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Frances Larson

This document was written during the ESRC funded Relational Museum project between 2002 and 2006 by Frances Larson (one of the researchers on the project). The project looked at the networkers of collectors and museum staff who had formed the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum up to 1945 and the history of the Museum up to 1945. This document reflects those interests.

1998.356.1 Blackwood1998.356.1 Beatrice Blackwood

This document contains:

  • chronological account of Blackwood’s career
  • very brief notes on her friendships with other notable anthropologists
  • notes on some people’s memories of Blackwood
  • bibliography for books and articles on Blackwood
  • list of Blackwood’s main publications


Beatrice Mary Blackwood was born on 3 May 1889 at her parents’ home, 3 Marlborough Hill, Marylebone, London. She was the eldest of three children of James Blackwood (1822-1911), a publisher and descendant (although not a direct descendant – see entry for 1953, below) from the founder of Blackwell’s Magazine, and his wife, Mary (1859-1953), who was a nurse. Beatrice had one sister, Mary, and one brother, James. She was educated in London at Wycombe House School, and Paddington and Maida Vale High School (Knowles 2004; PRM biogs). The family holidayed on the Isle of Wight, and Blackwood remembered seeing Queen Victoria there every year as a child (Penniman 1976a: 321). Blackwood was sent to finishing school in Germany. She became fluent in German and studied Greek and Latin while there (Penniman 1976a: 321). Years later, while in Bougainville in 1930, and faced with the problem of transforming one of her skirts into a more practical pair of breeches, she regretted her ‘mis-spent youth, when I ran away and hid, in order to read ‘Robinson Crusoe’ or ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’, instead of attending the dressmaking lessons my mother was so anxious to give me’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 23, 8 June 1930).


Blackwood won a scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, in 1908 and read the Honours School of English, including the etymology of the Scandinavian and German languages. (Some of her notes on European linguistics survive in PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 17.)


She was awarded a second-class honours degree in English language and literature in 1912. She also met Marya Czaplicka during the academic year 1911-12. Czaplicka was at Somerville College working on her Diploma in Anthropology at the time. She was mentored by R.R. Marett, and she was to prove instrumental in opening Blackwood’s eyes to anthropological research (see below; PRM ms collections Blackwood papers, box 33, letter to Antoni Kuczynskiy, 15 March 1971)


Blackwood met Czaplicka again, at the house of a mutual friend, shortly after the Polish woman’s return from a year’s anthropological fieldwork in Siberia in 1915. Blackwood later remembered: ‘In course of conversation I learned that she was having difficulty in preparing her material for publication. I offered to help her in my spare time, and we worked in London until the Autumn of 1916 when she took up the post of Mary Ewart Lecturer in Ethnology at Oxford, with residence at Lady Margaret Hall. She persuaded me to come to Oxford, which I was the more willing to do as it gave me the opportunity of taking a course in anthropology, in which I had become interested while working with her. Our collaboration continued until she left for the U.S.A. in 1919.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers, box 33, letter to Antoni Kuczynskiy, 15 March 1971)


Blackwood had enrolled on Oxford’s Diploma in Anthropology in Michaelmas Term 1916, as a member of Somerville College. She received her Certificate in Cultural Anthropology in 1917 and gained distinction in her Diploma in 1918. As a Diploma student, Blackwood was taught by Arthur Thomson, Robert Ranulph Marett and Henry Balfour. Some of her lecture notes survive (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers, box 1 and box 1A), including notes on Balfour’s lectures on aesthetic arts, industrial arts and prehistory; Marett’s seminars on social origins, world-wide ethnology and prehistoric Europe; Thomson’s lessons on human anatomy; and Dudley-Buxton’s lectures on geographic conditions and racial types.

While working on the diploma course, Blackwood spent her vacations excavating in France, and knew the Abbé Breuil and other prominent French prehistorians. From this time onwards, ‘For over ten years, she spent all available time in excavating, often just ahead of the bull-dozer, sites wanted for building in Oxford and in places within ten miles from it in every direction, working for the Department of Anatomy and for the Ashmolean Museum, and collected antiquities from the Late Iron Age, Saxon and Romano-British periods.’ (Penniman 1976a: 321) Apparently, being small and adventurous, she would often be the first to explore difficult or narrow caves and would make sure that it was safe for the others to follow (ibid).

In 1918, having graduated with distinction from the Diploma course, Blackwood started work as a research assistant to Arthur Thomson in the Department of Human Anatomy, in the University Museum (Penniman 1976b: 235). She also continued to work with Czaplicka during this period.


Arthur Thomson became Dr Lees Professor of Anatomy at Oxford in 1919 (he had joined the Department in 1885 as Lecturer in Human Anatomy, and had become Extraordinary Professor in 1893, and Reader in 1901).


Blackwood was promoted to Departmental Demonstrator in the Human Anatomy Department in 1920 (Knowles 2004). She took her B.A. and her M.A. on the same day, in 1920, the first year that women were allowed to graduate from Oxford (Penniman 1976a: 321). In January 1920 she visited Germany, because there are notes in PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 21 on ‘Talk with Professor von Luschan at the Völkerkunde Museum, Berlin. Jan 11 1920’. She studied the Berlin Museum’s cranial collections – containing over 15,000 skulls – and various casts of skulls made by von Luschan. He promised to send Blackwood some hair from Tasmania, and they also discussed the possibility of an exchange of photographs (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 21).        


Blackwood was first listed as Demonstrator in Physical Anthropology in the Department’s Annual Report for 1921 (University Gazette,14 June 1922), alongside Dudley-Buxton. Together they ran the Diploma students’ practical classes and lectures. Dudley-Buxton left in September for a world tour, as Albert Kahn Travelling Fellow for 1921-22, and Blackwood undertook his duties in his absence, as Lecturer in Physical Anthropology. During this period, Blackwood was doing anthropometric work on women in Oxfordshire villages (University Gazette 13 June 1923, p668).

In May 1921, Blackwood’s friend Marya Czaplicka killed herself, at the age of 36, while living and lecturing in Bristol. The two women had worked together in London and then Oxford between 1915 and 1919. Years later, Blackwood remembered hearing about the incident: ‘I heard of her death, and the manner of it, at the time from a friend, although I did not know any details of the circumstances which led to it. I was, of course, deeply grieved, but not greatly surprised as I knew from experience that she was a very temperamental person, and was apt to become depressed when things went wrong. If no one was at hand to help her through some difficult period, she would see no other way out.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers, box 33, letter to Antoni Kuczynskiy, 7 April 1971)

Blackwood was made Fellow of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland on 15 November 1921 (PRM biogs). She also made her first donation to the Pitt Rivers Museum in 1922: a small selection of 28 emergency banknotes, mostly from Germany, but also from France, Denmark and Belgium.


Dudley-Buxton resumed his work as Lecturer in Physical Anthropology when he got back to Oxford from his world tour, with Blackwood as his assistant. Blackwood continued her research on women in Oxfordshire villages and on women students. She also did research on ‘The Grosser Histological Changes occurring in Normal Tissues after Death’ (University Gazette 13 June 1924, p 700). This work focussed on rabbits (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence M-S, letter to Sir Bernard Spilsbury, 8 March 1928). Blackwood took her B.Sc. in Anatomy in 1923, with a thesis on embryology (Penniman 1976a: 321).

In the summer of 1923 she travelled to Turkey, and donated a small group of amulets and currency she had collected there to the Pitt Rivers Museum when she got back.


In 1924 Blackwood was awarded a Laura Spelman Rockefeller Fellowship and travelled to North America. She worked under the guidance of Clark Wissler. Wissler was a psychologist who, under the influence of Boas at Columbia in the early 1900s, had become a leading anthropologist and authority on American Indians. He was an expert in mental and sensory testing, and was therefore interested in culture and personality. He became an important mentor for Blackwood in the early part of her career, and he also mentored Margaret Mead at the American Museum of Natural History, where he was a curator from 1902-1942. In 1924 (the year Blackwood arrived in America) he started doing psychological research at Yale University, and he became a Professor of Anthropology there in 1931 (see He developed the notion of the ‘culture area’, as a way of exploring the regional distribution of culture, which he applied to Native American groups. Blackwood later used this work as a key text in her lectures at the PRM on North American cultures.

According to Schuyler Jones, Marett had put her in touch with Wissler initially (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers uncatalogued correspondence and memories of Blackwood, Beatrice Blackwood Lecture, 20 May 1998). While in America she worked gathering anthropometric data from African-American, Native American, Asian and white communities. Her work contributed to a survey being carried out by the National Research Council, and was to be correlated with mental and sensory tests also under way. Although she was interested in mental testing, Blackwood preferred to concentrate on taking physical measurements because she knew that the mental tests were constantly being reviewed and changed and she was unsure how useful they would be. She worked in schools, universities and training institutions for African-American and Native American communities.


Race Relations: In the American South in particular Blackwood was confronted with an extremely segregated and racially prejudiced society, which at best made her uncomfortable and at worst made her passionately angry. On 7 April 1925, while based in Nashville, she noted in her diary,

‘The Ku Klux Klan was out last night – they took a negro woman out + beat her till she fell unconscious - + not a doctor in the place dared go near her – just because when out walking with her dog she met a white woman with her dog + the two dogs fought + the white woman beat the negro woman’s dog + the negro woman tried to stop her. This is the Southern United States in the Twentieth Century. And nothing will be done about it.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 12)

There was so much suspicion and fear on both sides that Blackwood found it very difficult to build up the confidence of the African-American community, and on 5 June she celebrated the fact that she had been able to visit a black woman in her home for the first time and had even helped her to bath her baby. Her efforts to build up a more intimate relationship with the black community were met with disbelief and incomprehension by whites. When she told the choir mistress at Tuskegee Institute, Mrs Lee, about her friendship with the young mother, Blackwood found her temper tested:

‘Told her how I had at last obtained the entry I had been wanting into the homes of the community - + how difficult it had been. She said that in the first place people couldn’t believe I really would come - + in the second they were afraid – if the white people of the district knew that I was being received socially they might come + burn down the buildings. I said they needn’t know everything that went on in the campus but she said they always did. The South makes me want to go out + scream. If I were here on my own responsibility I’d like to start a row just for the sake of saying ‘I am from England + I don’t care a damn for your conventions. You daren’t touch me, + if you touch my friends I’ll make such a row as there hasn’t been since the Revolution.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 12)

Her experiences made her aware of the complexities of social, racial and class divisions, and this may also have made her wary of mental testing. ‘The question of the mentality of the Negro is a most difficult one. On the surface one is tempted to say that they are really intellectually inferior to the white, but one has to remember that they have only had sixty years of freedom, with every bar to their progress all the time, their schools are badly equipped and have no funds to pay first class teachers, their homes are poor, and most of them can only attend school part of the year because they have to earn. They have no tradition of culture as the white child has. Of course there are rich Negroes, most of them students at Fisk, for example, probably come from fairly well-to-do homes, but even they have all the barriers of race prejudice against them; socially and professionally their opportunities are strictly limited.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 28, letter to Thomson, 6 April 1925)

Blackwood struggled with these questions, but they did not prevent her from believing in her anthropometric research as a physical anthropologist. Her lecture notes – she was responsible, later in life, for giving ‘ethnographic survey’ lectures that gave basic information on cultural groups throughout the world – reveal that she continued to think in terms of classifying people into cultural and racial groups throughout her career, using features such as language, skin colour, physical type, material culture and subsistence traditions to group large sets of people together or set them apart. At one point she explained in her (undated) lectures, that ethnography was concerned with the description of groups of people ‘considered as units, without reference to their possible relations with other units, making, in fact, a kind of map of humanity.’ In fact, her work was fuelled by the comparative method. She defined ethnology as ‘the application of any or all of the methods of Anthropology to the comparative study of races or peoples’, after Penniman in One Hundred Years of Anthropology (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 21, ‘What is Anthropology?’ lecture).

In her teaching work, she was quick to point out that ‘race’ had a purely physical meaning, as ‘a group or people having the majority of their physical characteristics in common and transmitting them to their descendants. Moreover, race is the expression of the average of a population, not the description of any one individual in that group.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 21, Survey Course, Lecture I) She quoted G.M. Morant, saying, ‘to the anthropologist distinctions between races mean no more than very small differences between averages’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 20, notes on Europe for General Ethnology lectures).

She warned against political uses of the term ‘race’. Race was a physical trait, not a cultural or linguistic one: ‘We cannot stress too often or too strongly the fact…that classifications suggested by language or other kinds of purely cultural evidence may be entirely misleading if they are accepted as a guide to racial distinctions. It is a great pity that so much of the earlier work did not take sufficient account of this distinction – partly owing to lack of knowledge, and to the fact that linguistic data is so much more easily collected than physical data.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 21, Survey Course, Lecture I) And again, with specific reference to Europe: ‘There is no population in Europe to-day which can be supposed to be sharply divided from neighbouring populations on account of racial distinctions. All national propaganda based on presumed racial differences and boundaries is therefore entirely without any scientific foundation.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 20, notes on Europe for General Ethnology lectures). And, even more specifically, ‘race’ should not be confused with ‘nationality’ which was the product of particular historical and political events: ‘There is no such thing as an English race or a German race’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 21. Survey Course I).

Blackwood spent much of her time issuing cautions and qualifications during these lectures, because she talked in terms of racial groups, but was fully aware of the conceptual problems this kind of classificatory approach fostered. While on the one hand listing the different traits that could be used to classify groups into different races – skin colour, hair type, facial type – she was careful to make the point that there were no hard and fast lines, and different groups ‘graded’ into each other. ‘All these classifications are based upon the presence of similarities in a certain group of physical characters which, however carefully they may be chosen, are nevertheless arbitrary, and what is put into any group in any method of classification depends upon which characters are selected and upon the degree of similarity arbitrarily selected by the classifier as sufficient to justify inclusion in one class or another.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 21, Survey Course, Lecture II). She pointed out that biological research was moving towards the study of individual traits and genetic inheritance rather than groups of traits defining cultural units, and noted that differences did not proceed through ‘jumps’ but graded into each other (ibid, see also PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 21 ‘What is Anthropology?’ lecture). ‘Race’ did not refer to static, immutable, fixed differences or hard and fast genetic boundaries between groups, but variations in the relative frequencies of genes in different parts of the population. Ultimately, mankind shared a common genetic unity (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 21 Survey Course, Lecture II).

And yet, broader classifications were still integral to her teaching: ‘It is convenient, however, for purposes of study, to make the material easier to handle, to divide up the population of Europe on certain broad lines, and it is permissible, provided that we realize that these are artificial, and are not established on a solid biological, i.e. genetical basis.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 20, notes on Europe for General Ethnology lectures) What was true of Europe, was also true of Africa, America, Asia, the Pacific, and Arctic communities; indeed, for the sake of convenience, the whole world was divided and sub-divided into racial and cultural groups.

What Blackwood’s lectures actually reveal is the fact that the classification of races, cultures, tribes and regions changed constantly depending on what criterion was chosen to classify them. She often talked through the linguistic classification, before turning to the physical classification, then the technological one, and so on. It is not altogether surprising that she spent a considerable amount of time discussing the pros and cons of these different methods of analysis. And yet, the question of what defined Melanesians as opposed to Polynesians, or Melanesians as opposed to Malays and Indonesians, or Malaysians as opposed to people living in Madagascar, centred and defined her work. Her lectures were focussed on defining certain groups in relation to each other. She knew that such classifications were essentially descriptive, and the real question was how such differences were caused, ‘how such groups came to be as we find them now’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 21, Survey Course, Lecture II). Such questions were far less easy to answer. How far were traits the result of culture contact? How far were they due to the environmental and social conditions? To what extent were they inherited genetically? What was the best means to use when defining a certain group in contrast to another? These were issues Blackwood couldn’t escape and she continued to wrestle with them throughout her career. No doubt her work amongst the racially segregated communities of North America in 1924-27 sowed the seeds for some of these intellectual struggles. It was a political and social segregation she resisted, but a physical segregation she worked to uphold. What the physical differences meant, and how all the different elements – politics, culture, appearance and economics – worked together was less easy to quantify and measure.


Her trip to North America began in September 1924. She left Liverpool on 13 September and arrived in New York on 23 September. She met with Clark Wissler (1870-1947) two days later and began to plan her work and travels. Blackwood spent the first few weeks of her stay based in New York, but also visited friends near Boston. On 6 October she moved to Princeton and was given lab space in the Psychology Department under Professor Brigham. While based in Princeton she worked at the Vineland Training School in New Jersey (a residential school for ‘feeble-minded’ ‘children’ (aged 6 to 60 years), which had become an international centre for research into mental illness and psychology, see She occasionally visited New York and Boston. She spent Christmas in Atlantic City with friends, and then travelled to Washington D.C. on 27 December for the American Association for the Advancement of Science Meetings.


In early January 1925 Blackwood attended the National Research Council Committee on Human Migration in Washington D.C. From 7 January she was based back in Princeton, although she visited New York and Boston from there. On 31 January she travelled to Nashville, Tennessee, where she was to be based until mid-April, apart from a brief trip to Cleveland, Ohio, to attend the meetings of the American Association of Anatomists and to meet Dr Wingate Todd, between 7 and 14 April. In Nashville, she took measurements at various institutions, including the ‘Agricultural and Industrial State Normal School for Negroes’ (later, Tennessee State University), and Fisk University, another black college. On 17 April she travelled from Nashville to Birmingham, Alabama, where she worked at the Tuskegee Institute (full name: Tuskegee Negro Normal Institute) until the end of May. She travelled to New Orleans on 29 May and explored the area until 3 June before returning to Tuskegee. On 10 June she arrived in Atlanta, Georgia and worked at the Atlanta University. She visited Rome, Georgia, on 13 June, and then travelled back to Nashville on 16 June.

