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Ellen Smith

History, University of Leicester

Thesis title:

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

My research studies the strategies that imperial families used to cope with mobility and distance whilst living and working in the British Empire. Letter-writing and the exchange of gifts, photographs or journals enabled intimacy to be sustained in a variety of familial and communal relationships during the long nineteenth century when faced with the geographical and cultural distances and dislocation brought about by a career in India. The number of hitherto unexplored family collections containing these kinds of sources in archives around the UK and beyond is extensive. My research, therefore, seeks to bring these kinds of female and child writers, amateur artists and travellers to the fore of our understanding about how empires work.
Yet prolonged absences and the cultural differences that developed over time between those at home and away could render such efforts of communication futile and frustrating. Another intention for the thesis, in addition to thinking about long-distance communicative networks, is to consider how British individuals in South Asia forged a new sense of intimacy and connection with the people and spaces of the colony. My research shall question what the British family looked like and how it functioned, demonstrating how these personal documents are essential to the future of empire and colonial studies.

Research Area

  • History



  • '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). The recording of the session and my paper can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZk6LLCuGCo
  • 'Letter Networks: The Communication of Families in British India', panellist at the 2020 Midlands4Cities Digital Research Festival in the 'Narratives, Biographies, and Histories' Research Relay.
  • Upcoming speaker at the Lunchtime Lecture Series at the University of Leicester. I will be presenting a 20-minute paper as part of the 2021 series organised by the Leicester Adult Education College and supported by the University of Leicester Doctoral College.
  • Upcoming speaker at the Institute of Historical Research History Lab seminar series at the University of London. I will be presenting my 45-minute paper, ‘Communicating Violent Death in the British Empire: The Starr Family, 1900-1925’, with a question and answer session. 
  • Abstract accepted for 'Personal Correspondence in English, 1400 - Present: A Conference' at the University of Northampton in April 2021.
  • ‘Communicating Trauma in the British Empire: The Starr Family and Others, 1859-1925’, panellist at the Social History Society 2020 Annual Conference at the University of Lancaster, in the ‘Life Cycles, Families & Communities’ strand (postponed until 2021 due to COVID-19).
  • Co-applicant of the conference, ‘Showcasing Empires: The legacy of colonialism on post-imperial societies’ taking place in February 2021 at the University of Birmingham. It is an interdisciplinary international doctoral conference in partnership with the University of Aix-Marseille, following on from the associated conference ‘Showcasing Empire’ held in February 2020 in Aix-en-Provence, France.
  • Organised the 'Midlands4Cities Decolonial Discussion Group' which meets to discuss a range of themes including gender, space, landscapes, race, classifications, and museum politics chaired by specialists of the group. Created in response to COVID-19.
  • Currently attending a 'Race and Empire' reading group; chaired sessions on 'colonial violence' and 'Empire historiographies'.
  • Member of 'Pandemic Perspectives' which will be hosting one of the summer research series at the University of Birmingham.
  • ‘The Precariousness of Communication: Family Life in British India during the First World War’, poster presented at the Doctoral College Week Poster Competition at the University of Leicester in February 2020.
  • '"With kisses on both your cheeks": The Transnational Family of Caroline Cuffley Giberne, 1803-1885', panellist on the 'Transnational Travel and Communities' panel at the Modern British Studies Beyond Boundaries Conference, July 2019. Keynote speakers were historians Dr Caroline Bressey, Professor Sharon Marcus and Professor Enda Delaney.

Public Engagement & Impact

  • Midlands4Cities placement scheduled at the Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections, with senior archivist Ivana Frlan. I also volunteer here by researching the Church Missionary Society collection.
  • Awarded funding by the Green Heart Festival to organise the conference, 'Becoming Birmingham: History, Diversity and Collaboration' which seeks to celebrate the rich history of international links fostered by the University of Birmingham. Keynote speakers include Dr Michell Chresfield (University of Birmingham), Dr Manu Sehgal (University of Birmingham), Dr Pippa Virdee (De Montfort University), and a speaker from the external organisation, Beatfreeks. As part of the project I supervised a team of approximately thirteen student volunteers, ranging from undergraduate to doctorate level, and guided their research into the University Archives. I also organised an archival training workshop for the students to learn about using the archives with expert Dr Helen Fisher. The conference has been postponed due to COVID-19.
  • I presented a poster at the University of Birmingham 'Undergraduate Dissertation Poster Conference' and was a speaker at the 'Research Showcase' alongside history lecturers and fellow students which was run to assist second-year undergraduates as they embarked upon their own dissertation projects.

