival in Munich. Women are a high proportion of the jubilant crowds receiving Chamberlain when he arrives home with the document promising ‘Peace for our time’.  

To avoid giving away the plot, I won’t give any more detail. But in terms of the historical record, some spoilers are called for. Indeed, the main problem with plot devices and the dramatic functions assigned to these women characters is that women just did not have this kind of access to power, certainly not in an official capacity. 

To say that women would not have been able to act in the events as they do in the film is not to say that women were absent from the history, even at the level of high politics and diplomacy. I suspect elements of the life story of Shiela Grant Duff have been mined for the composite heroines. Grant Duff and von Trott developed a close friendship at the University of Oxford in the early 1930s. They fell out over politics when he became a supporter of the Nazi regime, and as a woman she blazed a trail as a foreign correspondent, and expert on and advocate of Czechoslovakia. Her best-selling Penguin Special Europe and the Czechs (1938) was published just days after the Munich Agreement was signed. 

Shiela Grant Duff, by Howard Coster, 1939. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London

Moreover, a small handful of women MPs from the small group of women who were MPs in the late 1930s were formidable critics of appeasement, including the Independent Eleanor Rathbone, Labour’s Ellen Wilkinson, and Chamberlain-scourge the Conservative Duchess of Atholl who made sure that all British MPs were presented with the unexpurgated translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Other women MPs led from the front as Chamberlain’s fan base, including Conservative MPs Nancy Astor, Florence Horsbrugh and Marjorie Graves, and the political hostess Edith Lady Londonderry. 

Munich—The Edge of War, a brooding and evocative fictionalisation of the Munich Crisis, does a commendable job of writing women into the drama and inviting audiences to take a gender-blind view of the event. It is also a welcome invitation to look more closely and carefully at the historical record, and acknowledge the opportunities as well as the significant constraints real women faced in the 1930s to play the kind of decisive roles created for them in this film.

Julie V. Gottlieb is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield. Her publications include ‘Guilty Women’ (see cover below), Foreign Policy and Appeasement (Palgrave, 2015), and she is co-editor of The Munich Crisis, Politics and the People (Manchester University Press, 2021).

A slightly different version of this blog post was published earlier on The Conversation.

Cover image: Lenya in Munich— The Edge of War, Netflix (2022)

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Sheffield, Slavery, and its Legacies

Plantation hoes for header

In the summer of 2020, Sheffield joined much of the rest of the world in responding to the murder of George Floyd. Thousands gathered at Devonshire Green on 6 June to protest his killing and to address institutional racism in Britain. The event, along with the wider Black Lives Matter movement, reinvigorated discussion around Britain’s role in the trade and enslavement of Africans in the Atlantic world and its pernicious legacies. 

Yet, the events of 2020 also highlighted Sheffield’s complex relationship with this history. Some proposed that a fitting response was a statue of or memorial to the renowned white female anti-slavery activist Mary Ann Rawson and the Sheffield Female Anti-Slavery Society (founded in 1825). The controversial proposal reflects the common view that Sheffield – unlike other cities in the UK – is not ‘particularly “known” for its part in the slave trade’, and instead had ‘a big part to play in the abolition of slavery’.

It is certainly the case that working-class people in Sheffield – and particularly local women such as Rawson – played a prominent role in the political campaigns to abolish the slave trade and slavery through the organisation of mass petitions and boycotts. This local history is important to highlight and remember. However, focusing on and often celebrating anti-slavery activism has obscured the wider set of connections between Sheffield and the mass enslavement of Africans.

There is a more complex, and often more troubling story of the city’s relationship with the enslavement of African peoples in the Atlantic world. Our research as part of the ‘Sheffield, slavery, and its legacies’ project demonstrates how Sheffield and its wider region had deep-rooted and long-lasting connections to the Atlantic slave economy. 

We explore four types of such connections in our research: the economic ties between Sheffield manufacturing firms and the transatlantic slave system; the careers of the traders and ‘owners’ of enslaved Africans who were either born or lived in Sheffield; how wealth generated through slavery influenced the built environment of the local area; and the history of African and African-descended peoples in the Sheffield region between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. 

