Secret Heroism: Remembering the ‘listeners’ of Bletchley Park

Many of us are now familiar with the story of Bletchley Park, the British government’s top-secret code-breaking establishment in World War Two, and the huge achievements of some of the key staff there, such as Alan Turing. Bletchley Park secretly broke the German ‘Enigma’ codes, helped turn the tide of war in the Atlantic, and was also the home of ‘Colossus’, the world’s first semi-programmable computer.

Wrens operating the Colossus computer, 1943.

A combination of the work of historians and recent Hollywood movies has provided researchers with a much better picture of the role of secret code-breaking in helping the Allies bring about the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. But we often overlook the fact that, as well as brilliant mathematicians, scientists, language scholars and other key experts (many of them drawn from Britain’s top-class Universities), Bletchley also employed many hundreds of other people, and a considerable number of these did not actually work at the site itself, but were stationed in other parts of the British Isles. Bletchley had a large but highly secretive ‘support network’ of people who fed vital information and messages back to the main station, known back then as ‘Station X’.

Towards the end of last year, it was reported in the British press that 97-year old great-grandmother Alison Robins, a mother of three who had seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren, had quietly died in a nursing home in Bristol, after suffering from dementia.

Apart from close members of her family, many of those who encountered Alison in her later years were not aware of the secret but vital role she had played in World War Two. Alison was one of the last surviving Bletchley Park ‘listeners’, who was responsible for passing messages to Britain’s top-secret wartime code-breaking establishment in Buckinghamshire.

Dressed in civilian clothes, her job involved being positioned at various and rather isolated points around the British coastline. When on duty, she had to stay up all night and eavesdrop on messages from German submarines and ships that were covertly operating in the seas around Britain and were trying to sink British and American vessels. This was extremely important and confidential work, equally important in many ways as some of the main work that took place at Bletchley Park itself. Recalling her duties some years later, Alison told her children that ‘anyone who thinks black coffee keeps you awake is wrong – the only thing that keeps you awake is the thought that if you fall asleep people will die’.

Alison Robins

Before her job working as a ‘listener’, Alison, who had left school with no qualifications, had joined and served as a ‘WREN’ in the Women’s Royal Naval Service (see photo), but had become rather bored just working in the canteen at the Royal Navy College, and had taught herself Morse Code in her spare time. After becoming a ‘listener’ for the network that served Bletchley, she found herself working alongside people who could also speak German, so Alison purchased a book, Hugo’s Teach Yourself German in Three Months, which gave her a working knowledge of the language. Although she could not speak German fluently, she picked up enough so that she was able to translate key phrases and write them down.

According to her family, Alison (who had signed the Official Secrets Act in the war), very rarely spoke about her wartime experiences, but it is known that her husband, Maurice, who also spoke German, was sent to Germany just after the war, and carried out translation work during the Nuremberg Trials, where the leading surviving Nazis had been prosecuted by the Allies for war crimes.

Interestingly, when Maurice returned back to Britain, the devoted couple embarked on their own process of ‘reconciliation’ with Germans. When some German POWs (Prisoners-of-War) were working at the bottom of their garden, Alison and Maurice gave the men regular cups of tea and also invited them to lunch. Alison’s daughter, Jill, told the press after her mother’s death: ‘It was very practical – my parents went to talk to them, I think that was a really important part of the post-war period for them’. Jill added: ‘My mother was lovely – we all adored her’.

What Alison Robins’s life does is to help remind us of the importance of the ‘listeners’ in the Bletchley story, their contribution to the war effort and defeat of fascism, and also the incredible spirit of generosity that a number of people demonstrated in the immediate post-war years, despite all the wartime trauma and stress they had been through.

Bletchley Park

The code-breaking and intelligence gathering operations of Bletchley Park and its associated networks came to an end in 1946, but much of its pioneering work was continued in a new organisation now known as GCHQ (the Government Communications Headquarters).

