Alumni profile - Phoebe Cousins
Queen Mary has shaped the way I think about the past, the future and my confidence in myself and what I can achieve through dedicating time, passion and knowledge to the things I’m truly interested in.
What influenced your decision to study History at Queen Mary? Did you have a particular career path in mind?
When I was at school, I felt like the only one who didn’t have a career path that was their calling. Some of my friends wanted to be doctors, or midwives, or dancers, or work in specific fields like accounting or finance. When I imagined myself as a ‘grown up’ I never had a career in mind, so when it came to applying for university, I decided to simply apply for the subjects I felt passionate about and knew I wanted to continue with once I left school and sixth form. At the time of applying, I knew I wanted to study 19th and 20th century British History, particularly social and women's history, and as Queen Mary had such a wide range of modules available to study, it seemed perfect.
I initially applied to do a joint honours in English and History with English being my home school, but during my interview I realised my real passion was with the history and context of texts and events rather than the literature itself. My history teacher and I contacted Admissions at Queen Mary and they allowed me to amend my offer to a single honours History degree.
What aspects of your undergraduate degree did you enjoy learning about and was there anything that surprised you in your studies?
There is so much about my undergraduate degree that I found enjoyable. From compulsory modules such as Unravelling Britain in my first year to being able to sample periods of history that were out of my comfort zone in modules such as Anglo-American Relations with Dr James Ellison. The best, and most surprising part for me however was my second year where I picked a module entitled Society & the State c.1485-1603, run by Dr Ceri Law. I picked this module because I had never studied the Tudor period before, and as such a wide range of modules were available to me due to studying a History BA (rather than a Medieval or Modern History BA) I thought it was the perfect opportunity to give it a go. From our first lecture I fell in love with a period I had never studied before and immediately ordered as many books as I could afford on the subject. Until then I had never studied the medieval or early modern period aside from a few lessons on the Norman Conquest in Year 7, so I was shocked that a period of history that previously had seemed so inaccessible and unobtainable to me suddenly outshone what I had come to university intending to study!
What historical period do you find most interesting and why?
The period I find the most interesting is English history c.1400-1670. Aside from massive social, political, and religious upheaval such as the Reformation and Counter Reformation taking place in this period, there’s something about early modern England that is close enough to our lived experience for us to understand and empathise, but far enough away that it takes on a magical, even mythical quality, which allows for a degree of escapism and wonder. The secular foundations of the country we live in today were shaped by massive religious change in this period, and our understanding of monarchy and the propaganda of influential figures largely began in this period with the works of artists such as Hans Holbein. And aside from this, everybody loves the Tudors!
You went on to study your masters at Queen Mary where your research focused on the queenship of Mary I. How did you decide your topic of study for your postgraduate degree?
Much like my approach to choosing what to study for my undergraduate degree, I based my masters thesis on what I was interested in and inspired by. Mary I and the Counter Reformation had caught my attention during my second-year lectures, and as my love for early modern history grew, there was something about the huge pendulum swing of the change in state religion in 1555 and again in 1558 that fascinated me. Growing up I had only ever known ‘Bloody Mary’ and I wanted to explore further the reality of England crowning their first (acknowledged) Queen Regnant and what this meant for the creation of Queenship, as well as the shift back to Catholicism. Much of the ‘Bloody Mary’ stereotype was created in the 19th and 20th centuries and I really wanted to strip this back and go back to the 16th century reality, rather than the mediated version created by Victorian protestant historians.
What did you love most about the School of History at Queen Mary?
No one in my family had ever been to university and most had left school at 16 or younger to go straight into work so I didn’t know what to expect when it was time to look at universities. Most of my classmates had an idea of where they’d like to go, or wanted to go where their parents went, but I just looked at courses that interested me. Being from Whitechapel myself, Queen Mary was my local university but until it came to searching for places to study, I had no idea it was even there.
From sitting in the Arts2 lecture theatre with my Mum listening to what modules would be on offer the following academic year, I knew the School of History at Queen Mary is where I wanted to study. I was worried I would not achieve the grades as the requirements were high and I had very little confidence in myself academically, but I wrote ‘I HAVE TO GO HERE!’ at the top of my notes whilst listening to Dr Miri Rubin outline what I could be studying and made it my goal to achieve the UCAS points I needed.
I never saw myself going to university let alone a Russell Group one, but from the moment I set foot in Queen Mary it felt exciting and like there was so much to offer and so much information available for me to absorb through a range of modules, special subjects, and extracurricular opportunities. The academic staff were approachable yet highly professional and it wasn’t uncommon to come across someone who was a household name to anyone with a serious interest in history. The academics are world leaders in their subjects and there was never a sense of any of them having stagnated in their fields; they were all active in pushing forward new thinking in their respective periods and wanted to take their students along with them and learn from them. Additionally, being a college within the University of London allows students access to a vast range of intercollegiate modules at places such as Kings College or Goldsmiths. In my masters year I took an intercollegiate module at Kings College which I thoroughly enjoyed and which complimented my Queen Mary modules really well.
Following your masters, you undertook research for Dr Hallie Rubenhold towards her book, The Five, which tells the untold stories of Jack the Ripper’s five victims. How did you get involved in this work and what did you enjoy most about this experience?
I began my work with Dr Rubenhold during my master's degree when I responded to an advert she had posted on Twitter. At the time I had completed all my modules and submitted all my coursework, so was focusing solely on my dissertation, whilst also working part time. After years studying a range of different periods, I was finding it impossible to find any escapism in history as I was working solely on my dissertation topic, so the chance to conduct research on a period and topic which had no relation to my own work and then handing it over to someone else to piece together into a book sounded perfect!
