Scale, Scope, Equality and History: Reflections on Glasgow Research

Just as the neeps and tatties of Burns Night were being cleared away, before the UK university strikes of recent weeks, I found myself again transported back to last year and my time in Scotland…


Image © The Author.

‘Forged by Fire: Burns Injuries and Identity in Britain, c.1800-2000’ considers experiences across Britain and throughout more than two centuries. It was designed to engage with people and policy today – with burns survivors and their families, medical practitioners, the fire service and third sector, and the wider public; and with burns prevention and first aid education, and health and safety policies. In order for the project to focus most effectively on the detail, it takes in ‘iconic fires’ in Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as three English and Scottish city case studies: Birmingham, Glasgow and London. These urban sites were chosen due to the survival of records and their accessibility, but also because of the markedly different urban contexts; their housing stock, industries, demographics and cultures. The project team are determined that each city is given equal importance. Scale, scope, local experiences and national insight have therefore proved central to how ‘Forged by Fire’ was and is conceived.

The battle between general, sweeping history and intimate, nuanced study was reignited most recently by Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s The History Manifesto (Cambridge University Press, 2014). In it, the authors argued that historians should return to embracing what one group of mid twentieth-century French thinkers, the Annales School, called the ‘longue durée’ (aka ‘big history’). Manifesto was a call for historians to tell public truths and overtly engage in debate and inform politics. The fallout from the claims made in the publication has been extensive. Birmingham colleague, Matt Houlbrook’s brief response voiced the sentiments of many: ‘Historians will … be surprised to learn that they have stopped engaging in debates about the past and our contemporary world’, and that ‘micro-historians’ – those following an idea developed in Italy in the 1970s, of in-depth, smaller-scale studies of the past – had ‘disengaged from vital questions of power and inequality’. Similar sentiments were expressed by Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler, who in turn offered clear evidence to refute much of the premise and hyperbole of Manifesto. In addition, the two authors underscored that the rationale behind the employment of ‘big’ or ‘little’ history came down to the question a researcher is seeking to address and, in essence, not indicative of a lack of ambition or of an insignificant study.

These questions of scale also feed into current discussions about the direction of and funding and precarity in Higher Education, which contributed to the motivations of many who voted to strike in a ballot nominally about pensions. A recent and profoundly personal blog post by Birmingham PhD student Laura Sefton highlighted that the question(s) a researcher sets out to answer can be shaped by the money and health at the historian’s disposal; they may be centred on a place and interest close to home. ‘Microhistory’ can, then, be a reflection of circumstance, but that does not mean the subjects are impoverished, quite the opposite. Through personal experience and research, these microhistories both rest on and produce a deep understanding of place and space – spiritual, intellectual, emotional, physical, cultural, geographical and temporal – and an acute appreciation that people do not experience the same time in the same way; something at the very heart of questions of power and inequality.


Glasgow Royal Infirmary, the location of the burns ward that formed a significant part of the research undertaken in Glasgow. The patients, doctors and scientists here helped transform modern burns care. Image by byronv2 on flickr, distributed under the Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC 2.0.

For the AHRC-funded ‘Forged by Fire’ project, I was able to spend the second half of last year centring all my efforts on Glasgow. Facilitated by Dr Matt Smith, the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare at the University of Strathclyde generously hosted me as a Visiting Fellow. Colleagues at the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh were also at hand for advice, and the Scotland-based research was much more effective than would ever have been the case without them. (Indeed, it should perhaps also be noted that trying to conduct online searches about burns in a nation shaped by Burns is challenging!) My time in and around Glasgow, guided by the people who live there, has embedded a keen sense of place within the longue durée of ‘Forged by Fire’, and helped shape the microhistories that will contribute to what we hope will be both a broad and nuanced history of burns injuries and identity.

The Mitchell Library was in many ways at the heart of my experiences and research in Glasgow. I spent so much time there that I felt like part of the carpet; for those who haven’t visited, the multitude of designs is one the most wonderful and striking features of the place. The insights offered by each of the librarians and archivists to whom I spoke, moulded what it was that I studied, and I soaked in the queries of and responses to the hundreds of local and international people calling and visiting to discover their roots. That the Archives was both staffed and open six days a week – now a novelty thanks to the austerity policy south of the border (at least outside London) – also promoted more sustained research than many places in England. Added to this the short-term cataloguing-in-progress funded by the Wellcome Trust, but actually carried out by an early career archivist, and items that I would never otherwise have found came into focus. A particular highlight was the discovery that as Librarian for the City’s Public Health Department, one woman – Miss Knox – was absent from the broad overviews yet singlehandedly responsible for compiling the statistics upon which Glasgow’s public health policies of the mid-late twentieth century were built.


Image © The Author.

The Archives at the Mitchell also host Alistair Tough and the custodians of the NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde archives, a key resource for the history of health and medicine in Britain. Here, too, directions were offered, advice taken. From the records of Victoria Infirmary kept there, searches were then made at the University of Glasgow, which had, after moving to its West End site and away from the city centre’s Glasgow Royal Infirmary, began to establish the Victoria as a teaching hospital in 1881. The University archives also enabled access to material in the Scottish Business Archive. Study of documents here suggested the role of private organisations in developing health and safety at work, but underscored the total dependence on workers’ desire to train in first aid and make the difference on a practical, grass-roots and personal level. The ramifications of those businesses operating without this infrastructure was made clear by the holdings of The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Glasgow, and the Fatal Accident Inquiry reports at National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh.

But these are only a few reflections on my time in Glasgow, written just as the strikes were about to begin. In the end, the British history of burns and identity that comes out of the Scottish research – like this blog post – will be shaped by national and international currents and connections and the experiences of the whole team, but also be representative of the past through efforts to incorporate intimate stories and long-term trends. Like the research I was able to carry out in Scotland, burn injuries and their treatment were and are manifestations of power and inequality, inflected through education, work, precarity, material conditions, and access to health and safety. No matter longue durée or microhistory, form, inform and transform are the watchwords. Issues of class, gender, age, ethnicity and disability continue to be central to our understanding of the past, how this is formed, and how it can inform contemporary publics and future policy. ‘Forged by Fire’, like humanities projects elsewhere, seeks to transform knowledge and promote equality.

By Dr Rebecca Wynter



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