From Bloomers to Burkinis: The Same Old Story? by Sarah Ansari

While we were on our summer break, Sarah Ansari, Professor of South Asian History at Royal Holloway and a member of the Bedford Centre wrote about her views on the controversial treatment of Muslim women wearing ‘Burkinis’. It was first posted on the Historians for History blog in August and we are pleased to be able to reblog it here.

Historians for History

194d1b1f784d4a3e99d71358a2473da6 Bathing Dresses, as featured in Godey’s Lady Book, 1864

The recent photos in the media showing armed police apparently forcing a Muslim woman wearing a burkini on a French beach to remove it, or alternatively some of her outer clothing, in public, and then seemingly fining her, highlight beautifully the challenges facing historians in a post-modern historical world. What the ‘facts’ of the matter really are is no longer relevant. It is what we believe to be happening that counts, and so it is our interpretation of those facts that matters.  Whether or not it was really a dreaded burkini (an outfit “not respecting good morals and secularism”) – at best, unhygienic, or at worst, to quote the French Prime Minister, part of the “enslavement” of (Muslim) women, this episode underlines yet again how central Muslim women’s bodies are to wider questions of identity, community and ‘modernity’. For the last…

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Interwar Visitors to Royal Holloway

Taking tea next to the tennis courts with Founders building behind in the 1920s. With permission from Royal Holloway Archives

Taking tea in the 1920s, next to the tennis courts with Founders Building behind. [Image: Royal Holloway Archives]

We are delighted to welcome our guest student blogger, George Severs, who took time out from his final year studies to explore some little known sources in Royal Holloway’s Archives with some surprising results ….

Recently, I embarked on a minor research effort to find out whether or not Unity Mitford had visited Royal Holloway in 1937, knowing that she had been to Egham to drop her childhood nanny Laura Dicks (Blor to the Mitfords) off on holiday with her family. As I expected, there is no record of Unity Mitford or Blor in the Royal Holloway archive, but this search posed more questions than I had originally expected. Namely, how much do we know about interwar visitors to Royal Holloway College, and how do we know it?

There are two major sources which inform our knowledge of the College’s visitors during the interwar period: the Royal Holloway Visitors’ Book, and the Picture Gallery Visitors’ Book. Similar though they may sound, these two volumes are markedly different.

The Royal Holloway Visitors’ Book is a grandiose, lacquered tome, spanning the years 1887 to 1984 which holds the signatures of many members of the royal family and other esteemed visitors. Its interwar entries alone include the signatures of Queen Mary and Princess Helena Victoria both of whom visited in 1937, and the chairman of the London County Council who visited in 1939. Entries from these VIPs were often permitted an entire page for their entry.

The Picture Gallery Visitors’ Book, by contrast, is a worn ink-stained volume, full of entries. This book would have been accessible to the general public on days when the Picture Gallery was open to public visitors, which, during the interwar period, would have been Wednesdays and occasional Saturdays.

At first glance, then, we might assume that the Visitors’ Book was reserved for grand, often state occasions, whilst the Picture Gallery equivalent was available to the general public. Largely true though this is, closer consultation of both volumes yields a few unexpected entries.

Whilst entries of visitors to the Picture Gallery do overwhelmingly paint a picture of family outings and local visitors during the interwar period, there are a few remarkable exceptions. Tucked away just below one Hilda Price from Addlestone we find the signature of H. G. Wells, author of The War of the Worlds. Quite why he visited the Picture Gallery in August 1937, seemingly by himself, we do not know. What is interesting, however, is the lack of spectacle made of his visit, since Wells was well known internationally by 1937. Perhaps this points to the fact that the College’s managing parties were most, if not singularly concerned with titled and regal patrons, something which has gone largely unchanged.

Entry recording the visit of H. G. Wells. RHCAR/501/1. Image: George J. Severs

Entry recording the visit of H. G. Wells. RHCAR/501/1. Image: George J. Severs


More surprising, and indicative of the College’s seeming lack of interest in non-royal visits, is an entry from May 26th 1938 which records the visit of a 500 strong delegation from the League of Nations, “about 100 of which signed this book”. As you may imagine, the College archivist and myself were quite astonished when I discovered this. Neither of us had any idea that this event had occurred, not least, perhaps, because it is quite literally squashed at the bottom of a page.

