The ‘Zep’ Zapper: Horatio Bottomley in Surbiton in 1917

One Monday evening in December, 1917, Surbiton in Surrey received a visit from Mr. Horatio Bottomley, a figure the wartime Daily Mirror newspaper had called ‘London’s Answer to the Zeps’ because of his powerful oratory at public meetings.

Hoatio Bottomley portrait

With London now under attack from the air by ‘Zeps’ (German Zeppelins), together with growing food and fuel shortages across the nation (as the fourth Christmas of the relentlessly grinding conflict rapidly approached), and mounting public concerns about what was really happening on the Western Front in France, Bottomley – who edited a patriotic magazine called John Bull – had made himself a leading propagandist in favour of the British war effort. He regularly urged Britons to fight on and ‘never weaken’. He also appears to have enjoyed his image as a ‘bullish’ man who could weaponize information and ‘zap’ the enemy via effective speech-making.

His visit to Surbiton in late 1917 saw him give a lecture at Surbiton Assembly Rooms, where he again sought to inspire and rouse his audience, and also employed a mixture of humour and passion to deliver what was billed as a ‘vivid description’ of scenes on the Western Front. According to the local Surrey Comet, this talk was entitled ‘What I saw in the Trenches’, and his lecture ‘proved to be a remarkable attraction, the building being filled in every part’. In fact, this was fairly typical of the enthusiasm Bottomley often generated at his lectures and public meetings during the course of the Great War.

A big problem with Bottomley, though, is that he often exaggerated his stories and peppered his talks with some serious untruths. Indeed, Horatio Bottomley (1860-1933) was quite a colourful and controversial gentleman in many ways. At various stages in his career he was a financier, a newspaper proprietor, a journalist, a magazine editor, a propagandist, a conspiracy theorist, and a Member of Parliament (twice). In 1922, while serving as Independent MP for Hackney South, he was found guilty of financial fraud at an Old Bailey trial and was given a seven-year prison sentence. Towards the end of his life, after his release from gaol, Bottomley led a poverty-stricken existence, reduced to trying to earn a living by entertaining people in Music Halls.

John Bull magazine

Bottomley had first entered Parliament in 1906 as the Liberal MP for Hackney South. He also founded the magazine John Bull in the same year, a popular and very pro-Empire publication, which carried a combination of news on current affairs, social gossip and sensationalist scandal, and which often pedalled blatant scare-stories and conspiracy theories. Bottomley also used the magazine to very much push his own (often outspoken) personal views of politics and world events and the secret ‘forces’ supposedly at work behind the scenes. However, in 1912, he was forced to resign his seat in Parliament after he was declared bankrupt.

He was not finished, though. The outbreak of war in 1914, in a sense, was good news for Bottomley. The Great War helped restore his career and he became a well-known pro-war propagandist, constantly urging everybody to put their full weight behind the fight against Imperial Germany and the ‘uncivilized Hun’. He especially loathed pacifists and those he perceived as ‘treasonable’. At one point in the war, he publicly accused the Labour Party leaders Ramsay MacDonald and James Keir Hardie of being the leaders of a ‘pro-German Campaign’, and he demanded that MacDonald be tried as a traitor. Bottomley also used his magazine John Bull to claim that there was a ‘Hidden Hand’ secretly at work within the nation, a subversive group of conspirators who were out to undermine the British war effort.

Horatio Bottomley speaking in Trafalgar Square

The magazine saw high circulation during the war. But it was his stirring and hyper-patriotic oratory at public meetings that appeared to have the most impact. It is estimated that he addressed over 300 public meetings during the course of the war, including a very large one in Trafalgar Square (see photo). The meeting at Surbiton was also a good example, which he used to drive home his message about the ‘Hun’.

