Thoughts & Questions of a Ruskin Graduate on the College Archives

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By Denise Pakeman

Stone laid by Bowerman on Walton Street, exterior

As a recent graduate of Ruskin College, I am deeply saddened, although from my own experiences, not unduly surprised by Hilda Kean’s article on the destruction of records about working-class students in the first decades of the college.

In an article in The Telegraph, the college principal herself ‘insisted that the files were destroyed for data-protection reasons’, thereby confirming the act. Later in the evening that the Telegraph article was published, I received an email from the principal via my Ruskin account assuring me that, ‘Nothing could be further from the truth’. To a reporter on the Oxford Times, Audrey Mullender describes how ‘demographic and course-related information from student records [was put into] an interactive database to comply with data-protection legislation but which also allows alumni to stay in touch with us and with one another’. Surely this last reference is to recent, rather than early twentieth-century records and suggests that earlier student material has not even been noted? Which version of Audrey Mullender’s own words is to be believed?

Going back to 2008 John Prescott recounted a conversation with the principal informing him that she had found his old records, when he was asked, ‘Did I want them, or should she throw them out?’ He goes on to say how amazed and surprised he was by how much detail had been kept: from bills to reports on progress. John Prescott’s pleasure in the discovery is evident on reading the article.

The destruction of student material, confirmed by Audrey Mullender in The Telegraph article, denies future descendants, historians and educationalists the chance to put together traces of the lives and achievements of students from the earliest decades of Ruskin College. In my view such action shows disrespect for the memory and achievements of those individuals and has destroyed a rich source of inspiration for future generations of Ruskin students.

I am also personally aware of the further destruction of student material during my own time at Ruskin College – this time within the college library. Towards the end of my studies, I was in conversation with a Ruskin librarian when I was told that they had just thrown away – although I do not know how they were disposed of – a cupboard full of papers and information stored in the college library relating to Ruskin Student Union which a previous librarian had collected over many years. On querying the decision I was told that no one had asked to see the papers and that the cupboard space was needed. I checked with the then president of the student union and found they were unaware of the existence of the material in the library cupboard and had not been asked if it was required before disposal. Such an act underlines for me the blatant disregard that college management has for the history of the student body.

In my final term at Ruskin, I volunteered to help with a project to catalogue documents in the library relating to the history of the college. The idea was to eventually upload the catalogue to the college intranet to create a searchable resource. As part of this work I was also told by the college librarian that as I worked through the documents I should remove any duplicate copies and shred them. Whilst I was not too concerned by the idea of ‘weeding’, when I started to look at the documents in question, I was very concerned by the idea of shredding because they were not photocopies but old duplicates of brochures, pamphlets, leaflets, magazines (produced by students) and posters reflecting student life, activities and achievements within the college and the wider world – some dating back to the opening of the college. Also, it was to be me who had to carry out the shredding as I worked, using a small shredder in the library office. As a historian and someone who has spent many hours looking for traces of working people in archives around the country I could not bring myself to do it. On future cataloguing stints I took in my own paperwork from home to shred so that the noise of the shredder could be heard and there was a bag of shreddings to be seen at the end of my stint.

An example of the pamphlets I found (see photograph below) was produced in recognition of former students by the college, listing ‘Activities of some Former Students’ and introduced by Arthur Salter the MP for Oxford University between 1937 and 1950. It records as valuable the positions of past students (women and men) in society ranging from politicians, educators, trade unionist positions, heads of Co-operative departments, those in social service, welfare, the press, civil service, business, local government and League of Nations.

