Past and Present: Why studying History tells us who we really are

In 2017 the historian Sir David Cannadine, in his capacity as president of the British Academy, made a strong and very welcome defence of the study of his subject, pointing out that the academic investigation of the past is necessary because it teaches the crucial ability to ‘appraise evidence critically, persuade, negotiate and unravel complexity’.

Sir David Cannadine

It was a response to those who like to claim that academic history is in ‘crisis’ and lacks relevance in the 21st century, and also to those who like to disparage experts (such as the politician Michael Gove, who infamously said in 2016 that people had had enough of ‘experts’). Cannadine (pictured) remains a keen defender of history and historical enquiry.

It remains important that we regularly remind ourselves of the importance of history and, as scholars, continually explain our purpose and defend our profession. I was therefore especially interested in a recent article by the journalist Jenni Russell, who has penned a very welcome and thoughtful article on the importance of studying history, which is (as she put it) the ‘topic that encompasses every human and pre-human experience that ever was’.

Writing in the Times newspaper on November 7th, 2019, Russell pointed out that history ‘reveals all human nature, our capacity for cruelty and cooperation, love and hatred, and the extraordinary range of the societies in which we have lived and died, from hunting bands to empires, dictatorships to democracies’.

Jenni Russell

She also observed that history ‘teaches us that all power wanes, every decision has unintended consequences and that no society recognises its fatal flaws until it’s too late’. Although Russell (pictured) had some hard-hitting things to say about how school history in the UK has become too bound up with rote-learning and, at the professional level, too ‘jargon-ridden’, nevertheless she made a strong case for history and for properly understanding the past, ‘particularly when Britain is riven by the question of who we are, who we were and who we want to be’.

It is gratifying that the study of history is being discussed again in the media. More of this is needed. As with many other subjects in the humanities, the subject appears to be under attack in the UK’s HE sector at the moment. Indeed, it may even disappear completely from some of the New Universities, which (as Russell noted) are now prioritising STEM subjects, creative arts and business studies. History is in danger of becoming the victim of short-sighted prejudices held by those who place all their faith in the ‘market’, or those who are motivated by the vacuous simplicities of post-modernism and post-structuralism, which claim that the study of the past is a fool’s errand and that everything can be reduced to mere ‘narrative’ in this ‘post-truth’ age.

Past present and future signpost

It is especially important that we hold on to a subject that can arguably help us navigate our way through an age where ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’ have become mainstream, and where populist attacks on ‘experts’ have become the norm.

As we face Brexit, probably one of the most important changes to our country since the Second World War, a knowledge of the past in order to more fully comprehend the present becomes even more important. Many myths have been spun about the past and Britain’s national identity, with politicians only too happy to exploit and ‘weaponise’ nostalgia and memory in a highly selective and often ideological way.

History can train and equip the individual with a skills-set that enables one to be a critically engaged citizen, sceptical towards ideology and falsehood – skills now even more valuable in a digital age when the internet is King and social media rules. The ability to discern fact from fiction, and to manage and appraise huge varieties of data during a time of turmoil and change, will be essential tools in coming years.

Russell’s article brought some interesting reactions in the letters pages of the Times a few days later. The author and historian Tom Holland, for example, agreed with Russell that history is the one subject that every child should study, and also shared her concern about the future of history. Similarly, Professor Hamish Scott, a Fellow of the British Academy, also stated that Russell is ‘absolutely correct’ to extol the many benefits of studying history; however, he said that her description of academic history as ‘jargon-ridden’ was too sweeping.

Sir Anthony Seldon, also offering his perspective on the points raised by Russell, argued that ignorance of history, ‘not least by politicians in this election campaign, spreads error and false truth’. He added: ‘Without history, we are ignorant nobodies, stumbling forward blindly to nowhere’. To my mind, that last comment is a warning that says so much.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)

Posted in British history, History skills, Media history, Public History, Research, Study Skills, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Clear Case of Collusion? The Littlejohn Affair during ‘The Troubles’

During the night of 11th October, 1972, three armed men broke into the house of Noel Curran, manager of a branch of the Allied Irish Bank on Grafton St., Dublin. Securing Curran’s family as hostages, the armed men drove Curran to the bank and forced him to let members of staff enter as they arrived for work, imprisoning them in the bank’s strongroom.

Allied-Irish-Bank Dublin

The gang then began filling bags with cash. They would escape with over £67,000, at that time the largest cash robbery in Ireland’s history. Some of the stolen cash was found shortly afterwards at an address in Drumcondra, and the Gardai issued arrest warrants for a pair of English brothers, Kenneth and Keith Littlejohn.