Sheffield’s relationship with transatlantic slavery began in the 1660s, only a few decades after the first English plantation colonies had been established in North America and the Caribbean. In 1662, George Sitwell – an ironmaster born in Eckington and with business operations in and around Sheffield and Chesterfield – discussed with London merchants the prospect of producing sugarcane rollers and sugar boiling stoves in his iron foundries. These metal rollers and stoves would then be shipped to the Caribbean for use in the sugar industry, where enslaved Africans were forced to use them when operating the mill and boiling sugar. This is just one of many examples of the economic connections between Sheffield manufacturers and slave societies in the Americas between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

The city’s ties to the Atlantic slave economy continued until 1888, half a century after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Manufacturers in Sheffield continued to supply      goods to societies in the Americas where slavery persisted, such as the United States, Cuba, and Brazil. 

There are examples of both traders and ‘owners’ of enslaved Africans who were either born or lived in Sheffield and its surrounding area at some point in their lives. Their wealth influenced the built environment and local economy through the construction of stately homes and investments in railway infrastructure (to give just two examples). 

However, when compared with other British cities with maritime ties to Atlantic slavery,      such as Liverpool and Glasgow, the traders in enslaved Africans and absentee owners of plantations worked by enslaved people were only a small minority of Sheffield’s population. 

The most significant link between Sheffield and slavery was therefore the close commercial relationship between the city’s metalware manufacturers and business people who were deeply involved in the transatlantic slave trade and plantation production. 

A good example of the links between Sheffield manufacturers and merchants who trafficked enslaved Africans across the Atlantic is the business career of the Liverpool-based trader William Earle, who was a participant in 97 slaving voyages between 1753 and 1787. Most of the ‘Guinea knives’ that Earle used to purchase enslaved Africans were supplied by Joseph and Benjamin Broomhead, ‘manufacturers of cutlery wares’ who were based in Fargate, Sheffield. 

Sheffield was also an important centre for the manufacture of the ‘plantation hoe’ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Prominent metalware manufacturers in Sheffield such as William Butcher, Joseph Smith, and Frederick Stones profited from shipping plantation tools overseas to the Americas, where they were used by enslaved Africans working long hours in the plantation economy under brutal conditions. 

Plantation work carried out using hoes was a central part of the lived experience of enslavement for African and African-descended women, men, and children in the Americas. For instance, Sara Colquitt (pictured below in a photograph taken in 1936-38), a woman who was enslaved in Alabama and interviewed late-in-life during the 1930s, described how she worked in the fields ‘every day from ‘fore daylight to almost plumb dark’. She continued: ‘I usta take my littlest baby wid me. I had two chilluns, and I’d tie hit up to a tree limb to keep off de ants and bugs whilst I hoed and worked de furrow’.      

Sara Colquitt, photographed in Alabama, USA, in 1936-8. A917, vol. 1, Federal Writers’ Project, United States Work Projects Administration, Library of Congress, USA

Overall, Sheffield provides a complex and important case study for exploring Britain’s ties to transatlantic slavery. It provides insights into how inland manufacturing centres in Britain – and not just the better-known port cities – had deep and lasting connections to the trade in enslaved people and the production of slave-grown cash crops. 

The example of Sheffield is also interesting because it demonstrates how British cities with sustained connections to the Atlantic economy (and thus slavery) could at the same time function as centres of radical anti-slavery politics in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

These research findings – which are explored in much greater detail in the full report of our project – will hopefully play a part in reinscribing the history of Sheffield’s links to the transatlantic slave trade and plantation slavery into the city’s conventional historical narrative, providing a more nuanced understanding of this history, which encompasses both abolitionist campaigning and the various material benefits Sheffield and the wider region accrued from its economic ties to the enslavement of Africans. 

One message that has come through loud and clear in undertaking the project, though, is the need for researchers to situate the topic of slavery as one part of the broader histories of African and African-descended people connected to Sheffield. For instance, we identified examples of African and African-descended individuals living in Sheffield and its wider region as early as 1695 and 1725, and also demonstrated how a number of formerly enslaved people visited Sheffield as part of their campaigns to abolish slavery (including the renowned African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass). 

