Category Archives: Opinion pieces

We will be back…

Elaine Walters, IHR Administrator discusses her thoughts and feelings about the IHR temporary relocation and its eventual return to the North Block of Senate House


Although we had actually been planning the IHR move for months, I don’t think I actually ever thought it would happen. But here we are in the south block!

I had the feeling that initially there was a lot of feet dragging, a kind of disbelief of that we would actually move at all and then suddenly I was sending round equipment logs for staff to fill in, and crawling around floors attempting to identify which particular socket a PC was attached to!

 Moving the IHR was surprisingly emotional. Every book packed, every crate filled, every picture taken off the wall, and every locker opened seemed to tear a little bit more heart out of the place. And the planning required – every library book taken off its shelf and every crate labelled to correspond with a new home elsewhere, every door lock, every phone and PC socket identified, every piece of furniture to be labelled with a home, and decisions made about what to store and what not to store.

 There were areas in the IHR which had clearly not been accessed for thirty years or more. We found old photographs, typewriters, desks with drawers containing blotting paper and ink (oh the good old days!). The most time – consuming part of the exercise was having to open every single unclaimed locker- and there were over hundred! Some clearly had not been opened for a decade. They contained newspapers from the early 90’s, record cards, spare shoes and enough books to open a book shop. Some of the most surprising items included net curtains, underwear, bedding, oceans of talcum powder and lipstick and in one locker 14 brand new toothbrushes! And from the lockers located in the women’s toilet- several unopened and several half drunk bottles of sherry!

Over the two weeks of the move things were very hectic but the library and mezzanine move, which were phases 1 and 2 went surprisingly smoothly. Hats off to the staff and to Pickford’s, who were flexible, professional, and good hearted throughout.

We experienced the inevitable problems- the photocopier was too big to get into the lift to move and had to be dismantled, some staff had over – estimated the amount of furniture which could be fitted into their new offices. One department (who shall remain nameless) had not completed their packing on the day of the move, some cupboards were so heavy that even with four Pickfords men we struggled to move them and so had to be unpacked, moved and re-packed.

Phase 3 – the move to Senate House 3rd floor, proved to be the most problematic.  In terms of the amount to be moved it was much less than phases 1 and 2 but the furniture proved too large to get into the rooms due to the ‘extra’ architraving around the door frames.   Desks had to be disassembled and re-assembled which doubled the amount of time the move should have taken.  But we made it and in no time at all people were back at their desks, vases filled with flowers and shelves filled up with belongings.

The ‘old IHR’ now stands virtually empty- no books, no furniture and no people. The space actually echoes!  I have taken many trips back in the days since the move-for me personally it is rather sad to see our corridors bereft of life. And goodness me the state of some of the space- the years of ‘north block neglect’ have taken their toll. It is not until a space is laid bare that the true extent of this is made clear.   People keep stopping me and asking why we would ever want to move back after experiencing the south block. Well, even though the offices are superior, the sense of IHR community appears broken – hopefully only for a short time until everyone gets used to the new space but the loss of the common room at the heart of the Institute is severely felt.

But enough of this melancholy; the move provides an important opportunity for the IHR to shift itself into the 21st  century. Planning for our new space is afoot and we are excited about the prospects ahead. Preliminary plans reveal that our space can be used more flexibly and to greater effect. The IHR remains committed to providing a space that is fit for purpose- that purpose being the facilitation of historical research for the generation s of historians to come, as well as those who are still with us.

Thank you to all the staff who engaged so fully with the moves, to the library staff who worked tirelessly to get the library open to the public on time, to estates staff who came good, despite my pleading, nagging and begging for things to be done, and to the members of the IHR for coming back to us. Stay with us- it’s going to be a bumpy, but worthwhile ride.