This was not surprising. The older of the Littlejohn brothers, 27-year old Kenneth, had a history of armed robberies in England and was wanted in connection with a 1965 Birmingham wages snatch. The brothers were also allegedly involved with the Official IRA (OIRA), though speculation on both sides of the Irish Sea linked the robbery with the OIRA’s Republican rival, the Provisional IRA (PIRA). However, the truth is almost as unbelievable as a Hollywood movie.

Indeed, suspicions that the Allied Bank robbery was not what it appeared to be were raised when the extradition proceedings against the Littlejohn brothers were, unusually, held in camera. These suspicions were heightened when Kenneth began to make bizarre statements that he and his brother were not just common-or-garden bank robbers but secret agents working for Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.

Lord Carrington as Defence Minister

According to Kenneth’s authorized version, he had been recruited to MI6 through Keith’s professional relationship with Lady Onslow, who was friend of Lord Carrington (pictured), Defence Minister in Edward Heath’s Conservative government, 1970-74.

Allegedly, during a business trip to Kerry, Kenneth Littlejohn had been offered a Russian AK47 rifle that had apparently been landed as part of an arms shipment supplied by Russia. Fearing a communist influence on the growing events in Ulster, Littlejohn had rushed back to England in the hope of informing Lord Carrington of this perturbing event. Though Littlejohn did not actually meet Carrington, he claims representatives recruited him into MI6, under the control of the experienced agent Douglas Smythe.

The Littlejohn brothers established themselves in the border country of Ireland and, with Smythe’s secret direction and assistance, they infiltrated the OIRA. Kenneth Littlejohn claims that not only did Smythe direct the brothers to attack Gardai stations in Castlebellingham and Louth with petrol bombs and stage a riot in Dundalk, but also supplied them with weapons.

Littlejohns (1)

It is not difficult to see that Kenneth and Keith Littlejohn (pictured) were being directed in the pursuit of two ends. The first was to infiltrate the OIRA to gain information and disrupt the group’s operations. Indeed, Kenneth Littlejohn made claims that he was involved in planning the assassinations of two senior commanders of the OIRA, as well as the PIRA’s Chief of Staff, Sean MacStiofan, almost certainly to further diminish relations between the two Republican groups.

However, it is the probable secondary function of the Littlejohns’ operation that made it more incendiary. By engaging in armed robberies, firebombing Gardai stations and generally running amok throughout the Republic of Ireland, it increasingly pressurised the Irish Government to act against paramilitary Republican groups, particularly through the proscription of the OIRA and PIRA, as well as the introduction of internment in Eire.

Internment, which had successfully stymied the IRA’s Border campaign (1956-62), had been in effect in Northern Ireland since Operation Demetrius had been launched on 9th August, 1971. As Eire had refused to use internment, it had failed to be effective in Northern Ireland. Clearly, the Littlejohns were, as both the PIRA and OIRA stated when denying involvement in the Allied Bank robbery, agent provocateurs.


Further intrigue followed the Littejohns’ handler: Douglas Smythe was also MI6 officer John Wyman (see pic) and he appears to have been, to some extent, controlling MI6 assets in Eire. Thus, besides the Littlejohn brothers, Wyman had developed a high-level asset in the Gardai itself, Derek Crinnion.

Crinnion was private secretary to the head of the Gardai Special Branch, John Fleming, and he had access to a veritable smorgasbord of high-level intelligence; ten top secret files were found concealed in his car, and even more were found in his home following his arrest. The dismantling of this spy ring was precipitated by the arrest of a third man, Alexander Forsey, who had infiltrated the IRA but was captured trying to free Sean MacStiofan from the Mater Hospital during the latter’s hunger strike.

Dublin bombings 1970s

The story does, however, become even darker. On Friday, 1st December, 1972, two car bombs exploded in central Dublin, 18 minutes apart, killing two people and injuring at least 100 more. Coincidently, the bombs exploded as the Dail was debating the Offences against the State (Amendment) Bill. This Bill was thought to be unlikely to pass as there was general opposition to some of its draconian clauses. However, after an hour’s recess following the double bomb blast, the Bill was voted on to the statute book. After the initial shock had passed, Irish opinion came to believe that the British were involved in these dramatic occurrences. Even Taoiseach Jack Lynch implied that the British intelligence services could be responsible.

After the events involving British intelligence in the Republic and the fact that two bombs exploded while the Dail was debating a Bill that would be hugely beneficial to the British, it is hard not to conceive that there could indeed have been British duplicity and influence behind the bombings. Significantly, the Barron Report into the Dublin bombings between 1972 and 1974 did not discount British involvement, and anecdotal evidence suggests that Loyalist paramilitaries planted the bombs with the assistance of British military sources, such as Capt. Robert Nairac.

