SHS Postgraduate Prize Winner: Dirt, Health and Home Gardening

Sophie Greenway, University of Warwick


Having spent the early part of my PhD attending solely history of medicine conferences, I wanted to test the waters of social and cultural history more broadly, so submitted an abstract for SHS 2017. I was very excited to be accepted and thought I might as well enter the postgraduate paper competition. My research, entitled ‘Growing Well: Dirt, health and the home gardener in Britain 1930-1970’ explores the relationship between dirt as healthy soil and dirt as germ-laden filth, in the context of domestic vegetable growing. I think a lot about gender and domesticity, about how men and women lived in homes and gardens, so naturally assumed my work would fit into the Life Cycles, Families and Communities strand. However, on scanning the other strand themes, that of ‘Producer or Consumer’ in Economies, Cultures and Consumption stood out. I don’t think of myself as an economic historian, so the prospect of writing for this strand made me nervous, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. My research was all about choices between production and consumption of vegetables, and the work on gender and domesticity was at the heart of explaining those choices.

Detail from Ministry of Agriculture leaflet, late 1940s, courtesy of the Garden Museum, London

The decision to enter the Postgraduate Paper Prize competition affected the quality of my presentation in multiple ways. I had to submit a version of my paper in advance, which allowed time to cogitate that is always so valuable. The downside of this early submission is that I then worried about how much I could alter the paper before presentation. After much angst I decided just to let my argument develop and not worry about the competition. I spent quite a lot of time preparing my PowerPoint for the conference, making sure images appeared visually balanced, creating a bespoke background and even some pie charts for my statistics! I practiced delivering my paper at home, so arrived on the day well prepared but with a healthy conviction that there was no way I’d win since my paper was so changed from the original submitted version.

The SHS conference is great – there are loads of interesting panels, and everyone is very friendly. My paper seemed to go fairly well, there were plenty of questions including one about the upper classes from Dr Chris Pearson which was a challenge at the time, but was really beneficial in the long term. In response I acknowledged that it was an element of research that I’d yet to fully understand, but the fact of having been asked that question at that time somehow set me thinking in a new way, and the germ of a section of what was to be my article began to take shape: Of course the upper classes were significant, as they were the original consumers – they consumed not only foodstuffs but the labour of others, and therefore never got their hands dirty. In many ways the rest of society spent the mid-twentieth century using new technologies to obtain a semblance of the upper-class leisured life that they knew so well existed. They, or their ancestors, had served in various ways in the homes of the wealthy for so many generations and knew only too well what it meant to not have to get your hands dirty. I always used to worry most about questions after a paper. On this occasion, being posed a tricky question was actually really productive, so my fear of the question session is now a little reduced.

Receiving an email a couple of weeks after the conference to say that I’d won the prize was a real shock, but also a massive boost to my confidence. I’ve always aimed to share my research with the public, so having the academic judges decide that what I’d said made sufficient sense to be awarded a prize made a huge difference. I worked on an article based on the paper, incorporating the results of further work based on the questions session. Progress towards publishing was, as I’d been warned, very slow, but it’s now out and, thanks to the Wellcome Trust, is open access. It’s great to be able to refer to a published piece when explaining my research. I’ve gone on to present at further conferences and a workshop, honing other aspects of my work. I’m currently on secondment with Warwickshire Wildlife Trust, working on ways to communicate my research to the public. I’ve also won an award from the Humanities Research Centre at the University of Warwick, which provides funding to put on a conference. The call for papers for ‘Er Indoors’: Domesticity and Nature in Home and Garden on 23rd November 2019 is now live.

Participation in the SHS Postgraduate Paper Prize materially impacted on my research journey in two ways – the research strand prompting me to think about producers and consumers gave me a new analytical framework, and the question from Chris Pearson enabled me to think things through in a new way. Both of these things would have remained the case even if I’d not won. I nearly withdrew from the competition, so convinced was I that the extent of my changes would be unacceptable to the judges, but I didn’t and I think I put more effort in as I knew the presentation was to be judged. This certainly helped in developing my thoughts. The main benefit of winning has been the boost to my confidence, encouraging me to keep seizing all the opportunities that doing a PhD provides.


Find out more about the
SHS postgraduate paper prize

Read Sophie’s  Cultural & Social History article 

SHS members can access the journal via this website here

Read more blog posts by CASH authors here


About the Author: Sophie Greenway is a PhD student at the Centre for the History of Medicine, University of Warwick. Her PhD is entitled ‘Growing well: Dirt, health and the home gardener 1930-1970’. She is currently on secondment with Warwickshire Wildlife Trust working on the project ‘Hygiene and our relationship to nature- achieving a better balance?’ Her latest article is ‘Producer or consumer? The House, the Garden and the Sourcing of Vegetables in Britain 1930-1970’, Cultural & Social History, published online on 19 April 2019.

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