Notes from Oxford: MPhil Research

Current MPhil student James Brennan gives us an update on postgraduate research and his progress so far.


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James Brennan: in deep concentration (deeply aware that there’s a camera to his left)


It is 09:45 and I have just arrived at Oxford station. I am here for my next supervisory meeting. My supervisor, currently using Oxford University whilst on research leave, suggested that we could meet here to discuss my progress. This is also a great opportunity to visit the Bodleian Libraries for my research. Therefore, prior to my journey I have requested permission to access the Weston Library – one of many under the Bodleian Libraries group. The Conservative Party Archives are held here, and there is also a great deal on the Labour Party. It takes about 15 minutes on foot to reach the Library from the station. The meeting will be held here as I will be based in the Weston Library all day. Its facilities were recently renovated to bring them into the 21st century. The building, officially opened in 1946, has retained much of its original design. A perfect mesh of old and new.
The traditions of the University are still strong. To access the Libraries, for example, I must swear an oath promising to not damage or remove any material. Afterwards I go to meet my supervisor. The meeting goes well and so I make my way to the readings rooms to book the Midland Union records. It’s going to be a two hour wait to see them. So, I settle down and look through Labour Party pamphlets from 1918. By midday I have found a good deal of information regarding Labour Party policies after the First World War. I then go to meet my supervisor for lunch at Keble College. Once again, I am awestruck by the architecture of the University’s buildings. On the way to Keble we walk past such landmarks as the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. This is where the famous 1860 debate on evolution took place.

Certainly, history surrounds you at every corner and there is one thing that I notice when walking through Oxford – the many bookshops that line its streets. It is unfortunate that many bookshops elsewhere in the country have simply vanished. However, this serves to remind me that there are still places that cherish physical copies over e-books. After lunch, it has started to snow. This only serves to reinforce the beauty of my surroundings. I was lucky enough to go inside Keble Chapel. The organist is practicing and the music makes the experience more dramatic. The Chapel is an example of High-Church design. It also contains the original Pre-Raphaelite painting, “The Light of the World” by William Homan Hunt. Painted in 1853, this is Hunt’s original. He subsequently painted two more which are currently housed in St Paul’s Cathedral, and Manchester Art Gallery. You can see why snowfall, splendid architecture, organist music, and an artist’s masterpiece may provide an especially memorable experience.

As I have some time to spare, my supervisor takes me to see the Radcliffe Camera. This happens to be the Bodleian History Faculty Library. A spectacular structure built in the 18th century, the Camera should be a must-see for any history student. I walk out and through the Bodleian Library itself. After narrowly avoiding not one but two walking tours, I get to survey its courtyard, and the Bridge of Sighs in the background. With the Weston Library directly in front of me I go to spend the rest of the afternoon viewing the Midland Union records I requested earlier.

The Midland Union records turn out to be excellent. They are well written and so it is easy to take notes. However, it would be near impossible to get through each of these records in one sitting. It is nearly six in the evening and so I decide to catch the train back to Birmingham. However, I intend to make several trips to the Bodleian Libraries over the course of my MPhil. I cannot think of a more historically significant place in which to research. If you’ve got a day to spare I strongly recommend you go and see the history on offer. You won’t be disappointed!


 James is studying the impact of the First World War on the politics of Birmingham and the West Midlands between 1918 -1926.



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