Medieval Women and Power: Female Abbatial Lordship


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John Rylands Research Institute Visiting Research Fellow, Dr Laura Gathagan from SUNY Cortland, has spent the last two months investigating part of the Beaumont Charters collection. She writes:

The Beaumont Charters are a collection of manuscripts from Normandy, many of which date back to the Anglo-Norman realm; that is, when the Dukes of Normandy were also the Kings of England in the 11th century. These may seem like letters from a distant world and, in some cases, they are. Primarily in Latin, these documents are carefully written, sometimes in miniature, on small pieces of parchment, some measuring only 8.5 x 18 cm. Beautiful ‘hands’ or scripts relay legal agreements, notices and announcements often involving land estates and rents.  Sometimes the wax seal, used to verify the documents’ validity, has also survived.

My project surveys and examines the documents from the monastic community of Holy Trinity in Caen, Normandy. There are nine manuscripts in the Beaumont collection from Holy Trinity and they give clues to the lives and experience of nuns and their abbess in the wealthiest female house in Normandy. Mathilda of Flanders, the first Norman queen of England, wife and co-ruler of William the Conqueror, founded the female Benedictine community of nuns on the eve of the Conquest in June of 1066. Like Battle Abbey in England, the roots of this nunnery were entwined in the Norman Conquest and Norman royal identity.

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Grant by Gislain de la Pommeraye to the Abbey of Notre Dame in Ardenne, 1219 (BMC 29).

Mathilda and William’s daughter, Cecelia, joined the community as a child and eventually served as the community’s second abbess. In the 21st century, the idea of dedicating a child to the restrictions of monastic life seem cruel. However, medieval parents probably saw it quite differently. For Cecelia, abbatial power meant she was autonomous in a way her married sisters were not. She made all the decisions that governed her own life. She had authority over her monastic community and only answered to the bishop in Bayeux. Sheltered from the dangers of marriage and childbirth, the women at Holy Trinity were free to see their families, come and go regularly into the city of Caen, and took part in city festivals and markets. They were also granted their own market in Caen; once a year, the abbess’s coat of arms was hung on all the city walls. For the next three days, she and her nuns received all the tolls and taxes paid to the city during the fair. Unlike some later communities of nuns who were strictly cloistered, the women at Holy Trinity actively participated in the daily life and special events of their city.

Female abbatial authority, and its privileges, is a topic historians are just now beginning to examine. The Beaumont Charters shed light on the significant power the abbess held in the city of Caen and her properties – as far away as the Jersey Islands and throughout England. One of the most interesting features of the Beaumont Charters produced by Holy Trinity is the emphasis they place on the abbess’s judicial function. As the landlord of large properties throughout the Anglo-Norman realm, the abbess also had the right to deliver justice and adjudicate disputes between her tenants. She had her own abbatial law court and ruled on cases brought before her. One of the Beaumont Charters, BMC 62, is a letter, dated 1262, from the ‘baillie’ or sheriff of Caen, apologizing to the abbess for removing a prisoner from her prison in Ouistreham on the Norman coast. He assures her that he will quickly return her prisoner and affirms that she has jurisdiction over him. This is the only evidence historians have found that an abbess in Normandy had her own jail. How many other abbesses had the same facilities? Without BMC 62, we would never know to ask the question, much less search for an answer.

BMC 73

Grant by Achard the deacon to the Abbey of La Trinité in Fécamp, on his becoming a monk there, c.1200 (BMC 73).

Sources like the Beaumont Charters allow historians of the Middle Ages to uncover women in powerful roles that might not align with modern conceptions of the medieval world.

The abbesses of Caen left behind letters to the future. They consciously preserved documents that historians read today. As the French Revolution raged, monasteries were destroyed, and their records burned. The last abbess of Caen, Marie de Pontecoulant, died in 1806. She hid the documents of Holy Trinity that she considered precious, and arranged for their escape to England after her death. The Rylands Library was able to acquire and preserve these letters from the past in safety so that the world of powerful medieval abbesses could be revealed.


