Rachael Anne Roberts, a student on the School of Advanced Study’s MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights, retraces the history of human rights activism in Bloomsbury by walking in the footsteps of some of its past residents.

London has a rich history of human rights activism, and this is evidenced by the activities of many important figures who lived and worked in Bloomsbury. Bearing this in mind our MA cohort decided to share their stories with as wide an audience as possible, and there is no better way to do this than by walking in the footsteps of these fearless advocates.

It was a journey that began with Justine Taylor, a former student, who began planning the history walking tour during her time at the School. After graduating (with distinction) she asked me to carry on with the idea, which I thought was a great way for the new MA cohort to bond and spread the crucial message of human rights in a fun and entertaining way.

With an undergraduate degree in performance and media, I naturally wished to use elements of my performance background to introduce some fun into the relaying of information and bring the tour to life! Literally. In true walking tour tradition our guides would be both entertainers and a plethora of information for the audience. However, upon venturing into the former homes of the great human rights advocates of the past, audience members would be greeted by the historical figures themselves. As Doctor Who’s time machine wasn’t available – (I know, ‘Back to the future’s’ promise of 2016 fooled us all) – I was forced to approach my classmates to take part in an activity that inspires dread in all non-thespians: acting.

We are a small, close knit group and although the thought of performing did instigate unease in fellow students, the enthusiasm for the project itself was great. We worked as a team to research the advocates for the script and help our two excellent tour guides explore the theme so they could confidently involve the audience in discussions about their thoughts on human rights. The trip through the busy streets of London in remembrance of those who fought for the rights which we too often take for granted today was humbling. These are the same rights that we analyse and aim to further develop using the skills and knowledge gained through the MA course, which was founded in London 21 years ago.

The walk took place on 10 December – the United Nation’s Human Rights Day. We had a great turnout, fantastic performances and feedback, and so much fun! In the words of our tour guide and musician, Jackob Schou Kupferberg – who graced the audience with an original song at the tour’s finale – the audience started their tour by meeting feminist innovator Dame Millicent Fawcett (1947–29) who ‘gave us the women’s suffrage, she refused to be a puppet.’ Visionary Roy Ram Mahun, (1772-1833) ‘he reformed the system, protested Sati and helped women.’

Next was peace campaigner Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) who ‘revolted against idealism, imperialism championed freedom of expression’, and finally, John Howard (1726–90), who ‘chose to listen, reformed the prison system for all of us.’ Each human rights advocate helped to shape the world we live in today; a history that instigated the futures that stretched far past the streets of Bloomsbury.

Ending at The Foundling Museum, once the Foundling Hospital for abandoned children established by Thomas Coram (1668–1751), the question left open was: ‘What of the future of human rights around the world?’ Although we may sometimes fear, there is still hope for the human rights of the future. Travelling the road of demanding justice, fairness and equality may pose risks of failure – but staying still ensures it.

To quote the official song of the tour: ‘Where do we go from here? Human Rights Day is once a year. But what about tomorrow..?’

Those involved

  • Dr Corinne Lennox: course leader who provides endless support of the students and for this project
  • Justine Taylor: the innovator
  • Roslyn Beighton: Roy Ram Mahun
  • Dylan McIlvenny: outside course member who stepped to play John Howard
  • Jakob Schou Kupferberg: tour guide and musician
  • Samara Hand: tour guide
  • John McDonnell: researcher
  • Oscar Cruz: researcher and photographer
  • Jen Rooney: continuous supporter
  • Olga Jimenez: printer and supporter

Rachael Roberts, a full-time student on the School of Advanced Study’s MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights, has a BA (Hons) in Performance and Media from the University of South Wales. She is a human rights activist whose future plans include working with people in conflict zones, and writing and producing human rights documentaries.