Crucially, at the time, the press reported that numerous British officials had admitted that the Littlejohn brothers had been employed by MI6 during their time in Ireland, but the extent of Smythe’s/Wyman’s work in Ireland was obscured. It is hard to disagree with investigative writer Martin Dillon’s opinion that ‘The Troubles’ is a bit of a misnomer – it really was a Dirty War.

Nick Clifton is a PhD student in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(Images: Wikimedia Commons and Dublin City Council)


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In Praise of Python: the impact of a comedy classic on the 1970s

And now for something completely different. I am a major fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus – I always have been, and always will be. In fact, I tend to lose any objectivity as a historian when it comes to all things ‘Python’, and can bore people to tears if I am given even the slightest opportunity to talk about my love of ‘Pythonesque’ humour.

Monty Pythons Flying Circus foot

This month (October) saw the 50th Anniversary of the late-night transmission on the BBC of the very first episode of Monty Python, the premiere of what was to become one of the most controversial (at the time) comedy shows on British television. There were four TV series of Monty Python, plus a TV special made especially for the German market in 1972. There were also three smash-hit Python films (four if you include a film based on remade sketches from the early shows). Furthermore, a ‘live’ show in Hollywood in the 1970s had enormous impact, and – more recently – a spin-off ‘Spamalot’ stage musical, based on 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, saw tremendous success in the UK.

More poignantly (as we now know that one member of the team, Terry Jones, was beginning to experience memory problems), a special and final ‘reunion’ Monty Python stage show was performed by the group over the course of ten sell-out evenings at the 02 Arena in London in July, 2014.

As you can perhaps appreciate, with all the 50th Anniversary celebrations, I have been in comedy heaven, lapping up all the recent TV ‘specials’, some radio broadcasts of unused and re-discovered material, and the various tie-in anniversary articles in the media.

I was particularly interested in new evidence on how the BBC, which first commissioned the show, initially viewed Python. In 1969, the BBC had little idea of how big and influential Python would become. Indeed, five decades on, from my perspective as a historian, and with the benefit of hindsight, I think its worth reflecting on how ‘revolutionary’ Monty Python actually was in 1970s Britain. With its bizarre characters, surreal cartoons and demolition of all forms of pompous authority, Monty Python – as a number of social commentators have quite rightly pointed out – seemed to convey certain stereotypical characteristics about British identity, something that has fascinated and beguiled many others around the globe ever since: British people were presented to the outside world in the early 1970s as invariably eccentric or unhinged or uptight.

For the British public, however, once they had grown accustomed to Python’s radical new style of comedy, the popularity of the show in the 1970s arguably lay in its subversive digs and satirical treatment of many of the UK’s key institutions and traditions. In fact, it seemed nothing was off-limits: the establishment, Royalty, the social class structure, the police, the army, the Church, government Ministers, the Civil Service, the Judiciary, the medical profession, businessmen, Universities, and even the BBC itself (much to the consternation of some of the Corporation’s top executives). As Terry Jones once observed: ‘It was so stuffy in the 60s. The class system had a stranglehold… There are no taboo areas with humour – nothing you can’t make fun of. The only criterion is: is it funny? If people laugh, it is’ (1).

Significantly, as part of the 50th anniversary, documents and memos which were unearthed by the BBC History website from the Corporation’s own archives demonstrate the extent to which some BBC managers did not see the funny side of Python, and were very uneasy about the comedy team’s targets and morals. Indeed, according to the newly-discovered material, some executives within the British Broadcasting Corporation condemned Python as disgusting, sadistic and ‘simply not amusing’ (2).

Monty Python team.jpg

But some at the BBC were more ambivalent about their creation. Bill Cotton, for example, who was the BBC’s head of light entertainment at the time, clearly had some mixed feelings. He commented that, while it would be sad if the BBC lost the programme, the second series of Monty Python was so bad that the group ‘seemed to have some sort of death wish’ (3).

On the other hand, there were others at the BBC who evidently viewed Python with great unease. Some BBC executives apparently complained that the values of the show were ‘nihilistic and cruel’. The Corporation’s head of religious programming was, perhaps unsurprisingly, especially critical: he protested about a sequence in which paintings of Jesus and the Virgin and Child were animated (all the animations were from the highly visual imagination of Terry Gilliam, the sole American member of the group).