Other Research Interests

  • Material culture studies
  • Art history
  • Subaltern Studies
  • Life writing
  • Eighteenth-century East India Company 


Conferences & Training Courses Attended

  • 'Modern British History Workshops', University of Cambridge (June – September 2020).
  • Dr Manu Sehgal, 'South Asia and its history at the University of Birmingham', India Institute (16 July 2020).
  • Dr Rosalind Carr, '"We had the most friendly intention toward them”: Friendship, Whiteness and Violence in Warrane/Sydney, 1788-1816', British History in the Long 18th Century (15 July 2020).
  • M4C Digital Research Festival 2020 (13 to 14 July 2020).
  • 'Empire in Motion: Transnational Perspectives on the Indian Empire, 18th-20th Century', Global History and Culture Centre at the University of Warwick (3 July 2020).
  • Professor Andrew Morrison, Dr Emma Moreton, Professor Frank Shovlin, 'Seminar: Editing Letters', Manchester Centre for Correspondence Studies (19 June 2020).
  • Professor Margot Finn, 'Family and Empire’, The James Ford Lectures in British History at the University of Oxford (28 February 2020).
  • Midlands4Cities Royal Literary Fund First Year Workshops (19 to 20 February 2020). 
  • Melanie Backe Hansen and Professor Deborah Sugg Ryan, ‘Houses, Homes and Histories’, Institute of Historical Research seminar (12 February 2020).
  • Audited the University of Leicester Masters module: 'HS7310: Global History: Comparative and connected approaches’ (January – March 2020).
  • British Library Doctoral Open Day: Asian & African Collections (20 January 2020).
  • Professor Karen Harvey, 'Eighteenth-Century Letters Workshop’, University of Birmingham (21 November 2019).
  • Range of training courses hosted by the Doctoral College, University of Leicester (October 2019 – May 2020) (Certificates of completion of training can be provided).
  • Modern British Studies Beyond Boundaries Conference, University of Birmingham (3 to 5 July 2019).
  • 'Epistolary Bodies: Letters and Embodiment in the Eighteenth Century', Midlands Eighteenth-Century Research Network (MECRN) one-day conference (24 May 2019).
  • Professor Antoinette Burton, 'Approaches to Empire', Postgraduate Student Masterclass at the University of Leicester (10 December 2018).

Grants & Awards

  • Announced as a Postgraduate Prize Winner 2020 in the Social History Society annual Postgraduate Prize. Awarded second place which carried a monetary award and the chance for my essay to be published: https://socialhistory.org.uk/2020/06/29/postgraduate-prize-winners-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.
  • Awarded an Honourable Mention in the 2020 Hakluyt Society Essay Prize Competition. I was the only candidate to be given an Honourable Mention by the Hakluyt Society Essay Prize judging panel which carried a year’s membership of the Hakluyt Society. Please see further details here: https://www.hakluyt.com/hakluyt-society-essay-prize/
  • My dissertation was shortlisted for the British Association for South Asian Studies (BASAS) Masters Dissertation Prize. 
  • Received funding from the Green Heart Festival Fund 2019-2020 (see above in public engagement).
  • Awarded a School of History and Cultures PGT Summer Research Support Fund for my masters thesis in 2019.
  • 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, carried a monetary prize.
  • Essay completed for an undergraduate module 'Victorian Art and the British Empire' was 'highly commended' for outstanding work by a judging panel of international academics at The Undergraduate Awards in 2018. It received the top award in the 'History' category (see essay in publications list above).