Monthly Archives: May 2020


Covid-19 Collecting and the University of Bristol Community

Like me, you might well be sick of the phrase that we are living through interesting times, though it could be argued that living through a Covid-19 lockdown and trying to work/study from home, is ‘interesting’.

As this is the case, and as we like to collect contemporary materials which may go into a future archive relating to the coronavirus and how it has affected the University of Bristol Community, we are proposing a collection of Covid-19 related materials.

We are well aware that this is a stressful and sensitive situation for all, and that many of you are more busy than usual; trying to adapt to new situations; working to care for people and develop strategies to combat the pandemic; and suffering losses of loved ones. However we would appeal to you all as part of your busy day to consider what is happening around you, and if you think it could be relevant to how people in the future will study how we coped with the Covid-19 pandemic, do please get in touch with us.

We should receive archives of committees and the like due to our current collecting of archives of the University of Bristol, but there are many other strands that will be of interest.

-Webpages and SharePoint sites: The University Coronavirus web pages and share point sites for students and staff

The work with the Community to help, support, and discover

The work of the Uncover team

We have created our own SharePoint site so people can upload material and submit it to us. This is new to us, so let us know if there are any problems with it.  It is now available here:

-Press and media: Our academics and students are busy engaging with many forms of media, (we are aware of the public relations web pages and thank them for being supportive)

-Social Media: Blogs, twitter, Instagram, twitter, facebook, yammer. All of which may show a more informal side of what is happening

-Emails: From colleagues/managers/schools to students/staff/individuals giving support and laying down new regimes/suggestions

-Talks and interviews: Such as staff addresses and talks from individual academics.

-Photographs: Images of your working at home desk/study area. Your new co-colleague pets and family. Rainbows, teddy bears in the windows of houses around you. Signs in shop/business/domestic windows. Graffitied messages of support

-Objects: When we go back to campus keep the signs put up to record that a building/library was closed. Did you sew a face mask? Did someone you know create PPE using school 3D-printers or sew scrubs? Did you get involved in volunteering in the community in many different ways? If you don’t want to give up the actual object we would be happy to have a photograph.


-Writing: Some people are writing diaries, finding solace in poetry, reading more (or less). The Brigstow Institute has supported diary projects, Mass Observation is collecting diaries on 12 May, and we would love to see your work (but only if you are happy to share).

Our Request

We are going to concentrate on the University as a community, be that student, staff, or alumni. We are interested in your story, whatever faculty you are based in (not just the arts) and whatever your job title or course of study.

We are conscious that there is a lot of collecting already going on. For instance the MShed in Bristol is collecting; as are multiple archives, libraries, museums, and organisations.  Collections may be physical or digital, or a mixture of the two.  The Wellcome Trust is also giving some good guidelines about the ethics of current collecting, which we are very anxious to follow.  So if you would like to talk to us that is brilliant, but if you have already offered your materials to another organisation that is equally fine (we are a bit late in asking).

We also realise how busy everyone is and though we seem to be entering the next stage of the pandemic after 7 weeks of lockdown, we would rather that you save something and get in touch in the future, when you have time to process what you are living through.  As I write this on 11 May 2020, the Government and University authorities, and the wider community are talking about what the next stage will be for us all to cope with what we are experiencing.  It is a rapidly changing situation, and we would love to record this as it is happening.

Do get in touch with us at or

We would love to hear from you, and thank you for your time.

Special Collections Web Page:

Hannah Lowery on behalf of the Special Collections Team

11 May 2020

(images all Hannah Lowery)

The Feminist Archive South and Women’s Liberation Music Archive at Special Collections

Firstly may we take the opportunity to wish you and yours all the best in these very difficult times. We also wanted to reassure you that though Special Collections Staff are now working at home and away from the archives and books, our collections and buildings are also being regularly checked, and are safe. At the moment we are not able to access the archives to answer individual queries, but do get in touch and we will see what we can do to help.

