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The Bishopsgate Blog provides an added insight into all of our activities, Library, Courses, Events and Schools and Community Learning. Our regular blogs will feature speakers from our Cultural Events, photographs, documents, letters, posters and ephemera from the Library, up-to-date news and information on courses and first-hand accounts of our Schools and Community workshops.

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Courses Our regular blogs will provide up-to-date news and information on our courses
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Schools and Community First hand accounts of our archive learning workshops

Schools and Community

Our inspired Schools and Community Learning programme delivers a range of workshops and projects using the unique and fascinating collections found within our world-renowned Bishopsgate Library. Our workshops are suitable for learners of all ages and are used by wide variety of audiences from primary school pupils to pensioners.

Our regular blogs will demonstrate how our Schools and Community Learning programme encourages discovery and enquiry amongst our wide-ranging participants.


Culture and arts, heritage and history, ideas and independent thought all come together in our exciting events programmes. You can enjoy talks, walks, discussions and debates, or one of the many concerts that take place throughout the year.

Our regular blogs will give an added insight and perspective into our dynamic programme with content from speakers at our events.


Situated in a Grade II* listed building, Bishopsgate Library’s beautiful reading room is a peaceful place to study that is open to all; a calm oasis amid the bustle of Spitalfields and the City. In our dedicated Researchers’ Area, you can consult our renowned printed and archival collections on London, labour, freethought and Humanism, co-operation, or protesting and campaigning.

Our regular blogs will provide a new way for you to engage with the library collections and services, new acquisitions, activities and future developments.


Our comprehensive range of short courses offer you the opportunity to discover, discuss and be inspired in a welcoming environment. Our courses are conveniently designed to take place throughout the day, including lunchtimes, after work and at weekends. We have five course strands, Arts and Culture, Words and Ideas, Languages, Performing Arts and Body & Exercise to choose from.

Our regular blogs will provide up-to-date news and information.

Bishopsgate Blog
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Summer Trips at Bishopsgate Institute

by Bishopsgate Institute on 06 / 07 / 2016

This summer we offer three short courses that provide students with the chance to take a trip through time and space without leaving a classroom setting. Whether you’re interested in ‘visiting’ the Crystal Palace in the 1850s, the Festival of Britain in the 1950s or Swinging London in the 1960s, course tutor Michelle Johansen has your journey mapped. 
Archive images of the Swinging 60s

As part of Summer School 2016, I’m delivering three courses that use library and archive materials to recreate three distinct moments in London’s social and cultural history. In programming these courses, the intention was to provide a break from the routine but without the stress that comes with organising a real day trip. Expenses are minimal; there are no frustrating transport delays; and there is no need to worry about the weather, a definite plus point as we move out of the dullest June on record.

All three courses take place in an atmospheric library setting and provide access to sources that evoke an authentic sense of place and period. In An Excursion to the Crystal Palace students examine 150+-year-old pamphlets, illustrations, admission tickets, press cuttings and guidebooks to discover what it was like to visit the most ambitious international public event ever yet organised in Europe. Health and safety precautions are covered. There is a chance to assess the mechanical properties of the ‘Vulcan Machine for Cleansing Chimneys’ along with other pioneering Victorian inventions. Naturally, you will spend time in the Italian Court and have a chance to view the famous panorama of the siege of Paris.

If you prefer the stark brutalism of the post-war era to Victorian fuss and excess, you might choose instead to join an afternoon jolly to the Festival of Britain as we collectively revisit the period after the second world war when London’s South Bank was developed and thrown open to the public. Promoted as ‘paradise on the water’, visitors to this Festival of Britain site in 1951 were greeted by a futuristic spectacle that sought both to reflect and usher in a new technologically-sophisticated age. The session includes an archival peep inside all of the main display spaces (including the Dome of Discovery and the Telekinema) as well as a strictly-just-on-paper boat ride upriver to the exhibition of live architecture at Poplar in east London. 

For the ‘gear’ or ‘with it’ type of student, an evening spent with mind-blowing materials from the swinging sixties might be more suitable. Get your hands on items like the Gear Guide (1967) to discover where it’s at on the fashion scene on the Kings Road and other London hip spots (see image above). But this ‘night out’ won’t only be about the boutiques and bistros; we will use pamphlets, flyers, photographs and press cuttings to examine heavier topics too, such as debates around abortion and birth control, the emergent women’s movement and changing attitudes to same-sex relationships. Definitely not to be missed if you’ve ever wanted to find out how and why London became the world capital of cool for an expanding youth market in the final decades of the twentieth century. 

Bishopsgate Instititute's special collections and archive holds a variety of collections relating to the social and cultural history of London.