However, in order to establish a richer picture of African-Caribbean histories, institutional resources need to go towards amplifying stories that do not just centre on pain and suffering – or for that matter the business portfolios of white investors – but explore other aspects of lived experience, past and present. In this respect, we see Sheffield and Slavery as a beginning, rather than an end. 

Dr Michael Bennett is an honorary research fellow in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. His research explores the merchants in the City of London who financed the development of the plantation system and African slavery in the British Caribbean. He is currently employed by the Bank of England and is working on a major new research project investigating the Bank’s ties to historical slavery and colonialism between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. 

‘Sheffield, Slavery, and its Legacies’ was a knowledge-exchange project that ran between February and July 2021, supported by the National Productivity Investment Fund (NPIF) and led by Dr R. J. Knight with Dr Andrew Heath, Department of History, University of Sheffield. Dr Michael Bennett worked on the project as a postdoctoral researcher, and Dr Alex Mason was the Knowledge Exchange Project Manager.

Cover image: Plantation hoes sold by Joseph Smith of Sheffield. Joseph Smith, Explanation or Key, to the Various Manufactories of Sheffield, with Engravings of Each Article (1816). 672 SSTQ, Sheffield Local Studies Library. 

Further reading:

www.sheffieldandslavery.com

https://www.sheffield.gov.uk/home/libraries-archives/access-archives-local-studies-library/research-guides/slavery-abolition

https://nowthenmagazine.com/people/desiree-reynolds

https://nowthenmagazine.com/articles/sheffields-colonial-legacy-council-statue-report

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The War on the Football Field

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“Two World Wars and one World Cup.”

This is a frequent chant of English fans when facing their old football rivals: Germany. The chant refers to England having won the First and Second World War, and the 1966 FIFA World Cup. But what exactly is the basis for this chant? After all, West Germany had already won a World Cup in 1954, 12 years before England would win. And Germany has gone on to win three more since. Apart from the conceited nature of the chant, the comparison between war and football may seem like a harsh comparison. Can Football be compared to warfare?

Perhaps it can, on a national level. The oft-quoted George Orwell once wrote about sports: “At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe – at any rate for short periods – that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.” Written in 1945, but does it still hold truth today?

Any controversy between Britain and Germany in football has rarely originated in the game itself or with the players, but more often with the media and the fans. In 1966 the Sunday Mirror described the victorious England team as ‘conquering heroes’ and celebrations as the wildest night ‘since VE night in May 1945’. These kinds of descriptions have not tempered over time. Other controversial headlines throughout the years include ‘The Battle of the Krauts’, (1987) ‘Achtung! Surrender’, (1996) and ‘Job Done… Now for the Hun’ (2010).

It is not hard to imagine that these media headlines were meant as general provocations. What is more striking is the behaviour of the fans. A common English chant uses  the theme to The Dam Busters (1955) which is accompanied by arms outstretched in a mimicry of the war planes the film portrays. When Britain was knocked out of the World Cup by Argentina in 1986, 75 per cent of Brits said they supported Argentina rather than Germany, despite the Falklands conflict with Argentina having only ended four years prior, and Germany (who had not come up against Britain in that particular World Cup) being their political allies for forty years.

More recently, those who followed the Euro 2020 tournament, may remember the England-Germany match, as well as the crying German girl that dominated the screen for a short amount of time. They may also remember the abusive comments made about her online and the cheers of the English crowd. These comments included references to Anne Frank and the Holocaust and referred to the girl as a Nazi, among other offensive labels. 

What all of these examples have in common is not only lack of hesitation, but the often flagrant willingness to create connections between football and the status of Germans as wartime adversaries. It is therefore difficult to disagree with Orwell’s view on sports in the context of the England vs Germany football rivalry. Yet what should be noted (and may be a hard truth for some English football fans) is that this rivalry only appears to truly exist in England: German football fans don’t tend to reference the war when mentioning England or English fans. 

