Writing Home: Nineteenth-Century Sailors’ Personal Logbooks

This blog post is written by Emily Cuming.

Emily Cuming is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Liverpool John Moores University, United Kingdom.

On the move

The imperative to “stay home” at a time of crisis is more problematic than it appears. Indeed, among the many things that the global pandemic exposed was how the ability to pivot to a home-centred life, including working from home, was linked to questions of class privilege (Weinar 2021). Beyond recent history, home for many workers, migrants and refugees, has had to be negotiated in transit, on the move, in conditions of flux, precarity and through a variety of practices (Ralph and Staeheli 2011).

My paper presented at the Stay Home conference focused on historical subjects whose working lives were defined precisely by a departure from home – British sailors of the “ordinary” rank who formed part of a floating global proletariat, servicing merchant ships on international journeys that could stretch from a matter of weeks to several years[i]. Many of the individuals who formed the merchant navy workforce signed on to ships not, as the popular phrase had it, to “see the world,” nor to join the ranks of those engaged in the Victorian “flight from domesticity,” but to earn a living wage that was often critical to the support of a family and homestead on shore[ii]. In the predominantly all-male space of the merchant ship, workers had to adapt to the “separate sphere” of their floating work-homes. There sailors worked, slept, fraternized (and sometimes fought) within the confines of the ship, in which principles of collectivity were key and privacy at a premium.

“Our Berth.” National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. JOD/64. Sketch from Account of a Voyage to China and New York in the Tamesa, by Robert Brown, 1874-1875.

The importance of home for sailors was not necessarily diminished by their departure from it (Cuming 2019). On voyages, sailors maintained their shore-based attachments through a variety of practices, including letter writing and craftwork (Wassell Smith 2018). Some devoted private leisure time to personal journals, logbooks and handwritten notebooks, a number of which have been conserved in museum archives or among family papers[iii]. While existing studies of this writing have tended to view them as providing useful evidence of shipboard work and the broader culture of the ship (Blum 2008; Cummings and Publicover 2021), my work demonstrates that these documents also have the potential to point to aspects of self-identity, kinship and emotional lives. This interpretation has sometimes necessitated reading against the grain of work-focused entries, to trace the personal within the writing.

At home on the waves

While sea-journals are often preoccupied with the rote details of shipboard life – nautical coordinates, weather, and work – like diaries, they can also offer glimpses of sailors’ personal lives. One seafaring carpenter, John Dand, for example, was thinking of his young daughter as he set sail from Swansea to Caldera in Chile on the barque Sir Henry Pottinger on March 18th 1858, noting on the first page of his “Private Journal” that it was his “dear little daughters birthday at 11 O clock this morning”. As Easter Sunday came round, he used the occasion to reflect on domestic pleasures: “My third Sunday on the sea. I am thinking of England and the happy youngsters with their new clothes, and wondering if my dear little daughter has got a new frock, I think its fond mother would get it one, at least its father would if he had been at home.” Adopting the generic trope of one type of diarist, his entries shifted to the second person voice as he directed his comments to his family as if writing an unsent letter: “Capt B[arnes] and I have had a long chat about home and friends,” he wrote in one entry, adding “we are wondering what you are all doing, and thinking about, no doubt you are all in your beds and most likely asleep as by you it will only want a few minutes till midnight.”[iv]

