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Senate House Library

On the trail of London’s communities: four items for Local and Community History Month


Written by
Argula Rublack, Academic Librarian: History

For Local and Community History Month and London History Month, this blog looks at items recently added to our collections that explore London's communities.

May marks Local and Community History Month and London History Month. Senate House Library is filled with a vast selection of titles that can help you delve into the histories of the people who historically inhabited and still live in the UK’s capital. Below is a selection of some of our recently acquired items to help you explore some of London’s communities and their histories, as well as an upcoming event on researching UK local history. 

Britons through negro spectacles / Becoming Arab in London

Britons Through Negro Spectacles by A.B.C. Merriman-Labor

In 1904, Augustus Boyle Chamberlayne Merriman-Labor arrived in Edwardian London from Sierra Leone with the ambition to become a writer. Five years later in 1909, after studying law at Lincoln’s Inn and founding his own business, the African General Agency, he published his first book titled Britons Through Negro Spectacles. Merriman-Labor's travelogue takes the reader on a tour of the British imperial capital’s sights through the lens of one of its colonial citizens. It is full of satirical observations on British customs and manners, giving a unique and subversive contemporary insight into London’s social life. Long out of print, it has recently been re-published as part of Bernadine Evaristo’s Penguin Series Black Britain: Writing Back.

Becoming Arab in London by Ramy M.K. Aly

In 2015, Ramy M.K. Aly produced Becoming Arab in London, one of the first ethnographic studies of the cultural practices of the Arab community in London. Following a historical introduction, Aly uses a rich set of sources including interviews, the Arab student societies’ archives, newspaper articles and visual sources, to create a broad picture of London’s Arab communities. Building on these sources, he interrogates the complex set of socio-cultural factors that inform the identities of Arab communities in and of London today. Aly’s central argument is that identity is a state of “doing” rather than “being”. “Arabness” is constructed and intimately intertwined with the process of performing many aspects of race, gender, and class identities while inhabiting the city.

Women from Hackney's History / Mapping Queer Southwark

Women from Hackney’s History by The Hackney Society and Hackney History

Women from Hackney’s History provides a series of over 100 short biographies of women who are part of the history of the London borough Hackney, spanning from the 16th century to 20th century. The variety of women represented is impressive and the book gives their lives a deserved spotlight. Among the many figures featured it includes the first woman to make solo balloon flight, Margaret Graham (1804-1864), and the Indian nanny (or ayah) Minnie Green (c1870-?), who successfully brought a judicial case against her British employers, who withheld her wages. If you are inspired to do your own research after reading the book, the final pages offer some especially helpful tips on how to navigate the fragmentary records of Black women’s lives in the borough.

Mapping Queer Southwark by Camp Books

Mapping Queer Southwark was created by Camp Books, a shop specialising in rare and historical Queer Media. It was commissioned by the LGBTQ+ Network of Southwark council to mark LGBTQ History Month in 2020. Designed to be folded into a map that you can carry around in your pocket while you are exploring the area, it is an introductory historical timeline and a piece of printed art at the same time. According to its creators, it was produced to provide a “point of departure for digging deeper into the historical predecessors in your local area that have blazed some of the trails you walk” (cf. Brooke Palmieri, Mapping Queer Southwark, Camp Books). It also lists a selection of current queer-run and queer-friendly places that can be found in the area today. 

Researching UK local history

If you want to learn more about doing your own research into local and community history, the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) will be running three special online research training sessions, starting with Researching UK Local History, for Local and Community History Month on 11 May. This first session will explore key library collections with a wealth of resources to support your research into UK local history, including Senate House Library’s London collections. 

To explore our holdings on the history of London and its communities further, visit the Senate House Library catalogue. If you would like to suggest books for Senate House Library’s collection on these topics, we are always happy to review suggestions for new items to add to the collections.