Rediscovered: The Diaries of Margaret Collin (1937): Seeing the Soviet Union through a sophisticated lens


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Volunteer Anna Tomkinson has been cataloguing the remarkable diaries of Margaret Collin, who visited the Soviet Union in the 1930s and experienced first-hand the deprivations and cruelty of Stalin’s regime. Anna writes:

Margaret Collin née Richards (1907-1999) was an astute young woman who, after leaving school between the ages of 14 or 15, educated herself through the Woman’s Cooperative Guild. Her natural intelligence ensured that she won the Mary MacArthur Scholarship in June 1930. The award was named after a pioneer of the women’s Trade Union movement, who wanted to help working-class women study in the areas of either economics or social sciences.  Margaret fitted the criteria for the award: she came from a working-class background in Lincoln and went on to study economics at Ruskin College, Oxford University, with the intention of becoming a union organiser, like MacArthur, or a lecturer. Part of the scholarship also permitted her to spend time travelling on the continent.

The Library holds three slim volumes of Collin’s diaries that chronicle her travels in the Soviet Union in 1937, along with a small amount of official papers, three photographs of group portraits and four news-cuttings regarding the MacArthur scholarship. The material was generously donated to the Library some years ago by her daughter, Professor Marcia Pointon.

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Newspaper cutting reporting that Margaret Collin (née Richards) had been awarded a ‘Margaret McArthur [i.e. Mary MacArthur] Scholarship’ to study at Oxford. Image Courtesy of The University of Manchester.

Following Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin exploited his role as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party in order to manipulate the party structure to his advantage, and he eventually precipitated Trotsky’s expulsion from the party in 1927. After consolidating power, Stalin created a blueprint for what the Soviet Union would look like under his leadership. He wanted to industrialise the USSR and to bring it into the twentieth century, claiming that they must make the progress of one hundred years within fifty years. As a result, much of the industrialisation process was rushed, and the eventual results shoddy and unsafe. For example, housing was problematic, with only 6% of houses in Moscow having more than one room. Even high-ranking professionals such as doctors lived in such conditions, as Collin is able to attest after speaking with a wife and son of a Moscow doctor who shared one room between them. Meanwhile many flats were also built without electric sockets, and projects such as the White Sea Canal were in reality failures, despite the fanfare that was made of them.

Stalin’s Russia was an intensely paranoid society where the secret police encouraged citizens to inform on their neighbours, workmates and family. Talented people within Soviet society were murdered during the Purges of the 1930s, particularly artists who thought independently from the Stalinist ideology. Meanwhile, a personality cult developed around Stalin, with artists painting pictures that glorified him, depicting him in a white suit to make him stand out from the crowd, and referring to him paternally as ‘Uncle Joe’, and poets writing poetry that extolled his virtues. This sycophantic praise of Stalin via art was called Socialist Realism, and it drove some artists to commit suicide rather than conform to the rigid restrictions that the state tried to impose on their work.

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Page from Margaret’s diary, vol. 1 (MEC 4/1, 1 August 1937). Image Courtesy of The University of Manchester.

Collin’s diaries are crucial in enabling us to see past the fanfare that many primary sources were forced to make of industrialisation, and the cult of personality that surrounded Stalin. On August 7th Collin eloquently remarks that she has ‘never been in a land where the horizon seems so far off’, and this sense of intrigue, curiosity and astute ability to see beyond what is in front of her are what make her diaries stand out as a perceptive counter-narrative to Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Instead, her descriptions focus on the horror of the physical malnourishment of the peasants, and the intrusive intellectual constraints that prevented anyone from thinking beyond the possibilities of Stalinism. On August 5th, Collin recollects the appearances of the Russians she sees at a train station:

The peasants at these stations look dreadfully poor and some beg. The children look old before they are in their teens. In fact, the babies in their mother’s arms have expressions as on grown up faces.

