Material Culture, Memory, and Violence in the Home: Towards Healing Histories Exhibition

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CHAT Exhibition 2015, (left:) poster display, and (right:) interactive multimedia digital display (©PSP / KJarrett 2015)

Last autumn (31st October – 1st November 2015) I provided an exhibition for the Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory (CHAT) conference (at the Humanities Research Institute, University of Sheffield, my Alma Mater). Since then I’ve been writing up this work, and investigating the sources further (which is an ongoing process).

The exhibition – ‘Material Culture, Memory, and Violence in the Home: Towards Healing Histories’ – was presented in two parts: a poster display, which basically outlined what PSP does, and an interactive multimedia digital display, which introduced topics of study and preliminary findings. I hope to make the latter available online soon; the former is now available here. The Abstract for the exhibition is as follows.

Material Culture, Memory, and Violence in the Home: Towards Healing Histories: Abstract

The ‘Past Sense’ Project (PSP) brings together contemporary and historical archaeology, and psychotherapy, to consider the significance of material culture within contexts of domestic and sexual abuse, past and present. PSP will pilot a range of approaches to explore how collaborative community encounters with historic landscapes and buildings, artefacts, and other historical sources might enhance the process of identity (re-)construction and trauma management, for survivors of childhood and adulthood violence and abuse.

Methods include experimental auto- and co-archaeologies that integrate personal narratives and reflections within analyses of data obtained from archaeological surface- and building surveys, and auto-archive material. This will involve considering the (re)construction of meanings for material culture in relation to memory and identity, through studies of artefact biographies, and attending to the production and appropriation of transitional objects, through autobiographical studies.

We will also test the incorporation of recording, analysis, and interpretation of archaeological and other historical material (including written evidence, oral histories, photography, and artistic images) from earlier periods (particularly the 19th – mid 20th centuries) within community work – potentially involving creative elements (such as storytelling and artwork). In doing so, we will explore how engagement with material relating to domestic life in the more distant past (where appropriate, integrating historical material relating to domestic and sexual violence) might enable traumatised individuals and groups to confront experiences of violence in the more recent past.

By examining diachronically continuous and changing abusive practices, and socio-political responses to abuse, we aim to foster recognition of dominant ideologies, and the practical, detrimental, effects of structural gender inequality. Emphasising acts of resistance to violence in and around the home, we endeavour to highlight personal and collective achievements that might reinforce and augment both a sense of self, and of community, for survivors of abuse.





In Loving Memory? Domestic violence and Archaeologies of Death and Burial

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One of the ways that I am endeavouring to develop archaeological studies of domestic violence is to examine the grave memorials of women murdered by their husbands; of men who murdered their wives; and of men murdered by their wives, in the 17th – early 20th centuries. For the time being, I’m concentrating upon Derbyshire burials (as this area forms the primary geographical focus for PSP work), although I will expand into the East Midlands region, and probably beyond to Adderbury (Oxfordshire), Ancaster (Lincolnshire), and perhaps London and Bristol.[i]

The main aim of this exercise is to consider whether, and if so, how, the memorials (or other aspects of burial, such as placement of grave within burial grounds) of victims and perpetrators of homicide in the home may have differed as a group to those of men and women who died of ‘natural causes’. Where possible (as when studying other aspects of violence in the home for PSP), I’ll use the range of historical and archaeological sources together to investigate the social and cultural backgrounds of those involved.

Although I’ve only just begun this research, and will need to analyse a substantial number of cases before even tentative conclusions might be made, some interesting patterns of behaviour that might shed light on attitudes to violence are evident. I began by trawling the press for reports of ‘wife murder’ within the PSP study areas (beginning with Derbyshire), and by consulting court records. Before embarking on this task, I anticipated that I would encounter perpetrators of this crime through reports of their imprisonment and capital punishment. And, as for much of the 19th century the county gaol (like other large prisons) incorporated a graveyard within which its felons were buried after their death, I expected that few murderers would have been buried within community graveyards.[ii]

Locations of burial grounds that might be examined through PSP (Google Earth)

However, in the cases that I have so far found reported within local and regional newspapers, a high proportion of husbands committed suicide either immediately after murdering their wives, or when imprisoned. The sample is at this stage small, confined to a particular period (as I work my way through the archives), and of course this combination of crimes may have attracted greater attention in the press, in seeking to appeal to a readership greedy for sensational and macabre incidents. But, these initial examples suggest that it may be profitable to explore the frequency, and temporal and spatial extent, of such a practice, and to consider how it might relate to broader attitudes regarding power and shame, religious belief, and to the ways in which gender was structured.