Entry recording the visit of the League of Nations delegation. RHCAR/501/1. Image: George J. Severs

Entry recording the visit of the League of Nations delegation. RHCAR/501/1. Image: George J. Severs


The Visitors’ Book also contains entries which seem to go against the supposed grain of the volume. Ordinary, local people have their entries in the book, though a great deal less frequently. We do not yet know how, when and where this book was kept during public occasions, but it is safe to assume that it was infrequently available for the public to sign.

Both of these visitors’ books, then, tell us fairly extraordinary things about the people who visited the College between the wars. We know of the queens, princesses, and the politically powerful men who came, but what of the ‘ordinary’ women? Royal Holloway was, after all, a women’s college, and my search had originally been for a woman (though, admittedly, not an ordinary one).

A great many women visited Royal Holloway during the 1920s and 1930s, and the visitors’ books go some way in telling us about how women negotiated the College as a public space. Entries, particularly those in the Picture Gallery Visitors’ Book, suggest that women tended to visit the College in groups, whilst men like H.G. Wells, more often visited alone. Whether they were local, like Mrs Butler and Mrs Bauchamp (both from Egham, visiting on September 10th 1936), or foreign visitors, such as a group from Paris visiting in June 1937, female visitors overwhelmingly came in groups.

As sources, the books are of course imperfect. We know very little about when, where and how exactly they were used, and often even less about the signatories themselves, hence they remain overlooked by most people. Yet, as this blog post has suggested, they can also offer valuable insights into the ways in which women (and men) visited the College during the interwar period, as well as the range of better known guests.

If you know anyone who visited Royal Holloway and why they did so please do let us know.

George J. Severs is a finalist in the Department of History at Royal Holloway, University of London, and an Undergraduate Liaison Officer at the Bedford Centre for the History of Women.

‘Translating Women’s History for Television’: A Lecture by Pam Cox

Pam Servants2

At 6pm on Thursday 2nd June  Professor Pam Cox (University of Essex) will be joining us to talk about the benefits and challenges of telling women’s histories on television and setting them in the broader context of creating, writing and filming TV documentaries.

Pam has written and presented two highly successful BBC history documentaries. The first, Servants: The True Story of Life Below Stairs (2012) focused on the 1.5 million people who worked in domestic service (more than those working in factories or farms) who are often portrayed as characters in period dramas, but whose real lives and stories are rarely shown. More recently Shopgirls: The True Story of Life Behind the Counter (2014) traced how the predominantly male world of mid-Victorian retail shops was challenged by a major influx of female workers at the turn of the century. It explored their working conditions and realities of life for female shop assistants from then until the 1960s.  

If you would like to see Pam in action before the talk and you have access to Box of Broadcasts, you can watch both her TV series, click on the links below for the first episodes of each. Some episodes are also still freely available on You Tube. 

Pam shopgirls2

BoB Servants episode 1 

BoB Shopgirls episode 1 

She has also co-authored a book of stories from this series with Annabel Hobley entitled, Shopgirls: True Stories of Friendship, Hardship and Triumph From Behind the Counter (2015).

Pam is strongly committed to public history in all its forms, including work with policy makers in child protection and youth justice. She works across both history and the social sciences and is the Chair of the Social History Society. She is currently completing a digital life-course project tracing 500 nineteenth century lives. 

The lecture is free and takes place at 6pm in the Moore Building Lecture Theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London. Everyone is welcome to attend and there is no booking required. For more information please contact Nicola Phillips.  We look forward to seeing you there!

Society for the History of Women in the Americas Annual Conference



The Society for the History of Women in the Americas Annual Conference ‘Gender, Activism and Religion’ at Royal Holloway, University of London on Wednesday 29 June 2016

The Society for the History of Women in the Americas (SHAW) welcomes proposals for its ninth annual conference, co-organised with The Bedford Centre for the History of Women, Royal Holloway, University of London. The theme for this year’s conference is ‘Gender, Activism, and Religion.’ We welcome 250 word abstracts for 20-minute presentations on the intersecting relationship between gender, activism, and religion in the Americas across any geographical period or chronological time. We welcome comparative papers between two countries in the Americas or one in the Americas and a country outside the region. Please submit abstracts and 100-word biography to by the 4th April 2016. You will be notified of the outcome by 22nd April 2016. Papers chosen for the conference may be selected for inclusion in a special issue of History of Women in the Americas Journal subject to peer-review.

