“…history shows us that [many] reforms to the structures and practices of emergency services, as well as the framing and policing of safety legislation, has… taken place as a response to a major urban disaster.”
For the latest in my series exploring the work of urban historians today, I was lucky enough to catch up with Shane Ewen. Shane is a Senior Lecturer at Leeds Beckett University and kindly shared his wide ranging thoughts on; amongst other things; the role that accident prevention and disaster management has played in forming urban modernity.
What is your background?
“I think I got the interest in council housing from my father, who works in the building trade; you could see it as a reflection of my working-class roots.”
I first encountered urban history as an undergraduate at Nottingham Trent University, where I was supervised by Nick Hayes. I was really interested in architecture and local politics, so, given I lived on the Clifton housing estate (at one time the largest council estate in Europe, and a fabulous example of the utilisation of non-traditional methods of construction – no fines concrete), I combined the two interests by studying the politics of housing provision in post-war Britain for my dissertation. This was later published in Midland History when I was a postgrad and I’m still very proud of it.
I think I got the interest in council housing from my father, who works in the building trade; you could see it as a reflection of my working-class roots.
What led you to choose your subject matter?
“…nobody had explored that rich and fascinating history…”
I did the MA in Urban History, followed by the PhD programme, at the University of Leicester’s Centre for Urban History, under the supervision of Richard Rodger. This was really an extension of my undergrad interest in the politics of central-local government relationships. I veered away from housing and towards emergency services, specifically fire and police. My reasons were twofold: first, I wanted to do something comparative, both in comparing public services and cities (I studied Birmingham and Leicester). I wanted to find out how cities organised, administered and delivered more than one service, rather than being rooted to a single issue network (as the political science literature would put it). Second, police and fire made natural bedfellows, because they’re both concerned with protecting the city and its population, but also because many fire services, Birmingham and Leicester included, originated in organised police forces during the 19th century. And given that nobody had explored that rich and fascinating history, I chose to do so. I recently gave public lectures to both the Fire Brigades Union and the Home Office on the subject of ‘police fire brigades’, so there’s obviously interest in it and historical parallels with recent reforms to the service.
Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?
In terms of taking a microscopic interest in local government, which includes detailed compositional analysis of municipal committees, their membership, and officers, I’d say E.P. Hennock’s Ideal and Reality in Nineteenth-Century Urban Government (1973) is the most influential book I’ve read (I cite it at length in chapter 3 of my most recent book, What is Urban History?). It eschews so much of the sociological jargon that predominated at the time, whilst getting to grips with the key questions that attracted historians and social scientists alike to the topic: who governs, how, which resources do they have at their disposal, and so on. It’s a brilliant piece of work which connects the history of local government with the evolution of modern industrial cities.
More generally, in terms of my interest in urban history, it’s hard to look beyond the relevant works by Max Weber, Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, Kevin Lynch, and Fernand Braudel. I recall reading much of this as a postdoc at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh; enjoyable times!
What do you hope that readers take away from your work?
“…cities continue to matter… because of the failures of both the market and the state to satisfactorily bridge the huge inequalities within society…”
It probably depends what they’ve read. But if I could distil it simply, I’d say that cities continue to matter, arguably more so today than ever before, because of the failures of both the market and the state to satisfactorily bridge the huge inequalities within society – whether they are studied politically, socially or economically.
I hope my latest book, What is Urban History?, encourages newcomers to start researching their own urban histories, to take a similar path that I took through postgraduate study. I’ve just sent one of my best BA students to study Urban History at Leicester from September; that’s pretty special. She’s interested in urban planning and the idea of community.
How has your work evolved over the course of your project?
“Little work had been done then on the history of gender – and especially masculinity – in an urban history context ([this is] still the case)”
I’d barely encountered cultural history before I arrived at Leeds, being wedded to the social and economic approach that shaped the field. But then I read Clifford Geertz, as well as Robert Darnton, and found their work really stimulating for thinking about the representational nature of urban life and the multiple perspectives that are available when studying man-made disasters, as I did with the Sheffield (1864) and Holmfirth (1852) floods. This work was really an extension of my postdoc research into the idea of the ‘great fire’ and its prevalence in print culture (press, visual culture, etc – still largely unpublished), but I hadn’t seriously engaged with the cultural history literature until then.
In addition to this, my interest in the history of masculinity evolved whilst writing my first monograph, “Fighting Fires: Creating the British Fire Service“ in the mid-2000s. Little work had been done then on the history of gender – and especially masculinity – in an urban history context (still the case), so I examined the gendered identity of fire-fighters (firemen as they were once universally called) as heroes, but also as examples of hegemonic working-class masculinity (taking my cue from R.W. Connell’s work here). I enjoyed this so much that I subsequently wrote an entire module around it – ‘Real Men? British Masculinities, 1850-1950’ – which has proven to be incredibly popular with my students since 2006 (though I have just decided to rest it for a couple of years).
Does your research suggest that the emergency services play a role in constructing and holding together collective urban identities?
