My name is Liz Pente and I am one of the new Archives Assistants at Heritage Quay. Having recently completed a PhD in History at the University of Huddersfield, I am delighted to join the archive team. As a public historian, I am passionate about the value of preserving the past, so that it may be accessible to people in the present and future.
The collections at Heritage Quay are extensive – over 135 that are ready for researchers to explore! Getting to know these vast collections is part of my new role here. One of my favourite aspects of exploring the past is encountering unexpected connections. Connections between the past and the present, connections between places, connections between documents and materials themselves, and even personal connections to archival materials. This is a little story about one such connection…
I was doing some work on the Leonard Smith Collection related to Unitarianism. According to The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, Unitarianism ‘is an open-minded and welcoming approach to faith that encourages individual freedom, equality for all and rational thought’. They highlight some prominent Unitarians including Elizabeth Gaskell, Charles Dickens, Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Priestly – who is the namesake of one of our buildings here at The University of Huddersfield!
The Leonard Smith Collection includes 323 volumes of printed books relating to Unitarianism from 1840-2013. These are available to search in our catalogue here.
The materials I was working on included a later accession to the collection, the details of which have yet to be catalogued. The materials are wide-ranging, from volumes of the Transactions of the Unitarian Society Journal, to Unitarian event programmes, church and congregation histories to lecture and sermon pamphlets.The dates of the materials range from the 1800s-2010s, but it was one item from 1986, which caught my eye.
Among the lecture pamphlets was an item from a series called Truth, Liberty, Religion – Essays Celebrating Two Hundred Years of Manchester College, edited by Barbara Smith. The booklet was the first in the series, titled 1. The Unitarian Background by R. K. Webb of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Have you heard of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, otherwise known as UMBC? No? Well, not only have I heard of it, but it is where I completed my Master of Arts in Historical Studies, with a concentration in Public History. Not only that, but UMBC is where I had my first foray into archives, serving as an intern in the Albin O. Kuhn Library’s Special Collections department, working within the Center for Biological Sciences Archive .
Robert K. Webb (1922–2012) was a distinguished American scholar of British history studying from the 1780s through to the nineteenth century, focusing on ‘the relative stability of the British state during a period of revolution in France’ and religious dissent. Sandra Herbert, writing for the American Historical Association in November 2012, describes his work on the Unitarians:
‘In Webb’s subsequent work he explored the British tradition of religious dissent. He was interested in studying the British non-conformists on their own terms. He also saw their movement as providing a safety valve for releasing social tensions. In this Webb’s work was congruent with that of the French historian Élie Halévy. As an indication of his high regard for Halévy, Webb translated his Era of Tyrannies: Essays on Socialism and War into English (1966). Among the English nonconformists Bob Webb settled on the Unitarians for his own work. He was drawn to them by a shared sense of the value of rational enquiry and because he noted the prominence of Unitarians among social reformers in 19th-century Britain, as,for example, in the Martineau family.
Webb’s biography of one ofthe members of that family is still a standard work on the subject: Harriet Martineau: A Radical Victorian (1960). Over the course of the next 40 years, Bob published extensively on the English Unitarians, including numerous individual contributions to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Bob’s last public lecture, again touching on the Unitarians, was a talk he gave in 2010 entitled “The Very Long Eighteenth Century: An Experiment in the History of Religion.” Bob’s contributions to the field of British history were honored in 1992 by the volume Religion and Irreligion in Victorian Society: Essays in Honor of R. K. Webb edited by R. W. Davis and R. J. Helmstadter.’
Webb was along-standing member of the UMBC community, and the university established the annual R.K.Webb Lecture, which I attended during my time there. This was quite an unexpected connection!
This pamphlet is just one of over 130 items being added to the Leonard Smith Collection, and this is one small connection between my experiences at those institutions, and learning more about Unitarianism through processing this collection, which I hope will help inform my knowledge of this type of collection more broadly.
I am excited to see what new connections emerge as I continue getting to know the remarkable collections here at Heritage Quay. What connections will you make with our amazing collections? Come explore, and see what you discover!
If, like me, you too have made an unexpected connection whilst conducting research in our archives, we would love to hear your story! Tweet us @Heritage_Quay