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Radical Citizenship at Bishopsgate Institute

by Bishopsgate Institute on 21 / 05 / 2015

What happened when we allowed a group of young adults to develop a corridor exhibition inspired by historic materials documenting the story of an extraordinary twentieth-century political movement? Interpretation officer Michelle Johansen provides an update on a new arts heritage project and reflects on the process of interpreting historic collections in creative and collaborative ways.

Since February 2015 we have been collaborating with Emergency Exit Arts to deliver a youth training project called Radical Citizenship funded by the Heritage Lottery’s Young Roots grants scheme. The project builds upon a previous partnership (The Only Way is Ethics, 2013-14 ). The current phase of the project offers skills-based training to equip young adults (aged 18 to 25) to produce and facilitate a series of public events, a temporary exhibition and a schools learning programme inspired by items from one of our collections, the Mondcivitan Republic Archive, which has recently expanded from one to almost one hundred boxes of materials following a donation from the Schonfield World Service Trust

A project archives placement is currently supporting library staff to catalogue the newly-accessioned materials while an exhibition placement is working with me to curate a temporary corridor display that interprets the Mondcivitan message and materials in fresh ways. The exhibition work began in April 2015 when a small, self-selected group of young adults attended workshops teaching heritage interpretation and exhibition design skills. An informal exhibition working group was then established to continue developing the 11-panel, two-dimensional display after-hours in the library. 

Image: Interrupted in the decision-making process

The members of the group have committed increasing hours to the collaborative exhibition development process since April. When asked why, the responses included the following:

The thing that has kept me coming along week after week is the discoveries we make each time. Going through the folders of archive materials numerous times is like digging deeper and deeper into the past. Because we’re reading documents very closely, as we search out quotes or text to use to tell the exhibition story, every session reveals more historical background and new ideas or concepts. It’s just really rewarding.      

When we started looking at the archive materials in the first training sessions at the beginning of the year I thought they looked really boring but then I started reading the letters sent by the members to one another – and the nicknames they used, like ‘Owl’ – and suddenly the story became a human one. I was also seeing more and more modern parallels in the type of issues the Mondcivitan Republic were addressing, especially around the time of the election in May, and that made me want to explore their views further.

I finished my A-levels last year and I’m on a gap year working in a supermarket to save money for university. I miss school [laughs] and I wanted to do something with my time that wasn’t just going to my job but that made me think a bit deeper about things. I like the collaborative elements of working together on the exhibition too. We’ve all got different skills and ideas we bring to the sessions and I like sharing those and the discussions around which items will go on which panel to tell the overall story in the best way possible.

The group travel considerable distances across London to get here for sessions at the end of a full working day. Their levels of commitment to the exhibition process have been maintained even as the work has become less creative (the laborious process of scanning archive sources to submit to the designer is now underway). My tips to other heritage organisations thinking of undertaking similar collaborative youth work would be:

- Offer an intensive training session at the start of the process to build skills and encourage teamwork

- If practical, provide full and free access to a relatively unknown collection to encourage engagement, exploration and a sense of ownership 

- Provide clear exhibition milestones – then step back from the process to ensure the ideas and outcomes are authentic and participant-led

- Allow a long lead in from the initial training to the print deadlines to facilitate creativity and genuine collaboration across weeks rather than days

The project exhibition panels go up in our corridor on Monday 29 June. A ‘meet the curators’ exhibition launch in the main library from 7.00pm will provide an opportunity to question members of the exhibitions group about their experiences of developing the display from start to finish over a glass of wine or soft drink. 

here to book your space at this free event. 

Bishopsgate Library collections cover a variety of subject areas which explore radical, social, labour, feminist and gay history in London.

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Colin Clews looks back at LGBT life in the 1980s

by Bishopsgate Institute on 16 / 03 / 2015

Colin Clews, author of the popular and informative 'Gay in the 80s' blog takes a look back at LGBT life in the 1980s:

Queer life in the 1980s was an extraordinary mix of progress and setbacks as lesbians and gay men became increasingly visible. The 1982 launch of Channel Four - with its remit to address the needs of minorities – had a hugely positive impact on the representation of queer people. Out and Out on Tuesday offered a magazine-style look at lesbian and gay life: the Corner House was the first attempt at a queer sit-com and two series of In the Pink charted the development of queer cinema.  

And despite the 80s beginning with global protests over the movie Cruising, filmic representations gradually improved. Films like Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts and Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (another contribution from Channel Four) didn’t problematise queer people but rather social attitudes towards us.

But as our visibility grew so did the attacks upon us – from the physical to the political. The Campaign for Homosexual Equality’s 1980 report Attacks on Gay People found, for example, that “about one in eight [attacks] leads to the death or disablement of the victim”. A 1984 report by the Gay London Police Monitoring Group (GALOP) documented immense hostility from the police: for example, a man seeking police assistance when a group of men attacked a gay pub, was told, “Well what do you expect? You’re a queer in a queer’s pub. Fuck off before I nick you for being drunk and disorderly.”   

