Today (16th Nov): History at Kingston Seminar Series: ‘Lizards and Lies’

History at Kingston

Thursday 16th November 2017

JG5002, Pen Rd. campus, Kingston University


History Research Seminar Series

Dr. Steve Woodbridge will be speaking on:

‘Lizards and Lies: The role of conspiracy theory in modern history’


There has been a huge growth in all kinds of conspiracy theory in recent years, and the role of accident or happenstance in history has been downgraded and replaced by claims that there is ‘purpose’, planning and manipulation behind everything that occurs – that we are being controlled by ‘puppet-masters’.

Dr. Steve Woodbridge, Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, will argue that the conspiratorial mind-set is not new, and that there is quite a historical lineage to recent conspiracy theory. He will suggest that scholars need to take the more recent growth of conspiracy theory very seriously, as it has increasingly had a disturbing impact on the very nature of historical study.

All are welcome to attend! Free refreshments will be provided.



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Launching the League: The foundation of the League of Nations Union in Kingston

There are times in history when the global will very much influence the local, and during the interwar period Kingston-on-Thames in Surrey saw a burst of activity from a local lobby group which was designed to both promote the new League of Nations and educate people about international affairs more generally.

Woodrow Wilson-1920

The creation of the League of Nations had been very much down to the vision and energy of President Woodrow Wilson of the USA (see photo) who, in January, 1918, had called for the foundation of a ‘general association of nations’ to help guarantee the political and territorial independence of all states after the Great War. He said he looked forward to a new world of international co-operation and open diplomacy, backed by the organisational machinery of the League. Ironically, though, the USA did not become a member of the League and Wilson was left bitterly disappointed about this.

In Britain, however, to help support the League and influence public opinion in its favour, a new national organisation was created in November, 1918, called the ‘League of Nations Union’ (LNU). According to recent research by the historian Helen McCarthy, the LNU became one of Britain’s largest voluntary associations during the 1920s and 1930s, and similar organisations were set up in a number of other countries around the globe.

In south-west London, League supporters soon became active, including in Kingston. In nearby Richmond, a local branch of the LNU had been founded as early as May, 1919, but in Kingston it took a while longer. Thus, in February, 1921, a ‘representative group’ of people gathered for a meeting at the town’s Assize Courts one Tuesday evening, presided over by Kingston’s local Member of Parliament, Mr. J.G.D. Campbell. Kingston’s MP said that they had ‘just emerged from the greatest and most terrible war in history’. Whatever their ‘views or prepossessions might be’, he reasoned, they ‘all felt determined that a war like that should not occur again’. This comment received a round of applause from the audience.

Warming to his subject, Campbell continued by noting that the war had seen ‘millions of men cut off in their prime’ and millions more incapacitated. But, he argued, the ‘horrors of that war were nothing to what the horrors of a war in twenty years would be. It would end in the destruction of civilisation as they knew it’. The ‘hope for the future’, he claimed, lay in the nations discussing their differences ‘amicably’.

Next to speak to the Kingston audience was Mr. F. Whelen, who spoke for an hour about the moving scenes he had witnessed at a meeting of the League of Nations Assembly in Geneva. Only a year had passed since the League had come into existence, he said, but already it embraced 42 nations, representing 1,100 millions of people, or three-quarters of the population of the earth.

Sidney Pocock

Another key local figure present at the meeting was Sir Sidney Pocock (1854-1931) (see photo), a businessman, magistrate, writer and Liberal Party politician (who also happened to be an authority on prisons).

Pocock, in his comments to the audience, strongly emphasised what he saw as the necessity of the League, and he moved a resolution to establish a Kingston branch of the League of Nations Union. The resolution was seconded by the Vicar of Kingston.

The inauguration of the new LNU branch in Kingston certainly caught the attention of the local Surrey Comet newspaper, which devoted a detailed editorial to discussion of the League, entitled ‘A Federation of the World’. In the Comet‘s view, the League of Nations was ‘the first attempt in the history of the world to legislate for the good of humanity, instead of for the advantage of individual nations’. According to the paper, it was therefore ‘gratifying’ to see that representatives ‘of every shade of political and religious opinion, and of all the most prominent organisations in Kingston’, had combined to inaugurate a local branch of the LNU.

