Collections Highlight: Student Peace Society minute book, University of Aberdeen

Sarah and Lynsey interview Andrew MacGregor, Deputy Archivist at the Special Collections Centre

Tell us about what you do at the Special Collections Centre.

I’m the Deputy Archivist. Like Keith (Keith O’Sullivan, Rare Books Librarian), I manage part of the collections. Keith manages the rare books and I manage the archives, of which there are about 5,000 collections. A collection could be one piece of paper or it could be 400 boxes. My job is the selection, preservation and the making available of the collections. A lot of my work is project management and managing a wider team of archive assistants and volunteers.

Tell us about one of your favourite items in the collection.

I have chosen the minute book of the University of Aberdeen Peace Society which ran prior to the First World War. I’ve chosen quite a modest thing really because of what it represents rather than what it is – it’s just a little thing with only about 30 pages. It looks like a grubby old notebook; but with an archive it’s not what it looks like, it’s the information contained and what the words represent that is important. Archives by their very nature are unique; they are the production of an individual, group or organisation. Minute books are very much the bread and butter of archives: they record officers, membership and what happened in an organisation. In most cases they are the records that are retained, so they are the survivors.

The Peace Society’s aim was to avert the necessity for war. It stands in opposition to a lot of what we hear about the momentum for war at that time. The Peace Society argued against war and the minute book shows student discussion of the big subjects at that time – militarism, pacifism and the like. They weren’t just saying “War…No”, but “Wars are harmful socially, economically and morally”. The group was primarily run in conjunction with the Sociological and Christian Union societies and wanted an educated discussion on the merits of war. They looked at things like international courts and how economic ties could bind nations together, which is exactly what happened later in the 20th century.

If this minute book hadn’t survived there would be little record of pacifist activity in the student ranks, which is why I think it’s so important. There are a few letters in the student magazine at that time but they don’t tell you much about the society other than that there’s one in existence.

It is also interesting to look at the individuals involved in the society because ironically the secretary, William Henry Sutherland, got the military cross and then died in battle. And I also found out that he was from the same town as me (Thurso, Caithness), so now I can research him even further. Behind what just appears to be a few pages with very little writing on them there are individuals and there is a personal story behind each individual.

The 100th anniversary of the First World War is coming up and I think it’s important to teach children about the alternative histories of war. If we didn’t have an item like this there would be just one side to the story about the march to war; this gives a more rounded view of history and shows that history isn’t just one linear progression on the way to where we are now – things could’ve gone differently. There are always opposing points of views that you’ve not heard because archives don’t always survive.  History has taught us that those in power are the ones who write history and if you have no record of dissenting voices then it belies what actually happened. They are all part of the collective memory and if you erase one part the memory isn’t complete.

What is your favourite page?

My favourite page is the Society’s constitution page. [click on the image to enlarge]

There are some interesting items, for example: “To consider the means of settling international disputes without war”. These sentiments have actually come to pass and in the 20th century the United Nations and the International Criminal Court have been established.

I also like the bit where it says that the officers of the group should include “six ordinary members of whom two at least should be ladies”.

What happened to the Peace Society when the war started?

It’s sad when you read the minute book because it just stops abruptly in January 1914, so I’m assuming they’ve all been enlisted. Many students signed up to a form of University battalion (called U Company) and they were encouraged to go together as a group. U Company was attached to the Gordon Highlanders and they went to war in 1915 but they were nearly all lost in one horrific battle. So the University has quite a painful history because 341 young men lost their lives.

The student body at that time quickly swung behind the patriotic fervour of war and criticised the Peace Society for saying that war is not rational. There were actually anti-German protests in the university; a German lecturer got a brick through his window. The voices of the Peace Society were drowned out but that’s not the point, the point is that there was opposition to the war and that they tried. They have become and will continue to be an inspiration for the students of today.

The group was set up by the British Peace Society which operated for many years. Their idea was to go through the universities of Europe and educate these men who would become our future leaders. Who knows what seeds were sown as part of that? If you tried to object in the First World War it was pretty brutal. We have the tribunal files for the north east of Scotland for WWII, and having read through some of them you can see it was very different then. The world had definitely moved on and it was actually accepted that if you were a member of a pacifist group then you wouldn’t get sent to war. Compared to the First World War, that was light years ahead. Ultimately all these peace groups were successful in that government policies have changed towards people who don’t share their opinions.

To round up, can you tell us what you particularly like about your job as an archivist?

I love the past, I always have. I did history at University but I’ve collected antiques as a hobby since I was a child. My dad collects and my granddad collected, so the past for me has always been very present. The best bit of the job is finding these things that have a tangible connection to the past so my job is a continuation of my hobby I suppose.

In selecting material for the collections I have to be very impartial and professional, because if I start choosing things that I like or if I don’t choose things that I don’t like, I’m altering the collective memory. It’s quite scary. Say somebody years ago said “I don’t think the Student Peace Society is important, they didn’t achieve anything” and destroyed it, we wouldn’t know much about students protesting against the First World War.

We have strict procedures that we have to follow regarding what we take in and there’s a lot of discussion to make sure we’re not skewing the historical record. We actively collect. I pick up all the ephemera, like fliers from the cafe – they are here today, gone tomorrow. If you don’t pick them up today then nobody ever knows that they existed.

I feel quite humble in the sense that I’m just a custodian passing through. The archives are what matters, not us. They will be here for another 500 years, we’re just passing through.

Thanks Andrew, for such a fascinating insight into student life before WWI.

We hold a variety of material relating to WWI at the Special Collections Centre. To find out more about our collections and how you can access them visit the Special Collections Centre website.

You can read about the staff, students and alumni of the University of Aberdeen who fought and died in WWI by visiting the  In Memoriam website.

Posted by: Sarah and Lynsey

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