Her short sentences convey her shock and loss of words, creating a harsh, condemning tone of a regime that offsets the adoring propaganda of the era, making Collin’s observations all the more insightful and important. Meanwhile, the mental suppression of Soviets is revealed to equal that of the physical poverty that many languished in. On August 5th, Collin writes of how she asked a man about the past and present of Russia, to which he would not commit himself to making a comment, while on August 18th, she spoke with a teacher who was able to find ‘no reason at all why the [show] trials took place’.

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Page from Margaret Collin’s diary, vol. 1 (MEC 4/1, 1 August 1937). Image Courtesy of The University of Manchester.

Collin is not taken in by the culture of fear around her,  but as an outsider is able to shed new light on the regime from a much more enlightened perspective, which leads her to wonder whether ‘any real freedom of speech in politics exists at present’. She sees Socialist Realism not as utopic, but questions its democratic value. Upon witnessing someone offering a prayer to ‘Brother Stalin’, she recalls how she ‘sat with her toes curled up.’ Furthermore, rather than glorifying all aspects of Soviet culture, and revering it as progressive, Collin frequently makes reference to the fact that Soviet shops and cinemas frequently ‘fall short of our own standards’.

The diaries re-create the world of Stalin’s USSR in a vivid and honest manner, told through the eyes of an outsider who is both a tourist and critical observer.  This creates a complex narrative that simultaneously allows us to be swept away on the journey with her, whilst also confronting the barbaric realities of a bygone dictatorship.

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Photograph of Margaret Collin looking studious. Image by kind permission of Marcia Pointon.



A Protestant Memorial


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The burning of Anne Askew, John Lacels, John Adams and Nicholas Belenian at Smithfield

Henry VIII executed both Protestants and Catholics who challenged his Reformation. This included prominent figures such as his Chancellor Thomas More and the radical scholar William Tyndale, as well as ordinary men and women who spoke out about their beliefs. However, the greatest religious persecution in England was under Henry’s Catholic daughter, Mary, who burned nearly 300 Protestants during her five-year reign. After Elizabeth came to the throne, John Foxe published Actes and Monuments of these latter and perilous dayes touching matters of the Church to memorialise those who had lost their lives in the troubled times. It became more commonly known as the Book of Martyrs.

The Book of Martyrs went through five editions during Elizabeth’s reign and another four in the 17th century. The church authorities ordered that copies be provided in cathedral and parish churches ensuring that it reached a wide audience even for such a large and expensive book. It was influential in shaping a peculiarly English Protestant identity in opposition to the foreign (mostly Catholic) ‘other’, and gained a status equivalent to the Authorised English Bible, first published in 1611. You can find a full online edition, along with commentaries and essays at

The Library holds a number of copies of 16th- and 17th-century editions of the Book of Martyrs. This was a key item to be included in our Reformation exhibition. Although it was not published until after the period which is the main focus of the exhibition (1517-1547), Foxe was able to make use of eyewitness accounts – even if not entirely reliable. However, most of our copies showed signs of being well used by successive generations of readers and many were not in a state to be displayed. The copy we have chosen has an intriguing history – some of which has been uncovered but much of it is still a mystery.

The most striking feature of this copy will not be visible for the exhibition. The binding is red velvet with silver mounts and clasps along with a portrait in silver on each cover. On the front is William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury executed on the orders of parliament in 1645. On the back is John Davenant, who was Bishop of Salisbury from 1621 to 1641. However, all is not as it seems – despite the claim made by London bookseller F S Ellis in a letter to Samuel Rigby who bought the book in 1864 that ‘the silver mountings are the finest I have ever seen upon any old English book’. Not so, according to experts at the V&A: the silver work must date from the 19th century and definitely not the 17th century. One clue is on the portrait of Laud which is dated 1628 – five years before he became Archbishop of Canterbury. So, an attempt by unscrupulous booksellers to deceive? It wouldn’t be the first time we have discovered such activities, though we don’t believe it was done by Ellis so was he duped too?

