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And they’re off!: What Sports Discourse Can Reveal About Postwar British Democracy

1971 Anglo-Italian Cup Winners – Blackpool Football Club

Whether you are an avid football fan who never misses a game or, like myself you have yet to grasp the offside rule, sport is near impossible to avoid. A form of entertainment and escapism, sport undoubtedly plays a crucial role within our lives.

In response to the irrefutable prevalence of sport, over the past decade we have seen a rise in sports history as a respected field within academia.

Noting how sport history is primarily ‘marked by a cultural approach’, in his 2021 article Harm Kaal makes a convincing case that sport should be taken more seriously by political historians of the postwar period.[1]

As Kaal states, sport and politics are ‘intimately connected’, yet until now political historians have ‘hardly reflected on the nature of this connection in the postwar years’.[2]

One of the most prominent ways that we see the link between sport and politics, and indeed between sport and many spheres of popular culture, is through language and communication. As a political historian whose research is centered on articulations of democracy in the tabloid press, it is certainly hard to avoid the conflation between sporting and political discourse.

In this blog post I will be investigating the use of sporting discourse in political reporting, in particular how it was utilised during British General Elections in the 1970s. This will provide insights into the nature of democratic culture during this period.

On 19th May 1970, the Express announced the beginning of the election campaign with the front-page headline, ‘THE PREMIER STAKES’, accompanied by the subheading ‘They’re off on June 18th’, utilising discourse drawn from horseracing in order to mark the start of electioneering.[3]

Alongside the article, the Express published a cartoon image of the main candidates, Wilson and Heath, racing on horseback.[4] Here the democratic process was being equated to horse racing, a sport with an unclear outcome that is very much dependent on the performance of individuals on the day. Coverage of the election was therefore less about policy and parties, and instead focused on the performances of individual prospective representatives during their campaign, as opposed to long-term party affiliation.

This process can also be seen in the following quote pulled from the Sun’s coverage of the second General Election of 1974:

 ‘As we move into the half-way stage of this thrilling contest – so help me, I am beginning to sound like Match of the Day – it is clear that honesty is the new policy. The dramatic first-half incident, in which Mrs Shirley Williams scored an own-goal, may actually have turned out to the advantage of that celebrated schemer, Twinkletoes Harold [Wilson]’.[5]

This time equating politics to football, we see politicians being referred to in a satirical manner, detaching them from their parties and instead focusing on their individual performance.

Along similar lines, in the month preceding the 1979 election, the Mirror also utilised boxing vocabulary in order to communicate their notions of the electioneering process, declaring that ‘the first round of the battle between the two election heavyweights [had] been won by Jim Callaghan – without a glove being laid on him’.[6]

Language such as ‘heavyweights’, ‘lightweights’, ‘combat’, and ‘battered’, along with describing Westminster as an ‘arena’, immediately drew parallels between politics and boxing, making democratic deliberation more tangible for newspaper readers.[7] As well as making politics more accessible, principally to men, it also shifted political representatives’ positions within democratic culture. Once yardsticks of gentlemanly civility, they instead became sources of entertainment, allowing for them to be viewed with less deference.

The use of sporting metaphors in newspapers’ coverage of politics was symptomatic of the broader changes in the way the popular press was articulating popular understandings of democracy. From the late 1950s onwards, party democracy was facing a lot of criticism from the popular press and its readers, who desired increased proximity between the people and their political representatives.

The version of democracy we see emerging in the 1970s therefore, referred to by Bernard Manin as “audience democracy”, was a product of efforts to make this an actuality.[8] Politicians attempted to present themselves and were being presented as “one of the people”. One of the ways through which the popular press did this was through the use of sporting vernacular, which allowed them to communicate politics with their readers within a framework that they could relate to. In other words, sport made politicians more palpable for the ordinary person.

What we can see from this small case study is that there is a real value in political historians taking seriously sports history, along with other aspects of popular culture including the tabloid press.

Sport can help us shed light on changes in political communication, popular expectations of representatives, inclusion and exclusion and shifts in political power.

These concerns will be explored in the Voice of the People project, which aims to put the voices of ordinary citizens centre stage in the discussions of postwar political cultural, by deconstructing articulations of democracy in the popular press.

Jamie Jenkins is a PhD student at Radboud University working on the Voices of the People project. She tweets @jenkinsleejamie.

Cover Image: Anglo-Italian Cup Winners, Blackpool FC., 1971. Source: Wikimedia Commons


[1] Kaal, H. G. J., ‘Boundary Disputes: New approaches to the interaction between sport and politics in the postwar years’, Journal of Modern European History 19.3 (2021), p. 364.