From Nashville she travelled up to Winnipeg (Manitoba, Canada) via Chicago on 23 June, arriving in Winnipeg on 25 June. From here she continued northwards, across Lake Winnipeg, to Norway House where she worked on the Indian Reserve. From Norway House she undertook a trip to Oxford House between 6 and 16 July. On 24 July she arrived back in Winnipeg. She went to the Regina Annual Exhibition and Fair in Saskatchewan at the end of July, before moving on to Calgary, Alberta and the Sarcee Reserve on 29 July, and the Cardston Reserve on 1 August. Between 5 and 11 August she travelled around Lake Louise, Victoria Glacier and Emerald Lake, west of Calgary, before departing for Vancouver on 11 August. On 18 August she travelled to Queen Charlotte Sound, British Columbia, then on to Prince Rupert on the following day. From here she travelled on to Kitwanga, where she worked for about 5 days, before moving on to Kispoix, where she spent about a week. On 2 September she travelled to Hazelton, then travelled back to Prince Rupert four days later. From here, she went to Alert Bay, where she worked for about a week before going back to Vancouver.


Cultures in transition: Blackwood became interested in the possibility of studying cultures in terms of their responses and adaptations to western influences, as opposed to trying to research ‘original’, pre-contact societies. The northwest coast of Canada struck her as ripe for this kind of study. She was fully aware of the contradictory policies practiced in Canada, where people were forbidden from making new totem poles, while existing ones were being re-erected, repaired and re-painted for tourism along the route of the Canadian Pacific Railway. She noticed that communities were putting up gravestones with totemic designs because of the ban on constructing totem poles.

‘…while these gravestones are no longer representative of native art, it seems to me that they are interesting as examples of the adaptation of old customs to new conditions. I cannot help thinking that it would make a very interesting contribution to anthropology if someone made a study of the present-day American Indians simply with a view to describing the transition from their culture to our own. We give a great deal of attention to the few really primitive peoples that remain on the earth, and are inclined to think that when natives have come into contact with the white man, their interest for anthropology is past. But the transition stages offer problems not only of academic but also of practical value, and they ought to be recorded before they pass away. This is nowhere more strikingly illustrated than among these tribes of the north-west coast.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 13, undated lecture on ‘The Totem Poles of British Columbia’)


On 21 September she set out from Vancouver, arriving in Minneapolis, Minnesota on 24 September. She was given lab space at the Anatomy Department in Minneapolis, where she was based for the next month. On 29 October she travelled to Duluth, Minnesota and worked at the village of Net Lake, then went on to the Red Lake Indian Reservation on 6 November. On 20 November she returned to Winnipeg, and visited the Ogema White Earth Reservation and the Pipestone Indian Boarding School over the next ten days, before travelling on to Handrean on 30 November. On 6 December she went back to Minneapolis, then to Chicago on 14 December. On 17 she left for Hindman, Kentucky, where she stayed until going on to Washington D.C. and Boston, arriving there on 31 December.


There is a gap in Blackwood’s diary at the beginning of January. It resumes on 21 January when she leaves Wellesley, west of Boston, Massachusetts, where she had friends, and travelled to Hindman, where she was based and worked in the area until 9 March. On 10 March she arrived in Berea, Kentucky, and worked there until 24 March when she arrived in Johnson City, Tennessee. At the end of March she journeyed to Philadelphia, and spent 2-6 April in Atlantic City, before going to Wellesley, Massachusetts, and staying there until 13 April. From 14 April until 9 May she was based in Cleveland, Ohio, working at the Western Reserve University. On 12 May she arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, working at the U.S. Indian School and the Museum. She was based in Santa Fe for about a month, although she visited Albuquerque from 21 May until 4 June.

On 13 June she arrived in Phoenix, Arizona. From here she visited Tucson for a few days. On 13 July she left Phoenix for the Grand Canyon. She worked at the village of Supai, Cataract Canyon, Utah, between 17 and 24 July before moving on to Holbrook, Arizona. From Holbrook she went to Polacca, Arizona, and on to the Acoma mesa on 31 July, where she met people who had worked with Barbara Freire Marecco during her fieldwork in the Southwest in 1910 and 1913.

Sixty miles west of Albuquerque, the Acoma pueblo claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States (see Following in Freire-Marecco’s footsteps, Blackwood visited the pueblo a number of times during 1926 and 1927. Although visitors were not generally welcomed, she had the support of Mr Reuter, who worked for the Society for the Preservation of the Ancient Churches of the South-West, and who had already been accepted by the community, and she also made friends with the Governor and his second in command. The villagers gave Blackwood an Indian name – Shamuts-henati – ‘White Cloud’ ‘whether on account of my skin or my clothing I never could find out’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 13, undated evening lecture on ‘Acoma’). While there, she managed to collect various things for the Pitt Rivers Museum, including examples of selenite windows that were being replaced by glass, one of the stones used for cooking ‘paper bread’ (Blackwood spent some time looking into the making of paper bread and her notes are kept in PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 13), and some of the pottery, which Blackwood judged to be ‘the most elaborate and the finest of all the Pueblo pottery’ (ibid). She became good friends with Maria Chino, who was considered to be the best Acoma potter, and Blackwood stayed with her sometimes. When she left, Maria gave her some particularly find pieces of pottery, which were later given to the Pitt Rivers Museum (see ‘The Blackwood Collection’ document). She greatly enjoyed her visits to Acoma, remembering afterwards,

‘I never saw Acoma without a feeling of excitement or left it without looking back. I do not think even the most hard-boiled traveller could fail to be thrilled by it. I cannot begin to give you any idea of the atmosphere of age-old mystery that pervades it.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 13, undated evening lecture on ‘Acoma’)

On 3 August she arrived back in Santa Fe where she enjoyed a Fiesta which started on 4 August. Between 16 and 27 August she joined a group of 24 people and toured Mesa Verde (Colorado), Chaco Canyon, Gallup and Zuni, New Mexico (basically the area spanning the Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona borders). On 28 August she went with some of the party to Fort Defiance, Arizona, and from there she went on to Chinlee (also in Arizona) and explored Canyon de Chelley, Canyon del Mueito and worked on the reservation. On 12 September she returned to Fort Defiance where she worked for a fortnight before arriving back in Phoenix on 27 September.

From Phoenix she visited Fort Apache on 18 October. And on 27 October she left for Acoma, then Albuquerque. At this point her diary entries become sporadic, however she went to Acoma on 5 December, was in Santa Fe on 7 December and in Chicago by 19 December.

Meanwhile, the annual report for the Department of Human Anatomy in Oxford for 1926 reported that, ‘As the American Council of National Research has approached Miss B. Blackwood, B.Sc., M.A., of Somerville College, to undertake ethnological research in the islands of the Pacific, it is uncertain as yet whether she will return to resume her work in this Department.’ (University Gazette, 22 June 1927, p723)


Blackwood’s diary does not resume fully until May, but during January she spent one week in New York and some weekends in Boston. On 15 May she visited Niagara Falls, then on to Chicago on 17 May, Denver and Colorado Springs on 19 May, and Salt Lake City on 21 May. She went to Sacramento Valley, California, on 23 May and took the ferry to San Francisco from there. She spent the next month based in the San Francisco area. She visited Stanford and Berkeley, went sight seeing in the area, and worked around Orick and Weitclipe, in Humboldt, northwest California, as well as at Mills College in San Francisco. On 23 June she travelled to Los Angeles, and on to San Diego the following day. A few days later, on 28 June, she travelled to Laguna and Acoma, where she spent about ten days before moving on to Bernalillo via Albuquerque on 9 July. On 15 July she travelled to Santa Clara, New Mexico, where she worked. Between 23 and 28 July she visited the area around Pecos and excavated there. On 28 July she went back to Santa Fe and Albuquerque, then on to Casa Blanca (Acoma region) three days later. On 8 August she went to Langua and from there on to Oraibi, Arizona, arriving on 11 August, where she was based until 30 August. On 4 September she was back in Holbrook, in Gallup on 9 September, in Fort Defiance on 11 September, and in Albuquerque on 12 September, from where she continued her journey eastwards and home, to England.

Back in Oxford, Dudley-Buxton became Reader in Physical Anthropology under new University Statutes and Blackwood resumed her duties as Assistant Demonstrator for Ethnology and continued to work on the cranial collections from Michaelmas Term 1927. (University Gazette, 13 June 1928, p653) In November, Arthur Thomson wrote to Herschel Margoliouth (Secretary of Faculties, 1925-1947), asserting that, having spent 6 years as Department Demonstrator, Blackwood must be nominated for a University Demonstratorship otherwise she would miss her chance (OU Archives, file FA/9/2/90, 15 Nov 1927). He added that she was skilled in microscope technique, had an intimate knowledge of the details of physical anthropology (particularly using psychological methods to investigate racial groups), had helped to collect material for the department’s collections (including photographs illustrating racial types, modes of life and geographical environments), and was an experienced fieldworker.


Following Thomson’s letter to Margoliouth in November 1927, Blackwood was promoted to University Demonstrator in Physical Anthropology in 1928. The Department’s Annual Report for 1928 recorded that: ‘She has all but completed the cataloguing and arrangement of the collection of over 2,000 skulls, which now occupies the small museum erected for that purpose in the new extension.’ During the year, Blackwood lectured on ‘Human Hybridization’ (Trinity Term) and on ‘The Value of Mental Testing in Ethnological Work’ (Michaelmas Term) (University Gazette, 12 June 1929, p688). In October, she requested leave of absence from the University to undertake a National Research Council funded trip to the Pacific (OU Archives, file FA/9/2/90, 22 October 1928)


In Trinity Term 1929 Blackwood was granted one year’s leave of absence by the University, to take up funding from the Research Committee of the Rockefeller Fund to work in Melanesia. Before leaving, she completed cataloguing the cranial collections at the Department of Human Anatomy; she also lectured in ‘Human Heredity’ in Trinity Term. In 1929, Tom Penniman was given a room in the Department of Human Anatomy to work on material excavated at Kish in 1928-29 (University Gazette, 12 June 1930, p661). One letter in the Blackwood manuscript collections recounts the memories of Mr Hambridge, who had worked the lantern at meetings of the Oxford Anthropological Society, and recalled that ‘Professor Thomson believed that his young team of Buxton, Miss Blackwood, and Penniman were going to make revolutionary discoveries in evolutionary history’, which is rather interesting given that two of them went on to run the Pitt Rivers Museum through the 1940s, 50s and early 60s (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence M-S, letter from J.M. Edmonds to Mr Hambridge, 25 September 1967, enclosed in letter from K.P. Oakley to Blackwood)

Blackwood’s fieldwork was funded by the Committee for Research on the Problems of Sex, set up by the National Research Council based in Washington, D.C. The scheme had been brought to her attention by J. Wingate Todd, who she had first met in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1925, and she had been helped and guided during the application and planning process by Clark Wissler, who had overseen her North American research. She had chosen to work on one of the smaller islands of the Bismarck Archipelago; she was to decide on the exact location once she had arrived in New Guinea and discussed the options with the Government Anthropologist, E.W. Pearson Chinnery. She chose this area of the Pacific after consulting with various experts (presumably people like Wissler, Marett, Charles and Brenda Seligman, Thomson and Balfour, all of whom she thanked in her book Both Sides of Buka Passage although there is no direct evidence for their role in helping her chose her field site) (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence T-Z, letter to J. Wingate Todd, 27 May 1929; preface to Both Sides of Buka Passage) She later remembered that the instructions given to her amounted to nothing more than, ‘Find an island somewhere in the Pacific with the least possible amount of contact with white people, and go and live in it.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers, uncatalogued correspondence, undated lecture on ‘Field Studies’)

Blackwood probably left England for Australia in early July (her diary starts on 21 July, while in Colombo, and it took about 3 weeks to get to Sri Lanka from England at that time). She arrived in Australia in early August, and travelled to Melbourne, arriving there on 3 August. On 9 August she arrived in Sydney, where she stayed for a week, during which time she met Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, Camilla Wedgewood, Raymond Firth and Margaret Mead.

She began her trip doubting her own abilities as a field anthropologist. On 18 August she wrote to Thomson in Oxford, ‘Talking with this girl [a missionary nurse sharing her cabin on the S.S. Montoro to Rabaul] and with Margaret Mead has left me terribly depressed about my fitness to cope with this job. I’ve bitten off more than I can chew this time – and no mistake…’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 1, 18 August 1929). She later admitted that Mead ‘made me feel very small in Sydney’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 9, 24 November 1929), and even that she had disliked her ‘intensely’, ‘a feeling I discovered to be shared by Dr Powdermaker + others. For one thing – a person who spends six months in a place (during one month of which I afterwards discovered she lived with a white woman nursing a sprained ankle) - + then says she speaks the language perfectly + knows all about the natives – always makes my hair stand on end.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 20, 17 April 1930). However, she was grateful for Firth’s help; she reported that Radcliffe-Brown had been kind and given her a letter of introduction to the Governor; and she reassured by the fact that Chinnery (Government Anthropologist, New Guinea, 1924-32) was meeting her in Rabaul. But she wished she had brought more books with her, including Malinowski’s Argonauts, to help prepare her for the field. And she seems to have hesitated from the start when it came to taking Chinnery’s advice: ‘I suppose I shall have to agree to his suggestion that I should work at Buka, though I am disappointed about Tauga [?] and the Feni Islands.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 1)

She had left Sydney on 17 August and reached Samarai on 24 (where she met Mr Lyons, the Resident Magistrate, who had helped Haddon when he was there but had since passed a law preventing antiquities from leaving New Guinea (ibid, letter 2)). She arrived in Rabaul on 26 August, where she was met by Chinnery. ‘Mr Chinnery met me on the wharf and has been most awfully good to me – spends a lot of time discussing methods and work and introduces me to nice people…’ (ibid). She enjoyed herself while in Rabaul, and busied herself learning pidgin. Chinnery had a plan to send her to Mortock Islands because it was ‘more urgent than Buka which is going on all right’, but this required confirmation from the Governor General and Blackwood was waiting for further transport anyway, so in the meantime she visited Hortense Powdermaker. On 29 August she travelled along the south coast of New Ireland. She arrived in Kavieng the next day, and met Powdermaker the day after that. She stayed with Powdermaker until 11 September. Powdermaker had been doing fieldwork amongst the Lesu, on the coast of New Ireland, for four months thanks to a grant from the Australian National Research Council and the backing of Malinowski. While staying, Blackwood continued to learn pidgin. She clearly admired Powdermaker: ‘I wish I may be as successful. I’m eager to get to work on my own little bit but as I have to wait for transport anyway I’m lucky to have this chance of seeing it done and of getting away into the bush’ (ibid, letter 4). Having left Powdermaker, Blackwood arrived in Karu on 12 September, in Muliawa on 15 September, and was back in Rabaul on 17 September.

On 21 September, Blackwood left Rabaul for Buka (a boat travelled between the two places once every six weeks). On 23 September she visited Archer (this was probably F.P. Archer, b. 1890 in Melbourne, a plantation owner on Yame Island, on the west coast of Buka, Buka Passage), then travelled on via Soraken to Portau the following day, where she was met by the Haddens (Mrs Hadden was the daughter of the anthropologist R. Parkinson (Blackwood 1935: xix)). On 25 September she arrived at the District Officer, MacMillan’s, office, who was to help her pick out a ‘good village’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 3, 21 September 1929) and on 29 September she departed for Petats, a coral island off the west coast of Buka, where she initially stayed in the House Kiap (government patrol house) until the villagers could build her a house of her own. During this early phase of her fieldwork, Blackwood appears to have thoroughly enjoyed herself. She mentioned in her letters to Thomson her disbelief at being in such beautiful surroundings, which gave her the impression of being ‘in the pictures’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 5, 22 September 1929). She also enjoyed Petats initially, and was eager to make a good impression, learning the language and strolling round the village so that the villagers would get used to her presence (ibid, letter 6, 20 October 1929).

