Political History is Not My Forte; or, How to Learn History Through Political Cartoons

Many sides of Stalin – as drawn by Cummings

Starting work on new collections is always fun. For a start it means you’re decreasing the number of items that need working on, but you also get to go through something that’s completely new to you. Most recently, I have started cataloguing artwork by cartoonist Michael Cummings, who worked mainly for the Daily Express for a period of nearly fifty years. This particular selection of artwork dates from the early 1950s, a time that seems to be far away in the past, at the beginnings of the Cold War.

Now my first reaction was something along the lines of ‘oh no, I’m not going to know who anybody is’. As it turned out I was wrong. I recognized Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill and Stalin. This didn’t really give me a lot to go on. The 1950s are not exactly my strong point. I enjoy my history, but I enjoy my history quite a lot earlier than that. When I turned to the very first image and had literally no idea what was happening:

My first Cummings cartoon

My first reaction was, ‘this must be a Tory,’ based entirely on the caption. I had one other thing to go on, as somebody had very kindly written on the back of the artwork when the cartoon was published, and even what page it appeared on. As I knew all students and staff at Kent have access to UK Press Online, I decided to hop along and find the appropriate issue of the Daily Express. The cartoon was precisely where the artwork said it was, which was great. What was less great was the fact that there was nothing surrounding the image, no helpful arrows saying ‘this man is so-and-so’, and no articles relating to the image, as far as I could see, anywhere in the issue. So I hit a dead end. Extremely early on. Now what?

Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, Google searching ‘Conservative 1950s NHS’ didn’t get me very far. I had a look on Lexis Nexis but even narrowing down the date range produced more results to check than was feasible. I was almost on the verge of taking a photo on my phone and seeing if my Dad knew who it was, when I decided to check copies of the Express from the surrounding time period. This turned out to be the right thing to do – I came across a cartoon head of the very same man, this time with a caption telling me it was Aneurin Bevan.

Ok, so I basically got everything wrong. Bevan was a well-known Labour Politician, and at the time of the cartoon Minister of Health. At least I knew what the greenhouse was…

Getting the dimensions – featuring my tape measure, Colin

Establishing who people are in each of the cartoons is probably the hardest aspect of cataloguing them, for me. When I’m cataloguing I look out for specific information every time. First we need the basics: a title, artist, publication, date and size. Next comes recording anything that’s written in the cartoon, which we refer to as embedded text. This text and the image itself provides us with the information to assign subject matters to the item. This would be relevant political parties, or any celebrity and sporting news, or government policy mentioned. Other subjects can include setting, items or animals in the picture or emotions you think the people depicted are feeling. And then comes the time to add the people themselves to the record. This is also significant for the subjects; you can’t add the Chancellor of the Exchequer unless you know he’s actually in the picture.

When I first started cataloguing political cartoons, around two and half years ago now, I began with the more modern items. Part of our collections here at the British Cartoon Archive include the newspaper versions of cartoons that appear in the daily papers. This means our collection grows every day, and it’s partly my job to keep on top of this. I won’t pretend that I’ve ever had much of an interest in politics, (I knew next to nothing when I started), but I’ve definitely learnt a lot working here. I could at least recognise most of the Labour and Conservative politics, but my first big stumbling block was Danny Alexander. I think I found him by searching for ‘ginger Liberal politician.’

‘This is a Coalition Budget’ by Peter Brookes

In current cartoons, the colours actually plays a surprisingly large role in identifying who people are. It’s fairly obvious what party a politician is from based on what colour their tie is, (this is obviously a problem for women). This doesn’t work in artwork from the 1950s, which is done in black ink, with a blue wash which would appear grey in the published version. Another clue could be who the person is interacting with and how. If two politicians are having an argument about something it’s likely (although not definite) that they are from opposing parties. This also didn’t help me initially, as Aneurin Bevan was the only person in the first cartoon I catalogued, but it’s certainly helped along the way.

Once you get to know who someone is, there’s usually characteristics that most cartoonists exaggerate when they’re depicting them. For example, Theresa May is always wearing leopard print shoes, whilst Boris Johnson is mainly made of hair. Back in the 1950s, Winston Churchill always has a cigar. This wasn’t strictly speaking helpful, after all if you don’t know what Churchill looks like, where exactly have you been since the start of the 20th century?

