Race, Ethnicity and Telecommunications in Britain and its Empire, 1850-Present

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: History


This project is a systematic study of Black, Middle Eastern and South/East Asian people working for and associated with the British telegraph and telephone (both wired and wireless) services from the late nineteenth century onwards. It embraces a wide range of careers and jobs including engineers, operators, clerks, and semi-skilled and unskilled labourers. Its temporal, spatial and thematic foci partly reflect many of the untapped strengths of BT Archives and where better cataloguing requirements are necessary, as well as the weaknesses of the historiography. It covers government (notably, the Post Office) and private (e.g. Cable and Wireless) services, domestic and overseas sites of telegraphic and telephonic operation, and the period from the 1850s, when the British Indian telegraphic service started, to the present day, although it was only in the early to mid-twentieth century that significant numbers of Black, Middle Eastern and South/East Asian people were recruited into British telecommunications. The project seeks to understand the experiences and agencies of people who, despite their major contributions to the construction and running of the 'nerves of empire', are marginalised in or absent from the historiography and whose experiences are heavily mediated by white and mainly European perspectives. Colonised telecommunications workers stare back at us in countless staff photographs gracing many histories but their voices are largely absent and forgotten. We lack a satisfactory understanding of the long-term changes leading towards greater equality, diversity and inclusivity in telecommunications. This project addresses all these deficiencies via the following questions:

1. How far do historical sources relating to British telecommunications services reinforce, complicate or challenge Western ideologies of cultural, ethnic and racial hierarchies?
2. How far did these hierarchies shape the recruitment, training, career progression and daily lives of Black, Middle Eastern and South/East Asian peoples working for telecommunications services? What impacts did these hierarchies have on longer-term career paths?
3. To what extent can we recover the experiences and understandings of Black, Middle Eastern and South/East Asian people independently of representations by white authors? And how far did different racial/ethnic backgrounds shape those experiences?
4. What were the technological and other innovative contributions made by Black, Middle Eastern and South/East Asian staff to the development of the services?
5. How did the experiences of Black, Middle Eastern and South/East Asian telecommunications staff change over time (e.g. with changes in employment laws and rights, unionisation, global conflict, decolonisation, nationalisation of Cable and Wireless in 1947 and privatisation of PO telecommunications in 1984)?
6. How far can British-based collections of relevant material be strongly connected to each other and to similar materials in overseas collections?

This project involves the location, and the close and critical study of historical texts, images and other source materials in BT Archives, PK Porthcurno and elsewhere. Given the project's strong twentieth century focus, the CDP student will also be encouraged to engage with organisations for current and retired telecommunication workers including BT's Ethnic Minority Network, Pensioners Reconnect website and former BT/GPO employees Facebook page, and Porthcurno's PK Remembered Facebook page for former Cable and Wireless employees. These organisations will afford answers to questions about Black, Middle Eastern and South/East Asian employees that cannot be easily answered by the kinds of sources discussed above. The CDP student might also create a wealth of new archival material (e.g. digitised oral history recordings, and photographs of telecommunications workers) that would benefit archival and telecommunications community organisations.


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