Some journals reveal the extent to which sailors suffered from that other well-known affliction at sea: homesickness. This formed the dominant note of the pages of 22-year-old George Mansfield’s sea journal, another ship’s carpenter who had worked at the profession since the age of fourteen. On a Sunday at sea, the day of relative rest even for sailors, he reflected: “Today can not help thinking about home & its comforts & fancying myself seated round a comfortable fireside of a winters Sunday afternoon. Far different here cold & wet & deprived of almost every comfort. Still the thought of Home & the Hope of meeting again, cheers us up a little.”[v] Neil Smith, a general sailor on board the Finisterre barque sailing from Cardiff to Java in 1876-1877, was also afflicted by the miseries of homesickness, as noted in the diary from the very moment the ship left port. While doggedly jotting details of the many jobs he performed around the ship, in a phonetic style that revealed his inexperience at writing, he seamlessly blended mundane tasks with intimations of family and home in Greenock: “I have finished the Lader. I am fixing [little jobs] about the deck. I wonder how my darling Jane is getting on and hir wee Boys. … The snow will begun to fal there now. They will not be much out now. The cold will keep them in the house. May God Bless and Keep them and take me safe back to them agane.​”[vi] Like Dand and Mansfield, he imagined home through visions of family togetherness and the perennial image of the Victorian hearth. Loneliness is a bodily emotion, experienced corporeally, and captured in writing through images of heat and comfort, as noted in Joanne Begiato’s blog for this series. In this way, sailors’ diaries evoked home-spun images of terrestrial routines and sentimental tropes of home. Of course, such figurations have to be evaluated in the context of the writers’ nostalgia and necessary detachment from mundane familial routines: absence from home may well have made the hearts of seafaring men fonder.

Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still. Boston, 1870. Lithographed sheet music. Photo credit: Courtesy the Lester Levy Sheet Music Collection, Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University.

The sea diary as property

Sea journals, or personal logbooks, could offer a multifunctional form for working sailors – a document into which they poured details of passing days, work performed, and a repository for thoughts of family, home and kinship stretching across oceans. Superficially, this writing can appear to be fairly generic and rote; the writers were mostly unprofessional or “amateur,” and a few may have been keeping journals for the first time. Yet it is important to recognize that this writing – ordinary as it might appear – was an intentional act within the context of shipboard life.  Given that physical space, including sleeping quarters, was shared, private writing would have necessitated at least temporary removal from the rest of the group. Notebooks would need to have been bought and packed in advance in order to form part of a sailor’s necessarily slim cache of possessions, and they required careful preservation in conditions of perpetual wetness. The paratextual elements of sea journals – details marking the front and back covers, including marginalia, inscriptions and doodles and signatures – reveal their significance as forms of personal property. Some flyleaves display not only the sailor’s name, but their dedication to family members, suggesting their intended readership and the role of the notebook as a potential souvenir to be returned home after the voyage. Sometimes diarists wrote out their home addresses on the front pages, confirming the diary’s status as personal property while also signaling how the journal logged space as well as time.

Maritime Museum, National Museums Liverpool. DX/871, Voyage Diary by J. William Archer, Crew on Board Ship Lizzie Bell, 1883.

As with the writings of the inmates of other non-domicile environments, such as institutions or workplaces, ordinary journals served a wider function than that indicated by their surface content. For as the historian Amanda Vickery suggests, throughout history, material objects of the most mundane or plain kind have enabled the poor and those enduring forms of deprivation to keep hold of a sense of self through possessions – from clothes, to locking boxes, mementoes, and small ornaments: ‘Access to a small place of privacy held out a promise of some autonomy and independence” (2010: 27). Viewed in this way, the diaries fulfilled not only a practical but also a symbolic function as private property.

Photo credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Four Sailors Relaxing on a Deck, One Reading. Drawing. 1820: https://www.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/rmgc-object-154255

This is not to imply, however, that diaries were a place into which sailors disclosed “private” or confessional thoughts. Indeed, life writing scholarship has shown that the idea of the diary as a receptacle for innermost feelings is anachronistic in relation to this period (Henderson 2018:165). Like diaries, logbooks might be written in full view of others, read by other individuals, and written with an intended readership in mind. Indeed, as Maya Jasanoff puts it, on a ship the sailor was in the paradoxical position of being “never alone… always isolated” (2017: 91).  Yet this does not diminish the significance of the personal logbook as a Victorian article of self or “ego document.” As an artefact and practice, the journal fulfilled an important role for these Victorian mobile workers. It was a “place” to return to at the end of a day or week, on the ocean, when there was nowhere else to go.  As a piece of private property, it also situated the writer as a social self, entangled in family and kinship relations that extended beyond the immediate society of the ship.

How do logbooks end?

