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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
Events Featuring content from speakers our blogs give added insight into our events
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Library A new way to engage with the library collections and services.
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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
Discover | Enquire | Debate

Archives help us make sense of different historical perspectives and provide an amazing insight into the experiences of past generations. Patrick Vernon OBE  looks at the importance of black archives in promoting political activity and grassroots activism. 

Black archives matter for all of us in understanding political and social change today. Over the last two decades, academics, historians and community activists have been discovering and lobbying for research, preservation and funding of black-related archives in mainstream bodies and community-led organisations. In London and nationally there are many examples of major museums and institutions making their archives and collections more accessible to the public, often with the support of Heritage Lottery Funding. 

However most of these archives are connected to the slave trade and the British Empire. Although this is important, there is a growing trend in promoting the archives of community activists and their contribution to race relations and the fight for social justice in Post-war Britain. The George Padmore Institute based at new Beacon Books explores the life of the late John La Rose and the rise of the supplementary school movement. The Huntley Archives at the London Metropolitan Archives focus on the life of Jessica and Eric Huntley as publishers and campaigners on local and international issues. The Black Cultural Archives established by Len Garrison has a number of individual and community organisation archives, including the Runnymede Trust.
Bernie Grant and Lennox Lewis photograph
At Bishopsgate Institute there are a number of archives; but the one which has a personal interest to me is the Bernie Grant Archive, which covers the social and political life of the late Bernie Grant MP. His archive reflects a cross-section of black ephemera with newspapers, magazines, hand bills,  pamphlets and personal letters from the period 1950 to 2000. The archive also has a collection of racist stereotype post cards and advertising material from the late Victorian era to the 1960s, again highlighting the social change in the media and public perceptions of black people in the UK and USA.

Included in the archive are many wonderful photographs that show Bernie in his many roles; a Council leader in Haringey, trade union activist and MP, he also worked in Europe and founded the reparation movement, as well as campaigning on Broadwater Farm and policing. One of my favourite images is of Lennox Lewis, the most successful black boxer to date and Bernie. I tweeted this on the anniversary of his death and received over 30,000 views and was constantly retweeted by people around the world (including Lennox himself). This image reflected the growth, confidence, and aspirations of black people in the 1990s trying to break the glass ceiling in academia, sports, media, politics, the civil service and business. 

Patrick Vernon OBE will be talking to Jeffrey Green, Victoria Northridge and Stefan Dickers in Exploring Archives: Black Ephemera on Saturday 3 October.

Upcoming events and courses at Bishopsgate Institute offer you the chance to explore the Bernie Grant archive, while complimentary events look at the role music played in shaping the black British experience in the 1970s and 80s.

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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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Traces of Muriel Lester: the story of the story box

by Schools and Community on 25 / 11 / 2013

Social campaigner, committed pacifist and friend of Mahatma Ghandi, Muriel Lester (1883–1968) was described at the time of her death as a legend. In her own lifetime she was "admired by statesmen" and "loved by the poor". Lester’s relative obscurity today – coupled with an extraordinary life of contrasts that combined periods of international travel with time spent living in voluntary poverty in the East End of London – make her the ideal subject for the ‘story box’ exhibition as part of the Explore Your Archives campaign.

The Explore Your Archives campaign is a new initiative which launched on 16 November to raise the profile of archives in the UK and Ireland. At the centre of each campaign is the story box, a discrete exhibition created by archives of all shapes and sizes to celebrate their unique collections – and ideally to promote the more obscure or neglected items or individuals featured among their holdings. Unlike a traditional exhibition, which will usually have a narrative and a viewing order, the story box format allows for a more creative approach with each person or institution interpreting the materials in their own way.

The Muriel Lester story box was produced to open out the Lester archive to new audiences. It was devised in collaboration with young adults from The Only Way is Ethics (TOWIE), a lottery-funded youth project led by Emergency Exit Arts with heritage support from Bishopsgate Institute and the Museum of London.

TOWIE Young Producer Rumela Begum explored the Lester archive with archivist Nicky Hilton to help create the story box. Rumela said afterwards:

"Being given the opportunity to curate the story box has been an intriguing and rewarding experience. Exploring the archives was like walking in the footsteps of those who had fought to get their voices heard and create a change. Looking through newspaper articles, pamphlets and images we were able to piece together the traces of Muriel Lester’s past and create our own interpretation. Her courageous and inspiring story, which gained Muriel thousands of supporters worldwide, should be known and celebrated. Who knew such an influential women was living among us not so long ago?

Muriel Lester is one excellent example of how the past can help and inspire us in the present. Likewise, our story box is one example of the fascinating histories that can be uncovered through just a few hours of your own investigation. Come along to the Bishopsgate institute (or your local archives) and start your own research trail to discover what has been hidden away for too long!"

