As part of my series profiling urban historians working today, I was lucky enough to recently have a chat with the historical geographer Simon Briercliffe, who blogs at Up the ‘Oss Road, about his project to produce a “spatial history [of a 19th Century working class community in Wolverhampton] from below”.
What is your background?
My first degree is actually in sound engineering, although I’ve yet to find a way to incorporate that into my current research… In 2009 I decided to take a break from work and study for an MA in urban geography at Kings College, London, and that was a revelation. My dissertation ended up being on a historical subject (philanthropic housing in London) and I’ve been of the opinion ever since that geography makes little sense without history, and that the vice versa is true as well. Since moving up to the Midlands in 2011 I became increasingly fascinated with the built environment around where I live in the Black Country. It’s so unusual that I thought I’d pursue it a bit more, so started a blog and eventually enrolled on a PhD programme at UoB.
What led you to choose your subject matter?
In terms of geography, I’ve always loved maps in particular – my mum tells me I used to go to bed at night reading the road atlas, and I can well believe it. I’ve always been the sort to carefully plan out new places to go, however mundane, and then to check back on a map afterwards to see where I went. I don’t think I’d ever considered it academically though, until I attended a lecture by the late Doreen Massey – it was part of my job at the time to run the mic around guest lectures at the LSE, and this was one of the ones I sat in on. Like me, she said her love of the subject started from a love of maps, and she was such an engaging, funny and interesting speaker that I went out the next day and bought her book World City. That said, it wasn’t until my soon-to-be wife suggested going back to study that I gave it any thought. I can be a bit slow on the uptake…
When it came to choosing a PhD subject, I could have gone down either route. Most of the geography departments in the nearby area are quite physical science-focused, so I looked a bit wider and came up with the Centre for West Midlands History at UoB. Talking with the staff there and my later supervisor (Carl Chinn) we soon came to the conclusion that it would be a good fit for me. My study area of the neighbourhood known as Carribee Island in Wolverhampton was one of Carl’s suggestions to look into, and the more I looked, the more interesting it appeared – it was poor and unhealthy like many so-called slums of the time, but it was also Wolverhampton’s Irish district and the subject of intense scrutiny when it came to slum clearance, so there was a wealth of interesting and unusual sources to plough through.
Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?
Besides a handful of geographers (Doreen Massey, David Harvey, Dennis Wood) and historians (Raphael Samuel, Patrick Joyce) that I could name, my biggest theoretical guide is probably Henri Lefebvre. He’s best known in this country as the author of Production of Space in 1974, which is a fascinating poststructuralist take on the idea of social space being a construct of society. In his native France he’s much better known, having associated with the dadaists in the 1920s and Situationists in the 1960s, and got into arguments with Sartre in the 1940s and his beloved Communist Party in the 1950s. Aside from his work on space, which informs much of my own research, he’s probably most famous for his involvement in the May 1968 student riots in Paris – he was a teacher of Guy Debord, lectured at Nanterre where the occupations started, and taught particularly on active participation in social change as a criticism of the drudgery of everyday life under capitalism.
What do you hope that readers take away from your work?
When I started, I just had the vague notion that I’d like to incorporate ‘space’ in there somewhere. From there I’ve learnt GIS and begun to collect some huge deposits of archival material that can be plugged into that database and mapped onto space; I’ve re-discovered Lefebvre and how his theories might fit my research. Plus, I’ve really had to learn how historians do things differently from social scientists. It turns out – quite a bit. I’ve also discovered an interest in ways of telling the story that geographers don’t really get to cover – my involvement with the Twitter reading group Storying The Past (https://storyingthepast.wordpress.com/) has been really formative here, and I’m looking at ways I can tell the story of my research without resorting to the same old, same old forms of dissemination.
“I’m trying a produce a ‘spatial history from below'”
How does what you do relate to historical archaeology?
Consciously, not very much. I learnt GIS on a module for archaeologists, which was interesting – I think that’s led to some different sorts of approaches. I had always linked archaeology with ancient history in my mind, and couldn’t imagine how it would cross paths with my own interests (19th century cities). However – in the course of my research I’ve come across several historians working with archaeology as a new way of thinking about urban environments that have set me thinking about future research. The work around York’s Hungate slum that Alan Mayne has written about, and Paul Belford’s chapter on Sheffield were of particular interest in this respect.
Has the public engagement aspect of your work helped you frame your research?
I think it will, increasingly. I had no idea of just how huge a business genealogy and local history was – according to Alison Light though (in her book Common People) it’s about the third biggest use of the internet in this country, and busy archives offices and a huge number of local publications attest to this. I’m pretty sure that as I press on I’m going to use more and more family history to trace the fortunes of families over time, and involve more and more people who have a wealth of their own research at their fingertips.
For the time being though, I’ve been keen to put my initial research out there are local history talks, guided walks etc., and it’s been fascinating (not to mention loads of fun). People really care about their local environment, their ancestors, etc.; it matters a lot to them. I think my goal is really to make those people aware of the realities of the past (accurately rather than nostalgically) and the causes underlying them, and perhaps get people to think about modern events in the same light. For instance, the example I always use is the Irish population of Wolverhampton – it’s easy to sympathise with the poor, hungry Irish arriving in a hostile town 150 years ago, but people don’t seem to make the connection between that and poor, hungry Syrians, Eritreans or Afghans arriving in their neighbourhood today. If nothing else, I’d like people to think twice about their own attitudes.
Are there any other “classic” urban history questions that you think are ripe for reinvestigating using tools like GIS?
Urban history is by definition a space and place-based discipline because of its focus on a particular type of space, so I think it can lend itself to a wide variety of questions. There’s a lot of great work being done at the moment on, for example, the settlement of migrants using census data (see Marc di Tommasi’s work on Edinburgh), or the accessibility and visibility of certain buildings and streets (the Space Syntax Lab at UCL is doing some really impressive things). This new research also forefronts maps as a historical source, not just as illustration, which is really important. I think GIS could be readily applied to charting urban growth and changing land use, particularly making use of the Historic Landscape Characterisations that are being completed across the country.
That said, it has its limitations as a methodology. GIS is essentially a quantitative tool and should be used with caution by historians because of the limitations of our historical sources, particularly statistical ones. Maps too are such complex beasts – Dennis Wood says maps are always an argument, never a picture, and trying to incorporate that sort of qualitative subtlety within a data-driven piece of software can be tricky. That’s why I like Lefebvre’s approach: there’s a place in their for measuring, say, mobility or settlement, but it’s balanced by ideas of representation, imagery, experience and power.
What advice would you give a historian looking to use GIS or similar methods as part of their practice?
The advice given to me when I set out was that you should only use GIS if it’s going to be your main methodology. I’d stand by that – it’s a hugely time-consuming process so it’s often not worth pursuing as a sideline. But, if you love playing with maps or thinking about the potential for space as an analytical tool, there are more and more digital tools available that are making the process easier and more fulfilling. It’s certainly worth considering…