 For our students (and non University of Bristol students)

We know that students working on the Feminist Archive South were some of the last people to be working in our Reading Room as lockdown developed around us. You are probably being ingenious, finding other ways to approach your research, talking to your supervisors, and subject librarians, but remember to get in touch with us, we may be able to help

For our academics (and non University of Bristol academics)

We’ve met some of you or we’ve worked together before. During the Summer term 2019 we held several seminars for University of Bristol academics, using the Feminist Archive South and Women’s Liberation Music Archive. Many issues now arise, such as: planning seminars for this term; looking ahead to teaching sessions for 2020/21, in whatever shape or form it takes; thinking about your research during Summer 2020; advising your students about accessing the archive?  So many questions, do get in touch, we may be able to help.

For our friendly activists, artists, trustees

Special Collections, the Feminist Archive South, the Women’s Liberation Music Archive, and allied collections are not just open for academic study, they are open for inspiration, for activism, and for a wider perspective on the past/present/future. Along with other feminist archives, such as our sister Feminist Archive North at the University of Leeds, and many more, we try to preserve the history of the past to make it relevant for the present. We have worked with you in many different ways, so get in touch and see if we can help now.

News updates

British Library Exhibition

You may know that we were going to lend five items from FAS to the ‘Unfinished Business’ Exhibition at the British Library from 24 April to August 2020. This exhibition has been postponed until October 2020-February 2021, but check out the British Library’s blog for activities which are going on now.

For instance you can listen to an excellent Mary Wollstonecraft birthday podcast or follow  @BL_ModernMSS on twitter to find out more.

‘Unfinished Business’ Exhibition at the British Library, London. Photograph by Hannah Lowery, 29 February 2020.

Monica Sjoo Artist

A group of people are working together to curate an exhibition of the art work of Monica Sjoo.  There is an international angle to their work, and we are happy to put you in touch with people.  Check the online archive catalogue for a description of the rich archive we hold.

‘Still I Rise’ exhibition, Arnolfini, Bristol. Photograph by Hannah Lowery, September 2019.

Hatpins to Hashtags and the Politics and Protest Exhibition

Looking back to 2018 and the wonderful work which the Feminist Archive South did in their Hatpins to Hashtags Government funded workshops Special Collections recently helped exhibit the Politics and Protest banners in the University of Bristol Life Sciences Building. This was the first time that we managed to display these in the University of Bristol. Thanks to everyone involved.  It was a good opportunity for different generations of activists to get together, some who had attended celebratory meetings in Oxford so celebrate fifty years of the first Women’s Movement Conference. Current conditions mean the next planned loans of the exhibition won’t be able to go ahead, but the messages of the posters are as relevant today as they were in the recent past, so we would love to spread the word. Many volunteers were also involved in workshops in 2018, which led to crowd cataloguing of some of the thousand plus posters. The posters now are mainly onsite in ASSL, and we need to have further discussions to see if we can carry on the crowd cataloguing of the digitised posters, do get in touch if you want to find out more.

Politics & Protest exhibition banners in the University of Bristol Life Sciences Building.

Politics & Protest exhibition banners in the University of Bristol Life Sciences Building. Photograph by Hannah Lowery, March 2020.

SPAN Project

The SPAN Project (Single Parent Action Network), based at the Barton Hill Settlement, has been a collaborative project with AHRC funding, organised by Professor Josie McLellan, University of Bristol History Department, and others.  A project archivist and volunteers have been working on the archive, which, as soon as it is possible, will be housed in Special Collections, as an adjunct of the Feminist Archive South. We look forward to receiving the thirty or so boxes and catalogue. Thanks everyone.

Spare Rib

Last year, extra funding from the University of Cambridge allowed us to get an archivist colleague in Bristol to do some extra work on the Spare Rib Archive held in the Feminist Archive South.  So thank you to Lucy Delap and Jayne Pucknell for making that happen. This means we have a much better idea of the holdings and also can better provide access to the materials, as they are sensitive in their content. Thanks too to the many others involved in this project.

Whilst talking about Spare Rib, don’t forget that digital copies can be found here. However they are not complete due to copyright issues, and we look forward to having access again to our physical copies in the near future.

We would also like to remind you about recent acquisitions of archives relating to Asphodel Long  (DM2767) and Daniel Cohen (DM2966). Kind volunteers have helped us to start improving access to these collections, and we hope to be able to do more work on this in the future. For the moment these catalogue entries are not available.

