WRoCAH Small Award Series: Michael Bennett

WRoCAH Small Award Blog Series

This collection of blog posts shares the innovative and productive ways in which WRoCAH students have used the Small Awards scheme. Click on any of the names below to see how Small Awards have helped with these students’ research projects and/or professional training.

Francesca Curtis

Art Gallery Research Trips

Megan Henvey

My Life in Small Awards

Clare Danek

Silk Screens and Wobbly Pots

Gabriel Jones

Musical Performance

Michael Bennett

Archival Research


Michael Bennett

Department of History, University of Sheffield

2016 Cohort

I’ve just submitted my thesis, so now is the perfect time to reflect on the contributions made by the WRoCAH Small Award funding scheme to the process of researching and writing my PhD. Over the past three years I’ve received 12 Small Award grants to conduct archival research and attend conferences at a variety of institutions across the UK, Europe, and the USA. Most of the primary source research which has now found its way into my thesis was gathered during trips financed by Small Awards, and by enabling me to attend a wide variety of academic conferences, the funding scheme has also played a significant role in my professional development.

My research explores the English merchants who invested in the Caribbean sugar boom, a period of rapid economic expansion and social change which began on Barbados in the mid-seventeenth century. This was a pivotal moment in world history: events on Barbados precipitated the expansion of African slavery and the plantation system within the English empire, institutions which would transform the demography and environment of vast swathes of the Americas.

The manuscripts, rare printed books, and maps which I needed to consult to answer my research questions have not been digitised. This meant that I was heavily reliant on Small Award funding to enable me to pay for the travel and accommodation costs associated with conducting primary source research at archives and libraries. The majority of my research time in the UK was spent at London archives (the National Archives, the British Library, and the London Metropolitan Archives) and the Scottish Records Office (Edinburgh). However, I was also given a generous WRoCAH Large Award to undertake research on Barbados for three weeks, and an AHRC IPS fellowship to work at the Huntington Library in Southern California for four months.

There are a couple of practical tips I would give to those among the newer cohort of WRoCAH students who are hoping to use the Small Award scheme to fund archival research. First, you should plan your trips well ahead of time. My approach was to draw up a timetable with my supervisor about when I wanted to complete a draft of each chapter of my thesis. I then worked out how much time I would need in the archives to gather data for each chapter, thought carefully about how long it would take to transcribe and analyse this material, and established how much time I should allow for actually writing the chapters. Of course, sometimes things took longer than I’d initially anticipated. But having a detailed timetable – and therefore a clear sense of how each of my archival trips contributed to the wider process of writing each chapter – really helped me to justify why securing this funding was essential to the completion of my thesis in the ‘Timeliness’ section of the Small Awards application form.

Second, as part of your planning process, you should make sure to do lots of research in the online catalogues for each archive you plan to visit. I think part of the reason I was always successful in my applications to the Small Award scheme was because I made sure to be very specific about what I needed to look at (even quoting archival call numbers for specific manuscripts), and because I explained in detail how these documents would be incorporated into the particular chapter I was working towards.

Third, try to demonstrate that you’ve made a concerted effort to keep costs down in your funding applications. One way to do this is by arranging to stay with relatives or friends while on a research trip. This enabled me to spend longer at the archives, because I only had to claim for travel costs (and not accommodation). Although I realise this may not be possible for everyone: I was extremely lucky to have family and friends with accommodation near some of the archives I needed to visit. Another way to demonstrate value for money is by tying-in an archival visit with a conference presentation. When I travelled to Belfast in April 2018 to give a paper at a conference at Queen’s University, for example, I also arranged to conduct research at an archive in Dublin which I needed to visit for the first chapter of my thesis.

On the topic of conferences, this is another way in which the Small Award scheme has benefitted me as a researcher. By paying for registration fees, travel, and accommodation, Small Award funding has enabled me to present at conferences in Belfast, Birmingham, Leiden, London, Oxford, Poitiers, and Providence (Rhode Island). I would highly recommend taking the time to apply for Small Awards to attend conferences: I’ve made many friends and formed networks with colleagues in my field during these trips, which has opened up invaluable opportunities for me to publish my research. For instance, I was invited to publish the paper which I presented at the University of Leiden in an edited collection. I’m certain that having attended these conferences will pay further dividends in the future.

Overall, the Small Award funding scheme has been an invaluable resource during my PhD journey. It has made the process of completing my PhD research much smoother and has made a major contribution to my professional development by enabling me to attend numerous conferences. I am extremely grateful for the financial support I have received from WRoCAH, without which it would not have been possible to carry out my PhD project in the way I envisioned.


To read more about Michael’s PhD project, ‘Merchant Capital and the Origins of the Barbados Sugar Boom, 1627-1672‘, visit the WRoCAH Research pages.