History of History Workshop

Thirteen years of History Workshop

In its first thirteen years, History Workshop (The Digital Magazine Formerly Known as History Workshop Online) has benefitted from the involvement of many editors and friends from the History Workshop collective. Here, some of them reflect on their experience and a few of their favourite pieces.

Justin Bengry

History Workshop has been an inspiring intellectual home for me for more than a decade: I published my first academic article with History Workshop Journal, and have since been a contributor, editor and now Advisory Board member for the online History Workshop magazine. I’m proud to have been part of this radical tradition that challenges historians and non-historians alike to think about what history can be and what it can do. Looking at the back catalogue, I’m still so proud of the work that Hannah Elias and I did to expand History Workshop’s online presence, and so many of the posts that we edited remain both relevant if not urgent. They continue to speak precisely to the ways in which understanding the past can be brought to bear on how we engage with the present.

notable piece for me is the collectively authored ‘Can the history of veiled women inform an ugly election campaign in Canada? Reflections of Students and Faculty’ from 2015. Written during a particularly divisive moment of increased state Islamophobia in that year’s Canadian federal election, scholars and students used Susanna Burghartz’s History Workshop Journal article ‘Covered Women? Veiling in Early Modern Europe’ to reflect on longer histories of state racism in Canada.

The satirical tumblr site “niqabs of Canada” gestures with humour at the instability of head-covering as a signifier of otherness.

This piece showed the best of what History Workshop can do: timely responses to pressing issues in a thoughtful, engaged and historicised way. It demonstrated clearly the continued value of seemingly distant histories on present questions, but to my mind its most important contribution was to illuminate how History Workshop could be used as a teaching tool. Students in western Canada may never have considered how understanding veiling in early modern Europe could encourage them to think differently about their own local and national histories. Crucially, History Workshop provides this space.

Hannah Elias

History Workshop has been a pioneering space for the practice of radical digital history. It has become a leading digital space for historians to share responsive histories of the present, as well as new critical approaches to the study of history.  

In the very first issue of History Workshop Journal published in Spring 1976, the Editorial Collective wrote of their dedication ‘to making history a more democratic activity and a more urgent concern.’ The first Editorial Collective evisioned a way of writing and practicing history that flourished beyond the confines of the academic profession, and made history accessible and relevant to all kinds of readers. These values have animated the digital iterations of History Workshop. It is a radical digital space I am proud to have played a role in developing since 2015, first as co-Editor with Justin Bengry, then leading the editorial team’s expansion in 2018 before passing the baton to the outstanding Elly Robson (who has overseen the digital platform’s greatest phase of growth and its widest reach), and now as a member of the Advisory Board since 2019.  

It has truly been an honour to be a part of the History Workshop community. It has been my longest academic home in the UK, and I have benefitted enormously from working alongside and being in community with such a talented and dedicated collective of radical historians.  

Stand out pieces for me include: Kennetta Hammond Perry’s Undoing the Work of the Windrush Narrative (2018), and the wonderful introduction to the Virtual Special Issue on Black British History co-written by Caroline Bressey, Meleisa Ono-George, Diana Paton, Kennetta Hammond Perry and Sadiah Qureshi (2012). The regular Picket Perspectives series offers important and timely perspectives on the struggles for fair working conditions in Higher Education. 


Bristol historians on strike.

At a time when the world’s news, opinion and information is spread and shaped by social media sites that are controlled by a handful of billionaires, and the practice of history is increasingly politicised by those dedicated to stoking a ‘culture war’, it is increasingly important that independent platforms dedicated to sharing historical research and informed opinion have a sustained and stable place online. This new iteration of History Workshop’s online presence makes a necessary contribution to that work.  

Mark Pendleton

History Workshop has always had an internationalist orientation – the journal’s first issue back in 1976, for example, ran articles about the 1969 Bolivian film Blood of the Condor; women in 1920s and 30s Germany; and a museum about peasant life in Emilia. The online magazine’s earliest articles from 2011 ranged from Kashmir to the Middle East and as far as East Asia, the focus of my own research and teaching. 

I joined the History Workshop collective back in 2013 with a particular interest in how to sustain and grow the online magazine, which was by then a few years old. I don’t claim to be any kind of digital humanities expert, and certainly did not have the skills that later editors and editorial fellows have had in social media, search optimization, podcasting and more, all of which have contributed to it becoming such a hugely successful digital publishing project. 

My small idea back in 2013 was that History Workshop should extend its historically international(ist) focus by working with a wider range of organisations, activists, archivists and historians from all over the globe. After a year or so living in the UK, I was also beginning to feel that some people on this island – even some of those working in History – needed to be pushed into seriously engaging with the rest of the world. With that in mind, I commissioned many articles in my time as an editor, most of which weren’t really about the UK, unless the article took readers further, such as this discussion of race and ethnicity at Greenham Common. A few other articles from this period stand out. 

