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War, Health and Humanitarianism

How can we define humanitarianism?

What motivates humanitarian actors like Oxfam and the Red Cross?

How have relief and development organizations competed and collaborated to mitigate suffering from conflicts?

Is political neutrality feasible or necessary?

These and other questions will be addressed in the symposium, ‘War, Health and Humanitarianism’ on 16 June in the Weston Library Lecture Theatre, which brings together historians studying conflicts from the medieval period to the present day. Speakers will include Dr. Rosemary Wall, Bodleian Library Sassoon Visiting Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Global History at the University of Hull, whose current research focuses on conflict in Cyprus, Vietnam and Nigeria in the 20th century and British and French humanitarian responses.

For further information and to register see:

Unloading dried milk

Unloading dried milk for the starving people of Biafra at Fernando Po during the Nigerian Civil War, July 1968
MS. Oxfam COM/5/1/51
Credit: Duncan Kirkpatrick / Oxfam

Oxfam’s founding minutes among the Bodleian’s treasures

Oxfam’s first minute book, recording the founding of the organization on 5 October 1942 in response to suffering behind the Allied blockade in Greece and other occupied countries, is now on display in the ‘Bodleian Treasures’ exhibition at the Weston Library and online.

The exhibition brings together some of the most iconic documents from the Bodleian’s collection of 12 million items, displayed in pairs. The Oxfam minute book is paired with a Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things by ‘a Gentleman of the University of Oxford’ identified as Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822). This poem against war and tyranny was published by the 18 year old Shelley in 1811, shortly before his expulsion from Oxford for publishing a pamphlet on atheism.

As we near the 75th anniversary of that crucial meeting in the University Church later this year, we expect renewed interest in the origins of Oxfam. The first minute book will no doubt be revisited!

first minutes

Opening minutes of the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, 5 Oct 1942 (MS. Oxfam GOV/1/1/1)


New Oxfam catalogues

The fifth catalogue of Oxfam archive materials, describing records produced by Oxfam’s appeals and fundraising function, is now available on the Bodleian Library’s website.

The Oxford Committee for Famine Relief’s first appeal, ‘Greek Week’, was a local affair, but raised £12,700 towards the alleviation of famine behind the Allied blockade of Greece through advertisements in the Oxford press, a gift shop selling donated goods, and events such as concerts of Greek folk songs. Following the end of the Second World War, the Committee began collecting food and clothing parcels for the war-affected in Europe, branching out into national press advertising in 1946. This was a pioneering step at a time when professional marketing techniques were rarely applied to charity fundraising and in subsequent years the charity would become known for its hard-hitting, and often controversial, use of advertising.


Advertisement, 1966

Many of these early efforts can be viewed in the archive, which includes a series of newspaper advertisements published between 1943 and 1991. Used with other records such as correspondence relating to early appeals, appeals mailings sent out to supporters to request donations from the 1960s onwards, and a series of market research reports, researchers will be able to trace how the charity’s approach to fundraising evolved over time. This includes its adoption of ‘starving child’ imagery from the 1950s, and conscious use of more positive portrayals of empowered beneficiaries from the 1970s onwards.

Collecting tin

Collecting tin, 1960s

Also of interest will be records, including reports and newsletters, relating to Oxfam’s regular giving schemes, the first of which, ‘Pledged Gifts’, was launched in 1960. This had recruited 26,000 voluntary collectors by 1964, collecting small, regular donations from neighbours and workmates. Equally fascinating are correspondence files and reports relating to the co-funding of Oxfam projects by the Overseas Development Administration and the Commission of the European Communities and their respective successors, both of which began in the 1970s.

In addition to the new appeals and fundraising catalogue, a second, expanded edition of the programme policy and management catalogue has been released. This includes correspondence of the Policy Director and staff relating to organizational campaigns and Oxfam’s role in advocacy on behalf of poor people.

Gender policy and strategy are revealed in the correspondence, reports and publications of the Gender and Development Unit, established in 1984, tasked with raising awareness of socially constructed differences between men and women and the unequal power relationships that result, and incorporating a gender perspective in Oxfam’s programme.

News from GADU - First edition 1987

First edition of ‘News from GADU’, 1987

Records of the regional ‘Desks’ and the Humanitarian Department and their predecessors offer a detailed insight into the running of Oxfam’s development programme and its interventions in humanitarian crises from the early 1970s. These consist chiefly of correspondence between staff employed in numerous countries around the world and colleagues in Oxford. Health Unit materials include papers relating to Oxfam’s development of equipment such as immunization kits for use primarily in emergencies, and the production of the Oxfam energy biscuit which became part of its supplementary feeding programmes.

The second edition of the catalogue of files relating to grants made by Oxfam (‘project files’) will appear soon.

Who founded Oxfam?

Last month we celebrated International Archives Day with Oxfam’s first minute book. It reminded us that the make-up of the small group that founded Oxfam has often been debated. The answer could be seen as simply a list of those attending the first meeting on 5 October 1942 that brought the Oxford Famine Relief Committee into being. However, no such list exists and the minutes of that meeting mention only three people by name as being present – Rev. T. R. Milford (Chairman), Professor Gilbert Murray and Mrs. White.

Cecil Jackson-Cole (left) and Canon T. R. Milford (centre) at the Oxfam Summer Conference, 1962. Oxfam Archive, Bodleian Libraries

Cecil Jackson-Cole (left) and Canon T. R. Milford (centre) at the Oxfam Summer Conference, 1962. Oxfam Archive, Bodleian Libraries

Rev. T. Richard Milford of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, where the meeting took place, explained at the outset that

‘the meeting had been called by a small preliminary committee of which he was Chairman and that its five members had been appointed at a public meeting …….. on July 20th.’

A list of names on the first page of the minute book, probably of those appointed at the public meeting, but with numerous later amendments, suggests that it is likely that the following were also present on 5 October: Miss Margaret Macnamara, Assistant Hon. Secretary, Sir Alan Pim, Hon. Treasurer, Wilson Baker, Mrs. Kathleen Compton-Ford, Rev. F. Greaves, R. V. Holt, Dr. Leo Liepmann, Rev. H. R. Moxley, Lady Mary Murray, and Nowell C. Smith.

At the second meeting on 11 December 1942 it was reported that the Hon. Secretary, Mary Pask (who had sent apologies to the October meeting) and the Assistant Hon. Secretary, Miss Macnamara, had resigned. The Chairman introduced the new Hon. Secretary, Cecil Jackson-Cole. Jackson-Cole, businessman and philanthropist, later the founder of charities including Help the Aged and Action Aid, became the driving force behind the work of the Committee by various means including his innovative use of advertising. He continued as Hon. Secretary and later Secretary Emeritus with the Committee (Oxfam from 1965) until his death in 1979.

Oxfam advertisement, Oxford Mail, 1947

Advertisement, Oxford Mail, 1947. Oxfam Archive, Bodleian Libraries