In his well-known essay, the life writing theorist Philippe Lejeune reflected on the question: “How do diaries end?” (2001). We cannot know for sure how logbooks ended, whether, for example, sailor-authors morphed into more standard diary writers on their return from voyages. Nor can we know for sure how they were received by the loved ones they evoked in journals on their way home – celebrated as returning breadwinners, or received more indifferently by children who viewed them as strangers. In some cases, logbooks survived their authors, returning as personal property in the event of the writer’s death at sea. Yet a closer look at the journals as material cultural objects can offer clues about the return of the sailor-diary. In some cases, the inscription of family names, including dates of birth and death at the front of journals, suggests that they wound their way home to take up a place as family books: read, perhaps, by the sailor’s children, preserved and passed on as heirlooms. In this way, the personal logbook completed its journey into its new role as a form of family book.


[i] This research was supported by a Short-Term Caird Research Fellowship at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, UK, and by the Research Institute for Literature and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University, UK. The blog is based on work from my forthcoming monograph, Maritime Relations: Sailors, Family and Writing Networks, c. 1850-1914.

[ii] On the “flight from domesticity,” see Tosh 2005: 330–42.

[iii] In archive catalogues, the terms range from “diary” to “journal” to “logbook,” with other variations in between. Using research methodologies drawn primarily from the field of life studies, my work suggests that sailors’ personal logbooks were hybrid forms, lying at the intersection of a number of other genres to create new documents of the Victorian self.

[iv] National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. JOD/278/1-2. Log and Journal Kept by John Dand, Carpenter on the Barque Sir Henry Pottinger, 1858.

[v] National Maritime Museum, London, Greenwich. MXX/75/007. A Transcription of the Journal of George William Mansfield on his Voyage from Liverpool to San Francisco and Back on the Lady Heathcote in 1868-69.

[vi] National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. MSS/84/052. Transcript of the Diary of Neil Smith, Carpenter on the Barque Cape Finisterre, 1876 to 1877.


Begiato, Joanne. “Close to Home. The Emotional Spaces of the Home in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Britain.” https://stayhome.hypotheses.org/404 (Accessed 26 June 2023).

Blum, Hester. The View from the Masthead: Maritime Imagination and Antebellum American Sea Narratives. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Cuming, Emily. “At Home in the World? The Ornamental Life of Sailors in Victorian Sailortown,” Victorian Literature and Culture. 47, no. 3 (2019): 463–85. doi:10.1017/S1060150318001523.

Cumings, Eli, and Laurence Publicover. “Shipboard Diaries as Navigational Instruments.” In Shipboard Literary Cultures: Reading, Writing, and Performing at Sea, edited by Susann Liebich and Laurence Publicover, 107-29. Basingstoke: 2021.

Henderson, Desirée. “Reading Digitized Diaries: Privacy and the Digital Life-Writing Archive.” A/b: Auto/Biography Studies 33, no. 1 (2018): 157-74. doi: 10.1080/08989575.2018.1389845.

Jasanoff, Maya. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. London, 2017.

Lejeune, Philippe. “How do Diaries End?” Biography 24, no. 1 (2001): 99- 112.

Moran, Joe. “Private Lives, Public Histories: The Diary in Twentieth-Century Britain.” Journal of British Studies. 54, no. 1 (2015): 138-62. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24701728.

Ralph, David, and Lynn A. Staeheli. “Home and Migration: Mobilities, Belongings and Identities.” Geography Compass 5 (2011): 517-530. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-8198.2011.00434.x

Tosh, John, “Masculinities in an Industrializing Society: Britain, 1800–1914.” The Journal of British Studies 44, no. 2 (2005): 330–42. doi:10.1086/427129.

Vickery, Amanda. Behind Closed Doors: At Home in Georgian England. New Haven. 2010.

Wassell Smith, Maya, “‘The Fancy Work What Sailors Make:’ Material and Emotional Creative Practice in Masculine Seafaring Communities.” Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 14, no. 2 (2018): https://www.ncgsjournal.com/issue142/smith.html (Accessed 5 January 2023)

Weinar, Agnieszka. “The Privilege of Staying Home: COVID and the Highly Skilled Workforce.”  OpenDemocracy, 21 December 2021: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/pandemic-border/the-privilege-of-staying-home-covid-and-the-highly-skilled-workforce/ (Accessed 9th June 2023)

Close to Home. The emotional Spaces of the Home in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain

This blog post is written by Joanne Begiato.

