Monthly Archives: November 2018

Tracing the ‘roots’ of Tree Dressing Day in the Common Ground archive

In December 1990, the arts and environmental charity Common Ground introduced a new annual custom which it called ‘Tree Dressing Day’. ‘Tree Dressing Day’ was envisioned by Common Ground as a day for people to decorate and celebrate trees in their local area. It was to be held on the first weekend of December of each year, neatly coinciding with the already existing National Tree Week. As the first weekend of December 2018 approaches, I delve into the Common Ground archive to find out how it all began…

Promotional material in the archive relating to ‘Tree Dressing Day’

Common Ground started work on its Trees, Woods and the Green Man project in 1986. In a leaflet preserved in the archive, the charity explains the meaning and purpose behind the project:

‘They [trees] have been our friends through the ages and they have helped us make sense of the world. They are important economically, socially and ecologically and they are deeply part of many cultures. They need our help now, not just in the tropical forests, but here in the street and down the lane…Common Ground’s work around Trees, Woods and the Green Man is trying to give information and ideas to help you to look at the trees around you and think of ways to involve yourself and others in celebrating and caring for them. Make every tree a wanted tree.’ (Reference: EUL MS 416/PRO/4, File 2.1)

The project resulted in a variety of activities and events, including publications, exhibitions, and artistic commissions. It was also from the Trees, Woods and the Green Man project that the new calendar custom ‘Tree Dressing Day’ emerged.

‘Tree Dressing Day’ files in the Common Ground archive

Early research by Common Ground into the custom of dressing trees revealed that it had existed for centuries in many different forms all around the world. This inspired the charity to launch its own ‘Tree Dressing Day’, providing advice and encouraging people to decorate trees in their neighbourhoods. The first ‘Tree Dressing Day’ was celebrated in 1990, and the custom has proven to be sustainable, with celebrations continuing to the present day. The success of the initiative and Common Ground’s enthusiasm for it are indicated in a report dated February 1993, in which Common Ground writes:

‘There is excitement among us that we may have begun the reinvention of a tradition in which young and old, professional and amateur, all cultures and places city and country can share. And in which the seeds of the social and public celebration of trees…becomes an easy first step to long term shared commitment and care’. (Reference: EUL MS 416/PRO/4, Report on Tree Dressing Day in 1992, File 1.4)

The Common Ground archive contains a significant amount of material relating to ‘Tree Dressing Day’, including correspondence, reports, press releases, photographs, research material, promotional material and press clippings. It even includes some decorations that were used to dress trees! This section of the Common Ground archive will be catalogued in the course of the next two years, making this exciting material much easier to discover and access.

Archivist Annie showing Sue, one of our volunteers, decorations in the Common Ground the archive that were made by the UK Asian Women Conference for ‘Tree Dressing Day’ (c 1992 or 1993)

Find out more about ‘Tree Dressing Day’ on the Common Ground website, which also includes some lovely images.

Why not start your exploration of the Common Ground archive via our online catalogue today? Simply search ‘Common Ground’ or the reference number ‘EUL MS 416’.

You can also find out more about the Common Ground archive cataloguing project by taking a look back at our previous blog posts.

By Annie Price, Project Archivist

Oil, Pearls and Politics: cataloguing the papers of Charles Dalrymple Belgrave (1894-1969)

Belgrave’s diary for 1917 along with articles on Bahrain written for ‘The Times’ EUL MS 148/2/1/2 and 10

One reason why the papers of Charles Dalrymple Belgrave provide such a fascinating resource is the distinctive nature of his career in the Gulf. Most of the diplomats whose papers are preserved in the Middle East Collections served in specific roles – such as ambassador or political resident – under the British government, and tended to move from place to place every few years. Belgrave was appointed as ‘Adviser’ to the Sheikh of Bahrain in 1926 and held this post until 1957. This thirty-year period saw Bahrain transformed by the discovery of oil and a series of modernising administrative reforms led by Belgrave, who oversaw improvements in the legal system, infrastructure, police service and public health. As he was an employee of the Sheikh rather than the British government, Belgrave occupied a unique and somewhat ambiguous position, balancing the interests of the Al Khalifa rulers and the Bahraini people with Foreign Office policy and British strategic aims for the Gulf region. The papers in our collection shed light not only on the achievements, challenges and controversies of Belgrave’s life and work in Bahrain, but also reveal the means by which the society and economy of this small island altered dramatically during this time, and the role played by British and American interests – both political and commercial.

