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Archives and Special Collections in Twenty Objects Exhibition

It is twenty years since the University appointed its first qualified archivist. During which time, the archives have developed substantially, and even more now that Special Collections have merged with us to form Archives and Special Collections.

In celebration of the twenty years, we have curated this exhibition with colleagues, users and/or supporters of our work over the last twenty years. Each person has chosen their favourite object from one of the collections - which one is your favourite?

We hope you enjoy looking at and reading about the objects. 

1st British and Foreign School Society (BFSS) Annual Report 


This first Annual Report from the University to the BFSS marked a special day for me in my relationship with both the University and the BFSS - the signing of the Deed of Gift of the BFSS Archives to the University on 11th December 2013. This act not only safeguarded for the future the archives of a pioneering educational charity but also guaranteed that its joint relationship with Brunel through the Osterley Campus would be conserved and celebrated as part of Brunel’s own history.  The pages of this first report, for example, record the signing of the Deed of Gift, show the reach of the BFSS across the world through its correspondence, mark the progress made in cataloguing BFSS documents, and detail the work of an archive volunteer to research the staff and students of Borough Road College who fought in the 1914-1918 World War. This and successive annual reports now form part of the Archives and demonstrate the University’s commitment to the BFSS and its history.

But why was this day so special to me? Joining Brunel’s Education Department in 1995 I became involved in the oversight of the BFSS National RE Centre and the BFSS Archives that were based on the Osterley Campus in the original BFSS Borough Road College building that had been donated to the GLC before it became part of the West London Institute of Higher Education (WLIHE) and then Brunel when WLIHE became part of Brunel. I also became a member of the BFSS in 1997, worked with university colleagues and the BFSS to find a home for the BFSS Archives when the Osterley Campus was sold, and helped to draw up a 25 years’ agreement between the University and BFSS that would see the BFSS Archives looked after by the University’s archives team with some of the costs met by the BFSS. For me the decision by the BFSS Council to donate the Society’s Archives to the University in 2013 and the University’s acceptance of the offer marked the culmination of a process that both preserves the history of a charity and the University’s links to the BFSS through its Osterley Campus. 

Professor Steve Hodkinson, former PVC External Relations, Brunel University and former Chair of the British and Foreign School Society (BFSS)

Application reference, Borough Road College 

John Dyer BRC App Melanies web

My time at Brunel was my first significant experience of working with archives. Being a big fan of the nineteenth century it was hugely exciting to be handling original materials from this period, as well as learning to decipher the handwriting. It felt like a real connection to the past, and I imagined all the hands the items had passed through over the intervening years. I was struck by the references in the collection, they were often brutal in a way that you would never see today. Some of them were quite amusing, but it also felt like you were getting a real insight into not just the subject of the reference, but also the person who wrote it.

I enjoyed learning about the teacher training colleges and the origins of Brunel University, as well as exploring other parts of the collections and seeing open days and group visits in action. Being able to engage with archival material in an environment that doesn't feel intimidating is so important, and I always felt the team at Brunel did a brilliant job of this, encouraging students to actually use the archive in their research. Phaedra was also a wonderfully supportive volunteer manager and I consider my time working under her as key to my success in working in the archive sector.

Melanie Bailey-Melouney, Brunel Alumna, former archive volunteer 

University Mace 

001292E Mace Label 3

Gifted to the University by the Wilkinson Sword Company, the Mace is a symbol of the University's authority under its 1966 Royal Charter. The Mace has been part of our ceremonial proceedings, notably at graduation, since it was presented to our first Chancellor, the 3rd Earl of Halsbury, in 1971. For me, the Mace is a Brunel symbol of the pride, achievement, and success of our students as they collect their degrees and commemorate their years of hard work. Present at all graduations for 50 years, it has remained a constant in the very special day celebrated by all generations of Brunel students, bonding their graduation ceremonies through time. I am honoured to be one of Brunel's first female Mace Bearer's and delighted to showcase the Mace at our graduation ceremonies to our graduates, their families, and their friends to commemorate their special day.