….and Strachey


Noses and eyebrows are also quite often notable. Aneurin Bevan always has large black eyebrows paired with his neat white hair. Emanuel Shinwell, (“Who on earth?” – me about a month ago), has a very prominent, bulbous nose. Unfortunately, John Strachey and Hugh Gaitskell seem to have the same long, pointy nose, so initially I had to check which hairstyle any pointy-nosed men had to establish who they are. Here the differences seem obvious, but when you don’t know who they are and their images aren’t next to each, it’s not so easy.

There is an odd enjoyment in all this hunting for people and discovering who they are, even though I often sit there in mild despair when all my methods have failed. I wonder if Poirot ever felt like that.

This brings us to my favourite Cummings cartoon:

‘The New Elizabethans’ by Cummings

I love this for two reasons. 1. It is genuinely a fabulous cartoon. I love the detail and the period costume. Elizabethans are much more my style. 2. The published version of the cartoon has a key that tells you who everyone in the picture is. That was a happy moment for me.

I’m going to let you all into a little secret now. One of the reasons I have particularly been enjoying my work with the Cummings Collection is that it’s a nice break from cataloguing the cartoons of today. Sometimes working on this kind of material can get a little wearing. Recently there’s been a lot of cartoons focusing on terror attacks, and a lot about Brexit and the US presidential elections, and for the most part these cartoons aren’t overly positive. This is because the cartoonists genuinely believe what they’re depicting, and the whole point of them is to draw your attention to things that they consider need changing. But it can get very repetetive, so the 1950s is like a little holiday in history for me.

Now obviously terrible things happened in the 1950s. The Korean War and the Cold War for a start, and Stalin certainly did some terrible things. But it’s strange how the distance of time can weaken the effects of this in the present day. If it wasn’t something you lived through, or even something your parents lived through, it’s very difficult to get a proper grasp on how it must have felt at the time. If it does affect you, then you know you’ve just come across a powerful cartoon.

So far, this has happened to me only once whilst cataloguing this collection, when I came across the cartoon on the left. Published in early 1953, initially I didn’t have a lot to go on. It was obviously the shadow of a soldier, and that was enough for me to know if was referencing World War II. I don’t know how common this is generally, but in my head the 1950s and World War II are very, very separate. Even though I knew that 1953 was only eight years removed from the end of the war in Europe, and rationing was still ongoing. Even though I knew that war criminals were being tried, it never really occurred to me that this was something I would come across working on this collection. And that’s what this cartoon is depicting, the trial of men accused of taking part in the massacre of the village of Oradour.

For once the published cartoon actually stood alongside a relevant article in the newspaper, which allowed me to identify what it referenced easily. I had not heard of Oradour before, so I had to read the article to establish what exactly happened. I also used the internet to read more about it, and I was shaken. It wasn’t news to me that this sort of atrocity took place, but I wasn’t prepared for finding it amongst the cartoons.

I do think it’s extremely important that this cartoon, and others like it, exist. Sometimes images can convey more than words, particularly at a distance of seventy years, and cartoons certainly have their place amongst records of history, alongside sources like written accounts and photographs.

But it’s also important to keep things light. So here’s Churchill dressed as a goose:

A Politician’s Panto

All cartoons (c) Express Syndication Ltd, except Peter Brookes, (c) News UK

Putting Faces to Names : Haselden’s Theatrical Cartoons

Recently I’ve been working on a collection of Punch cartoons by W.K. Haselden. The British Cartoon Archive has hundreds of cartoons by Haselden, and he is one of the most recognizable cartoonists of the early 20th century. His theatrical cartoons appeared in the ‘At the Play’ (or occasionally ‘At the Movies’ and ‘At the Revue’) section of Punch, and span a good twenty five years from the early 1910s. They feature many recognizable names and here I bring you a selection of my favourites.

