My next major project is a ‘big’ book on Britain and the Second World War, combining the social, cultural and military history of the war (and much else besides). One of the great pleasures of starting a project such as this, at least for me, is the ability to range widely over a broad field, much of which is new to me. But one of the frustrations is that I’ve already encountered a number of areas which seem to deserve more study, or in which I’d like to make some speculative suggestions in the certain knowledge that I won’t have time to launch an in-depth research project. So here are the projects that, were there but world enough and time, I’d like to pursue. If anyone knows of specific material that already exists on them, then please let me know. If anyone wants to pursue one, just let me know what you find out. If anyone would like to be supervised for a PhD – just ask!

1. Gambling and the black market 1935-1945

In the interwar years, Britain developed a huge gambling industry, both legal and illegal. As Mike Huggins points out, much of this related to horse racing. Off course cash betting was illegal, but hugely popular. Working class communities in particular had to develop a version of socially sanctioned illegality – where policemen turned a blind eye to bookmakers, or bookies made sure that they were seen positively by the communities around them – in order that this entertainment could continue. The advent of the Second World War disrupted the sporting programme on which bookies depended. I wonder to what degree they therefore transformed themselves into black-marketeers – similarly a socially sanctioned form of illegality, and one occupying a similar precarious status in communities. The sources for this study would be police records, local newspaper reports, memoirs and oral history. It would be a means of exploring how pre-war society adapted itself to the needs of war. (I think you could do a similar study on the way that inter-war cigarette coupons pre-figured the experience of rationing in the Second World War).

2. The British Police and Technology 1918 to 1945

Many of the debates which military historians have with regard to British attitudes towards, and acceptance of, technological change could equally be explored through the study of different police force’s use of technology from the end of the First to the end of the Second World War.

3. The British Army’s Experience of COIN in post 1918 Europe.

Studying the Middlesex Regt recently, I was astonished (perhaps foolishly) to see that they had been involved in comparatively heavy fighting against rioting Polish miners in Silesia in 1922 (and they had Ireland in 1921 to judge against it). I am not aware of any unit-by-unit studies of the British army’s experience of COIN outside Ireland and the Empire after the First World War. But such a study might tell us a good deal about the problems of demobilisation (cultural and military) and the wide range of roles filled by the army after 1918 (which feeds into how it prepared for the Second World War). It also has a good deal of contemporary relevance – a post-conflict society, with a heavily armed, ethnically divided population, policed by a multi-national force (the Middlesex CO had Italian Grenadiers and French Chasseurs under command).

4. A good social history of allotments, grounded in local council archives (perhaps one or two case studies). Thanks to my good friend James Crabtree, desperately searching for a present for his dad, for highlighting this gap in the market to me. There are a couple of sources out there which I haven’t had a chance to read: D. J. Humphreys, The Allotment Movement in England and Wales. D. Crouch and C. Ward, ‘ “The Allotment” – Its Landscape and Culture’, Allotment and Leisure Gardener. Issue 3 1996. (thanks to www.kitchengardens.dial.pipex.com) for the material.

5. A cultural history of speedway in Britain between the wars. Again, the rapid rise of the sport could tell us a lot about attitudes towards, and familiarity with, technology. There is a least one article in the journal Sport History about speedway, but there’s got to be at least a thesis’ worth of material at the cultural level. One of the things I remember about researching the representation of the First World War in British boys’ papers in the 1920s and 1930s is the sudden appearance, in the mid 30s, of speedway as a location for heroic exploits.

I’ll add to this list as I go on. And perhaps link it from my (soon to be rewritten) departmental page, since we’re all being encouraged to say specifically what we’d like to supervise at a postgraduate level).


5 Responses to Apocrypha

  1. Esther says:

    Chris Williams at the OU is a police historian. he may know more about this.

    His e-mail is at the bottom of this paper:


  2. Dan says:

    Ta Esther – will get in touch with Chris when my head emerges from the UCAS black hole.

  3. Hi Dan – I’ve had a bit of a crack at the ‘police and technology’ one already, but I’ve not published it yet. See:
    for the abstract. Essentially, the Met get the control room from the RAF. Who got it from the RFC. Who got it from the BEF. Who got it from the Midland Railway. Who, I think, thought of it. I’m at least one visit to the IWM (General Ashmore’s papers) from being really sure about this, mind.

    There’s a _lot_ more to do, though. I need to work in ‘Warfare State’, and I’ve just had a lot of very useful corrections from Jack Bunker, who wrote the standard work on police communications.

    Yr man for the black market in general is Mark Roodhouse, who’s at York right now. I think his book is out soon, but doesn’t take up the gambling angle. Carl ‘Mr Birmingham’ Chinn has done some work on street gambling, inspired by the fact that his dad was a street bookie.

    Avoid all those UCAS headaches by letting everybody in! I concede that this leads to different headaches later.

  4. Dan says:

    Thanks Chris, that’s really useful. Have you got publication plans? Would be very interested in seeing a copy of the paper. Fascinated by the fact that it was railway-initiated: seems to have been a lot of crossover/reuse of railway based technology/skills/organisational approaches. I’m not sure if ‘Warfare State’ is quite right: Britain turned out to be about as well suited as a democracy (more or less) could be for modern total war. But it seems to me that a lot of that ‘fitness to task’ came from non-warfare related functions of state, society and culture. Even if, culturally, you looked at the obsession with, and fantasy about, the military, you might argue that this was perpetuated because of the relative lack of warfare.
    That’s very much a partially worked out idea.
    Will follow up other leads once reading week arrives. Till then, I am relying on simple UCAS filters: anybody quoting Cicero or Santayana, or mentioning Dan Brown, is instantly rejected. Sadly, this has left me with an undergraduate pool of three students for next year…

  5. Brett says:

    Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to reinvent it, usually with extra Templars …

    I think the speedway phenomenon is interesting, it’s not something I was aware of previously but have seen it crop up in a few places – mostly old movies that get shown on the ABC here late at night. One was “Britannia of Billingsgate” (1933), a comedy with a minor subplot revolving around an amazingly young John Mills, who is mad keen on speedway and uses his family’s new-found fortune to fund his racing career. I don’t remember anything particularly interesting about the representation of speedway, it’s portrayed as dangerous but it seemed to be mainly a set up for a big comedic scene on the speedway track at the end. I don’t _think_ the word “speedway” was ever mentioned, but that’s what it looked like to me …

    The other one is actually post-war, “Once a Jolly Swagman” (1948), but the pre-war speedway features heavily, and is looked back upon nostalgically as the golden age. Dirk Bogarde is a demobbed soldier who was a speedway champion before the war, and wants to get back into it, but finds it more commercialised, IIRC, and he’s not so young and willing to risk life and limb any more, especially when he has the love of a good woman … the speedway scenes are pretty exciting, the danger is emphasised. Also a good (though ultimately not dependable) route to prosperity for working class lads with skill and nerve.

    No doubt there’s more!–>

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