My Top 5 Exhibitions of 2019

I know it has been very quiet on the blog front here at the Welsh Historian, but it is because I have been working non-stop. Organising events programming at the Jewish Museum and working at a cocktail bar in the evenings, surprisingly, does not give much time for anything. Let alone blog entries!

2019 has been a massive year of change for me and an absolutely amazing year for exhibitions in the UK. In the little spare time I have had off work, I have visited some absolutely groundbreaking exhibitions focusing on a plethora of topics, ranging from Tutankhamun to Troy, Keith Haring to Hogarth, there were too many to choose from to pick one favourite. So, I have decided to give my top 5 exhibitions of the year…

The Art of Persuasion: Wartime Posters by Abram Games- National Army Museum

Although they did not call the exhibition ‘War Games’ (a missed opportunity I know!) I really enjoyed visiting this exhibition. Having visited the National Army Museum only a handful of times before, I was pleasantly surprised at the layout of this exhibition. Inspired by his Jewish heritage, his experiences as a soldier, and the turbulent politics of the time, Games used his talent for visual communication to recruit, educate and influence soldiers and civilians alike. His posters took on a modernist approach and would have stood out , becoming very effective in recruiting. He designed the iconic WAAF poster below which dramatically increased enrolment in young women.

The exhibition layout was extremely engaging, showing the thought process behind the designs. Games using simple imagery to convey a clear artistic image and message. One of the best displays was that the gallery showed posters under different coloured lighting to show how different aspects of the images stood out in different colours, completely changing the images and our concept of them.

Manga- The British Museum

This exhibition was a personal highlight for me as I had access to the exhibition after hours and managed to take my sister, who is a big fan of manga comics. As someone who had never read manga before, the opening graphics explaining how to read manga and what certain images and symbols meant to the story, were extremely helpful and made the exhibition more accessible to me as a viewer. One main topic that was notable was the spotlight that was shone on female manga artists who have made strides in a male-dominated field to make girl-comics more mainstream and open the genre to include young women. I enjoyed the exhibition so much that I wrote a blog article about it earlier this year. You can find the article here:

Tutenkahmun- Saatchi Gallery

I want to say firstly, I had a strong moral objection to going to this exhibition as at £33 a ticket, I believe that the Saatchi Gallery were making this amazing exhibition completely inaccessible to a whole demographic of the British public and tourists. I think that it is wrong for museums and galleries to restrict exhibitions based on financial income and it completely cut of a whole new audience of museum goers who might have found inspiration when a museum would not normally be their first choice of entertainment. However, my parents were visiting me and decided to treat me with a ticket so I decided to go. I acknowledge the privilege that I have had to be able to spend that much on an exhibition ticket and thus, whatever I thought of the exhibition, I would not give it a review without mentioning how despicable I find it, as someone who works in the museum sector, to charge visitors such an extortionate amount.

I am also extremely dismayed to inform readers, after that outburst, that this exhibition was beautifully displayed. Every object was extremely well lit and well preserved. Half of the objects looked as if they were brand new, the level of care and conservation of these objects is the best I have ever seen. Golden statues with such ornate details shone amongst the alabaster and lapis lazul. I have been extremely lucky to view these amazing objects in my lifetime. I will say however, that the audio-guide (that was an extra cost, no surprise) did not have as much information as one would suspect due to the price of the ticket. It would have been extremely helpful to have a graphic at the start of the exhibition, such as the one in the British Museum’s Manga exhibition, of the common Egyptian symbols that were prominent in the collection and explaining their significance to the various Gods of Ancient Egypt.

If you can afford the price, and be lucky enough not to endure the crowds on the weekend, I would recommend this exhibition. Solely for the plethora of perfectly preserved objects.

Keith Haring- Tate Liverpool

The Tate Liverpool’s exhibition on Keith Haring was extraordinary. Stepping into the legendary New York art scene in the 1980s, you are submerged into a world of political activism through simplistic figures and shapes. The Director of Tate Liverpool Helen Legg states: ‘Haring united the realms of uptown high art and downtown street culture, in turn expanding the legacies of pop art to address the most urgent political and social issues of his time”.

Through the exhibition we see his natural talent being combined with performance art pieces as he draws characters on posters in the subway and draws a continuous piece barefoot until he is trapped on a corner of his own canvass. He blends themes of LGBT rights, space exploration and drug use into complex tapestries where each small aspect of his work creates a masterpiece of excitement and individualistic beauty. His voice being used as an advocate for LGBT rights has made him a very well known figure in New York, and it was astonishing to see how much his work resonated with visitors in the United Kingdom who had perhaps not known him before attending the exhibition. I personally enjoyed the exhibition so much I bought a poster AND a catalogue (I often have to restrain myself from buying museum catalogues but this one was too good to resist)! I loved that such a huge groundbreaking exhibition was shown outside London, making the art world open itself to new audiences.

Troy: Myth and Reality- British Museum

The Troy exhibition at the British Museum was one that I really enjoyed due to my severe lack of knowledge of the Ancient world. I had grown up reading the Greek myths through children’s story books, but had never studied Ancient Greece academically. The whole Helen of Troy and Paris story has been played out in Hollywood and replicated in so many different works of fiction. However, I did not happen to know the origins of the tale. As per usual, the plight of the people of Troy originated with the Gods fighting and causing trouble for each other.

Eris, goddess of discord, has not been invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis so she takes her revenge, throwing a golden apple amongst the guests to cause trouble. The apple bears the inscription ‘for the most beautiful’ and three goddesses fight to claim it. Zeus asks Paris, the Trojan prince, to act as a judge. Each goddess offers Paris a bribe for him to choose her. Aphrodite, who promises the love of the world’s most beautiful woman, wins. The woman is Helen, married to Greek king Menelaus. Paris steals her and takes her across the sea to Troy. The Greeks retaliate and assemble a large fleet commanded by king Agamemnon of Mycenae and lay siege to Troy for many years.

This introductory story was shown through many objects, such as pottery, and through very interesting visuals, projections of the Gods, helping explain the imagery on the pottery.

The exhibition then tells the tale of the great battles between Troy and the Greeks. Many stories of different characters get brought to the forefront of the exhibition, but one mention that stood out was the mention of potential homosexual relationships. On a sarcophagus we see Achilles grief-striken as his friends bring him the dead body of Patroclus, his closest friend and probably lover. Achilles takes out his revenge soon enough and eventually gets wounded, which, a prophecy once foretold, meant that death was soon to come.

I would recommend this exhibition to those who wish to gain a further insight into the tale of Troy and the famous Trojan horse. As the objects were not in great shape due to wars, colonialism and general damage due to age, the British Museum made a great deal of effort explaining the stories behind the artwork and objects, more than the Audio-guide at Tutenkahmun. It helped me gain a great foundation to build upon, to explore more ancient history in 2020.

I wish to all my readers a very happy New Year. May everybody have a lovely 2020 and I hope to see you all return to this blog in the upcoming year.


Remembering Aberfan

It is a day that will unfortunatley be marked forever in Welsh history and the community’s personal memories. The day that the colliery spoil spread down the valley killing 116 children and 28 adults. If you ask many Welsh people, Aberfan will be listed as one of the worst disasters to happen to Wales and for good reason. For an entire community, their future and their loved ones were wiped out in a matter of minutes.

It started days before, with constant rain and terrible weather beating the mountainside, slowly gathering to cause the spill that would engulf part of the village. The spoil (tip no. 7) was debris and unusable wastage from the local mine shoved onto the side of the mountain, laid there as they had nowhere else to put it. The spoil reached eleven feet high and, to many historians, was seen as a disaster waiting to happen. In the 1960s there were few regulations in place regarding health and safety procedures, especially concerning the mines and where they dumped their wastage. The spoil gathering water from the terrible October weather conditions was swelling and gaining traction waiting for the base to give way to slide down the mountain.

The destruction at Aberfan

Just before the local primary school was to have a half term break, the children of Aberfan were ready to start the lessons of the day when the spoil decimated the school.

