Museums, Archives & Heritage

Thoughts & Questions of a Ruskin Graduate on the College Archives

By Denise Pakeman

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.

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


  1. Thank you for posting this article, Denise – as a former student myself – 1998 -2000 and President of the Students’ Union I concur entirely with the points you have made and so very well expressed.
    I was always moved, humbled and inspired when Hilda presented us, as students, with archive materials recording such as World War 1 accounts Ruskin College’s management are being complicit in undermining its very unique origins, integrity and history –  this wanton destruction must stop now !

  2. I am stunned by the actions of Ruskin regarding the destruction of valuable archive material. I urge everyone concerned about this situation to follow Hilda Kean’s advice and contact the College to let them know how you feel, and try to stop further losses.
    Cody Hanby.
    Recent Ransacker Graduate now studying at Goldsmiths College.

  3. I have been in touch with Prof. Audrey Mullender, the Principal of Ruskin, and have written up her responses to the concerns I raised with her and reflected on them. It also contains questions about wider issues to do with Universities and their archives/stduent records. It can be seen on my blog at

    1. This is not some sort of philosophical discussion about the state of archives in general. I know of no university or college that has wantonly disposed of records concerning its own institutional history. For example, although London Met has chosen to get rid of the Women;’s Library it has not lifted a finger to interfere with the archival contents.

      This is no generic issue but one specific to Ruskin.

      Last week there were still some student records remaining from the 1940s. There has been no statement that they will be safe. It is a priority to save them. What  assurance on this did you get from Audrey Mullender, Sean??

  4. Almost all commercial organisations accumulate old working papers.  When I was a solicitor, we had periodically to go through the paper room and remove files older than a certain date, sending them for recycling.  When papers become obsolete, it is amlost inevitable that they will be disposed of.  Few of us can afford to keep everthing, but they should be keeping some.  I would hope that Ruskin College has a policy as to what it selects for permanent archiving and what it weeds out. 

     It is important that samples of many things are kept, and the entirety of the most important classes of document.  Some of the issue seems to relate to ephemera, rather than archives, and I would suggest that a single sample of each item should be kept.  Duplicates can be sold or dosposed of, but I would hope that some one can make the effort to see if duplicates of items such as those illustrated cannot be sold. 

    I am glad to hear that archives deposited with the college have been transferred to Oxfordshire History Centre, which ought to be a good location.  Many colleges and universities have an archives section in the Special Collections section of their library, but a strategic size is required before it is viable to establish suitable storage and production facilities and employ specialist staff for the purpose.  The County Record Office is (or should be) well able to care for the archives, but I can think of certain local authorities with small collections, where I have considerable doubts as to the result of the lack of a strategic size to their collections. 

    1. Dr King correctly states that “Few of us can afford to keep everything…” but in this case it appears that an alternative to shredding was readily available: “Conscious of the intrinsic value of the pamphlets, ephemera and records that Ruskin holds… Stefan Dickers, the library and archives manager at the Bishopsgate [Institute], volunteered to take any material that Ruskin did not want. Some material was donated, such as a photograph and portrait of Raphael Samuel and MA dissertations in Public History taught at the College from 1996 – 2012 when the course was closed down. But rather than take up this offer of receiving all unwanted material it was decided to eradicate it.” (Dr Hilda Kean, )

  5. Ruskin Cherishes its Archives
    10 Oct, 12The story that has blown up around Ruskin’s historic archives began with a piece in History Workshop Online. This contained unfounded assertions that there was wholesale destruction and discarding of Ruskin’s historic archives and memorabilia. These allegations were spread far and wide through social media, a media release and so on. The truth is that we have actually expended a great deal of money, time and care on moving the College heritage and the MacColl Seeger archive into specially designed space in a new, enlarged library and other appropriate places around the College. The miners’ strike banner, for example, that it was alleged had gone missing, had its own vehicle, with two teams working together to move and hang it so that it would not be damaged. The Bowerman plaque, also specifically mentioned, is on loan to the Marx Memorial Library. The one thing we have done is to digitise the demographic and course-related information from our student records in an interactive database, in a way that complies with data protection legislation but which will allow our alumni to stay in touch with us and with one another. We are now established in a consolidated and beautifully redeveloped site at Ruskin Hall in Old Headington, Oxford OX3 9BZ. All are welcome at our grand opening on Saturday 27th October 2012. The word that most needs to be spread is that Ruskin offers life-changing educational opportunities to those with few or no qualifications: with courses from Entry Level to Level 7, we have something for everyone. If, reading this, you know anyone who hasn’t been able to complete their education or reach their true potential, then please do put them in touch with us.

    1. This anodyne press office statement  doesn’t actually deal with the charge that Ruskinn has been shredding its own heritage as an attempt to rid itself of its unfashionable labour and trade union history. It’s almost as if yjose running the insdtitution are trying to remake its image of its current principal, erasing any embarrassing traces of working class history and reappearing  as a respectable Professor of Social Work.

      The bullying, vindictiveness, distortion and the use of legislation (cf here the Data Protection Act) to justify bureaucratic excesses and downright vandalism are also unfortunately not unknown in the world of Social Work

  6. I agree wholly with the above article, and consider that any complaint of this magnitude should be taken seriously by the Chair and Board of Governors. There should be a thorough public investigation into the matter. That is the appropriate professional, democratic and academic position, and to dismiss this discussion or sideline it is serious dereliction of duty to the college and to Labour History. What the Principal seems to misunderstand is that the college is not a building but the people past and present who  make it. In the light of which senior management, including the Governors, seem to be behaving like Big Brother, and not in the collegiate spirit at all, let alone as proud guardians of Ruskin’s heritage and legacy. The message below is misleading and partial. The ‘Grand Opening’ would seem to be not about Ruskin’s opportunities for all, but spotlighting a building project… a ship whose captain seems to be heading for the rocks. David Cameron would be delighted!