Conference co-organizers (Dawn-Marie Gibson, Royal Holloway, University of London and Imaobong Umoren, University of Oxford).


‘Electrifying’ the Public with ‘Delight’: Exhibitions of Julia Margaret Cameron’s Photographs

'May Day', Julia Margaret Cameron, 1866, albumen print from wet collodion glass negative. Museum no.933-1913. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

‘May Day’, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1866, © Victoria and Albert Museum (no. 933-1913).

‘Julia Margaret Cameron’, V&A Museum (28 Nov-21 Feb 2016) and ‘Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy’, Science Museum (24 Sept-28 March 2016)

Famed photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879) wrote in 1866 that with her photography she hoped to ‘Electrify you with delight and startle the world’. Two recent exhibitions present the opportunity to explore her success in achieving this aim. As famed then as she is now, her trademark was in her deliberate rule-breaking of nineteenth-century photographic conventions: her albumen printed, sepia tinged photographs were often out of focus, with scratched marks and etchings such as moons, the occasional fingerprint or pressed fern, and a dramatic use of lighting.

Charles Darwin, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868, © V&A Museum (no.14-1939).

Charles Darwin, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868, © V&A Museum (no.14-1939).

These two exhibitions have worked alongside each other to commemorate the bicentenary of Cameron’s birth. The V&A also marked 150 years since her first museum exhibition, which was held in 1865 at the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A). Cameron is best known for her captivating portraits of figures such as Charles Darwin but also her portraiture of those at home: family, friends, and servants, whom she dressed up to represent characters from biblical, historical, and allegorical stories; as depicted above in ‘May Day’.

Her oeuvre was especially pertinent at a time when Victorian society was engaged in the process of determining whether photography constituted art or science. Cameron’s juxtaposition of photographing famed male artistic and literary ‘geniuses’, alongside her selection of beautiful young women whom she adorned with flowers, provokes interesting questions about Cameron’s own conceptualisations of morality and gender roles. Her name was often to be found in the Victorian press, occasionally misspelled as ‘Mr Cameron’, where critics debated her merits and often criticised her modern, experimental style.

Cameron’s artistic career began at 48 when she received a camera as a present from her daughter and son-in-law, when she was based at Freshwater, in the Isle of Wight. In a letter accompanying the camera, her daughter wrote: ‘It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude at Freshwater’. Evidently pleased with her gift, two years later Cameron had sold a number of her photographs to the South Kensington Museum, where they were exhibited to a curious public. Cameron’s late start to her career, and her role as an upper-middle-class woman, did little to stop her quick rise to fame as an artist at the centre of the development of innovative photographic processes and artistic style.

The V&A exhibition ‘Julia Margaret Cameron’ showcased over 100 of Cameron’s photographs from the museum’s collections. The gallery had crimson-painted walls, which provides the perfect backdrop when gazing at Cameron’s timelessly evocative prints. The exhibition was organised around 5 letters that represented her career and friendship with the V&A’s founding director, Sir Henry Cole. This narrative frame helped the visitor to understand the chronology and impact of her career alongside the support she gained from her friendship with Cole (and also with the painter G.F. Watts).

‘Julia Margaret Cameron’ succeeded in showing the physical labour behind photography (to make one photograph Cameron and her servants had to pull nine buckets of water from the well) as well as the arduous exposure time. Cameron’s wish for commercial success (and financial reward) in her letters to Cole was also explored. This frank correspondence helped to dispel frequently over-exaggerated perceptions of Victorian middle-class women as too societally constrained to discuss financial matters.

Mrs. Herbert Duckworth, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1866, © V&A Museum (no.31-1939).

Mrs. Herbert Duckworth, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1866, © V&A Museum (no.31-1939).

Cameron’s photographs provide a powerful connection with the past; the straight-on gaze of a 24 year old widow titled ‘Mrs Herbert Duckworth’ is particularly haunting.

