Chris Upton – Bridging the Gap

Our promotional Literary Bus leaflet from 2010, with Chris and Gollum!

Being asked to give the inaugural Chris Upton Memorial Lecture was both an honour and privilege. There were many other people who could have been asked to give the first lecture, so this was a truly humbling experience and one of those occasions that made me prouder than I can ever express. That said, I did feel the great weight of responsibility. But, in true Chris style, the rules were straight forward: keep it simple, but informative, unstuffy and most importantly, fun.

The theme of the Chris Upton Memorial Lecture was public history, largely focussing on how Chris bridged the gap between professional and public forms of history, and most importantly, how he made it fun. He was after all, the ‘people’s historian’. For him, telling a story, communicating that story to the public and making it as entertaining as possible was a vocation, it was his gift. It just so happens that the stories he told were all based on fact, not fiction. Well, for the most part, that is.

Not your average historian

I first met Chris in 2005, when I was working at Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, but the fondest memories I have are working with him on the Literary Bus for three consecutive years between 2010 and 2012. This is where I got to know Chris and his passion for using history to entertain the public. He could take straight-laced fact and turn it into pure entertainment. The basic premise of the Literary Bus involved a coach full of passengers travelling around the city, making stops at places of literary significance, with key characters from various books boarding, and well, colliding with the present and the past, depending on who they met along the way. Chris had an imagination, because only he could conceive of a stage where Rip Van Winkle crossed paths with Dr. Samuel Johnson, which culminated in Dr. Johnson chasing Rip around the grounds of Soho House Museum!

If you’re curious about the literary connections here, Rip Van Winkle is a short story published in 1819 by American author, Washington Irving, while he was living in Birmingham. But he is perhaps better known as the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Dr. Johnson was an English writer and critic, who just so happened to marry a Birmingham lass, but even this didn’t quell his disdain for the town, calling all Birmingham inhabitants ‘boobies’. If all this sounds crazy, it was, but that’s what Chris did: he allowed history, drama and imagination to collide, and when they met, it was the workings of pure genius. This was public history at its best.

Public history versus professional history 

Dr Samuel Johnson catches Rip Van Winkle in the grounds of Soho House Museum.

But what exactly is public history, and how does it differ from professional history? Let’s first start with professional. This refers to the academic world of universities for the most part, where trained historians critique the past, devoid of emotion, striving for objectivity. In contrast, public history can be defined as that which appeals to the masses – the types you find in museums and heritage organisations, or the types of history you might experience in a documentary for television. Often here, memory and emotional connections shape people’s perceptions of the past, so its deemed to be subjective. There’s a wealth of literature published on both, which often revolves around the conflicts that exist between the two – the conflicts that is, of those who supposedly seek an objective truth, and those who allow memory and emotions to shape their views of history. But the two aren’t mutually exclusive and they can work together. For museum professionals, public history is one of our biggest assets, because our emotional connections to the past often govern our interest in the past in the first place.

Public history is simply another type of record, another form of historical evidence, which of course has its flaws, but its strengths are far greater.  Chris appreciated this and it’s fair to say that he strove to bridge the gap between the two disciplines. Connection is key in public history and ‘doing’ public history well isn’t easy. The public can be your biggest critics, but they can also help you improve your work, and become your biggest supporters. Public history can colour the past in a way that a secondary source can’t – it breathes life into it, it gives it shape, albeit an imperfect one, but perhaps more importantly, it gives it personality, making it gritty and honest.

Chris also understood that the public are the biggest consumers of history, the biggest consumers of the past – bigger than the academic world, bigger than ‘that’ professional world, so why be sniffy about public history, about engaging with the public? This is not to say any history would do for Chris – for him it was still based on rigour and research, on using primary sources in places like archives, and we all know how much Chris loved a primary source. Chris understood that history belonged to everyone, and that you don’t need a degree to appreciate history, you just need a past. This isn’t to devalue the discipline of history -I myself am a trained historian – but professional historians should view the public as a resource in its own right, a resource that can enrich their own work.

