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Dr Toby Butler

Reader and Programme Leader, MA Heritage Studies

Raphael Samuel History Centre, Arts and Digital Industries (ADI)

Toby Butler is programme leader of the MA Heritage Studies and also teaches on the BA History programme. He has particular research interest in oral history, locative media and the history of London. He has directed several research projects including the Bethnal Green Disaster Project and Ports of Call.

    Toby Butler is the programme leader for the postgraduate heritage studies programmes at the University of East London. Toby's research interests include oral history, digital heritage, historical interpretation in museums and the social and the cultural history of London. Toby has directed and worked on oral history projects in India, the USA, Wales and England. He has published work on history and heritage in various edited books and has published journal articles in Cultural Geographies, Museum Practice, Geography Compass, Museums Journal, Social and Cultural Geography and Rising East.

    Toby is known internationally for his work exploring how hisory and memory can be used to interpret places and their pasts. He has a particular interest using multi-media and has created several websites that use oral history recordings to explore place, and they include several freely downloadable audio walks of various places in London ( He is also the project director for the 'Ports of Call' project, which has been working with community groups and artists around the docks of East London to map and historically interpret the area in various ways ( and the Bethnal Green Disaster Memorial Project (

    Before working in academia Toby was the editor of Third Sector and Fostercare Magazine and published work in various magazines and newspapers including the Independent, The Guardian and the New Statesman. He has also authored several multi-media oral history trails, published by Elmbridge Borough Council, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and the Museum of London.

    Toby is an Associate of the Museums Association, a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a member of the Oral History Society.
    Toby is a visiting fellow of the Scottish Oral HIstory Centre at Strathclyde University, an editor of History Workshop Journal and an external examiner at Kingston University.


    Toby has an international profile as an oral history practitioner specialising in place-based heritage interpretation. He has designed and directed several research projects which have cumulatively attracted £183,000 of funding and his work was submitted as part of the REF2014.

    Below are some details of some of these projects:

    This two year project collected and conserved records relating to the 1943 Bethnal Green disaster (amongst the worst civilian disasters of the 20th century) and its aftermath, and provided a range of learning opportunities and resources for memorial visitors and the wider community. The project was run in close partnership with the Bishopsgate Library to archive the documents and recordings generated by the project, and the Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust that is responsible for the construction of a major memorial to the disaster in Bethnal Green. Over 30 interviews professional quality oral history interviews have been completed, transcribed and archived with a mix of survivors, rescuers, medical staff, family members. As project director I managed three staff who worked with 24 volunteers.
    A key aim was to publicise the relatively little-known disaster that had 173 victims, the vast majority of which were women and children. Over 3.000 project leaflets were distributed, 55 talks given and a travelling ‘pop-up’ exhibition including interactive links, accessible by smartphone, to oral history clips has toured 14 venues. An edited oral history book has been produced and 2,000 copies distributed. So far the project has directly reached over 10,000 people. In July a plaque at the memorial site was unveiled publicising the free audio trail, featuring voices from the oral history interviews and including recordings with children from local schools who lost pupils in the disaster. A seven lesson teaching pack has been created along with worksheets, activities and audio clips. All of the outputs mentioned above are now available free from
    The aim of the Ports of Call project ( was to create walking trails, artwork and historical interpretation with members of the communities surrounding the Royal Docks in London. The core project involved creating three audio trails around the Royal Docks consisting of oral history recordings, music and historical research. The project involved the project director and three artists and musicians (two of whom where UEL academics, Mark Hunter and Jo Thomas) in the delivery of the various public workshops and the trails.
    The result was a public event programme, website 1,000 CD trail packs that were distributed to local residents and partners; and three exhibitions (City Airport, the Britannia Community Centre and North Woolwich Museum) and an outdoor plaque trail. Twelve local people were trained in tour guiding, oral history recording and historical research.
    The project included a substantial amount of community outreach work, including a series of community mapping and oral history workshops and a series of rap music and history workshops at the Asta Youth Centre in Silvertown which both fed into the music and oral history recordings used in the final trails.
    We worked with school children to use digital imaging techniques, archaeology and storytelling as a tool to explore new approaches to children’s learning about archaeological heritage and the sustainable environment. Children from Drew Road Primary School were involved in archaeological excavations with an archaeologist on the Thames foreshore along with artist Helen Marshall. Two exhibitions were created with the finds; one at North Woolwich Museum and another featuring wall mounted digital scans was on display for several months at London City Airport and was seen by tens of thousands of passengers.
    Finally the Precious Places trail set out to address gaps in communication across generations and cultures. We commissioned artist Loraine Leeson to work with individuals from a number of different groups at the St. John’s Community Centre in North Woolwich, including the elderly, parents, young people and members of the local Lithuanian community, to create a series of metal plaques marking places that had special significance to them in the local area. Plaques are still on display on the Woolwich Free Ferry, two parks in North Woolwich and various other sites around Newham.
    The Hopper’s Hospital is a sixteenth century building in Kent owned by a Stepney-based charity, the Red House. For 300 years it was a farmhouse and then a beer house until 1910 when it was acquired by Reverend Richard Wilson, a vicar from Stepney, to house his missionary and hospital work with hop pickers, many of whom were from East London and went to the hop gardens to pick hops as a working holiday. The ‘Little Hoppers Hospital’ became famous and Wilson became a well-known spokesman for the East London pickers.
    Today the hospital has been converted to Hoppers, residential accommodation and the Red House charity subsidises residential breaks for under-privileged groups in East London who, like the hop pickers who preceded them, may not be able to easily afford holidays. Hoppers is also used for retreats and away days by community and church groups and it is open to the public on heritage days.
    Hoppers had little in the way of historical interpretation of the hospital and the hop picking communities that surrounded it. This project brought together academic staff and students at UEL, charity trustees and volunteers from the Red House charity and older people (ex-hop pickers) who currently live sheltered accommodation in Tower Hamlets Community Housing (Cable Street) to work on an exhibition concerned with the history of hop picking and as a result the hoppers hospital, and Hoppers now has a permanent exhibition (photographic and audio installation). See