However, she was also concerned about the influence of the mission, which was positioned across the lagoon from Petats. ‘It is distinctly disconcerting to find these blighters going to church every evening and twice on Sunday!’ (ibid). Still, she hoped to get information about old customs from the older residents. The Rev. Allan H. Cropp, the Methodist missionary, had lent her his work on local languages, and although she intended to keep herself to herself she was aware that she had to keep on the right side of the mission, as it was so close by. She tried to weigh up the pros and cons of working alongside a mission station: ‘I think on the whole, so far, the pros have it, but it isn’t quite what I expected to find here. I am a little afraid that when I come to enquire after their magic etc they won’t tell me because they will think I shall tell the mission people.’ There was also Archer, the planter, and Mr and Mr Huson who owned a plantation on the other side of the mission. ‘The less I have to do with any of these white folk the better I shall be pleased – but I can’t afford to offend them…The one saving circumstance is that there are no white people on this island – (if there were I should pack up + go elsewhere).’ (ibid)

However, Blackwood’s unease increased rapidly as she realised that no traditional ceremonies seemed to have survived at Petats – ‘I would rather have less help and more material’ – and by 26 October she was considering looking around Buka for ‘a place where there is more left. I want my natives to myself – I can’t help feeling a bit resentful when the mission people come over’ (ibid, letter 7, 26 October 1929). By early November she was telling Thomson that she had ‘made a great mistake in settling here – I should have looked round a bit first…I am bitterly disappointed in Petats’ (ibid, letter 8, 7 November 1929). Blackwood’s frustration at being surrounded by the expatriate community stemmed from her aversion to socializing simply for the sake of it while in the field. This probably set her apart from most of her white companions:

‘I do not hanker after the society of people of my own colour. If there were a chance of a talk with someone of congenial tastes it would be different. But there is not a single white person in the whole Mandated Territory with whom I have any desire to exchange a single word, though I am on friendly terms with all of them – Government officials, planters and missionaries, and could get any help I wanted from them at any time. I should be well content not to see a white man for the rest of my residence in the Territory. I can generally manage to avoid them by not going down to meet the steamer, which I do only when there is some business which cannot be transacted by letter. The rare visit of any of them to this village always leaves me with a feeling of irritation.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 5, ‘Observations on climate etc’)

Before too long, her disillusionment was levelled at Chinnery too: ‘The policy of the Government seems to be to fob one off with a soft safe place where one can’t get into mischief – without caring whether one can do good work there or not. Chinnery is in with them – he should have known better than to send me here.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 9, 24 November 1929) Furthermore, she felt that the work of the mission was undermining her ability to gather ethnographic information, particularly as she was meant to be studying sexual practices.

‘The women giggle when spoken to + it is hard to get them to talk at all. The men are not very ready to talk of sexual matters – there is evidently an artificial sense of shame springing up among them. They never make any sexual reference in my presence unless directly asked. For a long time I got no stories with sexual references – the first was apologised for – ‘e make em talk no good’ - + only told to me after a consultation with the group as to whether it was the right thing to do.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 6, ‘Petats Review of Results in Three Months’)

She does not explain how she knew that the villagers’ sense of shame was ‘artificial’. All in all, she was faced with a difficult decision, having already invested a three months of her limited time in Petats, and learned the language, she was worried about starting all over again elsewhere and not leaving herself enough scope to do a good job second time round. Her concerns that her work would never reach the standards set by Mead and Powdermaker began to surface again (ibid).

The material culture was interesting and much of it had ‘survived’ the recent changes wrought by the mission, but Blackwood found the ceremonial and ritual life at Petats wanting. She spent a few days at another village to see a feast in honour of a new house and concluded that she had collected more information from there in a week than she could get in six weeks at Petats. And yet, if she moved, she still feared making a mess of both jobs by not giving herself enough time for thorough research in either place (ibid, letter 10, 8 December 1929). ‘The essence of this job is that I should stay put + get to know the people individually. If I start on another place + another language I’ll hardly have time to do that before it’s time to come home.’ (ibid). Her determination to work at one field site, in the Malinowskian tradition, is striking. Nonetheless, by mid-December she had decided to prospect for a new place to work (ibid).


On 30 December 1929, Blackwood had had a visit from Mrs Hadden, who had offered to take Blackwood back and settle her in a village on the north of Bougainville, where there had only been a native mission teacher for a few weeks, and there were no white people at all other than the Haddens. So, at Mrs Hadden’s suggestion Blackwood went to the House Kiap at Gomen on 1 January 1930 and visited the neighbouring village of Kurtachi (on the north coast of Bougainville) from there. She only took enough supplies for a month or so initially, until she could gauge how the two places compared. (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 11, 25 December 1929, and Blackwood’s diary) As it was, after 4 days at Gomen, she wrote to Thomson and announced that she already had nearly as much material as she had collected during 3 months at Petats (ibid, letter 12, 5 January 1930). Kurtachi became her primary field site, and she went back to Petats briefly on 26/27 January to organize and collect her things. From Petats, before returning to Kurtachi, she made a journey round the northern half of Buka, to the village of Lemanmanu on the northern tip of the island, where she stayed at the House Kiap. On the way back, she stayed the night at Hanahan on the north east of the island. By 9 February she was back at Petats, but she took the boat back to Gomen on 11 February, this time with her possessions.

She did not wholly regret her time at Petats, particularly as the material culture was richer there than at Kurtachi, and the two languages turned out to have a similar structure (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 12, 5 January 1930). She later reasoned that, at the time, she had already been travelling for three months and wanted to get to work, and she had liked the sound of the place ‘they have fishing kites etc and no white people on the island’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 17, 14 March 1930). She was glad that she had been able to send Balfour a fishing kite ‘which he particularly wanted’ (ibid). She also kept in touch with Cropp, the Methodist missionary, despite her resentment of his influence over the villagers. He was an expert on languages and Blackwood had spent much of her time collecting vocabularies and linguistic data from the villages she visited. They both liaised with Sydney Ray, as did J.H.L. Waterhouse (who was also a linguist), about the relationships between these Melanesian languages, and Blackwood and Cropp corresponded about this work later (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 9, Cropp to Blackwood, 29 May 1933).  

Interestingly, around this same time (new year 1930) in Oxford, Buxton was considering applying for a Registrar job at the University, and Blackwood asked Thomson whether he thought she would have any chance of succeeding him as Reader in Physical Anthropology. ‘In a way, I would rather remain without the teaching responsibilities involved, which would of course entail my remaining in Oxford + forgoing a possible second year of field work later on…But I know that my present position in Oxford is likely to become precarious, + to be quite frank – while I do not yearn to step into Buxton’s shoes – I should hate anyone else to have them!’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 12, 5 January 1930) This comment is interesting because it illustrates her preference for fieldwork over teaching, and shows that she was concerned about – or at least aware of – the impermanence of her position in Oxford. In a later letter she expressed her wishes that things should stay as they were at the Department, but she also acknowledged that this was impossible given Thomson’s imminent retirement: ‘it isn’t fair to expect you to carry the job on indefinitely – but I feel that there’ll be ‘nae luck about the hoose when oor gind man’s awa!’ - + I hate the thought of the Department without its chief.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 21, 25 April 1930)

From 11 February until 1 October 1930 Blackwood was based at Kurtachi (her house there was finished in early March), but she undertook a number of trips around the area. From 22-25 February she travelled to see an upi ceremony (upi is the hat worn by adolescent boys) on the other side of the bay with Mr Hadden and Mr Swanston. As she settled in to work in this second village she began to realize how much information there was to gather and process, and how little time she had. ‘Ten months is not enough for this job’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 15, 26 February 1930). She frequently compared herself to Malinowski, whose books plunged her ‘into fits of the deepest depression’ and she despaired of ever getting the quality or quantity of material that he had published. She exclaimed more than once that he had three years in the field, while she had less than one, and that he was ‘a perfect genius at languages’ while she had ‘some facility for picking up enough of the language to carry on a casual conversation’ (ibid, and letter16, 10 March 1930). She also worried that she was unable to see the bigger picture in the way that Malinowski could, and she feared that he could ‘theorise about things which to me remain facts’ (letter 17, 14 March 1930).

In early April, Blackwood learned that the initiation ceremony – involving the upi or ‘hats’ – that she was hoping to see, would not take place until July at the time she was due to be travelling back to England. She was bitterly disappointed, especially as she suspected it might be the last of these ceremonies, since no new upi were to be given out and the boys were now against wearing them. She wrote to Thomson and wondered whether she dare ask for another term’s leave to enable her to extend her stay. She claimed that she did not particularly want to stay, but the opportunity for seeing the ceremony was too good to miss (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 19, 6 April 1930). The possibility of extending her trip was complicated by the situation in Oxford, because she realised that if there was any chance of her getting Buxton’s job should he move on, she would want to be back in time for Michaelmas Term (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 21, 25 April 1930). As it was, she heard in late May that Buxton had not got the job, and so she extended her stay in the field for an extra three months.

On 11 April she visited Ruri, a village along the coast to the east of Kurtachi. On 21 April she visited Saposa, an island off the west coast of Bougainville, where she met J.H.L. Waterhouse, who was collecting plants for Kew and gave her advice concerning her plant collection (I have written elsewhere about this collection). She arrived back in Kurtachi on 27 April following this trip. On 9 May she visited Riaso for another upi ceremony, and on 27 May she visited a sick woman at Ruri. By this time she was even more scared at the thought of only having six weeks left in the field. ‘I simply can’t write a book – or even a decent report – about these people – I don’t know the first thing about them. It’s all very well for people like Margaret Mead to say ‘a trained student can master the fundamental structure of a primitive society in a few months.’ I don’t know how she does it. I can’t. I’ve worked hard + conscientiously here for 8 months + I have hardly scratched the surface. The idea of having to ‘write it up’ after another two months or so is awful. After as many years one might perhaps be gratified to do so.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 22, 4 May 1930).

On 23 June she travelled to Malasang to see pottery-making (she collected some pots and the tools that were used to make them for Balfour (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 23, 29 June 1930) see ‘The Blackwood Collection’ document), returning two days later. By this stage she was beginning to wonder whether the ceremony, promised for July, would take place in time for her to see it, despite her extended leave (ibid, 21 June 1930). She soon resorted to ‘bribing and threatening’ in an effort to get the villagers to schedule it in time for her to see (letter 25, 10 August 1930). Meanwhile, in July, she went ‘on top’, to Konua (or Kunua), in the ‘uncontrolled area’ on the western coast. She initially intended to take this trip with Felix Spieser, but ended up going alone – or at least, only with the local villagers, who agreed to take her because she was a woman, making this ‘the first time in my life that my sex has been anything but a disadvantage to me’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 24, 27 July 1930). She visited several villages where the inhabitants had never seen a white person before. She wanted to see whether it would be possible, and profitable, to work there in the future.

‘The villages I visited were at that time still ‘uncontrolled’ and not very easy to work with, and my visit was merely an exploratory trip with a native who had affiliations there and agreed to take me with him. I hoped at that time to be able to go back and make a long stay in the Kunua country, but on my next expedition I was asked to go to New Guinea to get some things that were especially required by the Pitt Rivers Museum, and have never been back to Bougainville.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers Box 5, letter to Dr Oliver, 20 April 1939)

She met Speiser again by chance afterwards and on hearing where she had been he decided to follow in her footsteps, which worried her terribly, as she thought it would jeopardize her own relationship with the people she had met. However, she concluded that they probably would not have allowed her to stay for a longer period anyway, and the settlements were too small for her to observe daily life effectively (ibid).

On 3 September she records going ‘on top’ to visit villagers again in her diary. Towards the end of her time, in mid-September, she began taking measurements of the villagers in the neighbouring villages of Tabut, Kurtachi and Ruri. By this time she had all but given up hope of seeing the initiation ceremony, which, in the end, must have taken place after her departure. She had heard from Mr Cook that the timing of the ceremonies was run from a village up in the mountains and the chief responsible was determined not to have the ceremony until Blackwood had left. Her friends in the village denied that the ceremonies were run by another village chief, but Blackwood was left wondering about the truth of the situation (letter 23, 8 June 1930). On 1 October she left Kurtachi and returned to Petats, where she continued to take measurements of the villagers. On 4 and 5 October she moved on to Pororan (an island off the west coast of Buka) where she took measurements. On 6 October she returned to Petats briefly before leaving via the island of Matsungon (off the west coast of Buka, south of Petats), and through Buka Passage, south to Kieta, on the east coast of Bougainville.

Blackwood was now heading to New Zealand, en route for home. She travelled via Tulagi (on 12 October), Norfolk Island (on 16 October), and arriving in Sydney on 22 October, where she stayed with the Swanstons. She did not enjoy Sydney, nor was she left with a favourable impression of Radcliffe-Brown, who she met there for the second time:

‘Australia is wet and cold and miserable and crowded and noisy and I feel like the wild man from Borneo. Here with my friends it is not so bad but Sydney was awful. Radcliffe Brown was sniffy and indicated that he didn’t see how I could possibly have done any decent work up there because I had had no training in social anthropology. He asked who did the social anthropology at Oxford, when I told him Marett, he said: ‘The unfortunate thing about Marett is that he has never seen a savage.’ Then he wanted to know about the Tropical African students, I said Buxton had to deal with them, he enquired with an air of superiority: ‘But Buxton has never been in Africa, has he?’ Altogether he succeeded in putting my back up properly but I couldn’t very well be rude to him in his own office. He’s too damn superior for anything.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 27, 28 October 1930)

On 25 October she travelled on to Melbourne, where she boarded the Makeno for New Zealand on 30 October. She arrived in Dunedin on 3 November, where she was met by Henry Devenish Skinner (who became director of the Otago Museum that year, having been an assistant curator and lecturer). Blackwood stayed with Skinners – ‘a most delightful couple’ – for a week before she travelled north via Christchurch (10 November), Wellington and New Plymouth (11 November), Rotarua (16 November) and Auckland (17 November). On 18 November she boarded R.M.S. Magaia at Auckland, and travelled east to Hawaii, where she arrived on 28 November and was met by Sir Peter Buck, ethnologist at (later Director of) the Bishop Museum, Honolulu (Buck and his wife were also deemed to be ‘a delightful couple’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 30, 19 November 1930)). By 4 December she had docked at Victoria, on the west coast of Canada, and her diary ends with her arrival in Vancouver on 5 December. From here, I assume she travelled eastwards through North America on her journey home. She certainly planned to see Clark Wissler, and was nervous about his reactions to a report she had sent him (it is unclear what the report was on) (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 29, 27 November 1930). But by the time she was due into Honolulu she was already tired of socializing. In her last remaining letter to Thomson, she writes, ‘I just want to have tea and cherry cake with you beside a cozy fire in the Department + talk shop. And you will ask me lots of questions I can’t answer + I shall wish I could go back again + find out.’ (ibid).


Intensive fieldwork: Blackwood clearly modelled this 1929-30 field trip on the work of Malinowski and others who were doing ‘intensive’ research in the field at that time. In one of his letters to Blackwood, Thomson had cautioned her not to be ‘too diffuse’ in her work. Blackwood was forthright in her response, and clearly summed up why it was impossible to single out any specific strand of cultural activity for study:

‘[It] is very difficult [not to be diffuse], especially in view of the nature of my programme. I am supposed to be investigating ‘the sex life of a primitive people’. But if I ignored their material culture I should lose a lot of sex taboos e.g. while fishing, hunting etc. If I don’t bother about their medicines I lose a lot of charms for making people fall in love with you, to say nothing of contraceptives etc. If I omit astronomy, I lose e.g. an interesting connection between certain appearances of the moon + menstruation. If I omitted their genealogies – a job which takes endless time + patience – I could never understand their society + should never have heard of a number of anomalous marriages which throw light on the problems with which I am immediately concerned. And so on through all the range of human activities.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 22, 4 May 1930)

She was also keen to have her own house built in the village of Kurtachi, rather than stay at the Government’s House Kiap on the outskirts. She believed that it was much better for anthropologists to organize their own accommodation, which enabled them to secure a ‘strategic position’ in the village. In later lectures she gave of field methods, she remembered that this went contrary to the advice she had been given as a student:

‘In some lectures which I once attended before going on a field trip, the lecturer laid great stress on getting a house well away from the village. He was thinking of the advantages thus obtained in the way of quiet, cleanliness, sanitation, and so on. But for an anthropologist, these are far outweighed by the immense advantage of having a house in full view of what is going on in the village. You will often find that while the people have no objection whatever to your watching some ceremony or piece of work which may be in progress, it will yet never occur to them to come and tell you that it is going on.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers uncatalogued correspondence, undated lecture on ‘Field Studies’)

She ensured that rules were set up to protect her privacy. In the evenings, she would turn on a light on her veranda to signal that it was all right for people to come and socialize and tell stories. At first Blackwood did not realize that the villagers were too polite to leave until she turned them out in the evenings, but soon she began to do this. The villagers did not visit her at her house when she was eating meals because they considered it rude to do so (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 27, ‘My Daily Round’ typescript). I think there was also a rule that people were not allowed into the house, only on the veranda.

When going on journeys, she usually only took a rucksack and stayed with locals in their houses when visited. She strongly disagreed with the practice of ‘going on field trips even of short duration, accompanied by a string of porters carrying furniture, tucker boxes and such paraphernalia of civlisation’, because she realized that these things established a barrier between the anthropologist and their subjects (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers uncatalogued correspondence, undated lecture on ‘Field Studies’). She advocated making friends with local children, which was often a good way of getting to know their parents, and she took balloons, little bells, small mirrors and tinsel into the field to charm them. She quickly realized that finding out about technology and material culture was a good way of starting relationships. And she also found that reading books by other anthropologists not only stimulated her own research, but provided a starting point for discussions with the villagers who were interested in hearing about people in other parts of the world (ibid). She believed it was vital to learn the language, and criticized the practice of using interpreters which increased the likelihood of errors, and was slow and frustrating.


Physical Anthropology: This was an area she had previously focused on almost exclusively, for example, during her travels in North America, where she spent the whole of her time measuring people and taking samples of hair etc. And she had intended to carry out similar kinds of research in the Solomon Islands: she wrote to Dr Keynes, of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, before she left, enquiring about taking blood samples to test for blood groups and other information ‘which can be used for the study of human heredity along genetic lines’. She was concerned as to whether the serum needed to carry out this kind of research would keep in the tropical climate, particularly as it would take her a while to win the confidence of the locals before undertaking the work (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence J-M, letter to Dr Keynes, 13 May 1929). However, once there, she found the realities of collecting physical and medical data less appealing.

