A social historian with a national profile, Professor Chinn is also a broadcaster, newspaper columnist, public speaker, writer, charity fundraiser and campaigner for the rights of working-class people and the recognition of the importance of manufacturing. Professor Chinn is the author of 29 books that include studies of working-class housing, urban working class life, working-class women’s lives, manufacturing, Birmingham, the Black Country, and ethnic minorities.
He has appeared as an expert on various television programmes, including Channel 4’s ‘History Hunters’ with Tony Robinson and BBC 4’s ‘Edwardian Larder’. In the Midlands he is a long-running columnist on local history for the Express and Star and the Birmingham Mail; he has a weekly local history show on BBC WM and regular history slots on BBC Midlands Today; and he was the expert on ITV’s ‘The Way We Were’ series. Professor Chinn has appeared on numerous Radio 4 programmes, including those presented by Libby Purvess and Laurie Taylor. More recently he presented the series ‘Centre of Our World’, looking at various ethnic minorities in Birmingham, and ‘Manufacturing Matters’ a polemic for manufacturing on ‘The World Tonight’.
Professor Chinn’s broadcasting and writing on housing, working-class life, poverty, women, ethnic minorities, and the importance of manufacturing is deeply affected by his family’s working-class background and life in the back-to-backs of Birmingham. This affinity led him to take a prominent role in the campaign to save the last back to backs in Birmingham and turn them into a National Trust Museum. Professor Chinn also featured strongly in the fight to ensure the re-opening of Birmingham’s Town Hall, in the drive for a memorial to the paupers who died in Birmingham Workhouse, and in the campaign for a fitting memorial for the victims of the Blitz in Birmingham. He has been an active supporter of the Birmingham St Patrick’s Parade and is chairman of the Birmingham St George’s Day Association, which has led the way in celebrating England and Englishness in a positive and embracing way.
An ardent supporter of manufacturing, Professor Chinn was a key figure in the battle to keep the Longbridge car factory open in 2001 and has since been supported the struggle for jobs at Chubb, Alstom, HP Sauce, and Smith and Nephew.
Throughout his work in the community, his overarching aim has been to push across the belief that each and every person has made their mark upon history and that each and every person has a story to tell – not only about themselves but also about their people who came before them. Professor Chinn believes passionately that history must be democratised and that the lives of supposedly ‘ordinary’ people matter because the people themselves matter. To these ends his work has focused upon those who too often have been excluded from or marginalised by formal history: the working class, especially the poor; women; and ethnic minorities.
Crucially he feels that people should tell their own stories and not have them mediated through the words of others. Those stories can be told in many ways – whether it be in letters, poems, life stories, creative writing, photographs, paintings, drawings, recordings or videos. This local, community and family history has a two-fold social purpose in modern society. First, through an awareness of our own past and that of others we can bring people together, recognising the commonality of human experiences through our own lives and stories and those of others who may appear to be different to us. Second, an understanding of the past can provide a vital bond of continuity for young people living in a perpetually changing world, giving them a sense of place and belonging and an appreciation of the fact that the rights we now enjoy were gained through the hardships of those that came before.
For many years Professor Chinn has received letters and photos from Brummies across the world. They are gathered now in the BirminghamLives Archive, which contains over 40,000 letters, hundreds of life stories, thousands of interviews, cine film, tens of thousands of photos and a wealth of memorabilia. Together they make up probably the biggest collection of working-class life history for any one place in the world. At present Professor Chinn is in discussions with Birmingham Archives and Heritage about handing over this priceless collection to the City - so long as it is made accessible.
A keen supporter of local charities and good causes, for which he has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds in the West Midlands, he has also helped build homes for orphans in Romania and more recently volunteered on renovating a school in the Andes in Ecuador. In 2001 Professor Chinn was awarded the MBE for his services to local history and to local charities