In the account of this meeting published in the Surrey Comet, Bottomley was noted for what the paper called his ‘many gifts of oratory’, and apparently ‘riveted the keen attention of the large audience for nearly an hour and a half’. Prefacing his talk with a reminder that the Surrey Volunteer Regiment was ‘in great need of recruits’, Bottomley told the Assembly Rooms gathering that he was ‘one of the band of people who, some years before the war broke out, went about the country proclaiming the fact that Germany meant mischief’. He said they were preaching ‘the doctrine that ever since the Kaiser had come to the throne he and his advisers had been engaged in an unbroken conspiracy to throw dust in the eyes of the whole world and, above all, of Great Britain’.

For that warning, Bottomley said, he and his friends had been called ‘all sorts of names, but that did not distress them’. Since the war had broken out, he had been ‘going about all over the country’, first to obtain recruits for the Colours and then ‘to hearten and inspirit the mind and conscience of the people’. He said that the British Empire was ‘not done with yet’, and he wanted to ‘arouse them to a true sense of the fact that, despite all shame and frauds, there was no Power on God’s earth… capable of bringing that old Empire down to the ground’.

After further reflections on the nature of the conflict, Bottomley revealed that he had been ‘filled with a keen desire to go and see that grim thing for himself’.  He said he had been out to France more than once, which had included a visit to the Western frontline. Moreover, he claimed that, when he had been invited to be a guest at the headquarters of Sir Douglas Haig, he had refused, as he wanted to be ‘free from every restriction’, including military censorship.  He had ‘no use for the censor’.

Instead, he had spent time with the soldiers in their rest camps and in the military hospitals, and had also made a ‘pilgrimage amongst the ruins of Arras’, which had at one time been one of the most beautiful cities in France, but was ‘now without one complete building’. He had also visited the trenches, where he was given a tin-hat and a gas-mask. He had also personally witnessed, he said, some aerial combat.

Bottomley also gave some details to the Assembly Rooms audience of his visits to Vimy Ridge, Beaumont Hamel, and the Somme area. As the Surrey Comet observed, Bottomley ‘drew a vivid word picture’ and, at the close of his lecture, ‘a number of photographs of the places visited by Mr. Bottomley were projected on the screen’.

Surbiton Assembly Rooms today

The Surbiton Assembly Rooms talk by Bottomley must have been quite a revelation to the people who attended that evening. The public were thirsty for reliable news during the later stages of the Great War, and there is evidence that some people were becoming increasingly cynical and distrustful about what they were reading in the national and local press. Bottomley was able to skilfully create the impression (rightly or wrongly) that he had somehow defied the censors, and was giving his audience a unique and direct eye-witness account of conditions at the Front. It is difficult to discern what was accurate and what was less reliable in his talks, but the Assembly Rooms meeting still provides the historian with an important insight into what was happening at local level in wartime Surbiton, and some useful evidence on the impact a well-known ‘national’ personality could exert.

Bottomley’s lecture at Surbiton also included some comments that reflected his wider patriotic and characteristic message: at one point he referred to ‘the Huns’ as ‘a race of barbarians’, who were capable of ‘hideous’ atrocities. Questioned about the probable end of the war, Bottomley said it ‘began on the Western Front, and it would end there’. In hindsight, the last comment was arguably one of the only truly reliable things Bottomley ever really said.

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

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)




Posted in British history, German History, Local History, Media history, Public History, Research, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

In Defence of History: experts reject criticisms of their field of study

A short while ago I was faced with having to explain to a sceptical audience why it was still important to study the Ancient Greeks and their views of both history and politics. I pointed out that the Athenian thinker Thucydides, who is often seen as one of the very first historians, is still admired today for his rules about impartiality and the treatment of evidence, while Aristotle, often seen as one of the ‘fathers’ of politics, had profound things to say about participation and citizenship, a topic just as important in the 21st Century, especially when democracy is very much on the defensive.

Thucydides,_marble_head,_Roman copy

Moreover, both Thucydides (see picture) and Aristotle were ‘re-discovered’ in both the medieval and renaissance periods, and arguably were still being cited and used in the Enlightenment, playing a role in the development of what became modernity.