While in Kurtachi, she argued that the group of people was too small for the measurements to be statistically significant. Furthermore, she was sure the women would ‘fight shy of it’ while the men – whom she never touched – would be provoked, and she didn’t want to jeopardize her relationship with the villagers in any way (Box 2, letter 22, 28 May 1930). She admitted, ‘I fear the physical side is the weakest in my work so far – I have hesitated to take measurements for fear of upsetting the natives with whom I have to go on living. If I measured anyone + he or she happened to die shortly after – it would be exceedingly awkward for me - + there are also other considerations.’ (ibid, letter 24, 27 July 1930). A month later, in late August, she knew she would have to get on with taking measurements, but was still reluctant: ‘I suppose I must make an effort to take some physical measurements – seeing that I profess to be a physical anthropologist – but I frankly admit that the prospect is not inviting – to be honest – I feel nearly sick at the idea of doing it, quite apart from the mental effort involved in persuading them, + the weariness of writing figures down without help, with nothing for them to sit on + nowhere to lay one’s instruments.’ (letter 26, 28 August 1930)

As it was, she did take measurements, and with comparative ease, but only in the final few days of her stay. Her final comment suggests that the experience, which was ‘the filthiest and most disgustingly repulsive job’ she had ever done, did not ignite any renewed passion for physical anthropology. ‘I’ve been flunking this job for months, + wishing I hadn’t to keep up my reputation as a physical anthropologist. But now I’ll be able to give the desired flavour to the lectures you want from me in Hilary Term – though I suppose Buxton will say the numbers are too few to be any good. I can’t help it – I just can’t chase around to any more villages in search of victims…It was only the feeling that I couldn’t face you without having done any measuring, that forced me to go through with it.’ (ibid, 21 September 1930). Years later, she concluded that the trip had not been designed for physical anthropology research, which would have necessitated moving through a larger geographical area: ‘Physical anthropology was not one of the main objects of my expedition, which called for a long stay in one district rather than for survey work.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers Box 5, letter to Dr Oliver, 20 April 1939)


On her return to Oxford, she moved into a house in Walton Street, No. 45, with two other ladies, an arrangement that had been confirmed while she was still in Bougainville (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 2, letter 22, 4 May 1930). (She was still living there in 1935, see letter from Blackwood to LHDB, PRM ms collections Blackwood papers Box 4, 25 August 1935, and possibly lived there until 1963, see below)


In early 1931 Blackwood wrote to Chinnery and reflected on her time in Melanesia and life since she had arrived back in Oxford:

‘…since I left Soraken on my homeward journey life has been one continual rush, in which efforts at letter-writing have been in vain. I have hardly settled down again even yet, but am still engaged in picking up the threads of my job here.’

‘I spent a most strenuous and interesting year and kept in excellent health the whole time. The powers-that-be have expressed themselves as much pleased with the preliminary report I sent them, and the people here are delighted with the things I have brought home, and also with my photographs, which have turned out much better than I dared to hope they would. So I feel that my efforts have been worth while. I hope very much to be able to come back again at some future time and learn a little more – a year is a lamentably short time in which to pick up even a superficial knowledge of a primitive community, though of course previous training and experience helped me to make the most of it.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence A-D, 17 February 1931)

Blackwood lectured in Trinity Term on ‘Heredity and Racial Crossing’ and in Michaelmas Term on ‘Field Methods in Ethnology’ [see her notes for the latter lectures]. She continued to work on the cranial collections at the Department of Human Anatomy and began a card catalogue of skulls in the Williamson Collection, recently transferred to Oxford from the Royal Army Medical College at Millbank. She also began writing up her research in the New Guinea, and read a paper on ‘Puberty Rites and Initiation Ceremonies in the Northern Solomons’ at the BAAS Centenary Meeting in London in September 1931. (University Gazette, 15 June 1932)

She also gave a paper on her research at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which led to a spate of sensational headlines in the press: ‘Oxford Girl’s Adventure. Present at Native Mock Battle. First Witness of Strange Rite. Boys who always wear hats’ Daily Telegraph 25 Sept 1931; ‘First Woman to see Native Rites’ Morning Post 25 Sept 1931; ‘Woman lives for year with savages. Never felt in danger, even on fringe of cannibal land. Ready to Return’ no date or publication; ‘Girl Risks Life at Forbidden Rites. Dressed as Man for Mock Battle’ Daily Herald, 25 Sept 1931 (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers uncatalogued box ‘Music’).


Thomson was sick with the ‘flu for much of Hilary Term 1932 (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence M-S, letter to H.D. Skinner, 22 April 1932). Blackwood continued to lecture and give demonstrations in the Human Anatomy Department, and completed her cataloguing of the Williamson Collection of human crania, while also working on her research in the Solomon Islands (University Gazette, 8 December 1933, p206). She was already thinking about returning to Bougainville, but she was aware that she needed to produce some sort of report on her 1929-30 fieldwork before she could contemplate returning. At the same time, she wanted to go back to try and answer some of the inevitable questions that arose during the writing-up process. ‘Unfortunately, I am expected to produce some sort of a report on the last trip before I can possibly dream of another, and the more I work on my material the more essential it seems to go back and fill some of the more glaring gaps before committing myself to print at all. So it’s a vicious circle!’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence M-S, letter to H.D. Skinner, 22 April 1932). Initially, she had not intended to write a full monograph:

‘I did not at first intend doing a book of anything like so comprehensive a character, and meant to make a separate paper or papers out of the material culture, which I should have been only too pleased to let you have. But Professor Thomson and Mr Balfour urged me to put all my material into one volume, as being more useful for reference, so I am following their advice. It means, of course, that I have got to get it all done before any of it can be published, which is delaying publication considerably.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence M-S, letter to H.D. Skinner, 21 March 1933)

Blackwood had her own reservations about producing one, comprehensive document, rather than dividing up the material into specialist areas for publication, which she thought her funding body, the Committee for Sex Research at Washington, might prefer. However, since the book was to be published in England, she thought it better to follow the advice of those who were based in the UK and so worked under Thomson and Balfour’s guidance. She lacked confidence when writing about material culture in particular. She wrote of Peter Buck’s Samoan Material Culture, which published as a Bishop Museum bulletin in 1930, ‘To look at that book makes me despair of ever writing anything worthwhile on material culture.’ (ibid)


Blackwood continued to lecture, and give demonstrations in the Human Anatomy Department. She continued to work on the cranial collections there, and assisted in excavations.

Blackwood continued to work on writing up her work in New Guinea for publication. She found it tough going at times, and wrote to Gordon Thomas in early 1933 explaining how she longed to be able to go back into the field to fill in some of the gaps in her work: ‘It’s a vicious circle, I can’t write my book till I have been back again, and I can’t go back till I have written my book! …I wish very much that I could come back again, but that seems extremely problematical at present, America has no more cash to spare for such trips, and we certainly haven’t here.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Thomas, 17 January 1933)

By July 1934 (the end of the period covered by the Annual Report for the Department) her report on the Solomon Islands fieldwork was ready for publication (University Gazette, 5 December 1934, p202). Arthur Thomson resigned as Dr Lees Professor of Anatomy in 1933, and left his post in 1934 to be replaced by Wilfred Edward Le Gros Clark.

By early November 1934 Le Gros Clark was in negotiations with Herschel Margoliouth (Secretary of Faculties) about restructuring the staffing in the Department, and specifically about Blackwood’s position as University Demonstrator. Le Gros Clark found her position in his Department ‘quite anomalous. As well might a Reader in Modern History be appointed in the Department of Physiology!’ (OU Archives, file FA/9/2/90, 7 November 1934). He proposed that she either stay in his department, but be demoted in some way so that he could fill the two Departmental Demonstratorships with qualified anatomists (trained biologists – unlike Blackwood - who could teach medical students as well as physical anthropology courses), or she be moved out of the department and become Demonstrator in Anthropology. This second option was impossible because University Demonstrators could only be appointed on the recommendation of a Head of Department, and there was no Department of Anthropology at the time. Thus, Blackwood could easily have lost her post. Le Gros Clark, however, was emphatic. He suggested that Blackwood could be taken on by the Geography Department.

Blackwood also wrote to Margoliouth in November 1934, referring to ‘the extreme seriousness of my position, and [I] would be glad to do anything in my power to meet the situation, if I did but know what ought to be done.’ (ibid, 20 November 1934) Margoliouth expressed to her ‘a little uneasiness on my part in case I should have led you to underestimate the magnitude of the difficulties of the existence of which you are aware. I have known cases of people who have neglected opportunities of undertaking other employment because they relied too much on assurances from other people in whom they had unwisely placed excessive confidence, and I do not want there to be any danger so far as I am concerned of that happening to you.’ (17 November 1934).

A few days later, the Committee for Anthropology wrote to the Board of Faculty of Biological Sciences to put on the record its high opinion of Blackwood’s ‘capacity and services to the study of Anthropology in Oxford for sixteen years’ and its view that the School of Anthropology should have a Demonstrator in Ethnology. They formally recommended that Blackwood continue as a teacher in Ethnology under the direction of the Committee for Anthropology, with her present salary of £450 and that she be given a room (ibid, 30 November 1934). This was deemed unworkable. It was unclear where Blackwood would be based under this arrangement, and Le Gros Clark was concerned that she would still be working on the collections in the Human Anatomy Department but would no longer be under his direction.


Arthur Thomson died on 7 February 1935. Balfour wrote to Margoliouth in January 1935 giving his formal support to the statement issued by the Committee for Anthropology in November 1934 regarding Blackwood. He added that, ‘I hope that it may, perhaps, be possible for the Committee for Anthropology to be added to the list of ‘Departments’, so that Miss Blackwood be ‘attached’ to the Committee on reappointment…if the University machinery will admit of the inclusion of a new ‘Department’, several benefits would result from the change’ (OU Archives, file FA/9/2/90, 29 January 1935). As it was, Blackwood was reappointed as Demonstrator in the Faculty of Biological Sciences for one more year in early 1935. In Trinity Term 1935 the Board of the Faculty of Biological Sciences met to consider ‘certain proposals’ which would enable her to transfer to Anthropology with the status of University Demonstrator the following year (ibid).

Apart from a list of her publications, Blackwood’s work was not mentioned in the Department of Human Anatomy’s annual report for this year, for the first time, and she was never mentioned again in that Report. In November 1935 Le Gros Clark repeated his statement to Margoliouth, that Blackwood’s position in the Department was anomalous and suggested that she be ‘attached to the Pitt Rivers Museum under Mr Balfour’, however he adding that ‘such work as I have been able to give her in this department during the past year she has done quite efficiently’ (ibid, 15 November 1935). Margoliouth wrote to Balfour requesting a letter from him to confirm his willingness to have Blackwood reappointed under him (‘as you are no longer a member of the Board of Biological Sciences’). He also asked Balfour to outline her duties and her stipend. Balfour’s response does not seem to have survived, but Margoliouth wrote to Blackwood in December 1935 to confirm that she would be reappointed under Balfour. Blackwood was grateful, but concerned about the future of the cranial collections that she had spent so much of her time working on in the Department of Human Anatomy during the preceding decade (ibid, 13 December 1935).

Amidst all this uncertainty and change Blackwood’s book Both Sides of Buka Passage: an ethnographic study of social, sexual, and economic questions in the north-western Solomon Islands was published by the Clarendon Press in 1935. She had been working on it for many years, and remembered later that ‘it was an awful sweat to write and I got very bored with it long before it was finished’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence T-Z, letter to F.E. Williams, 26 October 1939). By March 1933, she was complaining to Sydney Ray (who helped her with her linguistic research) that she was anxious to get the book finished because ‘it has already dragged on far too long’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence M-S, 17 March 1933). Given that her work had been funded by the Committee for Research on the Problems of Sex, it is not surprising that most of the first half of the book deals with marriage, sex relations, pregnancy and childbirth, and male and female adolescence. However, there are two sizeable chapters on material culture: ‘Useful Arts’ and ‘Aesthetic Arts’, which she included at Balfour and Thomson’s suggestion, as described above. She included a final chapter on dreams at the encouragement of Seligman, who had suggested her research in that area and advised her during the writing of the chapter (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence, M-S).

The book was very well received and Blackwood received many letters of congratulation from leading anthropologists. A.M. Hocart, writing in Nature, attributed the high standard of the book to Blackwood’s scientific training.

‘Miss Blackwood has medical traditions. The effect is at once apparent in her work on Bougainville, the largest of the Solomon Islands. She has learned mental discipline and a subordination of personality to the subject. In technical parlance, she has objectivity. We must be all the more thankful as the facts are worth knowing. It is not that there is anything sensational about them (the sensational is rarely the most valuable): their value lies in their being presented with such thoroughness and integrity that they form a solid basis for theoretical construction. The book is a mine of facts presented in their proper setting as parts of a social system.’ (Nature January 199 1936 pp 46)

However, some of the more popular reviews were published with rather sensationalist titles, like ‘Woman lived among primitive people for more than year’ (St John’s Evening Telegram, Newfoundland 17 January 1936, Montreal Daily Star 4 January 1936), ‘A woman among the Solomon Islanders’ (Times Literary Supplement 2 November 1935), and ‘A woman’s adventures’ (Manchester Guardian, n.d.) (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence T-Z).

As she wrote to her mentor in America, Clark Wissler, she was hoping to return to Melanesia to continue her research in the area,

‘You will know of the retirement and death of my Chief, Professor Arthur Thomson. His successor is a man of very different interests, who has made drastic changes in the policy and programme of this Department. My position has in consequence become extremely difficult and uncertain, but I am to continue as at present at least for the academic year now beginning. Meantime, I am considering ways and means of making another trip to the Solomon Islands, as I should much like to continue my work in the interior of Bougainville, which I hear is now being opened up by the missionaries, and will therefore probably soon have lost much of its original character.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence T-Z, letter to Clark Wissler, 29 September 1935)

She told Chinnery that she would now ‘very much like to tackle another group on similar lines, and feel sure that I could make a better job of it after my first experience. I am ‘exploring every avenue’ with a view to getting a grant for the purpose.’ But Thomson’s death and Le Gros Clark’s disinterest had left her without a strong mentor who could present her case within the University (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence T-Z, letter to Chinnery, 29 September 1935). Marett, who told her that her book was ‘a magnum opus indeed’ and reassured her that her scientific fame was now secure, was hoping to get her funding through the Rockefeller Grant for Social Studies, but he knew that there was little on offer for anthropologists (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence T-Z, letter from Marett, 11 October 1935).


In March 1936 Blackwood wrote to Margoliouth seeking leave of absence from the University to undertake research in Mount Hagen, New Guinea (OU Archives, file FA/9/2/90).

In November 1936, Balfour wrote to Margoliouth in order to secure an increase in Blackwood’s salary from £450 to £550 in accordance with the salary scale for University Demonstrators (OU Archives, file FA/9/2/90).

In 1936, Blackwood undertook a second fieldtrip to Melanesia. This time she was travelling under the auspices of the Pitt Rivers Museum, to collect material for Balfour. ‘I was sent out specifically to visit Mt. Hagen, in which area my Chief, Professor Henry Balfour, Curator of the Pitt-Rivers Museum, is especially interested.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Rev. Mr. Vicedon, c. May 1937). Balfour also wanted her to visit New Britain, particularly to collect barkcloth and head-bound skulls. He wrote to her, ‘Amongst other things I am extremely anxious to obtain artificially deformed skulls from New Britain, + patterned bark cloth (this is incidentally used for binding infants’ heads to produce deformation)…They are important for my series.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, Balfour to Blackwood, 26 August 1936)

On 3 April 1936 Blackwood set out on her ‘2nd Voyage to Sydney’. She arrived in Freemantle on 5 May, and a few days later, on 9 May, docked at Adelaide. On the 11 May she was in Melbourne, and on 14 May in Sydney. She spent the last week of May, from 23 – to 1 June, back in Melbourne. On 13 June she boarded the S.S. Nellore in Sydney and docked in Brisbane on 15 June, from there she travelled on to Rabaul, where she was met by Chinnery, arriving on 22 June. While in Rabaul she discussed her plans with Chinnery and decided to work in the Otibanda country, ‘on top’, rather than along the north coast of New Britain as Chinnery had suggested (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Balfour, 23 June 1936). While in Sydney, she had heard from a group of Cadets studying at the University that a small area around Manki village had remained open, in an area that was largely designated as ‘uncontrolled’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Balfour, 18 May 1936). ‘I chose them [the Kukukukus] as the only mountain people available for study at present, as the Mt. Hagen area has been closed to whites owing to trouble caused by mishandling of natives by recruiters and missionaries…As far as I can find out, no one has worked among the Kukukukus, so I hope it will be worth while.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Haddon, 20 August 1936)

On 2 July she arrived in Kavieng, on 4 July she was at Salamaua, where she learned that the Assistant District Officer, Mr Bridge, was on patrol for three weeks and she would have to wait until he returned to proceed with her work. After some delay and waiting around, on 22 July she flew to Wau. From Wau she went to Bulolo for a couple of days and explored Kunai country (25/26 July). On 29 July she flew to the Upper Watut aerodrome, and went to Otibanda for the day from there, where she met the ADO, Ken Bridge, and they agreed that she would work at Manki village (‘Manki’ was sometimes spelt with an ‘i’ and sometimes with an ‘e’, I have used the former for the sake of consistency). Manki was the only village (itself consisting of two hamlets) in a group of Manki villages that was not in the ‘uncontrolled’ area and was therefore open to Blackwood. The Manki were one of three groups of people – along with the Nauti, and the Ekuti – who made up the Kukukuku, a name given to the bigger group by their enemies and picked up by the Government (they themselves did not recognise it). The groups were similar culturally, but were hereditary enemies, although the Manki were now on friendly terms with a section of the Nauti. Blackwood was able to visit those villages from each of the three groups that were not in the ‘uncontrolled’ area during her stay (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 11 ‘Preliminary outline of the material culture of the Kukukuku people’).