    *The 1943 Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster: an Oral History London: University of East London, 2015. 106 pages plus 8 pages of front matter, and attached compact disc. ISBN: 978-0-9932665-0-8.


    Book chapters


    *‘The historical hearing aid: located oral history from the listener’s perspective’, in Perks, Robert and Alistair Thompson (eds.) The Oral History Reader (3rd Edition) London: Routledge, 2015, 536-555.


    ‘Memoryscapes: experiments in oral history and place-based media’, in Memory on Trial

    Media, Citizenship and Social Justice Høg Hansen, Anders, Oscar Hemer and Thomas Tufte (eds.) Zurich: Lit Verlag, 2015, 111-126.


    *‘History 2.0: History, Publics and New Technologies’, in The Impact of History? Histories at the Beginning of the 21st Century, Pinto, Pedro Ramos and Bertrande Taithe (eds.), Oxford: Routledge, 2015, 34-45.


    ‘Memoryscape: experiments in deepening our senses of place’, in Van Boeschoten, R. (eds), Gefyronontas tis yenies: diepistimonikotita kai afigiseis zois ston 21o aiona. (Bridging the generations: interdisciplinarity and life stories in the 21st century), Volos: Enosi Proforikis Istorias, p. 83-95.


    'Memoryscape' : Integrating Oral History, Memory and Landscape on the River Thames’, in Kean, Hilda and Paul Ashton (eds.) Public History and Heritage Today, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, 223-239.


    ‘The historical hearing aid: located oral history from the listener’s perspective’, in Trower, Shelley (ed.) Place, Writing, and Voice in Oral History, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 193-216. 


    ‘I-Spy Anytown’, in Bringing the Outside In: Enriching Student Learning in the Humanities through Environmental Engagement York: The Higher Education Academy, 2011, 10-16.


    * ‘Memoryscape: integrating oral history, memory and landscape on the river Thames’, in Ashton, Paul and Hilda Kean (eds.) People and their Pasts: Public History Today, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, 223-239.


     ‘Linked: a landmark in sound, a public walk of art’, in Perks, Robert and Alistair Thompson (eds.) The Oral History Reader (2nd Edition) London, Routledge, 2006, 425-433.


    ‘Essays from the field: science and native American burial in Kansas’. In Blunt, Alison, Pyrs Gruffudd, Jon May, Miles Ogborn and David Pinder (eds.) Cultural Geography in Practice, London, Arnold, 2003, 119 –121.


    Refereed Journals


    ‘Introduction’, Toby Butler and Yasmin Khan  History Workshop Journal 76, 2013, 1-4.


    ‘Teaching and learning guide for Memoryscape: How audio walks can deepen our sense of place by integrating art, oral history and cultural geography’, Geography Compass 2,5, 2008, 1750–1754.


     ‘Memory lane: how to produce trails for mp3 players that give listeners an evocative experience of place’, Museum Practice 40, 2007, 42-45.