The Bletchley Park site itself, after years of falling into disrepair, was ‘saved’ by voluntary and other work conducted by fundraisers, local historians and conservation experts. The Bletchley Park Trust, set up to regenerate the site, has helped finance a visitor centre and various interactive exhibitions. The famous Bletchley mansion, its huts and its grounds is today a heritage site, open to the general public. Significantly, the wartime role of Bletchley is also the subject of on-going research by historians who specialise in intelligence and the history of the ‘secret state’.

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

(Images: Wikipedia Commons)

For more information on Bletchley, see: https://www.bletchleypark.org.uk

 

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Breaking Free? New evidence released on Major’s tensions with Thatcher

Historians of British history in the 1980s and early 1990s have been given an interesting New Year present for 2018 by The National Archives (TNA), with the release of formerly secret government files which provide fascinating new evidence on the tensions between Margaret Thatcher and her successor as Conservative Prime Minister, John Major.

The National Archives

Margaret Thatcher was British Prime Minister (PM) from 1979-1990, and, towards the end of her time in office, had alarmed her Cabinet by stating in an interview with the press that she intended to ‘go on and on’. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, a significant number of the Cabinet had decided that Thatcher had developed something of a ‘bunker mentality’ in 10 Downing Street, with her refusing to acknowledge the unpopularity of some of her own cherished policies, especially the controversial Poll Tax.

Some of her Cabinet Ministers had concluded that, far from being an election ‘winner’ (she had won three General Elections: 1979; 1983; and 1987), Mrs. Thatcher was now a potential election ‘loser’. They effectively engineered her removal as Conservative leader and PM in late 1990 (she resigned in November, 1990), and a new leadership contest was held to find a fresh head for the Conservative Party and a new PM (under Britain’s unwritten constitution, power can be handed over from one PM to another without the need for a General Election). Much to the surprise of many commentators, John Major, at that point still seen as a Thatcherite loyalist (a ‘dry’ in Thatcher’s terminology), but not as very charismatic or forceful, inherited the former PM’s crown and became the new Premier.

John Major

However, Major, who had served periods as Chancellor of the Exchequer and also as Foreign Secretary under Thatcher, was determined not to be seen as just another Thatcherite free-market clone. He wanted to ‘break free’ from Mrs. Thatcher’s long shadow and imprint his own brand of Conservatism on the Party and country. Indeed, in private, he resented any attempt by his predecessor to be a ‘back seat driver’ (so to speak) of his new Premiership. On the other hand, Major was still somewhat limited in how he could go about building his own distinctive version of Conservatism, as Thatcher still had notably strong support both on the Conservative back-benches in Parliament and among the wider grass-roots members of the Party.

As many historians are aware, Margaret Thatcher, who relished her reputation as the ‘Iron Lady’, never really recovered from her loss of the Premiership, and what she clearly regarded as a ‘betrayal’ by members of her own Cabinet. She found it very difficult to adjust to her new life as an ex-Premier.

Files newly released by The National Archives (TNA) at Kew, south-west London, appear to provide further confirmation of this. One file in particular includes a record of a private meeting held between Mrs. Thatcher’s anointed successor, Major, and Thatcher herself, just weeks after her loss of power, where she sought to lecture the new PM on his economic policy.

Although Thatcher had regarded Major as a loyalist and as somebody who would carry on the Thatcherite ‘revolution’, she soon became disillusioned with his leadership. As the new PM, Major had quickly announced that he intended to scrap the Poll Tax and also voiced the need for a more ‘compassionate’ version of Conservatism.

margretthatcherDismayed by this, Thatcher’s relationship with Major soon became frosty. In fact, the new evidence seems to show how rapidly relations soured between the two. In a bid to clear the air, and to reassure her that he was not changing what he called the main ‘drift of policy’, Major invited his predecessor to a meeting in his rooms in the House of Commons in January, 1991. However, this did not go too well and there was evident tension in the room. Mrs. Thatcher, perhaps predictably, sought to offer advice on what she saw as ‘excessively high’ interests rates which, she said, were risking a recession. She also compared Major’s economic policy to Winston Churchill’s controversial decision as Chancellor in 1925 to return Britain to the Gold Standard, which had resulted in deflation and mass unemployment. As an official Minute in the file noted: ‘Mrs. Thatcher said conditions on the economy were very tough. She believed there was a danger of repeating Churchill’s historic error’.

