By Jacqueline Grima
In the late 1960s a group of students from Ruskin College in Oxford formed the History Workshop movement. Led by historian and one-time member of the Communist Party, Raphael Samuel, their aim was to create a wider understanding of history by studying the everyday lives of ordinary people. In other words, to study history ‘from below’.
In the first event of the ‘Future Histories’ strand of Manchester Metropolitan University’s Humanities in Public festival, Dr Fiona Cosson of MMU’s Manchester Centre for Regional History hosted renowned historians, Professor Sally Alexander and Professor Alun Howkins, who discussed the legacies of the History Workshop movement as well as their own involvement with the group.
Dr Cosson began the evening by asking both speakers about their roots. Alun and Sally joined the History Workshop in 1968 when they both signed up for adult education courses at Ruskin and subsequently met Samuel. Sally described the then sociology tutor as a “precocious, young historian” with an “extraordinary knowledge.” Alun went on to describe how, with Samuel’s guidance, his eyes were opened to the “possibility that history might involve people like me, ordinary men and women,” his subsequent research into the lives of the common people led him to feel intensely passionate about his studies. Asked by Humanity Hallows about the benefits of studying the common people, rather than well-known historical figures, Alun said,
“Without the common people, there is no history. Most people, no matter who they are, have much more in common with the so-called common people than they do with any of the great leaders. That’s not to say that the study of the great leaders is not important, it just has a different kind of importance. I’ve always been more interested in looking at the history of the people where I come from.”
Dr Cosson went on to ask the speakers about the early role of the History Workshop movement and the group’s initial aims. Sally, who described the workshop gatherings as ‘festivals of history’, answered, “The group’s aim was to democratise history, to make connections between people’s living memories and history.” Alun added that the workshop movement helped to, “show history as an historical process… It was an attempt to encourage men and women to write their own history … to become producers rather than consumers.” Despite some hostilities from other students at Ruskin due to their left-leaning politics and tensions within the group itself, the History Workshop movement went on to produce its own journal, still available today, and to inspire branches of the movement all over the UK and abroad.
A question and answer session after the main talk generated a lively debate and audience reaction to the evening was positive. One audience member, Kim, told Humanity Hallows,
“I loved the colour and character and personal history of the speakers. It was great to hear an explicitly subjective personal rendering of events that acknowledged multiple narratives rather than simply listening to a ‘this is what happened’ talk.”
Asked by Humanity Hallows about the future of historical study and whether historians would continue to study ‘from below’, Alun Howkins said,
“Though a lot of universities no longer deem it fashionable, people are enormously interested in this type of history. I am startled by the amount of interest that the history of local people and ordinary people generates. It makes sense of where they are and who they are. It gives people a sense of pride. It is about them, about ordinary men and women.”
Asked about her aims for the evening and the success of the event, Dr Cosson commented,
“Events like this show that history is something that everyone can participate in. That it’s not just academic.”
The next ‘Future Histories’ event is a free talk entitled ‘History is the New Punk’ which takes place on Monday 11th May at 5.30pm in Geoffrey Manton building.
Jacqueline Grima is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing. When she’s not writing, she loves listening to music, especially Green Day, Foo Fighters and Gary Numan. You can follow her on Twitter @GrimaJgrima