After discovering murder cases within the newspapers, I use the census and BMD data to find out more about those involved, so that I might determine when and where perpetrators and victims may be buried. Where possible, I’ll examine existing graveyard plans and surveys to see whereabouts within burial grounds their graves might be, and any information on gravestones or other markers – the most efficient approach. But while I’m arranging to access such information (which may take a while), I’m visiting the various graveyards that might be of significance to these cases. (As part of other research, I often visit graveyards to consider burial and memorial practices, so at this stage merely keep my eyes open for the graves of any individuals associated with each case, such as family members, employers, etc.: I’ve uploaded photos of the ongoing graveyard ‘reccies’ I’ve been doing for other research on Flickr, here.)

The drawback is that most of the murders recorded in the press are by and of lower status individuals, the graves of many of which, for much of the period, were not commonly marked by memorials.[iii] But finding gravestones of other family members (of comparable economic standing) may provoke interesting questions regarding memory, family and community, and violent death. I’ll provide an overview of these field-trips, and of other information I might discover, as and when possible, here (tagged ‘Death and Burial’).



[i] Although these locations are (due to financial constraints) determined more by family ties, than the systematic selection of sites for comparison outside the study area, their spread is fortuitous, enabling contrasts to be made between urban and rural, coastal and interior, large and small villages, towns, and cities, and agricultural and industrial local economies.

[ii] Derby County Gaol was located on South Street, facing the end of Vernon Street (both off Friar Gate); I have written a little about the prison on another blog, not only due to my interests in crime and punishment (see ‘Death Comes to Pemberley: Crime and Punishment in 19th Century Derby’), but because it was (and still is) an important site with regard to my family (and own) history (see ‘Researching Communities of Crime and Punishment in 19th – early 20th century Derby’ ).

The situation differed before the 1832 Anatomy Act, which transferred the supply of cadavers for dissection by anatomy schools, hospitals, surgeons, and artists from the remains of murderers punished by hanging for their crime, to those who died within workhouses, and whose relatives either did or could not claim their remains  and pay for their burial (see e.g. Ruth Richardson 1988 Death, Dissection and the Destitute; Louise Fowler & Natasha Powers (eds.) 2012 Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection).

[iii] See  e.g. Ruth Richardson 1987 Death, Dissection and the DestituteSarah Tarlow 1999 Bereavement and commemoration: an archaeology of mortality; Julian Litten 2002 The English Way of Death: The Common Funeral Since 1450Julie-Marie Strange 2005 Death, Grief and Poverty in Britain, 1870-1914.


Thoughts and questions: written sources on 19th – early 20th century domestic violence

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street life in LondonIn the previous post, I outlined some of the written sources relating to 19th – early 20th century Domestic Violence (DV) that I’ve so far examined. This post briefly discusses preliminary thoughts on why and how these texts might inform PSP research.

Contextualising the present

As well as interesting in its own right, written evidence for DV in earlier periods is important when studying the recent past, most obviously in order to contextualise behaviour and thought, by considering change over time. It is important to know the extent to which, and in what ways, the past influences the present. By questioning relationships between ideas and practices over time, at varying scales of spatial analysis (the local, regional, national, global etc.), we are able to consider how wider structures (such as political institutions) not only affect what the individual and group does, but also how they think.

Put up and shut up?

Contrary to what popular culture might today lead us to believe, 19th – early 20th century sources indicate that not all saw DV as acceptable behaviour. Victims, neighbours, and the police and legal system, often contested and condemned abuse, which commonly included emotional abuse, such as threats and intimidation, and financial abuse, usually manifest in the withholding of income, as well as physical violence. But these sources also contain some of the potentially damaging attitudes that remain with us today: disbelief, notions of provocation, inadequate legal system and lack of support, and the salacious consumption of human misery as reported in newspapers.

Not unexpectedly, discrepancies are evident within and across even a few documentary sources, taken from only a small range of the written evidence, which acts to remind us not to reify communities by taking the voice of one or two, to speak for the many (a tendency I sometimes encounter through local and family history engagements).[i] These sources support what has been recognised through sociological, anthropological, and other historical studies, viz. that community identities are multifarious  shifting, situationally dependent, and enacted through the various social and cultural experiences that take place over time, within a given space (which itself is liable to change).[ii]

Same for everyone?

We certainly cannot essentialise DV experiences in the past: difference groups within communities encountered abuse in different ways – understandably, considering the varied social networks through which communities were made.[iii] Particularly important for my work is the realisation that, though ostensibly relating ‘what happened’ from the perspective of ‘insiders’, childhood memories, and the contemporary testimonies of men, and perhaps, many women, reflect very specific viewpoints.[iv] We cannot assume that all women were part of such networks – or even that support within these networks was assured.[v] Nor can we exclude the possibility that some children (and possibly some men) may have had access to otherwise closed female networks of mutual support centring upon the home – the older sister, on the fringe of adult female networks, might sometimes share information with her younger brother, who might also over hear ‘women’s talk’.[vi]

Questions, questions…

As I continue with research, the following questions (amongst others) will be in mind when analysing the sources relating to the neighbourhoods that PSP will study – though it is unlikely that I will be able to answer them to a satisfactory extent. To what extenthow and why did family and neighbours ‘stand by’ or protect women – especially those who ‘took’ a perpetrator of violence ‘to court’, particularly within areas defined as ‘poor’ and as ‘crime-ridden’? How were children ‘taught’ (explicitly and / or implicitly) and how did the learn about the ‘rights’ and ‘wrongs’ of DV, and in what ways might this have varied within and across time and place?[vii] And to what extent, and in what ways did men discuss DV, and how did this compare to actual practices?