Some hefty tomes

Some hefty tomes

This work has required a lot of research on my part, as I try to identify and create records for the people portrayed in the cartoons. I have met hundreds of actors and actresses along the way, often with the help of the books you can see on the right. Some of my favourite names include Beppie de Vries, Norman V. Norman and Beatrice Appleyard. Here I present to you some more familiar names I came across as I catalogued the collection.

Dame Sybil Thorndike

Sybil Thorndike was born in the late 19th century, and she’s a local girl. Whilst she was born in Lincolnshire, her brother (also an actor, although perhaps more well known as an author) Russell was born down the road in Rochester, where their father was a canon at the cathedral. Sybil attended Rochester Grammar School for Girls, and is probably their most well-known pupil. She was most famous as a theatre actress, and was so well known in her day that she was in the ‘Black Book’ of people to be arrested if the Nazis ever invaded Britain!

Sybil Thorndike in "St. Joan" - a role created for her by George Bernard Shaw

Sybil Thorndike in “St. Joan” – a role created for her by George Bernard Shaw


The Medea

The Medea










John Laurie

John Laurie is perhaps most remembered for his part in Dad’s Army, as my favourite character Frazer, but this was by no means his most significant role. He was also a part of hit Sixties shows The Avengers and The Ken Dodd Show, and appeared often on stage, particularly in Shakespeare, including Hamlet, Richard III and Macbeth. According to IMDB, he appeared in 161 acting roles on film and TV in his long career. He even appeared in a Disney movie, their 1950 rendition of Treasure Island.

Old King Cole

Old King Cole

Dion Boucicault

It was particularly pleasing to come across cartoons of Dion Boucicault as I catalogued, as we hold a Boucicault Collection here at Kent. These are two different Dion Boucicaults, our collection being about the father of the man in the cartoons. This is quite confusing, and completely unnecessary, as in reality the two of them had completely different names! Whilst he was known as an actor, he was also a theatre manager, and had particular success with the premiere of a little known play, one Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie. It was Dion’s sister, Nina Boucicault, who was the first actress to ever play Peter Pan.

Nina Boucicault (Sister of Dion Jr.)

Nina Boucicault (Sister of Dion Jr.)

Dion Boucicault Jr. (centre)

Dion Boucicault Jr. (centre)










Donald Calthrop

Number two of three I’ve found related to collections we hold. It was the first Dion Boucicault’s great-grandson, another Calthrop, who donated some of our Boucicault material. Donald Calthrop was Boucicault’s nephew, and a significant actor in his own right. He appeared in no less than five early films directed by the great Alfred Hitchcock. Sadly, he died of a heart attack before he finished filming Major Barbara in 1941.

Donald Calthrop

Donald Calthrop

Frank Pettingell

And here’s the third. Frank Pettingell was the owner of our largest collection of playscript, both printed and manuscript, and he in his turn acquired them from the son of well-known comedy Arthur Williams, whose stamp can be seen on most of the items in the collection. Frank was a Lancashire man who served in the First World War. His film credits include the original version of Gaslight, and played the Bishop of York in the film Becket, which featured Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole and John Gielgud.

Frank Pettingell, taking a trip

Frank Pettingell, taking a trip

Princess Lilian, Duchess of Halland

Grace Kelly may be well known for marrying European Royalty, but she was not only one! Lilian Davies, an actress more known for her modelling, from Swansea, married into the Swedish royal family in 1976 at the age of 61. They’d been living together for almost 30 years after she and her first husband divorced, but did not marry as it was thought Prince Bertil may have to become Regent after the heir to throne died, leaving a son only a few months old. However, Carl XVI came of age before he came to the throne, and he approved Prince Bertil’s marriage to Lilian. She lived to be 97, and continued to attend official engagements well into her 90s.

A most impressive hat

A most impressive hat


Women on Stage and in Society : 1850 – 1915

part of the British Theatre History exhibition

part of the British Theatre History exhibition

On Wednesday 6th April the yearly exhibition by second year students of the British Theatre History module launched. Whilst this has been an annual event for several years, this time the students faced a bigger challenge than ever: the size of the Templeman exhibition space. This is only the second exhibition to be held in the new space, and asking first time exhibition makers to fill it was initially concerning, but the students rose to the challenge admirably.