One survivor Brian Williams recounts to the local paper:

I got up and went to school as normal. I always went with my older sister, June, and her best friend from up the street, Pamela. We called into George’s sweet shop, as we always did every morning, and then my sister would go the one way to the top end of the school and my class was down the bottom end.We got into class with Mrs Williams, who was my teacher.There was a bit of a kerfuffle because everybody wanted to be in the wendy house and I didn’t get to. So because I was having a bit of a strop I got moved from my seat by the door to sit by Gareth Jones to draw to keep me quiet.

If I’d been in my usual seat, we wouldn’t be having this conversation because the wall came down on my desk.

Brian Williams

We were sitting there drawing and we could hear a noise coming. And the best way I could describe it later on – because I’d never heard anything like that at the time – was like when you go to an airport and you hear an aeroplane coming in to land.I stood and I watched because I thought ‘if something’s coming I want to see what’s coming’.I just watched the classroom wall split from the bottom to the top.The wall came through and stopped. And the next thing I remember was it went very quiet, and then a lot of screaming and crying.

Then I saw Mr Williams (a different teacher) in the doorway. You could just about see his head from the gap of the door to where all the muck had come in.We were handed out one by one then to the caretaker. What you’ve got to remember with the caretaker here is he was getting us out and his two children had died further on up the school. You’ve got to think what was going through his head. We were told ‘get home as quick as you can’. But, of course, I knew as soon as I came out of the class that my sister was gone. You only had to look up the top end of the school and it was just… well, it wasn’t there basically.

The local men and women did not stop in their efforts to rescue the children and bring out the bodies of those who had perished in the disaster, families headed to the local church to identify the bodies of their young children. The community was devastated by this disaster, relying on each other for support due to the tragedy.

The National Coal Board was subjected to a national enquiry at the time, questioned as to whether they knew that the spoil rested on underground springs. The report placed the blame squarely on the NCB. Lord Robens, the organisation’s chairman, was criticised for making misleading statements and for not providing clarity as to the NCB’s knowledge of the presence of water springs on the hillside. Neither the NCB nor any of its employees were prosecuted and the organisation was not fined.The Aberfan Disaster Memorial Fund (ADMF) was set up on the day of the disaster. It received nearly 88,000 contributions, totalling £1.75 million.

Wales will always remember Aberfan. A day in which many innocent lives were wasted due to poor safety regulations. The graves are visited by the community on the anniversary of the disaster and Wales still mourns to this day. This was the day that the local children paid the price for coal.


The Welsh at Mametz Wood: A Forgotten Battle?

‘Me thought I heard a voice proclaim. ‘God crowns with sovereign good.

The Sacrifice and triumph of the Welsh at Mametz Wood.’[1]

Mametz Wood Memorial featuring the Welsh Dragon

Arthur George’s poem, quoted above, winning the Chair and Prize Poem at the Porthcawl Eisteddfod in 1918 highlights how Mametz Wood will always live in infamy within the Welsh public consciousness of the First World War. It was at Mametz Wood where the 38th (Welsh) Division was to first face the harshest fighting at the Western Front. The battle rests in public memory as a disaster costing many Welsh lives, submerging Welsh communities in grief and mourning and the army officials deemed it a disaster. Welsh newspapers commemorating the centenary of the battle mention numerous times the casualty rate and yet omit the fact that the battle was a victory and the Welsh succeeded in capturing the wood.[2] The media reports follow the same structure in which the British media reported, and still reports today, on commemorations of the Somme and the First World War in general. They focus on the lives lost and remembering the dead and omit the fact that the Allies won the war. This is mainly because the Somme campaign and indeed, the fighting on the Western Front in general was, and for many members of the British public, still seen as a futile slaughter of British troops.

Yet,  revisionist historians such as Gary Sheffield are trying to erase the myth that the Somme was a disaster.[3] The battle at Mametz Wood does not get this revisionist attention attempting to change public perception about the fighting of the 38th (Welsh) Division. Like the Somme in general, the battle at Mametz Wood was an eventual victory with the Welsh capturing the wood, but the public perception of the battle still deems it a disaster. This needs to be rectified as although the battle was costly, it cannot be deemed futile since the Welsh Division succeeded in capturing the wood. The Battle of Mametz Wood, in the end, was a victory for the Welsh Division, albeit a costly one. The fact that soldiers died and the Division did not take the Wood immediately does not qualify it to be remembered as futile. In this chapter I will discuss the events of July at Mametz Wood and attempt to highlight why it was deemed a failure rather than a victory; whether it has fallen into the public narrative of the Somme, or whether it should be classed as a victory and discuss whether prejudices against the Welsh were a factor in labelling Mametz Wood a calamity.

As part of the Somme campaign, the German Army was driven back in several sectors after the disaster of the first day and by 5th July the British Army was facing them across the valley near Mametz Wood.[4] The 38th (Welsh) Division was given orders to capture the woods and the battalions, such as the 14th Battalion marched to Mametz to receive their orders from commanding officers.[5] The attack on Mametz Wood was not to be an easy operation. Mametz Wood was the largest wood on the Somme which covers an area of over two hundred acres being close to a mile in length, overlooking a valley.[6] The Germans were well situated to the north midway between Fricourt and Montauban, with their second line of defence at Mametz Wood and had used their positions in the wood to their advantage.[7] The 14th battalion of the 38th (Welsh) Division relieved the 1st Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers (RWF), 91st Brigade on the front line in preparation for the capture of the wood.[8] A patrol by the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Regiment on the night of 3-4th July reported back that the wood was very dense with thick undergrowth which would make movement very difficult for infantry.[9] They also reported trip wires in the undergrowth and well placed machine guns at Acid Drop Copse which fire directly into the valley.[10] The report by the Royal Irish Regiment highlights the unfavourable conditions of the wood in which any infantry would have trouble capturing, let alone an inexperienced division that was going to be first tested in battle.[11] According to Barlow, the capture of Mametz Wood was thought to have been so difficult, that General Headquarters (GHQ) left it out of the orders for 1st July.[12] Thus it brings into question why GHQ ordered the inexperienced Welsh division to capture such a difficult objective especially considering that the German army defending the wood was far more experienced in combat and warfare. The higher army authority has also been questioned by historians such as Hicks who claims that XV Corps Headquarters failed to capitalise on the intelligence gathered by the Irish Regiment,[13] and the ‘official’ history of the Great War states:

 ‘it would appear that if XV Corps had encouraged more vigorous action on the afternoon of the 3rd, a hold on Mametz Wood could have been secured and Wood Trench and Quadrangle Trench occupied. The last named objective was taken on the morning of the 5th, but the others were to cost many lives and much precious time’.[14]

The planning of the attack on Mametz Wood has come under question by historians as there were arguments between officials over tactics and the lack of appropriate plans led to General Phillips’s removal from command in the middle of the operation on 9th July.[15] This will be revisited later on in this chapter in detail as I will approach the battle at Mametz Wood chronologically to achieve more transparency over the events that occurred in order to achieve an analysis of whether it was an actual disaster.

The attack was to begin on 7th July with 17th Division attacking Acid Drop Copse which was to the west of the main wood.[16] The 14th Battalion B and D companies came into Dantzig Alley coming up towards the German dug out in Pommiers Trench.[17] The 17th Division would attack the western edge of the wood to draw fire away from the 115th Brigade’s advance that was going into the Hammerhead and the first attack was scheduled to start at 2am.[18] Near the Hammerhead was the valley named Death Valley which was so named because the Germans would pound the area with shells as it was not visible and thus used for the transportation of troops and supplies. The Hammerhead was a very dangerous area of fighting but due to the limited visibility of Death Valley, the 115th Brigade did get some cover during their attack.