I anticipate that bringing the potential material evidence into play when approaching these questions will be a significant challenge, but might first be approached by adopting geographical and ethnographic techniques, and exploring the built environment. To get the ball rolling, my initial – somewhat tentative and crude – foray into the material culture of DV is to consider the significance of the ‘belt’ and ‘strap’ in household violence, exploring the extent to which (and how and why) men may have used these objects in ‘correcting’ women. But as I continue, I hope to be able to refine the ways I approach the notion of material histories.

Surprise, surprise…

In this brief analysis, comparison of the local and regional sources that I have preliminarily examined, with the findings of wider research (which I continue to work through), there seems to be some correlation, although more work is needed to verify the accuracy of these impressions, and to determine any locally specific patterns. I look forward to continuing this research, through which I’m already encountering voices and actions from and in the past that (to me, somewhat surprisingly) have (so far) demonstrated kindness and support, as much as cruelty and aggression.


[i] This is not to deride the researches of ‘amateur’ family and local historians; merely to reflect common (though certainly not universal) emphasis upon the personal (as part of the familial ‘picture’), rather than the social or political. Conversely, many ‘professionals’ are also very interested in the details relating individual lives in the past, as well as the ‘bigger picture’.

Collaborative work holds the potential to produce histories of broader interest and value than ‘amateurs’ and ‘professionals’ (neither of which are homogeneous categories) working alone, incorporating more various interpretations that may inform future research. ‘Amateurs’ have often dedicated much time to very detailed research, which in some cases might be developed within micro histories. ‘Professionals’, with access to wider specialist skills and research on particular historical themes, periods, or material, may be able to develop and contextualise micro histories. Collaborative projects within the field of contemporary historical archaeology have yielded excellent results, from which we all might learn, e.g. Rachel Kiddey’s work with homeless collaborators in Bristol and York (2014 Homeless Heritage: collaborative social archaeology as therapeutic practice, University of York).

[ii] E.g. see Richard Jenkins’ Social Identities (2008)

[iii] See e.g. Ellen Ross’ ‘Survival Networks: Women’s Neighbourhood Sharing in London Before World War I’, History Workshop Journal 1983, pp. 4-28

[iv] Ibid.

[v] This is suggested reports made by charity workers, as well as some oral histories, as those “who keep themselves to themselves”, e.g. Maud Pember Reeves Round About a Pound a Week (1994 [1913]), and in situations of rivalry, e.g. as recorded in Robert Roberts The Classic Slum (1990 [1971]). However, we are again confronted by the possibility that commentators may have been unaware of all facets of social relationships.

[vi] For example, see Bryan Magee’s A Hoxton Childhood Clouds of Glory (2008)

[vii] Bryan Magee’s memoir (op. cit.) also touched upon this theme, in which he mention the “taboo” of boys hitting girls, and reflects upon the mysterious process by which children came to ‘know’ this taboo.

The PSP journey so far on the paper trail: 19th – early 20th century Domestic Violence

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Archaeological experience has shown the importance of providing a historical perspective when studying a particular issue, at a certain point in time – including the recent past. I’ll (very briefly) discuss this – and the importance of studying the local in relationship to wider spacial contexts – in the following post. But for now, I’ll outline the primary written sources of the 19th and early 20th centuries that I’ve begun to consult in researching histories of domestic violence within and beyond the East Midlands.

Notwithstanding the above comments, to some degree I’m also reflecting upon the sources with regard to my own experiences and encounters (which I intend to outline in the future) – see the previous and following posts, for brief discussions on this topic.[1]

Following the 19th – early 20th century paper trail – the route travelled so far…

I began exploring written evidence for DV in the past several years ago, when examining the works of ‘undercover’ investigative journalist and social reformer, Ada Chesterton, for references to domestic material culture within poverty-stricken and destitute homes, hostels and communities in London (which form part of the data I use in a paper – in prep.  – on early 20th century household material environments). Unsurprisingly, there are references to DV in Chesterton’s work (though terse, and  fewer than I expected to find).[2]

This encouraged me to survey local (Derby), regional (East Midlands) and wider (e.g. London, Birmingham) contemporaneous social reformist and philanthropic ‘reports’ (e.g. Working-class wives. Their Health and Conditions, published 1939, discussed here); memoirs (such as Elsie Goodhead’s The West End Story), verbal narratives / conversational memories (with local people), and a range of oral histories; and numerous works of fiction, to examine how DV was covered at the time; I also took a quick look through court records.

