From Strongroom to Seminar

img_4680Today I attended a fascinating conference titled ‘Strongroom to Seminar’ hosted by the Institute of Historical Research and The National Archives. The aim of the conference was to share strategies and ideas as to how to best engage students in the archival method.

The keynote speaker was Professor Jo Fox of Durham University, whose presentation was so good I thought I’d blog about it here!

Jo spoke about the shifting identity of the archive in the 21st Century and the importance, as well as the challenges, of introducing archives to students as part of a holistic pedagogic method in History Departments across universities. It’s a topic I feel strongly about and one we’ve taken seriously at The Hong Kong Heritage Project, where we’ve rolled out a number of innovative oral history and archive programmes for high school and university students.

Everyday Disappointments

One of the most thought-provoking aspects of Jo’s presentation was to touch on the uncertainty and instability of archival research. We’ve all experienced the gradual dissipation of hope and excitement as documents don’t quite yield the answers we expect – but how can be this be taught as part of a history module?

Jo argues that the process of archival study should shape the questions we ask of our sources, and that as historians we need to constantly re-frame our research questions in the face of everyday disappointments. It’s vital to teach students the value of historical problem solving and the difference between finding documents and finding useful documents. Each research journey is personal, and deeply affecting. Research invokes a spectrum of emotion – from boredom, excitement and frustration – feelings that can’t easily be taught as part of a course module. Jo offers practical solutions to this dilemma by turning to public history. A number of universities have recently offered hands-on modules in which students can critically engage – and indeed literally interrogate – their sources. For example, the 2011 Queen Mary University ‘Blair Government’ course introduced students to key players in the Blair cabinet, including Tony himself!

Digital Solutions?

Finally, Jo addressed another more recent challenge facing historians and the archival method – that of digitization. Digital copies of records are often touted as a cure-all to the dual problems of access and preservation. I know I’ve certainly been grateful for online collections that have saved the cost of a train ticket across the country or flights and accommodation abroad. But besides the problems faced by archives – the huge costs involved in digitisation programmes and the relentless pace of technological change – Jo argues that digitization comes at a cost for the end-user too. The sense of a collection’s materiality is being lost by a new ‘smash-and-grab’ culture in which students enter an archive, launch an eight-hour assault with a digital camera and return home to assess their booty. Something valuable is lost in this process. No longer do we spend days contemplating our sources and intellectually meandering through collections. The archive is now considered as a place to raid rather than to think. Similarly, when collections are accessed online, we not only lose the tactile enjoyment of the record but the sense of a collection’s provenance and accessioning history.  Jo asks whether digitization will prompt a change in the way in which we practice history in the twenty-first century, and I agree that it certainly calls into question the hallowed value placed on digitization in the profession today.



Dr Irma Frommer

My last blog posting examined the life of Hungarian refugee medic Dr. Jean (Eugene) Frommer and his work attending to wounded soldiers in China during the Sino-Japanese War. His wife, Dr. Irma Frommer, was also a Hungarian refugee and medical professional. She was hired by Hong Kong’s Medical Services Department in 1940 to replace Dr. Fehily, a Russian emigre who worked as the Lady Medical Officer (maternity and child welfare) under Dr. Sewlyn-Clarke from 1939 – 1940.

Colonial Office papers from 1940 reveal considerations such as nationality, pay scales (linked to nationality) and the centrality of the local Medical Register. One Colonial Official writes that:

This must be the ‘Jewish emigre’ referred to in a letter dated 31.5.1940 addressed to Sir Wilson Jameson from Mrs. Fehily, which I have enclosed in her P.F.

As Mr. Blake says, Fehily was a Russian (on both sides) so that we need hardly take exception to the Hungarian origin of Dr. Frommer as long as she is qualified to practice in Hong Kong.

The D.M.S. is satisfied that she is competent to carry out the duties required of her. But they propose to pay her a very low rate of salary and I do not know how this is altogether satisfactory. But I suppose we had better agree? and as well to the creation of an additional appointment of a Chinese woman Medical Officer.

Colonial Office officials were clearly appalled at the low salary offered to Dr. Frommer (at $4,500 PA compared to Dr. Fehily’s $7,500), with one civil servant describing the wage as ‘exploitation’. The Chinese woman Medical Officer’s salary was even lower, at $2,400, paid for by savings made from Dr. Frommer’s low rate of pay. In the event, Dr. Frommer accepted the modest salary and started work in Hong Kong in August 1940.


The Wiener Library, London

Dr Alfred Wiener
Dr Alfred Wiener

Next up on my whistle-stop tour of London archives is the Wiener Library, nestled opposite Russell Square and located in close proximity to Senate House and SOAS university. The Wiener Library has a fascinating history as an ‘eyewitness’ archive that recorded and documented Nazi atrocities from the 1920s onwards.

