Social History Society Conference, Portsmouth 2015

I spent the bulk of this week in Portsmouth for the annual Social History Society conference.  For the uninitiated, this is a very big event in the social/cultural historian’s year - three(ish) days packed with talks, as well as chances to network, talk to publishers and buy discounted books.  For each session (typically an hour and a half or two hours long) there are panels in seven ‘strands’ to choose from - I mostly attended the Life-cycles & Life-styles strand, though I also dipped into panels on Economies, Culture & Consumption, Narratives, Emotions and the Self, and Spaces & Places (the other three are Deviance, Inclusion & Exclusion, Global & Transnational Approaches and Political Cultures, Policy & Citizenship - all of which had appealling-looking papers, but alas I cannot split myself in two!).  I often found it difficult to decide which panel to attend as so many looked so good!  As I listened to 25 20-minute papers (26 if you include my own), it would be highly impractical to write about them all, so this blog is about a selection that really stood out for me for reasons relevant, semi-relevant, or totally irrelevant to my own current interests.  If I went to your talk but haven’t written about you here, please be assured that I did find your paper interesting and well-delivered - there was a very high standard!

I’ll start off by writing about some papers that really put me in mind of my own research into the experiences of only children.  Sarah Fox’s paper, ‘‘I thanked God for so great a Blessing’: Becoming a Grandparent in eighteenth-century England’ particularly struck a chord with me, as one of the questions I’ve been asking in my own research is how only children got on with their extended family, including grandparents, and Fox’s findings that grandparents have spoilt their grandchildren probably since time immemorial and often had great involvement in their grandchildren’s lives even if they didn’t get on with the middle generation accords well with my own findings from the two succeeding centuries.  I also loved her example of a wilful grand-daughter who got a love from her grandmother and a lot of frustration from her mother, who exasperatedly said she didn’t want any more children!

I’ve written about Maria Cannon’s work in a previous post and found her paper at this conference, ‘(Family) Life After Death: Parent-child relationships and domestic authority in England c. 1450-1620′, equally thought-provoking.  One of the two case studies Cannon presented was that of Anne Clifford, a seventeenth-century woman who was effectively an only child (she had had two brothers, but both had died in childhood) and had to fight for her inheritance after her father died when she was 15 and left his lands to his nephews rather than pass them to a woman, and therefore risking them passing on to her husband’s family.  I was particularly impressed by Anne’s close relationship with her mother, who helped her fight for her inheritance and generally provided advice, care, support and reassurance throughout her life.

Andrea Thompson’s paper, ‘‘Just a relationship?:’ Marriage in 1960s Scotland was also extremely interesting and useful.  Thompson interviewed women who had married in the early 1970s about what their expectations of marriage had been.  What really captivated me in this paper was that these women’s parents had been ambitious for them, and wanted them to ascend the social scale and have better lives than they had had - though within prescribed social expectations, with marriage always the endgame.  The women themselves had sought personal fulfilment in marriage.  A very interesting example was an only daughter (I wasn’t sure if she was the only child) of a very controlling mother - this woman had been adamant that she didn’t want to marry someone like her father, described as a quiet doormat.

Aimee McCullogh’s paper, ‘‘It was a whole different life’: Becoming a Father in West-central Scotland, c. 1970-1995′ also made me reflect upon my own work.  McCullogh higlighted how men born in the 1940s identified their parenting styles as more hands-on (though still not as much as mothers!) and affectionate than their fathers’.  This was something I could relate my own work to, as some of my only-child subjects have made similar comparisons.

Claudia Soares’ paper, ‘Informal aftercare: familiarity and attachment in the Victorian children’s institution’, and, on the same panel, Laura Mair’s paper ‘Infantilising infants?  Acknowledging the agency of ragged school children’  were interesting to me because they both raised the issue of how we can investigate children’s relationships with their institutions, be they children’s homes or schools.  They both used letters (among other sources) former inmates/pupils had sent to their institutions after they had left, and pointed out the difficulty of ‘silence’ - not being able to gauge negative feelings about the institutions because the dissastisfied alumni didn’t bother to keep in touch.  As I have a germ of an idea about a future project asking about what children thought of schol (following on from my work with only children’s personal experiences), this would definitely be something I’d have to grapple with!

There were a few papers I liked that I could link to my work, but to a lesser extent.  Ruth Wainman’s** work is about scientists’ retirements, and she uses oral histories from the British Library, as I do.  I always thought of questions about what interviewees do now as a formality tacked on at the end, so it was great to see someone making use of them!  **Kelly Spring’s paper on the aims and outcomes of the exhibition on rationing (and how this relates to gender) really interested me following on from my post about museums from last week. I also really liked Hazel Croft’s paper about the effect of World War II on mental institutions - I deal mostly with psychological theory in the past, so it was great to see something from the practical side.  I don’t know why I hadn’t thought about the effects of war on mental health patients before!  Kevin Guyan’s research on the design of domestic space, and how this related to masculinity, was something I was interested in not only because I’ve looked at use of space in the home as part of my research, but also because he looked at Mass Observation - for some reason I had overlooked their idea that all life was plannable and we need to accumulate as much information as possible to achieve this - I guess with the family size survey they wanted to make a plan to avoid the incidence of too-small families!

Finally, special mentions to Hayley Cross **and **Claire Martin, whose papers, on rationing and menstruation respectively, had no discernible relation to my research but were way too interesting and enjoyable not to refer to!  I was struck by the continuity/discontinuity themes in these papers - Cross argued that rationing in Scotland was continued an existing narrative of ‘making do‘ and managing a household well with few resources, while Martin talked about a ground-breaking survey into women’s personal experiences of menstruation from the early twentieth century, which aimed to (and apparently succeeded in) break the idea that menstruating women were weak and incapable of normal activities.

I took an active role in proceedings by reading a paper, chairing a panel, and live-tweeting a panel (the hashtag was #portsocialhist).  I think I did okay at chairing considering I’d never done it before, though I think I possibly overdo it with live-tweeting; because I can’t write notes and tweet at the same time, I end up just tweeting everything I would have written down!  My paper went fine, the best part was definitely the questions though, as I had some really good ones that I was able to answer fully and confidently.  I especially loved this tweet featuring my favourite slide - the one I always use to show what ideas only children were up against!

As for Portsmouth itself, from what I saw of it, it seemed quite nice.  The city centre itself looked a bit tired, but the new development near the port was lovely - albeit very windy!  A few of us walked to the conference meal, which was in Southsea, and we were very taken by the Victorian and Edwardian architecture we saw on the way - lots of old pubs and cornershops and some very nice tiling!  The hotel we had the conference meal in was quite grand, as exemplified by this picture I took of the ladies’ (alas, it didn’t win the conference photo competition):


And so, back to work, but feeling a bit more inspired (not by the toilet)!

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About Alice Violett

Reader of books, player of board games, lover of cats, editor of web content, haver of PhD.

Colchester, UK