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John Foxe, Actes and monuments of matters most speciall and memorable, happening in the Church, 1596. R33900


Register of births and deaths for Isaac and Mary Cosins

Once you get beyond the binding there is more to discover, which might shed some light on how or where the silver work was done, perhaps … On one blank page in the middle of the book is a list of births and deaths, much as you might find in a family Bible. These are the children of Isaac and Mary Cosins – sadly, only two make it into adulthood, Isaac (born 1746) and Nathanael (born 1754). Their father Isaac was a silversmith in Sheffield and many of his wife Mary’s family (Barlow) were cutlers. It would have been nice to imagine Isaac owning this book with its silver decoration but it seems much more likely that the work was done later and perhaps by one of his relatives who might have inherited the book? There is no further evidence of its ownership until Samuel Rigby buys it from F S Ellis in 1864.

Samuel Rigby lived at Bruche Hall, near Warrington. He was a partner in the cotton manufacturer Armitage & Rigby. After his death in 1890 the book was then owned by Jesse Haworth, another cotton magnate, better known to us for his support of the Manchester Museum. He donated it to the Library in 1913. A note by Haworth inserted in the volume points to another intriguing event in the book’s history. It says ‘the register of the Cosins family is betwixt the first & second vols of Fox’s “Book of Martyrs”. The late Alderman King, Father of the Manchester City Council, was descended from the Cosins family’. And indeed, after much digging on a well-known genealogical site we can confirm it. Nathanael Cosins, son of Mary and Isaac, died in 1837 with no surviving children. In his will he generously names three of his wife’s maternal cousin’s children (King), along with one of his own paternal cousins (Cosins) and two of his maternal cousins (Barlow) and their children (Scantlebury).  John King, cotton manufacturer, alderman and so-called ‘Father’ of the Manchester City Council was the son of one of those cousins.  A remarkable coincidence!

This intriguing volume, and other important items, will be on display in our autumn exhibition: The Reformation which opens in September. Over the next few months, we will be telling more stories of some of these fascinating items on this blog.

Behind the Scenes of an Exhibition – the last hoorah!


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Life of Objects

Life of Objects

As the Life of Objects Exhibition enters its last month (the last chance to visit the exhibition will be the bank holiday weekend), we’re busy assessing the impact of the exhibition, looking at lessons learned and taking time to consider visitor feedback.  It’s also a chance for us to further engage with our audiences by offering some Collections Encounters.  This is a great opportunity for us to share some of the items that didn’t make it into the exhibition due to limited space.  It also enables people to have a closer look at some of our collections as we will be showing objects in the historic reading room.

Collections Encounter

Collections Encounter

Karen and I were given the enviable task of choosing these objects, so we went for some of our favourites; items that did not meet our exhibition criteria or fit in with the stories we were trying to tell in the cases.  However, we still wanted to connect with the exhibition so maintained this by choosing further items related to the people featured.  Some of the objects we had out on our table were Li Yuan-chia’s Rose Tinted Glasses, some medals and a silver Pound case which live in his archive; Isabella Bank’s Chinese playing cards and a Russian peasant spoon; Adam Johnson’s mouth organ; and dsh’s ‘Frog Pond Plop’.  It was great to be able to chat to visitors about their views of the exhibition and their reactions to the objects – who knew that the origami shape dsh used for Frog Pond Plop was referred to as a chatterbox? It was fascinating to hear which objects had moved and touched the audiences most and lovely to share reminiscences as people reacted to the items on display.

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We hope that the exhibition and the Collections Encounter have shown that the Library holds a wealth of interesting material in addition to our amazing books, archives and manuscripts.

Don’t worry if you missed this opportunity to see these extra objects as the Engagement Team are providing another Collections Encounter on August 31st.  They also have another event, ‘One Person’s Rubbish is Another Person’s Treasure’ on Wednesday 9th August.  See here for details : Whats On Guide

We’ve loved seeing and hearing about your favourite objects. so please feel free to comment using #jrlobjects.