  7. This is an excellent article. As a recent student at Ruskin myself, I would like to offer an anecdote that I think offers some insight into the mindset of Professor Mullender.

    Earlier this year the Ruskin Student Union wanted to stage a party in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the opening of the college’s Walton Street site in central Oxford. Use of the Raphael Samuel hall for this event was permitted by the Principal with the proviso that no mention should be made in posters advertising the event that it was intended to mark the anniversary. I was present when the Principal was asked why she insisted on this condition. Her reply? “We need to look to the future, not the past.” This is, in my view, extremely telling.

    One other point. Despite various attempts at obfuscation by the Principal, there is no longer any serious doubt that material from the student records archive is now lost forever. I have an email from the vice-chair of the governing board which says “…the complete record was not digitalised…” and adds “We have a digital entry of the basic information, not a copy of all that was on the file. So there IS information that has been lost.” (emphasis in original).

  8. This is just a quick comment to say that there is nothing wrong with shredding or weeding duplicates, particularly of printed material. As an archivist, you only have so much storage space and there is simply no need to keep many copies of the same thing. Naturally, if it is something exceedingly rare and valuable it could be considered but ordinarily it makes sense to shred duplicates. However, one can do this weeding by imagining the contents of the archive will be safe, which unfortunately does not seem to be the case with Ruskin College. 

    1. Since we do not know what questions our successors will ask of the past we cannot possibly know what material they will judge valuable, nor – not least because an assumption that *any* particular archive will survive in the long term is problematic – can present-day rarity (or otherwise) of historical documents be considered a reliable indicator of future availability. Of course space at any given archive will be limited, but surely it would be good practice to offer duplicate material to as many other archives and libraries as possible before taking the irreversible step of shredding it?

      In the case of the material that Denise was instructed to ‘weed’ and that she has illustrated here, in the unlikely event that the duplicates were not wanted by any other archive they could have been offered to students of the college. There would have been many takers.

  9.  For the latest on this issue and a link to a document showing the known status of various parts of the Ruskin archive/records see ‘when is an archive not an archive’ at

  10. Ruskin BA student, 2009 -2012

    This latest vandalism follows a pattern that has been obvious throughout my time at Ruskin, the rush to Headington regardless of our heritage at Walton Street made efforts to keep the spirit of Ruskin alive seen worthless. Destroying the precious archives merely compounds the felony.

  11. One of the worst aspects of this case is that it may set a precedent for other executives who can’t be bothered to look after their organisation’s archives to use Data Protection as a pretext for destroying them. It is ironic that Ruskin College, an organisation which once did so much to support historical work on the working-class and labour movement, is now promoting the destruction of the source material for such research. This is also having a very negative reputational effect on Ruskin – even the Wikpedia article on its current Principal notes that, `she is probably most notable for her role in the controversial destruction of parts of the college’s archive’.

  12. Denise Pakeman’s reconstruction of the working lives of miners and engineers, who in the early 20thc left Ruskin to become MPs, trade union officers, League of Nation officials and so on, recalls the intense conversations and argument among students in the late sixties (I was there 1968-70) in libarary, bar and common room about whether to return to the shopfloor, or to seek ft jobs in the labour movement; many personal and political issues were at stake in those arguments abour democracy, representation, the relationship between higher education and grass roots, or shopfloor lives which must have gone on among every generation of students from the beginning of the 20thc.  To destroy the record of those lives at Ruskin is to destroy an irreplaceable part of the fabric of social democracy as it was built in Britain in the 20thc, when perhaps 6-9% of the population went to university and the trade union movement fought hard and were proud to educate its representatives. 

    A footnote to the history of social democracy were the debates in Ruskin Students Union during the spring and summer terms of 1970, in the aftermath of the first National Women’s Liberation Conference held at Ruskin in March of that year.  Some students objected strongly to the residential parts of College being taken over by such events, in which they did not – necessarily – participate, whose aims and slogans (painted all over the floors and walls and passageways of Walton Street overnight on the saturday – or ws it the friday?) they did not agree with, and who were put to considerable inconvenience by the loss of the use of library, common room, kitchens and so on, for 3 days.  Myself and Arielle Aberson had to defend the conference, its participants and extra-mural events to a very angry student union meeting.  Our way had been prepared by sympathetic officers, over several weeks.  Mac Reid, among others, briefed us on how to address the meeting, and it was thanks to his wise advice that the eventual vote went in favour of future conferences being held in College premises – though the issue came up again and again in future years. 

    Thanks to Hilda Kean, David Horsfield, Denise Pakeham for their vigilance.

  13. How many times is it worthwhile saying you are

    Mullender should resign. She should have realised she was unfit for the job
    when , in response to a simple storage problem, she came up with a “solution”
    that betrayed , not just Ruskin’s history, but history.  Thus manifesting, not just a failure of
    imagination, but a neo-Nazi level of contempt for the college; what it stands
    for; what it stood for; its students, past and present; and its staff; teaching
    and domestic. 

    currently fighting a losing battle to stop the Southern Daily Echo from
    allowing their photographic archive to rot. You expect disdain, ignorance and
    spite from large organisations such as Gannett Corps, who own the Echo, but to
    experience a place of learning, and one as distinguished as Ruskin College at
    that, destroying their records, leaves one … at a loss for a metaphor.
    Heartbroken is the best I can come up with. 

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