Part II: the end of the first phase of the Annual Lecture and its later re-inauguration
Emeritus Professor Michael E. Turner,
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull.
Tonight Professor Douglas Hamilton of Sheffield Hallam University will give our Alderman Sydney Smith Annual Lecture. If you haven’t yet signed up you can do so here where you will also find details of the lecture. Having given us the first part of his brief history of the lecture last week, Emeritus Professor Michael Turner concludes this week with a discussion of the end of its first phase, and its later re-inauguration.
Sydney Smith died in 1984 at the age of 99, but the annual lecture he founded in 1972 continued for another four years before coming at that point to an abrupt end. In October 1988 the Department of Economic and Social History was looking forward to welcoming Arthur Marwick, the flamboyant professor from the Open University, to deliver a talk, but he never came.
The 1980s saw quite considerable debate and sometimes unrest in the University sector. Many universities embarked on radical restructuring programmes in order to embrace some of the new technologies and subject areas that society would demand in the future. More traditional areas of learning came under attack as intellectual knowledge was no longer valued for its own sake. Universities embraced different ways to confront the more targeted funding provided by the conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher. More specialisation took place, for example, and the activities of so-called fringe subjects, especially languages, were discontinued. Members of staff moved to other universities where central funding for their activities was increased. The University of Hull lost Classics, Scandinavian Studies, Dutch Studies, and Russian, and in the sciences the Physics Department was lost. Some of these activities did return, but with much reduced activity. It was the attack on Philosophy which led to the redundancy of a specific lecturer, but it also served to ignite the fuse of revolt. Redundancy was not a word easily applied to the University sector and Hull became the first or at least the most prominent University to declare a redundancy. In consequence the AUT, the national Association of University Teachers, rallied to Hull’s cause and a boycott of all activity at Hull was declared. The impact was considerable. The University found it very difficult to recruit external examiners not only for undergraduate degrees but also to examine research theses. Colleagues were no longer invited to speak at external events, and external speakers cancelled their visits to Hull. Most significantly for our story here, Arthur Marwick cancelled his invitation to give the Annual Sydney Smith Lecture.
For whatever reason, the lecture was not reinstated once order had been restored, though the income from its investments grew nicely during the years of double-digit interest rates. In 2001 the Department of Economic and Social History was amalgamated with History. From 2004, however, the Wilberforce Institute began to take shape, under the three ‘WISE’ men who founded it, David Richardson, Michael (Mike) Turner and Gary Craig; it opened its doors late in 2006. Mike and David had both worked in the old Department of Economic and Social History, and so in 2009 they negotiated with the University to release the Alderman Sydney Smith endowment specifically to the Wilberforce Institute in order to re-inaugurate the lecture. It was a perfect match, a lecture in social and labour history but specifically devoted to slavery and all its exploitative labour connotations. To make this rebirth something to be remembered, the distinguished American historian, Professor Seymour Drescher, was invited from Pittsburgh in 2010. His credentials included books on slavery, antislavery, abolition and most controversially his Econocide: British Slavery in the Era of Abolition (1977).
Later speakers included Professors Marcus Wood in 2011, Philip D. Morgan in 2012, Catherine Hall in 2013 and Verene A. Shepherd in 2014. In 2018, we welcomed Professor Jean Allain, a scholar of international law who helped draft the Bellagio Harvard Guidelines on the Legal Parameters of Slavery. Two of our former Directors have also given lectures – Professors David Richardson in 2016, and John Oldfield in 2020.
Over the years, the lecture has moved between the University Campus and the Wilberforce Institute. Last year Covid-19 forced John Oldfield to deliver his lecture using a virtual format, but this year we are planning once again to hold the Alderman Sydney Smith Annual Lecture in the Institute, with live-streaming of Professor Hamilton’s talk for those who cannot make it. We would be delighted to welcome you in person or inline.
Reproduced by kind permission of Hull History Centre