Karen Auld, Senior Alumni Officer, Development and Alumni Relations

WWI student memorial photograph

SC WW1 PH Memorial web

Shoreditch College was a college to train handicraft teachers. It became part of Brunel in 1980, and its students are therefore considered to be our alumni.   This is a smaller version of the large montage which was once on the wall in the student common room at Shoreditch College, London.

I chose this item as I find the college war memorials very moving.  Yet many of them are “just” names, that we walk past every day, without really thinking about the people behind them.  Shoreditch College, perhaps due to its background in craft and design, did things a bit differently.  It created photographic memorials to its students, for both world wars.  This allows you to immediately put a face to the name, and to remind you that these were real young men, the same age as many of our current students, who did not make it home. 

Phaedra Casey, Archivist, Records, Archives and Special Collections

The Night Before Christmas book 

Night Before Christmas web

Clement Moore's 'The Night Before Christmas' poem is very well known, as are Arthur Rackham's illustrations. I feel like this book perfectly combines the two. Although the poem was written nearly 200 years ago and the images drawn nearly 100 years ago, they transcend time and are just as magical today for children and adults alike. I love this book and when I first came across it, whilst browsing the Murray children's book collection, it really stood out to me and I knew it was special. I especially love the image of the children 'nestled all snug in their beds'. The cover may be plain but when you open it up the beautiful story comes to life and puts you straight into the Christmas spirit.

Ruth Maguire, former Archives and Records Assistant, Brunel University London

William Allen Portrait 

William Allen book Peters web

I have chosen the portrait of William Allen (1770-1843), a scientist, philanthropist and abolitionist.  He was a committee member and treasurer of the British and Foreign School Society (BFSS) from 1808 until his death in 1843. Although Allen is not well known today, his contributions to education and abolition cannot be ignored. I have chosen him because without his work, the BFSS would not have survived.  To this day the BFSS continues to support the education of disadvantaged young people in the UK and across the world.

Peter Miller, Chair British and Foreign School Society (BFSS) 

A piece of chalk marl 

CT Stone Alisons web

This piece of chalk marl was excavated from the layers of chalk below the seabed of the English Channel by the boring machine which dug out the Channel tunnel's service tunnel. It comes from near to the breakthrough point where British and French teams broke through to unite the two sections of the tunnel. Interviews record that the French tunnellers celebrated this moment by offering the British team a glass of champagne, and that the British offered water in exchange. This moment marked the culmination of a long process that had started in 1802, when the French engineer Albert Mathieu Favier presented plans for a Channel Tunnel to Napoleon. Over the next two centuries these plans were taken up by engineers, politicians, science fiction authors, generals, bankers, and entrepreneurs who offered their own proposals and visions of a Channel Tunnel, and what it would mean for France, Britain and Europe. Digging began in 1881, but then halted in 1882. In 1919 British Prime Minister David Lloyd George used the tunnel as a means to secure French assent for his proposals for France’s eastern borders at the Paris Peace Conference. During the Second World War, rumours swirled in Britain that Hitler was using slave labour to tunnel under the seabed of the Channel and invade the British Isles. In the postwar period the construction of the tunnel was completed against the backdrop of deindustrialisation, decolonisation and European integration. I have chosen this chalk marl as my exhibit because it reflects the eclectic character of the Channel Tunnel Archive, and the University's collections more generally. I hadn't expected to find a piece of rock amongst the collection, but it is evocative of the engineering feat that the Tunnel represents as well as of the recognition of the momentous character of breakthrough in building a connection between Britain and the rest of Europe.

Dr Alison Carrol, Reader in European History, Department of Social and Political Sciences

Female application to Borough Road College, with sewing example 

Bonnet Saminas web

I chose the female application to Borough Road College with the sewing example because it shows a type of portfolio that students would send alongside their applications. It shows a similar process to modern day students sending their portfolios, whereas now it is more digitised (which is a recent change) in the past students felt it would be best to send their sewing samples to prove their technique. I like this piece because it is an authentic piece which I was able to hold in my hands. Usually I would have looked through the applications but to see and hold something a student had made herself gave a very different, delighted feeling.  

Volunteering at an archive allowed me to appreciate the time it takes to go through all the documents and record them. Being able to open each application and read the answer and analyse the handwriting allowed me to value having an eye for detail when it comes to my future work.  

 Samina Anand, Brunel Alumna, former archive volunteer 

IK Brunel and the chains photograph 


Brunel and chains web

For me, one of my favourite items in the Archives is an original early copy of the photo of Isambard Kingdom Brunel standing in front of the launching chains of his final ship the Great Eastern in January 1858 at Millwall on the Thames near to where Canary Wharf is today. The former Great Western Railway branch line from Uxbridge to West Drayton built by IKB was parallel to Cleveland Road, part of the cutting is still preserved. This amazing Victorian Engineer was the obvious person to name a new engineering and science university after in the 1960's and for the University to have one of the original prints of this iconic photo 164 years after it was taken is very special.   

Sue Curley, former Head of Alumni Relations, Brunel University London

Found Sea Texts book 

Found sea texts web

As a poet and zine-maker myself, I fell in love with the Bill Griffiths collection when I was introduced to it a few years ago. After spending some time with the collection, I facilitated a workshop for Creative Writing students exploring zine-making and small press publishing, where we drew inspiration from Griffiths' various techniques and approaches, specifically his pamphlets, folded paper curios and the works with a distinctive hand-made feel. Found Sea Texts is one of my favourites in the collection, as it includes found poetry and collage, two techniques I utilise in my own practice. It is simple yet effective in the way fragments have been excerpted from Jane Austen's novel Persuasion, printed and placed on the page to create a found poem. I also enjoy the playful simplicity of the chalky, printed wave illustrations.

Dr Emma Filtness, Lecturer (Education) in Creative Writing

Declaration of Reasonable Doubt about the Identity of William Shakespeare 

Shakespeare poster web

This Declaration reminds of a time when my research and teaching had, for a short time at least a significant impact globally. That may sound grand but following the signing at Chichester and my appearance on stage there with Mark Rylance to announce the launch of my MA in Shakespeare Authorship Studies (the first of its kind in the world), media from around the world took note. In the following weeks I was on BBC TV and radio, interviewed by Time Magazine, the New York Times, The Observer, Sueddeutsche Zeitung, and so on. I remember being interviewed by Chinese State Television and the story also appearing in the Himalayan Times.  Let me say, not all the publicity was positive! These were heady days indeed and I thank Brunel for supporting and trusting me throughout and all the wonderful students who took the MA.

The Declaration is still online and I invite everyone to read what it says and sign up if you feel moved to - see You can also join the sister organisation of which I am Chairperson, the Shakespearean Authorship Trust at

Professor William Leahy, former Vice-Provost (Students, Staff and Civic Engagement), Brunel University London

The Slave Book 


BFSS FC Slave book Front cover web

“The Slave Book” was compiled by William Knibb, a prominent Baptist missionary and anti-slavery advocate, in 1826. It was intended to promote the education of enslaved children in the British West Indies and encourage support for this endeavour among educational reformers and abolitionists in Britain. West Indian slave-owners were generally opposed to the enslaved learning to read and, most especially, to write, and laws were established to variously discourage and prohibit this. Non-conformist missionaries, like Knibb, often faced strong resistance from the plantocracy. Knibb was trained at Borough Road College, prior to departing for Jamaica, and introduced the Lancasterian system of monitorial instruction, a hallmark of the British and Foreign School Society, to Jamaica. The book itself consists of examples of exquisite handwriting and embroidery from enslaved and freed children from Knibb’s Lancasterian School in Kingston. I’ve chosen The Slave Book because it is a very moving and rare and remarkable artefact, revealing a part of British history which has long been overlooked, and because it forces our attention onto the children who were enslaved in the British empire, and reminds us that their experiences, voices and presence in the history of West Indian slavery remain largely silent and hidden.   

 Dr Inge Dornan, Senior Lecturer in Race and Gender History, Politics and History

The Book of the Boat 

Book of the Boat web

One of my favourite items in the collection is this book of poems, The Book of the Boat by the poet and publisher Bill Griffiths. I first encountered the Bill Griffith Collection when I created a finding aid for the collection one summer on placement in the Special Collections department. As a big fan of small presses, I was delighted to be given the opportunity to work with this wonderful archive of materials from a truly amazing man. I have chosen The Book of the Boat, as I think it encapsulates many of the things I like about this collection. Written by Griffiths (who was also the editor, illustrator, publisher, and promoter of this book, and of many other pamphlets, texts and booklets for himself and others), it is hand drawn, compiled and decorated. The poems in the work are an exploration on the theme of boats, but give you some idea of the breath of his interests as they cover topics as diverse as Anglo-Saxon writing, canals, his time in prison, sea shanties, and memorably, his recollection of when his houseboat was burned down at Uxbridge Boat Centre. This book, and this collection, is visible expression of a creative and complex man.

Joanne McPhie, Academic Liaison Librarian, Library Services

Lecture Centre photograph 


I have worked with Mandy and the Archives Team on many exhibitions over the last 20 years and have enjoyed all of them. We’ve put together some amazing exhibits such as 100 Pioneering Women, Brunel’s Olympians and the Shakespeare exhibition, but the one that really sticks in my mind (except for ‘Exhibition coming soon’!) was the 50th Anniversary Trail in 2016. The trail was ambitious and encompassed a lot of subject matter from some of the other exhibitions I mention but also had new (old) items too. There was lots of variety with fun and interesting elements, all with a Brunel connection, including Heinz Wolff’s glove box, a montage of sporting heroes, student design projects and the amazing Architect’s photo of the Lecture Centre, taken whilst the campus was being constructed in the 1960s, when it looked so different to now. It’s a striking, graphic photo that doesn’t disappoint, it’s as iconic as the building itself; so super that I kind of expect a caped crusader to be perched on top of it!

Andy Hill, former Graphic Designer, Digital Communications & Design

Bs Hum magazines 

Bs Hum cover web 

I really like the Bs Hum especially the early 20th century copies because I am fascinated by that period. Reading the articles and looking at the adverts for shops, photographers, books etc and seeing the illustrations makes me feel like a time traveller transported back to life in the 1900s. 

Sally Trussler, Media Production Manager, IS: Digital Media and Technology

Annie Shunmugum photograph 



I love anything that changes our general stereotypical perception of history. We have an image in our head of people in the 1800s. Anytime someone thinks of Victorian photography they inevitably think of Queen Victoria and imagine an elderly, stern, unamused, white woman. This photo of Annie Shunmugum (student at Maria Grey College in 1882) breaks all those preconceptions. She is young, she is Indian, and she has a twinkle in her eye that makes me want to be her friend. Her style is also shockingly modern. We think of the mixture of Eastern and Western fashion as being a 21st century device, or maybe even late 20th century. But here is Ms Shunmugum in the 1880s intentionally showing her experience within both British and Indian culture in her clothing. Even if it was just for this photo, it is very telling. As an immigrant myself I am excited to see that people in Britain have a long history of embracing their life experiences and proudly showing it to the world. It also excites me to see a photo that while staged, still shows the sitter’s personality.

Sarah Trim-West, Archives and Records Assistant, Records, Archives and Special Collections

Improvements in Education, 1803 

Improvements in Education book Brians web

I chose this publication by the educator whose work led to the Royal Lancasterian Institution, which became the British and Foreign School Society in 1814.

The Lancasterian Method, or Monitorial Method, of teaching has often been summarised as one teacher per school instructing older and brighter children, who then instructed the mass of other children (in forms) in the ‘3Rs’.  In essence this is correct, but Lancaster’s Improvements describes a system which was far more sophisticated and detailed, for example how the youngest children learned capital letters in categories of those just having straight lines, those with curves and those with both.

In the early nineteenth century when there previously had been little education provision for poor children, Lancaster devised a mass teaching system which was able to provide rudimentary ‘education’ provision. It was cheap in a situation where there was little money available, but could manage with just a large school room and one teacher.  Improvements is essentially a detailed description of his Monitorial Method as used at Borough Road School.  Today of course what took place could not be described as teaching, but it provided ‘instruction’ for poor children in a context of undenominational instruction based solely on the Bible.  Lancaster was a Quaker.  At the same time ‘his rival’, Rev Andrew Bell, was developing his Anglican denominational monitorial schools.

Lancaster had his critics, notably the Anglican Sarah Trimmer, but he produced several editions of Improvements, which still give the best insight to what he achieved at Borough Road while he was also extending the number of Lancasterian schools throughout Britain and later abroad.

Brian York, former BFSS Archivist, and former History Lecturer at West London Institute of Higher Education

Thames Tunnel Diorama 

Diorama 3 web

This “peepshow” or perspective diorama is made from a set of printed cards, fastened together in such a way that, when expanded, they are at set distances from each other. The whole thing can be folded flat for storage, but ours has a bespoke box so it can be safely displayed in its expanded form and used as its makers intended. The viewer looks through one or both of the holes in the front image, and is transported into the interior of the tunnel, the set of two-dimensional images transforming into the illusion of a three-dimensional view.  Those who wished to were thus able to see at least an artist’s impression of the interior of the famous tunnel without having to venture there themselves. The diorama allows us today to see how the tunnel might have looked in its original state, designed for horse-drawn vehicles and not yet a route for trains.

I chose the Thames Tunnel diorama because it’s very visually appealing. I love the way they’ve managed to display it so you can see how it was originally meant to work, as well as get an idea of what it was like to walk through the tunnel when it first opened.

Katie Flanagan, former Special Collections Librarian, Library Services

Space science and technology poster 


DPS_2593 Space Poster

Having worked with the Archives for twenty years, I have been very lucky to examine and hold so many amazing, inspiring and even surprising objects that tell the University’s story.  The object I have chosen surprised me completely as I had no idea until I met the late Professor Heinz Wolff that the University had a connection with the space programme.

Professor Wolff who established Brunel Institute of Bioengineering (BIB) in 1980 was a member of the Microgravity Committee of the European Space Agency.  His interest in space led to BIB winning a series of contracts ranging from conceptual studies on a new bio laboratory to the development and testing of flight hardware which allowed experiments to be carried out safely in space.  Then in 1990, Brunel hosted its Summer Space School.  One hundred and fifty students between 15-18 attended and heard lectures from leading figures in the European space community including the late Professor Wolff.  There are a number of objects in the Archive which show BIB’s journey with space, but my favourite is this poster advertising courses in space science and technology for 13-18-year olds – it’s very simple but eye-catching.

Mandy Mordue, Head of Records, Archives and Special Collections 

Letter from William Watson to William Allen, 2 May 1818 


Exhib 2022 mauritius letter web

Since working with the archives on an article about his life, I’ve been fascinated by the life of Thomas Jenkins – Britain’s ‘first black teacher’ – and his connection to Brunel and its founding colleges.

I particularly like this letter from William Watson, a Scottish Quaker who knew Thomas, although his references to overcoming prejudice only hint at Thomas’s amazing, film-worthy story.

Thought to be the son of an African chief, Thomas was taken to Scotland at a young age to be educated. Although not much is known about his upbringing, he clearly made an impression, as in his late teens or early twenties, his neighbours, in defiance of the local church, founded a school and installed Thomas as the schoolmaster.

He later went on to have a successful teaching career in London – where he studied at Borough Road College, one of Brunel’s founding colleges – before living out his later years helping to set up schools in the colony of Mauritius.

I’m so glad that even at the time there were people that recognised Thomas as being interesting and noteworthy, and made an effort to document his life. Whilst our glimpses into his life are quite fleeting, they tell of someone who overcame the challenges thrown at them as they wrote their name into the history books of two continents.

Tim Pilgrim, Senior Media Relations Officer, Marketing and Communications