On 4 August she visited the village of Manki (with a population of about 130) for the first time, and she was bitterly disappointed with the appearance of the village, which she felt had been affected by contact with the white community, and was, ‘not at all ‘belong before’’. She returned to Otibanda the next day, before establishing herself at the House Kiap in Manki on 7 August. The House Kiap was situated between the two hamlets of Manki, which had been induced to come together by the Kiap and the Lutheran mission, for their greater convenience (ibid). The inhabitants of each hamlet spoke different dialects, although some people understood both. For the next four months, until 11 December, Blackwood was based in Manki, although she went on patrol with L.C. Noakes through the Upper Watut country from 13-27 September. Less than two weeks into her stay she wrote to Balfour, ‘Probably I shall not be able to get as much material here as I might have done from a coast village, but anything I do get should be useful as it will be quite new. I hope I have done the right thing in coming up here.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Balfour, 18 August 1936).

Work in the uncontrolled area would have been extremely difficult, not only because of the people’s hostility to strangers and regular fighting, but also because the settlements were small and scattered. Blackwood had to be content working with those who had come under the influence of the government and had ceased to fight (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 11, ‘round robin’ letter, October 1936). This was an aspect of Blackwood’s trip that she found perpetually frustrating (and the sentiment echoed her experiences with the missions and government infrastructures during her 1929-30 fieldwork in New Guinea). It was something she also had to deal with when it came to the possibility of working in Hagen. ‘The trouble in this country from my point of view is that any village in which it is possible to live has had contact with whites and some of its life has been altered, while the untouched natives are interesting but one cannot work with them as it is impossible to get Government permission to enter the ‘uncontrolled area’.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Mallard, 10 October 1936)

The languages of the Kukukuku were of Papuan stock and were much more difficult than those she had learned in 1929-30, so she had to start her work in pidgin and use interpreters. As time went by, she found the culture lacking in ritual or ceremony, the people were reluctant to give her information – gathering genealogies was difficult because there were strict taboos on saying the names of anyone who was dead – and her work was slow (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Haddon, 20 August 1936). She was also worried by the fact that there was very little in the way of decorative arts, writing to Balfour, ‘I am afraid you will think I have struck a very dull place with so many things absent.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Balfour, 8 November 1936). In October she concluded that ‘nothing especially interesting has happened during the three months I have been here’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 11, ‘round robin’ letter, October 1936).

On 11 December she travelled to Andarora, arriving at the Mission House and House Kiap on 13 December. She had been invited to go to Andarora with Andatei’s father and various others nearly eight weeks earlier, while in Manki. She believed Andarora to be less affected by contact with the white community. She wrote to Balfour in early 1937, ‘I now feel that I was justified in coming inland, in spite of all the expenses + difficulties I might have avoided by settling on the coast. This really is a Stone Age culture – the few plane irons + knives they now have made no appreciable difference to their mode of life except to speed up a few operations. They haft and use the plane irons exactly as they do stone adzes.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Balfour, 1 February 1937).


Blackwood stayed at Andarora for about ten weeks, until 20 February 1937, apart from a few days in January (20-25 January) when she went back to Otibanda, and to Manki to check on her house and her belongings there. While in Andarora she undertook a few trips to Padarua, to see singsings, and also went on a short trip to Keda at the beginning of January with Ken Bridge (the ADO). On 20 February she returned to Otibanda, and from there to Manki on 23 February. However, she did not stay in Manki for long. Over the next few days she organized a trip to Ekua, leaving for Otibanda on 8 March, and on to Ekua on 9 March. She wrote to Balfour that same day, ‘The District Officer was anxious for me to visit a village belonging to the Ekuti tribe, to ascertain the relations existing between them and the other groups. So I am now anchored in the village of Ekua, but as I have only just arrived, I do not know how good working conditions will be.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Balfour, 9 March 1937) She added that her stay in Andarora had been very profitable, and, ‘I would have remained there for the rest of my time, but for this special request of the District Officer for information which will be useful to him.’ She stayed in Ekua until 4 April, but in that time she spent a day or two in Waiganda (31 March-2 April). On 5 April she was back in Manki, but only for a few days to organize herself before leaving on 12 April en route for New Britain, to collect things specifically for Balfour.

Later, she wrote to Chinnery, ‘I was very sorry to leave the Kukukuku, the time has been much too short, but as Balfour is very keen on this Gasmata work I have no choice but to go.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Chinnery, 15 May 1937) Overall, she had found working amongst the Kukukuku difficult, because the people were reticent and ‘their two main – almost only – interests are food and fighting’. As she had written to Penniman, in January 1937, ‘These folk are the most exasperating on earth – the Bougainville crowd were flowing founts of eloquence and wisdom compared to them! Getting a single small fact is like extracting a grain of gold from a mountain of quartz with a pickaxe.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Penniman, 7 January 1937). But she was reassured by the fact that the District Officer had been impressed with her work and the information she had gathered (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Haddon, 9 May 1937). She always wanted to stay longer, and had hinted at this in a letter to Balfour in November 1936, after only a few months in the area, when she warned that spending the last few months of her time in New Britain would come at a cost.

‘It would involve leaving much work on other aspects of Kukukuku life unfinished. To make even a fair study of the social anthropology of these folk would take all the time one could give to it, the language is quite difficult, there are no adequate interpreters, and any quantity of taboos on saying names etc. makes the collection of concrete data a matter of much time and more patience, and in this kind of work the last few months are much the most profitable.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Balfour, 8 November 1936).

There is a gap in her diary after she left Manki, between 15 April and 5 May, but the notes she made in her diary reveal that during this time she travelled to Port Moresby by plane, then went on to Orokolo on the steamer to see Mr and Mrs F.E. Williams, who took her on a canoe trip to Iari village on the Purari Delta. She explained this trip with the Williams’s to Balfour in a letter:

‘I felt I needed a break and a mental stimulant before tackling the Gasmata job, so I accepted a very cordial invitation from F.E. Williams to visit him and his wife at Orokolo where he has been working for some time. He had arranged a canoe trip for us up the Purari River, and during my stay I was able, with his help, to gather things very rapidly, as I could never have done alone. I hope this culture is not already fully represented in the Museum, even if some of the more spectacular things may have been brought back by others, and that you will not grudge the space occupied by two dance masks, which I should not have collected had Williams not recommended them as particularly fine specimens of their kind.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Balfour, 8 May 1937)

Following this three-week trip, she went back to Port Moresby and from there on to Wau by plane. Between 6 and 17 May she was at Salamaua, trying to negotiate a permit to work in Mount Hagen. Blackwood found out, when she had first arrived in Sydney in 1936, that the Mount Hagen district was closed to visitors, as it had been declared an ‘uncontrolled’ region after recent fighting in the area. However, in May 1937 she heard that applications for permits were being accepted again as a Government Station was to be established in the region. She quickly wrote letters to various missionaries, officials and persons of influence to try and secure a permit, and on 11 May she radioed Balfour to see whether he could get her a six-month extension from Oxford to go to Hagen after her trip to New Britain (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19 and PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 8, diary II).

(Earlier on, when she first arrived in Australia in 1936, she had discussed the possibility of leaving New Britain a month earlier than planned in order to travel home through Japan or China, and she had written to Balfour about this possibility in November 1936, although she acknowledged that he might prefer her to stay in New Britain, especially if she found it productive there (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Balfour, 8 November 1936).)

By late June she was beginning to realize that the efforts to get a permit for Hagen were hopeless. The plans for a new Government Station had been postponed indefinitely and Chinnery did not think that any women would be allowed into the area (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, Blackwood to Balfour, 28 June 1937). As a result, Blackwood had to decide where to spend her remaining months, now that her leave from Oxford had been extended. Chinnery suggested a survey of the material culture along the coast of New Britain or New Guinea, and she wrote to Balfour to ask whether he wanted her to go anywhere in particular (ibid). One of her letters to Chinnery at this time illustrates the fact that she felt her personal aspirations as an anthropologist were sometimes constrained by Balfour’s expectations of her as a museum collector:

‘I would like to go back to the Kukukukus, but as I am now working for the Pitt-Rivers Museum I think Balfour would rather I went somewhere more profitable from the point of view of material culture. I have covered that side of Kukukuku life – the easiest to study – pretty thoroughly, I think, including the technique of making stone implements which Balfour particularly wanted, so from his point of view it would not be worth while going back. He does not care about social anthropology.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Chinnery, 27 June 1937)

While these decisions were being made, she travelled on to New Britain. On 18 May she left Salamaua for Gasmata, arriving on Rook Island on 20 May. She spent ten days stuck here because of high winds, and stayed at ‘Money’s plantation’. While on Rook Island she visited the four villages of Barang, Gom, Gassam Island and Barim. ‘I collected a good bunch of stuff from villages there so the time wasn’t completely wasted.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Mr Williams, 27 June 1937) At the same time, ‘[i]t was impossible to do systematic intensive work as we thought every day we should be going on’ (ibid, letter to Balfour, 28 June 1937). On 30 May she passed the Siassi island group and anchored at Aromot Island, the following day she passed the end of Rook Island and entered into the strait separating it from New Britain. On 1 June she visited Harold Koch’s plantation, Aliwo, and the following day established her headquarters at the House Kiap at Passismanua Patrol Station.

Blackwood spent the next two months in New Britain, amongst the Arawe. From her base she visited No. 1 Island (Eglep) and No. 2 Island (Apui), Alomos, Aliwa and Lapalam. Her stay was incredibly efficient in terms of collecting the material Balfour had requested: by 14 June, just two weeks into her stay, she noted, ‘Have actually got everything Balfour wants from here now!’ At the same time, she was not planning to stay in the area long, because the collection was her main priority, so it was difficult to settle into any in depth anthropological work. The area had also been studied recently by John Alexander Todd. Blackwood had not realized this until after she arrived and as a result she felt that an anthropological research she might do there would be largely redundant. She did not want to publish anything about the Arawe that Todd might be intending to put into print, so she felt that her visit was ‘for the benefit of the Pitt Rivers Museum only’. ‘I couldn’t have obtained the specimens Balfour wants without coming, so it doesn’t matter, except that it makes things rather less interesting for me, as I can’t publish any of it. If only I had made a better job of the Kukukukus, on whom I suppose I am expected to publish something!’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Williams, 27 June 1937). All in all this part of her trip was not particularly fulfilling.

After her two month stay in the Arawe district, on 4 August she travelled back east along the south coast of New Britain to Gasmata but got stuck there: there were no boats to Rabaul because of the devastation wrought by eruption of the Tavurvur and Vulcan volcanoes between 29 May and 2 June. Blackwood was forced to stay at Gasmata, waiting for a boat, for a month, until 4 September. From Gasmata, she visited outlying villages like Akur and Avato (8 August), Lalagen and Anato (12 August), and the area around Lindenhafen where she stayed with the Munros (17 August), but she could not travel far because she never knew when a boat might arrive for Rabaul, and she spent most of her time sitting and working at her typewriter (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence T-Z, letter to F.E. Williams, 23 September 1937).

On the whole, she found her stay in New Britain a little dull and rather frustrating. The collecting work had almost been too easy; she felt any anthropological work was largely redundant given Todd’s previous research; she had wanted to travel inland, but the weather prevented her; and her stay in Gasmata was restricted because she never knew when a boat for Rabaul might arrive:

‘I am sorry that the weather conditions during the latter part of my stay [amongst the Arawe] prevented me from making another trip into the interior, which might have been productive. I am very conscious that I have lamentably little to show for three months’ work, but the last month was, perforce, spent partly at the District Office, Gasmata, and partly at Lindenhafen Plantation, and though I visited such villages as could be easily reached from both places, I could not go far afield even on the few days when the weather was fine enough, as several boats were long over due and I did not want to risk missing a chance to get to Rabaul.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 10, letter to Balfour, 19 September 1937)

The nearest village to her camp at Gasmata was on an island, which meant that she had to take a canoe to get there and was unable to observe anything from her house, which was a ‘serious disadvantage’. She had to content herself with seeking out the ‘special information’ Balfour was interested in. In one letter from Gasmata she wrote ‘I only want specimens and certain special information. I’m bored and fed up and don’t want…’ before thinking better of it and crossing the phrase out (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 10, undated ‘round robin’ letter).

Eventually, on 3 September the Mangola arrived and Blackwood secured a berth. The next day she was at Salamaua, on the 6 September she passed through Lae, and on 9 September she finally reached Rabaul. She found the town almost unbearable because of the heat and the destruction wrought by the eruption which had left pumice dust everywhere. While there she, ‘was reduced to the semblance of a bit of chewed string and did nothing that wasn’t absolutely essential’ (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence T-Z, letter to Constance William, 23 September 1937).

Over the next ten days in Rabaul she tried to decide how to spend her remaining few months, since her leave from Oxford had been extended until the end of March 1938, initially to allow her to travel to Mount Hagen, but, failing this, to enable her collect more things for the Museum. She had intended to work in Mount Hagen, but after weeks of negotiations, she reluctantly acknowledged that she would be unable to get a permit to work in an area that was officially deemed ‘uncontrolled’. An exchange by radio with Balfour confirmed that he was happy to leave her to decide where she should base herself for more collecting work. After discussions with Chinnery, she decided to go to Madang and find a suitable place to work in that district after consulting the District Officer and local plantation manager.

‘Chinnery thinks I should get some good museum material from that area, it would be an offshoot of the Sepik culture probably and should provide carving etc. I have purposely avoided the Sepik itself as so many anthropologists have been there. Did you get from Lord Moyne any things from the Aiome pygmies? If not, I would make a special effort to get in touch with them, perhaps you would send me an air mail letter on receipt of this if you want this done…I have made numerous enquiries about the possibilities of the north coast of New Britain, but it seems to be all missionised and to have lost much if not all of its native culture. Good for the study of culture contact, but probably disappointing from the standpoint of museum collecting and studying material culture.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Balfour, 14 September 1937)

She clearly based her decision on the perceived richness of the material culture in the Madang area and the fact that it had been little visited by anthropologists (‘while I don’t want to be a mere snapper up of museum specimens, I must think of that side of the question seeing that is what Balfour sent me out for to do.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence T-Z, letter to F.E. Williams, 23 September 1937)). She may well have been somewhat disappointed in the end. She wrote to Todd, ‘As the last lap of eighteen months’ work, I am now doing what I am sorry to say amounts to little more than a collecting trip in the Madang area…’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Todd, 31 October 1937).

On 21 September she left Rabaul and sailed back to Lae, and on to Madang (1 October) and Sek (3 October), from where she visited the villages of Ruwo and Siar. On 6 October she boarded the Muliawa, which left the following day for Bogeia and Awar. From here, Blackwood made preparations to study the Bosmun group of villages on the Ramu River. She departed for Bosmun on 18 October, and settled herself at the House Kiap. By this stage in her journey, Blackwood was exhausted and demoralized. She was plagued with indecision about where to spend her remaining few months, and was uncertain that Bosmun was the best place for her to work. She found the living conditions uncomfortable, because it was very hot and full of mosquitoes, and she knew that she only had a matter of weeks to try and make something of her stay, which was not enough time to get meaningful data. She became increasingly depressed and unsure whether to stay or move elsewhere with time running out. She eventually decided to move on, and go to Wewak, but by the time she reached Awar with her things, on 18 November, she had missed the boat to Wewak. Plunged into further indecision and depression, she decided not to board the Muliawa which was leaving for Kavieng on 21 November either, and instead stayed at Awar.

Regretting every decision she had made so far, on 26 November she went up to the Aerodrome to see if she could depart on the next plane, leaving two days later on the 28 November. On 27, she packed but decided to leave for the Aerodrome early the next morning instead of spending the night there, a decision she immediately regretted, even though she was still uncertain whether leaving at all was the best course of action. Her assistant, Moi, failed to turn up the next morning and she missed the flight. The following excerpt hints at her state of mind, and is just one example of a number of similar entries. Sometimes she could not even leave the house, and stayed in reading newspapers and magazines because she could not bring herself to work.

‘Have condemned myself to stay here till early Jan now – don’t know how I’m going to stand it. Have got myself into the worst mess yet – if only I’d pulled myself together on Sat aft. + spent the night at t[he] drome I cd have been sitting comfortably on t[he] ‘Maedhui’ now + got out of this hole…They say a plane did come yesterday – DAMN. Nothing for it but to make what I can of this now – keep on realising more + more how crazily I’ve acted. Suppose I’ll be the laughing stock of Madang if not all New Guinea now. Why did I push myself too far + let myself get into this state of nerves.’

The diary ends abruptly on 13 December. Blackwood is still at Awar and thinks she will have to stay there at least until Boxing Day. She is still depressed and uncertain, and in the middle of negotiating for her helper, Moi, to stay with her despite the fact that his father has just died in Bosmun and he want to return there.