A plethora of pamphlets


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Religion has always been a key part of the collections in the John Rylands Library, particularly Christianity. While he was alive, John Rylands was a firm supporter of Biblical study. After his death, John’s third wife Enriqueta put Christian and Non-Conformist beliefs at the heart of her vision for a cathedral of knowledge, although she was careful not to exclude material differing from her own religious beliefs. This mission is reflected in the Rylands’ extensive collection of Martin Luther material, and items surrounding the Protestant Reformation. These help us to trace the profound transformation of religious, and thus world, views across Europe in the sixteenth century.

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The role of pamphlets

Pamphlets were vital to the spread of ideas in the early modern Europe. Small and lightweight, (normally issued in quarto format with 8-16 pages) they could be produced relatively quickly and spread significant distances by travelling booksellers. The average price was roughly a third of a daily wage for an artisan apprentice in Germany: these prints were affordable, but not throwaway. Pamphlets weren’t designed to educate, but to influence opinion. Usually printed in easy to read fonts, this new media helped ideas to spread fast across Europe.

A portrait of Martin Luther printed in 'De captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiae' (Strasbourg, 1520).

A portrait of Martin Luther from ‘De captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiae’ (Strasbourg, 1520).

Pamphlets were written by many different sorts of people, even some women, but most were penned by educated men, normally the clergy. The topics they covered were just as wide ranging, but in the sixteenth century religion was often the key theme.

Martin Luther proved skilled at using pamphlets to spread his ideas and to agitate for reform. Just 11 years after his Ninety-five Theses were unveiled at Wittenberg in October 1517, 32 of Luther’s tracts had been printed in more than 500 editions. It is estimated that, before long, around a quarter of German publications were issued under his name. When Luther died in 1546, nearly three million copies of his works, excluding Bible translations, had appeared.

Reforming ideas

Rare depiction of a printing press on the titlepage of Luther's Auff des Bocks zu Leypczick Antwort (Wittenberg, 1521).

A rare depiction of a printing press on the titlepage of Luther’s Auff des Bocks zu Leypczick Antwort (Wittenberg, 1521).

Luther used this new media to challenge the established Church; in 1520 alone, his publications included attacks on economic practices, celibacy, good works and his sensational On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (De Captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiae Praelvdivm Martini Lutheri). In the same year, Luther was threatened with excommunication: as well as burning a copy of the bull, Luther went back to print to publicise his response.

Although the number of pamphlets produced mushroomed between 1517 and 1525, there was still a barrier to the spread of ideas. In Germany, around 10 pamphlets were produced for every literate member of the population: to access these ideas, people had to be able to read, or be read to. It is impossible to know whether anyone reading the text aloud changed the message, but it is likely that the eager audience for these pamphlets was made up of like-minded people, interested in reform. Rather than these rare surviving copies, sermons may have been a far more powerful tool in changing ordinary people’s minds. However, it is the pamphlets which have survived five centuries as witnesses to this time of dramatic change.

Collecting the ephemeral

Henry Guppy, Librarian of John Rylands from 1900, recognised this importance. In his tireless collecting to further the ambitions of the Library and its founder, Guppy was responsible for acquiring a large proportion of the Luther pamphlets which form a part of the collection today.

15 pamphlets were bought from David Nutt booksellers between 1900 and 1907. In 1907, Guppy oversaw another significant purchase of Luther pamphlets, when 50 ‘tracts and pamphlets’ were purchased from J.S. Cornish for £25. Six more items were sold to Guppy by the booksellers Henry Young & Sons (Liverpool) in 1909, including three important Luther pamphlets (De Libertate Christiana Dissertatio Martini Lvtheri, 1531; Resolutio Lvtheriana, 1519; De Captivitate Babylonica Ecclesiae Praelvdivm Martini Lutheri, 1520).

Invoice detailing 'Luther' items bought by Henry Guppy from booksellers in December 1909.

Invoice detailing ‘Luther’ items bought by Henry Guppy from booksellers in December 1909.