But I feel we need a bit of ‘enlightenment’ on the part of our politicians when it comes to the importance of history as a key branch of knowledge today. Sometimes the historian feels under siege. History and the study of the past has come under sustained assault in Britain in recent times, ranging from cuts to the subject being made by University managers to the narrow-mindedness of government Ministers who view the subject in purely utilitarian terms.

There have also been the absurdities expounded by post-modernists, who tend to see everything – including historical events and empirical facts – as merely about language and ‘discourse’, where all events are seen as ‘relative’ and everything is up for grabs. I have even seen such ‘cultural theory’ leading, at its most extreme, to the defence of Holocaust Denial and conspiracy theory.

A recent report in the Sunday Observer newspaper (28th January) captured the outcry caused by yet another burst of history-bashing by politicians. This time round, medieval historians appear to have been the target. According to the Observer, Robert Halfon, who chairs the House of Commons select committee on education, singled out medieval historians as ‘undeserving’ of public funding. Instead, the former skills Minister called for discounts on student fees that address ‘skill shortages’, such as healthcare, coding, construction or engineering. Halfon said: ‘If someone wants to do medieval history, that’s fine. You still take out your loan and pay it. But all the incentives from government and so on should go to areas the country needs and will bring it most benefit’.

There was both surprise and dismay at Halfon’s comments from the historical profession. At Cambridge University, for example, which – as the Observer noted – ‘has one of the largest concentrations of ancient and medieval historians in the world’, there was ‘some surprise at Halfon’s implication that history graduates do little to benefit the country’. This is because no less than three of the current British Cabinet have history degrees: Amber Rudd (the Home Secretary), Chris Grayling, and David Lidington (the latter is effectively the deputy Prime Minister to Theresa May).

Indeed, the Observer spoke to John Arnold, Professor of medieval history at King’s College, Cambridge, who pointed out that few British Cabinet Ministers in the past 30 years have had degrees in science, technology, engineering or maths: ‘They mostly did PPE [philosophy, politics and economics] and history, and seem to have prospered with that background. Halfon’s comments seem part and parcel of how successive governments have wanted to turn higher education from a public common good into a privatised commodity. This is not something we find in most other successful economies’.


In fact, as the Observer noted, it is not hard to find events in medieval times that resonate today: climate change in the 14th century – better known as the ‘little ice age’ – and the Black Death, for example, saw dramatic population decline, which led to investment in new technology and higher wages.

Chris Briggs, a lecturer in medieval British social and economic history, commented: ‘As it’s the 14th century, you might think it has no bearing or relevance to the challenges we face today. Medieval history encourages rigour and seriousness about how you handle your sources and distinguish truth from fiction, which in today’s world we could do with a bit more of’.

Similarly, Miri Rubin, Professor of medieval history at Queen Mary, University of London, pointed out that analysing documents, archaeological artefacts and paintings was a pathway to a huge variety of careers. This is something that all historians should emphasise when we find ourselves under attack.

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

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)

Posted in Archives, British history, European History, Public History, Research, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

History as Hoax: Why the TV series ‘Hunting Hitler’ is fiction not fact

I have become alarmed at how many people appear to be taking the TV series Hunting Hitler seriously. The show, which started production in 2015 and has been aired on the History Channel, has now seen three seasons, the second of which is currently being shown in the UK. Viewer ratings have apparently been good and advertisers seem pleased, but I suspect serious historians will have major concerns.

The series has, at its heart, the bizarre claim that Adolf Hitler (along with his mistress- turned-wife Eva Braun) may have escaped from his Berlin bunker in April, 1945, and made his way by U-boat to South America, where he lived with Mrs. Hitler in utmost secrecy, planning a ‘Fourth Reich’ from the safety of a jungle in Argentina. The key word here is may. Regrettably, though, the documentary series ignores its own brief nod to theory and seeks to ‘prove’ beyond all doubt that Hitler did indeed escape. The ‘evidence’ that he did so is treated as being beyond question.