Her prints evoked paintings in their style, in some cases obviously composed in emulation of religious art, in others deconstructed, intimate, and startling in their economy of representation: the stripped-back style of her portrayals of contemplative figures strikingly prefigures the work of twentieth-century photographers, in particular Diane Arbus and Francesca Woodman.

The Science Museum exhibition, ‘Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy’, focuses its energies around an album Cameron compiled in 1866 for John Herschel. Here can be found a surviving camera lens, alongside a carved wooden album within which she placed her prints. A high point is the 8 photographs taken in the British colony, Ceylon, where Cameron and her husband returned to their coffee plantation in the 1870s. Cameron photographed local residents, alongside her servants, capturing rare insights into daily life.

Both exhibitions effectively explore the impact of her own life on her art: in particular her religious beliefs, her privileged artistic networks forged through her membership of the bourgeois middle-classes, alongside her sadness about her separation from her children.

Broader contextualisation of Cameron’s role would have been helpful at both exhibitions. Those less knowledgeable of the period may be left wondering whether her style of photography was unique or common. There is little reference to other early female photographers such as Anna Atkins who used photography to illustrate her botany books or Lady Clementina Hawarden who converted the first floor of her South Kensington home into a studio where she photographed her daughters. Even a brief mention of these women would have helped to place Cameron within her historical world more effectively.

Zoë Thomas, PhD Student and Bedford Centre Administrator

‘Women and War in the British Empire’ Bedford Centre Lecture

the-raj-at-war ed1

The Annual Bedford Centre Lecture this year will be given by Dr Yasmin Khan.  Drawing on  themes from her recent book, The Raj at War: A Peoples’ History of India’s Second World War (Bodley Head, 2015), Yasmin will discuss the role that women played in twentieth century warfare across the British Empire. They could be mothers, wives, labourers, nurses, prostitutes or military officers. Women were often crucial to the feasibility of military campaigns in the Second World War, but also resisted and challenged conventional warfare. In focusing on these ‘ordinary’ women, Yasmin will also examine how military histories have obscured the centrality of women to imperial warfare.

yasmin khan picture (1)

Yasmin Khan is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Oxford where she teaches in the Department for Continuing Education and author of the highly acclaimed The Great Partition: the Making of India and Pakistan (Yale, 2007)  and is interested in the history of modern South Asia, decolonization and refugees.

The Lecture, which is free and does not need pre-booking, starts at 6pm on Tuesday 15th March in the Management Building Lecture Theatre at Royal Holloway and anyone is welcome to attend. This year’s lecture is particularly special because it marks the re-launch of the Bedford Centre, the start of this blog and, the campaign to commemorate African American Abolitionist and Bedford College alumna, Sarah Parker Remond. So, we will be celebrating with a drinks party afterwards to which everyone is equally welcome. We hope to see you there!

Commemorating Sarah Parker Remond: Pioneering abolitionist and anti-racism campaigner

by Nicola Raimes and Nicola Phillips

Commemorative plaque to Sarah Parker Remond in Rome [Image: Marilyn Richardson]

Commemorative plaque to Sarah Parker Remond in Rome [Image: Marilyn Richardson, Sarah Parker Remond: a Daughter of Salem]

Last month Royal Holloway launched the Women Inspire campaign and one of our most inspiring alumna from Bedford College (the first Higher Education College for women which opened in 1849) was Sarah Parker Remond (1824-1894). She was an African-American anti-slavery campaigner with a passion for education and equality who spoke to huge crowds all over Britain and practiced medicine in Italy. Remond is frequently commemorated online in America and a plaque has been erected in Rome where she died. In 1861 The English Woman’s Journal included an autobiographical article in their ‘Lives of Distinguished Women’ feature but as yet there is nothing material to commemorate her achievements here in the UK where she became a naturalized citizen in 1865.

Sarah Parker Remond [Image: WikiCommons]

Sarah Parker Remond [Image: WikiCommons]

Remond grew up a free Black woman in Salem, Massachusetts, where her brother Charles Lennox Remond was also a prominent slavery abolitionist. By 1857 Remond had been appointed as a travelling lecturer for the American Anti-Slavery Society. An impassioned and accomplished speaker – she was just sixteen when she made her first anti-slavery speech – Remond came to Britain to spread the abolitionist message in January 1859.