Online Archive Catalogue

Link to Major Collections: Feminist Archive South: Choose Advanced Search then drop down menu Major Collections: Feminist Archive South.

FAS: DM2123

WLMA: DM2598

Our web page

Collections Strength Webpage

Feminist Archive South Website

Women’s Liberation Music Archive

Special Collections also tweets at @BrisUniSpColl, and you may well find mentions of the Feminist Archive South quite frequently.

Finally our version of a sound cloud listing some of the recent research topics in the Archive. It is an amazing resource, do ask and we will try and help make it accessible to you.

Dora Russell’s Peace Caravan; male anti-sexism newsletters; domestic violence; menstruation; Greenham Common; self care in times of protest; first Women’s Liberation Conferences in Oxford, 1970; women in the manual trades; suffragettes; peace movements; Spare Rib; Virago Publishing; Monica Sjoo.

A big thank you to everyone who has helped make the Feminist Archive South and allied collections develop since they were first deposited in Special Collections in January 2008.  A lot of important anniversaries and additional archives have happened since that time. We raise a glass to you then, now, and in the future. Cheers

Hannah Lowery

7 May 2020

Hidden treasures in the University of Bristol Brunel Collection

Emma Howgill is a project archivist at Special Collections, University of Bristol. She has recently completed the cataloguing of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s S.S. Great Eastern letter-books and here writes about her work on part of DM1306.

 For the last nine months, I have been working on cataloguing a small section of DM1306, the Personal Papers of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, specifically dealing with Brunel’s final project, the SS Great Eastern.  The largest ship for almost half a century after her launch, the Great Eastern was packed with technological innovations including a double skinned hull and a compartmentalised bulkhead system that allowed her to remain afloat even if the hull was damaged, and with a novel combination of both screw propeller and paddle wheels.  The series of papers relating to the Great Eastern (DM1306/11) include a detailed record of Brunel’s correspondence relating to the ship’s construction, evidence of the research he carried out when designing the ship, correspondence relating to the fixtures and fitting out of the ship, as well as inventions offered for inclusion on the ship and a large selection of letters from the general public offering help and advice during the protracted launching process over the winter of 1857-1858.

As well as highlighting Brunel’s energetic working and management style, the papers also reveal the wide-ranging public interest in the project. There is correspondence from all over the world and offers of a range of inventions, with many writers hoping to make their fortunes by enlisting Brunel’s support for their inventions or ideas or their inclusion in his magnum opus, as well as letters of interest from harbours as far apart as Portland, Maine and Melbourne, Australia all hoping to boost their profile by becoming a docking point for the ship.

These papers are being catalogued in detail for the first time, and will soon be listed on our online catalogue, allowing anyone, anywhere, to identify items of interest. Some of the papers have a wealth of information to tell us about life on board a nineteenth century ship, or Victorian business practices; others offer mysteries to be solved by future researchers, while still more allow us to tease out threads between personalities and events.  In my recent cataloguing work, I have come across examples of all three…

DM1306/11/17/4 offers us an insight into not only government procedure, but also life as a government-sponsored emigrant on board ship on the way to a new life. At first glance, the blank/unfilled in form seems to offer little in the way of informational value. However, this form ‘Government form D No 12: Tender for Passage Accommodation and Diet of Persons Embarked for …. Under the authority of Her Majesty’s Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners’, to be filled out by any ship-owner wishing to carry government sponsored emigrants to various colonial destinations, contains a wealth of information for anyone wanting to learn about life on board a nineteenth century emigrant ship.

Rather than leaving emigrants to fend for themselves, the form suggests that the government paid considerable attention to the care and safety of emigrants particularly those whose passage was being sponsored by the government. The form details the conditions by which ship owners had to abide, including the need to allow government inspection of the quality of the ship and the need to provide religious instruction and medical care for all passengers as well as schooling for every child passenger.  But possibly the most interesting part lies in the listing of rations to be provided for every person, from the amount of bread and meat, to the quantity of water per passenger per day, as well as the list of medications and medical supplies to be carried on board the ship.

From this simple, apparently boring government form, we can build up the beginnings of an idea of life as a government sponsored emigrant in the 1850s.