Hitler in April 1945 Last Appearance in Public First of all, let’s remind ourselves about some key facts, which are accepted by the vast majority of serious academic historians, scholars who have studied the Third Reich and the last days of Hitler in near-forensic detail.

The Nazi leader, by then in very poor health, made his last public appearance (which was also filmed) outside his Berlin bunker on April 20th, 1945, when he inspected a line-up of young boy soldiers who were involved in the last desperate defence of the Reich’s capital city (see photo). Careful scrutiny of the footage shows a man who is exhausted and frail, barely able to smile, his hand shaking uncontrollably behind his back. Hitler was also photographed on April 28th (the last photo taken of him) surveying some bomb damage just outside the bunker.

In his final Will and Political Testimony, dictated to his young secretary, Traudl Junge, on April 29th, 1945, the day before he committed suicide in the bunker, the Nazi leader made it abundantly clear that he was choosing death rather than allow himself to fall into the hands of the Russians. He had also firmly rejected any pleas from his close associates to leave Berlin.

There was also overwhelming eyewitness evidence about Hitler’s last hours in the bunker, testimony collected from numerous interrogations and interviews conducted by British, American and Russian investigators. Moreover, Otto Gunsche (who died in 2003) was personally given the task by Hitler of cremating the Fuhrer’s remains, which Gunsche faithfully did in the garden just outside the bunker, placing the body of Eva Braun (the new Mrs. Hitler) alongside her late husband in a shallow ditch. Petrol was poured over the corpses to speed up the process of destruction. Despite this, Russian investigators were still able to collect some bone fragments.

Hunting Hitler series logo

Yet here we have another TV programme which refutes this history and, frankly, re-writes the past in the name of ‘infotainment’. Historical accuracy and factual evidence is pushed aside in order to construct a new and more glamorous version of the biographical details of Hitler’s life. The first series of Hunting Hitler used declassified FBI documents from 1947 (700 pages were declassified in 2014). These files contained reports which were devoted to collating all possible sightings of Hitler in the immediate years after the war. The second series expanded the range of documents to include declassified and other material from CIA and British intelligence sources, along with a diverse range of ‘documents’ from Argentina, Russia and Germany. All of this material has been put into a ‘database’ assembled especially for the documentary, which the show’s main host – Bob Baer – regularly draws on to find ‘evidence’ (or, rather, in his mind, confirmation) concerning the route Hitler took to get away and the names of those who supposedly helped him.

The problem with all this is that, although it uses the format of a documentary, it is not a carefully researched or authoritative documentary, backed up with contributions from professional historians or recognised experts on Nazism or the Third Reich. Instead, it is a frankly silly piece of conspiracy theory, which often treats gossip and newspaper rumour as ‘fact’, exploits the public’s continuing fascination with all things ‘Nazi’, and offers no credible evidence to back up its hugely misleading claims. I write as one who has specialised in the study of fascism for most of my academic career.

At one level, I suppose, I should just relax and simply file the programme under ‘fiction’, placing it alongside such conspiratorial series as Ancient Aliens. I should quietly accept that the misleadingly named ‘History’ channel has churned out yet another piece of hokum. At another level, though, I feel distinctly uncomfortable: Hunting Hitler is potentially dangerous. In fact, to my mind, it is a classic example of history dressed up as very irresponsible entertainment, a TV programme which breaks many of the accepted rules of serious historical research and makes some quite ludicrous assertions.

Grey Wolf

The inspiration for the series goes back to a very poorly reviewed book published a few years ago, Grey Wolf: The Escape of Adolf Hitler (2011), co-authored by two British writers, Simon Dunstan and Gerrard Williams. The latter author, Williams, is one of the ‘team’ whose ‘crack’ members feature in each episode of Hunting Hitler. Bob Baer, the main presenter of the series, is a former CIA officer who, since his retirement, has reinvented himself as an author and occasional TV commentator on ‘intelligence’ matters. How on earth he became involved in the series is puzzling – the programme-makers must have made him an offer he simply could not refuse.

