We sat down to chat to Blake, who recently won the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire heat of the Historical Association’s Great Debate and who has now qualified for the national final. He discussed the question, ‘why history matters to me,’ speaking about his extensive research into his own family, focusing primarily on the experiences of his great-grandfather, Peter, and how these can be used as a lens to explore broader societal changes of the 20th century. The judges were particularly impressed with the depth of Blake’s research and his ability to differentiate between ‘history’ and ‘heritage’ within his speech. In a strong field, which included some wonderful talks from students at Stowe, Tudor Hall and Chenderit, it was a real honour for Blake to be selected as the heat winner. Blake will now take part in the national final at Windsor Castle at the end of March.
Could you share what you spoke about in your presentation?
In my talk, I was speaking about my family history and the difference between history and heritage. I would say history is a general term to describe everything that’s happened in the past whereas heritage is the positives of what has happened. It’s what you want to hear from history rather than the whole story. We don’t often hear about the slave ship ports in England or the massacres we committed during the war, we hear about things like Waterloo instead. I also spoke about the journey that I had undergone researching my family and how what I had been told wasn’t the whole truth but rather a cherry-picked version. The more I researched, the more I found my family story wasn’t all happiness, there were lots of sad stories in there too. I looked into my great-grandfather’s life and focused on his upbringing and post-war existence (this is the first world war). He was brought up in quite a poor area with quite a poor family. Two of his siblings died, one very young and one in their early teens. Both his parents were dead by the time he was 20 so he had a fairly challenging upbringing and that, in comparison to where he finished his life, was interesting. It showed a lot about merit and how in the 1900s the idea of a meritocracy was coming into play.
what made you decide to speak about this in particular?
I’ve always had an interest in family history and just before Mr Hudson told me about this competition, my Dad shared that he had found out new information about our family thanks to some newly discovered old notebooks belonging to my great-grandfather. Reading my great-grandfather’s notebooks made me want to find out more about his life. When I heard about this competition, I knew this was definitely what I wanted to talk about.
what first ignited your love of history and how has it grown over your lifetime?
I have loved History since I was at primary school. To begin with, I just liked learning about the battles and the wars, but I soon started finding other areas interesting too. I remember being especially fascinated when I was studying the Tudors and finding out all about the marriages and divorces. I loved the stories of romance and courage and that sort of thing. I’m considering continuing with History for university.
which historical figures do you find especially inspirational?
One figure I find very inspirational is Robert Smalls. He was a slave who was forced to work on a ship for the Confederacy during the American Civil War. Along with some of his crewmates, he managed to commandeer the ship he was working on. They got all their family members on board, and then sailed this Confederate ship through ports and watchtowers all the way up to the Northern union, tricking all the guards along the way. They managed to free themselves during the heat of the Civil War with this massive ship and bring it for the Union’s use. After the war, Smalls became a politician. It’s a really inspirational story.
We wish Blake the very best of luck in the final at the end of the month.