A Victorian law, the Customs Consolidation Act (1876), was resurrected to justify repeated raids on Gay’s the Word bookshop. Countless gay men were arrested for ‘importuning for immoral purposes’, an offence that was created to stop ‘stage door Johnnies’ harassing showgirls as they left Victorian musical halls. Public displays of affection by lesbians and gay men resulted in charges of ‘insulting behaviour contrary to the Metropolitan Police Act 1839.’

With the first UK case of AIDS in 1981 gay men struggled to make sense of this mysterious and deadly condition. Prior to the introduction of HIV testing in 1985, life for many gay men included an anxious daily check for Kaposi’s Sarcoma skin lesions – one of the defining conditions for AIDS. Meanwhile the Press revelled in the notion of ‘the gay plague’, suggesting that we were both morally and medically infectious.

And then the passage of Section 28 heralded the close of the decade.

Colin will be joining Linda Bellos to discuss LGBT London in the 1980s - the media and the 'Loony Left' on Tuesday 21 April.

The Lesbian And Gay Newsmedia Archive (LAGNA) is based at Bishopsgate Institute.

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London in Fiction: May Day by John Sommerfield

by Bishopsgate Institute on 12 / 03 / 2015
London Books recently republished John Sommerfield’s 1936 politically-charged novel ‘May Day’ as part of its London Classics series. This new edition was made possible by the generosity of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union and three of its officials – Bob Crow, Alex Gordon and Brian Denny. John King, co-owner of London Books, explains why the book is still as relevant today as when it was written.
 John Sommerfield's May Day
This March sees the first anniversary of the death of trade-unionist Bob Crow at the age of 52. He may have divided opinion as leader of the RMT, but even his worst enemies knew that he was an honest man. An idealist who believed in people over profit, he was also a pragmatist whose success often seemed to be resented by those in power. With Tony Benn, who passed away three days later, he represented true Labour values during an era when the party has moved further away from its roots.
Bob was greatly influenced by a previous generation that saw class and the workplace as the battleground for a fairer society, forming mass working-class movements and helping to create the welfare state. This generation included John Sommerfield, author of May Day.
First published in 1936, this unique novel is set over a three-day period that ends on May 1st. The workers in an east London factory are being bullied by new owners. Speed-ups, accidents and lost earnings have to be confronted. With today’s zero-hours contracts, wage freezes and falls, May Day could easily have been written now. But in 2015, it would struggle to find a publisher. It is just too original.
Sommerfield creates a vision of London that mirrors Walter Ruttmann’s 1927 film Berlin: Symphony Of A Metropolis, Ashley Smith’s non-fiction A City Stirs, the cut-ups of a David Bowie or DJ Shadow. There is no main character, instead a big cast of diverse individuals whose experiences weave together to create the larger tale. These threads tell us as much about the present as the 1930s. Human nature doesn’t change, so life repeats.
Bob Crow and John Sommerfield were optimists who felt capitalism was as bad for the bosses as the workers. They never met each other, but when the RMT funded the London Books republication of May Day in 2010 the link was cemented. A launch was held in The Brown Bear pub in the East End, once run by Bob’s aunt. He said some words and we drank to John. The circle was complete. Now it’s time to remember Bob through May Day.

You can hear Alex Gordon and Brian Denny discuss the impact of the book when it was first published and its relevance for today’s readers in our event May Day on Tuesday 24 March.

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When Anne-Marie Sweeney was asked to make a film for the National Women Against Pit Closures (NWAPC) she was happy to do so. Here's why:

The National Women Against Pit Closures (NWAPC) wanted a film to show their political voices were not silenced when the 1984/85 miners' strike ended, but continued to be heard long after. 
Image of women picket at Yorkshire Main Colliery Feb 1985

Image: Courtesy of John Sturrock (www.reportdigital.co.uk) Women picket at Yorkshire Main Colliery Feb 1985

In 2005 they held an extraordinary weekend in Sheffield to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the coal miners’ strike. They invited women that they had stood shoulder to shoulder with in struggles, both during the strike and in the twenty years after it. They wanted both to celebrate and learn from these voices that resonated from picket lines, peace camps, migrant movements and war zones.

Brenda Procter, Chair of NWAPC, was one of the organisers and chaired the event: “This wasn’t about nostalgia for 84/5 - we had business to do. This was 2005 with Thatcher’s offspring, Blair, in charge - attacking the working class, privatising and war mongering. We invited some of the most frontline and experienced campaigners in the last thirty years and we were there to get our heads together!”

The event was an unforgettable rollercoaster of radical politics, poetry, internationalism, dancing, theatre and song.  It ended with the night skies exploding with fireworks organised by members of the Fire Brigades Union.

