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Mary Chamberlain

Politics graduate Mary Chamberlain on smuggling anti-Apartheid literature, developing oral history and reinventing herself as a novelist.


Mary Chamberlain



Year of Graduation 1969

Your time at the University

Mary Chamberlain

I chose Edinburgh because it was 400 miles away from my home in London. I was just eighteen when I arrived – far too young though I didn’t think so at the time – and hopelessly unprepared. My brothers and I were the first generation to go to university, and I was the first girl.

I came up to read history, but had no real understanding of what historical studies required. As a result, I failed to make Honours but James Cornford in Politics came to my rescue and I switched subjects. James was one of my heroes and I stayed in touch with him for the rest of his life – I was honoured when he asked me to be one of the speakers at his memorial.

The politics department was young, small and ambitious. When I arrived in 1965, it was only three years old, with a total of twenty honours students, twelve of whom were in my year.

It was an intimate environment: James and his colleagues were not only tutors, but friends. It was the 1960s. Most of Edinburgh’s 1968 moment was instigated by students from within the department – James always insisted that this was a department of politics not political science. Steve Morrison, the erstwhile rector, was a contemporary.

When we graduated James threw us a party, served a lethal punch of brandy and cider, and invited our bête noires in the university administration. James was mischievous, subversive of pomp, (whether students or staff), prejudice, and pointless rules. We students had the hangover from hell, and ended up on Arthur’s Seat at 5am… James’s critical but supportive voice was in the back of my head for much of my subsequent career. And the friends I made as a student are still my friends today. Wonderful.

Your experiences since leaving the University

My first ‘proper’ job was in the Arms Control & Disarmament Research Unit in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. They were not serious about disarmament, and I left within a year.

I married and, with my then husband, was recruited by the African National Congress (ANC) to smuggle anti-Apartheid literature into South Africa. We were two of their ‘London Recruits’, young white activists who could pass below the racial radar of the regime to help rebuild the ANC after its decimation in 1963. (A film is now being made of the London Recruits.)

I was also active in the Women’s Movement and Anna Coote (another alumna) introduced me to Carmen Callil, the founder of Virago. As a result, my first book ‘Fenwomen: A portrait of Women in an English Village’, was also Virago’s first book.

From there I went into teaching – further education, and then higher education – retraining myself as a contemporary historian, with a focus on oral history, which I helped pioneer. Between 1987 and 1991 I lived in Barbados, using the time to switch from British women’s history, to Caribbean history and using oral history to explore migration and decolonisation. In the latter, my career had come full circle, as decolonisation was one of the subjects I studied as an undergraduate. Now, I did it as a historian but my interests in nation-building were driven by those early years in Politics at Edinburgh.

I retired as Professor of Caribbean History at Oxford Brookes University in 2009, took a MA in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, and reinvented myself as a novelist. My latest novel, ‘The Hidden’, has just been published. My previous novel, ‘The Dressmaker of Dachau’, sold to 19 countries. I’m now working on a thriller…

​​​​​​​Between 1987 and 1991 I lived in Barbados, using the time to switch from British women’s history, to Caribbean history and using oral history to explore migration and decolonisation.

Mary ChamberlainNovelist and Emeritus Professor of Carribean History

Alumni wisdom

Grab every opportunity that comes your way, however outlandish it may appear.

Related links

Offical website for Mary Chamberlain (external link)

The Hidden - Oneworld Publications (external link)

Mary Chamberlain is speaking at the International Women's Day Gliterary Lunch in Edinburgh on 7 March 2019 (external link)