    ‘Memoryscape: How audio walks can deepen our sense of place by integrating art, oral history and cultural geography', Geography Compass 1,3, 2007,  350–372.


    ‘A walk of art: the potential of the sound walk as practice in cultural geography', Social and Cultural Geography 7,6, 2006, 889-908.


    ‘Doing heritage differently’, Rising East Online: Journal of East London Studies 5, 2006.


    ‘Linked: a landmark in sound, a public walk of art’, Cultural Geographies 12,1, 2005, 77-88.


    Articles in magazines and un-refereed journals


    ‘Come on Ruskin: do the right thing’, History Workshop Online, 2012


    ‘History fieldwork – do our students get out enough? History Workshop Online, 2012


    ‘Digital history: how memoryscapes can change the way we see the world’, Hard Times (Germany) 88:9-14, 2010.


    ‘Live interpretation: a knight’s tale’. Museum Practice 27, 2004, 51-53.


    ‘Liquid History – the Thames through time’,  The London Journal 28(2), 2003, 86-88.


     ‘Front-line troops: empowering front of house staff’. Museums Journal 101(5), 2001, 26-27.


     ‘Re-enaction man’. Museums Journal 101(4), 2001, 20-23.


     ‘Body of evidence: human remains in museum collections’. Museums Journal 101(8), 2001, 24-27.


    ‘Life on earth: can museums help to save the planet?’. Museums Journal 100(7), 2001, 18-21.


    Miscellaneous by-lined articles also published in the New Statesman, The Guardian, The Independent, Foster Care Magazine, Third Sector Magazine and the news section of Museums Journal (1996-2002).



    Toby has secured funding from a wide variety of sources including the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Royal Docks Trust, Tate and Lyle, Untld and Sports England. Major projects are listed in the research section: below is a list of real world results of these heritage projects.


    Permanent Exhibition: Kent Hop Picking, Hoppers Hospital, Five Oak Green, Kent (June 2015 to present)

    This exhibition, funded by the 2015 UEL Community Engagement Seed Fund created a permanent exhibition on hop picking at Hoppers, a 17th century residential community centre. A team of 14 people spent a week researching the history of hop picking, interviewing ex-hop pickers from East London and using the interview recordings to create sound installations to accompany a photography exhibition. I worked with UEL lecturer David Chapman, photographer Martin Garwood, seven students, local volunteers and trustees from the Red House charity that own the building worked to create an exhibition on the ground floor of Hoppers. The launch was attended by 100 people and the exhibition is on permanent display to visitors and the public on heritage open days. See

    Audio installation: Cable Street Hop Festival, Tower Hamlets Community Housing (September, 2015)

    Each year residents living at flats run by social landlord Tower Hamlets Community Housing (THCH) hold a hop festival to celebrate the harvest of hops grown in a small hop garden in the middle of the housing development. I installed the audio installation mentioned above, featuring voices of hop pickers and sounds from the hop fields, using battery operated speakers hidden in the hop plants. Three hundred visitors attended, and as they walked through the hop garden they heard first-hand what migrant labour was like in the hop fields.

    Touring exhibition: The 1943 Bethnal Green Tube Shelter Disaster: Exhibition (2014-15)

    This exhibition (click here to view) was a 7 panel ‘pop-up’ display which tells the story of the disaster, the subsequent inquiry, and the creation of the memorial. The disaster is also contextualised within the history of the Second World War in East London. The panels feature main text, archival photos, contemporary photos, excerpts from oral history interviews and photos of interviewees. I oversaw the design and content of the exhibition with the project manager and a freelance designer.

    The exhibition is innovative in terms of oral history display as it features QR codes that mobile phone users can use to listen to sound clips as well as NFC near field stickers which allow more advanced mobile phones to stream a sound clip quickly by placing the phone near an exhibition graphic. We also had a CD player available. We showcased the exhibition at the Oral History Society conference in Manchester and around 150 oral historians encountered the exhibition. It toured the following 14 venues reaching 7,000 people from May 2014 – July 2015:

    Birkbeck/UEL Stratford Square Building, Atrium

    Cubbitt Town Library

    Millfields School, Hackney

    Bishopsgate Institute

    Bethnal Green Library

    Manchester Metropolitan University

    Tower Hamlets Archive

    UEL Library, Docklands Campus

    St John’s Church, Bethnal Green

    Crepe Shop Café, Whitechapel

    Globe School, Bethnal Green

    New Vic College, E13

    St Matthews Church, E2

    Genesis Cinema, Mile End.