Joanne Begiato is Associate Dean and Professor at the School of History at Oxford Brookes University, United Kingdom.

We have invited selected scholars, who presented at our conference STAY HOME: New Perspectives on the Home in November 2022 to publish on our blog in 2023. This blog post is based on the keynote lecture by the author.

Drawing of a room with things and furniture scattered all over the floor. A woman sitting on a chair with the back to a man standing behind her.
John Leech, ‘Affectionate Husband’. Punch, 11 Nov 1848, p. 204.

Close to Home. The emotional Spaces of the Home in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain

The crisis of lockdown in 2020/2021 changed our real and imagined relationships with home. As a historian of the home, I am struck by the ways in which crises also shaped ideas and experiences of home in the past. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain, for example, war and rapid social and economic change, and the dislocation they caused, placed the home at the heart of personal and cultural reflection.

It is the emotional associations of the home that especially interest me. In the centuries I study, homes were freighted with feelings. They were often used as sentimental prompts to elicit emotional responses that bound people to family, locality, region, or nation, or to generate gendered notions of duty, patriotism, and sacrifice in the service of the state. People from all social groups also used the home and the emotions it produced to make meaning of their life trajectories and construct a sense of self and a public persona. Furthermore, as sites of emotional expression, love, desire, anger, fear, despair, and hope, homes were agentic emotionalised spaces that shaped and influenced behaviour, activities, and actions. This blog post focuses on just a few of these themes through men’s relationship with the home and through the themes of distant homes, men’s absence from the home, and men’s presence within the home.

Distant Homes

People often used spatial and temporal distance from home, and the emotions that this stirred, to assess their sense of self, understand their feelings, and construct selfhood and personal identities. My work (2023) on the emotions cluster of loneliness, itself a by-product of modernity, offers evidence of this. The writings of two young Scotsmen who left home to embark on their careers show that both the sense of a ‘distant’ home and encountering distance within other people’s homes contributed to loneliness and its physical and mental problems. At around the age of twenty-two, though separated by two decades, Henry Robert Oswald Senior (1790–1862) and John Dunlop (1823–1867), each spent several months writing a journal as they embarked on the early stages of their careers. Oswald wrote between 1812–13, describing his first six months as Government Surgeon to John Murray (1755–1830), 4th duke of Atholl, Governor General of the Isle of Man, and Dunlop recorded his experiences from 21 October 1845 to 8 August 1846, first as a medical student in Paris and then on his voyage to India after he secured the post of Assistant Surgeon to the 32nd (Cornwall) Regiment of Foot.

At the end of 1845, John Dunlop recorded that he was leaving Paris, where he was a medical student, and would be ‘gazetted to an assistant Surgery in her Majesty’s service’.  While he ‘rejoiced’ about this, he was uneasy about its implications:

“I was also not ignorant that this summons to London would sever that delightful tie of domestic life, which I had so long enjoyed, that it would launch me forth into the world, and into the uncertain and adventurous life of a military surgeon, where separated from home and all its endearing connections I would require to form a home within my own circle, and in the narrow confines of a small quarter in a barrack, where I must live, all independent and isolated amidst the vicissitudes of a foreign climate and perhaps a foreign war.”

Dunlop understood his professional future to be ‘uncertain’, a state that causes anxiety and was compounded by his separation from domestic family life. He deployed happy, loving domesticity to envisage his potential loneliness, a pervasive cultural motif, which John Tosh has shown, shaped many middle-class men’s sense of self.

