One of the most read articles on History Workshop Online has been Hilda Kean’s impassioned plea to the Principal and governors of Ruskin College in Oxford to stop the destruction of student records which went back to the foundation of the college in 1899 (Whose Archive? Whose History? Destruction of Archives at Ruskin College, Oxford). The destruction was the result of an ill-considered interpretation of the Data Protection Act and the lack of a historically informed record retention policy, which led to the shredding of much of a complete run of very detailed records of working class students, many with connections to the trade union movement.
Tragically the earliest 70 years of records were binned, along with the past records of the Ruskin Student Union and all history dissertations written by diploma and certificate of Higher Education history students in the 20th century. These were often very distinctive as based on students’ living experience and embodying particular forms of social knowledge. They included work reflecting on employment and political activity including, for example, analysis of support for the 84-5 miners’ strike in Sunderland; the Poll Tax campaign and the 1972 FIsher Bendix factory occupation.
The Journal had a particular interest in the college records as it grew out of the History Workshop meetings held there from the late 1960s to the late 1970s (the meeting records are now available from HWO). Several editors, some ex-students of the college, became involved in the campaign to preserve the remaining boxes of records that have escaped destruction.
An online petition (promoted on History Workshop Online) attracted more than 7,500 signatures, including many journal readers. The opinion of several expert archivists was sought, including Nicholas Kingsley, Head of Archives Sector Development and Secretary of the Historical Manuscripts Commission at the National Archive, who agreed that it would have been acceptable to retain the student records indefinitely for historical purposes as long as they were well managed. The HWJ editors collectively wrote to the governors urgently requesting the establishment of a record retention policy to stop such action in the future. We also offered to provide the college with professional historical expertise if it was required. As yet they have not replied (eight months on) but we understand the last boxes of records have been retained, at least for now.
HWJ has also backed an attempt to restore some of the damage done to the historical record by establishing an online database of ex-Ruskin students and whatever biographical details can be found, crowdsourced by volunteer researchers. The work does not require a personal connection to Ruskin, as much of this material may already be in the historical record and simply needs collating (for example the sociologist Peter Wilmott was a student according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).
The project is an antithesis of the destruction in the sense of being an international online venture, drawing together in one place material that highlights those who have passed through Ruskin’s doors. There is much to be done and if any reader is interested tracing the lives and achievements of past Ruskin students, then please contribute as many entries as you please; a dedicated website is under construction and soon you will be able to see those people already covered.
Although the website will contain articles, spaces for comment and images the core will be data-style records of former students. This is to ensure that comparable material is collected on people. It also should not be too burdensome to contribute. Many famous people attended Ruskin, about whom much is already published. In such instances the reader can be simply be directed to website links or published material. We also realize that you may not be able to fill in all the ‘boxes’. This does not matter. Since this is a collaborative project others may well be able to do this.
The categories of information are as follows:
Name and name by which known /nickname
Life before Ruskin including, for example:
Date of birth
Politics/Trade union activity
Life at Ruskin including, for example:
Dates at Ruskin
Source of funding
Subjects studied at Ruskin
Dissertation if applicable
Qualification (if any)
Life after Ruskin, including, for example:
Politics /trade union activity
Date of death
Achievements / Publications
Material in archives or already published articles
Image or where can be found in published material
Comment of contributor/s including sources, if any, and date
Name /contact details /email of contributor
If possible please reference the sources of the information.
Please email your contibutions or any questions you might have to firstname.lastname@example.org