German Field Gun at Mametz Wood (Courtesy of National Museum Scotland)

The first attack was scheduled for 2am and an intense preliminary bombardment was ordered for 7.20am to 8am after which a series of barrages would be fired.[19] On the same morning at 8.30am the 16th Battalion Welsh Regiment and the 11th Battalion South Wales Borderers moved out of Caterpillar Wood and began an uphill advance westward towards Mametz Wood.[20] The battalions spread out attacking the wood from both sides, as Caterpillar Wood is to the east from the Hammerhead, they opted for a tactic of drawing fire away from the Hammerhead so the wood could be infiltrated by the 115th Brigade. The 113th Brigade had the job of providing heavy rifle and machine gun fire on the southern end of Mametz Wood from 8am until 8.30am from their positions in White Trench and Cliff Trench.[21] At 11am after another artillery bombardment, another attempt was made to enter the wood but the well placed enemy machine guns made progress into the wood impossible and by the end of the 7th July the Welsh Division was back in the same place as they had started only with a large number of casualties with 177 men and 3 officers who had lost their lives.[22]

The following morning all communication wires had been cut by heavy German fire and even though the artillery stuck to its schedule, no smoke barrage was formed due to the unfavourable wind conditions that day and thus the enemy would have unobstructed  views of the attacking battalions.[23] A report from Captain Hinton at 9.25am, which was received at 10.10am, stated that the Welsh attack was being held up about 200 yards from the northern side and about 400 yards from the southern side of the wood. Another report at around 9.50am stated that conditions were getting progressively worse as German guns were firing on what remained of the two attacking battalions which were in the open.[24] By around 4.40pm the 16th Battalion, the 10th and 11th South Wales Borderers were exhausted and disorganised due to the loss of the majority of the officers and were ordered to withdraw. The attack was failing tremendously at this point with the battalions taking heavy casualties. The main explanation for the failure of the first two days of the battle can be put down to unfavourable conditions. The unfavourable wind conditions on 8th July meant that the attacking battalions were out in the open giving the Germans clear and somewhat easy targets for heavy machine gun fire. Also, the artillery bombardment can be deemed as unsuccessful as visibility of the enemy positions was poor and the German Army had better defensive positions. One could argue that the reconnaissance from the Irish Regiment was not valued as much as it should have been, as wood fighting in itself is very hard due to poor visibility, thick undergrowth and uneven terrain making the advancement of infantry units very hard. One would think that more care would have been taken during strategic planning to factor in the enemy’s advantageous positions and uphill fighting. Hicks argues that ultimately, the fault of the disaster of the first two days at Mametz was due to the artillery fire not being properly coordinated as the men were exposed to uninterrupted German fire and because artillery was so poor on the Welsh side, many of the shells would fall short and cause casualties on their own side.[25] The central fault, however, was the failure of the smoke barrage which would have given the Welsh Division adequate cover to proceed into the wood, and yet one could question why the attack went forward as planned. There were also reports of poor weather conditions, rain eventually falling churning the ground into mud making movement far more difficult.

Due to the miscalculations and unorganised attack on 7th and 8th July, General Phillips was dismissed from his post.[26] Plans on the 9th were not much better due to confusion and miscommunication once again. The 14th Battalion were ordered to the front line but congestion in the trenches meant that they were unable to get to their starting positions in time for the ordered attack. They then received orders late to return to their bivouac as it was too late to attack.[27] Due to the confusion most of the battalions used the day to regroup and make their positions more secure so that there would be no more large casualty numbers. The day of 10th July was to be a larger operation with the 14th Battalion RWF, with the 16th Battalion taking the left side of the wood setting off to the attack at 4.12am.[28]  The soldiers were told to take the wood ‘at all costs’ showing that the commanders at Headquarters were desperate to take the wood after the failure to capture it on the first day.[29] One account from E.M. Edwards remembering the attack described how the Welsh identity was used to stir the troops before battle; ‘We attacked at 4am on July 10th 1916. We were led by Lieutenant Venmore whose last words before going over the top were ‘Don’t forget the regiment you belong to”.[30] In the 14th Battalion’s war diary it is noted that there was some confusion with the positioning of the 114th Brigade but it did not stop the advance.[31] The accounts written by Major General Marden give us a clear depiction of the start of the battle on 10th July:

‘At 3.50am the smoke barrage commenced at Strip Trench and drifted northeast effectively. At 4.05am the 13th and 14th Welsh advanced in waves of platoons at 100 yards’ interval in accordance with tactical instructions issued by the Fourth Army. It is very doubtful if this was a suitable formation considering the strength of the enemy’s machine guns, and it had already been abandoned by the French, who advanced as we did later in the war, by ‘packets’.[32]

The fact that the smoke barrage was favourable this time bode well for the second movement on the wood. The criticism of the ‘platoon formation’ going at intervals is justified as although it might work on paper, human error and changes of circumstance must be accounted for as troops would most definitely not meet every target at the precise time, especially when factoring in enemy fire. This criticism is also re-stated by Hicks who writes that because the undergrowth was so thick and visibility was poor, the soldiers had to rely on timed barrages and because ground conditions were not considered, the Welsh attack started to waver.[33] The fact that the French had abandoned the tactic of the platoon formation should have been an indication that the strategy was not the best when approaching heavy German fire, especially considering the more adverse conditions that the Welsh Division were faced with due to wood combat. The problem with timed platoon advancement is the fact that it opens up the possibility of soldiers being shot by their own side if they don’t reach their objective on time. This would have resulted in many avoidable casualties. The Division was given strict orders during this period to stay off roads and when advancing in the wood they should advance in ‘small columns’.[34]

During this second movement on the wood reports were conflicting and confusing as to companies’ locations and successes. All  battalions demanded reinforcements either to ensure success but very little resulted in several new officers being dispatched to the wood.[35] The brigades became intermingled due to the lack of officers and orders and also the front  line became congested causing confusion over where certain battalions were meant to be. The 13th Battalion had forced the Germans in Wood Support Trench to surrender after heavy bombing and this lifted the spirits of the men after having hardly any success in the wood. The advance by the 113th Brigade to within 200 yards of the northern edge of the wood also lifted spirits and it seemed as if there was a turning point within the battle after these successes.[36] After strengthening their position in the wood, the task for the 38th (Welsh) Division was to drive the enemy out of the wood completely. By 5.40pm the 11th South Wales Borderers reached the north east corner of the wood but the 16th Welsh and 17th RWF met sterner opposition and were held up and by 9.20pm the battalions had returned to their starting positions.[37] The Germans planned their retirement to their second line under the cover of night as another attack from the Welsh would have seen them defeated, thus by the morning of 12th July the 38th (Welsh) Division was relieved from Mametz Wood as the fighting was over and their objective of capturing the wood was achieved.[38]

In the 14th Battalion, casualties made a huge impact on the troop’s numbers with five officers killed and ten wounded, 67 other ranks killed and 233 wounded.[39] The 13th Battalion also suffered huge losses with one soldier recalling many years after the attack; ‘Our Battalion (13th Welsh) went in over 1000 strong, (Clerks, Cooks and everyone) and at roll call 2 days later I am told that 136 men answered the call’.[40] The Welsh Division suffered casualties totalling 190 officers and 3803 other ranks killed, wounded or missing during the assault on Mametz Wood.[41] However, despite the official history of the war stating that it was a disaster, like the Battle of the Somme in general, militarily it could be viewed as a success. Yet, many historians still class Mametz Wood as a disaster with the 38th (Welsh) Division only having succeed in restoring its honour at the battle of Pilckem Ridge which was captured during the assault on 31st July until 4th August 1917.[42] Although it was costly, the account of Mametz Wood should be adjusted in order to highlight the victory of the Welsh Division.

