Unexpected Lessons from Giving A Public Engagement Talk:

Posted by Bethany Rowley

Set on the banks of the River Aire in Leeds, West Yorkshire, are the ruins of a Medieval Cistercian abbey. This is known as Kirkstall Abbey and was first founded by Cistercian monks in 1152. It was in these beautiful surroundings that I was lucky enough to present my research in December  2017 after been invited by Patrick Bourne to speak at the 1152 History club. This is a free local history and special interest group for adults aged 55+ which meets every other Friday to listen to guest speakers on a variety of local and popular history topics.

With new members always welcome and tea and coffee readily available, I was unsure of how many people would come to listen to me talk about various Christian charities and the ways in which they helped rehabilitate disabled ex-servicemen of the First World War here in Leeds and Yorkshire more generally between 1916 and 1939. With nearly fifty people this was my largest audience to date (as demonstrated by the pictures below)! Although nervous, I was grateful for the turn out and positive feedback. For anybody looking to get involved in public engagement talks, the welcoming and friendly atmosphere of the 1152 Club could not have been more helpful. You can find more information about them here: http://www.leeds.gov.uk/museumsandgalleries/Pages/The-1152-Club.aspx

While arguing that not all charities received the same support from the state, I briefly mentioned that the Leeds finance and general-purpose committee meeting notes for February 1936 provided a breakdown of the charities in Leeds which were paid under the Poor Law Act, 1930, and, that this revealed that significantly more money was given to Jewish rather than Christian charities under the Act. This difference in faith rather than financial inequality appeared shocking to the audience and stimulated a lot of useful discussion. Because of this unexpected reaction, however, it struck me that what you perceive to be the most important points of your research (in this example it was theory and hoping that I had enough case studies for the forty-five minutes speech) are not always what resonates to others, how well statistics can generate meaning, as well as the impact finer details can have. Before this I had not thought in detail about why there was this difference, naively just accepting it to be the case on a state not religious level. I have since tried to find out more about this which I would otherwise not have done if I hadn’t talked at this club.

Also, whilst I think that it can sometimes be easy to lose sight of the relevance of your research in the present day, another unexpected lesson I learnt from this talk was never to underestimate the ways in which what you say can impact upon those listening. Afterwards, an audience member approached me to tell me they are trying to find out more information about a family member who was injured in the First World War, yet, continued to work in the mines despite their wounds. I have found out more information by keeping in touch with the relative and I am hopeful that they will soon have all the details they are looking for. I had not imagined that this talk would lead to someone reconnecting with their past, and as I prepare for my next public engagement talks over the next two months, one at The Church of the Nazarene at Hunslet, Leeds and the other at The York Army Museum (as part of the Behind The Lines Exhibition) I look forward to what I can learn from these events through the process of talking about what I have learnt from undertaking research, as well as the stories I will hear along the way.

More information about the wonderful Behind The Lines Exhibition which runs at York Army Museum until the 30th April 2018 and focuses upon the often undocumented units such as charities and camp followers who have supported the British Army throughout the centuries, can be found here: https://www.visityork.org/York-Behind-the-Lines-New-Exhibition/details/?dms=3&feature=1000&venue=1500161