Civil Experts

Literary Bus passengers enjoy a stop at Blakesley Hall, with Chris doing what he did best: entertaining the public.

Research shows that the public’s interest is often governed by three key issues: the role of direct emotional connection, the relevance of real places and family history. One challenge for the public historian is to present an accurate, yet lively account of the past, and implicit in this is being able to tell a good story. A project that demonstrates Chris’ understanding of this and his ability to tap into the very essence of public history is his work on the Birmingham Back-to-Backs, which is very much one of his legacy projects.  Elizabeth Perkins, former director of Birmingham Conservation Trust, who led the project, credited Chris with the narrative he created, and the intricacies of the stories of real people that he brought to the fore, both of which allowed people to connect with the history of Court 15. And it’s those stories that have made the museum as popular as it is today. According to Chris, one of the biggest resources for creating the museum and his subsequent book, ‘Living Back-to-Back, was,

‘based on memories from people who had lived in them, letters and phone calls, donations of artefacts, family photographs, copies of carefully researched family trees. Few of the letters related specifically to the families who lived in Court 15, but they were part of a communal memory of which court 15 was the catalyst. It was everyone’s history that was being projected.”

Women talking in courtyard of a Birmingham back-to-back, circa late 1950s© Chris Upton, Living Back-to-Back.

As Chris says, it didn’t even matter that the many letters he received didn’t relate specifically to Court 15 – they were part of a collective history of lived experience that helped create an important narrative.  At a recent conference I went to, there was a speaker who had used the phrase ‘civil experts’ or ‘civil heritage experts’, which helps explain how Chris put the public’s memories to good use. So, in relation to the Back-to-Backs what does this mean? Well, the civil experts in this case are the people who actually lived in them, the people who lived in Court 15, the people who know the intricacies of living in those exact houses. They know how it felt to walk up the narrow stairs, to share those two toilets with those eleven families, to walk on, or hang their washing out in that exact cobbled courtyard in those particular months and years – the summer of 1976, or the great freeze of 1963. Yes, historians could write a contextual past, but it’s that lived experience, that level of intimate detail that means that nobody is better placed to tell you how these places were used and lived in, than the civil expert. And that is the type of history that brought the Back-to-Backs to life and why it’s been such a success ever since. Chris knew which notes to play – he knew how to connect to the public and what would resonate with them.

It wasn’t that it was even a particular mission of Chris’ to reach out to the public because that was somehow the right thing to do. He just didn’t understand why you would limit your audience when you could reach out to as many people as possible, in the books that you write, the tours that you lead and the talks that you give. But because Chris chose to write for the masses instead of solely for the ‘elite’, his academic journey was perhaps harder than it should have been, which he perfectly summed up below:

“When I was interviewed for my professorship four years ago, I was told that I had probably sold more history books than the rest of the panel combined – a panel that included two professors, a university vice chancellor and a college principal – but because the majority were published by Phillimore, they didn’t count.”

 Chris’ work as a public historian somehow didn’t count, because it wasn’t peer reviewed, and yet he got the endorsement and support of thousands, a majority, rather than the sanction of a few. But that is the system. Chris could have confined himself solely to the academic route, but I think that went against the grain of what he truly believed – that history belongs to everyone and making it elitist simply closes down the conversation and the many possible connections.

Knowing your own history

Chris on board the Literary Bus in 2012. © Robert Jones. 


