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Walking the Corridors of the Past: A tour of Singleton Abbey

2012 August 28

Lucinda Matthews-Jones (Liverpool John Moores University)

In a recent blog for History Workshop Online, Toby Butler suggests that field trips should become ‘an essential part of the…university curriculum’, noting that ‘[s]urely no history degree taught in a city could not find a place for a visit to a museum or a historic site, and perhaps a talk from a curator?’ I agree with Toby. As university teachers, I believe we should be thinking of imaginative ways to teach our modules beyond the classroom or lecture theatre. Fieldtrips not only provide students with new ways to contextualise the history they encounter, but also vary the learning experience. There are also two additional reasons why we should conduct more field trips in my view. Firstly, fieldtrips can be used to encourage students to engage with their immediate campus and local environments. Secondly, they can provide module leaders with creative ways in which to ‘fill’ the extra contact hours now demanded (in Britain) by the rise to £9,000 tuition fees.

I have always tried to incorporate field trips into my modules. This has included visits to First World War memorials, art galleries, city walking tours and archive trips. Of course, this is helped by the fact that I am an historian of nineteenth-century Britain and that I have run primarily urban-focused history modules. This has not always been the case, though. My most recent fieldtrip was a tour of Singleton Abbey, the former home of the Vivian family and now a university administration building for Swansea University. The tour culminated in a trip to the Richard Burton Archive (the name of Swansea University archive) to look at the Abbey’s estate records. The trip was designed for students taking a third-year special subject module entitled ‘Victorian Domesticities’, a module which (I hoped) unpacked the ‘love affair’ that the Victorians had with their homes by deconstructing the idealised images of home and the lived experiences of men and women from all classes.

In week 8, I decided to run the trip to Singleton Abbey to coincide with the topic ‘Grand Domesticity’. Luckily for me the trip did not involve any cost or travel as my Swansea office looked onto the Abbey. It was arranged in week 8 because Swansea did not have a reading week and I was concerned that we (myself and the students) would be starting to run out of steam by that point. I wanted to ‘jazz’ things up a bit. The tour of the Abbey and its garden was conducted by Professor Ralph Griffiths (a retired member of the history department’s academic staff and an expert in the Abbey). We started out at 8.30 am, an hour and half before class usually started. Despite this early start, attendance was no different to any other class. The tour was as fascinating as I expected it to be. The original furniture and decoration of the Abbey might have been was sold off in the 1920s when the Vivian family gave the Abbey to the council, but a few pieces can still be found there, including a panel from Catherine of Aragon’s wedding trousseau and an ornate Italian fireplace (see below).

Above: Catherine of Aragon’s wedding chest

Right: Italian Fireplace

My students also appeared to have enjoyed it. As Felicity Bridges noted, ‘Looking around Singleton Abbey was an interesting and unique experience- not many university campuses (to my knowledge) can boast that they have a Victorian upper-middle class home within their grounds. The tour itself was informative and for the most part entertaining, thanks to our guide.’

At the same time, many of my class expressed amazement that Singleton Abbey was not used more by either the University or the history department. There was a prevailing sense among my students that they should know more about the history of their institutions and about key parts of their university campus. I was surprised by how many of my students did not actually know where the Abbey was, despite the fact that many walked past it daily, or where to find the Abbey’s entrance. We really should invest more in showcasing the history of our universities and our university campuses to our students, especially as administrators are always trying to create a coherent university identity and strong alumni communities.[1]

To contextualise the tour, I devised a series of primary source activities that used the papers of Singleton Abbey and the Crawshay Estate held by the Richard Burton Archive. This session ran during normal class hours of 10-12 am. The session did demand prior planning. I visited the archive twice to look at their collections. On my first visit, the archivists had kindly pulled out material that I might find useful. As well as using the papers of Singleton Abbey, they suggested that I also consult the papers of Richard Crawshay. This ended up being a blessing as this collection contained material such as wills, inventories, account books and shop receipts which were not only missing from the Singleton Papers but also difficult to locate online. My second visit involved looking in detail at the material in question and thinking of questions for each of the sources to direct at my students. Students were given questions for each task in which which to analytically engage with the primary material.

