The Ruskin College records: Destroying a radical past

In the course of moving Ruskin College, the trade union and labour movement college founded in central Oxford in 1899, from its prime location to a site on the outskirts of the city, the college has been re-branded and much of its archive destroyed or dispersed to other institutions. Most importantly, thousands of historic student records from the first years of the college until the last few years have been shredded.Activist students came from working class backgrounds without formal qualifications–many then became labour leaders such as Lord John Prescott, the former deputy Labour prime minister. Information on students’ backgrounds, their application forms, progress and achievements has now gone. No records have been scanned and the barest details digitised. Only some from the 1950s remain.

Also destroyed are the records of the Ruskin students’ union and undergraduate projects that frequently drew on students’ own working experience. Collections of note, recorded on the register of nationally important archives, together with material culture such as some paintings and photographs have been given to other institutions. Traces of history work in the college have gone. The records of the History Workshop together with the postgraduate work of recent graduates of the MA in Public History are now safe in the Bishopsgate Institute in London. (The MA was closed down this year). The Institute offered to take anything–and everything–the college did not want but this was turned down.

The principal of Ruskin has insisted that legally the records of students should have been destroyed–under data protection legislation–despite repeated advice to the contrary from experienced archivists and internationally prestigious historians. However last week Nicholas Kingsley, Head of Archives Sector Development & Secretary of the Historical Manuscripts Commission at the National Archive, confirmed ‘it would have been acceptable to retain these records indefinitely for historical purpose’.

Valuing materials

Over 7,500 people have signed the petition to immediately halt the destruction and to transfer the remaining records to an institution committed to preserving the recorded experiences of working people.* Some refer specifically to their anger at the loss of material about the lives of their ancestors who studied at Ruskin:

My father was one of the early Ruskin graduates. He attended through a Worker’s Educational Association scholarship, after having started as an apprentice welder in the Chatham shipyards. He graduated and went on to be selected for a social work post at Toynbee Hall. WW2 intervened (he joined the RAF). I cannot conceive, as a historian myself, that such destruction is justified…

As another argued, ‘These records are irreplaceable, they show the lives of our ancestors. They give meaning to their lives and show what they went through and what became of them’. Some talk about the nature of labour and working class history: ‘The records and voices of working class people matter as much today as they ever have,’ says one. Others encompass the archives of Ruskin within the national heritage: ‘I see little difference between archive destruction and book burning. I find it difficult to understand why this can happen in a civilized nation.’ Some relate the archives to their own lives and experiences, for example as former students at the college: ‘Bishopsgate would be the best place: as the late Raph Samuel’s archives are kept there. He taught and loved Ruskin. I was lucky to be at Ruskin 1995/96. I can’t believe the vandalism of such important archives’. As one movingly describes, ‘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. Or at least an ex-miner. These records are of international importance.’

Latest attempts to save remaining historic student records

We have had no confirmation from Ruskin management that the remaining historic student records from the 1950s will be saved.

We have had no expression of regret about the destruction of records relating to so many people’s lives.

In order to save the remaining student archives and to ensure that no further destruction takes place we are lobbying the next meeting of the Ruskin College governing executive on Friday 30 November from 10.30 am outside the Rookery entrance, Ruskin College, the new Headington site, Dunstan Road, Oxford, 0X3 9BZ.

We will be presenting the petition. We will also be laying a wreath in memory of the achievements of students whose lives have been eradicated from the records.

Please send a short email to the governors asking them to accept the advice of the National Archives and to save the remaining student records. For a list with contact information, click here [PDF].

~ Dr Hilda Kean FRHistS
Honorary research fellow, Ruskin College

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For press coverage see articles in the Telegraph, the Times Literary Supplement blog, and the Guardian. Also see various letters in the Guardian including from academics and the leaders of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union. For articles on the background see a range of articles in History Workshop Online:

  • Come on Ruskin: Do the Right Thing (Nov. 5, 2012)
  • Thoughts & Questions of a Ruskin Graduate on the College Archives
  • Losing the Memory of Generations
  • Whose Archive? Whose History?

*Signatories include Sarah Waters, Alan Bennett, M Lewycka, Sir Brian Harrison former editor of the Oxford DNB; 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; Harry Barnes, former Labour MP and former Ruskin student; MPs John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn ;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.