I wanted to reflect in Going Through the Change! the uncompromising political stand these women had taken and the impact it had on their lives.  Many were regarded as 'enemies of the state'. They had endured surveillance, suffered strip searches and imprisonment. They chose, as their weapons of survival, stinging humour and sisterhood.

The Irish Civil Rights leader Bernadette McAliskey (formerly Bernadette Devlin) talks of the change that occurs to the whole of our lives, once we as women, cross the threshold and take to the streets – “There is no going back.”

Bernadette explains why we become, of necessity, so strong in resistance. Not only do we have to continue to care for our families but also, “We’ve had to fight alongside our men and with them at the same time. We’ve had to educate them in our equality while we’ve worked with them for the equality of the whole.”

The film’s title refers to this very big change in the lives of these women.  But it also acknowledges that this film is a portrait of women of a certain age, many grandmothers, all activists, speaking with a wealth of political experience and clarity. 

It is uncommon to hear the clear political analysis of older working class women, they are still hidden voices. Using rare archive footage we hear them from the heart of their struggles.

We filmed the audience, sharing their experience often in close-up. Their faces mapped hardship and suffering, but, also charted the way to continue to find great humour and joy in resistance, despite devastated communities, personal loss and the forces ranged against them. True grit and true stars!

You can watch Going Through the Change!and hear Anne-Marie Sweeney discussing the film on Tuesday 3 March 2015.

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Dramatising John Lilburne

by Bishopsgate Institute on 17 / 02 / 2015

The John Lilburne 400th Anniversary Conference turns the spotlight on an often overlooked historical character. The dramatic appeal of this courageous campaigner was not lost on writer Martine Brant who co-wrote with Peter Flannery the TV serial "The Devil's Whore" and its sequel " New Worlds". She explains why Lilburne is a gift to the dramatist.

It’s hard to imagine writing a drama set in the Civil War without casting the charismatic radical John Lilburne as one of its leading characters.  In Free-born John, the personal and the political are indivisible. Fearlessly provocative, obsessively single-minded in his fight for social justice, Lilburne stands out as one of the most striking figures of his age.
Devil's Whore Channel 4 image
Lilburne is truly a gift to the dramatist.  Here we have a man who shines through as colourful but complex, fanatical but flawed, egotistical but egalitarian.  A man unafraid to speak truth to power (even to his old comrade-in-arms, Cromwell),  a man driven by the desire for justice and reckless of his own safety and comfort. 

In our TV drama The Devil’s Whore, we tried to stay true to his historical character, and although not a great deal is known of his personal life, his persona spoke out from his words and actions:  indeed, for Lilburne, words and actions were one.  He acted out his principles and led by example.  Twice exiled and frequently thrown into gaol, he refused to be silenced but continued his campaign from his cell.  Father of 10 children (many named after the prisons in which they were conceived!), he was inevitably torn between his duty to his family and to the cause of liberty, yet he found a way to reconcile his conscience: without the rule of law and social justice, his family would have no life worth living.

Lilburne is a gift to the dramatist, too, because of his principles, burningly revolutionary at the time and bitingly relevant today.  Lasting democracy lies in our willingness to defend it.  Lilburne’s life demonstrates how important it is to stand up and speak out for our freedoms and to hold firm despite setbacks.  As we watch our civil liberties being eroded, we would do well to remember the man who, above all others, argued and fought and suffered in the cause of religious toleration, of a broader franchise, a government elected by popular mandate and a fair and equitable legal system. 

This year we celebrate the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta;  the sign at Runnymede declares the site to be ‘The Birthplace of Modern Democracy’.  Wrong.  Modern democracy was born in the blood, smoke and stench of the English Civil Wars and in the struggle of those men like John Lilburne whose conviction and sacrifice forged the liberties we know today and so readily take for granted.  Bringing these key figures to life through drama can only inspire and inform the ongoing discussion about our freedoms and privileges.  

Martine Brant and Peter Flannery will be taking part in the Lilburne 400 conference on Saturday 14 March

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Doctor Barnardo in the East End of London

by Bishopsgate Institute on 11 / 02 / 2015

John King gives us a glimpse of the London Dr Barnardo would have experienced back in 1866 as portrayed in Simon Blumenfeld’s 1930s novel 'Doctor of the Lost' and explains why the book is as relevant today as when it was published.

Image of a Boy from Dr Barnardos










The East End that Thomas Barnardo found when he first came to London in 1866 was one of great poverty. This was a time of rampant capitalism, when the few were becoming very wealthy at the expense of the many.