Major clearly resented this comment. He responded that the situation was ‘not remotely comparable’. Mrs. Thatcher, though, refusing to back down, then went on to criticise Major’s decision to abandon her flagship policy, the Poll Tax. Major appears to have hit back, telling Thatcher that the tax was not ‘politically sustainable’.

Thatcher with Major 1992

Although the meeting seems to have ended in a cordial way, Major apparently remained determined to show Mrs. Thatcher that he was now very much the main driver of policy and power in the country, and that she needed to accept her retirement with grace. As the 1992 General Election loomed, secret plans were drawn up by the Conservative Party Chairman, Chris Patten, to ensure that Thatcher did not have a big presence in the upcoming Conservative campaign, including in the final rally of the campaign. However, according to the new files, Mrs. Thatcher’s supporters, when they found out about this, let it be known to Patten that she would be ‘hurt’ about this.

In the end, Major and Patten compromised, and Thatcher was invited to a big rally at the beginning of the campaign instead. Major could still not quite break free from the wishes of the ‘Iron Lady’.

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

(Images: WikiMedia Commons)

 

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Committees, Queues and Christmas: The crisis over food supplies in Kingston and Surbiton in 1917

One hundred years ago, in December, 1917, as people on the home front in Surrey faced their fourth Christmas at war, it was evident that a major crisis had developed over food supplies, and many families, still determined to celebrate a traditional Christmas despite the anxieties of the conflict, faced growing shortages of basic foodstuffs.

During the First World War a large number of men from farms in Surrey (as with other agricultural parts of the south), had joined the Armed Forces, leaving the county short of both agricultural workers and horses. Added to this, a combination of a relatively poor wheat harvest in 1916, and the declaration by Germany of unrestricted submarine warfare in early 1917, had also increasingly led to shortages of certain types of food in wartime Britain.

Arthur Keysall Yapp

Attempts had been made to address the situation. Various schemes of voluntary rationing had been introduced in February, 1917, and Prime Minister Lloyd George had appointed Sir Arthur Yapp (see photo) as the national Director of the ‘Food Economy Campaign’. An evangelical churchman, Yapp (1869-1936) had farming forebears and was well-known for his eloquent speeches and energetic devotion to serving the nation and community, which he saw as part of his Christian calling. The government thus launched propaganda campaigns at both national and local level to try and persuade people to economise in their food consumption as much as possible, with Sir Arthur proclaiming that this was a ‘patriotic duty’.

Local food stores across Surrey tried to encourage shoppers to be flexible and change their eating habits. In Kingston, for example, the ‘International Stores’ greengrocers, in their adverts during the course of 1917, urged people to ‘Help Win’ by drinking coffee for breakfast: ‘To alter your Breakfast “taste” for the time being is not a great sacrifice, but it will enable the Food Controller to more easily cope with the present shortage of tea’.

Save Bread WW1 poster

However, by the autumn of 1917, ‘food’ and its availability had nevertheless become a major source of public grumbling and discontent, exemplified in rising criticism of local ‘bureaucracy’ and also the growing frequency of long (and sometimes disorderly) queues outside food retailers. This frustration was possibly reinforced by a lack of detailed news about what was happening at the Front; wartime censorship only allowed certain types of news to be carried in the domestic press, and local newspaper editors appear to have compensated for this by ensuring that food (and the lack of it), together with questions about food quality and retail prices, received plenty of coverage instead.

