When Ruskin College moved away from its Walton Street building in central Oxford, where it had been based for over one hundred years, much of its archive of student records was destroyed. Many dissertations written by Ruskin students were likewise disposed of. Artefacts, including paintings, were dispersed to other institutions.
No legal advice was taken prior to this destruction. No copies were made of the destroyed material. Such trashing of material of the past lives of former students was entirely unnecessary and its motivation remains a mystery. As Nicholas Kingsley, Head of Archives Sector Development & Secretary of the Historical Manuscripts Commission at the National Archives, confirmed ‘it would have been acceptable to retain these records indefinitely for historical purposes’. The Bishopsgate Institute offered its space to ‘anything and everything’ the College no longer wanted. (The Institute already holds the papers of Ruskin’s former history tutor Raphael Samuel and of the History Workshop that had been so closely associated with the College.)
There was much press coverage of the scandal and widespread criticism of the actions of the Principal, Audrey Mullender. A background article written by the former Dean of the College, condemning the destruction, was placed on History Workshop Online. There were further articles by Ruskin’s former librarian and by a former student, who described being asked to take rare pamphlets from the College library, and bin them.
An online petition drew international wide support of over 7,500 signatories. These included: Sarah Waters, Alan Bennett, M Lewycka, Sir Brian Harrison former editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; Dr Nick Mansfield former director of the People’s History Museum; Dr Eve Setch History publisher at Routledge; Professor Alison Light (widow of Raphael Samuel); Professor Jonathan Rose author of The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes; Stewart Maclennan, chair of the Scottish Labour History Society; MPs John McDonnell, Dave Anderson and Jeremy Corbyn; Harry Barnes, former Labour MP and former Ruskin student; John Hendy QC; Professor Geoff Whitty, former director of the Institute of Education; Professor Pat Thane, co-founder of History and Policy; Alice Kessler-Harris former President, Organization of American Historians; Dr Andrew Foster, Chair of the Public History Committee of the Historical Association; Professor Geoff Eley, Chair of the History Department at the University of Michigan; Dr. Serge Noiret, Chair of the International Federation for Public History, Italy; Dorothy Sheridan, former archivist of the Mass Observation archive; Dr. Roger Fieldhouse, joint author of A History of Modern British Adult Education; Keith Bilton on behalf of the Social Work History Network; Bob Price, leader of Oxford City Council; former governors including David Buckle and Brian Cohen; and hundreds and hundreds of former Ruskin students and staff, family historians and descendants of Ruskin students. The petition was presented to the governors in November 2012. However the vast bulk of the student records, as well as dissertations (which were often based on students’ trade union activity) were destroyed.
We realise that it will never be possible to ‘recreate’ the material stored in the ruined archives. However, we think it important to acknowledge the life experiences of people whose memory has been treated so shabbily. We also want to ensure that the destruction of the archive is not forgotten. As one signatory commented poignantly ‘My father was lucky enough to gain a scholarship to Ruskin from the NUM after WWII. His studies there are a large part of the reason why I am not now a miner… these records are of international importance.’
We have called this effort of restoration a public history project. Raphael Samuel wrote that history is the ‘work of a thousand hands’. The History Workshop and the Public History group, strongly associated with Ruskin, work in that spirit. This project, too, aims to create ‘history’, outside an academic institution, through (potentially) the work of thousands of people, contributing their own knowledge and experience.
We are very aware that the lives of many former Ruskin students have been recorded in prestigious biographical collections such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography or in the various volumes of the Dictionary of Labour Biography. But such existing material has never been gathered together in one, searchable, place.
We are also very conscious, of course, of the important contributions former Ruskin students have made to the lives of their countries and communities and families – contributions that have yet to be publicly recorded and memorialised collectively.
We are asking people to contribute as many entries as they can of the lives of students who attended the college (or participated in its correspondence courses). Please fill in the form available from Database Entry in the main menu. If you are entering details about someone who has been previously written about at length you can fill in the minimum and refer the reader to other material. If you are writing about someone who has not been written about before you may feel the categories set out in this form are rather restricting. In this case please add further material under the section headed ‘contributor’s comments’. Do not worry if you cannot fill in all the information. By creating a database in this way we hope that others will be able to add further information.
We also welcome ephemeral material including photographs of groups of former students. If you wish to contribute please email a JPG and a short description/caption to: newruskinarchives [at] gmail [dot] com
This website has only been possible through a generous one-off grant from History Workshop Journal. In order to maintain the site and its online presence we are seeking further financial contributions. We believe that this crowd-sourcing approach to fund-raising (an approach successfully taken by campaigning organisations like 38 Degrees) fits well with the way that we conceive the website, as the work of the collective intellect.
We are a few people who came together to try and stop the destruction of the Ruskin student archives. With many others we wrote articles and letters, composed petitions and lobbied the governors. We are intending to establish an advisory group once the project is up and running. We also welcome the involvement of those with time and energy to assist in developing the website.