So why does British football culture seem to have merged the memory of the war and Germany’s defeat in it with football? Why is the fact that ‘we won the war’ such a defining trope for football fans across the nation? It may have something to do with envy over the fact that the German team generally dominates the English team. As Gary Lineker once remarked, ‘Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.’

But this German position of dominance has not been limited to football. By the time of the 1966 World Cup, the West German economic miracle, or Wirtschaftswunder, was well under way. At the same time, Britain was losing its status as a superpower. It has often been put forward that this inferior position in various realms has led England supporters to hold on dearly to what they knew they had over the Germans: wartime victory. 

Ruth Wittlinger suggests that this issue of inferiority has also been the cause for the loss of a British identity, further aggravating emotions. She further writes that Britain holds on to a wartime memory of Germany while remaining uneducated about current-day Germany because of an ever-present memory of the Holocaust in the media and in the classroom, together with a strong focus on the war and Germany more generally speaking. Moreover, parallel developments to Nazi fascism, racism, and antisemitism have continued in the post-1945 period, such as in the form of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans or the development of ‘skinhead’ culture and violence against immigrants across Europe. 

This all paints a bitter picture indeed and can also help uncover a certain hypocrisy within Britain when it comes to  its relationship with the past as well as the present, as has been humorously satirised. It has been shown before that Britain is less than willing to engage with its own uncomfortable memories, including deeply rooted issues like the romanticisation of colonialism and the question whether stolen items in the British Museum should be returned to where they were plundered from.

There are some that say we simply can’t help it, relying on Ad Populum arguments about pride and suggestions that Germans ‘deserve it’. Others present more nuanced arguments interpreting the supporters’ behaviour as a reflection of British pride, attempting to recapture the wartime spirit that brought the British people together. Others still think it is all just good fun and not offensive, that these football chants are harmless and there are bigger issues in football to worry about. The fact that these contrasting opinions exist and have been published in major outlets is proof enough that the question remains a hot topic.

So the question remains: is all this about modern British pride, or are the chants a reflection of a bitter longing for a better past? Are we remembering our own values when we chant “Ten German Bombers,” or are we making sure Germany doesn’t forget that they lost theirs during the first half of the twentieth century? If we are so keen to avoid facing our own problematic past as a nation, is it really fair that British football fans keep reminding Germany of theirs? It is difficult to agree that football fans’ anti-German chants are not quite a serious problem when you don’t have to look far to find examples of violence and insults towards Germans, or when an emotional little girl is abhorrently called a Nazi.

Matthew Brundrett studied History with Psychology at Keele University, and has recently completed an MA in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. He is currently continuing his MA research related to the First World War with a view to obtaining a PhD. Matthew can be contacted via matt.brundrett@sky.com.

Cover image: England and Germany fans outside Cologne Cathedral, 2006. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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The Long Fall of King Coal

Longannet_Power_Station_7_December_2011 (1)

When did Britain’s age of coal come to an end? A commonsensical answer to this question is likely to appeal to the decisive defeat the miners suffered during the great strike of 1984-5 and the swift closure of collieries that followed in the decade after.

Energy scholars such as Timothy Mitchell are more likely to point to the transition towards an oil economy in the immediate postwar period.[1] Long before the mid-1980s, Britain had become a car-driven society dependent on petrochemical manufacturing processes and oil had even begun to play a significant role in Britain’s electricity generation by the early 1970s.[2]

King coal’s fall was certainly longer than a story of rapid contraction allows for, but rather than being squarely located in an earlier time-period, it is a story that stretches into the present. British coal production and employment peaked at almost 300 million tons and over a million miners during the second decade of the twentieth century and has been in more or less sustained contraction since the early 1920s. It was only in 2020, during the midst of lockdown, that Britain went without coal-fired electricity for two months for the first time in over 130 years.

These developments are a sign of things to come. Britain is on track to end coal-fired electricity by the mid-2020s. Scotland’s last coal power station, Longannet, closed in 2016. Fourteen years earlier, in 2002, the curtain was brought down on a centuries-long historical saga when miners rose from the last of the drift mines dug to supply Longannet for the final time. This brought Scottish deep coal mining to an end.

