David Horsfield, who was College Librarian at Ruskin from 1972 to 2004, reflects on the destruction of archives there.
The events described in Hilda Kean’s article do not reflect well on the officers of Ruskin College. They appear to have been responsible for destroying or discarding some significant historical collections and unique items with little or no consultation with those scholars who knew and understood the material, or with other institutions in which some or all of them might have been suitably deposited for use by future generations. The seemingly high-handed attitude of the Principal, and ‘nothing to do with me’ response of the college Chair to protests from members of their staff have let down the trust and generosity of many generations of Ruskin students and supporters of the college who gave their collections and valued items to the college for the benefit of the students and visiting researchers there. They made these gifts without thought of profit for themselves, and on the understanding that the college was a responsible institution which would value their material and preserve it for the future. These were the actions of labour movement supporters at their best and most public-spirited. The wealth of different material was not only useful to the college’s own staff and students, but also attracted many visiting writers, researchers, family historians, activists and students from other institutions. This in turn brought much good will and further support for the college and its activities.
With the shredding of the earliest student records (covering that remarkable formative period between 1899 and the outbreak of World War II), we will have lost much information about the early life, education and activism of those generations of working-class students – not only the miners, weavers and engineers, but also, for instance, Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, the Peruvian youth leader who rose to become a major politician and party leader in his own country, or John Goss, the classical singer, associate and friend of Augustus John, Peter Warlock, John Barbirolli, and Paul Robeson, who amongst much else became the first to introduce folk songs into his classical song recitals. Requests for information about early students frequently used to come into the college and its library from all over the world from family historians, academics and trade unionists. The files kept in the college offices were invaluable in being able to give accurate information about when a student was at the college, the subjects studied, where they came from, their previous educational and work experience, their trade union activities, who sponsored them and their subsequent achievements and relationship with the college and its staff.
The college pamphlet collections contained valuable and historical material issued by various labour organisations. The strong amounts of ILP and CPGB material, for example, contained much that was hard or sometimes impossible to find elsewhere. Also, how wonderful for students to be able not only to read about such items as the Unofficial Reform Committee 1912 tract ‘The Miners’ Next Step’ (partly written by Noah Ablett, an early Ruskin student), but to be able to hold it and other historical documents in their own hands. It can only be hoped that such collections have been weeded for duplicates, but not culled partially or wholesale by those with little sympathy or knowledge of the varied subject matters.
The Principal of Ruskin was keen to publicise her recent researches and ‘discovery’ of Bertha Newcombe’s fine Shaw portrait in the college. A simple phone call to one or two recent members of her library or other office staff would have soon revealed when and how the picture came to be offered on loan to the college (together with two other lesser portraits – still awaiting her ‘discovery’?). The loan was faithfully recorded in the records in the college office at the time and the three pictures listed in inventories taken in subsequent years.
I presume there will still be some historical material left in the college for the future, but what an appallingly short-sighted waste of the past and the interconnections between different sorts of material, as well as a betrayal of earlier supporters of the college. Raphael Samuel (a copy of whose photographic portrait is in the National Portrait Gallery) must certainly be turning in his grave.
Related: Thoughts & Questions of a Ruskin Graduate, by Denise Pakeman