As well as wanting to serve the anti-slavery cause here, Remond also sought freedom from discrimination in racially segregated America. She was equally determined to pursue the further education denied to her in America as a Black woman. Over the next two years she combined an extensive lecture tour of the British Isles with her studies at Bedford College because:

“My strongest desire through life has been to be educated. I found the most exquisite pleasure in reading and as we had no library, I read every book which came in my way, and I longed for more. Again and again mother would endeavor to have us placed in some private school, but being colored we were refused.”
‘A Colored Lady Lecturer’, The English Woman’s Journal (June 1861)

A number of Black American abolitionists came to Britain in the 1850s and 1860s, but Remond’s contribution stands apart for several reasons. Most notably, she was the first woman in her own right to address the question of slavery before mass audiences here. In contrast to the fugitive slave Ellen Craft who appeared before audiences but did not speak, Remond challenged the prevailing notion of Black women as helpless victims. Here was a free Black woman whose calm, forceful delivery belied the often emotive appeals she made to white women on behalf of suffering female slaves, and was able to cut across the partisan divisions that plagued the British anti-slavery movement at that time.

Women were integral to the development of a transatlantic anti-slavery movement from the late 1830s and it was through this network that Sarah Parker Remond met Elizabeth Jesser Reid, philanthropist, founder of Bedford College and keen opponent of slavery. In October 1859 Remond enrolled at Bedford College and boarded with Jesser Reid at her home in nearby Grenville Street.

Thought to have been the first Black student at the College, Remond studied a range of subjects, including arithmetic, ancient history and Latin. However, by the third term she had enrolled in far fewer classes and an addendum to Remond’s College records hints at the challenges she might have been facing both as a mature student and as a touring anti-slavery speaker:

“These classes were found to be quite unsuitable owing to the peculiar circumstances and age of the student.”

Register of Student Courses BC AR/202/1/1

Entry for Sarah Parker Remond in Bedford College Student Register, (1849-1870). Ref: BCAR 201/1/1 [Image: Nicola Raimes]

Entry for Sarah Parker Remond in Bedford College Student Register, (1849-1870). Ref: BCAR 201/1/1
[Image: Nicola Raimes]

During 1861, following the outbreak of the Civil War, Remond urged Britain to oppose the Confederacy and to use cotton from India, rather than slave-produced imports from America. She supported the American antislavery press and was active in the Ladies’ London Emancipation Society founded by her friend and women’s rights activist Clementia Taylor.

In the aftermath of the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion Remond wrote to the London Daily News expressing her outrage at the treatment of Black Jamaicans by British troops, and citing a change for the worse in British attitudes towards Black people. It has been suggested that Remond was so disappointed by this change that she left Britain to make a new life in Italy. However, Remond’s application for British naturalization offers an alternative explanation. These documents demonstrate both her wish to settle permanently in Britain and her intention to visit Italy temporarily.

We can only speculate about Remond’s subsequent decision to settle permanently in Italy, rather than in Britain. She already had contacts there through her friendship with the Italian nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini and her support for the unification movement. Perhaps the opportunity to study medicine was a factor. Remond qualified as a doctor in Florence in 1868.

Following her death in 1894, Remond was buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome where a plaque in her memory was installed in 2013. Remond stayed with Clementia Taylor at Aubrey House, London, where a plaque naming Taylor and other radicals who associated there has been erected but Remond is not listed among them. We are currently discussing ideas about how best to commemorate Remond’s remarkable contribution to anti-slavery and anti-racism in Great Britain, and her lifelong battle to gain an education. If you have any suggestions please do contact us.

Nicola Raimes is an MA Public History graduate from Royal Holloway and producer of a series of podcasts about women and slavery for Historic England. She was interviewed for the article in The Independent, ‘Slavery: How Women’s Key Role in Abolition has yet to receive the attention it deserves’.

Nicola Phillips is the lead editor for this Blog and Co-Directs the MA in Public History and The Bedford Centre for the History of Women at Royal Holloway.

Welcome and Explore our Resources


This blog is still under construction but we will be going live very soon.  In the meantime please do explore the wide range of resources that are now available here. If you would like to contribute a post, add a resource, share your views, or publicise an event or women’s history project, please contact Nicola Phillips or Direct Message us on Twitter via @RHBedfordCentre or @NicolaHistorian