The 2022 BSSH Conference has come and gone, thankfully without a hitch. I would be remiss not to begin then by thanking Martin Polley, Heather Dichter, Matt Taylor, Neil Carter, James Panter, Sally Skea, and a small army of undergraduate, master and PhD students for creating such a wonderful conference. We began liaising with the DMU team in late 2021 and I'm still in awe of their attention to detail, consideration and drive for creating the best possible conference. As our near eighty attendees will attest, their efforts paid off and then some.
This was a special Conference for the BSSH as it marked the Society's 40th year in existence. In that time the field of sport history has transformed from a niche sub-field to one booming with topics on a variety of different endeavours. Illustrative of the Society's change were the early BSSH pamphlets collected by Dill Porter and Carol Osbourne which were on display in the Conference's lobby. Replete with illustrations of athletes like W.G. Grace, it is funny to think that the early conference were often centred on a theme or a chosen sport. I dare say we would find it very difficult to do the same nowadays. Images from the BSSH archive were shown alongside those found in the DMU special collections, which is especially fitting given DMU is now home to the budding BSSH archive.
Although many of our members will have attended the Thursday and Friday programme (not discounting the social organised by board member Katie Taylor on the Wednesday night), the BSSH also hosted a PhD/ECR workshop on Wednesday which was attended by new and returning members. First hosted last year at St. Mary’s Twickenham, the workshop offers attendees the opportunity to submit a sample of their work for (supportive!) critique by others as well as the chance to ask questions about topics such as publishing, managing workload, writing for the general public etc. Hosted by Katie Taylor, Verity Postlethwaite and Conor Heffernan, the workshop has been part of Katie’s wider efforts to be of service to our PhD/ECR community. So do check out her monthly emails, writing workshops and the Facebook group. As attendees will undoubtedly agree, the workshop is a great chance to meet others at a similar stage, receive feedback and engage in that dirty word ‘network.’
The Conference itself began on Thursday with an engaged overview on the development of British sport history by Professor Richard Holt. Beginning with some remarks on British sport history in its early inceptions, Dick moved through a variety of themes, methodological approaches and still untapped areas in the historiography. Letting people behind the curtain, when the BSSH’s 40th anniversary committee first met in late 2020 (thanks to Malcolm Maclean, Dill Porter, Lydia Furse, Pearse Reynolds and Katie Taylor), we were unanimous in our desire to see Dick give a special anniversary keynote. For anyone who wishes to see the transcript of Dick’s speech, it can be found here and I can only express my annoyance that it didn’t exist when I was doing my own PhD, as it would have saved me countless research hours when doing my literature review.
As we broke into panels, it became clear that Dick’s closing comments on the diversity of British sport history, and the society, in recent years held true. As Martin and the organizing committee will attest, the breadth of topics submitted to the Conference was truly remarkable. It encompassed everything from artisanal golf to sport and the arts. The conference programme (housed here), shows as much. While it was impossible to attend every talk, it was wonderful to see members tweeting out their support, and reactions, to individual papers. This helped make the conference accessible to those unable to attend, and also those stuck with split loyalties!
When we reconvened for the next shared conference on public history and BSSH sponsored projects, it was clear that the mid-morning panels had been a success. Again returning to Dick’s point about the breadth of topics in sport history, Derek Peaple and Gayle Rogers’ talks gave two excellent, and alternative, approaches on disseminating historians’ work. Peaple’s work with Sporting Heritage provided an excellent reminder that our work is of value to those in other parts of the educational sector and, more importantly, that there is a need for historians to think creatively about sharing their work with the general public.
To that end, Gayle Rogers’ presentation on graphic novels and historical research, proved an excellent example. Awarded a BSSH research grant in 2021, Rogers used the money to, in part, create a graphic novel about Duncan Edwards of Manchester United fame, who sadly lost his life in the Munich air disaster of 1958. Rogers’ illustrations proved both emotive and inspiring and were a talking point of the day.
As the day continued, the BSSH’s AGM was held, where I am delighted to say Andy Carter was elected to the Society’s board. Andy has just finished his PhD at Manchester Metropolitan University and will be known to Sport in History readers for his published work. Conor Heffernan was also re-elected to the board following his three year tenure while it was also announced that Jean Williams was the recipient of the BSSH Community History Prize. The minutes are available here (please note you must be signed in to access the minutes). With the administration out of the way, we convened for drinks and food, as well as prize giving. On the latter point, Heather Dichter was announced as this year’s Lord Aberdare Prize winner for her excellent work Bidding for the 1968 Olympic Games: International Sport’s Cold War Battle with NATO. We look forward to Heather’s keynote at next year’s Conference in Manchester. To steal Heather’s joke, it did not go unnoticed that Heather inadvertently organised her own celebration dinner for the Conference. Alec Hurley was announced as this year’s Richard Cox Postgraduate prize winner for his graduate essay while Katie Holmes was a worthy winner of the Sporting Inequalities prize. Noah Riseman’s article on transgender athletes was awarded the best article of the year prize for Sport in History while John Goulstone was awarded the Howard Milton Award (jointly awarded by the BSSH and the Cricket Society).
With slightly sorer, but still enthusiastic, heads, we met again on Friday morning for Ramachandra Guha’s keynote entitled The Accidental Sports Historian. Ram began with an admission that while he writes on social history to make a living, he writes on cricket to live. Continuing, Ram discussed his entry points into Indian cricket, a path which with an interest in caste and Indian society, rather than sport. Next Ram highlighted his career as a journalist and how this profession helped inform his own reading of Indian newspapers as part of his research. Speaking on the historiographical place of A Corner of a Foreign Field, he concluded by acknowledging the need for all historical works to eventually be superseded by new research. The talk re-iterated why Ram was awarded the 2021 Howard Milton Award for Cricket Scholarship.
Following Ram’s talk, we broke away again for our various panels before returning Rob Colls’ keynote speech on This Sporting Life. Awarded the Aberdare Prize in 2021, Colls’ work on sport and liberty in England has been rightly praised for its encompassing social history which dwells on the lived experiences of sport in a way often passed over in historical work. His keynote, which focused on how he came to find sources, construct chapters and link them together, was simultaneously fascinating and inspiring. For PhD/ECR members (including myself), it was refreshing to hear Colls’ admission of early frustrations and roadblocks in the archives before discovering the book’s purpose. Unintentionally, Rob, Dick and Ram’s respective speeches linked wonderfully together to highlight how great historical works are written, how the historian comes to craft their skillset and how much work has been done in British and Empire sport.
The Conference ended with a roundtable discussion by Malcolm MacLean, Lydia Furse, Paul Campbell and Raf Nicholson, chaired by Amanda Callen-Spenn on EDI in the BSSH and academia more generally. Over the past few years Adam Burns (whose tenure on the board has finished), Lydia Furse and Amanda Callen-Spenn have begun to examine what inclusivity means at the BSSH across lines of race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. Seeing the 40th anniversary as an opportunity to reflect on changes within the BSSH (which as several panellists mentioned was once the preserve of men alone) and work that still needs to be done, the roundtable raised several important issues about encouraging scholarship across all levels.
Three things, in particular, stuck out to me in the audience. First, Paul Campbell’s assertion that we all write on race in sport, but that oftentimes, it is hidden. Many sport history works are written with a focus on white sports, be it experiences of football, rugby, boxing, physical culture etc. A more honest acknowledgement of this could go some way to addressing silences in the historiography. Next was Malcolm’s question regarding what a culture of belonging represents rather than one of inclusivity – which several panellists agreed moves beyond potentially tokenistic efforts to an environment that is welcoming for all. Finally Raf and Lydia’s reflections on what diversity has meant in the BSSH and the privileges that members often take for granted (such as race, class, gender etc.). The roundtable comes at a moment when Amanda Callen-Spenn is just about to publish a wider article in Sport in History on this topic as part of a special 40th anniversary issue. The roundtable ended with the admission and assertion that more should, and will, be done in the Society.
A Special Thanks
Aware that something I promised would be 500 words initially is now 3 times that count, I want to end by extending thanks to Raf Nicholson who is stepping down as chair of the BSSH. Raf’s tenure was far from easy at times. No one would envy having to make decisions about Covid and whether to host a conference, when to switch back to in person meetings and how to deal with grant allocations in a time when travel was impossible. At a committee level, Raf’s decision making was driven by a simple ethos, ‘members first, and as many as possible.’ The creation of emergency funds for independent researchers, flexibility in how grants are allocated, and the creation of new grants speaks to this point.
Away from generational pandemics, Raf has always been open to suggestions from board members, enthusiastic about things like the PhD/ECR workshop, the creation of diversity and inclusion officers and ways of helping members in tangible ways. Returning to the Conference’s EDI roundtable, Raf’s tenure as Chair must be seen as a move towards Malcolm’s comment on belonging for all researchers in the Society. In recognition of this, Raf was gifted with a ceremonial toy of Muhammad Ali fighting Superman from the 1970s (which now sets a precedent for vintage toys in the Society).
In a wonderful moment of post-colonialism in the Society, I’ll end this post in Irish by wishing Raf go raibh míle maith agat (or may you have a thousand good things).
See you all in Manchester for 2023,
 equality, diversity and inclusion