It was the emotional and physical distance that Henry Oswald encountered when obliged to board at his patrons’ homes, which led to his feelings of social isolation, physical and mental discomfort, and alienation. When living in their homes, he assessed them according to the patrons’ kindness but also through the provision of food and space. As scholars of loneliness have observed, loneliness is felt in the body and, thus, metaphors of heat are often invoked to capture or convey its impact. Home was crucial in these metaphors too. Oswald associated coldness with indifference, the opposite of the warmth of domestic comforts. Thus the family of his master George Bell showed him a cold heart in 1810, while the Farmer family were ‘coldly polite’ in March 1813, which left him feeling ‘indifferent or rather displeased’. After some months, Oswald took up his own lodgings and was reunited with his trunk that had gone missing on his journey to the Isle of Man. He discussed this good fortune through the tropes of home comfort, signalling the waning of his acute feelings of loneliness:

27th January spent the day as usual, walking & got my trunk, which has been long waiting, safely, the packet containing books – & dined at Home on beef steaks & ale & spent the eve in reading & noting & arranging accounts & expenditures with much comfort & satisfaction.”

Being reunited with his possessions soothed Oswald, acting as ‘emotional objects’ to convey the sense of home and comfort that he had hitherto lacked (Begiato 2018a).

Like many other people in a similar situation, Dunlop found solace in nostalgia, both for his family home and its inhabitants. He consoled himself on his long voyage by recognising that after an absence he could ‘return and enjoy the society of my dear parents, and as a melancholy solace, shall look back as on a pleasant dream, on the happy days of childhood, and a youth spent under the tender care of an affectionate mother and the careful guidance of a kind Father’. Indeed, nostalgia was a tool that was often used to manage the spatial, but also the temporal, distance from home, a way to navigate modernity’s temporal disruption and spatial dislocation. In its early, medicalised form, the condition was a response to spatial displacement and was thus diagnosed in soldiers and migrants who were unable to access their homes. The second type of nostalgia was temporal, where the sense of disruption was due to time passing and the yearning directed to a past lost in time.

Remembering a happy childhood home was fundamental in this latter version of nostalgia, and for memoirists writing in old age or at the end of their lives, the material, emotional, and sensory memories of the happy childhood home were central to constructions of the self and to articulating national and personal identities in the face of accelerating migration and mobility. For the generations writing in the first decades of the nineteenth century, it was the natal or childhood home and its natural environs that was most evocative and reassuring (Begiato 2019).

Thomas Bewick (1753-1823) offers one example. The son of a tenant farmer and collier in Northumberland, this celebrated naturalist and engraver, whose works were widely read by children and adults, began his memoir in 1822. He lovingly evoked his parental home at Cherryburn, Mickley, in the South Tyne Valley: “Cherryburn House the place of my nativity, and which for many years my eyes beheld with cherished delight”. When he left home, and until his parents died when he was in his early thirties, he walked every week from his workshop to visit them. As a nationally successful engraver, his happy natal home was part of his regional, Northumbrian ‘natural’ sense of self, which was constructed as a rejection of a metropolitan identity.

These writers used the term ‘happy’ home, projecting onto it their anxieties and taking solace in it when separated by space and time. But what did society consider made a home happy or unhappy? Unsurprisingly, women’s actions were deemed enormously significant through their upkeep of the home, and they were held responsible for their husbands’ encounters with it and subsequent behaviour in it. But it was frequently men who were seen as the primary catalyst for the home’s emotional register, forging ‘happy’ homes not only through their economic provision and frugality, but also through kindness and displays of love and affection.

Absent from Home

For all their cultural centrality to the happy home, representations often imagined men as physically absent from it, working and providing for it, or defending it and fighting for it (Begiato 2015; Brown and Begiato 2019). As such, it was often their absence that society and culture imagined, depicting them leaving and returning home, dreaming and yearning for it, forever on the peripheries of the happy home. Labouring men and military men were most often depicted leaving home, the former standing on their cottage doorstep, the latter the subject of countless Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Farewells. In most of these, happy homes were only glimpsed, functioning as spaces of emotion and sentiment. This sentimental trope of the home and its absent master was especially valorised during periods of war, a response to unsettled times and crisis. When the idealised military man left his home and family to serve the nation, his sentimental manly form stirred patriotism through his self-sacrifice (Begiato 2020).