The aftermath of Mametz Wood was described as a scene of horror by many who witnessed the fighting or even passed through after the wood was captured. Captain A. Radcliffe Dugmore of the King’s Own Light Infantry labelled the scenes as ‘indescribable’ and that ‘the whole place was literally carpeted with bodies, the enemy having put up an especially vigorous resistance in the attempt to hold the wood’.[43] Yet the devastation among the ranks of the Welsh Division distorts the actual facts of the battle in general and steers public perception away from it being an actual victory, towards the narrative of the futility of war due to lives being lost. The battle of Mametz Wood is in danger of succumbing to the same fate that the Somme has in being branded as a disaster due to the number of casualties regardless of whether the wood was actually captured or not. The desolation of the 38th (Welsh) Division seemed, for many, to gain more resonance than the victory with many other battalions passing by witnessing the horror that was the aftermath of Mametz Wood. One Irish soldier depicted the views at Mametz Wood stating that;

 ‘the bodies of the Welsh soldiers that were killed fighting for the woods were so numerous, and the amount of remaining men to bury them so few, that it meant a large number were lying on the ground the entire time it was there…No longer can anyone claim that war is romantic who has been testament to the sight of rotting bodies that have been neglected without care and understanding that what remains is a person that was once loved’.[44]

The Welsh at Mametz Wood

With the gift of hindsight one can blame some of the failures of the first few days of battle on some strategic errors made by headquarters and officers which caused confusion among the ranks, which lead to the dismissal of General Phillips. However, the main fault over the first few days would lie with the failure of the artillery fire and the smoke barrage due to unfavourable weather. The attack should have been postponed as the soldiers did not have anything with which to conceal their advancement, and the communication failures leading to confusion and congestion within the trenches. Also one could blame the lack of effective command being the cause of the soldiers’ confusion, not the soldiers’ ineptitude in battle. Hicks argues that due to the high casualty rate of officers and NCOs, there was confusion amongst the men as to what the battle plan was and nowhere more than during wood fighting is leadership vital in order to prevent men from losing their way in the tough conditions.[45] Yet, Haig blamed the so-called disaster of Mametz Wood on the Welsh troops stating that ‘the 38th Welsh Division, which had been ordered to attack Mametz Wood had not advanced with determination to the attack’.[46] Blaming the Welsh soldiers for the amount of casualties by stating that they did not advance with “determination’ can be seen as a misguided view. The fault was clearly not with the soldiers as there are numerous accounts of the bravery of the Welsh soldiers advancing to face some of the harshest fighting on the Western Front such as the account given by an officer of a neighbouring division who states that the advance of the Welsh soldiers on 10th July was ‘one of the most magnificent sights of the war’ with waves of men seen ‘advancing without hesitation and without a break over a distance which in some places was nearly 500 yards’.[47]

In contrast, reports from soldiers or observers actually at Mametz Wood are far more likely to give an accurate description of the course of battle and the state of the soldiers as Haig would have only received reports in which someone would have had to take the blame for failures other than his command and the tactics of the officers in charge of the operation. One could certainly class Haig as misinformed on this issue as he would not have been anywhere near the battle to witness for himself what happened and would only have received updates through the communication networks, which have already been labelled as flawed during the Mametz Wood operation. Many Welsh historians have taken the chance to argue that Haig’s statement could be classed as discriminatory as the Welsh eventually achieved their set objective against the odds, even though for the majority of the division it would have been their first experience of battle. Hicks argues that Haig had been misinformed as to the casualty numbers suffered on the 7th July and of the effectiveness of the artillery bombardment and thus states that if he had known about the scale of casualties suffered by the Welsh Division his opinion might have changed.[48]This feeds into the point once again about the miscommunication between the front line and the Generals at the Headquarters.

It is not just Haig that blames the actual soldiers for the failures of 7th and 8th July: most official military history concerning this battle indicates that the Welsh soldiers were the cause of the problems of the first two days of battle. Major Drake Brockman alludes to a stigma that stuck to the Welsh Division after Mametz as it was ‘common talk in the BEF that the 38th Division had ‘bolted” and the fact remained that the 38th Division was never employed again on the Somme.[49] For many analysing the aftermath of Mametz Wood, this ‘official narrative’ put forward can be seen as an insult to the soldiers that died trying to take the wood. One could call the official history misinformation as many accounts of officers who first criticised the Welsh soldiers often changed their perception after the war was over due to hindsight. Certain officers such as Price-Davies actually stated after the war that ‘possibly I may not have given my Brigade full credit for what they did’ which highlights that many officers, arguably Haig amongst them, did not fully appreciate at the time, the sacrifice of the Welsh soldiers fighting  for one of the hardest objectives of the Somme.[50] Price-Davies’s original comments lashing out at his soldiers and junior officers did a lot more damage than he would realise. The damage had been done as the Welsh would become besmirched by his comments which fed into the official military narrative of the war. The official perception of Mametz Wood is still trapped within the myth that it, as well as the entire battle of the Somme, was a futile disaster.

In contrast, the soldiers at Mametz Wood were labelled as heroes in the Welsh press. Some would argue that the reporting in the press of the heroic actions of the 38th Welsh Division can be seen as making up for the disparaging narrative offered by the British Army, with many local papers offering first-hand accounts of soldiers and reporting of the brave acts of local boys. One newspaper cutting in the files of Major W.P. Wheldon praises the men of the 38th Welsh Division in what seems like a speech with certain remarks such as: ‘The men belonging to the division you have the honour to belong to are a credit to their race’ and ‘the attack on Mametz Wood was one of the most difficult enterprises which ever fell to any division. It was left to the Welsh Division, and they swept the enemy out of it’.[51] The newspaper cutting does not give an indication as to which newspaper it belonged to or what date it was printed.  However, the language used heavily suggests that this was printed after the battle as it praises the Welsh soldiers sweeping through the wood to drive out the enemy. Such reports were commonplace in the Welsh media at the time, not only to honour the local boys that had fallen in battle, but to also praise Welsh soldiers in general due to some of the preconceived views of the Welsh not supporting the war effort. Articles titled ‘Mametz Wood Hero’ appeared in newspapers across Wales about many different soldiers. Newspaper reports describing soldiers gaining military awards such as the article written about Sergeant W.J Beavan being presented with the Military Medal for bravery appeared in the Cambrian Daily Leader,[52] whilst others report of the heroic soldiers who had fallen during battle such as the South Wales Weekly Post’s report on the military funeral of Private Stanley Smale in Swansea after dying from wounds sustained at Mametz Wood.[53] In nearly every article the word ‘hero’ is mentioned and is a recurring theme. This highlights how the Welsh public perceived the soldiers at Mametz, in which every soldier that participated was a hero to their community and the pride that the Welsh people had for the soldiers despite the official reports that they lacked determination and discipline. This alludes to the earlier points of the survival of pre-war modes of thought within the Welsh community, the community pride towards the soldiers and still supporting their war effort despite the horrific scenes on the first few days of the Mametz Wood offensive. The reports of the local newspapers are more useful for understanding the aftermath of, and reactions to, Mametz Wood, rather than taking the official army narrative as dogma. Through the local newspapers one can get a better insight into the soldier’s experiences as they are reporting on members of their own community that have served and far more personal accounts can help shed light on Mametz rather than the reports from the headquarters and Haig’s diaries that would carry misinformation due to poor communication.

The battle of Mametz Wood is often shrouded in controversy due to the conflicting accounts from the soldiers and the official narrative of the British Army. As revisionist historians have been working to re-shape and demythologise public perceptions of the Somme, so that one focuses on the battle as a whole being a victory instead of looking at the tragedy of the first day, parallels can be drawn in respect to Welsh historiography. Historians studying Mametz Wood are attempting to change the official narrative that the Welsh soldiers failed and fought without determination and reform the history of the battle to honour the soldiers that died. They state that there was nothing wrong with the fighting spirit of the men,[54] and argue that even though the first two days incurred a large number of casualties, the objective of capturing the wood was reached and completed by the Welsh soldiers of the 38th Division. To deny them the victory due to headquarters looking for someone to blame besides themselves can be seen as an insult to the memory of those who gave their life for the battle to take the wood.

[1] Arthur George, The Welsh at Mametz Wood (H.W. Southey & Sons, Merthyr, 1918), p. 4.

[2], accessed 11.04.2017., accessed 11.04.2017.

[3] Gary Sheffield, Forgotten Victory: The First World War: Myths and Realities (Headline Book Publishing, 2002).

[4] Hicks, The Welsh at Mametz Wood: The Somme 1916, p. 27.

