Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience

Reading Between the Lines: What Can Testimonies of Former Slaves Tell Us about their Relationships with their Former Mistresses?


The testimonies of formerly enslaved women reveal a great deal about their experiences and relationships formed with their former white mistresses (a term used for female slaveholders in antebellum America). My SURE project, supervised by Rosie Knight, sought to compare the testimonies of formerly enslaved women in Virginia and South Carolina recorded in the WPA Slave Narratives Collection. Comparing these states reveal the varying factors that influenced slave-mistress relations, and the weight they held in doing so. These two regions contrasted greatly in a number of ways, including economic circumstances, slaveholding sizes and geographical disposition, which in turn influenced the relationships formed between enslaved women and their mistresses.

The WPA interviews have been a hotly debated source of testimony, providing valuable insight into the experiences of formerly enslaved people from their own perspectives, but also heavily influenced by the context of the 1930s. Many participants were suffering in poverty during the Great Depression, which may have influenced more nostalgic recollections of their childhood characterised by greater economic security.

Moreover, the ruling of Jim Crow may have meant participants were intimidated by their white interviewers, and indeed expressed reluctance to say too much or ‘the worse’, as one interviewee put it. In cases such as these, their silences may be the most revealing aspect of their testimonies. From analysing these interviews, three key themes come to the fore: violence, material well-being and religion. However, the nature and extent of the influence of such factors were subject to regional variations.

The violence experienced by enslaved women was heavily dictated by regional circumstances, and greatly influenced both the relationships formed and perceptions constructed of the mistress. Slaveholdings were generally smaller in Virginia than those in South Carolina, meaning mistresses themselves would often beat and whip slaves themselves, whereas in larger slaveholdings in South Carolina, overseers usually inflicted violence upon slaves.

The personal dimension of such violence played a key role in shaping how mistresses were remembered by slaves later in life. For example, Henrietta King (VA) recalled the brutal violence she experienced at the hands of her mistress for stealing a peppermint candy when she was a child, explaining: “See dis face? See dis mouf all twist over here so’s I can’t shet it? See dat eye? All raid, aint it? … Well, ole Missus made dis face dis way.” She went on to describe her former mistress as “a common dog.”[1]

In contrast, recollections of former slaves in South Carolina tend to recall their former mistresses as justified in their violence toward them, and appear less resentful, perhaps influenced by the relatively good material conditions and religious teachings they were provided. Victoria Adams, for example, recalled: “De massa and missus was good to me but sometime I was so bad they had to whip me.”[2]

The booming slave economy of South Carolina meant enslaved people often experienced better material conditions, and the larger size of slaveholdings meant enslaved people had greater opportunities to form stable family units and networks of kinship than in Virginia, where familial separation was common due to interstate slave-trading and the tendency for smaller slaveholdings. The better conditions in South Carolina may have led to less direct resistance, and thus less violence from their mistresses. Economic decline in Virginia meant slaves often lived in abhorrent living conditions and were provided little, if anything, to eat, which led to attempts to escape or steal food.

Such conditions shaped perceptions of former mistresses, as expressed by Henrietta King:  “In de house ole Missus was so stingymean dat she didn’t put enough on de table to feed a swaller.”[3] Such a testimony illustrates the ways in which the material conditions of slaves influenced their perceptions of their mistresses, both during their enslavement and retrospectively. Moreover, located further north, Virginia slaves were more likely to reach the free states, and so may have more readily engaged in direct resistance and efforts to escape.

In South Carolina, where conditions were better, interviewees tended to remember their former mistresses as domestic and motherly women. For example, Granny Cain described her mistress as “the best white woman I know of — just like a mother to me, wish I was with her now.”[4]

Viewing nostalgic recollections of slaves within the context of the Great Depression allows us to understand how interviewees may have recalled their experiences in slavery in survival terms, as a time in which they may have had greater economic security. Fear of bad-mouthing former slaveholders, again, may have also played a role in such recollections. Moreover, many interviewees were children during slavery, and so may have had greater experiences and less responsibilities than their mothers or older siblings would have experienced.