The Lester story box was revealed to more than fifty adults and young people at the ‘I’m not a Feminist but… dinner and debate held in our Great Hall on 21 November as part of Parliament Week 2013. The theme of Parliament Week this year was Women in Democracy: "celebrating women’s contribution to UK democratic life and exploring how women’s voices can be better heard." Throughout her life Muriel Lester made her voice heard by campaigning for peace and equality across the world. Today she is almost silent in the archives; the materials that reveal her extraordinary life are infrequently accessed and little known.

If you’d like to explore the story of Muriel Lester for yourself, you can view the story box in the glass case in the main Bishopsgate Library until January 2014. Or you can enjoy the digital version, which includes additional photographs, on our Pinterest page.

You can also join the Explore Your Archives discussions on Twitter using #explorearchives to keep up to date with the campaign events and displays. #TOWIEthics will get you involved in the TOWIE Twitter dialogue about ethics, gender, protest and politics. Finally, why not tell us who you would nominate as the ‘Muriel Lester’ of the twenty-first century by leaving a comments card on our discussion board in the Institute corridor in the coming weeks? 

Who is this Man?

by Courses on 16 / 09 / 2013

Brushing book dust and bits of journal bindings from her clothes, course tutor Michelle Johansen emerges from among the boxes and folders in the Bishopsgate Institute archive to tell us about a new five-week lunchtime course. London Episodes uses historic materials to introduce adults to some curious incidents and lesser-known characters in the life of the city since the 1880s:

I’ve been using the Bishopsgate Institute archives since 2000 to inspire and inform my research, writing and teaching projects on London’s social history. The range of materials held in the Institute’s collections is surprisingly varied but, with such eclectic and expansive holdings, finding the ‘best’ materials can prove to be difficult and time-consuming. This is particularly true for the novice researcher. Online catalogues don’t reveal, for example, which are the most visually arresting flyers or posters. Book titles can be misleading or off-putting. Promising-sounding pamphlets might prove disappointing once they’ve been fetched up by library staff from the basement strong-room. How do you find that one intriguing data entry in among the one hundred mundane institutional records? How do you know which collection will yield the type of information you require? And how do you make the fragmentary whole, the pieces of the jigsaw (badges, letters, diaries, directories, maps) fit together to create a meaningful story of the past?

What’s needed is a knowledgeable guide, an experienced explorer of the stacks who has navigated their way through hundreds of folders, files and boxes, directly handling their beautiful and fragile contents and able to bring the past back to life through a thoughtfully selected set of materials. My new London Episodes course has been directly inspired by the Institute’s historic collections. The course guides you gently through the research process, introducing you to a gallery of curious and colourful characters from the archives. Each week a different subject area will be studied, from philanthropy to public libraries, from terrorism to trade unions, and from criminal activity to social clubs. By the end of the course, you will be equipped with the confidence and understanding to begin to carry out your own independent research programme. You will be able to entertain your friends and family with a fresh set of stories about curious incidents and characters from London’s past. And you will also be able to identify the man whose image appears at the top of this post – and explain his historical significance.

Michelle Johansen will be delivering London Episodes on Tuesday lunchtimes.

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Q&A with the WI

by Schools and Community on 19 / 04 / 2013

The Women’s Institute uncover questions and find the answers in our archives

EE WI members explore the archives

Over the last seven months a small but energetic, eager and committed group of women from the East End Women’s Institutehave been rummaging through our archives. This exploration of our treasure trove of archives came about as a result of attending three of our community learning workshops

Quiz booklet coverWith the passion for learning and sharing ignited, the group decided that they wanted to continue exploring our archives and share the curious facts and miscellanea uncovered. The results of their exploration have resulted in the Tower Hamlets Miscellany Quiz. Independent and team-based research, primarily relating to the group’s neighbourhood of Tower Hamlets, has created a booklet of 30 questions ranging from "Where in Tower Hamlets was the Magna Carta confirmed by Edward I" to "When did Tubby Isaacs’ stall in Whitechapel open?"

This is just a sneak preview of the questions in the booklet, which will be launched in October at a quiz night for the East End WI. Afterwards, the East End WI will share the quiz through its website, and copies of the booklet will be distributed to a range of groups such as historical societies, community and educational groups.

Colleen Bowen, Chair of East End Women’s Institute, said that not only was the project a great opportunity to examine archived documents and hear other women’s experiences of the East End, but also reflected the East End WI's ambition is to have fun, learn, share new skills and be creative.

Please click on the links if you or your group are interested in either our community learning programme or working in depth with us.

About the East End Women’s Institute

The East End Women’s Institute welcomes all women to share, learn and enjoy good company. It is a member of the National Federation of Women's Institute's, which plays a unique role in providing women with educational opportunities and the chance to build new skills, to take part in a wide variety of activities and to campaign on issues that matter to them and their communities.

