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Talking out of your hat

Early felt hats from the 1635 edition of Robert Greene 'A Quip for an Upstart Courtier' (1592)

Early felt hats from the 1635 edition of Robert Greene 'A Quip for an Upstart Courtier' (1592)

18 November 2011

Public talks about the local felt hatting industry have connected people with their heritage as well as providing research benefits

Many staff and students in the Department of History get involved in public engagement, giving talks about their research to adult education colleges, schools and local history groups.  However, Chris Heal, a third-year PhD student in the Department has just completed his twentieth public lecture – an impressive achievement both in terms of scale and in the level of interest that it has generated.

His research focuses on the birth, growth and eventual collapse of the felt hatting industry in Bristol and the villages to the north west.  Until now there has been no historical study of this kind in the area; as such it is an unsung part of Bristol’s heritage, despite being a major employer in the past.  Chris estimates that, due to the dominance of the industry in the South Gloucestershire villages: “anyone who has family in these villages has a hatter somewhere in the family tree”.  This strong local resonance means that many meetings have had record audiences, with around two thousand people having been to one or more of these events.

As far as Chris is concerned, there are several main benefits to taking part in public talks and discussions.  He feels strongly that he has a duty to share his work with the public because it is their history that he is studying: "talking about my work allows me to give the history back to the community and ensures I do not forget that this research is really all about people".

Giving talks is also an excellent way to gain further information about the history.  He describes the case of someone who contacted him after a talk to say that he had traced his family tree and found two local hatters who had worked in Paris in the 1820s – a connection previously unknown to Chris.

Finally, Chris thinks that one way to validate his research is standing up and speaking about it: “until you talk about your work to an audience you don’t entirely know whether you believe in the arguments you are making” and so in this way, the process of public speaking helps him to crystallise his ideas.  He has also done similar talks to a range of university groups but thinks they are more polite – "community audiences are much tougher" he says.  This allows him to test his work and has both broadened and toughened up his research.

Chris’s commitment to public engagement has been appreciated by his Department, as well as by the audiences for his talks.  Professor Ronald Hutton, himself a prolific public lecturer, notes that "this sort of public service is a vital part of our activity as scholars, and builds vital goodwill for our university and profession in the communities around us: Chris is setting a wonderful example".