[5]  Bangor University Archives, BMSS/7059, 14th Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers [hereafter RWF], p. 149.

[6] Hicks, p. 29.

[7] Barlow, p. 64.

[8] Bangor University Archives, BMSS/7059, 14th Battalion RWF, p. 149.

[9] Bangor University Archives, BMSS/39617, ‘Notes on Mametz Wood obtained by Patrol, 2nd Battalion. Royal Irish Regiment, on night shift 3/4th July’, 1916.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Barlow, p. 59.

[12] Ibid, p. 65.

[13] Hicks, p. 29.

[14] Brig. Gen. Sir J.E. Edmonds (ed.), History of the Great War Based on Official Documents: Military Operations. France and Belgium: Vol. II 1916 (1995), p. 9.

[15] Hicks, p. 37.

[16] Ibid, p. 30.

[17] BMSS/7059, 14th Battalion RWF, p. 149.

[18] Hicks, p. 30

[19] Ibid, pp. 30-31.

[20] Barlow, p. 68.

[21] Hicks, p. 31.

[22] Barlow, p. 70.

[23] Hicks, pp. 32-33.

[24] Ibid, p. 34.

[25] Ibid, p. 36.

[26] Ibid, p. 73.

[27] BMSS/7059, 14th Battalion RWF, p. 149.

[28] Ibid, p. 150.

[29] Cardiff University Archives, 461/1/1/1.

[30] Cardiff University Archives, 461/1/11/1.

[31] Ibid, p. 150.

[32] Major General Sir T.O. Marden, The History of the Welch Regiment 1914-1918 (The Naval and Military Press, undated), p. 386.

[33] Hicks, p. 83.

[34] National Archives, Kew, 113th Infantry Brigade War Diary July 1916- February 1917, WO 95/2552.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Hicks, p. 87.

[37] Ibid, p. 152-153.

[38] Ibid, p. 153.

[39] Bangor University Archives, BMSS/39649, Diaries of Major Wynn Wheldon 14th Battalion War Diaries, p. 5.

[40] Cardiff University Archives, 461/1/1/1.

[41] T.O. Marden, The History of the Welch Regiment 1914-1918, p. 390.

[42] BMSS/39649, Diaries of Major Wynn Wheldon p. 7.

[43] Captain A.R. Dugmore, Blood in the Trenches: A Memoir of the Battle of the Somme (Pen and Sword Military Press, 2014), p. 147.

[44] G. Jenkins, Cymru’r Rhyfel Byd Cyntaf (Talybont, 2014), p. 147.

[45] Hicks, p. 194.

[46] Quoted in Colin Hughes, Mametz: Lloyd George’s Welsh Army at the Battle of the Somme (Gerrards Cross, Orion Press, 1982), p. 94.

[47] J.E. Munby, A History of the 38th (Welsh) Division (Hugh Rees, London, 1920), p 18.

[48] Hicks, p. 357.

[49] National Archives Kew, CAB45/189.

[50] WO 95/2552.

[51] BMSS/39634.

[52] Cambrian Daily Leader, 28th October 1916.

[53] South Wales Weekly Post, 30th September 1916.

[54] Hicks, p 194.


Manga Madness: An after hours look at the British Museum’s Manga Exhibit

One of the perks of my new job at the Jewish Museum in London is that the staff get invited to exclusive events within the museum community, often this includes free entry and after hours viewing of museum exhibitions. As any sane person would, I try to take advantage of these perks as much as I can (to the point where I probably annoy my co-workers asking what other things we get for free). One of the most recent invitations was to an after hours community evening at the British Museum to view their Manga exhibit. This luckily coincided with my manga-mad sister Lauren visiting me for a few days, so we hurried along to the British Museum for my sister to see some of her favourite manga comics displayed, and for me to learn more about this art form.

Manga interpretation of Alice in Wonderland

Firstly, I need to admit that I knew next to nothing about manga comics so I was pleasantly surprised about how accessible the exhibition was to me, a non-fan of the art form. As soon as you enter the exhibition you are informed about where manga is said to have originated and how to read manga (for a beginner). There is no specific origin of the Manga art form as one could argue, the style of drawing has always been present in Japanese art. The comics are read from the top right to bottom left hand side of the pages and the museum had fun, engaging images displaying this.

How to read manga from top right to bottom left!

You then, have interviews by prominent figures in the manga community explaining how manga became such an important part of Japanese culture and why it has, in recent years, a wider appeal to western society with Studio Ghibli films and cartoons such as Pokemon having had a big impact on adult and children’s entertainment in the last twenty years. One thing that was notable is the spotlight that was shone on female manga artists who have made strides in a male-dominated field to make girl-comics more mainstream and open the genre to include young women.

One artist, Hagio Moto, was featured as the leading author of shōjo (girls) manga. She published her first manga, Rulu and Mimi, in 1969, aged 20. She is a key member of the Year 24 Group who are said to have revolutionised shōjo manga in the 1970s. Hagio also writes in other genres such as Boys Love which is a popular homoerotic genre. Such pioneers show that the Museum is succeeding in showcasing multiple aspects of the manga universe and not just the male-dominated mangas that are well-known to the West.

There were the well known favourites such as Astro Boy which is manga-master Tezuka Osamu’s most popular manga and anime series. Astro Boy is one of the most well-known characters in the manga world and has had many spin offs as well as being adapted into Hollywood films. Other favourites, such as Deathnote and Attack on Titan were also featured in the exhibit, Attack on Titan being represented by the unnerving giant head of a Titan.

Lauren really appreciated that there was a manga library in the middle of the exhibit where visitors could sit down and peruse the different manga genres and different popular titles. This was also a massive positive for me, getting to actually read the comics after finding out more about the process behind it and finding out about the authors made me appreciate and take an interest in manga. There was even a comic about the British Museum where Professor Munakata (one of Japan’s most popular manga characters) investigates the disappearance of the Stonehenge megaliths. His investigation leads him to the British Museum where there is a plot that puts the Rosetta Stone in grave danger!

I would definitely recommend a visit to this informative exhibition. As someone who had no idea about manga comics I thoroughly enjoyed learning about this genre of art and it was great to be able to experience this exhibition with a fan of manga, my sister.


Is ‘British’ History another way of saying ‘English’ History?

Has anyone ever travelled to the US or come into contact with American tourists and they say the dreaded lines “are you from England?”, and you graciously reply with one of two prepared lines: “I’m British” (the old James Bond line) or “actually I’m from Wales”. Often they ask whether Wales is somewhere in England or just say that Britain and England are the same thing in which i promptly try my best to end the conversation politely or sometimes ask whether the US is a part of Canada. This little rant is now a segue into my main post about the relationship between English and British history.

When general British history books describe events they often give more of a generalised overview of events, for instance the suffrage movement. They talk about campaigns, marches and the violent outbursts that occurred. However, these accounts are often from limited sources and refer to anglicised events. I should add further that these events are often further limited to Southern England, obviously London. Events in Northern areas of England are often grouped into a London narrative. Often other issues such as class and ethnic background are not mentioned when talking about experiences of such events in general histories. These often are provided by their own exclusive historical research projects. HOWEVER, in my own experience, not many historians focus on Wales as a more specialised study. It often gets lumped in with England.

Even when Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland get a brief mention, lot of older histories of Britain lump them together as a universal Celtic experience.

The Welsh, Scottish and Irish people have distinct identities that cannot be grouped in with English experiences and labelled as the general experiences of the ‘British peoples’. There has been constant debate over the issue of certain aspects of British history not necessarily being one of the four nations. Pocock states that British history denoted ‘the historiography of no single nation but of a problematic and uncompleted experiment in the creation and interaction of several nations’.[1] This approach is so problematic due to historians not treating British history as one of several different nations but treating an often English narrative as one that is British.