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Crisis English Club at Bishopsgate Institute, January 2013

Crisis Skylight London provides practical and creative workshops in accessible and inspiring environments to help homeless and vulnerably housed people regain confidence, build basic skills and raise aspirations. The English Club within Crisis Skylight regularly books workshops at Bishopsgate Institute, as well as the British Museum and Historic Royal Palaces, to give its learners unique and inspirational experiences.

Our workshops with the English Club provide a vivid picture of London, both historically and culturally, for homeless people for whom English is a second language. Through the workshops, participants develop a stronger sense of the city they now live in. We use documents, photographs and ephemera from our world-renowned collections to stimulate discussions which are not only informative but a fun and inspired way of practising English.

Over the last 3.5 years, the English Club has booked more than 25 workshops. We asked Veena Torchia, Manager of Accredited Learning at Skylight and the English Club’s organiser, what she feels Bishopsgate Institute has to offer her learners:

What attracted you to our community learning programme in the first place?
The fact that the programme was relevant, innovative and accessible for our learners.

Why have you returned each term?
The facilitators and facilities are excellent.

What learning and skills do the learners gain from attending the workshops?
They learn about the history of London, and the East End. And they practise their English in an informal but structured environment using a wide range of resources.

In what ways do our workshops support and contribute to the English Club’s objectives?
The workshops support language, knowledge and skills development and stimulate raising confidence levels and social interaction.

If you were to recommend our learning programme to other ESOL providers or community organisations, what would you highlight?
The workshops are really interesting and well structured with authentic visual resources, and the learning environment is really conducive to effective learning and development. In addition, ESOL tutors accompanying their groups can team teach "organically" without much preparation.

Our community learning programme offers a range of workshops exploring our library and archive collections. During the workshops, learners are able to handle and explore original items in an informal, friendly and supportive environment.

Crisis Skylight London’s English Club works with people from all cultural backgrounds to improve their speaking and listening skills and knowledge of London and its history. This allows the members to develop other life and social skills, including how to get out and about, empowering them to live independent lives.

Making the most of your special collections: Historic Libraries Forum annual conference, Bishopsgate Institute, 20 November 2012

By Ed

Bishopsgate Institute was proud to host the Historic Libraries Forum’s annual conference in November, which was dedicated to the theme of “Making the most of your special collections”. In times like these, in addition to their traditional tasks every library needs to raise its profile, boost its marketability, and maximise the impact that collections and services have on audiences old and new. Clearly, this is well-understood by librarians across the country, as indicated by the fact that this conference sold out well in advance.

Attendees arrived eager to hear about new ways and means of getting their libraries and collections under the public eye. Most of the presentations at the event centred on one of three topics: curating public exhibitions based on your collections; using social media to promote your library; and marketing and managing your library and building as a venue for filming (for documentaries, drama, and the big screen). Speakers generally focussed on the benefits of these activities for generating income, raising the profile of your special collections, and making the most of your holdings and professional expertise to build new audiences and new links with communities: burning issues for all libraries, not least historic libraries, all of which are increasingly expected to “do more with less”.

Highlights for me included Alison Cullingford’s talk about how she uses blogs and Twitter to promote Bradford University Special Collections; Alison provided important perspective and emphasised how social media provide a public arena where it is easier for small institutions to “punch above their weight”. In reference to work on a bigger stage, Harvey Edgington from the National Trust gave an entertaining talk about filming. In contrast to the National Trust, few heritage organizations are well-placed to act as venues for big-budget movies such as Pride and Prejudice (2005) and Alice in Wonderland (2010), but there are a number of potential benefits to being featured in a production, big or small, that may make the inevitable challenges and frustrations worth facing.

The speakers were all very good, and others hailed from institutions including the British Library, Cambridge University, King’s College London, and Lambeth Palace. While most were understandably drawn from large organizations, conference attendees seemed to come from a wide variety of institutions, including a large proportion from small or independent libraries and archives like our own. During the breaks, it was great to meet old and new friends in the profession, and to discuss ways of meeting the challenges and opportunities of the current period.

I found the talks to be very stimulating and finished the day with a number of new ideas. I was excited by the discussion about a potential future event on promoting and preserving digital collections; this is an area we are working on at Bishopsgate. On a personal note, I was also very pleased with the reaction of people to Bishopsgate as the conference venue: visitors appreciated our building and library for their visual appeal and distinctiveness, and we were also complimented on our efficiency as a venue hire service.

The Historic Libraries Forum is committed to promoting and protecting historic libraries and collections, and also serves as a forum for people working with these collections to share information and ideas. For more information about the Historic Libraries Forum, visit www.historiclibrariesforum.org.uk.