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

History Ref: 4145

About the award


Primary Supervisor – Professor Richard Noakes

Secondary Supervisor – Dr Stacey Hynd (University of Exeter) and Ms Anne Archer at BT Archives.  Mr James Elder will provide cover for Anne Archer prior to her anticipated return from Maternity Leave shortly after the start of the studentship.

Applications are invited for a PhD studentship on race, ethnicity and telecommunications in the British empire from 1850 to the present at the University of Exeter in partnership with BT Archives (London).  The studentship is awarded by the Science Museum and Archives Consortium under the AHRC’s Collaborative Doctoral Partnership scheme.

This project is a systematic study of the Black, Middle Eastern and South/East Asian people who worked for the British domestic and overseas telecommunications services from the 1850s to the present. 

It examines their working experiences and their significant contributions to the construction, operation and technological development of telegraphic and telephonic services – questions largely overlooked by historians.  By close and critical study of a wealth of underexplored texts, images and other sources in BT Archives, PK Porthcurno Museum of Global Communications and other collections, as well as the engagement with retired and active telecommunications workers, this project aims to plug this historiographical gap and contribute to the decolonizing of histories of telecommunications in Britain and its empire.

It will also raise the profile of significant materials within British telecommunications archive collections. 

The student will produce a highly original piece of historical research and contribute to the enrichment of BT Archives’ catalogue (by providing context and other details to records) and to its physical displays and related activities in telecommunications heritage.

The project focuses on the following questions, but the student will be encouraged to pursue other, related questions that reflect their particular areas of expertise and strengths of the research materials:

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?

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?  How far did different racial/ethnic, as well as gender, class, religious and educational/professional 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?

6. How far can British-based collections of relevant material be strongly connected to each other and to similar materials in overseas collections?

To address these questions the student will be expected to achieve an excellent critical understanding of the historiography of telecommunications, of British imperialism and colonialism, of race and ethnicity in the domestic and overseas British labour market, and of labour histories of late nineteenth and twentieth century Africa, Asia and the Middle East.  They will also be required to achieve a strong grasp of recent anthropological, historical and museological approaches to decolonising historical understanding and historical sources. The project could also embrace non-English language sources which would expand approaches to the research questions. 

The student will also be encouraged to engage with organisations for current and retired telecommunication workers including BT’s Ethnic Minority Network and Porthcurno’s PK Remembered Facebook page.  This research could produce a wealth of new archival material (e.g. digitised oral history recordings, and photographs of telecommunications workers) that will benefit archival and telecommunications community organisations.

In addition to the 36 months spent on research, the student will also spend a minimum of 3-6 months at BT Archives developing skills in professional archiving and cataloguing.  The student will be trained in archival description to international (ISAD(G)) and ISAAR (CPF) standards and in using CALM database software.  How and when this time is used will depend on the student’s interests and goals.

Further information about the funding scheme and institutions involved in the project can be found at the following links:

AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Partnership Scheme

BT Archives

Postgraduate Research at the University of Exeter

Science Museum Group Collaborative Doctoral Awards

UKRI research training


Duration – 45 months (or part time equivalent) plus additional 3 months for professional development opportunities.

For more information about the project and informal enquiries, please contact the primary supervisor, Professor Richard Noakes

Entry requirements

You should have at least a 2:1 Honours degree, or international equivalent, in modern history, history of science and technology or relevant field of humanities and social sciences, and have obtained, or be currently working towards, a Master’s degree at Merit level or international equivalent, in modern history, history of science and technology or relevant field of humanities and social sciences. Experience in global, imperial and transnational history essential.

Applicants must be able to demonstrate an interest in the archives sector and enthusiasm for developing skills more widely in related areas.

If English is not your first language you will need to meet the English language requirements and provide proof of proficiency. Click here for more information and a list of acceptable alternative tests.

We encourage the widest range of potential students to study for this CDP studentship and are committed to welcoming students from different backgrounds to apply. We particularly welcome applications from Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds as they are currently underrepresented at this level in this area.

All applicants must meet UKRI terms and conditions for funding.  See:

This studentship, including full tuition fees and maintenance allowance, is available to UK, EU and International candidates.

Click Here to Apply