Vanessa Harding

Aileen Fyfe
Monday 4 March 2024

Vanessa Harding knew nothing about St Andrews until she arrived on the sleeper at the start of term in autumn 1970. 

‘It looked like a nice place to be, and I knew people who were there.  It’s the kind of decision you make when you’re seventeen or eighteen that’s not necessarily well-grounded in thinking about things’.

Vanessa Harding is now Professor of London History at Birkbeck University of London, a position she has held since 2009 although she has been at Birkbeck since 1984. She read Mediaeval History as an undergraduate at St Andrews and stayed on at the university for her doctorate, awarded in 1983.  Her thesis examining the topography, administration and trade of the port of London in the fourteenth century established her interest in mediaeval London.  Her research now focuses on death and burial in mediaeval and early modern London, urban health and disease, including plague, and early modern households and families.

Although St Andrews had not been Vanessa’s first choice of university – she had taken the entrance exams for Cambridge but had not got in – she soon found that the environment at St Andrews suited her very well. At that time, St Andrews was the only university, as far as Vanessa knew, to offer a degree in Mediaeval History, rather than as part of another degree. She found that the intellectual encouragement at St Andrews, and the real passion there for the subject of Mediaeval History, was actually what she needed, and she has never regretted not going to Cambridge.

Vanessa was not the first member of her family to go to university, as her father had a PhD in Chemistry.  She was probably the first female member of her family to embark on a university education, but there was never any suggestion that girls should not go to university.  She attended an all-girls boarding school which was a Quaker institution, and most of the pupils there went on to university.

Having been largely brought up in the north of England, Vanessa was comfortable with living in a small community like St Andrews.  She lived for her first couple of years in Hamilton Hall before moving on to live in various flats and locations in St Andrews.  Like many students, she did not venture much beyond St Andrews, although she had some friends from surrounding villages.  She recalls St Andrews as a very safe environment, and a uniquely Scottish one.  She made friends easily there, and her social life revolved around informal networks of friends than rather organised activities.

Vanessa recalls that the gender balance between students at that time was roughly equal, although there may have been more women than men in the Mediaeval History classes. As an undergraduate, she knew more women than men, but found that the balance changed when she became a postgraduate student, becoming more mixed between the sexes.  In her first year, Vanessa was not taught by any female historians at all, and it was not until her second year, when she was studying British history, that she was taught by women, although she was aware that there were female lecturers in the Mediaeval History department. This changed as Vanessa continued through her undergraduate degree, and she remembers being particularly inspired by Barbara Crawford, who introduced her to Nordic history and archaeology, and by Judith Green, whom she credits with giving Vanessa a sense that a career as an academic historian was something that she would like to aspire to.

As a student, however, Vanessa did not feel particularly career-driven – rather, there was a feeling in the postgraduate community that the student years should be enjoyed and made the most of for their own sake, without worrying too much about what lay ahead.

‘Most people seemed to have a rather timeless sense of where they would get. The pressure to get a long-term paying job was not nearly as strong as it is now. Rightly so.’

Vanessa herself had no doubt that she would find a job in something she wanted to do at the end of her studies, although the cuts in higher education at the start of the 1980s were having an impact on the job market. Vanessa spent three postgraduate years at St Andrews, then left to take up a post at the Victoria County History (VCH) in Essex while continuing to work on her thesis.  By that time, she had spent a great deal of time researching in London at the Institute of Historical Research, where the VCH is based, during the course of her PhD research and so had become very familiar to staff at the VCH.  After two years there, she moved to a new funded project led by historian Derek Keene on mediaeval to early modern London. This meant giving up a permanent post for short term funding, but Vanessa feels this was one of the best decision she has ever made – she got to work on a project where she felt she could really make her mark, and where her specialist knowledge of London was greatly valued. Vanessa moved to Birkbeck when a position came up as part of a scheme to fund ‘new blood’ posts in a variety of topics.

Vanessa does not feel that she has faced any particular challenges or obstacles either as a woman studying history or in pursuing a career as a historian, although she feels that may be partly to do with the path she herself took.  She notes that, while the Victoria County History was essentially ‘female-friendly’, and while many of the Assistant Editors were female, the County Editors were mostly male.

Vanessa was able to visit St Andrews recently and was interested to see that ‘nothing’s changed and everything’s changed!’ While there have been many changes to the shops and eating places in the town centre, the buildings where Vanessa studied and lived are still essentially the same, although Hamilton Hall is no longer a student residence.

Vanessa remembers St Andrews as a stimulating and supportive environment, and as a place where she was able to do the things she wanted to do. Perhaps, she says, she should have gone somewhere else after her undergraduate degree, to gain experience of somewhere else.

‘But, on the other hand – I had such a good time as a postgraduate. So I don’t have any regrets!’

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