By this time, the Library was known for its interest in Luther literature. A couple of weeks after the 1909 purchase, Henry Young & Sons wrote again to Mr Guppy, on 21st December, to say that they had a 1543 first edition of “Enchiridion”, in its original binding, with 50 woodcuts after Albert Durer. Within two days the purchase of Enchiridion Piarvm Precationum… (Wittenburg, 1543) had been written in the accessions registers.

The exploration of radical ideas changed the world for Europeans in the sixteenth century, hand in hand with the boom in pamphlets. Luther played a major role in both of these transformations by spreading his ideas and countering others through the new medium of cheap printing, with far-reaching consequences. The diligent collecting of the Rylands Library has brought together many of these items to give a snapshot of this inquisitive and revolutionary time.

Some of these significant pamphlets, and other important items, will be on display in our autumn exhibition: The Reformation which opens in September. Over the next few months, we will be telling more stories of some of these fascinating items on this blog.

Rediscovered: George Hugh Gough and Anglo-Egyptian War


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James Peters writes:

This is the first in an occasional series of Special Collections Blog posts describing some of our less well-known archives and manuscripts. Some of these have been with the Library for many years, but have not been catalogued or otherwise publicised. We want these collections to be better known, so we will be publishing a series of posts about these ‘rediscovered’ collections.

The Journal of Captain G. H. Gough  (English MS 1375)

The Hon. George Hugh Gough (1852-1900) was a well-connected career soldier. He served in the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882, where he kept a detailed journal of his experiences. The Library purchased this journal from a  book dealer in 1970, but it has only now been catalogued, forty-seven years later (oops), as English MS 1375.

The Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882 saw the beginning of what has been described as the “veiled protectorate”, as the Britain slowly came to dominate the government of Egypt, a process which arguably only ended with the Suez Crisis in 1956.

The War was fought between followers of Ahmed Urabi [Arabi] Pasha (1841-1911), an Egyptian soldier and politician, and a British-Indian expeditionary force led by General Sir Garnet Wolseley. Urabi had effectively sidelined Egypt’s ruler, the Khedive, Tawfiq Pasha, who was supported by the British, and his insurgency was considered a grave threat to British financial and strategic interests in the country.

In the summer of 1882, a British naval force bombarded the port of Alexandria, following riots against its European population. William Gladstone’s government then dispatched an expeditionary force, which was charged with defeating Urabi and restoring the Khedive’s authority. Gough served in this force as the aide-de-camp to Lt General Edward Hamley, who was commanding the force’s Second Division.

Gough describes his arrival in Alexandria, where he observes the damaged forts, and a city largely under curfew. The British had originally planned to make a direct attack on Cairo from Alexandria. However, in a bold change of plan, Wolseley moved the main force to the Suez Canal zone, from where he planned to advance along the main rail line and canal to Cairo.

On arriving at Ismailia on the Canal, Gough witnessed at first-hand the  logistical problems, which threatened the British plan. The British able to move quickly by water, but a lack of rail transport slowed the advance to Cairo. Urabi then regrouped his forces at Tel-el-Kebir, twenty five miles from the Canal, where they dug in, and threatened to cut the water-supply to Ismailia. To counter this, Wolseley determined on a bold but risky frontal attack on Urabi’s army (which outnumbered the British), which required a complex night march to meet the enemy.


G. H. Gough’s map of the British advance from Ismailia

Gough’s description of the battle of Tel-el-Kebir on 13 September is the most dramatic part of the journal. The British advanced across the desert at night, guided by the stars. They marched in formation and in silence, and Gough describes the “strange creaking noises” their boots made on the sand. The soldiers got to within 150 yards of the Egyptian lines before they were seen and fired at. The British then launched a bayonet charge. Gough was in the thick of ferocious fighting: “From every side… sheets of flame show, and the air hisses with bullets”. Facing stiff Egyptian resistance, Gough was ordered to fetch reinforcements, but as he rode away his horse was shot from under him. Help eventually arrived, and within hours Urabi’s army had been routed and put to flight.

de Neuville, Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe, 1835-1885; The Storming of Tel el Kebir

Alphonse-Marie-Adolphe de Neuville, ‘The Storming of Tel el Kebir’, National Museums Scotland. Wikimedia Commons public domain image.