E Walters

October 2011


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A new (but familiar) home for IHR Digital/Publications

The IHR Publications team (now including IHR Digital) has never been located in one place. At our most dispersed we were divided over four floors, from the old IHR basement to the third floor. For all but the most health conscious this involved considerable use of the lift! More importantly, it meant that it wasn’t easy just to drop in on colleagues to ask them a quick question, or even for a chat.

With the relocation, however, the whole team is finally co-located in the lower mezzanine, between the north and south blocks of Senate House. The space is different to that elsewhere in the building, as it was originally intended for book storage rather than office use. Consequently the ceilings are quite low (in striking contrast to the rooms in the north block) and some of the larger offices have weight-bearing pillars rather awkwardly in the middle of the room. But we do have lovely views of Russell Square on the one side, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University sunken garden on the other.

For some members of the team it has also meant coming home. Until as recently as two years ago what was then called the e-publications office was based in the lower mezzanine. Over the past 24 months it has been refurbished and rewired, and four people have returned to exactly the same office as before – but with a new coat of paint, better carpet and, vitally for our digital projects, robust wiring.

Most people, even those who work in Senate House, don’t know that the mezzanine exists, and it’s involved quite a bit of explanation every time we have visitors. But new signage will be going up soon, and you can find us just to the right of the new IHR reception desk on the third floor of south block.

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IHR Relocating: Some thoughts

Matt Phillpott
IHR History SPOT Project Officer

Today will be the last time that I step into my 3rdfloor office in its current form.  Soon I will be in new digs along with the

Crates in a third floor office

rest of the Institute elsewhere in Senate House.  As I look at all the crates filled with IHR materials that currentlysurround me, the empty desks, and the echo of empty halls now that the library books have gone, I can’t help but feel a little sad.  Yes, in two years time we will be returning to a brand new IHR (which is an exciting thought) but there are so many memories of the old (which I suppose it now is) that makes leaving a little difficult. 

Personally, I’ve only worked at the IHR since 2010 but my relationship with the Institute begins some five or six years earlier.  My introduction to the IHR occurred during a research training trip to London as part of my History MA course at the University of Hull.  I clearly remember being led through the sliding glass doors at the Reception and walking up the marble staircase to the third floor.  It was in the corridor behind

The Germany Room

a locked door that we were given a brief introduction to the IHR and VCH (Victoria County History).  The same location where I currently sit, writing this post.  Since then I have made extensive use of the England room and have enjoyed the occasional meal in the common room.  The various seminars and conferences that I have attended have often been made all the better by being surrounded by shelves full of library books.  Somehow it feels right that a seminar should take place in such a location. 

Whilst the Institute has modernised and re-invented itself over the years it has also maintained its core purposes which are also reflected in the rooms and corridors in which it has lived and thrived.  The reference library as a place for silent and serious study; the common room for relaxed discussion; the seminar rooms for presentations and more serious questioning all continue to this day.  The temporary relocation will of course provide a challenge for us to maintain these characteristics that make the IHR what it is.  I believe (and hope) that together we will rise to that challenge and when the IHR returns in two years time it will be even better prepared to carry out its mission.  In the meantime I look forward to getting used to my new digs and rediscovering the IHR all over again. 

Empty shelves outside the England room

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The Institute on the move

The 1930s and early 1940s saw the IHR relocated several times. In the summer of 1938, the IHR finally moved into the new Senate House building, although not yet into the space that it occupies today. In the early years of its tenancy, it was located on the third floor of the Senate House south block – the location to which it will be returning for the two years that it will take to refurbish its existing rooms.

There was, inevitably, further disruption during the Second World War. The IHR was forced to close in May 1940 when the Ministry of Information took over the Senate House building, although a skeleton staff remained to deal with postal enquiries. In 1943, the Ministry of Information required room to expand, and the IHR’s rooms were occupied by ‘overseas propaganda specialists’. New accommodation was provided for the Institute’s staff in the almost completed British Medical Association Building in Tavistock Square. The ‘work in progress’ nature of this building caused staff considerable discomfort. Cynthia Hawker, MBE, recalled that ‘We had several disasters in that building: during the very cold winter of 1946–7 the pipe carrying the water for the central heating from BMA House to our wing either burst or froze, and we sat shivering miserably while we could see the BMA staff sitting with their jackets off, complaining they were too hot! Then one morning … I came in to find that the cold water tank in the unfinished part of our wing had burst and the water was pouring down the stairs, flooding the ground floor, which included the bindery, where volumes of The Times were shelved on floor level’.