    Public Exhibition, City Airport, Digging Silvertown,(2007)

    This exhibition was up for several months along the corridor where passengers would queue for security before boarding aircraft. It featured enlarged scans of objects found on the foreshore of the River Thames in North Woolwich. My role as project director was to organise it, negotiate with the airport, help the artist (Helen Marshall) install the exhibition and arrange a visit by the Drew Primary School so our junior archaeologists could admire their work. The project also involved co-ordinating two community exhibitions at St Johns Community Centre, North Woolwich and North Woolwich Museum. Click here for exhibition website.


    Bethnal Green Disaster: Memoryscape audio trail

    This trail designed by sound artist Lewis Gibson and introduced by Tommy Walsh features recordings with disaster survivors. It is advertised on a metal plaque next to the Bethnal Green Disaster Memorial itself, and players can be borrowed from nearby Bethnal Green Library (there are 32 players for school group use). There is an adult trail and a version designed for children. You can download the trails here.

    Trains and boats and planes (2014)

    An audio trail on the historical geography of the Royal Docks (with printed guide). Royal Geographical Society Discovering Britain series

    Victoria Park Memoryscape Trail (2012)

    Another public trail, with audio players available from Victoria Park Visitor’s Centre. This was co-authored with Lewis Gibson for Tower Hamlets Council.

    Ports of Call: Walks of Art at the Royal Docks. Triple CD recording, University of East London (2008).

    CD pack with a trail guide. Free copies (1,000) were distributed to local people via community centres, libraries and resident welcome packs. Online version at

    Liquid History: the Elmbridge Riverside audio trail. CD recording, Elmbridge Borough Council (2008)

    This was a comission for Elmbridge Borough Council. They distributed 1,000 CD packs and installed a display board and markers along the Thames Path to advertise the downloadable trail to walkers and local residents. See

    Drifting and Dockers – voices from the hidden history of the Thames. Double CD recording, Museum of London. (2005)

    This CD pack was sold in the Museum of London shop, Museum in Docklands shop, Borders, Greenwich Tourist Information Centre and Kingston Tourist Information Centre. These two audio trails were created as part of my PhD studentship at the Museum of London. See


     Outside work Toby enjoys getting involved in organising community focused events and charity initiatives. He has been chairman of Tonbridge Round Table and for some years has been involved in organising firework displays, Children in Need events, providing play equipment for the community and getting  local history books into schools. He also give talks and discusses his research publically:

    TV/Radio/press coverage

    CBS Breakfast News (USA) (March, 2016) – interview with Mark Phillips, CBS News senior foreign correspondent on the reality vs myth of life in WW2 deep shelters.

    BBC1 Secret Britain: hop picking (filming September 2015) publicity generated by the Hoppers exhibition (see below) led to an approach from the BBC to be an academic advisor for a documentary on hop picking. I gave advice on locations, historical context and introduced them to a local hop farm where the filming took place. The episode will be roadcast in 2016 and I have been assured that I (and UEL) will be acknowledged in the credits at the end of the documentary.

    Brunei Times photo story and coverage of  meeting and demonstration of Victoria Park Memoryscape trail with Datin Adina Othman, Deputy Minister for Culture, Youth and Sport, Brunei (May, 2014).

    BBC TV News 24 (March 2013) – outside broadcast, interviewed in a rolling live news situation at site of Bethnal Green Disaster.

    Excerpts feature on BBC Radio 4 Six O’Clock News, BBC Radio London, BBC News website features interview in two streaming video stories and

    ABC News Radio, Australia The World Today (March 2013) Interview with ABC news reporter Barbara Millar.

    BBC Radio London: Drivetime with Eddie Nestor  (March 2013), phone interview on secrecy surrounding the Bethnal Green Disaster.

    BBC Radio London: Inspirit with Jumoke Fashola (March 2013), interview at site of Bethnal Green Disaster.

    I also featured on the Robert Elms show and the Sandi Toksvig show (BBC London), East London Advertiser, The Wharf, International Business Times, East London Lines and War History Online in relation to the Bethnal Green Disaster Project (2013-14).

    The Wharf and the East London Advertiser (Nov 2012) launch with Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutur Rahman – photo and interview at launch of Victoria Park Memoryscape trail for Tower Hamlets Council.