In the introductory essay of Naomi Lloyd-Jones and Margaret Scull’s Four Nations Approaches to Modern ‘British’ History: A [Dis]united Kingdom?, the historians debate about this notion of British history being Anglo-centric and accurately argue that ‘the histories and historiographies of the four should not be subsumed under the monolith of the one whole’.[2] British history should be one that incorporates the different narratives of the four nations, and thus more detailed histories of these separate nations should be investigated.

A study by Welsh Historian Angela John in Sitting on the Severn Bridge: Wales and British History, argues that ‘British has tended to mean English in much history writing’ and she finds most of her time being taken up with ‘asserting difference between English and Welsh trends’ when universal statements were made.[3] This viewing of Britain as a singular country instead of adopting a four nations approach to history has meant that a lot of Welsh, Scottish and Irish history remains in the shadows often being assumed to have had an identical experience with England which normally is in effect labelled as ‘Britain’ when it comes to general history. As John accurately states: “Integration of Welsh history into ‘British’ history can ignore significant and peculiarly Welsh perspectives as well as risk seeing Wales only in terms of how it contributed to the forging of a British State”.[4] There are many advantages of looking at a combined British history, such as examining the relationships between the four nations in relation to topics that affect the whole of Britain and the power struggles in forging a nation’s identity as separate from the subsumed British one. Such histories often label English narratives as British and then group the other nations into a united Celtic experience in which they are assumed to have all shared narratives. The Anglo-centric readings of British history often partition the non-English parts of the United Kingdom into a ‘Celtic Fringe’ a phrase used by Harrison to partition the histories of the Scottish, Welsh and Irish anti-suffrage activities. More comprehensive studies must be conducted rather than assumptions of Celtic experiences.

This debate is one that is ongoing and I have used parts of my own research to highlight my opinion on this matter. This post is meant to just introduce the debate to a wider audience and I am in no way directing this post at any specific historian. I hope that this prompts debate as well as highlights the need for more specialised histories unveiling local stories.


What no one tells you about trying to get a Museum job…

Being a newly employed historian working at a Museum in London, my life seems pretty amazing to those who want to follow in my footsteps or want to continue working in historically- themed jobs. I get to go into work with a smile on my face knowing that I am helping educate the public, assisting with the running of the Museum and being able to assist with all the events that happen (as well as getting into basically all the new exhibitions in London for free). Who in our field doesn’t want that?

I’m not going to lie, I absolutely love my job, every aspect is interesting to me and getting to work with people that share your passion for history is an absolute blessing. BUT getting to where I am now has not been an easy road. To get your foot in the door of this industry is a slow process and one that can really make you question whether you want to try to pursue this kind of career. So, I thought I would make my triumphant return to blogging and give some advice to those wishing to pursue a career in museums.

DISCLAIMER: I have only just got my first job, I am in no way an expert and I am sorry if any advice that I give does not work. It is a really slow process and I might have just gotten lucky.

  1. GET A MASTERS DEGREE! – Now, this might not be a prerequisite for every single museum job in the world (I really hope it isn’t anyway) but through months of networking with people in the industry at different levels and with different jobs, they said that museums, especially for curatorial roles, tend to look for those who have at least an MA. Apparently it shows that you have in-depth research capabilities as well as an academic mind.
  2. VOLUNTEER EVERYWHERE- This is my main point!! I cannot stress enough how much museums and heritage sites love seeing that you have volunteered at similar places so you know what is expected and how things run. Unfortunately with volunteering this can mean that those who do not have the means to work for free can often feel that they can’t enter into the museum field. I couldn’t afford to live in London whilst volunteering as soon as I left university and I was lucky enough to be able to live with my supportive parents whilst doing some work experience.
  3. KEEP UP TO DATE WITH EXHIBITIONS/ BOOK LAUNCHES/ EVERYTHING!- Interviewers love it when you can show them that you are involved in the industry through knowing what exhibitions are about to come out, what books and research has just hit the shelves and generally what is going on within the industry. A casual name-drop never hurt anybody and it shows that you are passionate about working in the industry! It won’t be a boring 9-5 for you.
  4. NETWORK NETWORK NETWORK- Ask to shadow someone for a day, ask someone how they got into the job. With a lot of jobs its more about who you know than what you know. Keep looking for those new opportunities to talk to people in the field you want to go into. Because so many people in this industry are passionate about what they do, they can be found exploring new exhibitions and attending book launches and workshops. In my experience they are all happy to help and are a very welcoming bunch!
  5. NEVER STOP SEARCHING JOB WEBSITES– Jobs and internships are posted nearly every day, especially in big cities like London. Here are some websites that I have found useful:

National Museum Directors Council:

Museum Jobs:

University of Leicester Museum Studies Job Desk:

I am not saying that any of this will apply to you, and that it will magically land you as head curator of the V&A. But I wanted to share things that I have learned and advice that I have been given so that even of this helps just one person then I have done a service to this industry that I love.


The Foundling Museum: An insight into how it can be experienced by children

The exterior of the Foundling Museum. Courtesy of the Museum website

The Foundling Museum was created to enlighten the public on the history of the Foundling Hospital that was established in 1739 by Thomas Coram. The aim of the hospital was, as Colley states, ‘to rescue young lives that would otherwise be wasted and render them useful to the state’[1]. The history of foundlings has often been left out of the national narrative, thus the museum was established to shed light on the history of the ‘forgotten children’ of London and brought the history of foundlings into the national memory. Funkenstein argues that ‘collective awareness presumes collective memory’[2], thus by attempting to raise the awareness of the history of foundlings, the museum is attempting to re-insert it into our collective memory. The museum aims to educate children on this specific aspect of the past as they would be the same age as those who were taken in there and tries to evoke thought and empathy.

As the museum tries to make children relate to those of the past it is wondered whether children could relate at all given all the luxuries of modern society. The contrasts of childhood could prevent the child from engaging with the exhibits and putting themselves in the place of the foundlings. The museum provides a variety of interactive services to help children reflect on the past lives of those who were admitted into the Foundling Hospital. However, whether they are effective in engaging the child in experiencing empathy or any cathartic experience is another question beyond the scope of this investigation.

The museum aims to show the public what it was like for some working class and illegitimate children, to be brought up with very little to no recollection of their parents, their only connection to their past life being a token that the mother would have left with the child on the day that she gave him or her to the hospital. As adults, we could comprehend the harrowing tales of mothers leaving their children, but it would be more difficult for a child to experience the museum in the same way and understand the social history that the museum reflects. Throughout the museum you could see a range of interactive stations specifically catered for children to make the experience fun but with the added aim to make them reflect on what it was like for the foundlings and how they experienced growing up in a foundling hospital. The children could dress as a foundling, showing them the uniforms of the children with no choice of alternative dress, they could see the bed of a foundling child indicating what little comfort the hospital could provide the vast numbers of children admitted and they could create their own token, reminding them that tokens were often the only connection that these children had with their mothers and their previous life. According to Tosh, there is now a ‘keen understanding that the public experiences history visually – directly through the material remains of the past’[3], thus by showing tokens, beds and clothing that the foundling children actually used, the museum is heightening experience that the children gain and thus inserting the narrative of the foundling children into the scope of public history.

Girls in the Foundling Museum. Image courtesy of the Museum website

What was immediately noticeable, was that plaques were aimed specifically for children to make them engage with the exhibits and aimed to provoke thought. Such plaques prompted questions like: ‘When children came to the hospital they were given new names. Why is your name important and how would you feel if it was changed?’, showing that the museum can be experienced on a profound level by the child visitors. Questions that help the children understand what children their age went through during the period of the Foundling Hospital give us a unique insight into the thought process of children experiencing the museum by witnessing how they react and what questions they ask to try and get a better understanding. This helps us to understand how they understand the exhibits around them Questions such as; ‘Imagine how you would feel if you were a child living cold and hungry on these streets. What would frighten you?’ directly makes children feel a range of emotions and provokes the sense of empathy showing them that these experiences were real for some children their age. This idea of specifically aiming questions at the children harmonises with Gowing’s point that the plaques are aimed to make the children display a range of emotions and puts them into the narrative of the museum[4].