In early 1946 plans were drawn up for the removal of the IHR into its new Senate House home, and the grand reopening finally took place on 13 February 1946.

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The crisis of 1926

In 1926 the government proposed to sell back to the original vendors, the Bedford trustees, the entire Bloomsbury site which had been set aside for a range of new University of London buildings. The IHR was given notice to quit and a vigorous press campaign followed. The Council of the Historical Association, for example, ‘passed a resolution declaring that the destruction of the Institute of Historical Research by the demolition of its buildings and the dispersal of its library, which is threatened by the decision of the Government to return the Bloomsbury site to the Duke of Bedford, would be a national calamity’ (Daily Telegraph, 2 June 1926). At one stage, the Institute’s Director, A.F. Pollard, admitted that ‘the legal position was practically hopeless. All they could do was to try to bring influence to bear on the Government to approach the Duke to see if he would consider representations on the matter of the Institute … He did not see what they could do if they lost the present building, as the University had not a foot of Land anywhere’ (The Times, 1 June 1926).

The IHR was ultimately reprieved when the University took the decision to purchase the whole site instead. The Birmingham Post (2 February 1927) reported a degree ‘of satisfied relief’ in the IHR’s annual report and noted that ‘The danger has not been without compensations. It has drawn from historians at home and abroad ready testimony to the value of the work the Institute has done, and the necessity for its continuance’.

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The IHR’s original home

The Institute of Historical Research has not always occupied its current home. When it opened in 1921 it was based in temporary wooden buildings along Malet Street. Although lacking the grandeur of Senate House, these ‘Tudor style’ huts were purpose built, and the layout of the library would be familiar to anyone visiting the IHR today.

IHR temporary buildingsThe buildings, as reported by The Observer in June 1938, had been erected using the latest techniques: ‘the temporary quarters, the gift of a generous anonymous donor, were constructed at the peak of the high building costs, on the principle of an army hut, on a concrete base with a timber frame and filled in with sheets of asbestos’. The same paper noted that their ‘ephemeral appearance gave a refreshing camp-like air to the grimmer permanences of Bloomsbury learning’. The whole cost £20,000 to design and build, the result of a generous donation from an anonymous benefactor.

It would not be long before even this temporary accommodation came under threat, as the University of London faced the loss of the entire Bloomsbury site in 1926. More to follow!

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The VCH red volumes

Author: Jessica Davies (VCH Publications Manager)

As Publications Manager for the Victoria County History I must confess that, contrary to popular belief, I do not have my head buried in red volumes every day. Increasingly I find myself working ‘digitally’, whether on our website, editing our digital newsletter or working with images. The news of the IHR’s relocation forced me to consider the value of our printed red volume stock; all of which, we decided, must move with us from our current premises in North Block to our new home on the Mezzanine. What, I think, has struck me most, whilst rifling through archive boxes and revisiting volumes on the shelf, is just how incredibly beautiful these books are. The early volumes such as Devon I (pub. 1906) contain illuminations and artwork on the spine; a level of artistic detail so rarely seen these days. The modern volumes such as Middlesex 13 (pub. 2009) have an unfussy, ‘crispness’ of design. Both are aesthetically pleasing in their different styles and reflect the evolving design of VCH volumes. Perhaps one day all red books will be available as downloads. Whilst we seek to embrace such innovations I do hope that future VCH Publications Managers will look after these handsome yet ever-delicate tomes and ensure their unique place in the Institute’s collection.

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