Sounding notably optimistic, the Comet added that it was ‘another sign that the common will is set steadfastly against a recurrence of war’, and that the people were marching resolutely forward.

League of Nations cartoon image

It is difficult to determine how many local people signed up to be members of the LNU at this inauguration meeting but, when the branch next met two months later (in April, 1921), at what was described as a ‘very successful public meeting’ held at the Kingston Congregational Church, it was announced that about 60 members had been enrolled over the previous two months. Interestingly, perhaps indicating the keen wider interest among people in the town, this second meeting reportedly had an audience ‘that nearly filled the hall’.

The overall story of the parent League of Nations in the interwar period is, of course, not a happy one. While there were some notable successes (especially in social reform, labour legislation, and medical campaigns against disease), the League – despite the initial optimism of the 1920s – was unable to stop the outbreak of new disputes and conflicts and, ultimately, failed to prevent the outbreak of a new world war in 1939.

Nevertheless, looking back with the benefit of hindsight on the 1920s and the early beginnings of the LNU in Kingston, what is especially striking is the tremendous enthusiasm that its adherents had for the League’s ambitious vision of a new and peaceful world, particularly after all the bloodshed and trauma of the Great War.

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

(Images: WikiMedia Commons)

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When Food was Scarce: Memories of a Female Control Officer in World War One

While there has been a growing amount of scholarly and other research on the lives of women in Britain during the Great War, there is still much to investigate, especially in relation to particular types of occupation held by women on the Home Front. One rather neglected profession remains that of food distribution, and one woman’s career in Surrey offers a fascinating case study in relation to this.

In January, 1921, the Surrey Comet newspaper published a profile and interview with Mrs. Bumstead of Surbiton, in which she recalled her experiences as the local Executive Food Officer in Kingston-on-Thames during the First World War.

According to the newspaper, Mrs. Bumstead, who worked as the Executive Officer for food distribution for just over three and a half years in Kingston, was the only female in Britain to hold a post of this kind, and she undertook her duties ‘with remarkable efficiency’.


Mrs. Bumstead had moved to wartime Surbiton in 1916, and felt she must ‘take up some public work’. She was appointed chief clerk to the Executive Food Officer at Kingston, Dr. H. Beale Collins. On his retirement after six months, Mrs. Bumstead was appointed as his successor and, as the Surrey Comet put it, she ‘found herself in a unique position as the only woman Food Officer in the country’.

In the interview, Bumstead told the Comet that, prior to taking up her duties, she had accumulated wide experience of public official work, having been appointed as the Superintendent of the Scattered Homes for children under the Reading Board of Guardians, a position she had held for five years. She said she was the first woman to be appointed to such a post. She had also worked in a similar capacity for Willesden Board of Guardians. She thus brought a wealth of organisational experience to her new Kingston position.

Food poster WW1

As the newspaper argued, Mrs. Bumstead rendered ‘very effective service to the community’ during a very difficult period, both during and just after the war. The British government had been forced to introduce quite stringent food rationing in the later stages of the war, and the impact of the German U-Boat submarine campaign had made the availability of certain food-stuffs in the British Isles even more difficult in 1917-18. There were a number of occasions when Mrs. Bumstead had to personally intervene and sort out certain situations and placate discontented members of the local community concerning food matters.

Her responsibilities included, for example, the supply of margarine to retailers in Kingston, but things did not always go to plan during wartime. She recalled that, on one occasion, just before Christmas, 1917, ‘a great crowd of women’ came into the town from surrounding districts and, having failed to to obtain their usual supply from Kingston’s retailers, the angry women had gone ‘as a body’ to the local Food Office and confronted Mrs. Bumstead, saying they were going to ‘help themselves’ to the several tons of margarine being stored there in readiness for distribution the next day.

Mrs. Bumstead, however, quickly took action: she dispatched one of her assistants to fetch the local police and, in the meantime, met the enraged crowd at the door of the depot, blocking their way and daring them to proceed further. Faced by such an unexpected ‘outburst of passion’ by Mrs. Bumstead, the crowd apparently fell back, and the arrival of the local police ‘prevented any further danger of violence’.

