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Interview with Catherine Hall

Written by: Anna McKie
Published on: 4 Oct 2021

Catherine Hall, chair of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery at UCL, and winner of 2021 Leverhulme Medal and Prize

Catherine Hall is emerita professor of modern British social and cultural history, and chair of the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slavery at UCL. Earlier this month the British Academy awarded her its Leverhulme Medal and Prize “for the impact her scholarship has made across modern and contemporary British history, particularly in the fields of class, gender, empire and postcolonial history”.

Where and when were you born?
Kettering, Northamptonshire, 1946. My father was a Baptist minister in Kettering at that time. He met my mother at the University of Oxford, where she was first generation studying history. We moved to Leeds when I was three.

How has that shaped you?
Leeds was a good place to grow up. It was a big northern city with a long history of radical liberalism. I remember going to concerts at the city library and the town hall, and the very powerful civic culture there was. I also grew up in a nonconformist world; my parents were both radical Labour and I had an excellent conventional grammar school education, where I had a wonderful history teacher. That was very important; it instilled in me from an early age how important teaching was and what a difference it can make.

What kind of undergraduate were you at university?
I was a miserable undergraduate. In 1963, I went to the University of Sussex, at the time almost brand new, and it wasn’t a great place for a Yorkshire lass, as it was dominated by very stylish, metropolitan types. It was also very committed to an extremely interdisciplinary syllabus, which I was really too young for. I was rather bewildered by it all. I had also met Stuart Hall, who would soon become my husband, so I was half living in London, half in Brighton, which wasn’t a good way to go to university.

How did you begin your academic career?
I moved to the University of Birmingham, which was where Stuart had just gone to establish what became the Centre for Cultural Studies with Richard Hoggart. It was an incredible shock because, after Sussex, it was the most traditional history degree you could possibly imagine. But it turned out, quite unexpectedly, that I really loved medieval history. I was also very involved in all the student politics and activism in 1968, but then I had a baby. That completely changed my life. I started getting involved in the women’s movement and became a feminist historian. I decided that it didn’t make sense to be a medieval historian when what I was really struggling with was what it meant to be a wife and mother. That led into my first big piece of work with Leonore Davidoff, Family Fortunes, in 1987.

What does it mean to you to be a feminist historian?
In the early days, it meant paying attention to questions that male historians simply hadn’t thought about at all. At the time, our generation thought we were doing something no one had ever done before, though of course there were female historians with feminist ideals in the past, who just wouldn’t have called themselves that. In many ways, it was new; there was no gender studies or job of “feminist historian”. We were really creating a subject. For me, it is looking at history from a feminist perspective, but thinking how important it is to understand the making of men and masculinity, as well as the making of women and femininity.

When did your work move towards colonialism and empire?
I was employed at the Northeast London Polytechnic [now the University of East London] as a gender historian when postcolonial questions really erupted. Obviously, I’d known about it because of being with Stuart, because of being married to a Jamaican and because of having mixed-race children, but it had never been my subject until the late 1980s, when it suddenly became very clear to me that, just as gender had been something that really needed historical work, now colonial relations needed a new kind of historical work. And most particularly, we needed to think about the implications of colonialism for Britain.

How did you go about that?
I had done so much work in Birmingham on Family Fortunes, so I wondered, if I looked at 19th-century Birmingham through the lens of race and empire, what would happen? And of course, I found there was just absolutely masses of material that I just hadn’t seen before. It was an incredible learning curve, realising how historians tend to only see what they’re interested in. Then, more directly, when we were travelling in Jamaica, as we often did, we came across this tiny village called Kettering. It opened the whole history of connection between Kettering in the UK and in Jamaica; particularly, for me, through a Baptist missionary called William Knibb, who is recognised in Jamaica as a significant person in the winning of freedom and was a member of the church in Kettering that my father had been the minister of. Once again, my own history was very much implicated.

Do you think it’s important that historians try to expand their focus?
For me, the point of doing history has been about how understanding the past might help us to improve people’s lives in the present. You can see that so clearly in relation to women’s rights or in relation to racial inequality. So, I’ve been impelled and inspired by contemporary politics to think about particular historical periods. Although I would never for a minute say that’s what every historian must do, it’s just how it’s been for me, and I’ve been incredibly fortunate in some ways to live through this period of extraordinary change in British society that has opened up those questions.

How did it feel to win the Leverhulme Medal?
It was a complete and utter surprise, and I was incredibly pleased. It feels like a kind of public recognition for a body of work that I’ve been doing for many years.

What do you do to relax?
See my family and friends, cook, walk and read. I am never without a novel; the connections between fiction and history are very close.