Baer, according to the premise of the series, assembled a crack ‘team’ of investigators in 2015, which, as well as Williams, has included an ex-American Special Forces operative Tim Kennedy (who is in real life a mixed martial arts fighter), a former Green Beret soldier, various local guides, and a ‘historian’ (James Holland) who has written popular histories of the Second World War. Again, in my estimation, any historian worth their salt would not associate themselves with this series, or risk serious damage to their reputation. But, on reflection, such opportunities must be a huge temptation for an author to help generate additional publicity for their books on military history.

Hunting Hitler interview

Over the course of the three series of Hunting Hitler, the special ‘team’ has been sent to various locations across the globe (ranging from Germany, Spain, Norway and Austria in Europe, to Argentina in South America). They have been ‘tasked’ (to use the lingo) with seeking out and assembling the evidence for the trail (or trails) that the Nazi dictator took to enable his masterly ‘escape’. There has been plenty of talk about secret tunnels, clandestine S.S. ‘networks’, gold dumped in lakes, hidden Nazi safety deposit boxes, and forgotten advanced technology. Strong hints have been dropped that Hitler used a new Nazi ‘jet’ aircraft, or an advanced U-boat or seaplane, and may even have taken some ‘heavy water’ with him (i.e. to develop a Nazi nuclear bomb). It is all very Indiana Jones.

Hunting Hitler lair

In series one, for example, members of the team came across what was described as ‘a mysterious Nazi lair in the Argentinian jungle’ (see photo), while in the second series much time was devoted to pursuing leads in far-flung valleys in Austria and Italy. The difference between a novel and a documentary was increasingly blurred, and the line between fantasy and reality has been frequently crossed. It is a (very poor) Hollywood version of history.

With a dramatic voice-over provided by narrator Dave Hoffman, some atmospheric music at key moments, and plenty of hand-held camera angles and reality-TV style shots, the purpose of the ‘documentary’ is clearly to present the theory of Hitler’s escape as not just a theory, but as a ‘no-brainer’ fact. In each new episode, the standard formula is that the ‘team’, directed by Baer and his assistant from an office in Los Angeles, collects new intelligence and clues in an urgent race against time, as if they were on a major international manhunt.

The reality is that this gallant team assembles and selects evidence to fit their own predetermined belief that Hitler definitely escaped from Europe and reached his new haven. Any new bit of evidence that does not quite fit their conviction is often brushed aside or dismissed. When members of the team interview people, there are lots of over-dramatized exchanges and knowing looks caught on camera between the main team members (or ‘investigators’). And if they don’t get what they want to hear from ‘eye-witnesses’ or other people they have tracked down, or the interviewee has seemed hesitant or reluctant, the team’s usual line is that the interviewee is ‘still afraid’ of the consequences of talking, some seventy or so years after the war.

Hunting Hitler team

At times, the ‘hunt’ for Hitler’s escape route has been treated like a modern-day manhunt for somebody who is still alive, with the ‘team’ racing about in a small convoy of dark-coloured four-by-four cars, driving into villages or towns in excited expectation. Much of the investigative work, though, has bordered on the farcical. In one episode of series two, where members of the team followed a Nazi ‘ratline’ to a hotel in the South Tyrol, a piece of ‘state-of-the-art’ equipment was used to identify possible burial sites in the hotel grounds for Nazi safe deposit boxes, which one member of the team suggested would contain ‘stashed secret plans’ for safe routes and ‘money, maps, contacts’. Once an airborne drone had been used to identify two possible locations, a mechanical digger was then brought in on the ground to dig down at the sites: but all that was finally dug up was rubble and some old hotel sewage pipes at one site, and an old shovel head at the other site! Trying to explain away the latter, it was claimed that somebody had already dug there and the holes had been ‘looted in 1945’.

