From India to Cheltenham

This post comes for second year undergraduate student Lydia Munn, who has been working as a research assistant on the Cheltenham: Diaspora project.

When I first joined the Cheltenham: Diaspora project I was unsure where my research would lead me. After exploring some of the project’s initial findings, I decided that I wanted to focus on women’s stories as I feel their voices are often overlooked. I noticed one narrative the project had already started looking at was the Ayah’s, who were Indian women brought over to England during the 19th century by British colonial officers in order to look after their children on the long ship journey’s. The officers were supposed to pay for these women’s journey home, but many ended up abandoned and were sent to the Ayahs’ home in London.

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The Ayahs’ Home in Hackney, 1904. Photo courtesy of the British Library.

Most of these women’s stories have not been written down and are lost to history, but one Cheltenham related name that kept appearing was ‘Ruth’. She was an Ayah in the service of Colonel Rowlandson, and she became the first person from India to be baptised in Cheltenham along with one of the Colonel’s children. What is even more interesting is she was baptised by a different priest to the child, one who could speak her native language: Tamil. Very few records surrounding these women have been saved. With some determination though, I found the record of her baptism on Ancestry. This record revealed her last name, or at least the name she had been given while in England, as Adnitt, a piece of information I had not been able to previously find. I wondered if she had kept the name, so I searched for it on shipping records but found nothing. It was so frustrating as there was so much information about the English family she lived with, but so little about her.

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Ruth’s Baptism certificate obtained from Ancestry.

I have not given up on Ruth and hope to one day find out more about her but I wanted to be of more use to the project. A few weeks before I had helped the Diaspora team set up a pop-up exhibition at the Cheltenham Community Rescource Centre. During this Bernice Thomson, who runs the centre, had mentioned that she ran a group on Monday’s called Sahara Saheli, for women had had emigrated to Cheltenham from other parts of the world. I contacted her and asked if any of the women would like to be interviewed for the project, she suggested I come along to one of the Monday sessions, in order to introduce myself and explain the project. I thought I could be of use to the Diaspora project as many of these women come from traditional cultural backgrounds and would feel more comfortable being interviewed by another woman.

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The Cheltenham: Diaspora exhibition being installed at the Community Resource Centre on Grove Street.

The Sahara Saheli group was really welcoming and some of them seemed genuinely interested in the project. I conducted my first interview in March and heard the powerful story of a woman who came to Cheltenham from India in 1967. Over the next fifty years she watched a town change dramatically whilst dealing with immense loss and the need to support her family back in India. Sadly, due to the current Coronavirus pandemic it is unlikely I will be able to conduct anymore interviews this year, but I am so grateful that I have been able to have even the tiniest glimpse into some of these women’s amazing stories.

The Life and Legacies of George Whitefield

This post comes from Rebecca Chivers, Josh Oliver and Frankie Stanley.

The recent controversy over the removal of Confederate monuments in the United States, and even colonial figures such as Admiral Lord Nelson in Britain, has focused attention on the ways in which national ‘heroes’ and more problematic historical figures are and should be remembered. Our project provides one example by focusing on Gloucester-born George Whitefield, the 18th century evangelist credited with promoting a Protestant revival in Britain and its American colonies.

Whitefield’s childhood and early life are a pivotal part of our project, as they played an important role in his development as a charismatic and inspirational. His interest in acting and theatre whilst growing up was crucial in how he became such an influential and famous figure throughout Great Britain and the American colonies. His experiences acting on stage made him an incredibly captivating preacher. 

Whitefield is popularly known as a prominent evangelist preacher that sparked surges of religious interest in the American colonies during the 18th century, part of what was known as the ‘Great Awakening.’ However, his endorsement of slavery in Georgia and religious justifications for the enslavement of Africans have rarely been acknowledged. Even Gloucestershire tourist websites have taken advantage of his Gloucestershire connection but have not shed light on this controversial past. Although his charity work funding the Bethesda Orphanage in Georgia (that founded his advocacy of slavery), his interest in the religious education and conversion of African American slaves and protest of the physical abuse of slaves complicates the picture of his ethical blind spots.

As well as Whitefield’s approach to slavery and his early life and childhood, our group will be researching his involvement in the foundation of the Methodist movement of Christianity, and his relationship with the Wesley brothers, Charles and John. This approach will also naturally detail his upbringing and education, especially the time he spent at Pembroke College in Oxford. This will also lead into Whitefield’s journey to the American colonies and the missionary work , which eventually led to his rise to fame. It was the Wesley brothers who convinced Whitefield to travel to America, so the relationship between the three of them will be an important aspect of our project, especially when looking at the tensions and difficulties which later occurred during their lives.    

Whitfield Tabernacle built in 1741, Historic England

Our group project is to investigate the controversial legacy of Whitefield, how Gloucestershire should remember him and how Whitefield shows the complicated relationship between religion and slavery. In recent years, historians have explored Whitefield’s religious theodicy and conflicted views on slavery, which meant that it would be difficult for our group to uncover new information. Therefore, we concluded that our group would present a broad display of Whitefield’s life, his American preaching, his humanitarianism and his murky connection to slavery so that the audience can arrive at their own conclusions on how they, and Gloucestershire, should remember him.

Gloucester History Festival 2019: the CC4HH Exhibits

The programme for this year’s Gloucester History Festival is finally here, and we’re very excited that the student projects conducted for CC4HH will be displayed in two separate exhibits throughout the festival. These are part of the Festival’s ‘City Voices’ programme which explores aspects of local history and heritage. The theme for this year is ‘Power and the People’.

Firstly, the projects exploring Gloucester’s Windrush Generation and Gloucestershire’s LGBTQ+ community will be exhibited at the Eastgate Shopping Centre (see pic above) in Gloucester from the 7th to the 21st of September. The projects exploring Cheltenham’s history, which include life in the workhouses, a history of Pittville, and the Heritage Lottery funded project led by Dr David Howell ‘Cheltenham: Diasporas’ will be exhibited at the Chapel Arts gallery on Knapp road in Cheltenham from 4th to the 14th September. After this date, these exhibits will be relocated to the Quad Walk Gallery in the Francis Close Hall campus library at the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham. Ultimately, all the exhibits will be made available on the website. Here’s a sneak preview of a couple of the panels from the Windrush and Workhouses projects.

We’re very much looking forward to this year’s exhibits, which will be the third year in the life of the Centre, and the second year of collaboration with the Festival.