University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Looking backwards – and forwards

In this post, Mike Esbester, Senior Lecturer in History, outlines student and staff work with an external partner to mark a significant anniversary. Mike’s research focuses on nineteenth- and twentieth-century Britain, particularly on the cultural history of safety, risk and accident prevention, and on the history of mobility. 

When people hit a big milestone age – 40 is a common one – it seems that for many the mind starts to think with greater focus about the past, as well as turning to the future. In some respects organisations are no different: big anniversaries are often used as a moment to pause and take stock, as well as to consider next steps. And so it was that in 2016 I was contacted by the Herefordshire Health and Safety Group. They were alive to their past, and had identified that 2018 would be 50 years since they were founded, a date they wanted to mark in some way.

The Group’s President, Roger Bibbings, was someone that I’d known for some time, as a result of my research into the history of health and safety and accident prevention groups, and particularly my efforts to work with current organisations. As a result, when the Herefordshire group were looking for someone to help them with marking their history, Roger suggested my name. I was keen to do it for several reasons. It fitted happily with my wish to see the past brought into current practice, as well as opening up a new – and as yet unresearched – group that would fit in with my interests.

In addition, the timing was fortuitous – this was an ideal project on which to involve a student, and it was possible to arrange it so that the role would work inside one of our placement units. Through it we recruited an excellent candidate, Josh Bassett, at that point a 2nd year student. This would work to the advantage of both Josh and the Group, so it was a win-win situation; Josh gained experience of working in an environment beyond the University and particularly dealing with external stakeholders, and the Group gained a great researcher contributing to their anniversary.

Between us, Josh and I spent time meeting with the Group’s Executive Committee, to understand the Group, their knowledge of its past, and what they were looking for from our collaboration. The key output was to be a booklet, but beyond that we were given free rein about content, design and direction – all of which were going to be dependent on what we found. One of the points I was keen to contribute was the importance of contextualising the Group’s activities over the years: this needed to be a booklet that looked wider than just the Group. Fortunately they were enthusiastic about this idea.

Josh and I sifted through the Group’s archival material, split between the Herefordshire Archive and Record Centre (a lovely new building, climate neutral too – very impressive) and an industrial estate where one of the member firms of the Group was based. Much of it was in hardcopy, though of course the more recent records were digital, so we ran up against the questions that have been confronting archivists for some time now, about retention and preservation of ‘born digital’ records. Fortunately between the various sources we had a reasonable run of material, apart from a gap in the 1980s (a point at which the Group was in a low of membership).

As part of the archival work, we introduced one of the Committee members, Peter Smith, to the archives, to familiarise him with the work we were doing – an interesting experience for all concerned, as his questions forced us to think carefully about why we did things in a particular way! Josh and I also carried out an oral history interview with Ron Aston, the longest serving Committee member, who had joined the Group in the late 1970s. That was useful in getting both a sense of the personal within the Group and its work, and in addressing some of the gaps in the documentary record. This didn’t cover everything, of course – the ‘one that got away’ was the poster competition held in the early 1970s: sadly we were unable to find images of the entries!

Having gathered as much evidence as possible of the Group’s activities since 1968, Josh and I came up with a structure for the booklet. We’d initially thought we’d have enough for a relatively slim volume, but it grew and grew, until we’d enough material for 68 pages. We worked closely with the Group on these stages in particular as we wanted to ensure they were going to be satisfied with the end product – helped by the fact that they were true to their word and gave us complete independence in terms of the content. We worked with a design student from the University, Jasmine Kenney, as she handled the design and production side of things – a good thing too, as we ended up with a nice looking booklet, and that wouldn’t have been the case had design been down to me! This was also another great example of how we try to embed practical experience across the various degree programmes at Portsmouth, working with our external partners.

The booklet launch was held earlier this year at Hereford Town Hall, a good opportunity to mark the anniversary, to catch up with the Group and to meet some of their members. Feedback on the booklet has been very positive, with copies distributed widely in Herefordshire, across a range of sectors – industrial, retail, education, regulation, health care and more. Thankfully the Group has been well satisfied with the booklet – and are now moving into their next 50 years!

If you want to read more about the Group’s activities and ethos over the years, you can download the booklet here!





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