[2] Ibid., p. 362.

[3] Maurice Trowbridge, ‘THE PREMIER STAKES!’, Daily Express, May 19th 1970, p. 1.

[4] Daily Express, May 19th 1970, p. 1.

[5] John Akass, ‘Twinkletoes could find it pays to tell the truth’, The Sun, September 30th 1974, p. 6.

[6] Terence Lancaster, ‘Election Briefing’, Daily Mirror, 5th April 1979, p. 2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bernard Manin, The principles of representative government (New York, 1997), p. 218.

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British Abolitionism Revisited

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Britain’s abolition of slavery, and the slave trade before that, has been a longstanding source of pride within the public imagination. As Michael Bennett has shown recently, during recent discussions about modern racial injustice, many were swift to invoke Britain’s antislavery legacy. This popular narrative goes something like this: the abolitionists, a group of religious reformists led by enlightened individuals like William Wilberforce, fought vigilantly against the economic heavyweights of the day to secure the liberty of the slaves. 

Thankfully, since Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery (1944), this view has been revised, at least within scholarly circles. Williams was suspicious of the ‘saint-like’ status of Wilberforce and others, arguing abolition actually relied on economic forces, rather than on moral considerations. 

Subsequent historians have also shown that British abolitionism was a complex mass-phenomenon that relied upon multiple sources in British society and beyond, particularly on the contributions of women and importantly on the resistance of the slaves themselves. The most recent studies in the field extend this critical interpretations, notably the contributions of Michael Taylor, Hannah-Rose Murray and Bronwen Everill – all published in 2020. Yet, the disparity between this evolving historiography and a pervasive self-congratulatory popular narrative calls for a revision of the public knowledge of British emancipation.    

Taylor’s swashbuckling monograph declares war on this traditional popular? narrative. Taylor critically interrogates the notion that Britain swiftly mutated from a slave-owning imperium into a purported “antislavery nation” (xvi). This linear interpretation, he argues, neglects the intense resistance to emancipation by proslavery factions within British politics. Thus, rather than celebrating abolition, Taylor exposes how it almost did not occur. 

As Taylor argues, new histories must be written on British slavery. This should not be a “national bout of self-loathing”, but rather a just and necessary corrective to years of self-congratulation (309). More importantly, shifting this narrative to stress Britain’s role in slavery will open up the possibility for potential reparations to those historically affected by slavery. In the wake of Taylor’s work, studies on Antislavery can no longer ignore how this movement was partially prevented by many in Britain. 

Murray’s work confronts this popular narrative in a different way. It explores the itinerant activism of African-American abolitionists, notably figures like Frederick Douglass, who was also active in Britain after the 1834 Abolition Act. Murray’s book thus reaffirms that British antislavery was not a national ‘success.’ Rather, it was rooted in transatlantic links to confront the truly global issue of slavery. Moreover, emancipation across the world was fundamentally driven by the “advocacy” and “testimony” of those affected by slavery. Thus, Murray punctures British nationalistic claims about high-profile white British activists ‘securing’ freedom for the slaves.  

Everill’s new book provides a more nuanced critique. For Everill, British slavery debates must not be observed purely as a discussion of morals. Rather, abolitionism was shaped by evolving ideas about commerce and economic agency (4). Antislavery activists harnessed a climate of global economic change to argue that emancipation was a form of “ethical capitalism” (22-4). So, whilst popular memory remembers abolitionists as selfless objectors, Everill re-explores connections between antislavery and self-interested capitalists.           

Taken collectively, these three new books all challenge, though differently, the classical historical narrative on British antislavery. They show that abolition’s success was not inevitable, rested on the agency of slaves, and was shaped by material forces, rather than on Britain’s supposed ‘superior’ morality. 

However, in demonstrating this, these academic texts also illuminate that public knowledge about British antislavery still requires much improvement. But how can this more honest historiographical account of British emancipation be broadcast to a wider public? It has been almost eighty years since Williams first raised suspicions over the tales of self-congratulation. Yet the social debates since the summer of 2020 have done little to suggest many in Britain have moved beyond the mythology of national success. This is unsurprising when high-profile figures describe efforts to remove memorials to slave-traders, as ‘lying’ about history. As Michael Taylor notes, the “British ‘remember’ that Parliament abolished slavery but not that Parliament spent 200 years encouraging it” (310).

Tobias Gardner is an MA in Historical Research student at the University of Sheffield, and is writing his dissertation on the interactions between antislavery, radicalism and reform movements in nineteenth-century Sheffield.