    Independent on Sunday – Ports of Call walking trails featured as top tour in ‘tips and deals’ (27th July, 2008)

    Wilson, Rowan. ‘Interview with Toby Butler’, ReadySteadyBook, February 2007 republished with amendments October 2010, History Workshop Journal Online 

    McLaren, Mark. ‘Interview with Toby Butler and Lewis Gibson’, Furthernoise, January 2007

    Friedman, J. (2006) ‘Media Review: Drifting, produced by Toby Butler’. Oral History Review, Winter/Spring 2006, 33(1) 107-10

    Rogacin, F. (2006)  ‘Review of Dockers, by Toby Butler’. Newsweek (London Supplement, Polish edition) September 2006, 3-6

    Public lectures, workshops, guided tours, papers and seminars

    ‘Historical geographies of hop picking and beer making in Kent’, a one day conference field trip for delegates at the Royal Geographical Society International Conference of Historical Geographers. I devised and led a coach tour of various hop picking sites and gave a guided walk to 30 academics from around the world. (July 2015)

    ‘Historical geographies of hop picking and beer making in Kent’, a one day field trip along the lines above for staff and students from Memorial University, St Johns, Canada (June 2015)

    Walkshop: social media trails and mashing memories at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Guided walk/workshop with Richard White, Living Maps (May 2015)

    Chair/organiser, public lecture/discussion with social historian Juliet Gardiner, author Sean Dettman, Babs Clark, disaster survivor and Sandra Scotting from the Stairway to Heaven Memorial Trust (May 2014)

    ‘Memoryscape: site specific oral history in a community context’, Public lecture, Living Maps, Bethnal Green (Feb 2014)

    Keynote speaker, Örecomm Festival, Malmö, Sweden and Roskilde and Copenhagen, Denmark (September 2013)

    ‘Memoryscapes and oral history’, Oral History Society, Institute of Historical Research (May 2013)

    ‘Living on the River Thames – a cultural history’ Molesey Historical Society, Surrey (Feb 2013)

     ‘Place and history’, Guest speaker, Concordia University, Montreal (November 2012)

    ‘Memoryscapes and oral history’, Guest Speaker, University of Thessaly, Greece (May 2012)

    ‘Public engagement and new technology’, Guest Speaker,  University of Manchester, Whose Past? History, Public Engagement and the Future of the historical disciplines: ESRC North West Doctoral Training Centre Event (Feb 2012)

    ‘The Cut’ Discussion with Ken Worpole, Space Studios Hackney (July 2011)

    ‘Memoryscape’ Guest speaker, Huddersfield University History Department (June 2011)

    ‘Memoryscape’ Guest speaker, UCL Archaeology Department, (May, 2011)

    ‘Raphael Samuel Memorial Lecture’, St Alfred’s School, Hampstead, London (June, 2010)

    ‘Ports of Call: interpreting heritage at the Royal Docks’ European Federation of Associations of Industrial and Technical Heritage conference, Calais, France (November 2009)

    ‘I Spy Montreal’ Concordia University, Montreal, Canada; Public lecture series and workshop for invited guests (November 2009)

    ‘Healthcare in Hackney’ Hackney Museum Public Lecture series (June 2009)

    ‘Memoryscape: experiments in locative media on the Thames’: invited by English Heritage to give paper to the Institute for Archaeologists Conference, Torquay (April 2009)

    ‘The future of Public History’: ‘conversations and disputations’ seminar at the Institute of Historical Research (paper and debate with Patrick Wright and Hilda Kean) (March 2009)

     ‘Drifting: experiments in oral history practice on the River Thames’, Public History Group, Ruskin College, Oxford (January 2009)

    ‘Community Trail Making’, Mildmay Community Partnership, Newington Green, London (January 2009)

    ‘Memoryscape’ Guest speaker for Spaces of Sound: Music-Geography Research Seminars, University of Nottingham  (November 2008)

    Royston Pike Public Lecture Series, Elmbridge Borough Council (Walton on Thames). ‘A Local Memoryscape’ (September 2008)

    ‘Layerings and Memories’ Terminal 5, Heathrow Airport. Organiser/devisor of interdisciplinary half day mapping workshop for academics, AHRC Landscape and Environment programme ‘On the Go: Mobilities, Settlement and Performance’ (April 2008)



    In 2011 Toby was responsible for devising and leading a new MA in Heritage Studies which is now in its sixth year and was described last year by the external examiner as ‘world class’. The MA is run in partnership with Birkbeck and we have had many Birkbeck students take modules on our programme.

    Toby has also led the BA history programme and introduced a residential field trip for first years, along with work experience placements and multi-media project work to the undergraduate programme.

    He is currently the module leader for:

    CC4405 London, History and Heritage 1600-2000
    CC5402 Research workshop: British Social History, 1918-1979
    CC6404 Memory and History
    CC7009 Place, Oral History and Digital Heritage (postgraduate).