Museums, Archives & Heritage

Losing the Memory of Generations

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


  1. We, as tutors, are shocked and horrified, but sadly not surprised by this waste of historical material. The responses from above are mendacious, misleading and defensive, and we need to take those responsible to task. Some of the tutors have also been told that their records of their time as students have gone missing. We are proud of our students, their history and their achievements, and this action is heartbreaking, not to mention deeply disrespectful.

    1. If you might be interested in writing at more length for this site about this issue, do please get in touch through the ‘Contact Us’ button at the head of the page on the right.

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  2. Thank you David for this interesting albeit deeply disturbing article. It is well known that historians researching working-class lives all to often encounter a dearth of documentary sources relating to their subjects. Therefore it is especially shocking to learn that Ruskin College management is actively dispersing and destroying significant elements of the documentary record of its own working-class students. Furthermore, as David points out, there appears to have been little or no effort to ensure the context of collections was identified and recorded before materials were dispersed. There must be an immediate halt to any further disposal or destruction, and college management needs to work with those who understand the history of Ruskin College, and the nature of the archives, to ensure no further invaluable resources are sacrificed to a brutal cupboard-clearing exercise.

    Bob Hayes – Ruskin History and historiography student, 1995-1996
    North West Labour History Journal editor, 2005-2007

  3. The question occurs, are those who are disgusted by the principals actions intend to act, for example by petitioning the trustees to officially censure her for her actions, or do we make annoyed sounds but fail to take any action – a hallmark of Ruskin in recent years.

    Enquiring minds want to know.

    1. Anon, you may been interested in this:

  4. What on earth is going on at Ruskin? I thought we’d made a mistake in appointing Stephen Yeo Principal, however, at least Stephen was an Historian who would never have allowed wholsale destruction of College Archives.
    What were they thinking appointing this woman Principal with no record of History in her CV or her very soul!
    A Former Sudent 88/90

  5. What on earth is going on at Ruskin? I thought we’d made a mistake in appointing Stephen Yeo Principal, however, at least Stephen was an Historian who would never have allowed the wholsale destruction of College Archives.What were they thinking appointing this woman Principal with no record of History in her CV or her very soul? More to the point what on earth are the Board of Governors doing? Do they no longer have any say in the running of the College at all?
    Raph Samuel will be doing triple back flips in his grave in Highgate Cemetery!
    A Former Sudent 88/90

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