The British forces then advanced rapidly to Cairo, capturing Urabi, and restoring the Khedive. Gough spent several weeks in Cairo, mainly sight-seeing. He received a medal, the Order of Mejidie (4th class), personally from the Khedive and left Egypt in a state of relief: “What a lucky fellow I’ve been; how much I have to be thankful for.” He reached Britain in early November, to find he had been promoted to major. Gough continued in the Army until his death on active service during the South African War in 1900.

Although the journal is mainly concerned with the practicalities of war, Gough makes some interesting political observations, noting Urabi’s popularity with ordinary Egyptians: “this is a national movement, that rightly or wrongly the Egyptians hate us, and that [Urabi] is a representative of their sentiments”. Gough was also critical of the Khedive, whom he met on several occasions, and commented on his poor grasp of political realities.

Surviving first-hand accounts of the Anglo-Egyptian war seem to be quite rare, so Gough’s journal provides an interesting viewpoint from the British side of this largely forgotten war.

Visual Material in Medical Records


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The patient case files of neurosurgeon Sir Geoffrey Jefferson (JCN) are rich in visual materials which enriches the textual information given in the notes. The visual material comes in the form of clinical, operative, and pathological photographs, x-rays and positive copies of x-rays, and medical illustrations (which have been mentioned in a previous blog post).  They help to give a multifaceted view of the patient giving as much information as possible to the practitioner over the course of a patient’s treatment. This is particularly true of x-rays in which a further insight not visible to the naked eye is made possible.

JCN/9/276 – positive copy of an x-ray of a patient with a meningioma of the left middle fossa & JCN/10/248 – a positive copy of a x-ray resulting from air ventriculography

As well as assisting in diagnostics and treatment such images were and are integral to engaging medical students, and Jefferson comments on certain cases how he has used them time and time again to teach his students. Additionally they support academic research and we can see how the material in these files would have supported Jefferson’s own research interests. The study of pituitary tumours was one of Jefferson’s interests on which he published a number of papers and there are a great number of these cases within the collection. A common symptom of some pituitary tumours is acromegaly (the increased production of growth hormone) which Jefferson documents in his patients by photographing their hands to demonstrate the increase in size.

JCN/14/86 & JCN/14/202 – photographs of the hands of two different patients diagnosed with pituitary neoplasms and acromegaly, 1939

Medical photography also exists as a useful tool in documenting unusual or rare cases, and there a number of images of young children suffering from spina bifida and large meningocele. The importance of recording the progress of certain cases can often go beyond the life of the patient to include post mortem images and pathological specimens which often reveal things not evident when the patient was alive.

JCN/14/238 – pathological specimen of a meningioma removed at operation, 1939

All in all the visual material in the collection and associated collections (VFA.7 – Medical Illustrations of Dorothy Davison) add much greater depth to a patient’s medical history as well as raising questions of how the patient was viewed and the ethical concerns surrounding the creation of such exposing images, the way the patients were posed, and consideration of the impact it would have had on them.

The Uses of History: Pit Prop and Radical Theatre


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Dr Phil O’Brien writes:

On October 15 1979, Pit Prop Theatre Company staged its first production: Secret Society of 1812. It wasn’t on a particularly conventional theme for a fledgling group; it was about a Luddite incident in Westhoughton, a town a few miles from Pit Prop’s base in Leigh, Lancashire. The story gives some indication of the company’s approach to theatre: mining (pardon the pun) working-class and local history for political and radical stories. Additionally, the target audience for Secret Society wasn’t especially conventional: it was aimed at nine-year-olds. The production, according to the group’s promotional material, was ‘based on a local Luddite incident in which a magistrate incited an attack on a local textile mill by planting agent provocateurs’. The approach taken in this first play (or programme as the group preferred to describe the work) would inform much of what Pit Prop did over the next 15 years as professional theatre practitioners engaged in pioneering cultural work.

