🧱 Brick Walls & Getting Creative 🧱
All historians share in a common struggle that determines who lives forever in our national consciousness. But with a bit of creativity, change is possible.
Well hello 👋🏻 and happy Thursday to you!
Today, let’s get serious.
The biggest problem facing every historian across every field of human history is this: the availability of sources. As a human collective, ours is an imperfect historical record - whether we like it or not.
Although all historians know the struggle, some have it to a greater extent than others. For example, studying the industrial period can be 'easier' than, say, the Anglo-Saxons. This is because:
Our industrial ancestors recorded everything. I mean, everything. Seriously.
Their literacy rates increased rapidly, as did the media. This means that there are a TON of newspapers and magazines for historians to nosey around.
Everything was written in English. As an English speaker, I can access the material.
In contrast, the Anglo-Saxons wrote in … you guessed it … Anglo-Saxon (or Old English for all you purists out there). Sadly, that's not something that you can find on Duolingo.
Once again, though, nobody is immune to the imperfect historical record. Some groups are disproportionately represented in the surviving sources and, by default, in history lessons, books and other media. I posted about this on LinkedIn on Tuesday. Statistically speaking, women account for only 0.5% of recorded history. If I was a betting woman, I'd say that most of this 0.5% comes from the last 200 or so years.
But even within that 0.5%, some women are better represented than others. In the industrial period, for example, much of the source material that we have for Britain comes from White, economically privileged women. Royal and noble women, especially. This explains why a Google search for Queen Victoria will bring up twice as many results as it will for Mary Prince. (Even though Mary Prince was the first woman to petition parliament, a prominent speaker, educator and writer).
What also happens is that the more intersectional you want to go, the more you need to prepare to meet some brick walls 🧱
Because you will. Over and over again 🧱
Like taxes and death, dear reader, it’s inevitable.
Ultimately, if I've learned anything it's that you have to get creative.
Let me show you what I mean.
Earlier this year, I was doing some research for a client that required me to go snooping around in the records of the Old Bailey. While I was there (and looking for something completely different), I found the case of a Black woman called Mary Ann Wetherby.
Now, purely because I found a case that focused on a Black woman, I bookmarked that baby. I had no idea if I'd ever use her case or how I might ever use it, but this is a practice that I’ve lived by for a long, long time. It’s based on the simple premise that you record everything and if you’re meant to use it somewhere down the line, you will. (I could fill several archives with what I have amassed over the years).
You can read what happened to Mary Ann in her trial transcript here, but to summarise:
In September 1866, Mary Ann was charged with breaking the peace and intent to wound a police officer. On the morning of the 10th, a police officer came to the street she lived in and attempted to arrest her young daughter on suspicion of theft. When Mary Ann found him outside and trying to take her daughter into custody, she challenged him. He later claimed that she attacked him with a small knife, which is how she ended up in the dock of the Old Bailey court. She was found not guilty.
If I were to write something about crime in the 19th century, I'd absolutely find a way to include Mary Ann's case. Similarly, if I wrote something about the historic criminalisation of Black people or police brutality, Mary Ann's case would make a great example.
But if you get a bit creative, you can see that Mary Ann's case provides even more than that. As I read through the transcript, these jumped out at me:
Mary is referred to as "coloured." This gives me an idea of how White people are talking about Black people (at least officially) at this time.
Based on the witness testimonies, I can roughly work out where Mary Ann lived. I could use this to start thinking geographically about Black communities in London in this period. With an address, you can start making connections.
I know how old Mary Ann is, her full name and (roughly) where she lives. I could then go to the parish and census records to build up a picture of her life and the people she lived with. In a day or two, I could work back and forward for several generations.
At the time of her arrest, Mary Ann was shelling walnuts with another woman. Combined with a few other details, the fact that the two of them are doing it together suggests that they're doing it commercially. I could investigate further and try to find out if other Black women were also involved in this industry.
I could even write about Mary Ann in a newsletter about being creative with primary sources 👀😂
Following up on any one of these leads might lead me to other women and other stories.
You can see why I keep records of virtually every (dead) woman I ever come across, right? 😂
In an ideal world, every single person would have left behind some recollections, categorised by theme and in neat piles for future historians 😂 but they didn't - and there's no getting around that. Yes, we have to work with an imperfect historical record but with a bit of creative thinking, we can make it a little less imperfect.
Until next time,
P.S. For an extra history fix:
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🖤 Why do we need women’s history? A reminder.
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