One sign of the strength of feeling over food was the growing unpopularity among the public of Local Food Control Committees. Perceived by critics (including the newspapers) as symptomatic of mushrooming state bureaucracy in wartime, these were the special committees, headed by a local ‘Food Controller’, that had been set up at local municipal level across the country (including in Surrey) to help regulate the supply of food, and to try to ensure fair prices and equitable distribution. By late 1917, the daily challenge of obtaining sugar, margarine, butter, milk, meat, and other foods had led to increased public anxiety and discontent, and to complaints about a lack of accountability on the part of some of the Local Food Control Committees.

As the Surrey Comet newspaper warned in early December, 1917, the ‘strain of months of scarcity’ undoubtedly lay ahead: ‘Naturally enough, increased interest is being manifested in all matters affecting the food supply… and a desire exists to know what the Local Food Control Committees are doing’. The newspaper noted that, locally, while the Brentford and Twickenham Food Control Committees had opened up their meetings to the press, and the Richmond Committee had just decided to do so, the Committees ‘at Kingston and elsewhere in this immediate neighbourhood still sit behind closed doors’.  The paper then asked: ‘But why? Surely this is a matter that closely affects everybody in the district, and the man in the street and the woman in the queue want to know what is being done to safeguard their interests, which are not always identical with those of the retailer or the wholesale dealer’.

Sessions House Ewell Road Surbiton 1936

A week later, in its coverage of the Food Control Committee operated by Surbiton District Council, the Comet included some revealing details about how the shortages of food were leading to some draconian and controversial measures. The newspaper recorded that the Surbiton Committee, which was based at the Council Offices in Ewell Road, Surbiton (see photo), had requested that all Bakers in the district ‘agree to the use of not less than 5 per cent of potatoes in the bread they bake’. The paper also observed that a new order had been made by the national Ministry of Food conferring upon every Local Food Control Committee ‘the power of enforcing within their area all orders made by the Food Controller’, with the power to prosecute any offence ‘occasioned by a breach of such orders’. On the other hand, the Comet noted with satisfaction that the Surbiton Committee, in contrast to Kingston’s Committee, had now finally agreed to allow representatives of the press into all their future meetings.

In nearby Kingston, the question of food and foodstuff shortages appears to have become particularly difficult by mid-to-late December, 1917, as families prepared for Christmas and tried to stock up on essential supplies. On December 22nd, for example, the Surrey Comet noted that: ‘Difficulties in food supplies have become acute in Kingston, and the long queues waiting for margarine, sugar and tea have raised serious problems’.

Elsewhere in the same edition, the paper reported that the only shop in Kingston that had secured a large supply of margarine (the Maypole Dairy Company, in Clarence Street) had been ‘besieged’ daily by crowds of people, ‘many of whom have waited for hours in the bitter cold in the hope of securing a little of the coveted fat’. Moreover, the Comet noted that, on several occasions, the queue – four or five people deep – had extended round into Union Street, with an estimated 500-800 people, the bulk being women and children, ‘and it has been a pitiful sight to see them standing for hours in the bitter frost and fog’.

A letter of protest also appeared in the newspaper, penned by Emily Jones, of Portsmouth Road in Kingston, and copied to the Local Kingston Food Controller, Dr. H. Beale Collins. Jones wrote, she said, to protest against the ‘method of distribution’ of food supplies in the town, drawing upon her own experiences of waiting for hours in a queue on two consecutive days, and having also personally witnessed some queue-jumping. She argued that something had to be done ‘to obviate what is rapidly becoming a scandalous condition of food distribution’.

Food queue in WW1 Reading

This situation was not unique to Kingston, and similar difficulties concerning food, the perceived ‘unfairness’ of how it was being distributed, and the long food queues, were reported from across Surrey and, indeed, from other parts of the country (see, for example, the photo here of a food queue in the town of Reading). But, using the new powers now granted to them from central government, and under pressure to deal rapidly with the problem of ‘queues’, Local Food Committees began to take more decisive action, including in Kingston.

