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Ellen Smith

History, University of Leicester

Thesis title:

Communication, Intimacy and Creativity: Family Life in British India, 1790-1920

My thesis explores the communicative and creative strategies that imperial families used in response to absence, distance, and mobility in the context of the nineteenth and early twentieth-century British Empire. 

It draws on several archival collections, largely personal correspondence, to track extensive family epistolary networks that helped sustain intimacy and connectivity between metropolitan Britain and colonial South Asia, specifically. 

My research will seek to address how British families negotiated the emotional labours of writing and connecting, and how these processes related to expectations around gender norms. In doing so, it will draw out the complexity of forms that such letters could take, and the visual, emotional, material and discursive tools utilised in their construction.

Research Area

  • History



  • M4C CDF-funded conference, ‘Showcasing Empires: The Legacy of Colonialism on Post-Imperial Societies’ (University of Birmingham & University of Aix-Marseille) with the paper, ‘Writing Every Day: The Letters of the British in India Throughout the Long-Nineteenth Century’ (18-19 February 2021).

  • ‘At Home in Empire: Colonial Experiences of Intimacy and Mobility’ (University of Warwick) with the paper, ‘Indian encounters: race, identity and cultural exchange in British home and family life in colonial South Asia’ (13 March 2021).

  • ‘Personal Correspondence in English, 1400 – Present’ (University of Northampton) with the paper, ‘Staying in Touch, Striking up Alliances: The Communication and Letter-writing of Imperial Families’ (15-16 April 2021).

  • Panel at the North American Conference on British Studies, ‘Colonial Communications: Cultures of Writing and Connecting Family throughout the British Empire in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries’. With Morag Wright (SOAS), Hannah Briscoe (University of Birmingham), and chaired by Stephen Vitale (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) (8 November 2020).

  • 'Connecting through Letters: Family Life in British India during the Long Nineteenth Century', 2020 Social History Society Online Conference: Life Cycles, Families & Communities Session (30 June 2020). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZk6LLCuGCo

  • Panellist on the 'Transnational Travel and Communities' panel at the Modern British Studies Beyond Boundaries Conference, July 2019, University of Birmingham.

Public Engagement & Impact

  • Funding by the Green Heart Festival to organise the conference, 'Becoming Birmingham: History, Diversity and Collaboration' on international links in the history of the University of Birmingham. Keynote speakers: Dr Michell Chresfield (University of Birmingham), Dr Manu Sehgal (University of Birmingham), Dr Pippa Virdee (De Montfort University), Beatfreeks, and student volunteer speakers. 

  • School of Advanced Study University of London Institute of Historical Research History Lab seminar convenor with Rachel Bynoth: https://www.history.ac.uk/seminars/history-lab

  • Founded the M4C Cohort Development Fund-supported virtual seminar series ‘Culture, Things, and Empire’ with Charlotte Johnson with two seasons of seminars and a special ‘Masterclass’ with Professor Anna Arabindan-Kesson (Princeton University): https://culturethingsempire.wordpress.com/.

  • Organised the M4C, SHS and Royal Historical Society (RHS)-funded two-day virtual conference with Rachel Bynoth, ‘Distant Communications: making contact across time and space from antiquity to the digital age’ (July 2021). Keynotes: Professor James Daybell (University of Plymouth), Professor Karen Harvey, Dr Sarah Fox & Dr Emily Vine (Leverhulme Trust ‘Material identities, social bodies’), Dr Mark Ravinder Frost (UCL). Forthcoming Special Issue with CASH.

Other Research Interests

  • Gender Studies
  • Life writing, genealogy, and editing
  • Subaltern Studies
  • Art history
  • Material culture studies


  • Member of the editorial board of Romance, Revolution and Reform: Nineteenth Century Journal.

  • University of Leicester Global, Colonial and Postcolonial Research Cluster member.

  • Social History Society member.

  • Royal Historical Society member.

  • Women’s History Network member.

  • University of Durham Centre for Nineteenth Century Studies.

  • The Hakluyt Society (honorary membership).

  • North American Conference on British Studies member.

  • Committee member of the University of London IHR History Lab (seminar co-convenor).


  • Module contact and marking duties for first-year undergraduate history module, HS1000 Making History 2021-22 SEM1 (October-November), School of History, Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester.

  • Seminar tutor, first-year undergraduate history option module, HS1012 Global History: Connections and Cultures in a Changing World, c.1750-Present 2020-21 SEM2, School of History, Politics and International Relations at the University of Leicester.

Grants & Awards

  • Awarded AHRC-funded M4C Research Development Funds and Cohort Development Funds for thesis research and other projects.

  • Grants from the Social History Society and the Royal Historical Society for thesis research and conferences.

  • Social History Society Postgraduate Prize Winner 2020.

  • Awarded one of the 200 twelve-month subscriptions to Adam Matthew Digital's database of online primary sources offered by the Royal Historical Society.

  • Honourable Mention in the 2020 Hakluyt Society Essay Prize Competition. 

  • Shortlisted for the British Association for South Asian Studies (BASAS) Masters Dissertation Prize. 

  • Birmingham Masters Scholarship Scheme award.

  • Recipient of the Richard Shackleton Award 2018. Awarded to the student in the Department of History at the University of Birmingham who achieves the highest overall scoring dissertation.