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Current Research

Dr Andy Croll

To what extent were Victorian slums the home of ‘outcast’ groups? How should historians make sense of the notorious rookeries and ‘little hells’ that flourished in the great towns and cities? Were they really ‘no go’ zones, spaces beyond the pale? Or should we seem them, and their inhabitants, as playing a more integrated role in the social and economic lives of the urban settlements that spawned them?

Dr Andy Croll

How successful was the so called Crusade against Out-Relief? What role did the workhouse play in the lives of the late Victorian poor? What light do poor law statistics shed on the nature of the pauper host? What agency did the poor have? How useful is it to think in terms of welfare regions in the later Victorian period? This project considers these and related questions

Dr Ruth Atherton

This article stems from a workshop held at the Institut d’histoire de la Réformation in Geneva in 2020. The workshop was interested in exploring how the Reformation, in particular the Calvinist faith, experienced and described their bodies and souls. It questioned whether there was a specific Reformed culture of the body and, if so, how did it affect daily life. Was it based on specific theological tenets, and did it present a confessional dimension? The aim of the workshop was to re-evaluate Reformed attitudes to corporeality and the study of its “bodily” effects. 


Drawing on Dr Atherton's previous work on death and dying, her forthcoming article explores how Protestant clergy sought to comfort and instruct the living on how to prepare their bodies for their hoped-for spiritual elevation to heaven after death; it considers the relationship of the body to the soul and their respective states in the period after death but before the Last Judgement; and it examines what reformers taught about the nature of the soul after death. Based on an analysis of Protestant consolatory literature from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this article employs a cross-confessional approach to consider how Protestant clergy comforted and instructed the living through a targeted appeal to the emotions and reason. 


Professor Chris Evans is engaged in a study of light and industrial change in Britain in the period 1650-1800. His intention is to shift attention away from post-1800 technologies like coal gas and towards a more panoramic view of light in early British industrialisation that emphasises the exploitation of frontier spaces, be they Arctic waters for whale oil or the Russian steppes for tallow. He suggests that technological innovation has been over-emphasised in accounts of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. The ability of Britons to seize control of distant energy reserves warrants more attention.  

Dr Rachel Lock-Lewis

Under-researched, often misunderstood and sometimes even maligned, the Women’s Liberation Movement that was brought to life in south Wales in the early 1970s changed individuals’ lives, altered public attitudes, reshaped the priorities and policies of local authorities and government, and launched a generation of women into public life.  

Groups such as Cardiff Women’s Action Group, Wales Women’s Rights Committee and Swansea Women’s Liberation Group took up the cudgels over myriad issues facing women, and the results of their efforts are very much in evidence today.      

In many ways, the preoccupations and priorities of the groups in south Wales reflected that of the wider Women’s Liberation Movement in Britain though the discernibly Welsh context in which they operated set them on a distinctive course.  As well as more overtly ‘feminist’ campaigns, they took action over issues they saw as threats to the very essence of Wales, whether from nuclear weapons and waste, threats to the Welsh language, or the closure of coalmines.  It was in 1999 when the movement really ‘came of age’ with the creation of the National Assembly for Wales which has consistently maintained notably high numbers of female AMs and cabinet ministers, especially when compared with the Westminster government.  This research, being undertaken by USW historian Rachel Lock Lewis, uncovers the story of feminism in south Wales in the 1970s, 80s and 90s from its humble, impoverished ‘DIY’ beginnings to becoming a significant force in public life.   

Dr Andy Croll

Barry Island was one of the most cherished leisure spaces in twentieth-century south Wales, a playground of generations of working-class day-trippers.

Andy Croll’s book Barry Island: The Making of a Seaside Playground considers its rise as a seaside resort and reveals a history that is much more complex, lengthy and important than has previously been recognized. As conventionally told, the story of the Island as tourist resort begins in the 1890s when the railway arrived in Barry.

In fact, it was functioning as a watering place by the 1790s. Yet decades of tourism produced no sweeping changes. Barry remained a district of ‘bathing villages’ and hamlets, not a developed urban resort.

As such its history challenges us to rethink the category of ‘seaside resort’ and forces us re-evaluate Wales’s contribution to British coastal tourism in the ‘long nineteenth century’. It also underlines the importance of visitor agency. Powerful landowners shaped much of the Island’s development, but, ultimately, it was the working-class visitors who turned it into south Wales’s most beloved tripper resorts.

Dr Chris Hill

Responding in 1960 to the prospect of French nuclear tests in the Algerian Sahara, the leader of postcolonial Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, forewarned of a “new nuclear imperialism”. The exploitation of foreign lands for uranium mining and the legacies of nuclear testing has ensured the ongoing relevance of Nkrumah’s words. It is the subject of USW historian Chris Hill’s work.

His research explores how the pursuit of nuclear power by Britain was enmeshed in empire. He is concerned not only with the structural connection between empire and nuclear power – the resources and sites that the British used to procure uranium or test weapons – but with imperialism as a knowledge system by which the British nuclear programme was operationalised.

British nuclear ambition therefore provides a window into imperial thinking about diplomacy, ecology and race at the end of empire.

Professor Maddy Gray

Research on the history and social anthropology of pilgrimage by USW Professor Emerita Maddy Gray has led to the development of the Cistercian Way, a round-Wales heritage route linking Cistercian abbeys and other historical sites.