I was finalising my PhD thesis on deindustrialization in Scotland’s coalfields when Longannet power station closed. My research included several interviews with men who had worked at the complex and were among the nation’s last miners. My first monograph was published this year, Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialization in Postwar Scotland.[3]

Coal Country approaches deindustrialization, the declining significance of industrial activities to employment and economic production, as a long-term historical economic process which had foundational cultural and political consequences. It understands the entire lifetime of Longannet power station, and the modernised mining complex which directly fuelled it with coal won beneath the Firth of Forth, as framed by deindustrialization.

Longannet was planned during the 1960s and contextualised by the numerical peak of coal mining job losses. Scottish coalfield employment stood at just over 30,000 in 1970 when the power station began producing electricity, less than half what it had been a decade before. These tens of thousands of job losses were negotiated through moral economy customs that evolved between the management of Britain’s nationalised coal industry and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

Closures were agreed in consultation with union representatives, transfers to suitable jobs were found for miners within travel distance of their homes and suitable accommodations were made for injured, disabled and elderly miners, including the option to retire early in some cases.

These practices evolved over time, originating in responses to sustained closured in the Shotts area of Lanarkshire after the Second World War when the workforce defied Coal Board expectations of mass emigration to collieries in eastern and central Scotland. Instead, a ‘take work to the workers’ policy was pursued by civil servants, including the direction of inward investment in engineering to stabilise the local labour market. This approach was subsequently followed across the Scottish coalfields during the 1950s and 1960s.[4]

Job losses and fears of economic insecurity nevertheless fuelled dissatisfaction. Longannet became a key site in the 1972 strike over miners’ wages when the NUM Scottish Area (NUMSA) mounted mass pickets who clashed with police.[5] A decade earlier, a ‘strong coal lobby’ connected to the Scottish Office had insisted on investment in additional electricity capacity due to concern about sector’s future and employment consequences.[6] Later in the 1960s, the NUMSA responded to mounting colliery closures by becoming a leading proponent of a devolved Scottish parliament within the labour movement.[7]

Longannet strengthened the articulation of a Scottish national coalfield community that overcame traditional parochial associations. Pat Egan relocated from Twechar in Lanarkshire to Glenrothes in Fife so he could take up work at the complex after Bedlay colliery shut in 1982. When I interviewed him in 2014, Pat explained that regional voting blocs in union elections dissipated over time and that trusting relationships were built between men who travelled to work at Longannet each day from Lanarkshire, Fife, Clackmannanshire and the Lothians.[8]

Coal Country confronts the need to understand deindustrialization as a formative structural process and an intensely personal experience whose intricacies determined life courses and remoulded community, class and nationhood. The contraction of Scotland’s coalfields unfolded across the second half of the twentieth century, but its pace was determined by the agency of workers, politicians, nationalised industry managers and civil servants.

Archival records from government, industry and unions provide a detailed vantage on the contingencies that shaped deindustrialization. Oral testimonies are insightful for understanding how workplace closures and job losses were experienced in the coalfields and what these changes came to mean in the twenty-first century.

Earlier this year, Longannet power station’s boiler house was subject to a controlled demolition and the large chimney is set to follow soon. Visible signs of the role coal played in transforming Scotland over the last two centuries are disappearing from the landscape, whilst the energy transition that led to Longannet’s closure continues apace. The Neart na Gaoithe windfarm is under construction in the North Sea near the Fife coast.

Moral economy sentiments and arguments over the responsibility of governments to use Scottish national resources in the interests of communities continue to animate workers’ perspectives. Unions have condemned of the ‘paltry return’ of local jobs and production provided by wind turbine multinational supply chains. The concerns and conflicts which animated deindustrialization in the Scottish coalfields will continue to reverberate in the context of debates over a ‘just transition’ to renewables.

Ewan Gibbs is a lecturer in Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow. He published Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialization in Postwar Scotland with the University of London Press and is beginning a BA-Wolfson Fellowship studying energy transitions. You can find Ewan on Twitter @ewangibbs


Cover image: Longannet Power Station 7 December 2011, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Longannet_Power_Station_7_December_2011.jpg [accessed 25 July 2021]

[1] Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil (London: Verso, 2013).