London was the capital of a great world power, and yet Barnardo found himself surrounded by disease, unemployment, prostitution, alcoholism and violence. Even more shocking were the thousands of hungry children he saw sleeping on the streets, many dying from the cold. He decided to act, offering food, shelter and education. He stayed and fought for their futures, part of a parallel tradition of charity and service. Jealous rivals tried to smear Doctor Barnardo, but he won his battles and his work continues to this day.

Simon Blumenfeld’s account of Doctor Barnardo’s arrival and early years in the East End – Doctor Of The Lost – was written in the 1930s, when the old ways were being challenged by an organised working class and the seeds of a post-war welfare state were being sown. Blumenfeld was a devout communist and in the novel he links the revolutionary spirit of Barnardo’s religious drive to his own beliefs.

Discussions between Barnardo and a non-religious colleague filter through the text while, in keeping with his debut Jew Boy, Blumenfeld recreates a dynamic, if cut-throat, east London. There is hardship and sorrow, but also humour, morality, bravery and a host of well-drawn characters. It is an optimistic work, one that merges the two eras.

In many ways, Doctor Of The Lost is more relevant today than when it was first published. The idealism of the 1930s and post-war era has been replaced by a familiar greed; a selfishness that is now hidden behind a stream of liberal values that are very rarely lived.  Those who question this doublespeak are belittled, told they live in the past, and yet the return to a society where profit drives every decision and the privatisation of core services is seen as progress is actually a return to a much older model. Doctor Of The Lost may tell us a lot about London in 1866, but it tells us even more about London in 2015

London Books is an independent publisher which aims to bring old and new fiction together in a tradition that is original in its subject matter, style and social concerns.

John King is a co-owner of London Books and edits its London Classics series. He is also the author of novels 'The Football Factory' , 'Headhunters', 'England Away', 'Human Punk', 'White Trash', 'The Prison House' and 'Skinheads'. 

Sarah Wise and Ken Worpole will be looking at Dr Barnardo in the East End of London on Tuesday 24 February.

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The John Lilburne 400th Anniversary Conference

by Bishopsgate Institute on 03 / 02 / 2015

Born 400 years ago, John Lilburne's courage and passion for justice was unfailing during the turbulent wars of  the English Civil War. Jeremy Corbyn MP explains why he feels that the Lilburne 400 Conference is a timely reminder of a man who fought to establish many of the liberties and political freedoms we take for granted today.
John Lilburne image






The John Lilburne 400th Anniversary Conference is an exciting opportunity to hear leading historians of the English Revolution, political activists, film makers and writers present their unique and engaging take on ‘Freeborn John’...a man of his age and ours.

As many of our civil liberties are under threat in the 21st century, now is exactly the right time to recall the man who fought so hard to establish so many of them.

The enormous power that Cromwell bestowed upon himself at the end of the Civil War was seen by Lilburne and others as the replacement of a monarchical power for a parliamentary one. Lilburne wanted to see the real flowering of ideas and a fundamental reform of the whole way England and Wales were governed.

He defended the right of citizens to be tried by a jury of their peers, the right to petition and to demonstrate. But it’s not just his strongly held views on political liberty that made him a key figure in the history of popular rights.  He was a political organiser who built one of the first ever popular political organisations in British history, the Levellers.

Although the Levellers were to go on to be defeated, they contributed an indelible legacy of popular democratic demands to British political culture. In the end their message was heard by American revolutionaries in 1776, by French revolutionaries in 1789 and by every generation of radicals since.

The conference is a great opportunity to show a new generation the importance and excitement of this period of history.

Jeremy Corbyn MP will be one of the speakers at the Lilburne 400 conference on Saturday 14 March.

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Advent 2014: Christmas cards from the archive

by Bishopsgate Institute on 28 / 11 / 2014

It started with an enquiry on the Archives mailing list:

‘I have this book of Christmas cards that was in our family. It must’ve been samples that a salesman used from G. Delgado Limited, 53/55 East Road, London, N1 ... I was wondering whether there might be any interest.’

When we at Bishopsgate Institute Archives spotted this, we were straight onto the enquirer saying, ‘Yes, please!’ As one of our specialist collections focuses on London, this was just the kind of ‘ephemera’ we treasure.
Image of Bishopsgate Library archives  












After several emails back and forth to the donor in Canada, a large parcel arrived at Bishopsgate one day. Inside was the Delgado Ltd album book: measuring 33cm long by 28cm wide, with 130 pages of some 250 sample Christmas cards in a wonderful assortment of shapes, sizes, colour schemes and styles. The donor had suggested they dated mostly from the 1950s – though some of the styles, as you’ll see, have a real Art Deco feel to them. We were blown away by their vivid colours, their variety and their sense of fun.

Over the 24 days leading up to Christmas morning we will be posting a card a day from this catalogue to create an advent calendar on our social media.  We hope you’ll enjoy these images of jazz-playing penguins, dancing haggises, jolly postmen, skiing Christmas puddings, elegant skaters, wise men, sozzled robins and a Father Christmas who thinks he’s Lewis Hamilton!