A couple of days before Christmas, the Surrey Comet thus reported that, whereas the Kingston Committee had previously claimed that it was powerless to prevent the queues, ‘strong representations’ had been made by the Kingston Food Controller, Dr. Beale Collins, to the Ministry of Food in London, calling for ‘stringent measures’. The Ministry had now granted the Local Committee the power to control food supplies and requisition any surplus for transfer to other shops if needed. Consequently, the final 1917 issue of the Comet reported that, during the previous week, the Kingston Committee’s new power to commandeer margarine supplies for fairer distribution had been put into force, ‘with the immediate result that the margarine queues have ceased to exist and a grave public scandal has been terminated’. Five tons of margarine had been commandeered from the Maypole Dairy Company and redistributed to various retail outlets across Kingston.

As the county of Surrey entered 1918, food was to remain a major source of controversy and, although some of the immediate problems over queues had been alleviated, the government in London remained very keen to maintain the national ‘Food Economy Campaign’. Sir Arthur Yapp issued a New Year’s message, saying the nation generally ‘must make a tremendous effort’  to support the campaign and take its watchword – ‘S.O.S.’, ‘Save or Starve’ – to heart. He warned that, if voluntary rationing of food was not followed more enthusiastically, then it could lead to compulsory rationing (this did indeed eventually happen in 1918).

At local level, the Surrey Comet of December 29th sought to reinforce the urgency of Sir Arthur’s message, giving it a clear patriotic tone: ‘New Year is the time for making good resolutions… Waste no food is one good resolution which we should all make this year, and having made, should keep’. The paper added: ‘For we are up against it… Saving does not mean hoarding in stores and cupboards – only traitors do that. Saving means avoiding waste of every kind; we must not eat more than we need… Every time we take a bigger helping than is necessary we are firing a shot for the Hun’.

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

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)

 

 

 

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Is America still haunted by its past? New edition of BBC’s ‘World Histories’ magazine explores the question

The publishers of the very popular BBC History magazine, a monthly publication which investigates all aspects of history and the past, recently launched an exciting new companion magazine entitled World Histories, and issue no. 7 of this has just been published in the UK.

The magazine, which in its launch issue promised to provide what the editor called ‘Fresh Perspectives on Our Global Past’, more than delivers on this objective in the new seventh issue (issue no. 7, December, 2017/January, 2018).

BBC-HISTORY-WORLD-HISTORIES_NO-7

A key feature of the new issue is a focus on the question ‘Why is America still haunted by its past?’ Four articles are provided to try and answer this challenging question, covering some key moments in U.S. history: one article, by Adam IP Smith, covers the American Revolution and the Civil War (making important historical links between the two), while the second article, with contributions by three U.S. historians, explores how America continues to wrestle with issues of race, religion, liberty and equality.

The third article, by Benjamin Houston, provides discussion of the 1992 LA riots, which have been described as the worst domestic insurrection in U.S. history. A fourth piece on America, penned by Rosalind Rosenberg, revisits the life of Pauli Murray (1910-1985), a lawyer, priest and feminist, who became a champion of racial and gender equality after her grim experiences of growing up in the racially segregated U.S. south.

For those with a deep interest in American history, the latest edition of World Histories will be a must-have purchase. As the editor of the magazine observes, all nations are to some extent defined by their past – ‘but the United States seems to have a particularly complex relationship with its history’.

New York Times on Sputnik

Elsewhere in the new issue, the reader will find articles on global relationships, the first Greek expedition to Britain and the Arctic, the launch of Sputnik by the Russians in 1957 (a truly momentous event which, according to Mark Shanahan, marked the start of the ‘space race’ between the USSR and USA), and the myths and realities of the Aztecs. There is also an important piece on the Nazi quest for the supernatural, by Eric Kurlander. The latter article is based on his new book Hitler’s MonstersA Supernatural History of the Third Reich, which was published this year by Yale University Press and has received high praise from the critics. In Kurlander’s estimation, the ideology of the Nazis partly found inspiration in Nordic mythology, paganism and occult beliefs. He argues: ‘One cannot understand the history of the Third Reich without understanding this relationship between Nazism and the supernatural’.

