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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, including British and Princely India and Ceylon specifically. 

My thesis asks how this communicative work of British men, women, children and wider communities shaped how empire was understood. To this end, it seeks to draw out the complexity of forms that such letters could take, and the visual, emotional, material and discursive tools utilised in their construction, to suggest that writing was a form of political and social work. It also attends to the limits of the colonial archive to consider the Indian, Anglo-Indian and Ceylonese intermediaries who facilitated, carried and co-constructed these communications. 

Research Area

  • History


Articles and Special Issues

Smith, E., ‘“We went bravely on...”: the theatre and spectacle of everyday life in British written representations of colonial South Asia’, under review with The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, publication due January/February 2023.

Smith, E., and Bynoth, R. (guest editors), ‘Distant Communications: Beyond Death’ [Special issue], Cultural & Social History, March 2023.

Book Chapters

Smith, E., and Bynoth, R., ‘IHR History Lab Seminar Series’, in David Manning (ed.) Talking History: Seminar Culture at the Institute of Historical Research 1921–2021, University of London Press, 2023.

Book Reviews: forthcoming, Journal of British Studies and Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History.

Online publications

‘Distant Communications: The Conference and its Future’, Social History Society (October 2021), https://socialhistory.org.uk/shs_exchange/distant-communications/ 

Response for the roundtable on the Unhomely Empire Reading Group, University of Birmingham, Birmingham Eighteenth Century Centrehttps://blog.bham.ac.uk/18c/2022/11/21/unhomely-empire-a-forum-introduction/  

'Unopened Letters, and the Secrets Within', Social History Society Research Exchange (July 2020), https://socialhistory.org.uk/shs_exchange/unopened-letters-and-the-secrets-within/. Awarded second place in the 2020 SHS Postgraduate Prize.

'Fanny Barlow's Letters to Papa', British Library Untold Lives Blog (June 2020), https://blogs.bl.uk/untoldlives/2020/06/fanny-barlows-letters-to-papa.html.

'Across the British Empire: Voices, Stories and Representations', University of Warwick PG Podcast Series 2020 (July 2020), available on Soundcloud, Spotify, and iTunes.

Collaboration of Charlotte Johnson, Ellen Smith, Hannah Dennett, and Liz Egan, 'Archival Journeys: Historians Navigating COVID-19', Midlands4Cities (M4C) Digital Research Festival 2020 Virtual Gallery (July 2020), https://my.ltb.io/#/showcase/midlands4cities-digital-research-festival-2020.

Interviewed by journalist Rosie Hopegood for an article in Al Jazeera on the impacts of social media on family identities, https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2020/10/11/facing-the-music-the-parents-who-share-too-much 

'The concept of empire belongs at the centre, rather than in the margins, of the history of British Art (Barringer, Quilley, and Fordham). Discuss.', The Undergraduate Awards Library (2018), https://intranet.birmingham.ac.uk/student/news/public/autumn-2018/undergraduate-awards-highly-commended-2018.aspx. (Highly Commended at the Awards).


  • Imperial Secret-Keeping and Editing Women: Managing Racial and Sexual Crisis at Government House and Beyond’, Cultural History Workshop, University of Cambridge, 9 November 2022.

  • 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

  • Member of the editorial board, Romance Revolution and Reform Nineteenth Century Journal, 2021-Present

  • Editor-at-Large, Toynbee Prize Foundation for Global History, present.

  • 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

  • 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. 

  • 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

  • Andrew Wyld Research Grant, Paul Mellon Centre, November 2022-August 2023.
  • AHRC M4C Research Development Grants for PhD, December 2019-Present.
  • Grants from the Social History Society and the Royal Historical Society for thesis research and conferences, 2020-2022.
Awards and Prizes:
  • Social History Society Postgraduate Prize Winner 2020.
  • Honourable Mention in the 2020 Hakluyt Society Essay Prize Competition. 
  • Adam Matthew Digital and Royal Historical Society subscription winner.
  • 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.