Pages from Belgrave’s diary for 13 August 1926, recording events in the wake of a fatal shooting at The Fort, the police headquarters. The Political Agent, Major Clive Daly, was badly wounded in the incident – hence the arrival of the cruiser referred to above, which Belgrave clearly regarded as an over-reaction. EUL MS 148/2/2/6/4

Prior to his appointment as Adviser in 1926, Belgrave had obtained experience of the Middle East through military service with the Imperial Camel Corps Brigade during the First World War in Egypt, Sudan and Palestine. He then held administrative posts in the Siwa Oasis in Egypt – recorded in his book Siwa: The oasis of Jupiter Ammon (London: Bodley Head, 1923) and Tanganyika (formerly German East Africa, now part of Tanzania). It was while on leave from East Africa that he saw a job vacancy in the ‘Personal’ adverts of The Times (10 August 1925) – a life-changing moment that gave its name to his autobiography Personal Column (London: Hutchinson, 1960) and also featured in one of Belgrave’s watercolour paintings, a photograph of which is in our collection (EUL MS 148/2/2/4/1).

Having secured the job after interviews with British government officials, Belgrave undertook a three-month Arabic course at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and tried to find out what he could about Bahrain – only to discover that very little information was available. After marrying his fiancée Marjorie Lepel Barrett-Lennard on 27 February 1926, the Belgraves sailed for Bahrain, arriving on 31 March which is when his diary starts.

It should be noted at this point that – with the exception of a few small sections – the diaries we have here are copies and transcripts, rather than the original books (which remain with his family.) The papers in the collection were assembled by Charles’ cousin Robert Belgrave while working on a biography of ‘The Adviser’ that sadly remained unfinished when Robert died in 1991. In addition to the printed versions of the diaries which Robert had transcribed and typed, the collection includes original letters and documents, artwork by Charles Belgrave, printed material on Bahrain, copies of numerous official documents and presscuttings, as well as Robert Belgrave’s early drafts and working papers for the biography.

Copies from a large album of presscuttings chronicling the visit of Sheikh Hamed Bin Isa Al Khalifa, to the UK in June 1936. EUL MS 148/2/2/5

During the cataloguing process I read through Belgrave’s diaries from his arrival in 1926 to the final months of 1956 when his departure was imminent, and was struck by the extent of the changes that took place both in Bahrain and in Belgrave himself. In addition to his duties advising the royal family and steering British policy in the region, he set up the police force, sat in judgement in the law courts, oversaw improvements in the health and education systems on the island and played a key role in supporting the establishment of the petroleum industry in Bahrain after oil was discovered in the early 1930s. He took a hands-on approach to all these activities, taking part in midnight raids on illicit arak stills, interrogating prisoners in the police cells, interviewing applicants for various posts on the island and generally involving himself in the minutiae of everyday life in Bahrain. His personal influence in the region was so extensive that he was referred to not only as المستشار (‘the Adviser’) but also as رئيس الخليج   (‘Chief of the Gulf’).

                   An original page from Belgrave’s diary for 7-8 April 1928 EUL MS 148/2/2/6/4

Despite Belgrave’s heavy workload he was able to make time for leisure activities including playing bridge, reading novels and listening to gramophone records. At times the references to dull dinners, ‘awful people’ and ‘ghastly’ cocktail parties suggest that the constant round of social engagements – integral to his job – could grow tedious. One form of entertainment that does begin to appear more and more regularly in his diary as the years progress is the cinema, which is referred to at the foot of the above letter. Belgrave was able to watch films at a number of different venues, including home movies at the Residency, onboard visiting naval ships and a small theatre in the oil workers’ camp as well as the commercial cinemas that were later established in Manama. Belgrave’s records of how these cinema venues developed provides a fascinating reflection of the changing society in Bahrain, and may be the subject of another blogpost.