Dr Rubenhold and I would meet in person to outline which sections of research I would focus on and then liaise via email throughout the research and writing process. I conducted most of my research in the British Library, looking at secondary material from topics such as Swedish Methodism, the history of tattoos in the East End and Victorian alcoholism. When the book was published in 2019 it sent shockwaves through the academic community and upset many self-proclaimed Ripperologists.
Dr Rubehnhold’s uncovering of previously unseen primary sources about the canonical five women who fell victim to Jack the Ripper resulted in the book winning the the Baillie Gifford Prize for Non-fiction and being shortlisted for the 2020 Wolfson History Prize. Every time I see The Five in a bookshop I still go and open the acknowledgments page to see my name in print; it is one of my greatest professional achievements!
Were you involved in any extracurricular activities whilst at Queen Mary?
I was quite a boring student and actually focused on my studies rather than trying to nurse my hangover through a seminar, so whilst I didn’t commit a lot of time to societies, I did involve myself in more academic based extracurricular activities. I was elected to be a Course Representative in my second year and continued this position into my MA, becoming a Senior Course Rep. I sat on the Staff-Student Liaison Committee as well as the Taught Programmes Board. I also held a position within the Design Team of the Queen Mary History Journal and was awarded a studentship with the Mile End Institute where I worked to engage the local community with national politics and personally transcribed the BBC Charter Renewal of 2015 at the House of Lords.
During my second year I was part of the East End at War project ran by Dr Patrick Longson where we transcribed newspaper articles and documents from the Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives (which is on Bancroft Road right by the Queen Mary Graduate Centre) to gain insight into the lived experience of WWI on the East End. We had a Twitter page and website to help make our content and work more accessible and bridge the gap between academic history and our national, local history.
You currently work as a Jewel House Warden at Historic Royal Palaces. What does this role involve? Can you explain what a ‘Royal Welcome’ is?
On a day-to-day basis I don a top hat and work along with the rest of my team to provide security and a world class visitor experience for those coming to see the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London. It can be intense working in such a high security environment with a lot of responsibility on your shoulders, but this is balanced by being able to speak to visitors who have often come to the Tower of London because it is something that was on their bucket list. My team and I bring history alive by providing bespoke private tours, visually impaired tours and Make A Wish Foundation Tours for families and VIPs, as well as by sharing the intricacies of the items we look after inside out.
Whilst my working responsibilities are split between high security and visitor experience, Historic Royal Palaces’ ‘Royal Welcome’ is at the heart of this. The Royal Welcome is a mindset rather than a list of goals to achieve or things to say. Our focus is on making each visitor that comes through our gates feel like the palace they are visiting is open just for them, and nothing they ask is too much; whether it is wanting to know how heavy the Imperial State Crown is or needing assistance to enhance their experience (as many of our sites were not built at a time when access was a priority), we want visitors to feel fulfilled and walk away with a sense of wonder and desire to know more. The properties and estates that Historic Royal Palaces manage are real, and often still active royal palaces and we strive to honour their authenticity whilst also making the history within them accessible and open to all. Some visitors come to our sites with a sense of trepidation, convinced we’re the historical Disneyland because these things ‘simply can't be real’, but they are and we’re honoured and privileged to still have them open to the public.
What are your hopes and plans for your career going forwards?
I work in a unique job in a unique place and every day I feel lucky to be in the position that I am. It has been nearly four years now since I completed my master's degree, so I am starting to feel like I would like to go back into formal education again in some capacity. Long term, I hope to progress into a heritage management position within the Tower of London, hopefully managing the team I’m already a part of. I am currently looking into the Heritage Management MA run collaboratively between Historic Royal Palaces and Queen Mary but only time will tell if I can fit it in alongside working.
I am also revisiting my master's thesis on the queenship of Mary I to rework it into a standalone monograph. It is a long-term project and will take years to complete but will allow me to further focus on Mary I with the goal of publishing it, potentially as part of a PhD via publication. I would love to do a regular research PhD, but I just don’t have the time or the money; there just aren’t enough hours in the day!
How did your time and study at Queen Mary prepare you for your career?
My time at Queen Mary taught me such a wide range of things which not only prepared me for my future career, but for life in general. I was taught to approach history in myriad ways and that we are living through history rather than just looking back on it. The ability to form beneficial professional working relationships and fostering a well-rounded work ethic have also been invaluable to me in my career.
Queen Mary has shaped the way I think about the past, the future and my confidence in myself and what I can achieve through dedicating time, passion, and knowledge to the things I’m truly interested in.
On a personal level I made some great friends whilst at University, a few of which are now also my colleagues at Historic Royal Palaces.
What would your advice be to students interested in studying History at Queen Mary?
Get as much information as you can, ask as many questions as you can and throw yourself into it! Queen Mary has so much to offer and is an incredible environment to learn in. For the first time in your life, you can focus on the one subject you really want to study and really throw yourself in the deep end and absorb everything the department has to offer. From the academics to your peers, everyone loves their subject as much as you do so make use of their knowledge and pick their brains! There are such a range of options and opportunities available to you so keep an open mind, ask questions, and enjoy it because it goes by in the blink of an eye.
This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Coordinator, Nathalie Grey. If you would like to get in touch with Phoebe or engage her in your work, please contact Nathalie at firstname.lastname@example.org.