If you’d like to come and see the entire album – or any of our other specialist collections – please visit any weekday between 10 and 5.30 (8pm on Wednesdays) and we’d be more than happy to help! In the meantime, Season’s Greetings and enjoy our advent calendar! 

Explore our world-renowned collections on London history, labour and socialist history, freethought and humanism, co-operation, and protest and campaigning. 

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LGBT Voices: Sharing our past, shaping our future

by Bishopsgate Institute on 24 / 11 / 2014

We recently became home to the Stonewall archive. Stonewall has played a crucial role in various campaigns for lesbian, gay and bisexual equality over the past 25 years. Their recent publication 'LGBT Voices: SHARING OUR PAST, SHAPING OUR FUTURE' shares 25 stories from LGBT people who have lived through inequalities and experiences that are rarely reflected on television, in books, in films or in our schools. Here is one of those stories:

Jacqui Chapman
I grew up in a little place called Long Eaton, between Nottingham and Derby. I was the only black child at school. In fact, because I was born in the '50s, I've been so used to being the only black person anywhere! We settled there because my Dad came over in the war and met my Mum.

In those days the American soldiers were in charge of the black soldiers that came over from the Caribbean, and any social activities, my Dad and his troop weren't allowed to join in, it was only for white soldiers. The mayor, or whoever it was, some bigwig in Long Eaton, decided that that wasn't good enough, so a small town called Long Eaton put on dances and social sorts of activities, and everybody was included. That's where my Dad met my Mum, and they were married in 1947.

I was married to my husband for 28 years and we adopted two children, a boy and a girl. I divorced in 2003. I don't know whether I've always been a lesbian or whether it was just Jenny I fell in love with. My daughter found the transition difficult, but once I bought this place and she came to live with me, she's been fine. She's so lovely, because she said "Actually Mum, it gave me a bit of kudos in the gang!" She said "My friends are really proud of me that I've got a gay Mum!"

But my Mum and Dad were beside themselves with rage. I actually had a breakdown and was ill for a year as a result of it. I didn't see my Mum for weeks and weeks. My birthday came and she wrote to me and she said "I'm just distraught I can't bear not being with you, not having you in my life." So we met up at the village hotel, and there were lots of hugs and tears.

Part of the rift was healed but, at that time, she really wouldn't have anything to do with Jenny. I think it was because they perceived Jenny to be the predatory lesbian. I have always made it very clear that I made the decision with my eyes well and truly open. It was just very difficult because they were very cool towards Jenny. When Jenny was my mate, when I was married and she came round, they thought she was wonderful, but as soon as she became my significant other that was it.

They were awful. A lot of my Dad's friends were staunch church-goers and a lot
of these people had seen me grow up, had come to my first wedding, yet all of a sudden I seem to have grown a pair of horns and a tail. But I was the same person. My Dad was
convinced that it was a ‘white’ problem. He said it was "a European disease" and "they're in the gutter." That was when he was most vitriolic.

But, having said all that, they eventually came round and my Mum became very fond of Jenny. She came round wholeheartedly and my Dad came round, but he was more reserved. He was from Jamaica. They call gay men "Batty Boys", don't know what they call women. But it doesn't happen to black people, you see. It's a male, and it's a white thing. I’ve found that there is huge prejudice in the black community. I always used to think that if you're in any sort of minority group or oppressed group and – black people are oppressed – then I thought that they would be more tolerant to other groups but that's not the case.

I've been spat on once by a man. Some youths tried to heckle us once when we were walking into town. Oh, and we went to a wedding show where the woman selling the tickets wanted to know where our fiancés were and we said "We're marrying one another." There was a sharp intake of breath. I thought she was going to faint!

I feel very comfortable and I'm with my soulmate. I know that because when I'm not with her there's an emptiness. I can feel it in my stomach. I want to be with her forever because I love her to bits! It's been at a cost, but I'm prepared to pay the cost. I have paid the cost.

Explore our world-renowned collections on London history, labour and socialist history, freethought and humanism, co-operation, and protest and campaigning. 

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Ronald Heaton, Librarian and Author

by Bishopsgate Institute on 17 / 11 / 2014
As part of our 120th birthday celebrations, the first chief librarian of Bishopsgate Institute Ronald Heaton (born 1867) is sharing his experiences on Twitter as @ronaldheaton. In the lead-up to the grand opening ceremony on 24 November 1894, with Mr Heaton promising to ‘live’ tweet from the event, our Interpretation Officer Michelle Johansen provides some information on Heaton’s life and career.