Cover Image: Robert Cruikshank, ‘JOHN BULL taking a Clear View of the Negro Slavery Question!!’ (London, 1826), Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library

References:

Everill, Bronwen. Not Made by Slaves: Ethical Capitalism in the Age of Abolition. (London, 2020).

Murray, Hannah-Rose. Advocates of Freedom: African American Transatlantic Abolitionism in the British Isles.(Cambridge, 2020).

Taylor, Michael. The Interest: How the British establishment resisted the abolition of slavery. (London, 2020).

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Netflix’s Munich–The Edge of War: A film for our time?

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In this ‘dia-blog’ historians Alan Allport (Professor of History, Syracuse University, New York) and author of Britain at Bay: The Epic Story of the Second World War, 1938-1941 (2020) and Julie Gottlieb (Professor of Modern History, University of Sheffield), share their thoughts about the new Netflix film Munich– The Edge of War (2022). 

The film uses the suspenseful days of the Four Powers Conference that took place in Munich on 29-30 September, 1938, as the stage for a political thriller. Based on Robert Harris’s novel Munich (2017), the plot aspires to cut to the heart of the strategically and psychologically terrifying situation faced by Europe should Hitler’s escalating demands for Lebensraum not be met. Hitler was forcing the ceding of the mainly German-speaking Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia to the Reich. While the Czechs themselves were not invited to the negotiating table, Britain, Italy and France agreed to Hitler’s demands in order to avert war, and Chamberlain persuaded Hitler to sign a further document of Anglo-German understanding to press the same point. 

In the film our sympathies are meant to lie with the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whose reputation has swung, for decades, from that of the celebrated saviour of peace and wise old gentleman with only the best intentions, to that of the ‘provincial undertaker’ and Hitler’s gullible dupe. 

Neville Chamberlain showing the Anglo-German declaration, 1938. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The force of historical fiction cuts like a double edged sword for the historian. The power of film (and fiction) is that it captures the imagination. It visualises, it engages or enrages by romanticising or villainising, but inevitably in ways that can distort the historical record. For example, now that we have seen Jeremy Irons as Neville Chamberlain, will most of us ever again be able to unsee the suave and smoothly-spoken actor when we animate Chamberlain in our mind’s eye? In real life Chamberlain was rather sepia toned in pallor, and not just because of the yellow-tinge of 1930s photography. 

Considering this is a work of historical fiction that began as a novel, do you feel the novel has been successfully adapted for screen?

Allport: Well, in terms of the plot, the movie remains fairly faithful to the book. A few subplots are trimmed down or excised and some of the minor characters have been omitted or altered but these are the sorts of changes you’d expect to happen in a film adaptation. 

I think the more important question is how well the story succeeds via the medium of cinema as opposed to literature. Munich is not a counterfactual history like Robert Harris’s book Fatherland, so the main political events unfurl in the film just as they did in real life – Chamberlain and Daladier will go to Munich, the Sudetenland will be ceded to Germany, and presumably the war will break out in September 1939 as in real life. The problem then is to inject some tension into a story with a predetermined outcome. 

My own feeling is that Harris’s historical novels have always been more effective at evoking a certain mood of the past through meticulously well researched detail than by providing a lot of suspenseful plot twists for the reader to follow. It’s easier to do this in book form than on the screen, I think. I didn’t feel the on-screen version of Munich absorbed me as much in the subjective sense of what it must have been like to sit in the conference chamber with Hitler and Chamberlain. This is an aesthetic rather than a historical complaint, however!

On the topic of the aesthetic qualities, film has the ability to capture mood, feeling and details of material culture in living colour. How well does the film express the general atmosphere of the September Crisis?

Gottlieb: My own approach has been to consider the history from below of the Munich Crisis, and to better understand how opinion, reactions and emotional responses ranged across class, gender, generational, regional lines and, of course, political lines. 

Here and there the film gestures to ordinary people and the deep impact of these events on quotidian lives– evacuation, gas masks, protests, mass celebrations like it was Mafeking night, allusion to the gratitude of ‘millions of mothers’ in Europe, and a few glimpses into domestic interiors. This was all backdrop and background, but generally well observed and well placed nonetheless. 

The subtitle of the film ‘the edge of war’ is evocative (the novel has no subtitle), reinforcing the cliff-hanger feature of the political suspense genre, but also suggestive of the edginess and nervousness experienced by populations across Europe and beyond. 

Still, the story Munich tells is about great/guilty men and a few good women, narrating it in the same conventional way as so much of the top-down scholarship. 

On that note, as it is hard to get away from the fact that most of the scholarship has focused on the political leaders, how does the film correspond to the historiographical reassessments and revision of Chamberlain’s foreign policy and his reputation? 