[2] James Marriott and Terry Macalister, Crude Britannia: How Oil Shaped a Nation Kindle Edition (London: Pluto, 2021).

[3] Ewan Gibbs, Coal Country: The Meaning and Memory of Deindustrialization in Postwar Scotland (London: University of London Press, 2021).

[4] The National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh, Scottish Economic Policy, 4/762, H. S. Phillips, Research studies: geographical movement of labour, 9 August 1948.

[5] Jim Phillips, The Industrial Politics of Devolution: Scotland in the 1960s and 1970s (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008) p.126.

[6] The National Archives, Kew, London, Ministry of Fuel and Power, 14/1495, Ministry of Power General Division, TUC and Fuel and Power policy brief for minister’s meeting on 12 February 1963.

[7] STUC, Annual Report 1967–1968, lxxi (1968), 191–2.

[8] Pat Egan, interview with author, Fife College, Glenrothes, 5 February 2014.

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‘Since all confess the nat’ral Form Divine, What need to Swell before or add behind?’

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We live in a world often dominated by the latest fashions and prevalent images of body modifications. Whether in traditional print media or on social media sites, women in particular are bombarded with images of often unattainable body shapes, whilst simultaneously encouraged to remain natural in appearance. A curvaceous body type can be obtained by plastic surgery, or alternatively, is now easily replicated with fashion companies selling a wide variety of padded products that can change how our bodies look in clothes. Even though these trends and societal expectations may seem aproduct of the modern age, how true is this?  

In reality, this trend has a much longer history. The eighteenth century saw a variety of extreme fashions introduced by women of the elite. This included wearing large hoops under dresses, bum padding, and even stomach padding to give the illusion of pregnancy. 

Celebrities and social media stars are at the forefront of establishing new fashion trends. But just as the modern media and public are intrigued and obsessed by the fashions and bodily choices of celebrities, so too was eighteenth century society.   Back then, the leaders of fashion were known as the beau monde. Fashion gave elite women a form of empowerment largely unavailable to them elsewhere in eighteenth-century society.[1] This was a sphere they could dominate, arguably giving them a form of pleasure unavailable anywhere else. 

By the 1730s, the Rococo style was deeply entrenched in both French and English fashions, with a focus on the feminine being the most crucial quality of dress for women. This translated into using padding on the hips or hoops to create a new body shape. 

The use of padding to create a curvaceous body shape culminated in the 1780s into a rounded silhouette: hip padding alongside the addition of bum pads or rolls to give the illusion of a more rounded physique, as well as increasing appearance of breast sizes by using starched kerchiefs tucked into the front of the dress.[2] This was not a new development in fashion, however the changing shape of the body was reaching new heights of exaggeration and extremes.

In 2021, we may often see satire and humour directed at those in the public eye on social media – for being too revealing, for having exaggerated bodily features, for all manner of fashion choices. The satirical prints of the eighteenth century did not hold back from attacking women’s fashion either.

Luxury and extravagance were often used as the measure for immorality or downfall in society. This meant fashion was consequently seen as a vice in need of correcting. All manner of vices appeared in satirical prints, and women’s fashion choices were also ridiculed.

The vast number of satirical prints created about women’s fashions suggests that enough women were participating in what the satires considered to be excessive and ‘humorous’ for such satirical prints to be rendered relevant. 

Demonstrating interesting parallels between the past and the present, the satirical print Chloe’s Cushion or The Cork Rump bares a striking resemblance to the famous Kim Kardashian image in Paper magazine where Kim ‘breaks the internet’. However, instead of a champagne glass perched on Kim’s ‘rump’, a tiny dog sits in its place on top of Chloe. 

Matthew Darly, Chloe’s Cushion or The Cork Rump, 1777, col. engraving, British Museum J,5.129 (BM Satires 5429), Wikimedia Commons.

Ridiculing the fashion of wearing padding on the bum links to a similarly themed satirical print, The Bum Shop published by S. W. Fores in 1785. Four women are at various stages of the buying process, with some being fitted for the pads, whilst others admire the final look. 

However, all of the women appear to have ugly faces, and look ridiculous to the viewer whilst wearing or holding the padding, indicating the mocking tone of the print. Extreme vanity is showcased in this print, stating it is a ‘fashionable article of female Invention’; suggesting that it is by women’s choice to dress this way. 

The Bum Shop, pub. S. W Fores, 1785, col. etching, British Museum 1932,0226.12 (BM Satires 6874), Wikimedia Commons.

Society, and especially men, disapproved of these extreme fashions. In some cases, they were angered by women trying to alter their bodies in ‘unnatural’ ways with padding that gave them a different shape and appearance – it was considered to be false, and not a true representation of their natural bodies. 

Most concerningly for men, if a woman could change her body shape she could potentially hide an illegitimate pregnancy.[3] A woman’s sexual reputation both before and after marriage was considered a matter of the utmost importance to elite gentlemen, as fears of illegitimate children inheriting their estates were prevalent in the period.[4]

Considering this social issue, it is therefore understandable why fashion, female sexuality and a sense of female independence seamlessly blended together in the male perception, and thereby became a key target of their concern. 

Women controlled what they wore, making fashion unique as an area lacking domination by men; yet these prints indicate this did not stop men, and wider society, from trying to encourage changes.

The Bum-Bailiff Outwitted: or The Convenience of Fashion, pub. S. W. Fores, 1786, col. etching, British Museum 1851,0901.291 (BM Satires 7102), Wikimedia Commons.

The social scientist Mostafa Abedinifard puts forward the theory that ridicule (and therefore satire) can act as a key tool in society to threaten ‘any violations of established gender norms’. [5] This theory can help explain why satirical prints of women’s fashions were made. In Abedinifard’s words: ‘Through a mechanism involving fear of embarrassment, ridicule apparently occupies a universal role in policing and maintaining the gender order’. [6] By nurturing a fear amongst women of being ridiculed by the rest of society, the prints arguably created an environment of self-policing that encouraged women to stay within gender expectations.[7] These expectations guided women towards remaining natural in their appearance and staying within the private sphere, if they did not wish to be ridiculed.

There are many intriguing parallels between eighteenth century society and our own times in terms of how women’s self-expression through fashion is viewed. Using padding to alter the appearance of certain body parts is not a new phenomenon. In a post-lockdown world where we once again reassess how we clothe our bodies, it is interesting to consider the power fashion held in eighteenth century society, and the responses it generated.[8]

Holly Froggatt is an MA Historical Research graduate of the University of Sheffield. Her research seeks to explore the relationship between satirical prints and the ridicule of elite women, and the expectations they faced in eighteenth century Britain. You can find Holly on twitter @Holly_Froggatt 

Cover Image and Title: William Dent, Female Whimsicalities, pub. James Aitken, 1793, col. etching, British Museum 1902,0825.3 (BM Satires 8390), Wikimedia Commons.


[1] Cindy McCreery, The Satirical Gaze: Prints of Women in Late Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford, 2004), p. xii.

[2] Aileen Ribeiro, The Art of Dress: Fashion in England and France 1750-1820 (London, 1995), p. 72.

[3] Erin Mackie, Market à la mode: Fashion, Commodity, and Gender in the Tatler and the Spectator (Baltimore, 1997), p. 125.

[4] Roy Porter, English Society in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1991), p. 25.

[5] Mostafa Abedinifard, ‘Ridicule, Gender Hegemoney, and the Disciplinary Function of Mainstream Gender Humour’, Social Semiotics 2 (2016), p. 241.

[6] Ibid., pp. 244-45.

[7] Mackie, Market à la mode, pp. 238-241.

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Our Island Story

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Why is the history of Britain so often thought to be an ‘island story’? There is, after all, nothing inevitable about islands ending up as unitary states. If Greenland is the largest thing we can call an island only one of the ten largest islands is a unitary state: Madagascar. In the top 50 there are only four more. The United Kingdom is not such a thing, of course: it consists of the island of Great Britain and part of the neighbouring island. In fact the island of Great Britain has never been a self-contained and unitary state and the United Kingdom has not so far lasted as long as the Kingdom of Wessex, and may not do so.

Histories of Britain though tend to tell the story of the development of the UK and the associated development of Britishness as if that was the natural destination of political development. People writing ‘British history’ write about all sorts of other things of course—medicine, the economy, sexuality, art, farming, buildings, witches—but what is considered the proper subject of a ‘History of Britain’ seems to be fixed on explaining the development of the Westminster state.

This conflation of a political community with a geographical object is a very common reflex, evident for example in the oft-repeated ambition to ‘put the great back into Great Britain’, rather than the more accurate but less catchy ‘put the great back into the United Kingdom’. (In fact, it’s a shame there has not been an equally prominent desire to ‘put the united back into United Kingdom’, but that is an issue for another day.)

The ‘history of Britain’ in this sense is closely connected to identity politics in all sorts of ways. In fact, in general, history and identity are intimately related: it is hard to say who we are without talking about our past and when we introduce ourselves we often give a potted history. That is also true of collectivities—there are, for example, landmarks in the past that all Watford football fans would refer to in explaining their connection with the club. More importantly, Brexit seems to have rapidly become a dispute about who we are and what we will be in the future; and equally rapidly that has become an argument about our past, its significant features, who it shows us to be and who is included in it.  

There is more to the island story than identity politics though: an interest in the origins of the UK and Britishness also reflects a more academic interest, of nineteenth-century origin. When history was professionalised European nation states were the most powerful political organisations in human history and the UK was the first among them and the most powerful. The origins of the UK were of more than simply local interest, and that claim for the importance of British history remained common among historians into the 1980s. The world now looks very different though, and questions about the origins of the UK seem less important.  

In my new book I try to suggest an alternative: that we write the political history of Britain as the story not of identity but of political agency. The long chronology—the last 6000 years—is set by a desire to learn from as broad a range of experience as possible, not by the depth of the roots of the institutions of the UK and British identity.  

The book explores the varying ways, over this very long period, people living on the island have used collective institutions to get things done: how that happened, who got to make things happen, and at what geographical scales they have acted.  It is a history of political life on, rather than in, Britain.    

Political power is exercised over our world but also over each other. Our collective institutions give us influence over our material and social world, but also particular people and groups power over others. At the other times though, collective institutions have protected us from what we might call the differential power of one group over others. Much of political history can be understood as the interplay of collective and differential power in the life of our collective institutions. 

Writing this way also helps place British history in a broader geographical perspective. Collective institutions on the island have acted in response to material challenges and powerful ideas and what could be achieved at any particular time depended on what collective institutions were available through which to act. Those ideas and material challenges, and the institutional environment, have very rarely mapped neatly on to the island.  

My approach prompts us to think more carefully about the geographies of political life, adopting a less insular perspective. It explores how developments affecting large parts of the globe affected the island—the rise of empires, the growth of trade, innovations in political thinking—and how people living on the island responded at scales both larger and smaller than the island.  

The question here is not about identity, but who has agency at any given time, in relation to what and on what terms. This issue of agency, and the scales of effective political action, is of course a very pressing contemporary question.

In this sense, it is also a globalised history. The history of political life on the island is part of a history shared with a wider global region, and is often parallel to developments elsewhere.  It is a history of the globe as seen from this place—a history not of how Britain made the modern world, but of how the world made modern Britain.  

Memory is not just about identity: it is also a store of experience. By thinking about agency rather than identity, my book sets out to learn more broadly from the experience of the island’s previous inhabitants, giving us a much fuller perspective on where we are now, and more resources for thinking about what we might do next. 

Mike Braddick is professor of history at the University of Sheffield.  He has written extensively on the social, economic and political history of England, Britain and the British Atlantic.  He is currently working on a biography of Christopher Hill, the great Marxist historian, and on the politics of the English grain trade between 1315 and 1815.

Cover image: The White Cliffs of Dover, courtesy of Immanuel Giel, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cliffs_of_Dover_01.JPG [accessed 6 June 2021]

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