Ronald Heaton was born on the Isle of Man in 1867. His father was a churchman and schoolmaster. Ronald Heaton and his younger brother (the flamboyantly-named Montague Berkeley Heaton) were expected to follow their father into the church. Instead, Heaton chose to pursue an academic career and in 1892 he was awarded a degree in history from Kings College, Cambridge.
Ronald Heaton, Librarian at Bishopsgate Instititute

In the autumn of 1893, Heaton applied for the post of Director and Librarian at Bishopsgate Institute in the eastern half of the City of London. He was successful at interview and offered the job. As the Institute building remained under construction at this time, Heaton’s remit was a simple one: he was to set up a public library service on the premises from scratch including ordering furniture, selecting books and recruiting junior staff.

In the 1890s public librarianship was a relatively new profession in London. Librarians had been managing circulating libraries, subscription libraries and university and church libraries in metropolitan settings for many years. But running a freely open public institution was a novel concept in library terms, demanding particular skills and qualifications from managers and staff – skills and qualifications that Heaton did not appear to possess. At £400, the salary he received in 1894 was more than double the salary paid to the typical late-Victorian municipal chief librarian; the insistence upon a university degree (set out in the original advertisement for Heaton’s job) was also highly unusual. Most public librarians at this time were self-educated and even those in top positions had rarely stayed in formal education beyond the age of fifteen. Practical ‘on the job’ training was seen as more important than the lofty scholarly aspirations seemingly still cherished by Heaton.   

Working behind closed doors with Edward Maunde Thompson (1840-1929) of the British Museum Library to select materials for the Institute library ahead of the grand opening ceremony in November 1894, Heaton’s privileged upbringing and academic qualifications stood him in good stead. But once the library doors were thrown open to the general public he struggled to manage his duties and workload. He lacked a clear-cut vision for the expansion of the new educational scheme under his control and his ambitions for the Institute library were vulnerable to opposition. For example, Heaton attempted to recruit Oxford and Cambridge graduates for the new library assistant roles while the governors insisted on employing only local teenagers, straight out of school. Heaton acquiesced. Meanwhile, he struggled to manage his workload in the building. Organising an annual programme of lectures, concerts and classes with limited funds alongside his library management duties proved particularly challenging. In library reports from the period, we find him ‘depressed’ by budget restrictions that he believed restricted the amount he could achieve in the building. After three years in post, Heaton handed in his notice. His replacement was Charles Goss (1864-1946) an experienced public librarian from a working-class background who was familiar with the needs of a ‘free library’ type of readership. Goss remained in charge in Bishopsgate Institute library for almost fifty years. 

As for Heaton, on leaving the Institute he embarked upon a restless and ultimately unsuccessful search for a secure academic position. He spent time in France and Germany, carrying out independent historical research and improving his language skills. Back in London, and settled in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in the late 1890s, he appeared to be considering a career in the legal profession. Then by 1901 we find him living in Paddington with a wife and young family, rather grandly describing himself as an author although it is impossible to find any evidence of published works. Finally, he decided to return to library work. In 1902 Heaton was listed as a passenger on a steamer to South Africa where he had been offered a post at the State Library of Pretoria. This library role evidently suited him better than his comparatively short and clearly frustrating period as the first ever Director and Librarian of Bishopsgate Institute as a young man in the 1890s. Ronald Heaton remained a librarian at Pretoria State Library until the 1920s.

Follow @ronaldheaton to gain first-hand insight into the daily duties of Ronald Heaton at Bishopsgate Institute in the 1890s. Heaton also shares images and documents from our London Collection on his twitter feed.

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Phil Maxwell: What Bishospgate Institute means to me

by Bishopsgate Institute on 19 / 09 / 2014
Since it opened 120 years ago, Bishopsgate Institute has continued to welcome people through its doors to take part in its unique learning experience. Photographer Phil Maxwell explains what Bishopsgate Institute means to him.

A few years ago, I was invited by Bishopsgate Institute to exhibit my photography in the library. This was for me the start of a dynamic relationship that would lead to a long-term project, which would see my huge archive of negatives scanned and digitised.

Phil Maxwell Image of a man selling bananas

I’ve spent over thirty years recording the East End, and Bishopsgate Institute has now started to facilitate the archiving of this huge body of work. The original negatives will be housed in the archive together with digital copies. This will enable my work to be available to a wide audience and will give the archive a contemporary take on the East End to complement its well-established historic collection.

Phil Maxwell photograph of interior of a betting shop

It is important to me that this is happening at the Institute, as the archive is so rich and diverse; I know that my images won’t fall into obscurity and will provide a resource of information about the lives of ordinary people for future researchers.

Every few months I provide the Institute with a file of negatives and I get back a CD of the images. I then edit the CD and return a new copy to the collection. I’m delighted that the Institute is helping me in this way as it involves a lot of work; I am very grateful to the volunteers who are doing the actual scanning. Their hard work means I have the time to continue to photograph one of the most exciting places on earth: the East End of London.

