For the latest in my series profiling urban historians at work today, I was lucky enough to be able to grab a word with the University of London’s Tom Hulme.
What is your background?
I grew up in Buxton in Derbyshire, a small town with a big identity, and did all of my degrees (BA History, MA Urban History, PhD Urban History) in Leicester – a big town with a small identity! After my PhD I worked for a few months on an AHRC project which aimed to understand the transition of the area of St George’s into Leicester’s flagship regeneration area: the Cultural Quarter. This research uncovered all sorts of cultures in this former industrial area – gay, drag, rave, Afro-Caribbean, and swinger. Some are well remembered and cherished, such as the still-open gay bar Helsinki, and others are forgotten – or, at least, the city council wishes they were (the sex-club G-Spot being one example!). Two years working at King’s College London as a researcher for the fantastic historical pageants in Britain (1905-2016) project followed, before I took up a lecturing position in urban history at the Institute of Historical Research at the end of last year.
What led you to choose your subject matter?
Most of my work is about the culture of urban places, both large and small. My work has been shaped by growing up somewhere that has a sure and stable identity, and then studying for so long in a city that is harder to typify. As an undergraduate I was taught by Sally Horrocks, who turned me onto inter-war history and public housing. I was too slow and disorganised to secure Sally as my dissertation supervisor, but she passed me on to Simon Gunn – who went on to be my PhD supervisor and is still an ever-present mentor. The resulting work showed how housing policy was shaped by civic identity and civic culture. My MA, PhD, and resulting monograph (under contract with the Royal Historical Society) continued in a similar vein, but swapped Buxton for Manchester and Chicago (!), and replaced housing with citizenship. Buxton is close to Manchester, and the place where we escaped for a taste of Big City life. Chicago was a new city to me – but shares a similar position in the national imaginary: industrial entrepot, possible second city, former shock city, etc. Asa Briggs fantastic book on Victorian Cities was a key influence in this respect.
Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?
Simon has inspired and shaped my work while giving me enough space to make it my own. His book on the Victorian city is a classic, and sparked my interest in the public spaces of the city, and the rituals and performance of power that the city contains and enables. Chris Otter’s work on the materiality of the city – and how power works through technologies of sound and vision – has forced me to think of the city in both abstract and ‘real’ terms. My article on the materiality of the school would not appeared without his influence.
“…how power works through technologies of sound and vision – has forced me to think of the city in both abstract and ‘real’ terms”
What do you hope that readers take away from your work?
That the British inter-war city contained a citizenship and local government culture all of its own: one that remade Victorian civic pride for the age of mass democracy and entertainment. Analyses of decline in local government and civic idealism haven’t always captured this shift, and can be replaced with a more careful story of evolution. When the book comes out, I hope it will make us think about citizenship as being very strongly tied to the modern city in both Britain and the USA – complicating the story of national identity and patriotic citizenship with local examples from festivals, pageants, education, housing, and welfare.
What impressions have you built up of how people’s relationship to the towns and cities that they live in has changed since the 19th Century?
We should be careful of using crude generalisations, but I think we can see ebbs and flows in civic culture and individual relationships to the city over the last two hundred years. There are many different strands to this, so I’ll only mention one: civic belonging. The mid-to-late nineteenth century, according to a lot of historians, was the period in which people – especially the middle classes and civic elites – most commonly thought about their identity in relation to the place in which they lived. Municipal socialism and the Civic Gospel in places like Birmingham and Manchester – grand infrastructure (from sewers to trams), and civic betterment (such as art galleries and libraries) – was one result. A lot of the historiography of the inter-war period has seen the decline of local belonging, as the middle classes left the industrially-damaged city for the salubrious suburb, and central government began to take over local government functions.
But this can be overstated. In the 1920s and 1930s, as I hope my work shows, the democratisation of culture had a strong element of local belonging. Look at something like historical pageants – these events had up to 10,000 performers, and brought in crowds of even more. Storylines from the local past encouraged civic pride, and pageant-directors had few problems in recruiting the local population to perform on behalf of the city. There had been some decanting of the ‘better sorts’ from the city, and possibly a decline in ‘high-brow’ civic culture, but many left behind were still happy to subscribe to urban pride.
After WWII this did change: the foundation of a big central state, even more suburbanisation (especially through working-class estates), what Raymond Williams calls the ‘mobile privatisation’ of television, increased mobility and growth of university education that has drawn people away from their hometown, industrial decline, and arguably the weakening of an uncontested or simplistic sense of ‘place’ as the demographics and built environment have rapidly changed. But the last couple of decades are starting to see a returning shift. Think of the Buy Local campaigns, the return of city-centre living, urban regeneration and gentrification, and – as London becomes ever-more expensive – the pulling back of young professionals to regional cities. Whether we will ever see a return to a strong sense of local belonging in this age of globalisation is debatable, but *something* is happening.
“…as I hope my work shows, the democratisation of culture had a strong element of local belonging.”
How has adopting a comparative approach to cities and urban regions enhanced the research that you’ve conducted?
Back in the 1960s, when the discipline of urban history was getting going (see Shane Ewen’s book What is Urban History?) assessing the ‘urban variable’ was a central pursuit. Was the city an independent or dependent variable in relation to broader processes of change? Over the years the importance attached to the urban variable has waxed and waned, and it made an appearance at the recent Urban History Group Conference… but I’m a believer. Looking at cities in more than one place, and across national boundaries, has helped me argue for the city as not just a neutral or passive container of social change, but a key part of the construction of modern citizenship.
Can (if indeed they should) urban historians add anything to the current debates about local government and devolution in the UK?
I think so! Though I’m wary of making concrete value judgements, local government in the inter-war period seemed much more capable of connecting with the local community. This was partly because it was so entwined with their lives, providing almost all of the services that are now more commonly managed by the central state. But local government, and its many champions, also saw the locality as the place where people can be made into better citizens – actively taking part in local culture for the benefit of everyone. As cities continue to change, can we root a sense of continuity and belonging in urban residents? Inter-war local government, for all its faults and frequent moralising, can provide some useful lessons.