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Cyril Craythorpe (James Quinn), Martha (Flo Wilson), and Morgan (Ray Meredith) in Brand of Freedom by the Pit Prop Theatre, 1984.

The company’s history is traceable through its fascinating archive held at The John Rylands Library, where I recently spent time working through the 76 uncatalogued boxes. There’s information pertaining to productions on female coal workers, 1970s rent strikes, Moss Side, Nicaragua, the British Raj, and the Anglo-Irish agreement. Many of the productions contain the same four ingredients as the first: 1) a local working-class historical event; 2) a small group of characters often centring on the experience of women; 3) the involvement and collaboration of the audience directly within the performance; 4) a link to wider global and political issues.

Pit Prop was part of the Theatre-in-Education (TIE) movement and one of the company’s starting points is the work of Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre. TIE was first conceived here in the 1960s as a new form of theatre which brought together actors and teachers and worked with schools over a sustained period. Pit Prop’s artistic director Cora Williams started at Belgrade in 1968 as an actor-teacher before moving to Bolton Octagon. She and others from Pit Prop were then involved in Burnley’s Theatre Mobile which collapsed in 1978.

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A Pit Prop Brand of Freedom project work-book for schoolchildren.

That first Pit Prop performance in October 1979 sees the company emerge in the opening months of Thatcherism. Crucially, here are a group of cultural workers developing a response from within the working-class communities most vulnerable to the effects of deindustrialization, privatization, and state reduction: all features of Britain under Thatcher. Pit Prop took a broad socialist and feminist approach, one which, up until subsidies were withdrawn in 1994, challenged stereotypes predicated on class, race, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity alongside addressing issues around discrimination pertaining to age, physical disability, and mental health.

It is clear from the archive that internal issues also contributed to the pressures placed on the company but, as the Times Educational Supplement reported in 1994, external forces resulted in the closure of Pit Prop: ‘It is the victim of circumstances: local authority cuts forced by six years of Government capping on central funding, the consequences of the 1988 and 1992 Education Acts, and the market forces philosophy of the local arts council.’

So the timing of Pit Prop’s emergence is fascinating, the types of active participation work the group did are compelling, and its funding challenges offer many interesting insights into the role of the arts in Britain. On a more personal level, the geographical area in which it worked is also significant, Wigan being my hometown. And I was in for a surprise when I viewed a film of one of the company’s most successful TIE programmes. Brand of Freedom consists of three parts: a play performed on site in schools, a project book completed by pupils, and a second impromptu visit by Pit Prop. It is set in 1862 during the Lancashire cotton famine and, like Cotton Panic! currently on as part of Manchester International Festival, explores the effect of the cotton blockade on the mills and people of Lancashire. In Brand of Freedom, which features escaped black slave Martha alongside mill workers Morgan and Lucy, the dilemma of supporting either the blockade (with the economic hardship it brings) or the south (and slavery and its expansion) becomes the central focus.

PP Four rev

The Pit Prop Theatre Company logo.

Manchester University Television filmed a performance of the production in which the children, after initially being duped by a southern plantation owner, decide overwhelming to support the north and Abraham Lincoln – a statue of Lincoln across the road from the Rylands is evidence of Manchester’s support for the blockade. On the film is my brother Jim, now 43, then 10. He looks into the camera as the actors, in character, enter the classroom. Jim and the rest of his class soon forget the film crew; they are immersed in a story of which they become a central part. The recording makes for fascinating viewing, not only because my brother and his friends are in it – first as nervous, curious 10 and 11-year-olds and then, within moments, as engaged historical actors – but also because it serves as a demonstration of what were new theatre forms emerging out of a direct engagement with culture, class, history, politics, and education.

Phil O’Brien completed his PhD on class, neoliberalism, and contemporary British fiction at the University of Manchester in 2016. He was recently awarded seedcorn funding from the John Rylands Research Institute to work on the Pit Prop Theatre Company Archive at The John Rylands Library. Email: