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Shouting louder

Our new Widening Participation and Outreach Officer reflects on her first few weeks in the role.

It is with great pleasure that I have started in the role of Widening Participation and Outreach Officer at the Modern Record Centre. My role is to promote and encourage interest in the truly fascinating collections held at the Centre. After a few weeks browsing the holdings it is clear to me that this is going to be far from a tough sell. I have been stunned by the richness of the collections and the wide range of topics documented. As well as the material on the shelves there are also the myriad research projects the Centre has and continues to be involved in. Archives are quiet places but we need to shout more loudly about this true wealth of information and activity. This has never been truer than in the lead up to Coventry 2021 as the region prepares to celebrate its rich culture and identity.

Improving access to archives has always been an area of interest to me. After graduating as an Archivist in 2010 one of my first roles was working on the Find and Connect Project which sought to help children who had experienced out of home ‘care’ in Australia locate records about themselves. This project opened my eyes to the barriers people face when accessing historical records. Much of the archival material being accessed by ‘care’ leavers had been created for routine administrative purposes, however viewed from a different perspective had the potential to transform a person’s life by filling in key gaps of knowledge essential to their identity.

At the Modern Record Centre one recent project which similarly evidences the significance and impact of archives is the Chilean Exiles in the UK project, run in conjunction with the School of Modern Languages and Cultures and the Museum of Memory and Human Rights in Santiago, Chile. The Modern Record Centre holds the records of the World University Service which assisted around 900 scholars to escape persecution in the years after Pinochet’s violent seizure of power in 1973. This material is a vital record of the human rights violations committed by Pinochet’s regime, and recognises the plight of Chilean exiles as well as the contribution made by UK organisations. Further information about the project can be found here:

My role is not just about sharing these stories more widely but to encourage people to be more curious, and to find these stories for themselves. Gone are the stereotypes of dusty boxes and cardigan clad archivists, Archives are hives of activity, actively engaging with schools, students, researchers and the general public and making a positive impact on the local community.  I hope that as my role develops there will be more opportunities than ever to interact and engage with the collections here at the MRC, so watch this space!

Volunteering at the MRC: my video analysis of Grunwick

Gabriel Wynne, a Warwick undergraduate and recent volunteer, reflects on his time with the MRC.
Contemplating the Void

Entering the final year of a history degree poses a few challenges. There’s the increased academic workload: a dissertation to research and write, a larger pile of weekly reading, and the not-so-distant prospect of final exams. More daunting, however, is the rapidly encroaching void of graduation. What am I going to do with my life? What societal function can I fulfil now I’ve spent £40,000 on memorising the chronology of U.S. Presidents?

Into the Archive

One idea came to mind – working in an archive. I could use the skills and knowledge I’d gained from my degree whilst learning an essential, tactile vocation. But what does archival work involve? Images of long rows of shelving, dusty medieval censuses and indeterminable indexes might come to mind. I thought I’d try some volunteering with the MRC to gain a better understanding of the area.

My mission

I was given the task of writing a description of an interview with lawyer Geoff Shears about his involvement in the Grunwick industrial dispute of the 1970s. Shears was one of thirty people interviewed in 2007 by film-maker Chris Thomas for The Great Grunwick Strike, 1976-1978 – a history which he produced and directed on behalf of Brent Trades Union Council. Thomas deposited the unedited interviews (on DVCAM cassettes) at the MRC and they have since been digitised for accessibility and preservation, complementing the written Grunwick archive also held at the MRC.

Geoff Shears during the interview (still from 803/04)

The setting

In the summer of 1976, remembered by many as the hottest on record, workers in a London film processing factory walked out in protest against working conditions, beginning a struggle for trade union recognition by mostly South Asian women that would involve mass picketing, police violence and national labour mobilisation. Shears was a young trade union lawyer at the time and an avid supporter of the strikes who came to represent several strikers under prosecution.

A “right-wing conspiracy”

What is immediately striking from the interviews is the wider narrative within which Grunwick exists for Shears. He doesn’t come across as a contemporary giving his first-hand account, but as someone who wants to convey his sense of the events’ wider historical significance. Viewing Grunwick in the context of the industrial disputes of the 1980s, Shears sees a pernicious “right-wing conspiracy” at work in 1976. Describing the “militarised” nature of policing, he views Grunwick as a “testing ground” for “people within the authorities” who wanted to use the police to crush mass industrial action “in preparation for the days of the Thatcher government.”

A cultural barrier

One key insight is in the difficulties posed by the cultural barrier between the British trade union movement and legal system and the South Asian women on strike. Shears talks about the “struggle to find the language” to convince such women of the respectability of industrial action, showing frustration at the good witnesses who were unwilling to give evidence because of cultural differences. Viewed from the women’s perspective, this exemplifies the multifaceted nature of their disadvantage. Not only were they discriminated against in the work place, they faced difficulties in pursuing justice through a system unsuited to their needs.

A career in archives?

This speaks to what was most challenging and interesting about using these interviews as sources. Unlike written documents, Shears’ words offer only part of his meaning, with significant subtext evident in the unspoken. More so than I had imagined, interpretation and analysis form a vital part of working in an archive. I’m undecided about whether I’m going to pursue archival work further. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a brief voluntary stint has challenged my assumptions and given a little insight into the nuance involved.

[The image of Grunwick strikers at the top of the post is taken from an educational module on the dispute on the Striking women website].

Post script by Martin Sanders, Senior Assistant Archivist:  I’d like to thank Gabriel for his excellent work.  By creating descriptions which give researchers a clear idea of the content of this source he has contributed to one of our key tasks.


“Britain’s greatest labour lawyer”: cataloguing the papers of Lord Wedderburn of Charlton


I joined the Modern Records Centre (MRC), University of Warwick, as Assistant Archivist in March 2016 on a year contract. My brief was to sort, arrange and catalogue the archive of Lord Kenneth William “Bill” Wedderburn, Baron Wedderburn of Charlton (1927-2012) QC, Cassel Professor of Commercial Law at LSE, British politician and member of the House of Lords. His papers were deposited at MRC during 2013-2014 by Dr Paul Smith, Honorary research fellow at Keele University, and former student at the University of Warwick. Funding for this post was provided through a successful grant application to the National Cataloguing Grants Programme, administered by The National Archives, and donations from both individuals and organisations, including the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

This significant and extensive collection (over 100 boxes) covers the period from the late 1950s to 2010, and reflects Lord Wedderburn’s role as one of the most important and respected European academic lawyers in Europe, advisor to the TUC, and advocate in many significant legal cases. The papers also complement MRC’s main collections which cover industrial relations, politics and labour history in the UK from the nineteenth century onwards, and include national records of trade unions, trade associations and related organisations.

Page of notes on developments in labour law in the UKPage of notes on developments in labour law in the UK

The Wedderburn archive offers an invaluable resource for students of politics, law, history and industrial relations, because of the detailed records on all the key issues in labour law and industrial relations since the early 1960’s. During this time the first edition of Lord Wedderburn’s ground-breaking work The Worker and the Law was published (Macgibbon & Kee, 1965). The papers cover his involvement with the Donovan Commission and the Bullock Committee on Industrial Democracy, legislation of both Conservative governments (1979-1997) and Labour governments (1997-2010), the European Community, legal cases, teaching papers, annotated books and published and unpublished papers. There are also papers and reports from the Social Science Research Council’s Industrial Relations Research Unit (IRRU), which has been based at the University of Warwick since 1970.

The Wedderburn papers were sorted into topics based on Lord Wedderburn’s filing system, and boxed at the family in London, prior to transfer to the MRC. Using Excel spreadsheets to list the papers offered a pragmatic approach for obtaining an overview of this large collection and its functional activities. The box listing phase also included sorting and appraising the papers, and weeding out duplicates. Given the size of the collection, I have concentrated on topics which I perceived to be the most important in terms of MRC’s own collections. The papers have been divided into five sections covering UK Political and Advisory, Legal, European and International, Teaching and Publications. The data has been imported into CALM and I have added biographical and description content to the catalogue. All the papers have been numbered as per the catalogue references.

Sketch entitled Common Law Liabilities - acts or threats, 1980 Sketch entitled Common Law Liabilities – acts or threats, 1980

I have enjoyed the challenges of arranging and cataloguing these important papers, and creating order out of “relative” chaos! It has been a fascinating insight into Lord Wedderburn’s career. His charming and somewhat satirical sketches scattered across the collection, are an unexpected highlight. Coming to the end of my year at MRC, the Wedderburn papers’ project has given me valuable experience in the cataloguing of labour and political history papers. One of the best things about being an archivist is the continual acquisition of knowledge in the day to day application of archival procedures.

The catalogue may be viewed at:

Helen Hargest, Assistant Archivist, MRC, has arranged and catalogued part of the Wedderburn collection of papers.


[i] “Britain’s greatest labour lawyer” quoted from: Professor Bob Hepple, “Obituary: Lord Wedderburn of Charlton QC”,  Industrial Law Journal (ILJ) vol.41, no. 2 July 2012 (133)


Explore Your Archive: The Wedderburn Papers

It’s Explore your Archive week across the UK and Ireland. The Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick, is tweeting and showcasing collection highlights of its 14km of archives during the campaign. So it’s the perfect time to bring you up to date with my progress on cataloguing the papers of Kenneth William (Bill) Wedderburn, Lord Wedderburn of Charlton QC (1927-2012), Cassel Professor of Commercial Law at London School of Economics and Political Science, and Labour Party spokesman on Employment between 1979 and 1992.

His working papers date from the late 1940s to 2011, and relate largely to labour law issues, industrial relations legislation, both in the UK and in Europe, and the Trades Union Congress. This material enhances the MRC’s main collections which focus on the national history of industrial relations, industrial politics and labour history, and also recognises the University of Warwick’s contribution to the study of industrial relations. Founded in 1965, the University of Warwick began teaching industrial relations in 1966 in the School of Industrial and Business Studies, and became the home of the Social Science Research Council’s Industrial Relations Research Unit (IRRU) in 1970. In 1972 the Warwick Studies in Industrial Relations’ series was established to publish the results of the unit’s projects. Today, Warwick Papers publishes the work of members of IRRU and people associated with it.


Extract from faxed covering note written by Mark Hall, IRRU, May 1994

I have spent the past eight months listing papers from this collection. To date, they fill 78 archive boxes (each measuring 0.02 cubic metres) and include the following topics: the European Economic Community and European Commission, European social policy, the European Court of Justice, the International Labour organisation (ILO), Bullock Committee papers, the Donovan Commission, Employment Act 2002, Conservative governments 1979-1997, Labour governments 1997-2010, the Rookes v Barnard case and the Trades Union Congress. I am now working on the arrangement of the papers and the creation of the catalogue record for searching the collection. The Wedderburn papers are a valuable resource for anyone with an interest in history and politics, and labour law and industrial relations in the UK and further afield.

The archive includes many drafts of papers on industrial relations, and legal opinions and advice for the TUC and its members, the Bullock Committee and the Donovan Commission. They conjure up an image of an expert in labour law whose deep passion and loyalty to the rights of workers and trade unions was such that in spite of his many commitments on different committees, he rarely turned down a request for advice or an invitation to speak at meetings. Exploring archives may reveal unexpected highlights too, such as Lord Wedderburn’s charming and ironic sketches relating to labour law and industrial relations drawn on whatever was at hand; even paper napkins.


Sketch on paper napkin found in House of Lords report on Dock Workers’ Bill, June 1989


Sketch made during Industrial Democracy Committee’s visit to West Germany, June-July 1976

Come and explore your archive soon! Check out #ExploreArchive too.

Helen Hargest, Assistant Archivist, MRC, is arranging and cataloguing the Wedderburn papers.

Lord Wedderburn and the European Question

The papers of Kenneth William (Bill) Wedderburn (1927-2012), Lord Wedderburn of Charlton, QC, were deposited in 2015 at the Modern Records Centre (MRC) by his widow, Lady Wedderburn, via Dr Paul Smith, Honorary research fellow at Keele University and former student at the University of Warwick. On arrival at MRC, the papers were allocated the Reference code “Acc 972” and described in the accessions caThe Independent-wedderburn obittalogue as “working papers rel[ating] to labour law, the Trades Union Congress [TUC] and industrial relations legislation”. The collection covers the period 1960- 2009 and highlights Lord Wedderburn’s role as adviser to the TUC, and an advocate in legal cases and national debates about workers’ rights. It includes papers relating to key industrial related issues of the 1970s and 1980s: government legislation, the miners’ strike and human rights legislation in the UK and the European Union. An appeal and a successful application to the National Cataloguing Grants Scheme (NCGS) managed by The National Archives have made possible the appointment of an Assistant Archivist to catalogue and index this collection.

Continue reading Lord Wedderburn and the European Question

Eat, Drink and Be Merry!

In celebration of Christmas, the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick has curated an exhibition of two of the central elements of the Christmas season besides friends and family—That is food and drink.
The ‘Eat, Drink and Be Merry!’ exhibition includes several pieces of archival documents related to eating and drinking in 20th century Britain. Continue reading Eat, Drink and Be Merry!

‘On Campus’, then and now.

The sixth former entering university often has difficulty in adjusting to a new academic and social life. Students at the University of Warwick who have experienced the same problem decided to make this film to help…”

Continue reading ‘On Campus’, then and now.