Find out more about the Phil Maxwell collection at Bishopsgate Library.

Bishopsgate Institute has a range of events and courses happening this autumn.

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Sarah Wise: What Bishopsgate Institute means to me

by Bishopsgate Institute on 02 / 09 / 2014

Since it opened 120 years ago Bishopsgate Institute has continued to welcome people through its doors to take part in its unique learning experience. Author and historian Sarah  Wise explains what Bishopsgate Institute means to her.

In the 1890s east London underwent ‘a civic awakening’ (Lord Rosebery’s phrase), and museums, free libraries, lectures and artisan-skills training flourished where previously working people had been starved of accessible educational and cultural facilities.

Bishopsgate Institute was a huge part of that renaissance; and in today’s political culture which seems hell-bent on restricting higher education to those who can pay, Bishopsgate Institute continues to provide a non-elitist, open-hearted and welcoming approach to learning and culture. Above all, it has never forgotten that all these things are great fun, too.

I’ve been lucky enough to start my adult education teaching career here, and also to have been on the Talks Advisory Committee. Bishopsgate Institute has a marvellous way of integrating the events and courses with its basement archives (curated by its presiding genius, Stefan Dickers, and inspirational Interpretation Officer, Michelle Johansen) and its wide-ranging London collection of printed books.

The East End has for hundreds of years been the gateway to Britain for many different cultures, and the Bishopsgate’s collections wonderfully reflect this diversity: here, you can find the stories of the Irish, Jewish, Huguenot, British provincial and Bangladeshi immigrants who have come to London in order to make their way in the world.

Bishopsgate Institute archive image

The collections are still growing and in another 120 years’ time, future folk will be able to read about our strange lives and opinions!

Sarah Wise will be looking at the London 'Lowlife' Novel, 1889-1907 and Madness and the 19th Century Novel as part of our autumn courses.

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Owen Jones: What Bishopsgate Institute means to me

by Bishopsgate Institute on 02 / 09 / 2014

Since it opened 120 years ago Bishopsgate Institute has continued to welcome people through its doors to take part in its unique learning experience. Author and journalist Owen Jones explains what Bishopsgate Institute means to him.

Questioning, debating, exploring – all of these things are, by their nature, subversive. They challenge authority, encourage people to think for themselves, and even undermine the status quo, opening the possibility for change. And that is the tradition that Bishopsgate Institute stands in: an oasis of open-minded debate in the heart of London.

I’ve had the great privilege to share a platform at the Institute with many figures who have had a huge impact on me. My own highlight was chairing a conversation with Tony Benn following the publication of his final volume of diaries. It was one of the last events before his death, and he received a rapturous, emotional response from the audience. But Benn was perfect for the Institute; in some ways, he embodied its ethos. “An educated, healthy and confident nation is harder to govern,” he once said, and amen to that.

Many of the recent events have brought together leading cultural and political figures to talk about their own work, or to examine today’s significance of towering figures from the past. There have been debates on compelling topics ranging from Salman Rushdie’s fatwa to Charles Dickens’s relationship with London, while Man Booker Prize-winning authors have debated their work, and Shadow Cabinet Minister Tristram Hunt opened up a discussion on Friedrich Engels.

One of the dangers of being a writer is to end up in a bubble, kept away from your readers and never really being prodded and challenged by them. But the Institute excels at using authors’ work as a starting point for a wider discussion about many of the issues that need debating – and, in a sense, holding us to account in the process.

The Institute is even more interactive than that, hosting a wide range of courses to broaden cultural horizons – such as encouraging interest in photography and art appreciation; breaking down barriers with language lessons; training people up in the art of creative writing; and even offer lessons on acting and dance. It’s all based on the approach of building up engaged, well-rounded individuals.

London can be a fragmented, atomised place, so this effort to bring people together in such a stimulating way is particularly commendable. Today’s radicals need to learn about the great defeats and victories of the past; after all, we stand on the shoulders of giants, and those who wish to change the world need to learn from the struggle and sacrifice of those who came before them.

That’s why the library is such an invaluable resource, hosting fascinating collections of London’s radical history,including its socialist, trade union, humanist and free-thinking traditions.

Bishopsgate Institute is at the heart of the community. It really is a hub – culturally, intellectually and socially. Over the last 120 years, Bishopsgate Institute has become iconic, and understandably so. It has enlightened, entertained and stimulated for generations. It will continue to do so. Let it continue its subversive mission of education: an honourable tradition that the Institute has so much to contribute to.

Owen Jones will be looking at 'The Establishment' as part of our events this autumn.

Bishopsgate Institute has a range of events and courses happening this autumn.

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