Playbill for Society at the Prince of Wales

Playbill for Society at the Prince of Wales, currently on display

This module offers students the opportunity to learn about a hugely varied period of theatre history in Britain, ranging from Victorian pantomime through to suffragette plays. What’s unique about this module in particular, is that the student use Special Collections and Archives material to really come to terms with the time period, utilising Kent’s extensive Victorian and Edwardian theatre collections. The students look at a range of original material, such as playbills, play-scripts and theatre documentation, to learn about this exciting time.

The British Theatre History student exhibition

A section about living as an actress

This year was different than previously in other ways too. Firstly, the students usually work in groups to produce sections of a general exhibition on British theatre history. This time,

The exhibition launch

The exhibition launch

however, the students were challenged to work individually, and they did not disappoint! The other difference is that this time the students worked on a very specific theme: women. Within this theme the students looked at gender roles in pantomime, the representation of women in melodrama, influential female playwrights, theatre managers and actresses, and theatrical women as a political force. The result is a very well rounded, coherent exhibition, which catches the eye and the interest of passers-by.

Dick Whittington from the Melville Collection

Dick Whittington from the Melville Collection


The module draws heavily from theatre collections housed here at Kent. Firstly, the Melville Collection, which tells the story of a theatrical dynasty of actors and theatre managers. The Melville’s owned many theatres around the country, but particularly the Lyceum in London, from which we hold music, takings books, and administrative documentation concerning productions put on there, as well as publicity material and scripts.

A lithograph showing a scene from the Octoroon

A lithograph showing a scene from the Octoroon



Secondly, the students use the Boucicault Collections. Dion Boucicault was a playwright and actor who worked both here and in America in the 19th century. He was particularly well known for his melodramas, most famously the Octoroon, a controversial play concerning race and slavery. One student has produced a detailed section concerning this play.

Photograph of Nellie Farren, from the Milbourne scrapbook

Photograph of Nellie Farren, from the Milbourne scrapbook



Many of the students use sections from the Milbourne scrapbook. This scrapbook contains photographs (and some signatures) of famous actors and actresses of the time period, and also accurate depictions of costumes worn in theatrical productions. The costume images were originally black and white, but the scrapbook’s owner attended the productions featured in it, and faithfully coloured in the images to represent what was being worn on the stage.


Pettingell scrapbook, currently on display

Pettingell scrapbook, currently on display

Finally the students used our Pettingell Collection. Frank Pettingell was an English actor in the 20th century. He obtained the collection from Arthur Williams, who was an actor and playwright in the 19th century. The collection is made up of a huge selection of printed and handwritten play scripts, many of which were used as performance prompt copies. There are also a handful of theatrical scrapbooks in the collection, one of which is on display.


The exhibition is up until the 25th April.

Update: The Canadian Connection to Our Tenacious Escapee

One of the exciting aspects of writing blogs using our collections is people getting in touch as a result of what you’ve written. Way back in August 2015 I wrote a post about Egbert Brosig, a German prisoner of war in Canada during the Second World War, and his many attempted escapes. Shortly afterwards I received an email from a lady in Canada who had more information on Brosig, and who had been searching for further information about him for some time.

A view of the Monteith Prison Camp, taken by the father-in-law of our contact

A view of the Monteith Prison Camp, taken by the father-in-law of our contact

This lady’s father-in-law was a dental assistant in the Monteith camp where Brosig worked in the dental department. As I mentioned last time, Brosig was selected as having some of the best English of the prisoners, and so translated for the dentist when he was treating them. The two men apparently got along quite well, and the family own a small wooden cigarette box carved by Brosig and possibly either given as a gift for helping Brosig improve his English, or sold to help raise money for his many escape attempts. Her father-in-law was deployed overseas around the time that Brosig was moved to the Medicine Hat prison camp.


The front of the cigarette box carved by Brosig, featuring a soldier surrounded by barbed wire and the word ‘Canada’

The back of the cigarette box carved by Brosig with his initials

The back of the cigarette box carved by Brosig with his initials


Her mother-in-law was the daughter of the owner of Monteith Post Office and General Store, and it was either her brother or her father who assisted Brosig onto the mail train hidden in a mail bag, during one of the escape attempts described in the last post. The official story, reported through the family is that it was her father, but it has been recorded through other sources that it was her 14 year old brother. It seems likely the father claimed it was him to prevent his son getting in trouble with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).