Bahrain’s transformation from a small island economy dependent upon pearl fishing into a modern society owes much to Belgrave, who not only managed the island’s administration and controlled its budget, but also took a personal interest in raising standards of education and health, training the police force, establishing hospitals, improving roads and drainage. However, by holding so much power in his own hands and closely aligning Bahrain’s ruling family with British political interests, he made himself a target for the growing nationalist ferment which manifested itself in a series of demonstrations, several of which turned violent and involved the burning of cars and buildings.

These events, and Belgrave’s response to them, are recorded in detail in his diaries, alongside his concerns about intrigue involving Persia and Egypt, and his personal frustration not only with the Foreign Office but also the attitudes of some of the Political Residents – over a dozen of whom came and went during his time there. It is instructive to compare his analysis of political events in Bahrain with the (often critical) confidential reports (EUL MS 148/2/1/3 and MS 148/2/1/5) written by British and American officials – a picture that could be further fleshed out by consulting the views of his opponents, as published in local newspapers and tracts, and the openly hostile opinions of his role found in the Egyptian and Iranian media. Another perspective on the rise of nationalism and the decline of British influence in the Middle East can be traced through the papers of Sir William Luce, who arrived in Bahrain as Political Resident in 1961, four years after Belgrave’s departure, and was instrumental in Bahrain becoming an independent state in 1971. In his diaries for 1956, Belgrave notes the appointment of a new Governor in Aden (Luce) and comments on the troubles there, which in many ways echoed the unrest in Bahrain at the time.

Documents and presscuttings relating to the trial of Abdul-Rahman Al-Bakir, Abdul-Aziz Al-Shamlan and others. EUL MS 148/2/1/7 and 8.

The nationalist movement in Bahrain was led by a small group of individuals who called themselves the Higher Executive Committee, (later the National Union Committee), and made Belgrave’s life increasingly difficult in later years. In November 1956 he had the leaders arrested following a number of deaths and injuries during riots that he claimed had been instigated by the Committee. The trial and conviction that followed caused controversy both in Bahrain and the UK – these events are documented at length in various materials that can be studied in the collection.

Although Bahrain never formed part of the British Empire, during the nineteenth century the ruling Al Khalifa family entered into a series of legal treaties that offered Britain a degree of control over defence and foreign relations in exchange for military and naval protection from pirates and hostile neighbours. As a British Protectorate, Bahrain was nominally independent but effectively supervised by British government officials. Control was exercised by means both subtle and unsubtle, and when the erratic behaviour of the ruler Sheikh Isa ibn Ali Al Khalifa threatened the island’s stability, the British had him deposed in 1923 and replaced with his son Hamed, Belgrave’s employer. After Hamed’s death in 1942 he was succeeded by his son Sheikh Salman, for whom Belgrave continued to advise and govern. Modern readers may find it hard to justify the moral compromises involved in balancing Britain’s vested interests in oil revenues and foreign influence with the authoritarian and feudal nature of Bahrain’s sheikhdom, but the papers in Belgrave’s collection reveal how those engaged in this policy understood their role and perceived the value of their actions.

Demands for ‘The Adviser’ to leave had been circulating for years and were steadfastly resisted by Belgrave, but his position became more and more untenable as the political turmoil in the Middle East during the 1950s was worsened by the disastrous impact of the Suez crisis. There is evidence that the Political Resident, Bernard Burrows, along with the Political Agent Charles Gault and various individuals in the Foreign Office were manoeuvring in the background to have him removed. When Belgrave eventually left Bahrain it was arguably too late, as his refusal to go had only hardened resentment against him as a symbol of British imperialism. In consequence, Bahraini historians – if not exactly airbrushing Belgrave out – tended to minimize the extent of his contribution. While his diaries provide ample evidence of just how much he did for Bahrain, these personal writings also reveal the prejudices and attitudes that were typical of colonial administrators at this period. Those seeking to understand the history of modern Bahrain, the influence of British strategy in the Gulf region, the relationship between Middle Eastern politics and the petroleum industry, or how nationalist movements flourished on regional, national and international levels, would find much of interest by reading Belgrave’s diaries in conjunction with other documents among his papers, as well as other materials in our Middle Eastern collections and the rich resources held next door in AWDU. The catalogue for the papers can be found online here, but please note there are special access requirements for the Belgrave collection.

