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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. Three key types of sources –  letters, diaries and artwork – sent within British families who were separated between Britain and India will be examined in-depth and comparisons made across those living at the beginning and near the end of colonial rule. 
Letter-writing and the exchange of gifts, photographs or journals could maintain intimacy in a variety of familial and friendly relationships during this period in spite of geographical distance. The number of family collections containing these sources in archives around the UK and beyond that have not been examined by scholars before 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 the Empire worked.
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. Private papers in which these long-distance relations were evidently struggling will be used to fulfil another intention for this project. This second aim of the thesis is to consider how British individuals in South Asia forged a new sense of intimacy 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 studies.

Research Area

  • History


  • My 2018 paper submitted to the Global Undergraduate Awards was highly commended and was published in The Undergraduate Awards Library. It is entitled, 'The concept of empire belongs at the centre, rather than in the margins, of the history of British Art' (Barringer, Quilley, and Fordham). Discuss.'


  • Panelist at the Modern British Studies Beyond Boundaries Conference, July 2019. I presented my paper, '"With kisses on both your cheeks": The Transnational Family of Caroline Cuffley Giberne, 1803-1885' on the 'Transnational Travel and Communities' panel alongside scholars such as Dr Paul Jackson from the University of Northampton. Keynote speakers were historians Dr Caroline Bressey, Professor Sharon Marcus and Professor Enda Delaney.

Public Engagement & Impact

  • 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.
  • My submission for a Green Heart Festival event was judged by the Green Heart Festival Academic Reference Group and was accepted. The proposed event 'UOBe Connected, Becoming Birmingham: History, Diversity and Collaboration' will take place in February 2020 and is funded by the Green Heart Festival.

Other Research Interests

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


  • Institute of Historical Research History Lab
  • University of Leicester New History Lab

Conferences Attended:

  • Modern British Studies Beyond Boundaries Conference (3rd to 5th July 2019).
  • Midlands Eighteenth-Century Research Network (MECRN) one-day conference, 'Epistolary Bodies: Letters and Embodiment in the Eighteenth Century' (24 May 2019).
  • M4C Research Conference 2019 (23rd May 2019).
  • Postgraduate Student Masterclass, "Approaches to Empire", Professor Antoinette Burton, University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne (10th December 2018).