Sign In

Remember Me

SHP 2018: Fourth Plenary

Claire Alexander, Robin Bunce, Maya Parmar, Pragya Vohra and Brodie Waddell presenting their work on the award winning ‘Our Migration Story’ – teaching migration history and why it matters so much.

Claire is approaching the study from a sociological focus and has worked with the Runnymede Trust, a race equality think tank. She’s also been working with a Cambridge historian (whose name I unfortunately didn’t catch).

They began with research into a study of displacement and migration in India at the point of partition, which they did through interviews – more information at, aimed at KS3 students – here are a set of stories, how would you tell your stories in a similar way? Family history, place and heritage – what does this mean when you look at it through a wider lens? This led to the Making Histories website –

Claire talks us through the background to the Our Migration Story project and introduces us to the website, with its accompanying resources and lesson plans – there is plenty here that can be adapted for the context of different schools.

Dr Pragya Vohra, University of York, then shares her work on Vikings. She’s an early medievalist and is frustrated by constantly bumping up against the idea that people don’t move during this time period. This isn’t really true: people moved probably about as much as they do now; we may have better transport and communication now, but movement is an historical constant, and people have been moving as far back as we can trace human beings. There is even an entire sub-period called the Migration Period.

Why does this idea of migration being new persist, therefore? Pragya thinks it is to do with our constructs: invasion, conquest etc – which doesn’t marry well with the idea of migration. The Romans, for example, brought a lot of people with them who had an impact on Britain. The legions may have left Hadrian’s Wall, but they weren’t the bulk of people who came to the region. The raiding if Lindisfarne is such a big event that we forget there were other people moving along with the raiders – and even before.

Pragya looks at Viking migration movements – the Vikings in diaspora. It helps us put people back into our understanding of the medieval period. There’s evidence of women as part of the Viking born arms, and foreign born women in graces in Britain – they were settlers and landowners. We have new methods of understanding medieval migration – genetic analysis of modern DNA, isotope analysis etc Though this evidence isn’t perfect, it will help us to bust some of the pervasive myths about medieval migration.

Dr Brodie Waddell, Birkbeck, speaks next about the Evil May Day Riots of 1517. This isn’t a happy story, he wants us. London was diverse by 1517; in fact, it was mostly migrants – from rural areas, and about 6-7% aliens. The latter were mostly Flemish, Dutch and German, with Italians and southern Europeans in there too; they were mostly workers and craftsmen, although also financiers and merchants. There was trouble brewing. He shares a comment from Thomas Hall, a chronicler, who wrote that the aliens were taking jobs from the English, amongst other perceived problems. On May day, 1517, a riot of a few hundred, growing to over a thousand, gathered outside St Paul’s and moved up to Newgate prison, where they freed an imprisoned apprentice. They moved on to the Liberty of St Martin’s, where they overpower Thomas More and ransacked the place. They then went to Mauetys’s House – he was famous for helping French immigrants and managed to escape out of an upstairs window. They then went to Lombard Street and then on to Blanch Chapelton, also out of the control of the civic chapel ton, where they burned the shoes of the Flemish craftsmen. By 3am they began to disperse, by which point the troops had arrived. Hundreds were arrested and sentenced to death, though only 10-15 were hanged in the end.

What can we do with this moment in time? Causes (immigrants, government, instigators, rioters) and consequences (damage, injuries, executions/selective mercy, mutual distrust, fear of punishment). There are also some rich sources and perspectives here – chronicles from Thomas Hall, Grey Friars and Arnold and Vergil’s history (some extracts available on the website) – but some missing – nothing of the rioters or the victims. It would also fit well into long-term narrative of migration: exceptional event? (To some extent, yes, though there was constant small-term nastiness). Shifting policies? Changing migrants? Recurring rhetoric?

Dr Maya Parmar next, from the OU and Exeter. She’s a literary and cultural critic. Her work has been on the migration of Indians in the 20th century, particularly the remarkable story of Sophia Duleep Singh. She was raised as an aristocrat and introduced at court, where she had grace and favour lodgings and Hampton Court. She became involved in battles for women’s rights and Indian independence, and had charitable interests including providing for Indian soldiers in WW1. She was a prominent Suffragette and agitator.

Maya has also worked on the life of Jayaben Desai, a south Asian who ended up in East Africa. This ethnic group occupied the middle section of the social strata – below the British but above the Africans. After WW2 and African independence, these settled migrants dealt with huge change, e.g. Idi Amin expelled all South Asians from Uganda. Even though they had British passports, they were not always welcome in Britain and were subject to racist attacks. She protested against her employer, Grunwick, by striking for better working conditions. These stories help to bust the myth that South Asian migration only happened after WW2 or as a result of partition. Their stories of evidence of the ongoing and inspiring contributions of Indians to British history.

Dr Robin Bunce, Cambridge, finishes off the plenary by discussing why and how migration histories are important today. He begins by talking about Black Sections, which he thinks can tell us a lot about how the politics of race were viewed in the 1980s. The aim of the movement was for better representation of BAME people in all areas of government, beginning by lobbying for better presentation within the Labour party, which had won a huge share of the BAME vote in 1979 but had seen this plummet in 1983. The children of first generation migrants were now in their 20s and 30s, settled and wanting better representation. Robin gives us a good overview of the history of Black Sections and then turns to consider its significance. It reveals a lot about the often contradictory attitudes of politicians and the press in the 1980s.

Students will have to navigate issues of race and prejudice in their lives: let’s help them to think about them historically.