For the latest in my series about urban historians working today, I spoke to Donna Taylor, a University of Birmingham PhD student who’s work explores new angles on Birmingham’s 19th Century local administration. She blogs at Notes from 19th Century Birmingham.
What is your background?
I’m really just a council-house nan who does a bit of history. I came to academia rather late in life, having taken the scenic route through education. I left school in 1982 with a handful of low grade CSEs, a few words of German (I can still remember how to ask the time) and mad typing skills that have been more useful than could ever have been foretold in the pre-digital age. I dropped out, grew a beautiful pink mohican and set off to ban the bomb before settling down to a family life. This was hard in the Thatcher era and there were many years of unemployment and part-time cleaning jobs. In my late 30s I decided I wanted to do ‘something else’. It started with night school, then an Access to HE course at Leicester College. The staff there were amazing and played a major role in transforming so many lives. I’m very passionate about FE and worry about cuts and other changes impacting accessibility to it. It’s becoming ever more difficult for people like me to get into HE.
My family, but particularly my children and our mom, have been fabulous and just rolled along with all the changes. I’ve been very lucky.
What led you to choose your subject matter?
By accident. Although I was born in and have spent much of my life in Birmingham, there was never originally an intention to ‘do’ Birmingham history. This changed when I came across a mention of the Bull Ring riots in a book by Roger Ward. I’d never heard of them before and quickly became absorbed in finding out more. They were the subject of both my undergrad dissertation and MRes. thesis. Birmingham in the first half of the nineteenth century was incredibly modern and also wonderfully fierce. It is way more interesting than the currently on-trend Chamberlain period. It’s a history that makes me feel proud of where I come from.
Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?
Our grandad taught me to question everything. Carl Chinn, my undergraduate mentor (and now PhD supervisor), has taught me always to ‘follow the evidence’. These are the two core guiding principles. I’m fascinated by dialogues that took place in the early nineteenth-century public sphere, particularly at that time of great social and political change in the 1830s. James Epstein’s Radical Expression and Craig Calhoun’s Roots of Radicalism have been influential on my PhD writing. But if I had to choose one influential historian it would be Eric Hobsbawm. When I’m in a bit of writing slump turning to any one of his essays is usually enough to remind me that this business of bothering dead people has some purpose.
There have also been blogs that inspired me to have a go myself. These include Prison Voices which was established by second year students at Liverpool John Moores. And of course the wonderful Municipal Dreams, a quality to which I can only aspire.
What do you hope readers take away from your work?
That history is something everyone can and should engage with in order to understand where we are now. We’ve inherited an impressive history, be proud of it.
How has your work evolved over the course of your subject?
Originally the topic of my thesis was going to centre on things that were done -buildings that were built; legislation that was legislated, that sort of thing. Now the focus is on how these things entered the collective social imagination, which had to happen for a project or idea to manifest and to be accepted. This is the really interesting stuff that I like to talk about.
What drove the changes in municipal culture that occurred in Birmingham during this period?
A multiplicity of moral and pragmatic reasons could be argued and they would all probably be right. Desire for rational government, improved justice, a shift away from county dependency, greater transparency, civic pride, public opinion, changing demography, economic growth &c. It is also useful to identify who drove the changes and how those conversations entered the public sphere which began that momentum. Then it is possible to see these small groups of politically ambitious men consistently at the forefront of demands for change. This happened first in the late 18th century when a body of ‘civic minded’ men took charge of improving the town – which they did very well by the way. They began the material transformation of Birmingham that Joseph Chamberlain was only able to build upon. Early in the 19th century another group of men came to the fore with more radical ideas. Many of these formed the first town council and were among Birmingham’s earliest MPs, including Thomas Attwood, Joshua Scholefield and George Muntz.
Has your blogging and other public engagement work changed your thoughts about the period and people you study?
My blog material is slightly different to my thesis research, in that I stretch the blog across the whole 19th century and focus on the more mundane, everyday interactions taking place in Birmingham during that period. It was originally intended as a sort of repository for all the bits of research that wouldn’t fit into my thesis. I can’t think of an instance in which my thinking has been changed, but I have become aware that there is more interest in Birmingham’s history than I originally imagined there would be.
Does your experience of blogging and other public engagement activities suggest to you any profitable ways in which historians can go about working with people outside the academy?
Absolutely and perhaps especially at a local level. Interest in Birmingham has grown steadily over the past few years, thanks to the tireless work of historians like Carl Chinn and the late Chris Upton. The Centre for West Midlands History, based at the University of Birmingham, has also brought local history into the public eye with a recent series of glossy magazines and books. As a result of those efforts, organisations such as the Birmingham Conservation Trust and Birmingham Museums’ Trust have successfully obtained significant pots of funding to pursue local heritage projects. The Birmingham History galleries at BM&AG attracted an £8.9 million investment and drew on the knowledge of academic historians (including myself) as well as members of the public. Projects like that offer a pooling of knowledge, from all sorts of sources, that wouldn’t be available from simply leafing through a lot of dusty books. The Coffin Works project is another, award-winning, example. I’m not sure there will ever be any public historian millionaires, but public engagement projects brings great knowledge profit to the academy.
Is there anything that Birmingham’s leaders today could learn from their mid-19th century predecessors?
If Birmingham’s leaders could spend time reading through the minute books of their predecessors, right across the 19th century, they would see a history of great civic ambition and investment in the local community. Over a relatively short period of time Birmingham was transformed from a small, dirty town with a few puddled streets to what American journalist Julian Ralph described as ‘the best governed city in the world.’ Although I’m never shy about challenging the current council, they do a pretty good job of drawing investment to the city, enabling that momentum of growth that has been in place for over two hundred years now. But please, stop closing our libraries and demolishing our heritage!
For more information on Donna and her work check out her Academia.edu profile. She is on Twitter and her blog can be found here. Notes from 19th Century Birmingham can be followed separately. Other profiles in the urban historians series can be found read here.