For the latest in my series profiling the work of urban historians at work today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with Ben Roberts who lectures at the University of Teesside. Ben has written widely about civic ritual especially (pageants) in the 19th and 20th Century north east and is engaged in a wide array of projects exploring the history of the north east region.
What is your background?
I grew up in Middlesbrough, before studying Leisure and Tourism at college and spending several years working as a Travel Consultant in Manchester. After a while, I decided that this wasn’t really for me and after consideration of where my interests lay, I decided to return home to study history at Teesside University. The history section had an excellent reputation, which made it an easy choice. Initially, I defined myself as an early-modern historian, though when I returned to Teesside to undertake an MA in history, I began to focus more on the locality in the nineteenth century. I then applied for a funded PhD studentship at Teesside and once given a place, I opted to focus on civic ritual in Middlesbrough and Darlington. This has remained central to my work and is something I often draw on in my teaching, having worked as a part-time lecturer at Teesside since 2013.
What led you to choose your subject matter?
The process of completing my MA made me realise what a rich primary source I had lived in for most of my life. Middlesbrough is the archetypal nineteenth century “boom town” and its story is indicative of much of the broader themes of modern British history. My exploration of ceremony and ritual was partly informed by a life-long fascination with processions and similar public events. My historical training allowed me to examine such occasions beyond their physical appearance in order to understand what they represented, how they were constructed and how such events changed over time. I began to realise that urban ceremony was a vehicle through which a broader understanding of a particular community, at one moment in time, can be understood.
Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?
The work of Simon Gunn, Brad Beaven and Richard Rodger have undoubtedly had the biggest impact on my own approach, as they have all demonstrated what case studies of specific urban centres or comparative approaches can achieve. While I remain in awe of their work, I have, over time, found the confidence to challenge some of their assumptions. However, I still return to their published work time and again for guidance. Additionally, the seminal Victorian Cities by Asa Briggs is rarely far from my desk.
What do you hope that readers take away from your work?
A revised understanding for urban ritual and ceremony. There has been a tendency in some quarters to downplay the significance of such occasions, as being insignificant or irrelevant. I’d like to think that my work is playing a part in challenging this perception. I also hope that I have made readers think again about what constitutes “community” and how individual groups have used civic ritual to showcase their identity.
How has your work evolved over the course of your project?
When I first started my PhD, I had quite a narrow definition of what civic ritual was. Over time, I realised that while all major ceremonial, celebratory and commemorative events have core similarities, civic ritual was (and remains) a highly adaptive concept. It was constantly contested and challenged by those who organised it, with a great deal of interrelation between seemingly dissimilar events, as there was a great deal of use and adaptation of precedent. I now understand that one ceremonial event has the power to hold different meanings and can be defined differently by anyone who witnesses it.
In what ways did the nature of “civic ritual” change in the north east between the mid-19th and the mid-20th Centuries?
The biggest change related to the adoption of recreation to sustain people’s interest. For example, observance of a royal event (such as a jubilee or coronation) was rather formal in the early-to-mid nineteenth century, but came to be defined by its recreational components. These included sports, variety entertainments and games, all of which were still highly ritualised, but made the civic community active participants, rather than passive observers to ceremonial events.
How much did “civic ritual” and pageantry differ between Middlesbrough and Darlington?
I discovered that while Middlesbrough’s civic leaders made wide use of civic ritual to promote the commercial, political and cultural life of the town, their counterparts in Darlington consistently seemed reluctant to do so. Darlington was not incorporated until 1867 despite being a recognised market town since the middle ages, whereas Middlesbrough, only laid out in 1830, was incorporated by 1853. Middlesbrough tended to be governed by industrialists, while Darlington (both before and after incorporation) was dominated by local Quaker businessmen, the Pease family. It seems that their Quaker sensibilities and also pride in their own position prevented them from making active use of civic ritual. For instance, Middlesbrough would invite members of the royal family to open major landmarks, benefiting from national press attention, whereas in Darlington, a member of the family would officiate. This continued into the twentieth century, after the decline of the Pease family, as Darlington Council was consistently criticised for “getting it wrong” when staging urban ceremony, whereas Middlesbrough continued to adapt its approach.
Have you been able to get a sense of the extent to which people felt “ownership” of their town’s pageants?
I believe there was a great deal of ownership felt when recreational civic ritual was utilised, as local people felt involved. Before this, they might have enjoyed witnessing a civic procession as a pure spectacle, but I’d question any perception of ownership. However, the definition of ownership changed in the early decades of the twentieth century, as smaller communities began to organise their own events through street parties and major events for specific sections of a local population. This obviously created a greater degree of ownership, but also raised issues of exclusion. Civic ritual for the entire civic community created cohesion; individual events could also create division.
Do you find that the public engagement and outreach activities you’re involved with, help you to think through the issues thrown up by your research in a different way?
Definitely. I’ve lost count of the number of times my ideas have been challenged by sharing my work with local community groups, or with members of the public at Middlesbrough Council’s Local History Month. Occasionally, I’ll get to speak to people who were involved, or whose parents were involved in the events I write about, which always gives added depth to my analysis. That’s what I love most about urban history; everyone is involved. Everyone has their own story to tell about how a particular community has changed. They’ve grown up hearing stories from their parents or grandparents. I think it’s vital for urban historians to reach out and share their work. It gives it greater meaning and a human dimension. It also stops any danger of viewing the urban past as another world. The townscape is often recognisable; time has just moved on and some of the detail has changed.
You can find out more about Ben’s work from his academia.edu profile, you can also follow him on Twitter. Two of his forthcoming articles can be read here: “Entertaining the community: the evolution of civic ritual and public celebration, 1860–1953” (Urban History) and “A Tale of Two Funerals: Civic Ritual, Public Mourning and Community Participation in Late Nineteenth-Century Middlesbrough” (Cultural and Social History).
You can access more urban history profiles by following this link.