Another way in which the museum aims to engage children into learning about the history of the foundlings is through literary and television characters. Jaqueline Wilson, the children’s author, bases numerous characters on foundlings and orphans, characters like Tracy Beaker and Hetty Feather are well known household names to young children and the museum takes advantage of their links with Wilson by housing first drafts of ‘Hetty Feather’ in their exhibit. Wilson has strong connections with the museum, and the museum advertises this in their brochure with direct quotes from the author herself: “I think the foundling Museum is one of the most fascinating and touching museums, giving you a real sense of what it must have been like to be a foundling child”[5]. This reinforces the assertion that the Foundling museum is experienced by children through empathy and helps children discover what foundling children would have experienced in the hospital, which is the museum’s main aim, to shed light on the untold story of the forgotten foundling children and to help the public gain an experience of what it was like for these children. Wilson also draws in on main features of the museum like the staircase and describes how she can imagine her characters living there and interacting with the museum; “The museum has a very large wooden staircase, which was there when it was a hospital. Every time I go up there I imagine Hetty creeping up and down the stairs, or sliding down the banisters.”[6] References like these help visitors and indeed children visualize children actually living in the hospital and gives a more personal connection with artifacts and exhibits within the museum itself.

Hetty Feather book featuring the Foundling Hospital. Image courtesy of Penguin Publishers

In the café the use of children’s characters to evoke a personal connection with the museum is made more apparent as the walls are filled with phrases such as ‘Harry Potter was an orphan’, ‘Rapunzel was fostered’, and ‘Superman was adopted’. Well loved characters throughout history and every literary genre appear on the walls helping children engage with the fact that many of their heroes experienced life at one point without parents or suffered the fate of being a foundling. The sheer amount of names of characters that were foundlings must have a profound effect on the child’s experience of the museum as often having a personal connection with these characters can help the children become more empathetic towards experiences and artifacts in the museum rather than just looking at pictures and photographs of children in the 18th century onwards. By directly aiming certain interactive elements such as the direct accounts of past foundlings via video and radio aids the child’s experience at the museum as they can hear first hand accounts of what it was like to live in the hospital. Thus these elements make the experience of the museum itself more profound and helps children understand what foundlings had to experience, giving food for thought to help the child try to experience the emotion of a foundling themselves. It puts children into the narrative and thus brings the history of the foundlings in Britain forward into the national narrative and thus our national memory.

Although we as adults are able to comprehend the plight of the foundling children it may appear to be harder for children to fully comprehend how children their age were given up by mothers as they could not imagine being given up by their own mothers, given new names and new identities when their identities were just forming. Children experience the museum in a different way unable to fully retain facts and figures so it has to be explained in a different, more interactive way. The museum provides a variety of ways in which children can experience the museum and experience the history of the abandoned children of London. However, the ways in which each child would experience the museum would undoubtedly be different as not each person experiences the same thing in the same way. There cannot be a completely universal experience. The museum itself ‘paints a vivid picture of family separation, the stigma of illegitimacy and the search for birth parents’[7], which creates emotive responses within the children visiting and the strong feeling of empathy causes us to insert the history of the foundlings of London back into our national memory.

[1] L. Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837,(London, 2006), 59.

[2] Amos Funkenstein, Perceptions of Jewish History, (Berkeley, 1993), 3.

[3] John Tosh ‘Public History, Civic Engagement and the Historical Profession in Britain’, History, Vol 99, No. 355, (2014), 195.

[4] Laura Gowing, Podcast on the Foundling Museum no.2.

[5] The Foundling Museum Brochure, London.




Doria Shafik: The Egyptian Feminist Forgotten by the West.

courtesy of:
Portrait of Doria Shafik

I debated how to start this blog post a lot. I thought I should dive right in and start the biography of this amazing feminist icon, but then I thought it might be better to introduce her in the way I was first introduced to Doria Shafik. A serendipitous accident which started with me taking a part time job during my studies at an interior design firm.

It was the year 2016 in which I was working for the Egyptian interior design firm Jamspace which was based in London and run by Hedayat Taymour, a very talented and kind lady whom I had the pleasure to work for selling furniture and interior design services. One day she asked if I could rearrange some items in the store and one of the items were these beautiful bookends. However, being more of a book worm my eyes were drawn to the two books in the store that had been held up by these bookends. One was a coffee table book displaying pictures of Cairo, the other was called ‘Doria Shafik, Egyptian Feminist’, written by Cynthia Nelson. I asked Hedayat who Doria was and what had she done for Egypt. Hedayat replied telling me that Doria was her grandmother and did a plethora of amazing deeds for the women of Egypt. She gave me the book to keep and told me that I would be fascinated by Doria’s life story and indeed I was. I could not put the book down. I was transfixed reading the story of this amazing woman who has little to no recognition by Western feminism. From that moment on, I have felt it my duty that I should tell anyone and everyone Doria’s story so that this amazing woman’s story can inspire not only Egyptian women, but women around the world.

Doria was born December 14th 1908 in Tanta, Egypt. She was raised in a middle class family and from an early age, discovered gender inequality in her own home, often listening to female family members discuss unhappy stories of their domestic life. She was schooled in French missionary schools in which it was soon discovered that she was extremely bright and talented. She excelled throughout her academic years and when it finally became time to go to university she chose to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. However, her family were against it and school fees were too expensive, especially if it were to be spent on schooling a woman. Doria, not willing to be stifled by her family, took her education into her own hands and wrote a letter to Huda Hanum Sha’rawi- the founder and principle organiser of the first feminist organisation in the Arab world.

Sha’rawi was touched by Doria’s letter and invited her to Cairo where a strong (yet eventually complicated) friendship blossomed. With Sha’rawi’s help, Doria obtained a government scholarship to study philosophy at the Sorbonne and left for Paris immediately. Doria was enchanted by the different outlook on life that Paris had, where she could further educate herself on philosophy and women’s rights, and yet she couldn’t help but miss her homeland and her beloved Nile. She returned to Alexandria in 1935 and competed in a beauty pageant in which no Muslim woman had ever entered on account of it being immodest. She placed first runner up but caused scandal amongst the Muslim community as she had behaved immorally by entering the pageant.

She returned to Paris in 1936 to focus on her doctoral thesis where she met Nour al-Din Ragai who was studying commercial law. They eventually married and returned to Egypt in 1939 where Doria was eagerly awaiting her final doctoral dissertation defence date. The date eventually was set for March 9th 1940 and Doria immediately hurried to Paris eager to defend her thesis. To her delight she was awarded her doctorate with honourable mention. One member of the panel Emile Bayet stated; “Madame, your thesis is the best defense of women’s rights existing or ever likely to exist. You have proved things about Islam about which there can be no doubt. You have succeeded in correcting our erroneous ideas about Islam. You can consider yourself as the lawyer of Muslim women in general and the Egyptian women in particular”. She returned to Egypt hoping to be praised but was met with a lack of interest from her family.

Back in Egypt in 1945, Doria was approached by Princess Chevikar who wanted her to serve as editor-in-chief of a new magazine ‘La Femme Nouvelle’. Doria relished the challenge, but this appointment put her relationship with Huda Sha’rawi and the Egyptian Feminist Union who saw the princess as attempting to compete with Huda. Despite the tensions between the two powerful women, Doria saw the appointment as an opportunity not to be missed. However, Doria found the elite classes surrounding the princess out of touch and found no friends at the Egyptian Feminist Union who saw her now as the enemy.

Doria finally decided to step out on her own and start her own Arabic women’s magazine ‘Bint al- Nil’– daughter of the Nile. The magazine included articles on women’s issues, nutrition, fashion, and advice on how to raise children. It became extremely popular and with Doria’s control over both magazines, she became a symbol of women’s rights in Egypt. With growing political unrest in Egypt, Doria set out to change the fortune of women in her country, not only demanding suffrage but wanted to change the laws that prohibited women from running from elected office as well as certain Islamic laws that allowed the husband unlimited polygamy.