Breadline in World War One

According to the Comet, the pressure on Mrs. Bumstead during these difficult wartime months was so great that, for six weeks on end, she never left the depot office for a minute from morning to night, and it was often 10.00pm at night before the day’s work was completed. As well as margarine, restrictions were also placed on jam, sugar, tea, lard, cheese, bacon, tinned meats of all kinds, and butcher’s meat, the control and distribution of which all came under the overall responsibility of Mrs. Bumstead. Queues for bread also became a regular sight in wartime (see the photo above of a typical breadline), adding to the tensions.

Yet, using tact and skill, Bumstead was able to gradually build up good relations with many retailers in Kingston and, she said, she managed to work ‘in harmony’ with traders and win their confidence. She spoke in the highest terms about Kingston’s shopkeepers, who were ‘always loyal’ and ‘most helpful’. As she recalled, it was only on a very few occasions that she had found it necessary to ‘take proceedings’ against any of them.

Looking back on her wartime experiences as Food  Control Officer, Mrs. Bumstead said she had ‘nothing to regret’. While it had been a strenuous time, on the whole she had ‘thoroughly enjoyed’ her work. Shortly after the war, she had been offered, and had accepted, the position of Food Controller for a much wider area, embracing large parts of Surrey and Middlesex. But, when it was decided to close all the Food Offices in the aftermath of the conflict, her new position came to an end.

For historians, however, the case of Mrs. Bumstead offers some great insights into both the topic of gender on the Home Front in the Great War and the huge challenges involved in maintaining a fair distribution of food under very trying wartime circumstances.

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

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)


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Historian sets up TV company to counter misleading portrayals of great women

British historian Bettany Hughes, who is well-known for her writings about the ancient past and for her television documentary appearances, has helped set up a TV company in order to counter what she has called the ‘misleading’ portrayals of great women in history.

Bettany Hughes presenter

Hughes, whose work has included acclaimed books on Helen of Troy, the city of Istanbul, and on Greek philosopher Socrates, has carved out a reputation as one of the UK’s leading public historians and also as a highly-skilled documentary writer and presenter. She told the British press that the new TV company, which she has helped set up with three colleagues, is called Sandstone Global and is part of an attempt to ‘write women back into history’ and counter the ‘super-sexualised’ portrayal of female heroes of the past.

Speaking to the London Evening Standard newspaper, Hughes said that too many important women have been portrayed as ‘sexpots’ and their real achievements and talents have often been overlooked. She cited the examples of Queen Boudicca, who was a great strategist possessing more than just ‘nice hair’, and the Roman empress Theodora, a dancer who arguably became the world’s most powerful woman in the sixth century.

Hughes explained that she would not be trying to ‘shove women back into history where they don’t belong’, but the TV programmes made by Sandstone Global will give a more balanced story of the world and its history, including a fairer depiction of female characters who, in previous television and film productions, have been excessively sexualised: ‘I got so sick of sitting on panels talking about the need to make films that put women centre stage, write those stories back into history, and tell stories in a different way that I suddenly thought, “Change won’t happen unless you change things”. So four of us have set up a TV and film production company. What is really fascinating about these strong female characters from history – Boudicca, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy – is these are women who had a real impact on the world and the men and women around them, but history has recorded them as being overtly super-sexualised creatures. We remember the Roman description of Boudicca that she had flaming hair down to her hips and flashing eyes. But she was a real strategist’.


Indeed, Boudicca, noted Hughes, galvanised huge numbers of troops that gave the seemingly better-organised Romans a real military challenge: ‘So she’s not just got nice hair’. This is something that has often been overlooked or simply ignored in previous portrayals of Boudicca, especially in Hollywood mass entertainment films, where the emphasis has tended to be on the ‘glamour’ and personal relationships of such women. A classic example of this kind of treatment was Cleopatra (1963), an epic American film which starred Elizabeth Taylor (see picture above).

