The Papers of William Bull
The Churchill Archives Centre holds the papers of several keen twentieth-century diarists and social observers, such as the journalist and editor W.T. Stead (STED), the sociologist Michael Young (YUNG), and the social investigator Phyllis Willmott (WLMT). But there are also a number of little-researched private diaries by less well-known individuals in the collection which shed light on this period. Sir William Bull MP (b. 1863) faithfully kept a rather unusual ‘diary’ covering virtually every day of his life from the age of thirteen until a few weeks before his death in 1931.
Bull was a solicitor, member of the London County Council, and Conservative and Unionist MP for Hammersmith, a seat which he held until 1929. While he was never promoted to a Cabinet post, he kept a close eye on Parliamentary affairs and social policy and played a key role in modernising the capital’s infrastructure, including overseeing the building of the Blackwall Tunnel and early plans for a ‘Channel Tunnel’. As Private Secretary to Sir Walter Long, Chief Secretary for Ireland, Bull was also intimately involved in Irish politics, before and after independence. He would later travel with Long to the Paris Peace Conference (BULL 4/19).
Bull is now perhaps best known for his involvement in the movement to extend voting rights to women. Before World War One he was a vocal member of the Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association. He was also in regular correspondence with leading suffrage campaigners, including Sylvia Pankhurst (BULL 3/17) and Christabel Pankhurst (BULL 3/18), who thanked the solicitor for paying a visit to militant WSPU organiser Vera Wentworth in Holloway Prison in 1908.
As well as personal reminiscences – such as the young MP’s ‘First Impressions’ of the Houses of Parliament upon being elected in 1900 (BULL 3/2) or his reaction to the installation of the first electric lighting in Hammersmith (BULL 2/15)– Bull’s papers chronicle a multitude of contemporary events in the capital, including the opening of Tower Bridge (BULL 2/7), the coronation of Edward VII (BULL 3/5), election campaigns, which could typically turn violent (BULL 4/1), and aspects of life in London during World War One (BULL 4/14).
Each of the ‘diaries’ is interleaved with private and political correspondence; press cuttings from newspapers and periodicals; maps and guidebooks; menus, tickets and theatre programmes; advertising, greetings cards, and ephemera; and personal photographs. Collectively, they offer a vivid window onto social life and community from the perspective of a middle-class father, lawyer, and politician during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.
The MP took a literary approach to recording everyday life in the capital, separating his written thoughts into ‘essays’ and ‘chapters’ and writing a twice-yearly ‘Retrospect’ surveying the progression of his career and relationships. An early interest in amateur genealogy and local history records (BULL 1/11) may have contributed towards his habit for reflecting on his family and the passing of time. In 1901 he paused to consider what life in West London would be like on the ‘1st January 2001’, imagining a Hammersmith in which telegraphs and telephones would have been installed in every home “as a matter of course”; poorer “people were housed at reasonable cost in self-contained houses”; prisons had closed “for want of occupants”; the local workhouse had become a gleaming new site for “tertiary education” and William Morris’s Kelmscott House had been turned into a comfortable “Public Library”; and electric boats had been installed on the Thames to take Londoners home from the theatre “at 12 o’clock at night” (BULL 3/3).
Bull’s personal papers are a rich resource not only for his own biography, but also for the study of modern British politics and society, as well as for the histories of metropolitan culture, leisure, and transport.
— Heidi Egginton, Archives Assistant