Allport: Harris’s book is more strident in its defense of Chamberlain. Because many of the contextual scenes and conversations in the novel are not present in the film, it presents a less well developed and coherent case for Chamberlain’s foreign policy. The result is an odd mixture of arguments (implicit or openly stated), some of which would be familiar to the real life Chamberlain, and others not. 

The final scene in the aircraft as the British diplomats return home from Munich is particularly interesting in this regard. Chamberlain (Irons) argues that by getting Hitler to sign the ‘piece of paper’ agreeing to resolve future differences peacefully he has created a trap which will expose the German leader as a liar in the eyes of the world if he continues to seek conflict. This will give any war against Hitler a moral authority it would otherwise lack. I could imagine Chamberlain perhaps saying this, although he sincerely hoped and believed Hitler would be true to his word. However, Irons goes on to say that he’s willing to risk looking a fool if he is proven wrong. I very much doubt the extremely vain Chamberlain would ever knowingly risk such a thing!

In the credits the film baldly states that the Munich agreement ‘bought a year’s time’ for Britain to rearm and was therefore crucial in the eventual defeat of Germany. It’s a rather strange assertion to come so late and the movie hasn’t really prepared the case for it for the audience. Historians remain divided as to whether it’s actually true or not.

Gottlieb: As Alan has said, Munich–The Edge of War is very pro-Chamberlain. Filmgoers may wonder where Winston Churchill is hiding in the film. Indeed, Churchill isn’t even alluded to, at least not by name. Is it justified to airbrush Churchill out? One could argue that Churchill’s star has shone brightly on the big screen for long enough, most recently in The Gathering Storm (2002), The Darkest Hour (2017), Churchill (2017) and Netflix’s The Crown. Although Churchill would have the last word– in fact, hundreds of thousands of words– about the Munich Agreement and its shameful consequences, he was a minor player in the diplomatic events in the autumn of 1938. He was not even the most obvious leader of the anti-appeasers, a group that in any case lacked organisational coherence and consensus about an alternative foreign policy. Opinion polls and pundits speculated that were Chamberlain to go, he would be succeeded as PM by either the former or the current foreign secretary, Anthony Eden or Lord Halifax. Incidentally, it is Halifax who is much less justifiably airbrushed out of the film.

You could say that the fictional male protagonists Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann serve as stand-ins for the appeasement sceptics and would-be resistors, embodying their sentiments and sensibilities, not to mention their elevated social status. In other ways, the fictional leads are less plausible. In order to make the plot work they are like passepartouts, with access to space, places and leaders– this just doesn’t ring true.   

The mood of the film is a kind of pre-Churchillian Britain, almost a prelapsarian Britain of a milder and less heroic age. The architecture is grand and solid, the characters and the crowds well behaved, well dressed, and quite prosperous– with few signs of the Slump and only a few inklings of the aerial war to come. Berlin and Munich are also shown with more grandeur than grit. 

Coming back now to the ambivalent power of film, will you be happy to use Munich–The Edge of War to introduce students to the topic? How can historians frame historical fiction like this to generate discussion in the classroom? 

Allport: Teaching history through film offers students an interesting set of questions to consider. How important is it that the film sticks rigidly to historical fact, or is some artistic license permissible? Should we judge a fictional movie by the same standards as a history book? Are all omissions and deviations from the historical record equal, or do some matter more than others? In the case of Munich: The Edge of War it might be particularly useful to compare the characterization of Neville Chamberlain with that in 2017’s Darkest Hour.  Both are quite different but neither is inherently the objectively ‘right’ one. Why have the filmmakers presented such different Chamberlains to the audience? Neither depiction would satisfy all historians. Is it even possible to put a Chamberlain on the screen that everyone could agree is ‘realistic’? And is that a useful historical or dramatic objective anyway?

Gottlieb: To conclude, all representations, fiction and nonfiction, reveal as much about the time they are produced in as about the historical period they seek to depict. Munich–The Edge of War is entertainment as well artifact in that sense, a film for our time!

Julie V. Gottlieb is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield. She is the author of ‘Guilty Women’, Foreign Policy and Appeasement in Interwar Britain (2015), and co-editor and contributor to The Munich Crisis, Politics and the People (2021). 

Alan Allport is a Professor of History at Syracuse University, New York. His most recent book is Britain at Bay: The Epic Story of the Second World War 1938-1941 (2020).

Cover image: Jeremy Irons as Neville Chamberlain, George MacKay as Hugh Legat, in Munich — The Edge of War, Netflix (2022)

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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

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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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