Museums, Archives & Heritage

Whose Archive? Whose History? Destruction of Archives at Ruskin College, Oxford

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I remember being impressed by the diary of John Ward, a nineteenth century weaver from Lancashire, who had written daily accounts in a cash-book of the effects of the cotton famine caused by the American Civil War. There would be readers who may have thought these entries trivial: ‘A clear frosty day but now tonight is raining. I have joined the Low Moor Mechanics’ Institute and Reading-room. It is a penny per week, so I will see a daily paper regular.’i But the students whom I then taught at Ruskin College (and I) thought otherwise. These tiny glimpses and traces of a past evoked another world. What added to the interest were the circumstances by which the diary had been handed down to us. This possibly unique diary of a working weaver from the 1860s had been retrieved in 1947 from a heap of rubbish by a labourer who was feeding the furnace at the Clitheroe destructor. While someone had seen fit to discard it, another, also a working man, had realised its value. Without the binman’s intervention, the wider social history community would never have known that the diary – and, of course, its author – even existed.

The Walton Street site, Ruskin College, Oxford
The Walton Street site, Ruskin College, Oxford

In 1993 I took up a post at Ruskin College to work with Raphael Samuel getting a new postgraduate degree in Public History off the ground. Stephen Yeo, another historian of the labour movement, was principal. I never dreamed that such an act of destruction, as had nearly happened to John Ward’s diary, would occur at Ruskin. But times change and this is precisely what has, already, happened.

Ruskin College, founded in central Oxford in 1899, has recently sold its main Walton Street building to Exeter College and has moved to the outskirts of the city at Headington. This has been seen as an opportunity, by some, to ditch the College’s past both literally and metaphorically.

The College was a repository of lived experience of the trade union and labour movement of the twentieth century and its records complemented that. Some see past experience as unrelated to the future. As the college principal, Audrey Mullender has declared in email correspondence, ‘I think we must live by our future’, seeing this almost in contradistinction to the past. Others, particularly historians, tend to see a correlation between these time variables.

Much material from Ruskin’s past has already been physically trashed. This includes admission records of some of the trade union students who attended Ruskin in its first decades. These were activists, sponsored by their unions, who usually went back into the trade union and labour movement as leaders. Such archival matter is like gold dust to labour and social historians enabling a better understanding of the political and cultural life of working class people in the twentieth century. With the huge interest in family and local history it is also the sort of material that descendants find fascinating.

The destruction to date has not happened by accident. The college principal had stated her intentions, or, more accurately, her decision; the chair and vice-chair of governors, themselves from a trade union background, were advised of this intended operation months ago and took no action. The trashing of such records, David Norman, the chair, declared in email correspondence, was an ‘internal administrative matter’ and thus he declined to intervene.

Attempts to reason with the principal fell on deaf ears. Most of the files, this ‘hanging on to a load of old paper that no one ever looked at’ as Audrey Mullender has described it in emails, was of scant historical value. The records, she had decided, were ‘extremely thin and boring’. In addition they did not provide ‘a complete record’.

This indicates a complete lack of understanding about the nature of archives – and why historians find them fascinating. What is extremely boring to one individual is often engaging to another re-visiting the material in decades to come. In New Zealand, for example, one short-sighted official destroyed nineteenth century census records thinking they would be of no interest whereas, obviously, these are items of fascination to family and public historians. Even within state records, of course, one never receives full records – the 1861 census, for example, has huge gaps. Archives by their very nature never contain ‘complete’ records. Choices are always made by depositers and archivists. There is no ‘objective’ position.