Bowie in Berlin

Similarly, for those with an interest in the musical and cultural history of the 20th century, Des Shaw offers an intriguing discussion of how the historical, cultural and social landscape of the city of Berlin helped shape one of the late musician David Bowie’s most important albums, Heroes, which he recorded in the German capital in 1977.

According to Shaw, the sense of foreboding that arose from Bowie recording so close to the Berlin Wall had an impact on the music that Bowie was creating. Bowie was attracted by the air of danger and intrigue that seemed to grip the German city in the mid-1970s. Moreover, the album’s title track has arguably come to be seen by music aficionados as something of a rock classic.

As with the previous issues, the new seventh issue of World Histories also contains a ‘Briefing Section’ where leading expert opinions are given on some of the historical issues behind today’s news, including a piece by Alex von Tunzelmann on the image of Che Guevara 50 years after his death, and some thoughts by Niall Ferguson on the impact of social networks today and their historical ancestors.

With plenty of other articles and news items, the new edition of World Histories is well worth consideration. Retailing at an eye-watering price of £6.99, it might be financially challenging for some students, but it is arguably still a bargain for all those who have a fascination for our global past.

The December, 2017/January 2018 issue of World Histories is on sale now.

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)

 

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‘Fighting for our Rights’: Kingston’s role in the British disability rights movement

The town of Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey and its surrounding neighbourhoods is a community blessed by a rich, diverse and fascinating heritage, with much of the area’s history being relevant to Britain’s wider past and, thus, its impact on present-day society is hugely significant. One shining example of this is how residents of the Kingston Borough played a key role in the development of the disability rights movement in Britain.

Kingston_centre_for_independent_living logo

In 1967, a local organisation called the ‘Kingston Association for Disabled People’ was set up to enable people with disabilities who lived in the Borough to campaign for greater independence and, fundamentally, to be able to receive the right support so that they could take control of their own lives. The organisation was also created to empower people with disabilities to have a voice. It was renamed as ‘Kingston Centre for Independent Living’ (KCIL) in 2001. Significantly, from a historical perspective, the formation of KCIL locally reflected the growing influence of campaigns for disability rights nationally. The first noteworthy piece of disability legislation in Britain was the 1944 Disability Employment Act, which introduced into law the idea of ‘reserved occupations’, where certain, albeit relatively low-key, jobs were set aside exclusively for people with disabilities so that their morale could be boosted.

The creation of the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948 under Clement Attlee’s Labour government provided an essential foundation for disabled people, particularly those on low incomes, to gain better quality health care. The NHS extended rehabilitation services to people who became disabled following industrial accidents, not only servicemen and women.

Disabled_and_proud (US protest)

In terms of social attitudes towards people with disabilities, progress towards an equal future was gradual but significant. Inspired by the civil rights movements in the United States during the 1960s and 1970s, and also by U.S. disability rights protests (see photo), disabled people in Britain were greatly motivated to take direct action against discrimination, poor access for wheelchair users and broad inequality. New theories about how to achieve greater inclusion and community cohesion took precedence during the late Twentieth Century.

The ‘social model’ of disability argued that people with disabilities faced immense barriers to equality because society itself restricted disabled people from achieving was a direct critique of the previous ‘medical model’ which claimed that the problems disabled people faced were essentially ‘their own fault’. The social model of disability continues to be incredibly influential in Britain and across the world, helping environments to become adapted so that everyone can be part of a more inclusive society.

The 1980s and 1990s witnessed the most substantial legislative achievements for people with disabilities in Britain. Grassroots, user-led organisations such as KCIL played an instrumental role in challenging both the government and society as a whole to view the disability community in a much more holistic, compassionate and inclusive way. The 1981 Education Act paved the way for children with ‘special needs’ (an emerging term of vocabulary at the time, which reflected this new change in direction) to become more integrated into mainstream education, with extra support, if desired, by their families.