Absent men were also expected to yearn and long for home, to be psychologically and emotionally inseparable from it. This is seen in the cultural figure of the homesick soldier, where nostalgia was at first a medical condition and then by the mid nineteenth century an expression of patriotic manly self-sacrifice. Such men were intended to retain, moreover, what we can call an ‘absent presence’ in their home. Visual and material culture entreated men’s loved ones to ‘forget me not’ and ‘remember me’. These pleas were often printed on decorative objects in the home. One common verse on vessels variously dated from the 1830s through to the 1860s, was taken from Bernard Barton’s (1784–1849) poem ‘The Heart’s Motto: “Forget Me Not”’ (1820s).

Men’s Presence in the Home

While men were often envisaged away from home, depictions of their presence within the home were ambivalent. For all that working-class men were urged, as the British Workman declared in 1861 ‘to make “home” the happiest spot on earth’, their presence within the home was often characterised as disruptive, even violent. Indeed, ‘Unhappy Home’ was a typical title for reports of marital violence. Like the happy home, it was imagined through the material culture of the home, with pictures and cartoons from the mid-nineteenth century showing the violent husband as a large figure dominating the domestic environment, destroying its comfort, shattering ornaments, and turning over furniture. Men’s presence in the home in these accounts represented a threat, especially in those with a moral message about alcohol consumption, where the drunk husband was the most disruptive force (Begiato 2018b, 2006).

This is because the spaces of home, whatever the scale of that dwelling, were imbued with and directed by patriarchy, which structured both household forms and relationships. Homes could become sites of tension that encouraged spouses, particularly husbands, to assert physical and metaphorical dominance. As geographers have shown us, the space of the home was transformed by domestic violence and by the presence of the abuser, from a haven to a place of terror. Indeed, the home itself – when a man was present – acted as an agentic force, since its spaces and objects shaped marital violence as an act and an idea. This is seen acutely in the ways in which men were able to eject wives from homes and attack and confine them in specific rooms, as well as through the spaces of refuge which wives sought out.

Beds and stairs featured regularly in court cases as spaces in which abusive husbands attacked their wives. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the bed was not a private space in any social class, due to its centrality to several life cycle functions related to childbed, sickbed, and deathbed. The convergence within the bed of various activities, emotions, and symbolic meanings could be toxic. Indeed, the bed was a space over which spouses sought to exert marital control. The descriptions of Joseph Bentley’s violence reveal that it was often enacted around or upon the bed. On 6 April 1844, Mary Bentley and her cousin gave up waiting for Mary’s husband, Joseph, to return home, and each retired to her bed. When the drunken Joseph came to Mary’s bedside in the early hours, swearing and insisting she rose, she fled to her cousin’s bed. Joseph followed, threatening to pull her out of bed and tear-off the hangings if she did not get up and then punched her with ‘clenched or doubled fist’. On another occasion in the presence of a servant, he slapped Mary in the face and dragged her from the bed by the feet. Joseph Bentley used extreme violence not only to subordinate his wife, but to reassert his power over the home and its servants, which he perceived Mary to threaten.

Court cases also show that men of all social ranks attacked wives on stairs, throwing them down, dragging them up, or pursuing them as they tried to escape. Violence spilled over into these spaces of the home, transforming them into a place of fear, because they were points of communication between rooms, and, in multi-resident buildings, they were points of egress. Thus, stairs spatially symbolised wives’ potential for independence from their husbands and seem to have been sites that especially antagonised controlling men. Such men were exerting their dominance not only physically, but metaphorically too: the stairs were shaping their thoughts and actions.

The home’s contents took on similar power and court cases frequently detail men’s destruction of an array of domestic objects in the home. One example will suffice. In 1842, Margaret Doolen took Sarah Williamson to the doctor after Sarah’s husband, Robert, hit her with a poker. On Sarah’s departure, neighbours ‘overheard a noise like the breaking of crockery’ from the Williamsons’ room along with Robert declaring: “I will let them see who is master in this house”. Robert used domestic objects to commit his violence, but they were not simply an extension of Sarah’s body, or a substitute upon which Robert took out his anger; they were also the target of his violence and way he asserted his dominance. Like the spaces of the home, objects marked out individuals, relationships, and emotions and thus provoked actions as well as thoughts. As symbols they also helped construct discourses about class, violence, and gender. As things they catalysed violent men’s emotions and acts.