The Cistercian Way is now recognised by Welsh Government, walking groups such as the Ramblers, and walking tourism providers, having received funding from Welsh Government for way-marking and a website.

Further work is taking place to develop a ‘Welsh Camino’ which includes sections of the Cistercian Way, in collaboration with  Rediscovering Ancient Connections - The Saints, and Celtic Routes.

Both are projects of the Ireland Wales 2014-2020 European Territorial Co-operation (ETC) programme.

Professor Chris Evans

USW historian Chris Evans and Uppsala University’s Göran Rydén won the Best Article Prize 2019 of the Forum on European Expansion and Global Interaction for their article ‘”Voyage iron”: an Atlantic slave trade currency, its European origins, and West African impact’, which appeared in Past & Present in 2018.

In this blog piece they explain how they went about their research: ‘Voyage Iron: An Archival Odyssey Twenty Years in the Making'.

USW historian Chris Evans works on the relationship between Atlantic slavery and industrial development in Europe. One of his findings, first reported upon in Slave Wales: The Welsh and Atlantic Slavery, 1660-1850 (2010), was that Welsh woollens played a major role in the slave Atlantic.

These fabrics, known as 'Welsh Plains’, were used in the procurement and maintenance of enslaved workers. Using material in British and US archives, Evans was able to demonstrate how Welsh Plains were (i) traded for captives on the Guinea coast, and (ii), more importantly, sold in large volumes to planters in the Caribbean and North America to be used for slaves’ clothing.

Chris Evans is working with a community research project, From Sheep to Sugar: Welsh Wool and Slavery, which is supported by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, to understand how rural spinners and weavers in mid-Wales become embroiled in Atlantic slavery.  

Dr Jonathan Durrant

In the emerging witchcraft iconography of early sixteenth-century Europe, pitchforks were quickly established as a tool of the witches’ craft. Lacking a suitable contemporary interpretational context, historians have argued that they represent weather magic or attacks on fertility more widely. 

This article places the pitchforks in broader contexts than witchcraft and demonology, including women’s agricultural labour, the religious and cultural iconography of hay (notably in Bosch’s Hay-wain), contemporary proverbs, traditional religious practices, and biblical exegesis. It argues that pitchforks and the hay they represent were understood by contemporaries to mark witches out as the embodiment of vanity of human action, the ultimate withered souls to be cast, as Christ said in Matthew 6, into the oven and perish.

Dr Jonathan Durrant

There are very few comparative histories of witchcraft experiences in early modern Europe and none that examines them in the regions central to both witchcraft history and witchcraft historiography. Drawing on my research on both German and English witchcraft, I have been working towards the writing of a comparative history of witchcraft experiences in these two countries. 

As well as my monograph on Eichstätt, published in 2007, and articles on the witch persecution in St Osyth and pitchforks in witchcraft iconography, I have presented the following two papers at conferences: ‘The Devil’s Trill: Tartini and Paganini in a Disenchanted World’ at the conference ‘Music, italianità and the nineteenth-century global imagination’, 16-17 September 2016, University of Cambridge; and ‘Melancholy, Fear and Sadness: Meditating on Evil in the Sixteenth Century’ at the conference ‘Fear and Loathing in the Earthly City – Negative Emotions in the Medieval and Early Modern Period, c.1100-1700’, 1-2 November 2018, National Museum, Copenhagen.

‘The Devil’s Trill’ looks at how the music of Tartini and Paganini was received and interpreted in a world which Max Weber described as ‘disenchanted’. It shows how German, English and French writers displaced their continued enchantment with the world after the end of the witch persecutions onto the peninsula through their conception of italianità. This conception included the romanticisation of figures such as Tartini and Paganini and the propagation of myths about the diabolical influences on them. I am currently revising this paper and expect to submit it for publication in 2021.

Melancholy is regarded as characteristic of early modern Europe, particularly among Protestant writers, to the extent that its ubiquity has been described as an epidemic. Melancholy was certainly associated by contemporaries with scholarliness, artistic talent, religious despair, demonic possession and the weakness of women, and has been discussed at length in each of these contexts. The volume of early modern discourse on melancholy suggests, however, that it expressed more than medical or psychological complaints or intellectual affectations. ‘Melancholy, Sadness and Fear’ argues that, in the turmoil of the Reformation in which the consolations of the medieval church were being questioned, reformed or rejected, melancholy and its hallmark negative emotions (fear and sadness) facilitated meditations on the existence of evil in a God-created world. 

Without the support of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation, theologians and artists like Luther and Cranach were forced to confront human frailty in the face of temptation through the lens of their own fear and despair. In turn, melancholy became the trope which bound evil into a reformed spiritual framework, finding expression in, for example, memento mori, medical treatises and witchcraft paintings executed in places where no witchcraft trials occurred. 

Dr Durrant is presenting a paper entitled ‘The Eichstätt Witch Persecutions in Comparative Perspective’ to the conference ‘Hexen im Heiligen Reich. Hexenverfolgungen in den Geistlichen Territorien’ organised by the Arbeitskreis interdisziplinäre Hexenforschung (Weingarten, 14-17 September 2022).