Other elements of the collection are perhaps more immediately interesting but also more mysterious, for example DM1306/11/21/7/7, a letter from W.L.E. McLean, of the Lancefield Forge company, to Brunel’s assistant Bradford Leslie.

Letter from W.L.E. McLean to Bradford Leslie about the crank shaft of the Great Eastern. DM1306/11/21/7/7.

Letter from W.L.E. McLean to Bradford Leslie about the crank shaft of the Great Eastern. DM1306/11/21/7/7.

The letter is part of a long-running series of letters between Brunel, his assistants, and Lancefield Forge, a Glasgow-based iron foundry, which undertook the herculean task of forging the enormous crank-shaft for the Great Eastern’s engines.  The task proved so enormous that it took several attempts to complete a flawless shaft. However, the particular interest of this letter lies not in the letter itself, but the fact that the page has been reused as drawing paper.

A pencil sketch by an unknown artist on the back page of a letter from W.L.E. McLean to Bradford Leslie. DM1306/11/21/7/7.

The back page has been used for a pencil sketch of a river scene with three ships, all showing evidence of masts and rigging and the nearest two also carrying paddle wheels.  The size and shape of the nearest ship might suggest that this is a sketch of the SS Great Eastern, although it is unclear whether the sketch shows the ship under construction, in the ‘fitting out’ phase, or if it is an idealised image of the completed ship. The sketch is unsigned and this creates additional mystery. Is this a sketch in Brunel’s own hand showing his interpretation of the completed Great Eastern, is it a sketch of the Great Eastern under construction or is it the work of a bored clerk, idly doodling the view outside his window?  Can the author of the sketch be identified? Perhaps future researchers may identify artist and subject and may even find out why the sketch was created. For the moment, the sketch, its author and its subject are a mystery, leaving us to imagine the circumstances of its creation.

The final treasure uncovered during the recent cataloguing connects two of Bristol’s heroes and some of their lesser known projects.

First page of a letter from Samuel Plimsoll to the Directors of the New River Company. DM1306/11/21/5/4.

Last page of a letter from Samuel Plimsoll to the Directors of the New River Company. DM1306/11/21/5/4.

DM1306/11/21/5/4 has no direct connection to the Great Eastern but may have been part of Brunel’s research process for the ship identifying the best type of coal to power the mighty engines. The letter comes from a coal merchant, boasting to the Directors of the New River Company of the extraordinary benefits of his brand of coal and it is the letter’s author who is of particular interest.

Anyone who has crossed the Cumberland Basin from Hotwells to Spike Island has seen or crossed the Plimsoll Bridge, named in honour of Samuel Plimsoll, author of this letter. Born in Bristol in 1824, Samuel Plimsoll embarked on a brief, unsuccessful career as a coal merchant before becoming an MP, where he championed the cause for which he is best remembered. The Plimsoll line, introduced in the Merchant Shipping Act of 1876, identified the safe loading weight for ships and its introduction may have saved countless sailors’ lives, making Plimsoll a local hero. The current Plimsoll Bridge was installed in the 1960s when it replaced the original, asymmetric swinging bridge designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the late 1840s as part of the rebuilding of the Cumberland Basin lock (one of Brunel’s original bridges still sits on site, crosswise under the new bridge).

So not only are the two men connected by this bridge, but the letter also reveals connections with another incident in Brunel’s long, varied career. This letter is a copy of an earlier letter which, based on the formatting of the first page, may have been written on headed paper from the Great Exhibition of 1851. Brunel was peripherally involved with the Crystal Palace in which the Great Exhibition was held, both as a member of the Building Committee overseeing the design of the original Crystal Palace and then subsequently as the designer of the enormous water towers supplying the fountains and cascades in the gardens surrounding the relocated Palace.

So maybe, if ever you cross the Cumberland Basin, stop at the Plimsoll Bridge, find Brunel’s original bridge, look down the Basin towards the SS Great Britain and consider the legacies of two of Bristol’s maritime heroes, both connected by a single letter in the University of Bristol Special Collections.

The University of Bristol Brunel Collection is stored at the Brunel Institute, a partnership between the University of Bristol and the SS Great Britain, while an online catalogue is available at