As we realised during Covid lockdowns, homes are profoundly defined by emotions, as well as through our willing, or enforced, presence in, or absence and distance from them. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century homes were also conceived of and experienced through emotions and spaces. Just as now, unfortunately, this was structurally unequal, determined by wealth, social class, gender, and ethnicity. History and recent experience converge, it seems to me, to show that the home is the most significant physical and conceptual phenomenon shaping human behaviour.


Begiato (Bailey), Joanne. 2006. “’I dye [sic] by Inches’: locating wife beating in the concept of a privatization of marriage and violence in eighteenth-century England.” Social History 31 (3): 273-294. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03071020600763615?queryID=%24%7BresultBean.queryID%7D

Begiato, Joanne. 2015. “Tears and the Manly Sailor in England c. 1760-1860.” Journal for Maritime Research 17 (2): 117-133. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/21533369.2015.1094981

Begiato, Joanne. 2018a. “Afterword. Moving Objects: Emotional Transformation, Tangibility, and Time-Travel.” In Feeling Things, edited by Stephanie Downes, Sally Holloway, Sally Randles, 229-242. Oxford: Oxford University Press. https://academic.oup.com/book/6801/chapter-abstract/150957684?redirectedFrom=fulltext

Begiato, Joanne. 2018b. “Beyond the rule of thumb: the materiality of marital violence in England, c.1700-1857.” Cultural and Social History 15 (1): 39-59. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14780038.2018.1427353

Begiato, Joanne. 2019. “Selfhood and ‘Nostalgia’: Sensory and Material Memories of the Childhood Home in Late Georgian Britain.” Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 42 (2): 229-246. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1754-0208.12617

Begiato, Joanne. 2020. Manliness in Britain 1760-1900: Bodies, Emotions and Material Culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press. https://manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/9781526128577/

Begiato, Joanne. 2023. “’Small uneasinesses & petty fears’: Life-cycle, Masculinity and Loneliness.” In The Routledge History of Loneliness, edited by Katie Barclay, Elaine Chalus, and Deborah Simonton, 359-373. London: Routledge. https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/edit/10.4324/9780429331848-28/small-uneasinesses-petty-fears-joanne-begiato

Brown, Michael and Begiato, Joanne. 2019. “Visualising the aged veteran in nineteenth-century Britain: Memory, masculinity and nation.” In Martial Masculinities: Experiencing and Imagining the Military in the Long Nineteenth Century, edited by Michael Brown, Anna-Maria Barry, and Joanne Begiato, 102-138. Manchester: Manchester University Press. https://www.manchesterhive.com/view/9781526135636/9781526135636.00012.xml

Unravelling Silence and Noise in the Archives

Several complex but crucial questions in our interdisciplinary conversations on the archive have continued to resurface as matters worthy of reflection. What is an archive? How do we create them? And how can we mine our archives for individual and collective experiences of the home during the Corona pandemic in accordance with the scholarly requirements of our individual research fields? Since we at STAY HOME are researching materials as varied as architectural models, interviews, and historical documents, as well as working from different theories and methods, we often face dissimilar challenges and possibilities across disciplines. We have, however, also discovered aspects of our archival work which give rise to interdisciplinary conversations.

In this blog post, I will reflect on a series of readings and discussions on the archive carried out in the STAY HOME research group which helped elucidate shared thoughts and concerns. More specifically, I will focus on the varying ways in which silences are embedded in the archives and how these silences are created, negotiated and interpreted through the researcher’s interactions with archives.

Silence, Absence, and Fragments

Archives play a vital role in determining which pasts to preserve for posterity. Over the centuries, shifting archival paradigms have shaped different frameworks regarding the aims and processes of archiving as well as for establishing and maintaining archives (Cook 2013, 97, 196).