#LoveTheatreDay 2018

It’s Love Theatre Day and what better way to celebrate than delving into the Northcott Theatre archives…

In December 2007 the Northcott was about to re-open after a 2.1 million pound refurbishment when it was hit with a blow out of the blue: the Arts Council had recommended that it’s £547,000 funding package be withdrawn. Without this money the Northcott faced potentially having to close it’s doors not long after re-opening them.

 

In reaction to the news the theatre staff, local politicians, community groups, schools and the residents of Exeter and it’s surrounding towns mounted a ‘Save the Northcott’ campaign to show how much they loved their theatre and to persuade the Arts Council to reverse it’s decision. The records from the campaign are a poignant display of the theatre’s loyal audience: petitions comprising a total of more than 17,000 names were collected, along with hundreds of letters and emails written in support of the theatre. Theatre-goers from all over Devon, and many from further abroad, voiced their personal connections to the theatre, their support for it’s writing and acting talent, and their worry that one of the few professional theatres in Devon would be lost.

 

Living in Newtown Ward myself, I was particularly pleased to see a letter from Richard Branston, councillor for Newtown ward, to the chair of the Arts Council enclosing a petition which all but 12 of the ward’s residents had signed. A turnout of 99%. Local schools and community groups that worked with the theatre also collected their own petitions, with one group assembling a book in which 630 young children signed their names on stickers in support of the theatre. My favourite item in this part of the collection however, has to be a tree assembled out of leaves on which people have written what the Northcott means to them. A striking visual representation of the support for the theatre.

Though the Northcott Theatre has faced a number of challenges in it’s fifty years of productions it is clear from the collection that it has loyal supporters in it’s theatre-goers. Love Theatre Day is the perfect day to celebrate both the Northcott Theatre and those who love it; the theatre-goers of Devon.

 

 

 

A not so sticky situation: conserving press cutting albums from the Northcott Theatre

Halloween may be over but i’m in the middle of an Archivist’s nightmare. Along with the other treasures in the Northcott Theatre Archives are 13 wallpaper sample albums crammed full of press cuttings. These albums are not only unwieldy due to their size, but many of the volumes have also had the cuttings taped onto sheets of plain paper which have then been taped into the albums.

 

As many of you will know, any kind of adhesive tape is a poor choice for long term preservation. The adhesive from the tape has stained the cuttings leaving brown discolouration and over the years the tape has dried out and many of the cuttings have come loose from the albums. At it’s worst this degradation has left us with some albums where there is simply a pile of loose cuttings in the front and in other cases the movement of the cuttings has caused significant creasing and tearing.

Staining from old tape and adhesive

The majority of the albums are not in a fit condition to be handled as they are without causing more damage and so the decision has been made to remove the cuttings from the albums where they are already coming loose. Once removed the cuttings will be stored in the order they were in the album (if this is still discernible) and the albums will be retained separately. It sounds simple but it’s delicate work and rather time consuming. With five albums completed I have enough loose tape in my bin to remake several rolls.

Loose tape from one album

The cuttings are a fascinating read: containing reviews and general news relating to Northcott Theatre productions, arts funding and other west country theatres, particularly the Plymouth Theatre Royal. The albums themselves are also incredibly interesting, I feel like I have taken a journey through wallpaper history in the past weeks. I’ve even recognised wallpaper from my parents house – further proof, if any were needed, that it’s time for them to redecorate. The presence of the albums is still a little bit of a mystery though. Were they simply a useful receptacle for the cuttings that someone happened to have lying around (perhaps from a second job moonlighting as an interior designer), or were they perhaps used by the set designers? The range is vast; spanning William Morris designs to the bobble textured wallpaper of the 1980’s and the office has had great fun revisiting the wallpaper highs and lows of the past. Only 8 more to go….