Having a more realistic and balanced approach in movies and documentaries, informed by better use of historical evidence, is clearly needed. In fact, Hughes is already putting this approach into action. She told the Standard that, in her new 8-part TV series on Rome, Eight Days That Made Rome (which starts on the UK’s Channel-5 on 27th October), she will show how empresses had ‘a real chance’ to wield political power: ‘In the series I’m making sure that women are part of the story and they’re not just sexpots’.

The new series will explore eight defining moments that, in Hughes’s view, contributed to the Roman Empire’s emergence as a superpower, starting with the Roman Scipio’s famous and decisive victory over the large army of the Carthaginian General Hannibal in 202 BC.

Hughes has become one of the UK’s most familiar historians to the general public through her TV presenting, is a popular guest at Literary festivals and other events, and has certainly been very busy in recent months: British TV viewers are currently enjoying her excellent 3-part series on SocratesGenius of the Ancient World, which is being transmitted on BBC-4.

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

(Images: WikiMedia Commons)

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A Nazi in Guildford: The activities of Arnold Leese in Surrey in the 1930s

Not many people in Surrey know that the town of Guildford in the heart of the county was home to one of Britain’s most notorious anti-Semites of the interwar period. During the 1930s, the fascist ideologue and racist activist Arnold Spencer Leese (1878-1956), a former camel vet, lived in what he named the ‘White House’ on Pewley Hill, a quiet and steep road not far from the centre of the town.

Arnold Leese

Leese, along with two others, had founded the Imperial Fascist League (IFL) in 1928, an organisation that he came to dominate by 1930, and which eventually took a very pro-Hitler stance, proudly displaying the Nazi swastika on all its publications, flags and insignia.

In 1932, when Sir Oswald Mosley formed the British Union of Fascists (BUF), a much larger fascist party, Leese refused all offers to join the BUF, believing that Mosley’s movement was not serious about the ‘Jewish Menace’. Leese was adamant that the IFL should remain pure in its adherence to what he called ‘real’ fascism. This doctrine placed ‘race’ at the centre of all politics, and was very much modeled on the German National Socialist creed, which was markedly anti-Semitic and obsessed with biological racism.

After he retired from running a small private practice as a veterinary surgeon in Lincolnshire in the 1920s, Leese had moved down to Guildford and set up home. However, far from settling down to enjoy retirement, Leese began to devote all his time to extreme fascist politics and to his Imperial Fascist League, with his house doubling-up as the local HQ of the IFL, with a main office in central London. He also used the White House as a place to print, store and distribute many of the organisation’s leaflets and pamphlets, and it served as a base of operations when he ventured into local political activity in Guildford.

In fact, as well as targeting Guildford with his propaganda, Leese was eager to make use of various small towns and their localities across Surrey, organising a number of debates under the auspices of the IFL. Such meetings had the added benefit for Leese of generating news coverage and publicity in the local Surrey press. A good example of this occurred in the Surrey village of Great Bookham in November, 1930, when Leese engaged in a debate with representatives of the League of Nations Union (LNU). Leese loathed the League of Nations, claiming at the meeting that it was under ‘Jewish control’.

Similarly, Leese and his IFL activists made sure they attended meetings of local organisations they especially disliked, where they could try to hi-jack the Questions and Answers session that often concluded such public meetings. A typical example of this occurred in September, 1931, when a new branch of the Friends of the Soviet Union was launched in Guildford and held its first meeting. This was like a red rag to a bull as far as Leese was concerned. As one Guildford newspaper reported, there was ‘a good deal of opposition from an anti-Jewish element in the audience’, and – at one point – Leese declared to the attendees that ‘Jewish international finance’ was running not only Russia, but also Britain.


In March, 1934, Leese’s organisation gained considerable local publicity when it held its first full public meeting in the town, at the Ward Street hall in Guildford. According to one report, the ‘hall was crowded, and around the walls stood uniformed stewards of the organisation’. An arm-band consisting of a Union Jack with a swastika in the centre was worn by every IFL member who attended the meeting, and throughout the evening a fascist stood on the platform with the League’s flag – the Union Jack and swastika – while Leese spoke. Leese delivered a lengthy speech on the history of ‘Jewish money power’. Interestingly, he also caused controversy by suggesting that the majority of people in Guildford were ‘a comfortable crowd’ and were ‘slow to wake up’, but he appealed to them for ‘a little unselfishness’ so that they might come forward and become involved with fascism.