The Daughters of the Nile Union organised and ran literacy classes, an employment agency, mutual aid programs, a discounted cafeteria and cultural events, including theatrical performances for women. Most of all, it agitated for political rights. Her main ambition however, was to improve the literacy of Egyptian women.

Doria, at the height of her fame travelled around the globe lecturing about women’s rights and their relation to Islam. She was well regarded by everyone as a great speaker and a great campaigner.

When Egyptians were campaigning for independence from Britain, Shafik started a uniformed paramilitary unit of the Daughters of the Nile. In January 1952, she led a march to surround and shut down a branch of Barclays Bank, deeming it a symbol of British colonial rule.

In 1954, Shafik vowed to go on a hunger strike “to my last breath” and was joined by a handful of other women in a fast that made headlines around the world. “We are convinced that the women who form more than half of the Egyptian nation must not, at any cost, be governed by a Constitution in the making of which they played no part.” After 10 days without food, hospitalised because of her deteriorating condition, Shafik appeared to succeed; the acting president promised her that women would have “full political rights.”

As a result of Shafik’s efforts women were granted the right to vote under the constitution of 1956 only if they were literate, which was not a rule for male voters. In 1957 Doria attempted another hunger strike, this time for six days. Doria decided to start her strike in the premises of  the embassy to avoid the risk of being arrested. The media attacked her as a traitor to the government. Her female allies now turned against her, and she was expelled from her own Daughters of the Nile. With almost no one on her side, she was forced to spend the next 18 years in near total seclusion.

Doria was sentenced to house arrest and spent eighteen years in solitude with only her family visiting her. She was essentially forgotten by those who once revered her. On September 20th 1975, Shafik committed suicide by throwing herself off her balcony.

Doria Shafik is remembered fondly by her family and friends and the women of Egypt rightfully as a champion of women’s rights and women’s education. To the Western world, Doria still remains an overlooked figure with many western women failing to recognise her achievements. Since learning about her story, I have felt that it is my duty to share her story wherever I can and on International Women’s Day her story should be shared.

Me at the Women’s March 2016 with a sign quoting Doria Shafik.

All information is courtesy of Cynthia Nelson’s book: Doria Shafik, Egyptian Feminist: A Woman Apart.


Object Analysis: Anti-Suffrage Voodoo Doll

Anti-suffrage Voodoo Doll posted through a letterbox in West Wales ©Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

The photo above shows an anti-suffrage voodoo doll which was posted through a woman’s letterbox in West Wales.[1] Not much is known about this item as it was sent anonymously;[2] however, we can guess that the recipient would have had some involvement with the suffrage movement or had shown sympathy for the cause.  The figure’s face is hand-drawn with ink and the face is purposefully drawn in an unpleasant manner to suggest that the women who campaigned for suffrage were hideous and unfeminine. The face also depicts a woman of an older age possibly to portray the character of an ‘old maid’ – a woman who never married.

The idea to present this doll as having an unpleasant look could have been done to suggest that women who campaigned for female suffrage were ugly old ladies that hadn’t found a husband. The idea to represent the doll as foul is used to threaten the intended recipient and insult the women campaigning for the vote.

The figure is homemade and has several pins sticking out of her body so arguably the intent of this object is to instil fear and the threat of violence. The recipient may have been known as a sympathiser or campaigner for the suffrage cause which could have angered members of the community. The tension and threat of violence that occurred during this period was widespread across Britain and not confined to Wales. Both the suffragettes and the anti-suffragists took part in agitation and violence during the Edwardian campaign and the growing media attention due to these violent episodes made female suffrage one of the top political issues of the time.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, female suffrage has been a main focal point of study amongst historians of gender and has received a large deal of analysis. Although much historiographical attention from the likes of Martin Pugh, Lisa Tickner and Laura Mayhall has been focused on the women advocating for enfranchisement,[3] little attention has been given to those women and men who opposed the vote.

Opposition to the movement in general histories of the suffrage campaign are only mentioned briefly  in their interactions with the suffrage movement itself, so an in-depth study of the opposition is often forgotten with historians preferring to focus on the often bigger and perhaps more exciting reform movement such as the movement for female emancipation in Britain. However, without an in-depth study of the opposition of the Women’s Suffrage Movement in Britain, the full history of the movement will never be accurately documented.

In concurrence with Pugh, it would be wrong for historians to ‘minimise the role of the opponents of the women’s cause simply because they were on the losing side’.[4] It is not gender history if those responsible for documenting women’s history only focus on the women seeking rights and reform. The campaign for enfranchisement had a large opposition in parliament as well as within the realm of public opinion, so why has the opposition received such little attention? Brian Harrison and Julia Bush have both produced works that give a general overview of the national opposition taking the form of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League (WNASL) and the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage (NLOWS).[5] Although accounts such as these are some of the first academic studies of the opposition to female suffrage, they fail to provide a thoroughly detailed assessment of the movement.

There needs to be more work done within the realms of gender history and British history to accurately document the opposition to such movements as the suffrage campaign to accurately portray the right atmosphere and challenges that these women faced in gaining the vote.

[1] Anti-Suffrage Voodoo Doll, National Museum Wales, WA_SC 4.1.

[2], accessed 30 July 2018.

[3] Martin Pugh, The March of the Women: A Revisionist Analysis of the Campaign for Women’s Suffrage 1866-1914 (Oxford, 2000); Lisa Tickner, The Spectacle of Women: imagery of the suffrage campaign 1907-14 (Chicago, 1988); Laura E. Nym Mayhall, Militant Suffrage Movement: Citizenship and Resistance in Britain 1860-1930 (Oxford, 2003).

[4] Pugh, March of the Women, 165.

[5] Brian Harrison, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain (London, 1978); Julia Bush, Women Against the Vote: Female Anti-Suffragism in Britain (Oxford, 2007).

[6] Lucy Delap, ‘Feminist and anti-feminist encounters in Edwardian Britain’, Historical Research, 78(2005), 379.[


St Dwynwen’s Day: The Forgotten Welsh Valentine’s Day.

St Dwynwen of Llannwyn

St Dwynwen’s Day is not a well known Welsh holiday, in fact many Welsh people today forget about this ancient celebration. So it is not a surprise that the rest of the world is unfamiliar with the story of St Dwynwen.

Who was she? Well Dwynwen was one of the twenty-four daughters of Brychan Brycheiniog, the king of Breconshire in the 5th century and she was widely regarded as the most beautiful in the kingdom. Story tells that Dwynwen fell in love with Maelon Dafodrill, but unfortunately her father had already arranged that she should marry someone else. Maelon was so outraged that he raped Dwynwen and left her. Dwynwen, distraught, prays to fall out of love with him.

In a woods she ran to in distress, Dwynwen was visited by an angel, who appeared carrying a sweet potion designed to erase all memory of Maelon and turn him into a block of ice. God then gave three wishes to Dwynwen. First she wished that Maelon be thawed from the ice, second that God meet the hopes and dreams of true lovers and third that she should never marry. All three were fulfilled, and as a mark of her thanks, Dwynwen devoted herself to God’s service for the rest of her life.

Dwynwen became a nun, fulfilling her wish to never marry. She founded a convent on Llanddwyn, off the west coast of Anglesey, where a well named after her became a place of pilgrimage after her death in 465AD. Visitors to the well believed that the sacred fish or eels that lived in the well could foretell whether or not their relationship would be happy and whether love and happiness would be theirs. Another tradition claims that if the water boils while visitors are present, then love and good luck will surely follow. Remains of Dwynwen’s church can still be seen today.

St Dwynwen’s Church remains in Anglesey

St Dwynwen’s day today is considered a type of Welsh valentines day due to Dwynwen’s wish that God fulfill the dreams of lovers as we are supposed to cherish those around us and remember Dwynwen’s selflessness and wish for love to be spread to all. Most people who celebrate today mainly use St Dwynwen’s Day as a way to celebrate Welsh culture singing hymns and eating Welsh delicacies. No matter how you celebrate the day, St Dwynwen’s story deserves to be told and remembered.

Information courtesy of St Fagan’s and Historic UK.