Blackwood arrived back in Oxford in April 1938. She had left Oxford at the beginning of April 1936, only a few months after hearing that she would be transferred to the Pitt Rivers Museum to work as Demonstrator in Ethnology under Henry Balfour. In effect, then, she did not start working in the Pitt Rivers until early 1938, on her return from the field. A year earlier, while in the Melanesia, she had written to Penniman about her new job. He had recently applied for the new Professorship in Anthropology at Oxford but had lost out to Radcliffe-Brown. She commiserated with him, and went on to express a little of her own feelings at the thought of returning to work at the Pitt Rivers Museum rather than in the Anatomy Department, where she had been based for nearly twenty years, since 1918.

‘I do hope something will turn up for you. I quite understand how you feel about the Pitt-Rivers job, but of course for my own sake I wish you would take it. Between you and me, work there is not exactly in my line of interest either, but I suppose I shall come back and settle down to sticking on labels till I get too restless to stand it any longer…I hope Captain Musgrave is still working and keeping the skulls in some sort of order. How I shall hate not to work with them when I get back!’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Penniman, 7 January 1937)

(Captain Musgrave was probably Christopher Musgrave, an archaeologist who graduated from the Diploma in 1935.) Balfour’s health deteriorated significantly in 1938, and he and Blackwood spent very little time working together under the same roof. By early May 1938 he was ‘far from well’ and undergoing treatment at Droitwich Spa (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence M-S, letter to F. Speiser, 7 May 1938). He was forced to leave work at some point in the early summer of 1938, and in the event he was not able to return before his death in February 1939. This left Blackwood trying to hold the fort as soon as she arrived back in Oxford.

‘On my return to Oxford in April 1938 I found Professor Balfour in very poor health. He asked me to lecture for him until he could resume work. I continued to do this until the appointment of Mr. T.K. Penniman as Deputy Curator in Hilary Term, 1939. During the same period I was also responsible, in Professor Balfour’s absence but under his direction, for the supervision of the routine work of the Pitt Rivers Museum.’ (Report of the Demonstrator in Ethnology for the Period 1936-40, OU Archives, file FA 4/2/2/1 Anthropology and Geography Reports 1932-46)

On a more personal level, she was extremely busy.

‘I have had a very busy year. Professor Balfour was never able to come back to the Museum since the summer…and I had to carry on his lectures and as much of the administrative and other work of the Museum as he could delegate to me, until Mr T.K. Penniman was appointed Acting Curator at Balfour’s death in February [1939]. (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, letter to Herskovits, 9 May 1939)

One of the things Balfour asked her to do in his absence was attend the International Congress in Copenhagen in August 1938, and give a paper on head deformation amongst the Arawe. Balfour had been hoping to go himself, but was unable to because of his health (in July, he wrote to her and mentioned that he was suffering from malaria and acute leg pain, presumably due to rheumatoid arthritis). Balfour read a draft of Blackwood’s paper from his sickbed in July, and in response he asked her to state that her research in New Britain had been undertaken at his own request on behalf of the Pitt Rivers Museum. He also gave her the names of people who would be attending the Congress and whom he hoped would give him specific objects for the collections in exchanges (adding sketches of the various artefacts in his letter with a very unsteady hand). The letter suggests that Balfour was finding his enforced absence difficult – it is interesting that he wanted to be mentioned in association with Blackwood’s research at the Congress – and relied on Blackwood to carry out his explicit wishes while he was sick (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence A-D, letter from Balfour, 27 July 1938).

Meanwhile, Blackwood admitted that she was more interested in the subject of head deformation from an anatomical, rather than a cultural, point of view. She wrote to John Todd explaining that there seemed to be little cultural significance – or at least, ceremonial significance – attached to the practice of head-binding, and while she was intrigued as to why people found the elongated head shape beautiful, her main interest was in finding out whether the changes to the bone affected people’s intelligence or mentality. She had had some of her specimens sectioned vertically and found that the pattern of bone growth had been affected by the binding process (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence T-Z, letter to J.A. Todd, 28 July 1938). It is interesting, although perhaps not altogether surprising, that despite her wide-ranging fieldwork experiences and her recent professional move to the Pitt Rivers, Blackwood was still drawn to biological and anatomical research questions rather than cultural and social ones.

As an ‘add-on’ to the Conference, Blackwood visited museums in Copenhagen, Goteburg, Stockholm, Oslo and Bergen collecting data for lectures and arranging exchanges of specimens at Balfour’s request in August and September 1938 (Report of the Demonstrator in Ethnology for the Period 1936-40, OU Archives, file FA 4/2/2/1)

Blackwood also began teaching, in Balfour’s stead, at the Oxford University Summer School of Colonial Administration in 1938, which was organized by the Social Studies Research Committee at the University. It was attended by officers of the Colonial Service, the Sudan Civil Service and the Burma Civil Services. ‘The object of the School [in 1938] was to enable officers to review and discuss problems of colonial administration.’ The lectures surveyed the position of the colonial empire, specific aspects of administration, anthropological approaches to administration, and explored various comparative cases. Blackwood joined Le Gros Clark, Radcliffe-Brown, Malinowski, Evans-Pritchard, and Fortes in contributing lectures to the course (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers uncatalogued letters and memories of Blackwood).


Blackwood continued to shoulder extra responsibilities at the Museum after Balfour’s death in February 1939. She mentioned the strain she was under that year as a result of Balfour’s death in a number of letters she wrote to friends and colleagues (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence). Her workload was increased even further by the sudden and unexpected death of Dudley-Buxton on 5 March, only a few weeks after Balfour passed away. Buxton was just 49 years old and died from pneumonia after only four days’ illness (Blackwood June 1939, Folklore vol 50 no 2). Blackwood had now lost two of her long-term mentors in the space of a few weeks, only a year after her return to England and her move to the Pitt Rivers Museum and four years after the death of her closest counsellor, Arthur Thomson. Oxford must have seemed like a very different place to her by mid-1939.

H.D. Skinner wrote her a sympathetic letter on hearing the news of Balfour’s death, and was insightful enough to realise that the situation left Blackwood in a very different position, since she automatically assumed greater responsibility for running the Museum, at least in the short term. ‘How much it all must have upset your life and plans’ he commented, and went on to ask whether there was any chance of her succeeding Balfour as curator (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence M-S, letter from H.D. Skinner, 27 June 1939). Blackwood was firm on this point. She never wanted to take on the more high-status position, preferring to keep herself free for more fieldwork.

‘I did not apply [for the curatorship], though several people suggested that I should, partly because I did not want to stand in Penniman’s way, but chiefly because I really prefer my own subordinate job which leaves me free for expeditions. I like collecting things and seeing them used, but I don’t care to be responsible for their safe-keeping in a Museum, nor do I care much about the administrative work which is so large and important a part of a Curator’s job.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence M-S, letter to H.D. Skinner, 16 November 1939)

However, she was glad when Penniman was elected Curator. There was a feeling that, since Penniman had been taught by Balfour and had been associated with the Museum for a number of years, he understood the ethos of the place and would continue to run things in much the same way as Balfour had, while also getting systems in order again after Balfour’s long and debilitating illness:

‘You will have heard, I expect, that Mr. T.K. Penniman has been appointed Curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum. We are all very pleased about it. He will carry on the Museum in the Balfour tradition without being hidebound. I retain my position as Demonstrator and Lecturer, which leaves me free to go off for further field work when opportunity offers – not very soon I fear, in the present state of Europe.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence E-H, letter to Herskovits, 18 October 1939)

Before her 1936-7 field trip she had hoped to return to Bougainville, now she wondered whether she would be able to publish her work amongst the Kukukuku and arouse enough interest to allow her to go back and continue her work there (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence T-Z, letter to F.E. Williams, 23 September 1937). Her hopes were initially confounded by the outbreak of war, and, as it turned out, Blackwood never undertook another field expedition.

In Oxford, Blackwood and Penniman continued Balfour and Dudley-Buxton’s resistance to Radcliffe-Brown, whose arrival as Professor of Anthropology had huge implications for the future of the Diploma Course. Radcliffe-Brown argued that the exisiting Diploma was too broad and wide-ranging, and students graduated with a superficial understanding of a number of different disciplines making the qualification practically useless. He advocated three separate diplomas, which in effect spelled the end for teaching in the Museum, since most students would opt to study Social Anthropology, while Physical Anthropology would become subsumed into the Biological Sciences. Not surprisingly, given her own training, Blackwood continued to believe that Anthropology was necessarily a subject of three equal parts, and she greatly disliked Radcliffe-Brown, whom she had first met in Sydney in 1929 and quickly found to be arrogant and disparaging. She spent much of her trip to America in 1939 (of which, more below) wondering whether she should censor her opinions when it came to R-B (everyone was interested to find out how he was getting on at Oxford) and she nearly always found that it was unnecessary because everyone was of the same opinion when it came to assessing his character. She and Penniman argued strongly to keep the current diploma while working on establishing a Final Honour School in the long term.

‘He hates both Penniman and myself because we are fighting to keep the present Diploma till we can get an Honour School, and takes every opportunity to be sneeringly obnoxious. He is a major disaster to anthropology in Oxford. The death of Buxton was a sad weakening of our forces, as he could have stood up to R-B and could turn on a tongue as cutting as R-B’s own. No appointment has been made to the Readership in Physical Anthropology, and possibly won’t be till after the war. R.B tried to have it degraded to a minor lectureship, but has been overruled on that point. He is losing for us all the ground we have gained for anthropology in Oxford for the last forty years. I did Buxton’s teaching last term, and at present there are no diploma students doing physical anthropology.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence M-S, letter to H.D. Skinner, 16 November 1939)

Radcliffe-Brown’s ambitions for Oxford were ultimately defeated by University bureaucracy, the Second World War and his own retirement. It is doubtful that he missed his colleagues at the Pitt Rivers Museum very much after he left. In October, Blackwood wrote that he was ‘becoming abusive about the present system’, adding that he was ‘a major disaster’ and ‘doesn’t fight fair’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence T-Z, letter to F.E. Williams, 26 October 1939).

Blackwood travelled to the United States later that year for the Sixth Pacific Sciences Congress in San Francisco, which ran from 24 July to 12 August 1939. She left Oxford on 30 June and boarded the Empress of Britain the following day. She was in Quebec by 6 July, but travelled on to Ottawa, via Montreal, the next day. She was met in Ottawa by Diamond Jenness who was working at the National Museum of Canada, and she stayed with him on the Gatineau River. She spent a couple of days at the National Museum and socializing before taking the train to Toronto on 11 July. While in Toronto, she visited the Royal Ontario Museum, studied the collections and discussed possible exchanges with the Pitt Rivers. On 13 July she took the overnight train to Chicago. Here, she met Henry Field, W.B. Hambly, and studied the pacific collections with A.B. Lewis, who ‘would willingly exchange but says there is little that he wants except Central New Guinea stuff’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 12, 14 July 1939). On 16 July she travelled to Minneapolis, where she stayed with Wilson Wallis and his (second) wife. Wallis gave her a copy of the photo of Thomson, Balfour and Marett with three of their diploma students, Wallis, Jenness and Barbeau, taken in 1910. ‘The original was faded so Allen Wallis [Wilson’s son] copied it. Begged for a copy + as the negative was available this was possible.’ (ibid, 18 July 1939). She visited the Anthropology Department with Wallis and again discussed exchanges: ‘Dr Wallis wd. like some New Guinea things but has nowhere to put them at present + nothing to offer in exchange.’ (ibid, 19 July 1939)

On 20 July she travelled north west through Minnesota to Walker, via the Onamia Trading Post, where she bought some beadwork, a model cradle and a lacrosse stick from H.D. Ayer, a trader, who also promised her some stencils and tooth work. At Walker she visited the Occupational Therapy Dept. with Dr Burns, where Native American patients were encouraged to do craft work. Blackwood also bought some Chippewa things from Mr Fake, who ran a shop at Park Rapids. On 21 July she took the night train from Minneapolis to San Francisco, arriving on 24 July for the Congress. First thing on arrival, she arranged her trip to Mexico with the travel agent, Cook’s, and at the Embassy. She had dinner with Erna Gunther, who ran the State Museum in Washington: ‘Sat talking and arranging museum exchanges’ (ibid, 24 July). Over the following days she attended the meetings of the Anthropological Section, and visited the Golden Gate International Exposition. At the Indian Exhibit in the Federal Building she ‘met an Indian girl [?could be Miss Tautequidgeon] who works among the Soiux – her women made good dolls in native dress – she will get some for us.’ (ibid, 26 July) On 28 July she gave a paper on the use of plants among the Kukukuku, which was ‘well received’. She visited the Anthropological Museum with Trever Thomas and arranged for them to give the Pitt Rivers some Californian material in exchange for west African artefacts, but ‘Dr. Kroeber won’t part with any Californian material that is exactly located.’ (ibid, 28 July)

She continued to use the Congress as an opportunity for networking and securing material for the Museum. She met a lady, Miss Marriot, who worked for the Government with the Indians of Oklahoma, and bought a number of things for the Pitt Rivers on Douglas Haring’s advice. She relied quite heavily on the advice of others in deciding what to buy and finding out what to look for while in Mexico.

‘Miss Beckwith’s friend Mrs Brown (Alice Kelsey) brought her grandfather’s collection of Menomini things for me to see. Some lovely beadwork. She is not sure she wants to sell any of it separately, so I made a tentative choice of a few pieces in case, these were selected for me as typical by Dr Douglas who with Mr Heath came to see t. collection too. Then Mr Heath showed me some things – bought a few wh. Douglas thought I shouldn’t miss. Seem to be v. expensive. Wish I knew more. Douglas told me earlier that Heath’s prices were O.K.’ (ibid, 30 July)

On 31 July she travelled on to Los Angeles, and from there took the overnight train to Albuquerque. The next day she travelled across Arizona and New Mexico – ‘Going through Williams and Gallup and Holbrook roused many memories of 1925 + 6’ – and then took another overnight train to El Paso. On 2 August she crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico, and arrived in Mexico City on 4 August. She visited the National Museum and the Palace of Fine Arts and on 5 August the Congress [possibly the 27th International Congress of Americanists, held in Mexico City that year] opened. Over the coming days she attended the Congress meetings and socialized with fellow delegates. This included a number of trips to Palacia, and visits to historic sites and buildings in Acolman, Teotihuacan, Ave de Madero, Tenayuca pyramid, the Monastery at Tepozotlan, the Pedregal lava flow, the Copilco archaeological site, and numerous other sites and places of interest. She found the itinerary rather restrictive and resented going to places that she did not find interesting (for example, she would have preferred to see more archaeology rather than visiting the Monastery at Tepozotlan), she was also frustrated by how much time was spent over ‘ritual meals’ rather than exploring the area.

On 14 August she, ‘met Dr Ralph Beals of the University of California at Los Angeles – he wd. Like to exchange S.W. archaeological material for African. Don’t believe we have enough stuff for all the exchanges I’ve discussed!’ (ibid) On 16 August they travelled to Tehuacan by bus, then on to Oaxaca, the following day they visited Monte Alban. On 18 August she visited the market at Oaxaca and ‘bought some attractive whistles and toys in black pottery’, then on, in cars, to Mitla where she ‘bought sample of weaving and some figurines – vetted as genuine by Miss W[ardle] – and a stone chisel which no one would trouble to fake even if they could.’ (ibid) Later she bought more things at the local market. On 19 August they returned to Mexico City, where Blackwood bought more things at the Theives Market, and the group went to a bull fight. On 22 August she and Mrs Wardle visited the ruins at Xochicalco, Cuernavaca and the Palace of Cortez, then, the next day, they went to the village of San Anton, where they watched potters at work. They went to see the ruins at Teopanzolco and up to Taxco in the mountains. Blackwood continued to pick up objects for the museum in shops and at markets. On 25 August she went from Mexico City to Toluca, and the ruins at Calizllahuaca, and the following day she went out to Xochimilco, stopping to buy things on both days. On 27 August she visited Lueretaro and wandered around the town and the markets. Meanwhile, the news from Europe was getting worse, and Blackwood had to decide whether to cut her trip short and return home.

On 29 August Blackwood took a train back to El Paso, and two days later she passed through Albuquerque and on to Santa Fe (I think she stayed with Dorothy Stewart), where, on 2 September she enjoyed the beginning of a fiesta. Her diary ends abruptly on 2 September, but a letter kept in the diary and written to ‘Jennie’ the day before reveals that, given the outbreak of war, she was planning to return home as soon as possible, in a few days time. The news meant that she had to give up plans to visit the Yucatan peninsula (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence M-S, letter to H.D. Skinner, 16 November 1939).


The onset of war led to a number of new accessions at the Museum as people ‘turned out their attics’ and the small staff, including Blackwood, were kept extremely busy trying to keep up with the cataloguing work. They were helped by the fact that some students decided to volunteer at the Museum while waiting to be called up to serve in the armed forces (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence T-Z, letter to Mrs Van Stone,15 August 1940). Beyond this voluntary help, the war meant that it was impossible for them to increase the Museum’s staff more permanently.

