So That They May Have Life: Stories from the University Archives

Hidden histories from our archives, uncovered by the So that they may have life research team.

Introduction by Dr Yewande Okuleye, Research Associate

“I look forward to the time when Leicester will not be content without some University or University College in its midst, where the various branches of knowledge will have a fitting home, and the Institution be part of Leicester’s daily life.”
Dr Astley V Clarke, Presidential Address to the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society, 1912

The So that they might have life project embodied Astley Clarke’s wish for the University of Leicester to become part of Leicester’s daily life. In this case the University Archives became a site of discovery for volunteers. The project call-out to research the collection for lesser-known histories attracted local people to the University. Volunteers worked with historians and archivists to conduct historical research and heritage interpretation. They also attended a range of courses, including historical research, archives, heritage interpretation, social media, writing and using Wikipedia. This process helped to formulate a community of researchers who researched, discussed and analysed their findings with their peers and the project team .

The history about the design of the coat of arms was a natural starting point to introduce the identity of the University. It captured the ideas that the founders and the people of Leicester had about the identity of the proposed university college. This revelation provides a space to reflect about the University as a living memorial to those that died during the First World War. This research project presented an opportunity to re-examine existing histories. For example, businessman and philanthropist Harry Peach’s role as a founding father is an established narrative. However, his role within the Arts and Crafts movement and how this shaped the occupational therapy of recovering soldiers is less known. Other hidden histories brought to the surface include Sir Malcolm Sargent’s association with the University. The world-renowned British conductor was the first head of the music department.

The role women played in supporting the realisation of the vision for the University of Leicester is difficult to recover. However, sharing stories about the women associated with the founding families provides insight about their lives and personal achievements. Research shone a light on the forgotten history of women pioneers like Dr Ethel Nancy Miles Thomas and Mary Swainson. Ethel Miles Thomas made important contributions in botany and founded the first Botany department. Her role was important in formulating the strong foundation for science at the University of Leicester. Research in the archives sometimes feels like time travel, and this is exemplified in Mary Swainson’s story. Here, we can reflect on how Mary Swainson’s campaign for change in attitudes toward student mental health was pioneering in establishing student counselling.

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Exhibition by the So that they may have life project team. Video production by Toothpix Ltd.