In 2014, my former home of Japan was still reeling from the aftermath of the 3/11 triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear incident. To mark the third anniversary, we brought attention to how historians were working in Japan and internationally to support those recovering from disasters through open source digital archives and local community preservation and restoration projects. A connection to the past was essential for communities at the forefront of the devastation. Historians helped provide that, along with the foresight to capture the ephemeral digital traces of the disaster as it unfolded, knowing that these were likely to become more important over time. 

Radiation hotspot in Kashiwa, Japan, February 2012

For World AIDS Day in December of that year, I interviewed activist, writer and historian Sarah Schulman, who had recently published her book Gentrification of the Mind. We published this interview alongside a dialogue between the author and activist Dennis Altman and the scholar and writer Dion Kagan. Together these two conversations explored the early 2000s wave of popular representations of HIV and AIDS histories that seemed, to me as an editor, to be highly sanitised and partial. After the publication of her landmark history of ACT-UP New York, Let the Record Show, Schulman returned to our site in 2021 for a podcast hosted by Marybeth Hamilton.

History Workshop has also had a longstanding focus on how the past informs the present, which carried through in my commissioning, from facilitating discussions over the timeliness of historical memory and articles on how a folded paper crane became the symbol of the anti-nuclear movement.

But perhaps my favourite piece was commissioned for our long-running Radical Objects series. John Marnell, from South Africa’s GALA Queer Archive, explored the significance of a relatively mundane object – a postbox – for telling the history of LGBT+ South Africans under apartheid. The box had stood outside the home of Thokozile Khumalo, known affectionately as MaThoko, in KwaThema, a township just outside of Johannesburg, until the house was destroyed in 1997. Activists stepped in to save the postbox, as it had been the key site of correspondence for the first mass Black LGBT movement in South Africa, the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW), founded by anti-apartheid and LGBT+ activist icon Simon Nkoli. MaThoko’s home and the tavern she ran were also sites of refuge, debate, strategizing and partying for LGBT+ people. 

At a time of increasing violence – from the slow horrors of social destruction in the UK, to the revival of imperial aggression in Ukraine, to horrific spikes in harassment of LGBT+ venues and individuals across the globe – such practical reminders that oppressed communities have always found ways to express solidarity and collective joy are ever more important. 

Barbara Taylor

In the years that I’ve been an editorial advisor on History Workshop as it has gone through many changes. I’ve been delighted to be part of its evolution, as it developed under the early guidance of Toby Butler and Andrew Whitehead. There have been some difficult moments and challenging conversations, but in the process we have gained new insights (some of us on a very steep learning curve) and renewed our commitment to a pluralistic radicalism, a commitment that has helped the website mature into the very exciting and enticing one it is today. Elly Robson has been key to this. It is difficult to overstate the scale of Elly’s contribution. Her energy, creativity and democratic spirit have been central to History Workshop for many years. 

The relationship between the journal and the digital magazine has also changed since the latter’s inception. Once merely a small adjunct to the journal, today History Workshop fulfils a role that would thrill the journal’s founding figure, Raphael Samuel, were he alive to witness it. A radical historical spirit that reaches beyond the academy was, and remains, key to the History Workshop movement. But over the years it has become increasingly difficult for the journal to reach general audiences. Thus the digital magazine has become ever more valuable both in the scale of its outreach and the relevance of its contents to present-day concerns. I have been proud to be part of its development.

Andrew Whitehead

An old, fragile, piece of linen can sometimes weave a story which evokes love, loss, faith and a political cause. There’s so much to relish among the pieces History Workshop’s digital presence has made available over the last decade. But Sasha Handley’s ‘The Radical History of a Bed Sheet’ is to my mind the most memorable.

The website’s Radical Objects series has delved into material items that cast a light on a moment or a movement or a social issue. These have included not simply posters and badges, pamphlets and banners, but also headgear, pots and pans, a prosthetic hand and a vaginal speculum. We’ve even featured edible radical objects.

But the bed sheet is in a class of its own. Embroidered into the linen is an inscription in human hair – probably the intertwining of strands from two people’s hair. One was the woman embroiderer, Anna Maria Radcliffe, the countess of Derwentwater; the other was her husband, James Radcliffe, the third earl of Derwentwater, who was beheaded in 1716 for his role in the failed Jacobite uprising of the previous year. The hair was probably taken from his severed head. 

Cross-stitch inscription from linen bed sheet, 34.63,© Museum of London.

The embroidered inscription records that this was: ‘The sheet off My dear dear Lord’s Bed at the wretched Tower of London’. The linen was for personal remembrance but it also promoted a cult of devotion, with a quasi-religious purpose. And it was also, in its way, a political standard. 

As Sasha Handley says, Anna Maria Radcliffe ‘created a bed sheet that functioned as an instrument of personal and communal memory, and as an agent of religious and political resistance’. And it is through the agency of the historian that we are able to reclaim this story and its potent symbolism.

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