Clearly, Monty Python initially left some within the BBC exasperated and uneasy that the Corporation was enabling the production of such a potentially ‘dangerous’ show. In hindsight, it was difficult for them to appreciate at the time just how popular and beloved Python would become. Yet, interestingly, the evidence of the memos also indicates that many BBC executives soon overcame their misgivings once Focus Group findings became available: research undertaken by the BBC found that about half of the viewers had reacted to the show very positively. In fact, some of the most loyal and enthusiastic viewers were students and, once word spread, the show began to take on an almost cult-like popularity among younger viewers. Over time, while there were still serious complaints from viewers about Monty Python, the show gradually managed to reach out to a notably wide range of age-groups and backgrounds, who seemed to appreciate the show’s ‘nothing is off limits’ approach.

Importantly, in a recent interview, Python member Michael Palin argued that the genius and originality of the show lay in its anarchic assault on the very medium of television itself. He said: ‘The key thing about Python was that it was all about how television presents itself to the world. It was a child’s way of deconstructing television’.

Palin added that he also felt Python was very much a product of the ‘big’ and thrilling new blooms of the 1960s: ‘It was a time when comedy was expected to be part of the whole new way of looking at the world, the freedom you found in fashion or music – the Beatles and Mary Quant and all that sort of thing. And comedy as well, not that the BBC recognised it at the time. Python was put on very late at night and we were lucky to get the series done at all’ (4).

Whatever one thinks of Monty Python today, there is no doubt that the group’s ‘lucky’ break back in 1969 helped revolutionise British TV satire in ways never seen before. Would such a show get made today? That’s an interesting question.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University


(1) Cited in Radio Times Official Guide to Monty Python at 50 (2019), p.5.

(2) ‘And now for something completely disgusting’, The Times, October 5th, 2019, p.3.

(3) The Times, October 5th, p.3.

(4) The Sunday Times magazine, September 9th, 2018, pp.9-13.

(All images: Wikimedia Commons)


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Celebrating Black History Month in Britain

This month is Black History Month (BHM) in Britain. BHM is a month of events in October which takes place annually and celebrates the culture, history and achievements of Britain’s African and Caribbean communities in the country.

Although the event had its origins in the United States, the British version has become more and more attuned to what is unique to Black history in this country. It has taken place every October since 1987 and, importantly, helps us remember that the United Kingdom has a long history of contributions from people with African and Caribbean heritage, together with those of Asian ancestry, and that Britain thus enjoys a vibrant and diverse cultural heritage, including here in south-west London.

In recent years, for example, Kingston University’s History teaching team has used BHM to help celebrate the life of Cesar Picton, a local resident.

Cesar Picton House, Kingston. Photo: Hayward

Cesar Picton House, Kingston. Photo: Hayward

Cesar Picton (1755-1836) was brought to England from Senegal as a gift for a local family in 1761. He went on to become a coal merchant and a wealthy and respected gentleman. He remains Kingston-on-Thames’ most famous eighteenth-century black businessman, and his previous homes in Kingston and Thames Ditton are marked by commemorative plaques.

He has also been commemorated at Kingston University’s main campus through the Picton Room, which was named after him. However, as recent scholars have shown, Picton was just one of a growing community of black Africans in Georgian London.

Other well known black contemporaries included people such as Dido Belle, Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano, and – via new avenues of important research on Black British history – it has been estimated that some 10-15,000 Africans lived in Georgian London alone. BHM has been instrumental in raising more awareness of this fascinating and relatively neglected dimension to our national history.

Indeed, BHM has helped contribute much more research on general Black British history, an approach to the past which explores how Black history is part of national, local and community histories, as well as identifying and celebrating the many ways in which black individuals have impacted on economic, social, political and cultural histories across the UK.

Black soldiers fighting for Britain

This was especially the case when we recently commemorated the end of the First World War, when various exciting pieces of research appeared on the contribution of the African and Caribbean communities to Britain’s war effort in 1914-1918, including from those in London. BHM has been instrumental in raising public awareness of this fresh scholarship.

In fact, recent research is now beginning to show that there were many people of African descent who fought for ‘their’ country and empire during the Great War. One of these people, for example, was Walter Tull (1888-1918), a professional footballer for Tottenham and also a war hero. Both he and his brother served in the military. Tull fought in the first Battle of the Somme in 1916 and was killed in the second Battle of the Somme on 25 March, 1918, near Favreuil, France.

Walter Tull

By then, Tull had become an officer in command. Moreover, not only was he the British army’s first black officer, but he had been the first black officer to lead white troops into battle. Last year, in 2018, the Royal Mail issued a striking postage stamp with Tull’s image on it (see photo), which helped create even more interest in his life and times.