Yes I think they do play an important role here in both a real and figurative sense. The recent example of the 2015 proposal to close down and sell off Leicester Fire Station drew a great response, not only from the Fire Brigades Union, but also from interested members of the community. That the opposition was able to unite and defeat the proposal illustrates the significance of the fire station to the community’s sense of safety, civic pride and heritage. Built in the mid-1920s when Leicester Fire Brigade was at the vanguard of reforms to modernise the fire service, this station was one of the most modern fire stations in the country, and epitomised the fire service’s professionalization from local roots at this time. It incorporated modern training and communication apparatus – gyms, drill yard, sliding pole, electric alarms, control room etc – and combined these with a keen eye on the welfare of the firefighters through the provision of council housing adjacent to the station. The housing has long since been sold off, but the station still serves the community well.
Is it possible to draw any general conclusions about the effect that incidents like major floods or fires have upon the development of cities and municipal government?
“You only have to look around your office surroundings to see the influence of fire through its absence – smoke alarms, sprinkler systems, fire exit doors, safety signs and the like.”
Well, I certainly think that modern urbanisation – that is, urbanisation since the mid 18th century – has had the control and prevention of fire at its heart. As Stephen Pyne, the fire ecologist and historian, puts it, the industrialisation of fire in the West meant that fire became increasingly controlled, compartmentalised and subject to regulation – through the use of non-combustible building materials, the spread of fire insurance, the adoption of water supplies, and the appointment of organised and specialised fire-fighting personnel. You only have to look around your office surroundings to see the influence of fire through its absence – smoke alarms, sprinkler systems, fire exit doors, safety signs and the like.
As for municipal government, history shows us that a good deal of reforms to the structures and practices of emergency services, as well as the framing and policing of safety legislation, has conventionally taken place as a response to a major urban disaster. I discuss a good number of these in Fighting Fires – from Edinburgh’s great fire of 1824 to a spate of major urban fires in the late 1950s and early 1960s which led to an overhaul of fire safety legislation – which prove this to be the case. Neither central nor local government give much serious thought to disaster prevention or resilience before the events take place – this is because many disasters are unanticipated and there is no political consensus to invest significant funds into their effective prevention. My research – into the floods especially – illustrates how significant inertia can be in not implementing reforms after a disaster. Many powerful groups – commercial, industrial, political – come together to block reforms if they deem it to be contrary to their interests – as was the case in Sheffield after the 1864 flood; it was another 25 years before the Council was in a position to take the water supply under public ownership.
Is there anything specific that urban historians can bring to wider current historiographical debates? For instance, to suggest but two; those around topics like masculinity and the transnational turn.
“I’d say we are well placed to provide a combination of micro and macro insights to the historical relationship between structure and human agency.”
Yes. Urban historians, by their nature, take a different unit of analysis – the town or city – to most other historians. This allows them to break out of the ‘methodological nationalism’ that continues to permeate mainstream history. This helps to explain why urban and planning historians have been especially important to the transnational (or trans-local) turn since the 1990s; we’re more used to looking further afield, across conventional political/national/imperial borders for answers to our questions. And, for those of us who work on the 19th and 20th centuries, we are able to trace the journeys taken by our planners, officials, citizens even, to study urban problems overseas – whether that is a one-off visit to a conference or exhibition, or something more durable like a twinning agreement or an EU funded project (though who knows what will happen with the latter now….).
I also think that urban historians can offer a great deal to wider debates through their comparative case study approach. For instance, we can remind global historians of the peculiarities of place, those variables (demography, economy, culture for instance) which make our case study unique. At the same time, of course, we can also identify and account for the common experiences of our cities, what connects them and how this relates to the wider social, economic, environmental and material structures. I’d say we are well placed to provide a combination of micro and macro insights to the historical relationship between structure and human agency.
Many members of the public have a keen interest in the history of the areas in which they live. How can historians of urban areas harness this?
By engaging with them through our teaching and other outreach activities, otherwise what’s the point of being an academic historian? That could involve giving a public lecture to a local history society (e.g. the Thoresby Society in Leeds), or organising a public history event. I recently organised Researching Urban History Day at The Leeds Library, one of the oldest subscriber libraries in the country. We put on a series of talks and workshops involving key sources utilised by urban historians (maps, insurance plans, guide books, trade directories) and drew a really diverse and engaged audience from across West Yorkshire. I had good support to do this from two PhD students, along with my University, The Leeds Library and the Yorkshire Post (which carried a feature article on the day), so I certainly think that being connected helps. Whilst the Impact agenda in UK HE has artificially elevated the importance of public engagement activities in recent years, it’s something that all historians should be getting involved with anyway – to share our research with as wide an audience as is possible, to encourage sustainability and growth in our fields, to avoid fragmentation of our field, and to counter the worrying trend against experts within our wider political communities.
Shane’s latest book “What is Urban History?” came out in 2015. A full overview of his research can be seen-here-on his academia.edu profile. He can be contacted via Leeds Beckett University’s School of Cultural and Humanities Studies and through Twitter.