History from below

Bessie's Fold, North Street, Wolverhampton. By John Fullwood.  Found at Wolverhampton Arts and Museums Service
Bessie’s Fold, North Street, Wolverhampton. By John Fullwood. Found at Wolverhampton Arts and Museums Service

The picture above is by the well-known late C19 landscape artists John Fullwood, of a scene off North Street that no longer exists. Fullwood was not all that common in that beside his landscape work, he took time to document some of the Black Country’s poorest parts, most notably a series of etchings of Wolverhampton prior to the modernisation works throughout the 1880s. They give a fascinating insight into the conditions of the poor in the late nineteenth century, and really focus on the squalor and ramshackleness of the lodgings. Note the colourings above – brown is not associated in the popular imagination with many things – the lack of straight lines in the properties, the huddled stance of the small group.

A painting is not a photograph. Indeed, not even a photograph is a true representation of history, but a painting in particular comes loaded with meaning imparted by the artist. His views and opinions are in there, his prejudice and disgust too. I tend towards defining history as an art, rather than a science – there are no observable, valid, reliable observations that you would hope for in a managed experiment, just a series of viewpoints and representations.

One of my key motivations in my PhD study is to research and illuminate the lives of the very poorest. This is notoriously tricky – that “history is written by the winners” is not an aphorism but a truism. And in the nineteenth century, as before and as today, the poor are never winners. The documents historians use for sources were overwhelmingly compiled by authorities, those with interests such as capital or land, or seemingly impartial observers with an agenda of their own, such as John Fullwood here. Very rarely does one find written records from genuinely poverty-stricken inhabitants of the past. Those that have come to light, such as the Essex pauper letters and the digitised Old Bailey transcripts have proved to be completely fascinating, but they’re still in a tiny minority of records.

The idea of “history from below” was a complete change of tack in history when Lucien Febvre coined the phrase in 1932. I’ve loved reading Braudel’s The Mediterranean for its sweeping, elegant approach in doing just that, starting from the below-est, the soil, the mountains, the sea itself and moving through the slow cycles of social and economic life. In this country, it was the likes of EP Thompson and Raphael Samuel who embraced this approach: Thompson’s The Making of The Working Class in England is still the standard text on the subject both in subject matter and methodology; and Samuel embraced one of the great untapped sources in recording the oral history of Arthur Harding, one-time resident of Bethnal Green’s Old Nichol, before that memory passed into an unreachable distance of time. More recent theoretical developments like postcolonialist subaltern studies and Alltagsgeschichte, the microhistory of everyday life, have proved there are plenty of new ways to rescue those without agency to speak for themselves from “the enormous condescension of poverty”, to quote Thompson’s most famous expression.

EP Thompson at Glastonbury
EP Thompson at Glastonbury

I’m still feeling my way around the critical and theoretical structures that I’ll be employing to frame my research. I’m fascinated by the idea of reconstructing the everyday lives of those who never recorded them, and in doing so showing that the poor – or the residuum, or the dangerous classes, however they might have been referred to – were not only human beings with thoughts and feelings every bit as complicated as the elites looking down on them, but real actors, shaping their worlds in defiance of the pressures on them from all around.

The discussion of what form history from below can take was the subject of a fascinating online seminar last year. One post that particularly interested me was Brodie Waddell‘s on what the idea means in the real world, outside of ivory, or other sorts of towers. He mentions the amazing work done by local history groups, family historians and genealogists (even Who Do You Think You Are, which I totally agree with) and those involved in accessible education.

the pioneers of ‘history from below’ spent much of their time teaching quite different types of students: E.P. Thompson wrote The Making whilst working for the Workers’ Educational Association in Yorkshire’s industrial towns; Eric Hobsbawm spent his entire academic career teaching evening classes at Birkbeck College; Raphael Samuel founded the History Workshop movement amongst the trade unionists of Ruskin College.

I found this pretty challenging. Certainly it’s good to give voice to the voiceless of the past – but how can I then go on to give agency, through this beautiful medium of history, to the voiceless today. After all, the poor you have with you always.

5 thoughts on “History from below

  1. Thanks for the link to the History from Below symposium. I’m really pleased to hear that it caught your interest and I’m even more pleased to hear that you’re trying to do this yourself in your own research. It is challenging thanks to the nature of the records that we have available to us, but it is nonetheless I think a worthwhile goal.

    As you say, it is even more challenging to find ways to help the ‘voiceless’ of today draw on history, and do their own history. Still, I think posting some of your research online, as you are doing with your blog, is a great start!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Brodie – through writing that whole piece it never once occured to me that blogging was doing just that, so thanks for the encouragement!


  2. “history is written by the winners”

    This is a theme that has been highlighted on the Brownhills Bob Blog, but I have found many examples from the Newspaper Archives that do illuminate the lives of the very poorest.

    A wealth of info can be gained, and in fact can correct some glaring mistakes written in the “academic” history books. I recommend the newspaper archives!

    All the best, Peter

    Liked by 1 person

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