Religion also proved to be a significant survival strategy in the experiences of enslaved women, both providing comfort and, in some cases, strengthening connections with their slaveholders. In Virginia, enslaved people appear to have received religious instruction mainly via the church and with little input from their mistress, while in South Carolina, religion and its instruction played a key role in slave-mistress relations. This led to enslaved people associating their mistress with what she taught — as pious, good and even a saviour in some cases. Josephine Stewart, for example, described one of her former mistresses as “a perfect angel, if dere ever was one on dis red earth.”[5]

The relationships formed between enslaved women and their mistresses can therefore be seen as greatly influenced by regional and economic variations across slaveholdings. The most important influences included: the violence enslaved people were subjected to, especially if this was at the hands of the mistress; the material well-being of slaves; and religious instruction. The variation of testimonies across the South points to the value of a comparative framework, signifying how experiences of enslaved women were not the same across the region and cannot be generalised. Understanding the influence regional variations had upon the experiences of enslaved people and the relationships they formed with their mistresses not only enables us to place these testimonies and their experiences in historical context, but also helps us avoid making generalisations about a topic so sensitive and complex.

Lydia Thomas is a final-year History undergraduate at the University of Sheffield. She completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) researching the relationships formed between enslaved women and their white female slaveholders. She focused on antebellum Virginia and South Carolina to explore how variations in regional circumstances, such as economy and slaveholding size, influenced the relationships formed and testimonies of formerly enslaved women.

Cover image: A close up of an old map of the USA, featuring Virginia and South Carolina. [Accessed 24 March 2020].

[1] Henrietta King cited in Charles L. Perdue, Jr., Thomas E. Bardon and Robert K. Phillips (eds), Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves (Charlottesville, 1976), p. 190

[2] Victoria Adams, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.1, pp. 10-11

[3] Henrietta King cited in Charles L. Perdue, et al., Weevils in the Wheat, p. 190

[4] Granny Cain, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.1, p. 166

[5] Josephine Stewart, Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, South Carolina, 14.4, p. 152. It is important to reiterate the influence of the context on such testimonies — positive recollection may have been utilised as a means of avoiding conflict with interviewers; Mistresses also often utilised religious instruction as a form of manipulation and control, especially within the large slave-holdings of the low country, presenting themselves in a position of authority and as an agent in the salvation of the slaves

read more

Did the Feminist Challenge Actually Shake Up the Print Press in 1969? Press Representations of Women in the Run-up to Women’s Lib

Women’s_March_London_(32993174595) (1)

The late 1960s were a turbulent time of rapid change; the mini skirt was the height of fashion, affluence was on the up yet women fighting for their liberation were criticised and mothers who worked were regarded with contempt.[1] Similar themes persist today and, despite progress, over half a century later full equality has not been achieved. Women still do not have equal pay in many professions and the press and media continue to treat men and women differently.

The Way, July 1969. Courtesy of the TUC Library Collections ©. (Accessed 15 March 2020).

1969 was a decisive year for second-wave feminism; protests were beginning and women were claiming political and social agency in Britain. These years laid the key groundwork for the historically influential feminism of the 1970s. The print press, although now competing with TV, continued to have high levels of readership, and thus heavily influenced and manipulated public opinion. This made the press vital in shaping responses to early feminism.

On the 18 May 1969, one thousand men and women assembled and marched for equal pay in Trafalgar Square. The newspaper reports on this were hugely varied. The Daily Mirror covered it in detail, describing placards labelled ‘Equal Pay for Work of Equal Value’, but it certainly did not express outward support for the marchers.[2] The elite press typically published short, disengaged reports, ignoring the issues behind the protests.

The Observer neglected to even comment on the 18 May demonstration. Meanwhile the Daily Mail criticised the women for not carrying their own banners, commenting that ‘it takes MEN to carry those banners’. It went on to mock the women who retreated inside ‘to sort matters out in a more traditionally feminine way – over a cup of tea.’[3] Feminist activism like this seldom made the front pages and was rarely taken seriously. There was undoubtedly variety between publications and even within them, but these publications had substantial impact on popular perceptions of feminism.

The British press not only tended to reject this early second-wave feminism but also outlined conflicting notions of femininity. On one hand women were expected to exemplify the perfect sexless housewife and thus were relegated to the domestic sphere. Meanwhile Page Three sexualised and objectified the female body, often disguising itself behind female sexual liberation, not dissimilar to the “sexual liberation” found in the underground press. All the while the newsrooms and the hard news reports remained male dominated.

The maternal, domestic, sexless woman was isolated to the ‘Woman’s Page’ of the elite press and popular press; bombarded by adverts for domestic appliances, makeup and all things intrinsically ‘feminine’. The national press presumed women to have no interest in the hard news stories and excluded them from the “serious” business of the public and political realms. Many of the elite papers virtually disregarded women’s issues and neglected to report on women’s news stories.

Female protests were often demeaned or not reported on at all. For example, when reporting on a strike in January 1969, the Guardian published a very small article titled ‘Another strike by women’.[4] In this vein, female activism was perceived as an inconvenience, a nuisance, a phase that would pass. This sort of reporting trivialised the women’s movement in Britain and diminished the prominence of their activism.

Articles that did question women’s position in society were limited to one-off opinion pieces written by women rather than a sustained effort to support feminist policies. In broadsheets such as The Times, where almost half of the paper was dedicated to ‘Times Business News’ and a singular page was aimed at women, it is hard to see any truly positive responses to women’s liberation. Even in a Times article, endorsing women’s work, it was assumed this work could only be part-time so as to allow women to maintain their ‘domestic commitments’.[5]

The popular press encouraged the domestic woman but also flaunted young women or ‘girls’ for the male gaze. The Daily Mail encouraged sexual rivalry amongst women, describing the ‘jungle warfare of sexual cut and thrust’ they competed in.[6] Their reporting supported the idea that women existed to please men; a notion that was replicated across student papers and the underground press. Once the 1970s and the sexual revolution hit the sexualisation of women continued to rise, now under the guise of sexual freedom. Page Three emerged and the Sun even published a long statement addressing their portrayal of women: ‘The Sun, like most of its readers, likes pretty girls. And if they’re as pretty as today’s Birthday Suit girl, 20-year-old Stephanie Rahn of Munich, who cares whether they’re dressed or not?’.

Degrading, though not explicit language, plastered the pages of the tabloids, and women remained subordinate in the newsrooms too. Women were typically limited to writing soft news articles, women’s pages and advice columns, perhaps the odd opinion piece if they were lucky! The underground press defined themselves as liberal spaces but their newsrooms were certainly not. Marsha Rowe worked for Oz and recalled women being limited in the newsrooms; ‘however alternative our life style might be, we still did the domestic duties for men and children at home.’[7] Almost all news publications, bar the feminist press, were male dominated and thus many sexist attitudes remained. In fact this did not change for many years; the Sun did not get its first female editor until 2003 and even then she did very little to change reporting on women and did not touch Page Three.

Oz Magazine, no. 31, November 1970, p. 2. (Accessed 15 March 2020).

Undoubtedly second-wave feminism and all of its work was successful; it saw huge political progress and encouraged women to observe their own oppression. However we cannot disregard the importance of the national press. It is typical for historians to seek transformations, particularly within gender studies, but perhaps identifying the continuities is just as important. Our battle has certainly not been won and there is still much continuity in press representations of women. The growth of social media has seen a continued obsession with female appearance and women’s sexuality remains a fairly taboo subject. Equal Pay remains a prominent issue, even fifty years after it was brought to the forefront of the political agenda and feminism is regularly considered a dirty word. The powers of the press can never be underestimated and the new social media giants are not all that dissimilar from the 1960s press. It may be a different decade but many of the issues women faced then persist today.

Izzy Larsen is a final-year History undergraduate at the University of Sheffield. She completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) researching the relationship between women and the press. She focused on 1969 as a decisive year for the feminist movement in Britain and explored how the national press responded to this emerging movement. Her research also considers how many of these issues persist for contemporary women in Britain and across the globe.

Cover Image: Women’s March, London, 21 January 2017. Courtesy of Nessie Spencer – Freaks&Gigs Photographie.’s_March_London_(32993174595).jpg (Accessed 18 March 2020).

[1] Birmingham Daily Post, 23 April 1969, p. 25.

[2]Daily Mirror, 19 May 1969, p. 32.

[3] Daily Mail, 19 May 1969, p. 11.

[4] The Guardian, 10 January 1969, p. 18.

[5] The Times, 1 January 1969, p. 5.

[6] Daily Mail, 2 January 1969, p. 6.

[7] M. Rowe, ‘Spare Rib and the Underground Press’, The British Library. (Accessed 15 March 2020).


read more

Rex Britanniae?- The national identity of King Edward I in four maps


‘Is it the end of the world?’ asked one thirteenth-century Welsh poet, when English forces stormed into Wales in 1277. The key instigator was King Edward I, whose campaigns of 1277-1307 were fundamental for how Scottish, Welsh and English people identified themselves. By mapping Edward’s movements, we can investigate how he promoted a singular British national identity, a Rex Britanniae, provoking consideration over how debates regarding sovereignty and self-belonging in the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries are remarkably similar to those of the twenty-first century – calls for Scottish and Welsh independence are certainly no novelty.


A key element of Edward’s approach to kingship was Arthurianism, particularly for Wales. Taking advantage of a popular thirteenth-century obsession, Edward saw himself as the mythical king’s successor. [1]  That he and Queen Eleanor attended the reinternment of the bones of ‘Arthur’ and ‘Guinevere’ just months after defeating the Welsh is non-coincidental. Whatever its plausibility, this was symbolic, a truly political performance; Edward sought to embody Arthur as legitimate overlord of Wales.

Yet ideological mastery was insufficient. Magnificent castles such as Beaumaris and Harlech were catalysts for Anglicisation, visually documenting the physical and metaphorical permanence of English conquest. [2] As Map 1 shows, these castles were also strategically significant – Rhuddlan as an army base, Caernarfon as a supply centre. The administrative role of castles – the castle boroughs – was the machinery behind Rex Britanniae. Realised through the Statute of Wales (Rhuddlan Castle, 1284) explicitly English administrative cadre were imprinted onto boroughs.

Often called ‘Anglicisation from above’, ‘the first colonial institution’, the Statute never aimed to create unity between English and Welsh law. [3] It represented the tenacity of Edward’s Arthurian ‘United Kingdom’ ideology and the battle over sovereignty, climaxing in large-scale, coordinated attacks on Edwardian castles, namely in 1294. [4]

Map 1 – Edward I’s Welsh campaigns. I plotted the London-St. David’s route, encompassing various major castles. Copyright @Charlotte Tomkins


While Wales had no single ruler and yet was relatively ethnically homogenous, Scotland was politically united under the Scottish kings, despite being a melting pot of Brittonic, Gaelic and Viking elements, further complicated by the English-speaking population inhabiting South-Eastern Scotland. [5] Yet the division between England and Scotland was primarily not cultural but political, and fluid, made remarkably clear in Map 2. Here, a tiny Scotland is presented as a “land beyond the sea”, connected to an English mainland only by Stirling bridge.

Map 2 – Matthew Paris’ Map of Britain, (c. 1250).

Yet no bridge would stop Edward. Arthurianism was most powerful regarding Wales, but it was certainly not irrelevant for Scotland – a multiplicity of Arthurian myths existed. The hereditary right of Arthur’s successors to rule Britain in its entirety was central to Arthurian territorial ideologies. Viewing the Anglo-Scottish border as a purely internal division, Edward used this ideology to try to absorb Scotland, like Wales, into the inalienable royal fisc – the Crown’s taxation and revenue source.

Castles were again essential in realising this and the castles of Scotland and Northern England became key battlegrounds between these two realms. Tensions escalated from 1290, partly over Edward’s determination that all royal fortresses come under his custody.  What was for Edward a logical step ensuring Scotland’s security was a denial of sovereignty for the Scots. These castles were the ‘instruments of raw power’, whose loss was catastrophic. [6]

The border-lands saw some of the most vicious attempts to subdue Scotland: for example, the 1296 bloodbath, the Battle of Berwick. Edward had captured the castle, massacred its townspeople, and garrisoned the fortress – so, what did this mean for Rex Britanniae? Tensions with Scotland’s heir John Balliol were already fraught, but Edward’s actions, combined with the withdrawal of his support for Balliol’s claim to the Scottish throne, resulted in Balliol’s formal renunciation of his oath to Edward.

Map 3 – Edward I’s Scottish campaigns. Note the importance of the border-lands as key entry, exit and fortification points. Copyright @Charlotte Tomkins

Berwick was a watershed moment, where Balliol confronted the hard truth – his enthronement was only ever temporary; where Rex Britanniae was performed and destroyed as Edward gambled with Balliol’s loyalty for the motive of reducing Scotland to a vassal-state of England. [7]  Revolts from 1296  – which Map 3 shows Edward’s efforts to put down – simply demonstrate that a shared Scottish identity was being strengthened. [8]

The King in Motion

Edward’s attempts to realise a Rex Britanniae depended on impregnable, looming castles – but it also depended on almost ceaseless movement. These campaigns can be drawn on conventional static maps. But by plotting his known locations and dynamically projecting them onto a map we can see – for the first time – the rhythm of Edward’s movements and their consequences, watching as he gathers forces and builds a consensus in England, before striking north and west.

Map 4: click to access moving images and all data

Viewing Edward’s reign in this innovative way allows us to not only visualise his efforts to become the rex Britannie, but also to begin to quantify his movements, highlighting the importance of warfare and conquest throughout Edward’s reign. The statistics below elaborate on the movements in Map 4 :

Figure 1 – During peacetime years alone Edward spent 116 days in Berwick-upon-Tweed, surpassed only by Windsor (157) and Westminster (956), delineating its strategic, ideological and political importance.  (J. E. Crockford, ‘The Itinerary of Edward I of England: Pleasure, Piety and Governance’ (Turnhout, 2016), p. 245.)

Edward’s death in 1307 made hopes of achieving Arthur’s united Britain impossible. Edward’s success was not linear; while the Anglicisation of Wales was long-lasting, the Scottish conquest ultimately failed.  What we can say, however, is that Edward’s ideology of a United Kingdom still remained influential even after his death; even now people are still debating the very concept.

Charlotte Tomkins is in her final year of an undergraduate history degree at the University of Sheffield, with ambitions to continue the subject at MA and PhD level. She recently completed the Sheffield University Research Experience (SURE) where she examined the links between the itinerary of Edward I and his pursuit of a single kingdom, a Great Britain and a United Kingdom, under his kingship, using databases and cartography. She focused on how castles were at the heart of Edward’s vision, and how debates over British national identity are not contemporary; they have been heated since the medieval period and earlier.

[1] D. Jones, The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England (London, 2012), p 98.

[2] R. R. Davies, ‘Edward I and Wales’ in T. Herbert and G. E. Jones (eds), Edward I and Wales (Cardiff, 1988), p. 1.

[3] Ibid., p. 2.; Jones, The Plantagenets, p. 314.; M. Prestwich, Edward I (London, 1988), pp. 205-206.

[4] M. Morris, Castle: A History of the Buildings that shaped Medieval Britain (London, 2012), p. 134.

[5] M. Morris, Edward I: A Great and Terrible King (London, 2009), p. 241.

[6] Ibid., pp. 236-237.

[7] P. Parker, History of Britain in Maps (Glasgow, 2017), p. 26.

[8] P. Traquair, Freedom’s Sword: Scotland’s Wars of Independence (London, 1998), p. 13.

read more

A Great British Welcome? Unlearned lessons from the Kindertransport


British collective memory largely recognises the Kindertransport (Children’s Transport) policy as a point of national pride, believed by many to be ‘the zenith of…interwar international humanitarianism.’[1] This policy was instituted, – albeit reluctantly – by Chamberlain’s Conservative government as a reaction to the Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass) of November 1938, where Jewish homes, businesses, and buildings were ransacked across Germany in an act of extreme racial hatred. The Kindertransport allowed 10,000 Jewish children to take refuge in Britain to escape the persecution of the Third Reich.

Although the policy appears noble and humanitarian on the surface, there were several caveats. Firstly, the parents of these young Jewish refugees were not permitted to accompany them. This was due to the British government’s fears of developing a ‘Jewish problem in the United Kingdom’: this supposed ‘problem’ being that too many Jewish people taking refuge in the country would lead to overpopulation and employment issues.[2] Therefore, only allowing unaccompanied children to take refuge was believed to be ‘more palatable to British public sensibilities’.[3]

Furthermore, Jewish refugees were only allowed to enter the country on the condition that their escape from racial discrimination would not be a ‘financial burden on the public’, as it would cost £50 per child to safely cross the borders and house on their arrival. In an attempt to exonerate the former government from their questionable treatment of Jewish refugees, the current government – via The National Archives’ educational entry on the Kindertransport –provide the rather tenuous excuse that ‘few households could pay the sum…required’. Instead, this comes off as little more than apologia for inaction towards racial discrimination and is akin to our current government’s own treatment of refugees in the present day.

Ultimately, it was up to Jewish organisations and benefactors to foot the bill themselves to ensure the safety of these children.[4] Support was quite limited at the start of the program, with the intake of refugees only gaining further traction from Gentile (non-Jewish) groups once they learned that the refugees ‘were not all Jewish.’[5] Those who did manage to escape via the Kindertransport were not all guaranteed hospitality and care on arrival, with many being placed in refugee camps and youth hostels. Max Dickson, a German-Jewish child of the Kindertransport, recorded his experiences in refugee camps in his memoirs: ‘[There was] No one to tuck you in and give you a hug or say “I love you”. I think many of us cried ourselves to sleep those first three months.’[6] Another Kindertransport refugee, Bob Kirk, was separated from his parents in Hanover in May 1939. Kirk, along with 200 other children on his train, were led to believe that their parents would be joining them in England once their papers had been approved: ‘My parents were so intent on not making it seem like a parting that they didn’t include anything which might suggest we wouldn’t see each other again.’ Kirk’s parents were deported to Riga in 1941 and never returned. Regular discrimination, fear, and loneliness were all part and parcel of the life of a Jewish refugee, and one may already begin to start drawing significant parallels with the poor treatment experienced by contemporary refugees.

Many continue to perpetuate an idea of the Second World War as an almost-biblical battle between good and evil, with Britain acting as the righteous ‘saviours’ of Jews under threat from Nazism.  This approach makes for a compelling narrative but is a gross misrepresentation of reality. Contrary to popular nostalgia, the notion of British war-time humanitarianism in relation to refugees is questionable at best and offensively sanitised at worst. Whilst on the proverbial ‘right side of history’ in opposing the horrors of National Socialism, the British government was indifferent, if not outright hostile towards Jewish refugees, which is – depressingly – quite relevant to the current government’s own treatment of refugees.

In popular British culture, many prefer to select specific examples of British humanitarianism and ascribe them to the nation at large. This is clear in the case of Sir Nicholas Winton, dubbed ‘the British Oskar Schindler’ for his instrumental role in evacuating 669 children from Prague. Winton, however, was arguably the exception rather than the rule, and not representative of the British population.[7] Despite this, Theresa May used his story in her resignation speech in May 2019; May recalled that Winton, a long-time constituent of hers in Maidenhead, had given her some advice prior to his death, supposedly telling her that ‘Compromise is not a dirty word. Life depends on compromise.’ This quote is rather unusual, as it is completely incongruous with Winton’s actions during the Second World War. Lord Alf Dubs, himself a refugee of the Kindertransport and one of the 669 saved by Winton, believed May’s words to be ‘an insult’ to Winton’s character:

What [Winton] demonstrated was not compromise. What he demonstrated was tenacity of purpose, a determination to battle with the British government, to battle with the Nazis, to do what he had to do…She’s using a man who is absolutely iconic for the wonderful things he did and the lives he saved…to justify compromise. That seems to me quite wrong, and a bit of an abuse.’

Despite May’s questionable anecdote, actions speak louder than words. A year after Winton’s death, May (alongside 293 other MPs), voted to turn away 3,000 unaccompanied child refugees from Syria.

Indifference and hostility towards refugees continues to be an issue. Of course, our politicians, pundits, and popular figures will happily deploy the Second World War, selecting instances of humanitarianism where convenient, while failing (or choosing not) to see the other parallels between past and present.

Today, politicians are increasingly taking harder lines against refugees to win votes. Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently vowed to ‘crack down’ on those who ‘abused [the UK’s] hospitality’, hoping it would ‘restore public faith’ in the British immigration system. Johnson has also pledged to ‘make all immigrants speak English’, stating that ‘too often there are parts of our country…where English is not spoken by some people as their first language and that needs to be changed’.

Johnson’s and May’s attitudes clearly demonstrate that the current British establishment have learned very little, if anything, from the Kindertransport. The passing of the Kindertransport policy in 1938 was, of course, partially a positive action for the government to take; this does not mean, however, that the negative aspects should be ignored. The government should be ashamed of their role in the Kindertransport, but through the power of historical revisionism and compelling narrative, they have been sanitised and falsely idealised as being the driving force behind this humanitarian effort, instead of a roadblock against it. This has effectively given contemporary politicians a free pass to continue treating refugees with contempt, whilst still claiming the likes of Winton where convenient.

This self-congratulatory revisionism of so-called ‘British humanitarianism’ must be challenged, and those who continue to peddle such history for political gain must be held to account. Government actions, no matter how positive they may seem on the surface, should not be blindly praised without digging a little deeper first.

Owen A. Jones is a final-year History undergraduate at the University of Sheffield. He recently completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE), conducting research on anti-Semitism and Jewish refugees of war during the early twentieth century. His research also examines relevant parallels to the present-day refugee crisis and Britain’s continued treatment of refugees.

[1] L. E. Brade and R. Holmes, ‘Troublesome Sainthood: Nicholas Winton and the Contested History of Child Rescue in Prague, 1938–1940’, History and Memory 29.1 (2017), p. 5.

[2] B. Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939-1945 (Oxford, 1979), pp. 10-11.

[3] Brade and Holmes, ‘Troublesome Sainthood’, p. 5.

[4] C. Holmes, John Bull’s Island: Immigration and British Society, 1871–1971 (London, 1988), p. 142.

[5] ibid., p. 143.

[6] M. Dickson, The Memories of Max Dickson formerly Max Dobriner (Sheffield, 2010), pp. 6-7.

[7] Brade and Holmes, ‘Troublesome Sainthood’, p. 5.

Image Credit: ‘“The Children of the Kindertransport”, Hope Square, Liverpool Street Station, London.’ (Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0,, available at:

read more

‘Maybe it’s medieval?’ – Comparing Modern TV and Film against the Medieval Morality Play


How many times have you watched a TV show or film and thought the narrative seemed vaguely familiar? From the classic ‘boy meets girl’ rom-com story arc, to the theory that The Lion King is just a rip-off of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I think it’s fair to say that stories often repeat themselves.

I recently completed a SURE (Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience) Project; these provide undergraduate students an opportunity to research an area of special interest. I chose to look at morality plays and what they tell us about the impact of the Black Death on Medieval life and culture.

I found that the approaches taken by these medieval playwrights were not too dissimilar from the techniques used by modern screenwriters. By exploring two literary techniques: tragicomedy and the ‘Shoulder Angel’ I compared these medieval morality plays to modern day film and television to further understand how they differ in consequence to the cultural climate of the period.

Although these plays are an established part of academic study, the narratives of a late-15th-century morality play is not generally well-known. This popular type of play followed the story of ‘mankind’, a single character who represented a typical individual living in medieval society, following his birth, life and final salvation on his day of judgement. Most of the plays I studied originated from East Anglia, but there were other plays from cities such as Chester and York that also dealt with similar themes of religion and death.

The plays were intentionally metaphorical, with their purpose being to give reassurance to those living in the aftermath of the Black Death, as its cultural impact lasted for centuries after its slow decline in the 1350s. Death was witnessed by each individual, as they lost many family members and friends. Thus, these plays aimed to educate their audience, showing that people would reach heaven if they lead a Christian life.

Comedy and Death: A match made in heaven?

‘Mankind’ (suspected to have been written 1465-1470), was considered one of the most popular morality plays of the medieval period. This was thought to be due to its focus on entertainment and comedy taking centre stage over an educational directive.

Similarly, ‘Bruce Almighty’ (2003) – a film about a man who believes he can do a better job than God and in response is gifted omnipotent power by God himself – is an example of a film that pushes a moral message, whilst being comedic.

The morality play argues that a repentance of sins would lead to a control over life, as they could control their afterlife. During a time were life and death were extremely unpredictable Christianity would have offered a reassurance to a medieval audience, showing that they were in control of their future, even if they couldn’t be in control of their death.

Where ‘Mankind’ teaches an audience to repent of their sins and live a moral life, ‘Bruce Almighty’ teaches an audience they should take control of their own lives, and not expect others (such as God) to fix their problems. During a time where life and death were extremely unpredictable, Christianity provided a comforting solution by suggesting that through repenting of their sins they could control their life even in death by ensuring their path to heaven.

Specifically, in its use of comedy, ‘Mankind’ makes a mockery of the main character during his fall into sin. This juxtaposition of comedy and darker themes is seen in another Jim Carrey film, ‘The Truman Show’ (1998). If you took the comedy (or Jim Carrey) out of the film, it would just be harrowing. An hour and forty-three minutes of watching a man have his entire reality taken away from him, to find out it was just a moneymaking scheme.

The use of comedy in both modern films and morality play helps to keep an audience engaged, as death for medieval people was a heavy theme; by using comedy the playwrights could more successfully communicate their moral message.

The Perseverance of the ‘Shoulder Angel’.

The plot device of the ‘shoulder angel’ is most commonly seen today where a protagonist has a good character and an evil character both attempting to persuade the protagonist down a certain path.

This technique was also used in another morality play, ‘The Castle of Perseverance’ (1440), with its use of 15 good and bad characters. More recently, this technique has been seen in the Amazon original, ‘Good Omens’ (2019), with the two protagonists being an angel and a devil.

Although there are some clear differences in the narratives, both stories follow the concept that both good and evil are present in the world. Therefore, it is our own choices that will lead us down a good or evil path. During the 15th century, this may have provided reassurance, as the plays appear to be demonstrating to the audiences that they are in control of their lives, despite the mysterious and unstoppable figure of death being ever-present in their lives, caused by the Black Death.

The idea of being guided by angels is another technique seen in some of the most recognisable films, often ones that are cemented into our Christmas Traditions, like ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (1946). In many ways, it appears like a modern-day morality play, as it teaches the audience to be aware of the impact they have on the world as well as the people within it.

Firstly, both the play and film follow one man’s entire life. Secondly, the character of an angel who shows the protagonist how his good deeds have affected the world, allowing him to see the importance of his own life.

The most important part of morality plays was a happy ending. This also demonstrates the legacy of the Black Death, as even when a character reached death it is shown as a rite-of-passage where they were ultimately forgiven for their sins.

Similarly, the end of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ shows the protagonist gaining a greater understanding and appreciation of life, ending on the note that they will live their life differently – is that not the same as what the authors of the morality play want their audience to do after the curtain closes?

In summary, I think it’s important to note how all storytelling has a message. The message of morality plays to live a Christian life may not be entirely relevant to the majority of people today, but the general sentiment of living your life with an awareness of mortality suggesting that we should live with purpose and accountability of our actions is a concept audiences can still relate to.

Thus, the reoccurrence of these similar tropes suggests that the stories we choose to tell today may not be so dissimilar from those written 500 years ago. Despite huge differences in values and material conditions, the similarities deserve serious study too.

Natalya Edwards is a History undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield. She recently completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Project which provides undergraduate students an opportunity to research an area of special interest, in order to provide insight and experience for postgraduate research. In her project she chose to look at morality plays and what they can tell us about the impact of the Black Death on medieval life and culture.

read more