At the heart of these exercises was a desire to get students to contextualise ‘grand domesticity’ and contrast it to our previous classes on working and middle-class domesticity. I also wanted them to consider what the advantages and disadvantages of using particular types of sources are. I devised the session so that many of the source activities fed through to one another. For instance, when students were looking at the photographs of Singleton Abbey at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they were also encouraged to look at the 1920s sale catalogue to see where specific items were originally located.

During this 2 hour archive session the class was divided into five groups. They spent 15-20 minutes on each source considering the questions on the handouts. For preservation reasons, the archivists provided a photocopy of the sources. The original source was also made available. To help facilitate group discussions, I moved between the groups. In this way I was able to help with any questions that they had or to push students to consider certain aspects of the material. However, I spent most of my time with students working on the will because many students found the legal script difficult to read. In the last 15 minutes we came together as a group for a lively conversation on the material. We considered the themes of gender, class and domesticity. For some students this proved to be their favourite part of the morning: ‘the visit to the Richard Burton archives greatly complemented what we had seen in the Abbey. For me, the visit to the archives were the most valuable part of the morning. Being set a number of tasks in pairs worked well, and we were moved on from one task to the next in good time, with assistance and help readily available from Dr Matthews-Jones and the archivists when needed. Seeing the vast collection of photographs of the Abbey from the late 19th/early 20th century really complemented what we had seen earlier, and gave us an idea of the layout of rooms and the furniture within them. Knowing where furniture was placed, and for what purpose it was used, is one of the challenges facing students and historians of material culture. However, consulting photographic evidence and inventories in the archives showed us how historians of material culture sought to analyse and utilise such sources to support their research and arguments- encouraging us to do similar in not only our Victorian Domesticities work but in other modules as well.’

Similarly, Elisabeth Bennett, University Archivist, Richard Burton Archives, reported that this was “A very lively and animated session with a great buzz of enthusiasm from the students. Good to see the Archives employed in such an innovative way”

I really enjoyed the hands on approach of this session. On a personal level, I spent less time constructing and devising this class than a normal lecture/seminar. More importantly, my students were extremely positive about the session. As Michelle Matthews noted ‘the opportunity to make Victorian history relevant in the context of our own University’s heritage made Victorian Domesticities accessible on a personal level’.

This field trip certainly raised a number of interesting questions for me:

  1. Is the third year of an undergraduate degree really the best year in which to visit a university archive? Should students not be made more aware of what is available in their university earlier on? As one of my students reported, ‘I learnt a little bit of the extent of the archives Swansea university has access to and how readily available they are. Even though I am currently in my third year at Swansea I had never used the Archives before and wasn’t aware of the amount of material I was missing out on.’
  2. Would I have been able to organise this session if I had had more students, or a large Level One or Two module?
  3. Would I have been able to run it had it not been based at the university? What funding is available to students/staff for field trips and archive visits?[2]

I hope to continue to use universities as spaces for fieldwork and I am already planning to use Liverpool John Moore’s archival material for my new gender history module this year.

Dr Lucinda Matthews-Jones is a History Lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University. Her publications include ‘Lessons in Seeing: Art, Religion and Class in the East End of London, 1881–1898′, Journal of Victorian Culture (2011) and ‘St Francis and the Making of Settlement Masculinity, 1883-1914′ in Sean Brady and John Arnold’s edited collection, What is Masculinity (London, 2011). She tweets on @luciejones83 and her academia page can be found here.


[1] Since leaving Swansea University in January an innovative archive/ research module, ‘Researching and Re-telling the Past’ has been devised by Dr. Louise Miskell for second year students. With Dr. Louise Miskell, students were able to research the history of Swansea University’s Student Union. A group of them have subsequently established a blog to showcase archival material used for this module. Students working with Dr. Martin Johnes were able to research and contribute to a larger project on the 100 year history of Swansea City funded by the National Lottery.

[2] For an example of a free fieldtrip see Matthew McCormack’s ‘Teaching the Victorian City’ on this site.

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