The wedding of our contact's parents-in-law, outside the General Store in Monteith

The wedding of our contact’s parents-in-law, outside the General Store in Monteith

We were also sent this wonderful photograph of the wedding between the lady’s parents-in-law in 1943, just before he was deployed abroad and Brosig sent to Medicine Hat. This image shows the happy couple outside the Monteith general store.

The woman who emailed us was able to shed light on some other aspects of his life. After the war and his return to Germany, Brosig worked as a translator for the American government for 10 years. As with many young men at the outbreak of World War 2, he had been forced to join the German army with the onset of war, and did not join of his own volition. He lived until the age of 90, dying only a few years ago.

For those of you who missed the first post, give it a read here: http://blogs.kent.ac.uk/specialcollections/2015/08/20/a-tenacious-escapee.

Rachel Dickinson.


Nowell Johnson, Wife of the Red Dean


Nowell Johnson

On the evening of 6th October I, and other members of Kent’s Library team, had the opportunity to present a small exhibition at the Canterbury Cathedral Open Evening. This year’s theme was ‘The Role of Women Through the Ages in the Life of Canterbury Cathedral’, and as the holders of the Hewlett Johnson Papers, we thought we could provide an insight into the life of his second wife, Nowell Johnson.

Hewlett Johnson was born in 1874, and married his first wife Mary in 1903. She died of cancer, and the couple had no children. He became the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral in 1931, and remained so until 1963. This was a hugely interesting time for the whole world, as his time as Dean coincided with the Second World War and the advent of Communism, and the Soviet Union in particular. He was commonly known as ‘the Red Dean’ for his championing of Communism, and for a time was highly influential. However when the Soviet Union fell out of favour with the rest of the world, Johnson’s influence waned, although his faith in Communism never did.


Dean Hewlett Johnson

He married Nowell Johnson, the daughter of a vicar and 32 years his junior, in 1938, on the eve of the Second World War. This caused something of a scandal, as it was commonly believed that she was his niece. In fact, she was the child of Hewlett’s cousin, but referred to him as ‘Uncle’ in order to avoid explaining their complicated relationship. She had been a frequent visitor to the Deanery long before they became romantically entangled, and as she worked as an artist she painted his portrait and provided illustrations for some of Hewlett’s works.

The couple’s first daughter was born in 1940, and the small family moved to a house in Charing, Kent, but quickly realised this was no safer than Canterbury from German bombing raids. Hewlett sent Nowell and the baby Kezia to Wales, where they remained for the duration of the war, and where the couple’s second daughter Keren was born in 1942. Whilst Nowell was in London and Hewlett still on duty at the Deanery the couple wrote to each other almost every day, and many of their letters are held here at the University of Kent.

Life in Canterbury during the war was perilous. 10,445 bombs were dropped on the city throughout the Second World War, and in 1940 one of these hit the Deanery. Hewlett escaped, but apparently narrowly, and telegraphed his wife immediately to let her know what happened. In her replying letter she writes:

“How awful this news is of your narrow escape & the poor old Deanery. It was awfully good of you to have wired for I saw a notice of it in the Times & should have been very anxious. Today there’s quite a bit in the Mirror. I’m awfully glad the damage in the house isn’t as bad as it might have been, what is left I wonder? Are the kitchens alright. & is Mrs County cooking for you still. I don’t like thinking of you alone in Elsie’s room Darling, is the building safe?”

She adds: “What savage attacks they have made on the Cathedral, its [sic] amazing they haven’t hit it as yet, but one fears much they will go on. Could you not sleep in the crypt now?”


Damage to the Deanery after the bombing

The Deanery did sustain some damage, but ultimately survived. The reality was that hundreds of homes were completely destroyed in the heavy bombing on Canterbury, and in comparison the Deanery got off lightly. However, Nowell’s words were to prove prophetic. In 1942 the Cathedral was finally hit, as a bomb fell directly on the Library:

“Its terribly terribly sad to think of Canterbury now – in June too when it used to be so peaceful & so gay. I’m sure the people are splendid, its wonderful how grand people are in great trouble. I’m very glad you made the B.B.C. after their talk, has more of the Cathedral than the library been damaged? Were all the valuable books got away.”