Penniman had the idea of creating a complete card index for the Museum’s collections in 1939 when he became Curator and discovered that the accessions books were the only standard record filled in for material entering the collections. He and Blackwood discussed the issue and, ‘both of us set out on the enormous task of putting on cards, in duplicate, all the entries from the beginning in 1881 until 1939. Since then I have kept the cards up to date as nearly as possible and have been solely responsible for their arrangement in the appropriate places – but the original idea was T.K.P.’s and the credit should go to him.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers uncatalogued N. American photos and Kew, letter to ‘Jocelyn’, 6 May 1973)

On top of the routine cataloguing work, Blackwood, Penniman and their colleagues tried to, ‘catch up with some of the work which has got badly into arrears owing to Balfour’s long illness and his habit of trying to do everything himself’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence T-Z, letter to Wilson Wallis, 16 May 1940). However, Blackwood wrote to Skinner,

‘I am very glad to tell you that Pitt Rivers is now happy in the hands of Mr T.K. Penniman, who has its interest very much at heart. Of course we have had to shelve all thoughts of expansion for the time being, but otherwise we are going ahead with all sorts of work and material keeps pouring in. The Ashmolean was lucky in that its plans for building were passed and the grant allotted before war broke out, ours were not so far advanced so now there is nothing for it but to make the best of what accommodation we have for the present.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence M-S, letter to H.D. Skinner, 22 May 1940)

Blackwood’s own appointment as Demonstrator was renewed for four more years, which was the usual period. She had more teaching, since the diploma syllabus had been revised and a decision had been taken not to replace Buxton until after the war.

‘I should like to get back to the Pacific, but must content myself here for the time being. R.B. continues to be a thorn in our flesh, but so far we have managed to beat him over every thing of major importance. He won’t cooperate but our sympathisers are in the majority.’ (ibid)

One gets a definite impression that Penniman and Blackwood felt they were engaged in battle with Radcliffe-Brown, and the mentality was very much ‘us’ against ‘them’.


During 1940 and 1941 there were no candidates for the Diploma in Anthropology, perhaps because they were usually graduates who were now occupied with the War effort. However, a small group of geography students took Anthropology as a special subject, so Blackwood and Penniman continued to teach. Blackwood covered Buxton’s lectures in physical anthropology, which she taught in the Anatomy Department (her correspondence with Le Gros Clark regarding these lectures in 1941 and 1942 – which is very cordial, although there were still differences of opinion on the syllabus and Clark seems to have given the course little priority within his department – can be found in PRM ms collections Blackwood papers uncatalogued correspondence and memories of Blackwood) The Museum’s most precious specimens – those which were not too fragile to move – were packed away, and the glass roof was reinforced with strong wire netting. Blackwood used the long vacation in 1941 to catch up on cataloguing and routine Museum work, she also planned to prepare some lectures on primitive art, designed to attract students at the Slade School of Art which had been evacuated to Oxford from London during the war (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 32, letter to D. Jenness, 1 June 1941)


In January 1943, Marett suffered a mild heart attack, but was soon back to work as Rector of Exeter College. However, on 18 February he was found dead in the Old Clarendon Building, waiting for a meeting of the Indian Institute curators to begin (see Rivière DNB entry 2004). Later that year, Blackwood wrote,

‘We miss him constantly, as though he was no longer officially a teacher of anthropology, we could always talk things over with him and be sure of his broad judgment and cheery sane outlook on life. Penniman and I heartily agree with all you say about the lack of recognition of him in England, which we have deeply regretted.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence E-H, letter to E.A. Hooton, 18 September 1943)

For his part, Marett wrote to Penniman, just days before he died, ‘Miss Blackwood isn’t big enough for all the medals that ought to be hung about her dainty person!’(PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence J-M, Marett to Penniman, 9 February 1943) He may well have been referring to the Rivers’ Memorial Medal, awarded to Blackwood in 1943 by the Royal Anthropological Institute for her exemplary fieldwork.

Blackwood spent her summer looking after a close friend and her friend’s 84 year old mother, who were both sick simultaneously, and had no one else to rely on. ‘Nursing and doing household chores and cooking etc. are not to my taste, but it was certainly a change though not a rest.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence J-M, letter to Kidder, 17 September 1943, see letter to T.F. McIlwraith, 18 September 1943) War work also had to be added to Blackwood’s list of responsibilities, which left her little time to write up her New Guinea research:

‘Teaching and Museum work take up so much of my time now-a-days – to say nothing of fire-watching, digging an allotment and driving for an Ambulance Unit – that I have not done any work on the remainder of my New Guinea material for a long time. But perhaps one of these days I shall ‘get around’ to it again.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence J-M, letter to R.H. Lowie, 25 September 1943)

Blackwood found the petrol rationing more difficult than anything else during the war. She was given a very small petrol allowance to collect things for the Museum and to investigate archaeological sites that were under threat during the conflict. She also used her car for ARP work for a local ambulance unit. Her friends in America sent her vegetables to grow at her allotment. (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence J-M, letter to G.G. MacCurdy, 9 September).


Blackwood was elected Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in February 1948 (as was Penniman – see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 32, letter of congratulation from H.L. Hildburgh, 5 February 1948). In the same year she began serving as one of two National Secretaries for the United Kingdom on the Permanent Council of the International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences. Meyer Fortes was the other National Secretary. Blackwood finally gave up her post in 1951 because, having retired from her academic post, she was no longer eligible (see PRM biogs, and papers in PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 32, ‘Royal Anthropological Institute’ folder).

Blackwood was also a founding member of the British Ethnography Committee, set up by RAI council in 1948, under chairmanship of Fleure, to consider ‘ways of promoting the ethnographical study of Great Britain in the light of the present state of such studies in this country and abroad.’ Blackwood, Bagshawe (dep. chairman) Digby, W.L. Hildburgh, Braunholtz, Fortes, R.A. Salaman, Fagg, and others, were on the committee. ‘At the Committee’s first meeting it was agreed that the establishment of a national museum or museums for the study of British culture was the initial and essential step in any movement to place these studies upon a sound footing, and subsequent meetings have been devoted to the preparation of a scheme for such a museum.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 34, RAI pamphlet, ‘A scheme for the development of a Museum of English Life and Traditions’ British Ethnography Committee 1949) This project seems to have been powered by Thomas Bagshawe, an historian, folklorist and collector, who was curator of the Luton Museum from 1927-1936, and was much influenced by Scandinavian folk-life museums (see here)

Blackwood commented on a memorandum drawn up by Bagshawe and Fleure, submitted to the Committee regarding methods of record-keeping for the Museum. The Committee also drew up a ‘Scheme for the development of a museum of English Life and Traditions’, which outlined plans to co-ordinate and organize collecting and storing material relating to English cultural traditions, initially through regional museums, in the hope that, ‘some large house of architectural and historic interest, within easy access of London, with its surrounding land (a minimum of 200 acres) might be made available or patriotically offered, as a permanent home for the Museum of English Life and Traditions and its open-air section’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 34, ‘Scheme for the development of a museum of English Life and Traditions’). The paper also discussed the possibility of regional branches.

The scheme relied on curators siphoning off material in their collections, or objects presented to them in the future, when they were deemed suitable for the national museum. Penniman wrote that, as far as the Pitt Rivers Museum was concerned, while deaccessioning could be problematic, ‘Should such a Museum be established, it would be our policy when approached by donors or vendors of suitable material, to accept objects which were required for our own series, + put the donor or vendor in touch with the National Museum of Folk-Lore for other material which he might wish to place in a Museum.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 34, letter from Penniman, 6 December 1948). Circular letters informing curators of the scheme were also drafted, but, from surviving correspondence between Bagshawe and Blackwood, it appears that the plans had been shelved by 1950, and Blackwood sent papers relating to the proposed Museum to Bagshawe in Cambridge to be archived. It is unclear from the documents here why this happened (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 34).

Blackwood was also in discussions aimed at establishing an Oxford Branch of the Folk-Lore Society in early 1948. This project was driven by Miss [Christine?] Hole and Miss Ellen Ettlinger. At a meeting of the Council of the Folk Lore Society in 2 June 1948 a resolution was passed to establish an ‘Oxfordshire and District Branch of the Folklore Society’: ‘Its objects shall be to collect, record and study the folklore of Oxfordshire, and the neighbouring counties, and to further the study of the international folklore of these districts.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers uncatalogued correspondence and memories of Blackwood, folder ‘The Folklore Society 1948-49, agenda for the meeting). The Oxfordshire Branch was set up partly because of the difficulty of getting into London for Society meetings, partly to enable courses of lectures in the winter outside normal meeting times, and partly to help collect material in Oxfordshire and neighbouring counties. They hoped to recruit from villages throughout Oxford, and proposed to supply lecturers for local Women’s Institutes. The first course of lectures was planned to take place in the Autumn of 1948, and Blackwood arranged for them to be in the University Museum (ibid, letter to Mrs M.M. Banks, 24 June 1948).

However, the new branch quickly ran into problems. The Oxfordshire team could not even agree on a suitable name with the parent Society in London. Those in London felt that the branch was superfluous, and providing services that were already supplied in London, particularly when Ettlinger proposed setting up a local Board to answer queries, compile a bibliography, collect information and material, and draft questionnaires. For her part, Blackwood resigned from the Oxfordshire Folk Lore Society in June 1949, citing the burden of her other professional commitments as the reason for her departure. It is unclear from these papers what happened to the branch.


By the 1950s Blackwood was regularly asked to advise and support field expeditions mounted by younger teams, and she continued in this role throughout her life (see, for example, correspondence in PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 34). Many of these expeditions were organized from Oxford, including the Oxford North Khorassan Expedition in 1958, the Oxford Snaefellsnes Expedition, Iceland in 1958, the Oxford University Expedition to Sarawak 1955-1956, the Oxford University Expedition to the French Congo, and the Oxford University Women’s Expedition to Bijapur, India in 1964 (to name a few, see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 34).


Blackwood undertook a trip through Austria, presumably for the International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences in Vienna (see PRM biogs).


In early 1953 Blackwood was contacted by Colin Simpson who was researching his book Adam with Arrows: Inside New Guinea and wanted to include a chapter on Blackwood’s personal experiences amongst the Kukukuku. Blackwood responded to his request for personal information with a firmness bordering on hostility.

‘I must begin by saying that I intensely dislike any form of personal publicity other than the minimum necessary to authenticate my work. Please respect this attitude, which is of very long standing, and do not entitle a chapter of your book ‘Miss Blackwood’s Nine Months in the Stone Age’, or use my name as a caption in any way.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers Misc. ms. and correspondence Re-Z, letter to Colin Simpson, 16 February 1953)

She was a thoroughly private person, but she did recount her general way of life in the field for Simpson, and wrote fondly of her cat, Sally, who had charmed the villagers and was the first cat they had ever seen. ‘Some of the toughest old warriors would spend hours trailing bits of string for her to play with. I can send you, if you are interested, a photograph of a group of Kukukuku on the occasion of their first introduction to Sally, who was one of my best assets, from the professional as well as the personal standpoint.’ (ibid) She also told Simpson how disappointed she had been not to be able to enter the uncontrolled territory, and how frustrated she had been when she had to leave the Kukukuku after only 9 months to go on a collecting mission for Balfour. She later wrote to him, ‘I have never ceased to regret that I did not get that last three months, which from previous experience I expected to yield more information than the whole of the first nine.’ (ibid, 20 March 1953)

Simpson evidently asked Blackwood for a photograph, which she refused to give him. He may well have been surprised by the strength of her feelings when he read her response.

‘There is no photograph of myself available, and if there were, it would come into the form of personal publicity which I particularly dislike. I see no point, either, in a book about the Kukukuku, of biographical details about myself, except that I went as part of my job as University Demonstrator in Ethnology on the staff of the Pitt Rivers Museum a post which carries with it the obligation to carry out original study and research as well as to teach the subject in the University. ‘Black-wood’s Magazine’ was founded by another branch of the family, with which I can claim only a distant cousinship. But surely that is not relevant either. Please write about the Kukukuku and not about me.’ (ibid, 20 March 1953)

Her strong opinions make one wonder about studying Blackwood and her career even now!

Blackwood’s mother died in the late summer of 1953. Blackwood and her sister had shared the work of looking after her during the year (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence A-D, Audrey Grimes to Blackwood, 5 September 1953)

In November, Penniman wrote to the Secretary of Faculties requesting Blackwood’s reappointment as Demonstrator (OU Archives, file FA/9/2/90, 3 November 1953).


In June, Penniman wrote to the Secretary of Faculties nominating Blackwood for one of the Readerships that were to be awarded to Senior Demonstrators. In his letter he outlined and praised her work and her skills, stating that ‘there are few indeed who can write and speak with authority of so large a part of the world’. He went on, ‘[n]o one I have ever met has so many contacts throughout the world, nor so much ability to secure accurate documentation over so many areas…it is due to her that the Museum has so high a reputation abroad in Americanist and Pacific subjects’ (OU Archives, file FA/9/2/90, 8 June 1954). Presumably, however, his appeal on Blackwood’s behalf failed.

In September, Blackwood visited the Musee de l’Homme in Paris to select objects from French Indo-China to be sent to the Pitt Rivers in exchange. She also organized the loan of a group of Bronze Age objects from S.E. Asia, which were analysed as part of the Museum’s Occasional Publications on Technology series (OU Archives, file FA/9/2/90, Demonstrator’s Report 1954-5)


A letter to David Davis, written in 1955, suggests that Blackwood would still have liked the opportunity to return to Melanesia, but she realized that this was now a remote possibility, although her choice of words suggests that this was probably more on account of her commitments at the Pitt Rivers Museum than because of her age – she was now in her mid-60s.

‘I am very much interested to hear that you are going to work in Netherlands New Guinea, and envy you the opportunity. Some years ago I did a spell of field work in the Upper Watut River region, Morobe District, and in the Lower Ramu River region, and wish I could go back to New Guinea, but see no chance of doing so.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 34, letter to David Davis, 7 December 1955)

In the same year, she had an opportunity to reflect on her career when Herbert Pinney asked her to give advice to a friend’s daughter who was considering becoming an anthropologist. Interestingly Blackwood recommended taking an undergraduate degree in a subject other than anthropology, and she mentioned her own degree in English, as well as the careers of her mentors, Marett, Balfour, Penniman and Buxton, in defence of her argument. With the exception of Penniman, this was an earlier generation of anthropologists whose work was largely seen as outdated by the 1950s. She had the impression that the Cambridge undergraduate degree, where anthropology was part of a tripos, was not satisfactory. It is impossible to know whether she had altered her opinion of the benefits of an undergraduate degree altogether – in contrast to her stance in the late 1930s and early 40s, when battling Radcliffe-Brown – or whether she simply felt that existing courses were not up to scratch. She certainly advocated a broad education, only specializing in anthropology at a post-graduate level. The Oxford Diploma had, by now, become more specialized, with students concentrating on one sub-discipline, which Blackwood did not favour:

‘While realizing the extent of the subject, I still think that the old Diploma, giving equal weight to all three aspects, was better, but my colleagues do not all share this opinion. This is an age of specialists – I only hope it does not become one in which the specialists, in the words of the old tag, ‘know everything about nothing’. (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 34, letter to Herbert Pinney, 25 November 1955)

She felt that a research degree was necessary, meaning that an anthropologist would need to train for 3-4 years at a post-graduate level. She also mentioned the paucity of jobs, and, interestingly, she pointed out the lack of positions in physical anthropology in particular, while adding that Museum posts were ‘often concerned solely with the administration and arrangement of a museum’ (ibid). It is likely that these comments, tinged with negativity, reflect feelings about her own professional experiences. Her conclusions were measured: ‘Summing up, it can be said that Anthropology offers a varied, useful, very interesting and sometimes strenuous life, but little in the way of financial advantage.’ However, her own experiences had been positive: ‘Of course I, personally, think there is no career to beat it, but I have been exceptionally lucky both in opportunities for field work and in having a good University post to come back to.’ (ibid)

Penniman wrote to the Secretary of Faculties in September 1955 requesting an extension of Blackwood’s period of office until the age of seventy. He request was considered by the University’s Visitatorial Board in December, and in May 1956 Blackwood received a letter from the Secretary of Faculties confirming her reappointment as University Demonstrator. He added that a new young Demonstrator [Audrey Butt?] had been appointed and it was vital that Blackwood remain on the staff to ensure continuity of the teaching and research programme, and so that she could advise her new colleague (OU Archives, file FA/9/2/90, 29 September 1955).

In December 1955 Blackwood was also elected to represent the University at the 32nd International Congress of Americanists, in August the following year, in Copenhagen, on the recommendation of the Board of the Faculty of Anthropology and Geography. She was elected again in 1956 (she had also been recommended as a representative in 1949, but the University decided not to appoint a delegate that year) (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 32, letter from Douglas Veale, 6 December 1955). She travelled to the 1956 Congress with Irene Beazley and Mr Turner (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 32, letters to Irene Beazley 1956).


Blackwood was elected Vice-President of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, and served in that post until 1960 (see PRM biogs).


Blackwood formally retired in 1959, at the age of 70, but she continued to work at the Pitt Rivers Museum until her death.


Up to 1963 Blackwood lived in Walton Street, then, on the death of her ‘long term companion’ with whom she shared the house, she had to move and sort out the house, so she moved to Littlemore (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence J-M, letter from E. Jackson, 17 September 1963). Her companion was called Miss Watters (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers uncatalogued correspondence and memories of her, letter to Mrs Newall, 7 April 1967). From her correspondence at the time, it is clear that this was a difficult and trying job, both physically and emotionally (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence).