The library was originally founded by Dr Alfred Wiener in response to the surge of right-wing antisemitism in Germany and used as a device to monitor and collect information on the Nazi Party. Dr Wiener later fled Germany in 1933 and settled in Amsterdam, where he set up the Jewish Central Information Office at the request of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Anglo-Jewish Association.

Following the November Pogrom of 1938, Wiener made preparations to transfer his collection to the UK, which later served to help the British Government as it fought the Nazi regime. In the post-war years the library assisted the prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trial, amassed early survivor testimony and helped to shape the emerging academic study of the Holocaust.

I first came across the Wiener Library at an archives conference hosted at the London Metropolitan Archives earlier in June. The Wiener Library came up again a few months later following an email exchange with an archivist at the International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen, Germany. I’d originally got in touch to gather more information about a series of records created by the Hong Kong branch of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) featured on the ITS website. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately for the prospect of any future Euro trips!) the ITS archivist kindly advised me that digitised copies of the UNHCR records were housed at the Wiener Library, having been donated by the Foreign Office in 2011. A couple of days later I braved the wind, rain and generally miserable London weather to take a closer look at the records held on the library’s computer terminals – and what I found was well worth the visit.

The library’s UNHCR records provide a near complete set of case files – over 80,000 in fact – created by the organisation’s Hong Kong branch from around 1951 onwards. The files pertain to individuals or families who stayed in Hong Kong or in the Asia region and include documents and application forms concerning assistance, resettlement and emigration to various countries. The collection has been catalogued by first name, surname and date of birth. The library staff kindly allow patrons to copy documents (onto Wiener Library USB’s to avoid viruses and malware) which means files can be taken home for closer analysis.

Unfortunately, the sheer quantity of records held in the UNHCR collection make it difficult to refine searches unless names are cross-referenced across archives or according to a pre-designated list. For example, not all of the individuals recorded as part of the collection may have transited through Hong Kong, and individually saving 80,000 documents onto a fair few USB’s is also no mean feat!

Needless to say, it’s clear that these records will be an invaluable resource for the Hong Kong Refuge project. The UNHCR collection includes official and administrative information on European Jewish and White Russian refugees exiting China, reports and memorandums written by the Kadoorie brothers (Lawrence Kadoorie, later Lord, and Horace Kadoorie, later Sir) and correspondence with the International Refugee Organisation (IRO) Philippines and Far East Branch and Shanghai Branch, as well as government departments such as the Hong Kong Immigration Department.

Now that the collection has been located, the hard work of sifting through the UNHCR files and pin-pointing the refugees who transited through Hong Kong begins.



FCO Historical Collection at Foyle Library


One of my first archive visits as part of the Hong Kong Refuge project was to the Foyle Special Collection Library. Housed at the entrance of the impressive Maughan Library, the main research library of King’s College London, the building was once (very aptly) home to the headquarters of the Public Records Office, known as the ‘strong box of Empire’.

King’s College London acquired the historical library collection of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) on permanent loan back in 2007. The collection represents one of the most important historical acquisitions for the university and comprises over 80,000 items including books, periodicals and pamphlets spanning 500 years and touching all corners of the globe. The library was originally compiled as a tool of government so as to inform and influence British foreign and colonial policy. Luckily for the Hong Kong Refuge project, a portion of this collection therefore pertains to colonial era Hong Kong and the treaty port history of Shanghai.

The Shanghai series comprises 111 records, with the majority of the collection pre-dating 1945 (only four items are listed as post-1945). The major bulk of the collection is housed in the Foyle Library whilst modern and robust items have been transferred to the Maughan Library.

Early items within this collection include books written by missionaries, business records (such as deeds) for corporations including the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and the China Navigation Company (held by the Chinese Maritime Customs), reference books on China’s customs, history and traditions and information related to Shanghai’s treaty port history.

The annual reports of the Shanghai Municipal Council (SMC) represent an important acquisition as the most complete set of SMC reports owned by any library outside of China. The Foyle Library holds annual reports for the years: 1871 – 76, 1877 – 1892, 1893 – 1899, 1907 – 1940 (1900 – 1906 are missing). See my blog posting on the 1939 report here.



The FCO collection also houses an important resource for Hong Kong historians, including early reference materials written by missionaries and Hong Kong government officials (including governors), correspondence on the Praya Reclamation Scheme between government officials and Sir Paul Chater (1880s), letters from Governor Bowen, general Hong Kong guide books (1930s) and a ‘Who’s Who of China’ as well as various maps (such as district zoning plans) and photograph collections.

Although the Hong Kong series is a more detailed and wide ranging collection, reflecting Hong Kong’s position as a colony until 1997, the FCO Historical Collection is an invaluable (and at present, little used) resource for scholars of both Hong Kong and Shanghai.