So far, this month has seen many events to celebrate BHM across the country, with lots more still to come. What originally started as an event in the USA to help celebrate the history and cultural heritage of the black community in the New World has now very much become an established event in Britain and has grown in popularity with each passing year.

As one commentator (on has so aptly pointed out, perhaps one day ‘the need for an annual celebration will no longer be required, when black British history is universally accepted as British history and is studied and celebrated year long around the country’.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, Surrey

(Images: Hayward and Wikimedia Commons)







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Four Pennies for Doomsday

It sounds like something out of a 1950s British comedy film. The ability of the United Kingdom to launch a counter-strike against a nuclear attack on the country in the 1960s was apparently dependent on the availability of four old copper pennies.

Peter Hennesy Official_portrait_of_Lord_Hennessy_of_Nympsfield

According to a new study of Britain in the 1960s, Winds of Change: Britain in the Early Sixties (Allen Lane, 2019), by the historian Peter Hennessy (pictured), the British Prime Minister’s official driver had to ensure that he had four pennies available at all times, so that the Prime Minister, if he was travelling outside London, could make a quick telephone call via a public telephone box to Whitehall’s operations centre to order a retaliatory nuclear strike against the Soviet Union.

Although the USA had tried to persuade Britain not to develop a nuclear weapons capacity in the post-1945 period, the UK had gone ahead anyway and secretly invested huge sums in developing both an Atomic and then a Hydrogen bomb programme. By 1957, the RAF’s new ‘V’ (Vulcan) bomber force was fully operational, intended to be an independent nuclear deterrent against the Soviet Union. Peter Hennessy has become one of the UK’s leading experts on the history of this side of Britain’s involvement in the Cold War.

Speaking about his new book at the Times and Sunday Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, Hennessy, who is Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary, University of London, revealed that documents he discovered at the National Archives, Kew, shine new light on the surprisingly bizarre emergency defence arrangements in place until 1970.


The emergency plans arose, said Hennessy, when the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) discovered in the early 1960s that Soviet nuclear missiles fired from the Eastern Bloc could reach Britain in four minutes. But Whitehall’s war planners realised there was a potentially fatal flaw in their defence preparations. Top Civil Servants became worried that, in the face of this increased Soviet threat, the-then Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan (pictured), might be out of London travelling on the road in his Rolls-Royce (his favourite car), but would be needed at very short notice to contact London to authorise a retaliation by the RAF’s V-Bomber strike force.

The solution put in place, revealed Hennessy, was to use the AA (Automobile Association) and its radio system (used by the AA to communicate with their mechanics on motorcycles), which would be linked up to the PM’s car, so that he could be reached anywhere at any time, and then the car’s driver could be told to find a telephone box so that Macmillan could contact Whitehall and issue the doomsday order.

However, the key Civil Servants behind this plan were also anxious that the driver be provided with four pennies at all times (the sum needed in those days to use a GPO phone box to get through). As one official noted in a secret note, ‘I should hate to think of you trying to get change for a sixpence from a bus conductor while those four minutes were ticking by’. In reply to this, Macmillan’s private secretary said not to worry because, if by some misfortune the pennies had been expended and the PM’s driver was penniless, there would always be the option of ‘dialling 100 and requesting reversal of the charge’.


In his new book Hennessy also writes that, whereas the U.S. President and the Soviet General Secretary had serving officers with them at all times, carrying nuclear retaliation codes and the equipment to transmit them, the British Prime Minister in the Sixties had to rely on the AA and small change! As Hennessy commented, it was ‘so English and so bizarre that had it appeared in an Ealing comedy it would not have been believed’. Yet this penny-pinching arrangement was apparently in place from 1962 to 1970.

There was also another quite dark side to these arrangements and, to use Hennessy’s words, the ‘whole grim business’ of planning for a nuclear war: in the event of a sudden nuclear attack on the UK that ‘wiped out’ Macmillan, a senior Cabinet or other Minister still needed to be available to authorise the RAF’s V-Bombers to drop their atomic weapons on Russia. Macmillan himself, with a macabre flourish, wrote to the Cabinet Office explaining the succession plans if this happened: ‘First Gravedigger Mr [Rab] Butler. Second Gravedigger Mr [Selwyn] Lloyd’.

Of course, all this was kept top secret and strictly confidential. Whether the Americans or the Russians were aware of or had any clues about the peculiar British arrangements is not known. Had the UK’s public realised what was in place for their defence, one can imagine many people would have thought it was some kind of practical joke. Yet it was chillingly real.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

(All images: Wikimedia Commons)


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