Introducing Dr Ismini Pells
We welcome Dr Ismini Pells, who joins us as a Departmental Lecturer in Local and Social History and Course Director of the online Advanced Diploma in Local History.
Please tell us about your research.
My main research interests lie in the military and medical history of the early modern period. In particular, my research has focused on the British and Irish Civil Wars of the Seventeenth Century. My PhD thesis examined the life and career of Sergeant-Major-General Philip Skippon, who commanded the infantry in parliament’s New Model Army during the Civil Wars.
I have since published a monograph on Skippon, Philip Skippon and the British Civil Wars: the ‘Christian Centurion’ (Routledge, 2020).
Following my PhD, I started researching the role of medical practitioners who served in Civil War armies. Early Modern medical practitioners traditionally were viewed as dangerous and bungling amateurs and although this view has been revised, this change in attitudes has been slow to extend to military medics. My research has shown that medical practitioners in early modern armies were, in fact, principled and pioneering men.
Since starting on the Civil War Petitions project (see below), I have been interested to place the ground-breaking systems established for military welfare in England in the context of what was happening elsewhere in Europe during the period.
Together with the late Dr Gijs Rommelse, I established a network of scholars drawn from across Europe and the United States who are engaged in research on early modern military welfare and we are producing an edited collection European Military Welfare, 1500-1800, to be published by Routledge.
What drew you to do your PhD on Philip Skippon?
My interest in Philip Skippon developed as a result of my time in the Honourable Artillery Company.
After graduating from my undergraduate degree at University of Cambridge, I moved to London and was working in television. During this time, I joined the Honourable Artillery Company. The HAC is the oldest regiment in the British Army. During the seventeenth century, the Company provided the officer corps for the London militia. Today, it is part of the Army Reserve (formerly the Territorial Army) and so I served in the regiment while continuing in my day job.
I can honestly say that I have no idea why I decided to join the Army Reserve other than it seemed a good idea at the time! However, I was introduced to the Honourable Artillery Company by a friend of a friend. When I had left Cambridge, I had no thought of doing graduate study but after three years away, I realised that I missed academic historical research. It was therefore while I was serving in the HAC that I began to contemplate returning to university for postgraduate study.
I was interested in the fact that men from the regiment had fought on the opposing sides during the Civil Wars. Skippon had been appointed to command the HAC immediately prior to the Civil Wars, so I thought that I might start my preliminary research by looking in biographies of Skippon.
Given Skippon’s prominence in the parliamentarian cause, I presumed that these biographies existed. However, I failed to find any at all and so contacted Professor John Morrill at University of Cambridge to check that I was not missing anything. Professor Morrill replied that astonishingly, no biography on Skippon had been written to date. So this decided my topic for my masters and then my PhD!
Admittedly, rather like many scholars, I could be accused of becoming a bit obsessed by my subject: I have dragged my poor husband around nearly every Skippon-related site and we even have a dog called Skippon!
You've spent some time looking at early modern medical practitioners; how do they fit into your area of interest?
Again, this probably dates back to my time with the Honourable Artillery Company. At the HAC I trained to be a combat medical technician, a role which provides immediate medical support on the battlefield and provides staffing for medical centres both on bases and operations.
I was fortunate enough not to have been deployed on active service but my experiences were enough to make me interested in military medics in the past, especially the Civil Wars.
As part of my PhD research, I studied Skippon’s wounding at the battle of Naseby, which is one of the best documented examples of the medical care available as a senior officer during the period.
I was invited to develop this research further by Professor Andrew Hopper as part of the ‘Battle-Scarred’ conference and exhibition at the National Civil War Centre in Newark, which examined medical care, welfare and mortality during the Civil Wars.
From there, my first academic job was as a postdoctoral researcher at University of Exeter on a project called ‘The Medical World of Early Modern England, Wales and Ireland, c. 1500-1700’. This project aimed to reconstruct the lives and practice of all medical practitioners active in these countries during the early modern period. My main responsibility was to research military and naval practitioners and it has just grown from there!
You're part of the Civil War Petitions Project, alongside Professor Andrew Hopper – what is your role in this project?
I am the project manager for the Civil War Petitions project. It has been my job to oversee the day-today running of the project and liaise between Andrew as the Principal Investigator and the other three Co-Investigators: Dr David Appleby (University of Nottingham), Professor Mark Stoyle (University of Southampton) and Dr Lloyd Bowen (University Cardiff).
I was closely involved in working with the IT team from University of Nottingham in developing our project website, www.civilwarpetitions.ac.uk, where you can find images and transcriptions for all the applications for pensions paid by the state to wounded soldiers and war widows during the Civil Wars.
Although pensions had been made available to wounded soldiers during the reign of Elizabeth I, it was not until the Civil Wars that the pension scheme operated on a truly effective nationwide scale and that pensions were also paid to the widows and orphans of those who died in service. The Civil War pension scheme was thus a ground-breaking moment in the history of military welfare in England and Wales.
Much of my time on the project has been spent in uploading the images and transcriptions to the website, ably assisted by our two fabulous research assistants Dr Trixie Gadd and Dr Charlotte Young. I am also responsible for gathering the research data from London and the south-eastern counties.
What work will you be involved with as Departmental Lecturer in Local and Social History?
My main role will be as the course director for the Advance Diploma in Local History. This is a one-year, part-time course which provide training in the key concepts and methods required for the study of local history. It is delivered entirely online, so is accessible to students from all over the world and is taught at third-year undergraduate level in preparation for those considering taking a higher degree such as the MSc in English Local History.
Why is the study of local history important?
Local history is one of the most accessible subdisciplines of history. Many people become interested in the heritage of their immediate surroundings and this provides a useful avenue through which to introduce them to wider issues and debates in history by linking local affairs to national and even international events.
Local history is also a particularly fruitful way to achieve a broader understanding of political power and engagement that moves beyond studies of elites and central institutions. It gives a prominence to often overlooked or marginalised groups that helps to explain the ways in which political, legal, religious and socio-cultural issues actually operated in practice and influenced central decision-making.
Published 26 August 2022