Academics, historians and former staff and students of Ruskin College in Oxford have launched a new online archive today to record and crowd-source historical information about past students, following the controversial destruction of the college student records last year.
The site already contains over 50 entries on former students of Ruskin, the labour movement college in Oxford. The site is run co-operatively by a group who came together to try and stop the destruction of the Ruskin student archives and they hope the site will encourage historians, friends and relatives of ex-Ruskin students and volunteers who are interested in labour history to provide information about hundreds more. The site will also share photographs and other historical ephemera about the college that people are willing to share.
The site has been launched a year after an international petition of 7,500 signatures condemning the destruction of the vast bulk of student records dating from 1899 onwards was presented to the governors of Ruskin college.
There was much press coverage (see links at the end of the article) of the scandal and widespread criticism of the actions of the Ruskin College Principal, Audrey Mullender, who decided to destroy these records (she retired this week).
I am an ex-Ruskin student and I got involved in the campaign after reading a notice in a Ruskin newsletter that ex-students should get in touch if they would like their record file before it was destroyed. I learnt that over a century of records were going to be shredded; Many files included press cuttings, photographs, application essays, letters of support and other irreplaceable documents. I asked to have my record sent to me but a non-committal ‘it might take some time’ email from the Principal is all I ever received in reply. I now know that my file had already been destroyed (despite protests from horrified staff at the college) along with thousands of others going back to the 19th century. Nothing but a few details, such as my name, date of birth and qualification received, had been recorded. I have no delusions of grandeur; my own records may have been of little consequence; but taken collectively these were unarguably records of historical significance to the labour movement. With expert advice and proper management they could quite legally have been kept, as they had been for so many generations, and eventually used by future historians.
I wholeheartedly support this new website and its constructive approach to this whole sorry issue. We realise that it will never be possible to ‘recreate’ the material that was so needlessly destroyed. But we think it important to acknowledge the life experiences of people whose memory has been treated with such disregard. We also want to ensure that the destruction of the archives is not forgotten. Thanks to a generous one-off grant from History Workshop Journal the new website aims to create ‘history’, outside an academic institution, through (potentially) the work of thousands of people, contributing their own knowledge and experience to build an online database of biographies of former students. Although some material exists in other publications, material has never been gathered together in one, searchable, place.
Contributors and entries
Contributors include professors and university lecturers, (including Professor Paul Pickering, director of the research school of humanities and the arts at ANU in Canberra), trade union and labour movement activists (including Alex Gordon, former president of the RMT, and Harry Barnes, former labour MP), those writing about family members and their own lives.
Some people covered in the entries so far are relatively well known. They include ex-deputy prime minister John Prescott, Welsh socialist miner Noah Ablett or trade union leader Jack Jones. But we are also bringing to light traces of lives previously hidden. This includes Edgar Eagle, a boot and shoe clerk in Leicester who went to Ruskin in 1926 and then Nottingham University, but about whom little is known. His entry on the database is written by former Ruskin student, Denise Pakeman who comments:
As a former student myself and of working class origins, it is important to me that such a tiny trace of Edgar Eagle’s time at Ruskin, his achievements and dedication to adult education become part of the New Ruskin Archives so that he is placed back within a student body of which he was a part and which many of us (if not the recently retired Principal) hold in high regard. All the information held and kindly shared by the University of Nottingham, who obviously value their history and student/staff body, makes all the more poignant the destruction of the original Ruskin College archive.
Background to the campaign
In Autumn 2012 Ruskin College, sold its Walton Street building in central Oxford, where it had been based for over one hundred years. During this time most of its archive of student records was destroyed and many dissertations written by Ruskin students were likewise disposed of. Artefacts, including paintings, were also dispersed to other institutions.
No legal or professional advice was taken prior to this destruction. No copies were made of the destroyed material. Such trashing of material of the past lives of former students was entirely unnecessary. As Nicholas Kingsley, Head of Archives Sector Development & Secretary of the Historical Manuscripts Commission at the National Archives, confirmed ‘it would have been acceptable to retain these records indefinitely for historical purposes’.
The Bishopsgate Institute in London offered its space to ‘anything and everything’ the College no longer wanted. (The Institute already holds the papers of Ruskin’s former history tutor Raphael Samuel and of the History Workshop that had been so closely associated with the College). This was turned down. Further background information can be found here http://newruskinarchives.org.uk/wp/#Background and on the other links below.
New Ruskin Archives: key links/addresses
The newruskinarchives homepage: http://newruskinarchives.org.uk
This website project outline: http://newruskinarchives.org.uk/wp/#This%20website%20project
The online archives (staff/student biography database): http://newruskinarchives.org.uk/wp/?page_id=15
Last HWO article: plans for a new archive
10 Jul 2013 – One of the most read articles on History Workshop Online has been Hilda Kean’s impassioned plea to the Principal and governors of Ruskin…
Lobbying the Ruskin governors
1 Dec 2012 – wreath. On November 30 many people braved the elements to lobby the governing executive of Ruskin College reiterating the demand to stop…
National press coverage
Editorial | Comment is free | The Guardian
28 Oct 2012 – Editorial: The opening of Ruskin College’s new archive has provoked a tumultuous row about the way it has handled its past…
The TLS blog: Archives under threat at Ruskin College
6 Oct 2012 – Archives under threat at Ruskin College…
Row after John Prescott’s old college ‘shreds archive’ – Telegraph
5 Oct 2012 – Ruskin College, which lists John Prescott among its alumni, sparked a row after…