The rare book cataloguer in me is very pleased to see she lends a proper amount of concern for the contents of the Cathedral library, as well as the praise she heaps on the people of Canterbury for bearing up in the hugely difficult circumstances they found themselves in. Indeed, Nowell was not only concerned for the people in Britain. Another letter from 1940 reads:

“Poor little mites in Canterbury – & Cologne – & cities all over the world. What a ghastly time, what utter utter madness, how long can it go on. Poor Canterbury, what has happened to it, there will be many casualties I fear, I long to hear from you. And the beautiful Cathedral, is it safe? And the Deanery, I still think of it as it used to be”


A drawing from one of Nowell’s China diaries

When the war came to an end the family we reunited in Canterbury. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the family traveled a great deal, particularly around the Soviet Union, Cuba and China, two famously communist countries. They also visit many parts of the UK, Hungary and East Germany. They took large numbers of photographs, now held here at Kent, and Nowell kept travel diaries. Here her artistic flare is clearly visible; the diaries are full of small doodles, and full page drawings, of things she saw during her travels.

On her visit to Hungary in 1951, she recorded visiting a Worker’s Rest Home, “where workers from all kinds of employment go for a fortnight’s holiday,” where her husband was “given a tremendous reception.” She also talks of visiting an International Rest Home, “a truly magnificent place, like a great first class hotel,” with “great international flags hung by the entrance,” where they were greeted by a delegation from Czechoslovakia, and given flowers by a child.

The following pictures were all drawn during her time in Hungary, and represent the huge variety of subject matter in her diaries.


The family traveled around China on many occasions, and numerous diaries survive documenting their trips. A diary entry from their 1964 trip records how:

“There are attendants everywhere, girls & boys they seem, who do everything for us. They are most competent & so gentle, helping Hewlett to dress etc. One boy is always at his side seeing he does not trip or stumble…Again Mr. Huang Shiang tells us how concerned the Prime Minister is that we should be comfortable, & also that because of this & because he wants us to see all that we wish he is sending a special plane that will make it easy to get about.”

These attentions must have been particularly pleasing to Nowell, as her husband was 90 year old during this trip, which cannot have been easy.


A drawing from one of Nowell’s China diaries

Wherever they went, the Johnsons tasted what life was truly like for people in these countries. As these photos show, they visited regular people, and the variety of people they met must have been fascinating to experience. It’s certainly fascinating to see the photos decades later.


The Johnsons with Chinese peasants and women from Tajikistan








During the Johnson’s time at the Deanery they entertained many important and intriguing visitors. Such guests included Russian diplomats, Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the USA during the first part of the Second World War, British Royalty and even Gandhi. Here are a few photos from these occasions:


Hewlett with Gandhi and Mirabehn

Hewlett, Nowell and Russian diplomats

Hewlett, Nowell and Russian diplomats


Hewlett and Eleanor Roosevelt in 1942

People’s reactions to our display at the Cathedral were hugely positive. We had several people looking at the display who remembered the family. A couple went to school with the Johnson’s daughters, some others remembered seeing the Dean walking from his temporary housing in St. Dunstan’s after the bombing of the Deanery to the Cathedral for his work. There was one woman who deliberately sought out our exhibition, who used to visit with Nowell. She remembered all the negativity surrounding the family because of the Dean’s politics, but proudly reassured us her family took no part in this negativity. Nowell attended Age Concern art classes with her after the Dean’s death. The woman told us of a postcard she had from Nowell when she went to a conference in Scandinavia, and how Nowell encouraged her to keep on with the art classes, as they were so beneficial to the community.


Hewlett and Nowell Johnson

Meeting people who remembered the family and who could tell us stories that we never knew about was fascinating. That our small display brought such happy remembrances to the lady who ran the art classes was incredibly rewarding, and preserving this history for other people to enjoy is what this job is all about.