‘Activities of some former students’ pamphlet

Given the timescale of student records that have been destroyed, as discussed by Hilda Kean, I would like to spotlight a few names from that document. There was Sir Robert Young, a trade unionist who was sponsored to study at Ruskin in 1903 by the Amalgamated Society of Engineers union and went on to be Chairman of Ways and Means and Deputy Speaker in government. Also J. J. Lawson, a coalminer who studied at Ruskin in 1906 who went on to be Financial Secretary to the War Office and Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour. James Walker, a trade unionist, who in 1906 had a scholarship to study at Ruskin from the British Steel Smelters Association and later became a politician. A. W. Ashby, who was awarded a Charles Buxton Scholarship to study at Ruskin in 1909 and went on to achieve an MA from Oxford University, becoming Professor of Agricultural Economics at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, as well as a member of Government Committees on Agriculture. Last but not least I would like to mention E. Edwards, General Secretary of the Mineworkers Federation of Great Britain, who in 1908 received a Northumberland Miners’ scholarship to Ruskin and became Labour MP for Morpeth in 1929.

‘A History of Ruskin College’ brochure

Another document that I viewed was from 1911 (see my photographic record at Fig. 3 above). It points out that not all Ruskin students went on to high rank; many went back to the communities who sent them. At that time they were equally commemorated by the college hierarchy:

‘After their studies were over, most of the students went back to their ordinary trade of mining, weaving, or to the engineering shops. Some have been asked to take over tutorial classes in connection with the Workers’ Educational Association; by which means they are enabled to impart to others some of the knowledge and information which they have acquired.’

To think that student records of such students as those I have spotlighted above have been destroyed is, I think, both a great sadness and a great loss. Whilst I have respect for privacy, shredding student records to ‘comply with data protection legislation’ is an extreme interpretation to say the least.

My own experiences whilst attending Ruskin College leads me to agree with Hilda Kean that ‘the destruction to date has not happened by accident’ or, as one signatory to the ‘stop further vandalism petition’ commented, ‘there is an agenda’. If, in the ‘beautifully redeveloped site at Ruskin Hall,’ parts of the college’s records are no longer seen as being of value to everyone, I would ask the college governors to take up the offer of storage made by another archive (with stipulations in place as to privacy for sensitive files ‘not to be opened until…’) rather than destroying cultural heritage.

Research has shown that items listed on the national register of archives as existing at Ruskin are no longer there. Some have been traced to the Oxfordshire Records Office. If you add to this the dispersal of the Bowerman plaque, the Raphael Samuel portrait and photograph, the Shaw portrait and the Kitson mural, this seems to indicate the dilution of a particular history which is no longer wanted. As one former student who has signed the petition commented ‘I am hurt and confused that my college would even consider doing this’. I concur with that view. As someone from a working-class background whose male forebears were involved in coal mining, heavy engineering and trade unionism in the North-east, I made a particular choice to study at Ruskin College: not because I was stuck in the past, but because (as Walter Benjamin said) I recognised and valued people and ideas from the past that I wanted to draw through to the future. Indeed after learning about archival research in my studies, I was able to write my Cert H.E. dissertation on a woman who campaigned for votes and health care for the working women and men in and around Newcastle-upon-Tyne – but I was only able to do this because the material was available in archives!

I am proud to be associated with Ruskin heritage and identify with many of the hidden, unofficial narratives and extraordinary lives that were revealed to me in the Ruskin collections. Using these collections as part of my studies made me feel proud of my female and male predecessor students’ achievements. Such associations move me to speak out and to question in the hope of preventing further loss to the Ruskin collections. How can college management allow such actions? Are they not custodians rather than owners of such material? How can the chair of Ruskin College governors (with trade union connections) downplay the shredding of historical records of students as an ‘internal administrative matter’ when there are already so few records? I see that a statement has appeared on the home page of Ruskin College’s website saying that ‘destruction and discarding of Ruskin’s historic archives and memorabilia’ are ‘unfounded assertions’. Denial is not enough: I call for physical proof that these early student records still exist – sensitive material can be covered over for inspection purposes.

Denise Pakeman, graduate of Ruskin College, July 2011

Related: Losing the Memory of Generations, by David Horsfield, former Ruskin librarian