Blackwood, now in her mid-70s and officially retired, was concerned about her position at the Museum in the light of Penniman’s retirement and Fagg’s arrival as the new Director. A letter from Thomas H. Bagshawe (formerly Curator at the Luton Museum) to Blackwood responds to her concerns: ‘I can well understand your apprehension about the new curator and your own position after the appointment…Best wishes to you and a hope that soon you will find a happy home and be left in peace at the museum.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence A-D, 9 June 1963) A letter written a few years later, in 1967, to Audrey Richards confirmed that Fagg had allowed Blackwood to keep her room: ‘Our present curator, Bernard Fagg, has been very kind in allowing me to keep my room here although I have officially retired. There is plenty of work for me. I keep very fit and am pleased to be busy and of use.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 32, letter to Audrey Richards, 2 March 1967)


Blackwood was given the post of Honorary Assistant Curator (see PRM biogs).


In January 1968 Penniman was moved to St Andrew’s Hospital in Northampton, where he worked on his autobiography. Thus began a long correspondence between Blackwood and Penniman, and Blackwood visited Penniman in Northampton in her Baby Austin, with the seat adjusted to make him more comfortable. Penniman frequently asked Blackwood to look up references for his book, or specific words, or more general details and information to assist in his research. He often gave her a list of books and other items to bring to him in Northampton. He wondered how she found time for jobs in the Museum when he gave her ‘full-time…employment as Research Fellow for Education of Emeritus Curators, who left the chance of education until retirement’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers /TKP uncatalogued letters, Penniman to Blackwood, 22 October 1973). The friendship continued in this way until Blackwood’s death in 1975, and some of their correspondence can be found in an uncatalogued box of PRM ms collections Blackwood papers /TKP letters.

Around this time, Schuyler Jones first met Blackwood. He remembered that, ‘When I first knew her [in 1968], Beatrice had been retired for ten years, though no one who spent any time in the museum could possibly have guessed. She was always one of the first to arrive each morning and among the last to leave in the evening…’

‘Beatrice, although she knew more about the museum and its collections than the rest of the staff put together, was very diffident and retiring when it came to expressing that knowledge in formal or informal staff meetings. In contrast, she was a mine of information to visitors…She was our database in the days before computers. She either knew or had a very good idea of where anything in the museum might be found…she had an excellent memory. She could therefore identify almost anything that was brought in for identification and go directly to the relevant section of our own collections to turn up half a dozen objects like it.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers uncatalogued correspondence and memories of Blackwood, Memories by Schuyler Jones for Felicity Wood November 1993)


Blackwood visited the Austrian Tyrol (see PRM biogs). There is part of an undated diary, written in a notebook, in the manuscript collections which may well have been written during this trip. In it, Blackwood records arriving in Innsbruck on 13 September (the first entry in the diary), where she went to the Tyrol Museum für Volkskunde and studied the collections and later toured the old town. It would appear that she was travelling with a group, because the following day she visited Bad Ischl with Fran Asmus, Professor O’Riordain of University College Dublin, and others, before going on to Hallstatt. Over the next few days they explored the area, visiting the salt workings, pottery making, and museums. On 17 September she noted that her companions left, and the next day she took a train to Salzburg, where she ‘Found a shop with Austrian handiwork + bought a whistle in form of a hen for Sir John Myres’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 18, diary from trip to Europe). On 19 she visited the shop again, and went to the castle and the catacombs. On the 20 September she began her journey home, flying via Frankfurt and Brussels and arriving in London on the same day (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 18, diary from trip to Europe).


Blackwood visited Ascona, Switzerland, for two weeks (see PRM biogs)


Blackwood died on 29 November at home in Oxford, aged 86 years. She was survived by her sister, Mrs Mary French, Chislehurst, Kent. At some point shortly before her death she crashed her Baby Austin while visiting Tom Penniman. Other people’s memories of this incident differ: Catherine Fagg remembered that she lost her car and her license and was never the same again (see below). Schuyler Jones gave a more detailed account of the story, as it unfolded following the car crash.

‘She then got a lift into Oxford and managed to purchase not only the same make and model of car, but one that was the same colour as well. Next morning she drove in to work as if nothing had happened. No one knew anything about it until a police officer arrived to get details of the accident. Her insurance company decided that she would have to take a driving test, the mere suggestion of which incensed her. In the end, uncharacteristically, she gave it up and walked to and from the museum each day. Finally, with the onset of winter, she gave in a little more and I was allowed to drive her home each evening. I did this as usual on a Friday evening in November, 1975. On the following Monday Beatrice rang in to say that she had a cold and her doctor advised her to stay at home. On Wednesday she was dead. In terms of her contribution to the museum she ranks with General Pitt Rivers and Henry Balfour. Those of us who were privileged to work with her treasure her memory.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers uncatalogued correspondence and memories of Blackwood, Memories by Schuyler Jones for Felicity Wood November 1993)

If this story is correct, it seems hardly surprising, given Blackwood’s fierce independence throughout her life, that the loss of her car and consequently her increasing inability to fend for herself in day-to-day life immediately preceded her death.

It seems that at some point Blackwood may have travelled to ‘Lappland’:

PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 23: visited the Lapps –

‘The Lapp language has now incorporated a large number of Norse words. Nowadays, most Lapps speak also the language of the country in which they live. The Swedish Lapps I met, however, spoke Lappish and Finnish but not Swedish.’ (3.262)

‘All the Lapps drink quantities of coffee. If you visit them it is not etiquette to leave until you have had at least two cups of coffee, it is more polite if you drink three or four. In the olden days they used instead of coffee birchsap and duovlle, a fungoid growth found in birches. It is gathered in the summer, dried in the smoke of the tent and ground like coffee. It has a sweet taste.’

‘I found dried reindeer meat quite palatable up in Lappland. But you need good teeth!’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers uncatalogued correspondence, undated lecture on ‘Field Studies’)

Friendships with other anthropologists

Haddon. Haddon corresponded with Blackwood about mental testing in late 1920s and wished her well for her 1929 trip to Melanesia, ‘I am already looking forward with interest to your return – it will be fascinating to hear what you have seen + done.’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers uncatalogued N.American photos and Kew, Haddon to Blackwood, 28 June 1929). Blackwood asked ACH to check over her paper on Solomon Island stories for the Folklore Society Journal. She visited him when she was in Cambridge (see Box 8, envelope 26, Haddon papers, CUL). There are also letters in the PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence box. Haddon visited Blackwood and Penniman at the Museum in June 1939, and stayed with the Seligmans for the visit (see Gen Corres).

Sydney Ray – visits, correspondence re Melanesian languages, in March 1933, while she was preparing her book, he commented on the data she had gathered (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers Gen Corres M-S) Blackwood collected significant amounts of linguistic data while in Melanesia (her undergraduate training had been in linguistics and she was a great linguist herself) and she was advised and helped in this work by Ray.

Seligman. Collected dreams for him while in New Guinea 1929-30 and corresponded about them afterwards, late 1931-1934 (latterly for Blackwood’s book) (see PRM ms collections Blackwood papers Gen Corres M-S) Blackwood also wonders about including something in her book about dreams, CGS encourages this and offers to read any manuscript, which he did. Blackwood also visited them at Toot Baldon, for work and pleasure. (Letter of thanks for an offprint from BZS 1943, also, NB, letter from BZS to Blackwood, 28 August 1946, regarding Bor beads in the Seligman collection, in PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 24.)

Balfour – takes a caring and humorous tone in letters while she is in the field, e.g. ‘I will be very glad to hear of how you are getting on, if you get time to write. Take care of yourself + don’t run risks. Also don’t, like the proverbial missionary, get ‘absorbed in your work’ among cannibals!’ (PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 19, HB to Blackwood, 26 August 1936) Schuyler Jones remembered that, ‘In 1937 Henry Balfour had become increasingly alarmed at the idea of Beatrice working alone in Highland New Guinea in areas that were considered unsafe at best. He ordered her to return to Oxford.’ (uncatalogued correspondence and memories of Blackwood, Beatrice Blackwood Lecture, 20 May 1998). I have found no evidence of this order. One gets the impression that their relationship was very professional: although there was great mutual respect, Blackwood did not have the warm relationship with Balfour that she enjoyed with Thomson. See ‘The Blackwood Collection’ document for more on HB and Blackwood.

Marett. Blackwood was very fond of Marett, who advised and encouraged her throughout. A few of his letters (ranging in date from 1928-1943) are in PRM ms collections Blackwood papers General Correspondence. In the year he died, Blackwood wrote a memorial paper ‘R.R.M. as Anthropologist: a paper read to the Lankester Society at Exeter College on June 2nd, 1943’, a copy of which is kept in PRM ms collections Blackwood papers box 21. In the paper she remembers referring to Thomson, Balfour and Marett as ‘the Triumvirate, or, alternatively, the Trinity’.

Memories of Blackwood

There is a folder of people’s recollections of Blackwood in the box ‘uncatalogued correspondence and memories of Blackwood’, most of which were gathered together for the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum 10th Anniversary Newsletter in 1994. I have included some extracts here:

Schuyler Jones, Beatrice Blackwood Lecture, 20 May 1998

‘Beatrice was kind, thoughtful, helpful, and patient with students and visiting scholars, but a stickler for correct museological practices and procedures. Although diminutive in stature, she was extremely outspoken and the transgressor would receive a wrathful lecture delivered with a remarkable economy of words…a lesson which no one on the receiving end was likely to forget.

‘Although she was shy and modest in the extreme, she inspired respect bordering on trepidation.’

‘Blackwood was a well-known figure around Oxford in the 1920s and 30s when she was frequently seen careering about on a huge motorcycle with a sidecar, the latter usually full of books…’

‘My over-riding memory of Blackwood is of a complex personality. She could be shy and rather aggressive by turns, but aggressive only when she thought principles were in danger of being ignored. As already indicated, she was extremely modest about her own accomplishments, experience, and knowledge…Although working full time in the Museum and knowing the collections better than anyone, she was content to remain in the background, getting on with the work she regarded as being of importance. She was warm and generous with her time and knowledge whenever she felt that she was in a position to assist someone who had a genuine interest in the collections, regardless of whether that individual was a first year geography student or a well-established scholar from abroad.’

Schuyler Jones for Felicity Wood November 1993

Jones only gradually realised Blackwood’s important role in the history of the Museum:

‘Beatrice herself never had much to say on the subject. Aside from a natural reticence concerning her own contribution to anything, she was always too busy at work in the museum for idle reminiscence. She was a slight figure, below average height, with a fine sense of humour and a forthright manner. I soon discovered, however, that she could be almost fiercely sharp with anyone who mishandled museum specimens in her presence or rashly embarked on some procedure which was contrary to museum practices.’

‘…Beatrice had charm and patience in abundance and was courteous and welcoming to members of the public and visiting scholars. She carried on a wide academic correspondence with former students and other scholars all over the world.’

Catherine Fagg, January 1994

‘When Bernard was curator, I know that she was the most useful member of the PRM, and always ready to help. He constantly asked and accepted her advice. She looked after Tom Penniman who came into the museum daily (Ken Walters collected him from his lodgings), and when eventually Tom had to go into hospital - + St. Andrews in Northampton was selected – Beatrice drove over at least once a week to visit him. Unfortunately, on one of these journeys, she had a crash, lost her car, + lost her licence. Then, sadly, feeling that she was no longer independent, she found life more + more frustrating, left her home in Littlemore, took on the Wyndam House flats, where she died not long after she had moved in.’

Jean Townsend, wife of Blackwood’s cousin, Sept 1994

Beatrice always very relaxed with their small children when she visited and seemed to enjoy their company.

‘When we went to visit her in Oxford she would always prepare a fine lunch or dinner for us and then take us to the Theatre. She would always like to walk from 14 Walton Street where she then lived to the Theatre, but she walked so fast we had a job to keep up with her although we were years younger. She was great fun + loved the theatre or concerts…I wish she would have told us more about her travels.’

Ian Townsend, Blackwood’s cousin, Sept 1994

In the late 1950s she would come to lunch when he and his siblings were children – once she broke down but had fixed the car long before the RAC man arrived.

‘In those days, reflecting the culture of the times, I remember how I found it strange that a woman should not only work but drive a car and travel to strange places. In my world at the time, women, if they were not housewives, worked as nurses or secretaries or on production lines in factories.

‘Finding out from her what she did was always difficult. She seemed reluctant to talk about it, as if her work wasn’t important or interesting. She was always more interested in us…’


Gacs, Ute; Aisha Khan, Jerrie McIntyre & Ruth Weinberg (eds.) 1989. "Beatrice Mary Blackwood (1889-1975)" in Woman Anthropologists: Selected Biographies. University of Illinois Press, University of Chicago

Gosden, Chris and Chantal Knowles 2001 Collecting Colonialism: Material Culture and Colonial Change Berg, Oxford

Knowles, Chantal 1998: ‘Beatrice Mary Blackwood (1889-1975)’ in Petch, A. Collectors Volume 2, pp. 6-13. Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford

Knowles, Chantal 2004 ‘Blackwood, Beatrice Mary (1889-1975)’ entry for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Penniman, T.K. 1976a: 'Beatrice Mary Blackwood 1889-1975.' American Anthropologist vol.78:2, June1976. p.321-2.

Penniman, T.K. 1976b: 'Obituary: Beatrice Mary Blackwood.' Oceania vol.XLVI, 1975-6. p.234-7.

Percival, A.C. 1976: 'Obituary: Miss B.M. Blackwood.' Folklore vol.87:1, p.113-4.

Simpson, Colin 1953. "A Woman of Oxford lives with the Kukukukus" in Adam With Arrows: Inside New Guinea. pp. 64-84. Angus and Robertson, Sydney

Extract from the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum 10th Anniversary Newsletter. "Beatrice Blackwood Remembered." p.4-6. contributions from Schuyler Jones, Bob Rivers, Catherine Fagg and Kenneth Kirkwood

‘Miss B.M. Blackwood: Distinguished Anthropologist’ Obituary in The Times, 2 December 1975, pg 14, issue 59567, col. F

Blackwood: List of Publications:

1927. 'A Study of mental testing in relation to Anthropology.' Mental Measurement Monographs

1929. ‘Tales of the Chippewa Indians’ in Folklore vol. 40, no. 4, pp. 315-344

1930. ‘Racial Differences in Skin-Colour as Recorded by the Colour Top’ in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute vol. 60, pp.137-168

1932. ’92. Folk-stories from the Northern Solomons’ (summary of a paper) in Man vol. 32, p.74

1932. ‘Folk Stories from the Northern Solomons’ in Folklore vol 43, no. 1, pp. 61-96

1934. with L.H. Dudley Buxton ‘An Introduction to Oxfordshire Folklore’ in Folklore vol 45, no. 1 pp.29-46

1935. ‘Treatment of the Sick in the Solomon Islands’ in Folklore vol. 46, no. 2, pp.148-161

1935. Both Sides of Buka Passage: an ethnographic study of social, sexual, and economic questions in the north-western Solomon Islands. Oxford, Clarendon Press

1939. with L.H. Dudley Buxton and J.C. Trevor ‘Measurements of Oxfordshire Villagers’ Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute vol. 69, no. 1, pp. 1-10

1939. ‘Leonard Halford Dudley Buxton, D.Sc., F.S.A.’ in Folklore, vol. 50, no. 2, pp.204-205

1939. ‘Life on the upper Watut, New Guinea’ in The Geographical Journal vol. 94, no. 1, pp. 11-24

1939. ‘Folk-Stories of a Stone Age People in New Guinea’ in Folklore, vol. 50, no. 3, pp. 209-242

1940. ‘Crafts of a Stone Age People in Central New Guinea’ in Man, vol 40, p. 11

1940-43. ‘Use of Plants Among the Kukukuku of Southeastern Central New Guinea’ in Proceedings of the Sixth Pacific Sciences Congress (Volume 4) of the Pacific Science Association. University of California Press

1941. ‘Some Arts and Industries of New Guinea and New Britian’ in Man, vol. 41, p. 88

1945. ‘Mary Edith Durham: 8 Dec., 1863-15 Nov., 1944’ in Man, vol. 45, pp.22-23

1948. [NB written by Balfour, edited and prepared for publication by Blackwood] ‘Ritual and Secular Uses of Vibrating Membranes as Voice-Disguisers’ in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 78, no. 1/2, pp. 45-69

1950. ‘Reserve Dyeing in New Guinea’ in Man, vol 50. pp. 53-55

1950. 'The Technology of a Modern Stone Age People in Central New Guinea.' Occasional Papers on Technology 3. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

1953. ‘Sir Francis Knowles: 1886-1953’ in Man, vol. 53, pp. 88-89

1955. with P.M. Danby 'A Study of Artificial Cranial Deformation in New Guinea.' Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 85:173-192.

1962. ‘Robert H. Lowie: 1883-1957’ in Man, vol. 62, pp. 86-88

1970. 'The Classification of Artefacts in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.' Occasional Papers on Technology 10. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.

1978. 'The Kukukuku of the Upper Watut. Edited from her published articles and unpublished field notes, and with an introduction by C.R. Hallpike.' Monograph series no.2. Pitt Rivers Museum

1991. The Origin and development of the Pitt Rivers Museum. Revised and updated by Dr. S. Jones). Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

Blackwood also wrote numerous scholarly book reviews throughout her career, and contributed entries for the ‘Museum News’ section of Folklore between 1958-1971

This document was written by Frances Larson during the ESRC-funded Relational Museum project 2002-2006 as a series of research notes.


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