Preliminary surveys of this category of evidence unsurprisingly suggested differing attitudes towards DV amongst and between the various social reformist and investigative sources, and oral accounts (though of course a wider range of sources must be investigated to determine how representative this diversity might be). Memoirs & verbal narratives / conversational memories tended to describe DV as an accepted (and to some extent, inevitable) condition of urban neighbourhoods in the early 20th century (commonly associated with poverty in the public imagination) – and works of fiction (again unsurprisingly) tended to replicate this attitude to dramatic effect.

I also spent some time going through local (Derby) / regional (Derbyshire) court records from the 19th and early 20th centuries, during which I came across many more – often successful – cases brought by women against their husbands for violence.[3] I’ve also recently started to go through local newspaper archives (beginning with papers dating to the  19th century) to see how DV was reported – by searching for the (albeit ambiguous terms ‘wife beating’ and ‘wife assault’). When reporting cases, articles seem to represent the differing attitudes noted above, in quoting perpetrators and victims, as well as witnesses – usually lodgers, neighbours, friends, family, and doctors; and police, magistrates, and lawyers / solicitors. Inevitably, sensational and bizarre incidents are given more prominent headlines, position and space on the page. Though there are differences in these reports when compared to modern press coverage of DV,  at times they appear remarkably similar. I’m continuing this research, and will post particularly informative extracts.

I’ve found some comparisons in the presentation of DV between the newspapers and the late 19th and early 20th century novels that I’ve begun to assess (such as Aurthur Morrison’s Child of the Jago, and Winifred Holtby’s South Riding). However, there are again differences. In this category of evidence, DV is often (though not always) represented through stereotypes (as might be expected), reflecting less varied attitudes than found in the other sources, which I’ll discuss through short reviews of each work, if time permits.

In the following post, I’ll discuss preliminary findings from examining the above range of sources, and consider how this might inform subsequent PSP research.


[1] The practicability of carrying out detailed interdisciplinary research may be dependent upon securing funding and institutional association – independent research without electronic library and data access is proving problematic, constraining development.

[2] I’ve written about Chesterton’s comments on poverty, homelessness, and housing on one of my blogs, here; and published short online articles through the Voluntary Action History Society, here and here. I also plotted the locations of some of the families that Chesterton discusses – often citing the comments of women – within her 1936 book I Lived in a Slum, here, with information on the families, and quotes from the book). Chesterton’s journalism highlighted both the extent and conditions of  poverty and homeless for women in 1920s and 1930s London; drew attention to the broad social backgrounds of homeless women, and the realisation that ‘respectable’ people might easily be reduced to ‘outcasts’ due to circumstances beyond their control, and considered some of the causes of homelessness (including structural problems, such as inadequate housing); and discussed the efficacy of philanthropic and government responses to homelessness and poverty, proffering suggestions – of variable worth -for improvement.

[3] If interested in crime in the past, useful guides to the available resources are available here and here; I’ve also put a little information relating to crime in late 19th and early 20th century Derby here and here; and the 1911 census record of inmates in the County Gaol here.

‘Doing the right thing’? Histories of the Home and Domestic Violence’ Conference paper

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For the Histories of Home Subject Specialist Network, 7th annual conference, Homes Under Pressure conference, to be held at the Geffrye Museum in London on Tuesday 31 March 2015, PSP co-director Kirsten will be presenting a paper ‘Doing the right thing’? Histories of the Home and Domestic Violence’, which will discuss archaeological studies of domestic violence. Co-director Debra may contribute slides on the psychotherapeutic perspective.  After the conference, we may be able to post the slideshow on this website. The abstract for the paper is as follows.

This paper explores the benefits and difficulties of household archaeologies of the recent and contemporary past, when studying or encountering historic situations of domestic violence. It introduces a proposed community project that aims to carry out archaeological research at a women’s domestic violence refuge in the East Midlands. Although principally analysing material culture, this study will also integrate a range of historical sources, including oral histories, and co-ethnographic accounts.

The paper aims to examine possible methodologies, and discuss the sensitive issues surrounding historical studies of domestic violence – particularly with regard to the prospect of investigating contemporary contexts, by commenting on a previous ground-breaking archaeological survey. It will explore how such studies might either (when awareness of the complexities of domestic violence is deficient) re-traumatise, or (in the case of more informed, co-operative, approaches) empower and support, domestic violence ‘survivors’; and consider the potential of participation by refugees in such projects to augment the process of social relationship and identity reconstruction.