In the same year, the inhumane Victorian system of asylums, which were built and provided by the state from 1815 as a form of institution to separate those with mental health or learning disabilities away from society, were finally abolished. As a result, tens of thousands of people left the asylums and moved into their own communities to be supported. In addition, the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995 made discrimination against people with disabilities illegal, of direct payments was not as efficient as initially  and was an important step forward in the ongoing campaign for full disability rights in Britain.

Disability

Consequently, the role that KCIL played in actively campaigning for greater social and economic justice for people with disabilities locally also influenced progressive change nationally. KCIL also successfully lobbied Kingston Borough Council to establish an independent living scheme which became one of the first of its kind in the UK. The introduction of ‘direct payments’, a form of welfare whereby local authorities provide cash payments directly to disabled people so that they can pay for support themselves, was made available to all eligible people who requested them by a mandatory duty on local councils in 2003 under New Labour. A 2005 article published in the academic journal Social Policy and Society acknowledged that the uptake of direct payments was not as efficient as initially expected, but nonetheless the authors concluded that ‘direct payments have the potential to make a major contribution to social justice for disabled people by enabling the principles of independent living to be put into practice’.

Kingston Museum

In 2017, KCIL collaborated with disabled people and those working with the disability community to collect stories regarding disability rights in the Kingston Borough.

Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, the ‘Fighting for our Rights’ project involved conducting oral history interviews with 23 prominent local people to celebrate this fascinating history. The interviews form part of Kingston Heritage Service’s permanent archive and can all be accessed via http://www.kingstonfightingforourrights.co.uk/

Overall, as someone who is on the Autism Spectrum, I know all too well that the struggle to achieve a fully inclusive and just society for people with disabilities is far from complete. However, it is the work of KCIL and many other grassroots organisations across Britain who have helped to attain substantial social reform for the wider disability community. Hopefully, innovative projects such as ‘Fighting for our Rights’ will help to inspire future generations of disability campaigners to achieve more progressive change.

Joe Fautley is currently studying for an MA in History at Kingston University. He volunteered to help researchers on the ‘Fighting for our Rights’ project during the summer of 2017. 

More information about the ‘Fighting for Our Rights’ project is on public display at Kingston Museum from now until 22nd February, 2018.

(Images: WikiMedia Commons)

 

 

Posted in Archives, British history, Disability History, Events, Gender History, Local History, Museums, Public History, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Big Con: Throwing some light on the role of conspiracy theory in history

I recently gave a talk on the role of conspiracy theory in history, and tried to address the very difficult question of why so many people appear to believe that ‘secret’ forces are at work in the world, and allow themselves to be seduced and conned by the claim that there is no such thing as ‘accident’ in history. One of the conspiracy theorists I covered in the talk was the former footballer and Green activist David Icke, author of books such as And the Truth Shall Set You Free (1995) and Alice in Wonderland and the World Trade Center Disaster (2002).

David Icke

By coincidence, in the very same week that I delivered my talk, Icke (pictured right) was touring the UK with his latest special stage show, where he presents his controversial theories about the past and the present. This new tour, which also functioned as a book-launch, included a session in Edinburgh and a big event at the Troxy Theatre in London’s East End.

However, his latest tour/book launch did not go as smoothly as he had hoped. Two days after the London event, Icke was banned by Manchester United football team from holding ‘An Evening with David Icke’ at their Old Trafford stadium in Manchester. In a statement, Manchester United said: ‘The booking was made by a junior member of staff who was unaware of Icke and his objectionable views. The event has been cancelled’.

The decision to cancel Icke’s event came after complaints had been made by the UK’s Campaign Against Anti-Semitism and also from the Labour MP Kate Green. Predictably, in comments made on his own Twitter account, Icke said Manchester United was ‘a disgrace’ for cancelling his show ‘on the say-so of ultra-Zionist hate group and freedom-destroying Labour MP’.

