In the latest in our series exploring the work of the Parkes Institute’s thriving postgraduate research community, we meet Jen Arnold. Jen began her PhD this academic year, and is working under Professor Tony Kushner, head of the Parkes Institute and an internationally recognised historian of British Jewry.
What’s your project title?
From Travelling Boxing booths to British Fascism the life of Southampton’s Heavyweight Champion Joe Beckett
What are some of your research interests?
Anti-Semitism, Gypsy and Travellers, non-Jewish and Jewish relations, boxing, life writing, local history, masculinity and identity.
Tell us a bit more about your PhD project
The project proposes to evaluate the life and career of professional heavyweight champion Joe Beckett. Beckett’s boxing career spanned most of his adult life; firstly in the fairground boxing booths organised within his Traveller family, and later as a professional British Heavyweight Champion boxer, which brought him several Commonwealth and national titles. Nevertheless, Beckett’s boxing career is not the only attribute in his life that is worth evaluating. Therefore, I believe Beckett will provide a wide and varied insight into not only British social history, but furthermore, towards the history of the south coast and in particular to the history of Southampton. By analysing his membership in the BUF, the project will offer a local perspective on the dynamics of non-Jewish and Jewish relations. Beckett lived in various south-coast towns in the course of his life; an analysis of his activities will offer insight into various local histories. This will also allow a comparison of the different local fascist and racist dynamics in these towns. Therefore, local archives will be examined. This thesis will adopt a chronological approach; the thesis will employ the work on auto/biographical theory and life history, paying particular attention to the four attributes of Beckett’s life.
The study will firstly biographically unpack Beckett’s life as a Traveller as little is known of the Beckett family’s origins and whether their occupations of fairground booth-boxers, showmen and market-stall holders reflected their status within British society. Some direct comparisons can be made between the Jewish and Travelling communities. Indeed, the migrant environment flows through both groups. This project will research the background into the immigrant and minority culture of the Traveller groups and explore their status in British and local society. The discussion will unpack the social structure of the Travellers’ community itself and analyse the variations of identity within the community.
The project will secondly focus on Beckett’s prosperous fighting career with an additional focus given to the identity and identities that are associated with Boxing and the representation of masculinity within the sport itself. This will involve researching national and European sources that reflect the image of boxing. Indeed, this part of the discussion will be assessed by analysing not only the physical representation of boxing, but furthermore, the psychological presentation of the sport, which reflected the cultural values of Britain. The discussion will evaluate photographic and pictorial sources. Indeed, sources including the presentation of boxers within staged photographs and the representation of boxers in popular Victorian and Edwardian periodicals, including Punch and others. This will highlight the hybridity and fluidity of identity within boxing and how it was used as a medium to move within the social stratifications of British culture. A discussion on contemporary boxing champions will be analysed to interpret boxing in British society today. For example, Tyson Fury, himself of Traveller descent, will be researched as a direct comparison to Joe Beckett.
Finally, the discussion will analyse Beckett’s anti-Semitic attitudes that stemmed from his time fighting in London’s East End and were furthered by BUF papers such as Action that encouraged the propagandised notion of the ‘Hidden Hand’. With the wealth of social history that Beckett’s life overlapped with, I hope to gain insight into broader social and cultural attitudes towards anti-Semitism, with a constant focus on the migrant mind-set that was common to both groups, alongside their social ideals of the family. The Jewish populations of the south-coast port towns, not only Southampton, but also Portsmouth will allow a particular insight into the transmigrant and immigrant Eastern European Jewish communities.
What got you interested in this particular topic?
From a very young age, I have always had an interest in British ethnic minorities, specifically the Anglo-Jewish culture and Eastern European immigration, but since studying at Southampton University I have discovered a passion for the diversity of different ethnic cultures in Britain. This particular topic interests me on several levels; firstly, Beckett offers a unique opportunity to see British cultural identities, both in terms of ethnic minorities in society, but also the different identities of individuals throughout a period of British history that was continually evolving through war and industrial revolution Secondly, the project entails a personal journey as I am the great-granddaughter of Beckett and I was raised on stories of his life, so inevitably see it part of my own heritage.
What made you want to study at the Parkes Institute?
I completed my BA History at Southampton University and most of the modules I took involved the Parkes Institute. In fact, there was not one of my semesters that I didn’t at least have two modules which were based in Jewish and non-Jewish relations. I quickly discovered that I had a passion for Anglo-Jewish history and culture. This then led me to take the MA in Jewish History and Culture that was led by Parkes Institute. It was Professor Tony Kushner specifically, who positively challenged my enthusiasm and encouraged me to do my Ph.D. This is a decision I have never regretted and I love (mostly) every challenge that undertaking a Ph.D. involves.
What do you like about studying here?
The Parkes Institute is a friendly, intimate yet extremely well resourced academic facility, whose various scholars offer expertise on a variety of subjects directly related to the materials preserved in one of Europe’s largest collections of Jewish and Jewish related sources. In accordance with the will of James Parkes, whose collection of resources were donated to promote Jewish-Christian relations, the institute offers perhaps one of the richest environments for understanding these two communities, and the events which have shaped their interaction.
What sort of activities have you been involved in since you started here?
I am privileged enough to be in my fifth year of studying at Southampton University and they have been filled with many highs and some lows that only academic studying can bring. Since starting my Ph.D. I have been mostly involved in researching, writing and deciding the direction of my thesis.
I have recently accepted an outreach doctoral fellowship for the Parkes Institute and I enjoy everything that this role involves. One of the responsibilities is to lead research-based workshops with schools around the Southampton area. I have taught sessions on and off campus and it has be a fantastic opportunity to represent the Parkes Institute and show teenagers the diversity of Jewish history and culture, but also the workshops give me a unique way of researching my thesis and allow me to demonstrate my research material.