Possibly the high-point of publicity for Leese in Guildford occurred during the 1935 General Election. Leese temporarily lit up the election campaign in the town when he made the surprise announcement that he would stand as a fascist parliamentary candidate in the Guildford parliamentary division. This gained him a rare full interview in the local press, which he used to argue that, if he was elected, it would ‘at least give a chance for Fascism to be thoroughly examined, whereas at the present it is simply the subject of hostile criticism from alien sources which control much of our daily press’.

Leese portrait from his autobiography

He also used the interview as an opportunity to take swipes at democracy and assert that the hope of the world depended on the ‘Aryan’ race. Predictably, just one week later, Leese announced his withdrawal from the election, alleging that it was an ‘unfair contest’ and it would be a waste of his cash resources if he carried on with his campaign.

When war broke out in September, 1939, Leese’s IFL (as with Mosley’s BUF and other fascist groups), continued to function, pursuing an anti-war line. Leese published a pamphlet entitled Leese for Peace, in which he claimed that the war was being fought by Britain at the behest of ‘Jewish Interests’. In May, 1940, with growing fears that Britain might be invaded by the Nazis, the government decided to arrest many leading fascists under new Defence Regulations.

To avoid detention, Leese went on the run, staying in a series of hideouts. He also made occasional secret visits back to Pewley Hill, where his equally racist wife, Mrs. May Leese, would supply him with food and fresh provisions. However, the police Special Branch kept a close watch on the house, and Leese was finally caught and arrested in November, 1940.

One suspects that nearby residents must have been very pleased to hear the news of his capture. On the other hand, they must have been very disappointed when Leese was released from prison in 1944 and immediately returned back to Guildford. Shockingly, within just weeks of the end of the war, Leese was quickly back to his former activities, and used his Pewley Hill home to self-publish and distribute a book called The Jewish War of Survival, a racist diatribe which defended Hitler’s wartime actions.

Significantly, the White House also received visits from a number of early post-war British neo-Nazis, who were eager to seek out their ‘hero’ and gain his approval, and it remained Arnold Leese’s main base of propaganda operations right up to his death in 1956.

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

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)


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The First ‘Multi-Media’ Show? Lawrence of Arabia in Surbiton

Many people with an interest in imperial history are familiar with the life and wartime career of T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935), mainly through the famous epic feature film Lawrence of Arabia (1962). The smash-hit and critically acclaimed movie starred the late Peter O’Toole as the enigmatic British officer who helped create and organise the Arab revolt against the Turks in World War One. Character actor Jack Hawkins was equally memorable as his tough but fair-minded commanding officer, General Allenby, who had strongly supported Lawrence’s campaign, despite initial reservations.


Although wonderfully entertaining and surprisingly accurate in some key ways, the film – directed by David Lean and with a screenplay by the famous playwright Robert Bolt – inevitably cut corners and embellished aspects of T.E. Lawrence’s wartime story, mainly in order to synthesise and convey the main events of the Arab revolt on the big screen for the entertainment of 1960s cinemagoers.

Importantly, one can argue that the 1962 movie in turn was clearly influenced by the powerful image of Lawrence (see photo) that had been developed during the 1920s and 1930s by the American journalist Lowell Thomas (1892-1981), who had spent some time with the quiet and mysterious Englishman in the desert, and had witnessed some of the daring ‘hit and run’ guerilla warfare employed behind Turkish lines by Lawrence and his small army of Arab fighters.

In fact, in many ways, Thomas was instrumental in crafting all the eye-catching and glamorous iconography that came to be associated with Lawrence: indeed, the American helped launch and build the Lawrence ‘legend’ when he personally presented a post-war show called With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, which some commentators have termed the first ‘multi-media’ show. This show was seen by many thousands of people in New York and London in 1919-20 and, when it went ‘on the road’, it was estimated that the show was eventually seen by up to 3 million people in the English-speaking world between 1919-1924. According to his biographers, it was also seen by Lawrence himself at least five times, who sat in anonymously with London audiences, unrecognised by the public in the dark auditorium. Lawrence grew increasingly uneasy about the show, however, and began to complain to his friends that Thomas had ‘made me a kind of matinee idol’.