For those unfamiliar with Icke and his work, there is quite a disturbing history attached to him. Icke (b. 1952) is infamous for writing a series of long and turgid conspiratorial books which have become best-sellers among those drawn to such views. Each book ranges across a variety of topics and there is considerable use of a very selective version of history and key historical events. Coincidence in history is radically downgraded, and replaced instead with purpose, design and ‘plots’ as the most important factors in interpreting the major events of the past. Some of this ‘history’ has become notably strange. In particular, Icke has claimed that ‘interdimensional reptilian aliens’ operate behind the scenes, brainwashing and controlling the world’s governing elites and shaping history for particular ends.

Icke’s obsession with ‘reptiles’, however, as I explained in my talk, was the result of a more coded language that he subsequently adopted when there was an outcry over one of his earliest books. In The Robots Rebellion (1994), Icke had made uncritical use of the Czarist anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion (1903), which claims that the world is subject to manipulation and control by a secret ‘cabal’ of Jewish elders who meet annually. In the second edition of Robots Rebellion, this material was carefully edited out, but Icke’s general claim of a grand conspiracy at work across the globe remained. His books and sell-out talks have repeated this ‘global’ thesis ever since, in ever more bizzare and elaborate ways.

David Icke and Protocols

More importantly, though, in recent years Icke has returned back to his earlier obsession with the Protocols, and now talks more boldly and explicitly about the book and about ‘Rothschild Zionists’ more generally. He has evidently decided that sufficient time has now elapsed since the huge row caused by The Robots Rebellion in 1994, and that it is now ‘safe’ again to push some classic conspiracy ideas about ‘Zionist’ puppet-masters and ‘secret’ forces operating behind the scenes. In a recent radio interview, for example (available on YouTube), Icke put forward a detailed ‘history’ about the role of the Protocols and even linked the book to Allen Dulles and the American CIA (Central Intelligence Agency). Dulles was supposedly a ‘front man of the House of Rothschild’. Icke’s version of the history of the Middle East would also have left a professional historian tearing their hair out.

As I pointed out in my talk, conspiracy theory, or ‘conspiracism’, has had a long and ugly history, with roots that can be traced right back to at least the time of the French Revolution, and to extravagant ideas about Freemasons and the Bavarian Illuminati. But it was during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that conspiracy theory really began to grow and gain ground, and the Protocols was a classic example of such thinking.

Protocols

In the early 1920s, the book was printed and distributed widely by the ‘Britons Publishing Society’, an extreme rightwing and highly anti-Semitic publishing group in the UK, created by Henry Hamilton Beamish (1873-1948). The Britons Society also exported many copies to other countries, and Hamilton, along with sympathisers and supporters of the Britons, helped translate and promote the Protocols in all corners of the world, including in the Middle East and Africa. The book was also taken up by the famous American motor manufacturer Henry Ford (1863-1947) in the USA, and by Hitler and the Nazi party in Germany, especially by the Nazi movement’s main ideologue of ‘race’, Alfred Rosenberg (1893-1946).

And the book did not disappear after the Second World War and the Holocaust. In fact, it has been reprinted on many occasions ever since, and there are now numerous versions available today on the internet. Indeed, in recent years, the Protocols has been used by conspiracy theorists to ‘explain’ a diverse number of historical events, ranging from the death of Lady Diana in 1997 to ‘9/11’ in 2001 and the Iraq War in 2003. The Financial Crash of 2008 was also (apparently) deliberately engineered by the secretive Elders of Zion to undermine the West and bring about a ‘New World Order’, with a ‘One World’ dictatorship policed by the United Nations from New York.

Frankly, the fact that David Icke is himself utilising the basic tenets of the Protocols once again speaks volumes about the man.

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

(Images: WikiMedia Commons)

 

 

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