The undeniable significance of archives for collective memory and identity formation has led several scholars to critically examine who has established archives, when, to what purpose and to which effect. Consequently, many scholars have argued that archives are inextricably linked to power. Amongst others, Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook have argued that “archives are established by the powerful to protect or enhance their position in society. Through archives, the past is controlled.” (Schwartz & Cook 2002, 1). They point out how certain pasts are privileged and others marginalized, and through this process, how archives are permeated by silences and absences. This also makes archives an active site for the negotiation of social power (Schwartz & Cook 2002, 1). As Michel Trouillot pointed out in Silencing the Past (1995) we must keep in mind “the many ways in which the production of historical narratives involves the uneven contribution of competing groups and individuals who have unequal access to the means for such production” (xix). In other words, the processes through which some aspects of the past (and the present) are made invisible is connected to power, and it is vital to critically assess these power dynamics.

Rather than approaching silences as being destructive of the archives, some scholars have argued that researchers should seek to probe the many meanings hidden in and communicated through silences. Writing on oral history interviews, Alexander Freund emphasizes how silences are ambiguous and open to a multitude of interpretations:

Silences may express individual or collective forgetting, collaborative remembering, discomfort, reluctance, (self-)censorship, noncompliance, confrontation, reticence, politeness, fear, anger, deceit, taboos, contemplation, concern for the other, reflection, conformity, or that which need not be told. Some silences are explicit or obvious, others are not.

Freund 2013, 223

The STAY HOME group discussed whose experiences of the home our individual research projects are able to uncover and highlight. In combination, our four different projects give different perspectives on collective and individual experiences during the Corona pandemic, but we will, however, never be able to capture everyone’s experience. We will inevitably still have blind spots as a consequence of our archives and focus.

The Researcher’s Cut

Archival research is enmeshed in a multitude of knowledge practices. Archives are not only fragmented, but as the feminist scholar Maria Tamboukou suggests, archival research is thoroughly fragmented too. In the article “Archival Research: Unravelling Space/Time/Matter Entanglements and Fragments” (2014), she describes how archival work is both shaped by the archives themselves, the theories, notions, and demarcations the researcher is working from, as well as the space and time in which the research takes place.

While working in the archive, researchers always create an archive of their own, Tamboukou states. It is through what she terms “the researcher’s cut” that “archival fragments, theoretical insights, spatio-temporal experiences and material conditions and limitations” are gathered into a unity (631). In other words, the researcher’s questions, interpretations, theoretical insights and (de)selections exist as an interaction between spatial, temporal and material relations alongside similar selective forces within the archive itself (617). The researcher’s cut is therefore “never the consequence of a linear and closed causality of the research hypothesis, questions and theoretical insights that [the researcher] initially brought in the archive” (628).

According to Tamboukou, when we gather and create an archive we always do so from our own perspective. At STAY HOME, we have discussed how the fact that we ourselves have lived through and experienced the Corona pandemic will undeniably influence how we read and what we interpret from our archives. In some cases, it can even be difficult to separate our own experiences, what we have heard from relatives and other relations, and what we have read in our archives from one another. Our own personal experiences will inevitably become part of our archives.

Concluding remarks

Our communal delving into the notion of the archive incited a variety of mutual reflections. Firstly, on the extraordinary limitations and conditions placed on collecting and establishing archives during the Corona pandemic, and its effects on which and whose experiences have been collected. Secondly, on the necessity of considering and listening for silences in our archives and the meanings hidden within them. Thirdly, on the demand for awareness of what has not found a place in our archive or in our researcher’s cut, and on the inevitable partiality of our archives and of our findings. And finally, and most importantly, on permitting these reflections to resurface and to persist.


Cook, Terry. “Evidence, Memory, Identity, and Community: Four Shifting Archival Paradigms.” Archival Science 13, no. 2 (2013): 95-120.

Freund, Alexander. “Toward an Ethics of Silence? Negotiating Off-the-Record Events and Identity in Oral History.” In Oral History Off the Record: Toward an Ethnography of Practice, ed. A. Sheftel and S. Zembrzycki (New York: Palgrave Macmillan US, 2013), 223-238.

Schwartz, Joan M. and Terry Cook. “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory.” Archival Science 2 (2002): 1-19.

Tamboukou, Maria. “Archival Research: Unravelling Space/Time/Matter Entanglements and Fragments.” Qualitative Research 14, no. 5 (2014): 617-633.

Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1995.

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