Chris wrote the first single-volume history of Birmingham for half a century, and in doing so, he unearthed, even resurrected aspects of the city’s history that had either been forgotten, or never realised by many. There was a massive gap in the market, because even Brummies didn’t know their history. Chris’ A History of Birmingham was a revelation for me the first time I read it – in many ways it felt like fiction because there was so much that I didn’t know about my own city. For instance, how did I not know that Charles Dickens gave his first public reading of A Christmas Carol in Birmingham in 1853 at the Town Hall? I read A Christmas Carol at school for the first time in 1997. I was twelve and this fact would have inspired not just me, but a whole class. It would be another ten years before I’d learn of this fact when I read Chris’ book for the first time. Incidentally, Dickens opened the reading of a Christmas Carol in 1853 by saying,

“Ladies and gentleman—I have said that I bear an old love towards Birmingham and Birmingham men; let me amend a small omission, and add Birmingham women too. This ring I wear on my finger now is an old Birmingham gift, and if by rubbing it I could raise the spirit that was obedient to Aladdin’s ring, I heartily assure you that my first instruction to that genius on the spot should be to place himself at Birmingham’s disposal in the best of causes. I now have the pleasure of reading to you tonight A Christmas Carol in four staves.”

Now that’s a quote that gives you goose pimples. But why have we never shouted from the rooftops about our great history in this city? I’d never been able to put my finger on it, but Chris summed up why so many of us, and therefore the rest of the country, don’t know about the history on our doorstep:

“At some point in the early 20th century, Birmingham decided to demolish the pastit was entirely in harmony of an image cultivated over a century or more. There was a city and people more interested in tomorrow than yesterday: brash, energetic, frantically astute and innovative. Even her coat of arms bore the legend ‘forward’. As new ideas and technologies advanced, Birmingham was first on the bandwagon, energetically moving forward. The past needs time and contemplation, and Birmingham was in too much of a hurry for such niceties.”

Chris reminded us that we need to slow down, stop and reflect. Knowing your history – not just our successes, but where we we’ve gone wrong, seems even more relevant of late. You really do need to know where you’ve been to realise where you don’t want to go again. Chris, in so many ways relit the torch for us, and we owe it to him to not let it go out again.

Speaking Russian

Chris with Sherlock Holmes and Watson © Robert Jones. 


The last conversation I had with Chris was in the summer of 2015. A production company had approached me and asked if the Coffin Works would appear on  television, focussing on the Birmingham canals. Chris had helped me once before in 2010, when I was asked to do my first television interview at Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, talking about the exact same thing. On this second occasion, I remember talking to a couple of the Newman University students, who were on placement with me at the Coffin Works, and saying something like, ‘Oh I wish Chris could help me – he would be far better at this than me’. Martin, one of Chris’ students said, ‘well, let me call him for you – I’m sure he’ll be up for it’. In that moment I was touched that someone was so willing to help, but more so by the fact that Chris’ students could so easily feel that they could contact him. That’s what Chris did effortlessly – made himself so accessible, and in the true style of any great teacher, it wasn’t just his subject that he loved, it was joy of sharing knowledge and helping others to achieve that set him apart.


My sister, Anne-Marie and I with Chris in 2011 planning for the Literary Bus.


Needless to say that Chris agreed to take part, but that isn’t why I remember the conversation. I’m not sure why it even came up, but during that telephone call Chris told me that he spoke Russian, and even more impressively, that he’d read War and Peace in Russian. I genuinely thought I’d misheard. I was intrigued and asked Chris, why Russian out of all the languages he could have learned. And he said, “well Sarah, you have to remember that I grew up during the Cold War, and my teacher said, ‘if we don’t talk to them, we’ll never make it better’”. It was one of those moments that could have come straight from a film or a book, but it perfectly summed Chris up. He was always so willing to learn, so willing to communicate and he spoke many languages – he was truly multilingual, and I don’t just mean because he spoke Russian. He spoke the language of his students, the language of museum professionals, and the distinct language of the general public, and the many dialects in between. That is why we haven’t just lost a great historian, we’ve lost a great communicator, who could translate the past to anyone who was prepared to listen. But Chris’ biggest legacy is that people are still so willing to listen to him now – he continues to inspire and his voice is still heard, and that is a legacy that most of us can only dream of.

Click here to watch the Chris Upton Memorial vlog here: 

Sarah Hayes, November 2016