There has been plenty of this kind of nonsense in other episodes, ranging from trawling lakes for crashed planes to engaging in underwater dives to sunken wrecks, or trying to gain entry to locked churches. If people do not co-operate with the team’s inquiries, there are dark hints that such individuals may be part of the ‘cover-up’ of the real story.

Unfortunately, the History channel  regularly chooses to put ratings above any historical accuracy, and Hunting Hitler is a typical example of this. It is a Hollywood-style version of history; it is seriously flawed in its treatment of evidence and is a classic lesson in how not to conduct objective historical research. This should always be borne in mind if you happen to catch an episode.

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

(All images: WikiMedia Commons)

Posted in European History, Fascism, German History, Media history, Public History, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Alt-America: New book explores the rise of the radical right in the age of Trump

A new book by U.S. journalist and historian David Neiwert, Alt-AmericaThe Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump (Verso, 2017), explores how the American extreme right has been growing steadily since the 1990s and has now received a considerable boost with the arrival of Donald Trump in the White House.

Alt-America by David Neiwert

Indeed, the new book contains some revealing investigative insights into President Trump’s ties to and influence on the radical and far right.

At the same time, Neiwert takes the reader through the complex maze of radical rightwing groups, movements and networks that have evolved over recent years and have taken new hope from Trump’s statements, behaviour and policies – such as his ‘America First’ nationalism, his tendency to indulge in conspiracy theory, and his outspoken criticisms of the ‘fake news’ of the ‘liberal’ mainstream media.

A major theme in the study concerns the role of the internet, and how the online world of the early 21st century has given a revolutionary rebirth to a type of politics that most people had assumed had gone forever: anti-liberal, anti-feminist, politically incorrect, conspiratorial, intolerant and markedly racist. Such ideas have been exemplified in the so-called ‘alt-right’, a movement that first emerged in the USA and has now spread its influence to Europe and other parts of the globe, helped considerably by the ‘borderless’ nature of the web and social media.

In particular, Neiwert explains how the term ‘alt-right’ (a term now used regularly by many commentators in discussions of radical right politics) actually came into being. Richard Spencer, a white nationalist and editor of a conservative magazine, coined the term ‘alternative right’ in 2009 when describing what he believed was a new kind of conservatism in America. It was a fresh version of conservatism that, Spencer claimed, differed strongly from neo-conservatism (of the kind usually found on the right of the Republican party) and was open to ‘racialist’ politics.

Less than a year later, in early 2010, Spencer founded his own webzine on the internet and named it The Alternative Right. Due to the nature of internet discourse, the movement the webzine promoted was quickly shortened to ‘alt-right’, and the name has stuck.

Neiwert’s new book is also helpful in a number of other important ways. The internet played a huge role in the evolution of the alt-right’s new version of conservative politics. He points out, for example, that the alt-right movement established itself ‘primarily through its cultural agility – its ability to stay at the forefront of events, themes, ideas, and names in the media by adapting them to their own uses and then running wild with them’. In other words, alt-righters have been adept at hi-jacking ideas and images from popular culture, and have used the internet extensively to bring about the online radicalization of many young white Americans.


Where does Donald Trump fit into all this? Neiwert notes that, by the summer of 2015, the alt-right ‘was gaining significant momentum as an online movement’. However, it lacked a real leader or easily identifiable figurehead – a charismatic political figure around whom it could coalesce, ‘whom its members could devote their energies to electing to office’. Enter Donald Trump.

Worryingly, millionaire businessman Trump’s dramatic entry into Republican politics provided the alt-right, in a sense, with just such a figure. Trump, of course, was not a virgin when it came to politics. A Donald Trump candidacy had been first mooted in 1992, when he was (briefly) considered as a running mate for George H.W. Bush, but lost out to Dan Quayle. Trump also considered running on a Reform Party ticket in 1999.