For Audrey Mullender, so-called personal material such as that contained in past student applications could not be seen by anyone. This also illustrates a total misunderstanding of the spirit of data protection. To its credit, SOAS, to take but one example, has recognised that exemptions in legislation allow the permanent retention of data for historical and statistical research. As it has wisely stated, ‘SOAS’s history should not be endangered by the over zealous destruction of data that could be retained as historical archives.’ii

As those of us who actually use and value archives realise, routinely we are forbidden from accessing personal archives for some period of time, varying from archive to archive but often for period of 100 to 70 years. Clearly archives have the facilities and rationale for ensuring that records are preserved; colleges do not automatically have the space. This is especially the case at Ruskin, where a new supposedly purpose-built library has less storage space than the cramped library it has replaced.

Some of the rare material housed in the former building is now safe from further onslaught since it was given some time ago to the Bishopsgate Institute. The Institute already housed the papers of Raphael Samuel, long time tutor of History at the College. To this has been added collections relating to the History Workshop. Conscious of the intrinsic value of the pamphlets, ephemera and records that Ruskin holds – and keen to expand their growing collection of radical collection, such as material emanating from the Stop the War Coalition – Stefan Dickers, the library and archives manager at the Bishopsgate, 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. Papers have not gone to a landfill site but have been specifically destroyed. Even the removal firm seemed puzzled and sought clarification from the principal who allegedly confirmed that indeed such material must be destroyed. Perhaps the firm’s staff were viewers of ‘Who do you think you are?’ and understood their worth…

While some valuable material is now saved from such acts of philistinism the destruction of Ruskin’s past has not yet finished. The iconography that adorned the public walls of the College–the anti-imperialist mural in the block named after anti-apartheid activist David Kitson; the banner from the miners’ strike of 1984-5 when the College hosted striking miners; the plaque presented to Charles Bowerman, former President of the TUC and member of Ruskin’s governing council – are no longer part of the public history and public profile of the College. Volunteer students working in the archive instructed to shred labour movement pamphlets acted with the imagination and integrity one expects of the best of the Ruskin tradition. Other material such as pamphlets or ephemera has been squirreled away by staff keen to preserve the past – but understandably wary of their own future in the current climate.

Brecht famously enumerated ‘the questions of a worker who reads’. Weaver John Ward was one such worker. The Clitheroe labourer who rescued his writing was another. Ruskin students have provided such readers in their thousands, ordinary people interested in the past, present and future who asked questions of the world around them. Like Brecht’s character, they contemplated traces of the past that some people regard as valuable and others choose to ignore.

The destruction of the Ruskin archive will not stop such questions being raised, but better to retain the traces, than to wipe them out.

i John Burnett Useful Toil.Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 1920s, Penguin,1977, p.80.
ii (site accessed 1 October 2012)


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

Come on Ruskin, do the right thing by Toby Butler, ex-Ruskin student

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  1. My husband and I were Ruskin students in the mid-1980s at the time when the college campaigned vigorously for the release of David Kitson and supported and housed the striking Welsh miners. We benefited greatly from the library at Walton Street under David Horsfield and remember with respect the genius of Raph Samuel and his unconventional teaching methods and voracious gathering of history material.

    Now in our eighties we are sad to see the decline of Ruskin and the loss of its stronghold with the ramparts of the university, a necessary thorn in the side of Oxford’s elite, and strong ally of the Labour Party. Marina Duffell, B.A. (Hons) Eng and Brian Duffell, B.A. (Hons.) Hist.

  2. It’s like I didn’t exist, every company I ever worked for no longer exists, the company I served my apprenticeship at Marconi Co Ltd New Street Chelmsford apart from the façade is now expensive homes and flats that the likes of us cannot afford, Marconi House that stood on the site was Art Deco at it’s finest, crushed under the wrecking ball.
    I treasured my time at Ruskin, 88/90 and would never have thought such wholesale destruction by the management of Ruskin College archive was imaginable and I agree wholeheartedly with our librarian David Horsfield that questions have to be answered by those responsible.
    To think that I have been removed from the history of Ruskin College is a blow from which I might never recover, and it also seems the books I had intended to donate to the College Library will not be wanted as they’ll “take up too much space!

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