Voluntary Action in Changing Times: Creating History or Repeating It? Some advice for researchers – Meta Zimmeck

When VAHS chose the title of its conference (now postponed to 7–9 July 2021), we thought that this was a sort of sexy invitation to debate by historians of voluntary action across space and time, who would generally answer yes or no with different examples and different degrees of passion. The current pandemic, with backward glances at the Black Death, the Spanish Flu and the World Wars, has rather ramped up the cogency of this question. 

However, lessons from the past are not all doom and gloom, and I am happy to report some wisdom from the past which is directly transferable to the present and of particular interest to historians who will be teaching and giving papers at conferences.

‘Boil It down

When a speech you mean to make,

Boil it down!

Lengthy speeches never take,

Boil it down!

Stick to subject and keep cool,

Empty chatter shows the fool;

Short and sweet should be the rule,

Boil it down!

Try and think of something new,

Boil it down!

Ancient history will not do,

Boil it down!

Complete speeches don’t digest;

If you want to add a zest,

Just include some wholesome jest,

Boil it down!’

These pearls of wisdom were printed in The Sentinel, the journal of the Association of Ex-Naval and Military Civil Servants, Issue No.46, 12 August 1908.

The Association, which was active in all four nations of the UK, had one goal, “Colour Service to Count”, the counting of naval and military service towards Civil Service pensions and gratuities. In nearly thirty years of assiduous campaigning it failed completely to achieve this goal. Along the way, at the moment of its greatest strength in terms of the number of members, the number of branches and parliamentary support for its aim, it suffered a catastrophic organisational meltdown in 1910, which was only papered over in 1914, just in time for the First World War.

The Association’s meltdown was characterised by accusations and counter-accusations, libel actions, ‘fake news’, resignations/expulsions or members and branches, the establishment of an anti-association and even a contested referendum. Despite these rather florid manifestations, it has not been easy to extract from this ‘bear garden’ the factors which led to the break-up and then the re-establishment of the Association. 

Having spent years head down in The Sentinel and bemused by the thick detail at my command, I am hoping to ‘boil it down’ and come to a view of whether this meltdown was a unique occurrence never to be repeated or just another example of male hissy fits in an organisational setting.


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