According to Neiwert, however, Trump first started taking seriously the idea of a bid for the presidency in 2011, publicly speculating about running against the incumbent president, Barak Obama.

It was in the very same year that Trump came out as a ‘Birther’. This was a racist conspiracy theory, widely ridiculed by the U.S. media, which claimed that Obama was not born in Hawaii and was not, in fact, a ‘true’ American. In April, 2011, for example, Trump told reporters that he now believed that there was ‘a big possibility’ that Obama’s presidency might be in violation of the U.S. Constitution. Despite much criticism of his view, Trump remained doggedly committed to this bizarre claim for years afterwards, and it was precisely this kind of language that made those who eventually identified themselves as ‘alt-right’ so enthusiastic about the idea of a Trump presidency. Rightly or wrongly, they saw Trump as ‘their man’. And it is clear that, when he entered the White House, Trump surrounded himself with a number of advisers who evidently had certain ‘alt-right’ sympathies or espoused similar views.

White House

The book is rich in detail and evidence. As Neiwert persuasively argues, Trump’s ideas and rhetoric on a whole range of issues emboldened and empowered rightwing extremists across the USA. The new president’s rhetoric seemingly gave permission for long-suppressed hatreds and resentments, together with some very angry bigotry, to rise to the surface of U.S. society and ‘unleash the nation’s dark id’.

In other words, Trump has created ‘Alt-America’, a country where, in some parts at least (especially in the Rust Belt areas), the radical right has now become a real force with real influence, and liberalism is very much on the defensive.

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


Posted in American history, European History, Media history, Uncategorized, World History | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Suffrage 100: National Archives to host events to mark 1918 Act

The UK’s National Archives (TNA), located at Kew in South-West London, will host a variety of events during 2018 to mark the centenary of the groundbreaking Representation of the People Act 1918, which granted women over the age of 30 in Britain the right to vote.

A number of events have been arranged for February and March, 2018, in partnership with Vote 100, events which will also make use of rare TNA documents and records from the time.


On Friday, 9th February, at 18.00-21.00, there will be a special screening of the recent critically acclaimed Hollywood movie Suffragette, which stars Carey Mulligan and Meryl Streep. Those who attend will also be able to see some of the original documents that relate to the fight for women’s right to vote in the early 20th century. The document display will be open from 17.30, and the screening of the film will also have an introduction before it begins.

On Tuesday, 20th February, a debate will be held from 18.00-19.30 entitled ‘Did Militancy help or hinder the fight for the Franchise?’ Dr. Fern Riddell (BBC’s Suffragettes Forever!), Elizabeth Crawford (author of The Women’s Suffrage Movement), and Professor Krista Cowman (University of Lincoln) will discuss whether the militancy of the Suffragette movement, which arguably hit its peak around 1912, helped or hindered their cause.

On Thursday 15th March, a talk will be given at 14.00-15.00 by Diane Atkinson about her forthcoming book Rise Up Women!, a study which celebrates the achievements of the women who campaigned tirelessly for women’s rights and paved the way for women to break into what, until 1918, was an exclusively male-dominated political system in Britain. History was also further made when, the following year, Lady Nancy Astor became the first female MP in the House of Commons.

On Wednesday 28th March, a free talk and document display will take place at 14.00-15.00 entitled ‘Locating London’s Suffrage Legacy’, which will explore the people and areas of London associated with the suffrage campaign. Although the suffrage movement was active throughout the British Isles, in many ways the UK’s capital city was a hub for both militant and constitutional campaigning.

The National Archives

The special centenary events at Kew, which will be part of the nationwide Vote 100 commemorations, will also see the opening of a new suffrage exhibition in April, located in TNA’s Keeper’s Gallery on the ground floor. As a taster for this, and while the main exhibition is prepared, the first floor Reading Room at TNA has a display about the groups which supported women’s suffrage in London. This runs from January-July, 2018.

The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, is open Tuesdays-Saturdays.

For more information on upcoming TNA events, visit:



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

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:


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