Lawrence with Lowell Thomas

Thomas (pictured here with Lawrence in a post-war pose) combined cinefilm with photos and orchestral music, and his personal narrative was expertly synchronised with the imagery and live music. He started the show with the words ‘Come with me to the lands of mystery, history and romance’, and audiences were evidently entranced by the ‘glamour’ and sheer scale of the Lawrence story, especially compared to the bleak imagery that had emerged from the recent bloody fighting on the Western Front. In a Britain thirsty for individual heroes, Lawrence appeared to meet all the criteria. The show made Thomas almost as famous as Lawrence; it also made Thomas large sums of money, and versions of the show, hosted by other speakers and using the cinefilm Thomas had shot of Lawrence during the wartime desert campaign, were taken on tour around Britain in the early 1920s, including in the Thames Valley area.

Interestingly, Kingston had already had a taste of the Lawrence ‘legend’ when, in February, 1921, Captain Laurence M. Gotch, who had served as a Topographical Officer on General Allenby’s staff in Egypt and Palestine (and had met Lawrence in the war), gave what the local press called ‘a thrilling narrative’ of the achievements of Lawrence in an illustrated lecture given to members of the Kingston Congregational Church Guild. According to the Surrey Comet, Captain Gotch ‘painted a fine picture’ of Lawrence as ‘a man of exceptional abilities’.

Surbiton Assembly Rooms today

This enthusiastic version of Lawrence as the great ‘Uncrowned King of Arabia’ was reinforced a few months later, in October, 1921, when a version of With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia ran for three days at Surbiton Assembly Rooms at the bottom of Surbiton Hill (see recent photo). Lowell Thomas’s cinefilm was combined with a special travel talk, called ‘The Lowell Thomas Travelogues’, presented by William A. Courtney, who had served in the war with the RAF in the Middle East.

This event at the Assembly Rooms proved to be very popular with local people in Surbiton and Kingston, and the show was taken to other parts of south-west London, where it also attracted large numbers of people and saw high ticket sales. The local newspapers in the suburbs of London were extremely complimentary about the show and about the details of the life of Lawrence, who was presented as a great ‘imperial’ hero. Ironically, this greatly troubled Lawrence himself, who felt that both Britain and France had actually reneged on the original promises Lawrence had made to the Arabs in 1917.

Thomas also allowed versions of his show to be put on in many other towns and cities across Britain. For Lawrence himself, however, this was more and more of a problem, to the point where he simply wanted to retreat from public life and ‘disappear’ into the background.

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

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)





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Upcoming Talk at Kingston University: ‘The French Revolution: Terror, Conspiracy and the Guillotine’

Kingston University History Research Seminar Series

Dr. Marisa Linton

Associate Professor of History at Kingston University and a leading international expert on all aspects of the French Revolution, will be speaking on:

 The French Revolution: Terror, Conspiracy and the Guillotine’ 


Tuesday, 10th October, 2017, 17.00-19.00pm


Room JG1007,

Penrhyn Road campus, Kingston University


Many of the ideas and ideologies that are central to the way we see the modern political world today first came about as a consequence of the French Revolution. The words ‘terror’ and ‘terrorism’ were first coined to describe the violence of the French Revolutionaries. The fear of ‘conspiracy’ by political opponents was a key feature of revolutionary politics. The Revolutionaries themselves were also subject to terror. As well as meting out a legalised form of terror, they too were vulnerable to the laws enabling terror. As a consequence, many French Revolutionaries themselves lost their heads under the guillotine.

Dr. Marisa Linton, Associate Professor of History at Kingston University, and an international research specialist on the French Revolution, has given many invited talks on the Revolution, including in the USA, France, Canada, Australia, Germany and Norway. Do take this opportunity to hear her speak at Kingston.

All are very welcome to attend! Free refreshments will be provided.

Posted in European History, Events, French History, Public History, Research, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment