“…I want to unpick the multiple layers of perspective contained within the historical narratives of civilian bombardment. We have a number of players in these narratives, from politicians and agents of central government, to local council representatives and officials, to industrial elites and home front workers. As such, I think it is important to try to capture a sense of how these levels interacted.”
For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I lucky enough to be able to catch up with Michael Reeve. Michael is currently undertaking PhD research at the University of Hull (with secondary supervision at Leeds Beckett University) into the experience of air and seaborne bombardment upon towns in north east England during World War I. Michael’s approach draws upon the latest developments in social, cultural and military history, whilst also reaching out to the communities who’s past he is writing.
What is your background?
I grew up in Hull, a port city ‘on the edge of things’ (as poet Philip Larkin reportedly thought) in East Yorkshire. Growing up near King George Dock in East Hull, I always loved to walk near the waterfront and watch the ferries to Amsterdam and Rotterdam loading and leaving the dockside. I suppose this has remained an influence into my adult life and inspired some of my ongoing historical work, particularly my use of Hull as a case study in my PhD thesis. I come from a working-class family, with links to the Royal and Merchant Navies and I worked mostly in retail and hospitality before getting into academia (as well as a little alongside my studies). I think you can probably see elements of this background in the way I do my work. I’ve lived in Leeds since 2008 and did both my BA and MA degrees there, at Leeds Beckett University and the University of Leeds respectively. It’s great to be based at Hull University now, as I never imagined I would ever be a student there when I was younger. It’s one of the best centres in the UK for maritime history, so I was attracted by the expertise there. But I also have the benefit of two institutions, as my funding (from the Heritage Consortium, part of the AHRC) spans Leeds Beckett and Hull.
What led you to choose your subject matter?
“I want to at least tentatively suggest that there is something unique about wartime port experience, by exploring the ‘mentalities’ of historical actors, the people that went through bombardment.”
Hullensians seem to have a strong sense of place and a kind of plucky determination in the face of adversity. When I was growing up, people were always putting Hull down and marking it out as the worse place in Britain. It’s had its problems with unemployment and social deprivation since the Cod Wars and the Thatcher years really, but local people have always remained proud of the city’s uniqueness. I think this has always influenced me and helped maintain my pride in Hull, even after leaving for pastures new.
My general interest in Hull’s history and civic culture inspired my subject matter. But it has also had a long gestation period, following the research I did in my previous degrees. I began by looking at smoking in the trenches of the Western Front, really because I felt that very little had been written about it. Smoking and cigarettes have been such a ubiquitous part of modern life – particularly during the twentieth century – that they have acted as a kind of background noise. This was particularly so during the First World War, where smoking played a vital role in sociability and as a coping mechanism. This then gave me a useful temporal framework (c. 1914-19) for exploring social and cultural historical phenomena, like different kinds of identity and behaviour in historical contexts. So, in my MA, I continued in the WW1 milieu, this time focusing on Hull’s experience of anti-German sentiment. I was inspired to follow this route after seeing a great exhibition at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull on the local experience of the First World War. Again, relatively little has been written on the subject, particularly from a local point-of-view. From here, I stuck with the framework of war and designed a PhD project exploring the experience of aerial and naval bombardment on the North East coast. I just entered my second year and still have plenty of research to do! What I really want to get from this is a grasp of the urban experience of bombardment from the perspective of port towns and cities, those places that were targeted specifically during the war due to their perceived military and industrial importance. My case studies of Hull, Hartlepool, Scarborough and Whitby reflect this, as these were some of the worst affected localities. I want to at least tentatively suggest that there is something unique about wartime port experience, by exploring the ‘mentalities’ of historical actors, the people that went through bombardment. Diaries and letters written by civilians are great sources for this, as are representations in the local press and advertising. I’m also really interested in the impact of bombardment on the urban environment and the impacts material destruction had on people’s sense of place and selfhood.
Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?
I’ve always been a fan of Adrian Gregory’s approach, particularly in The Last Great War (2008), particularly as he makes a point of analysing local case studies, rather than assuming metropolitan experience can stand in for national experience. Pierre Purseigle is also a big influence, as his focus is on the local adaptation of national policy during the war, particularly schemes related to recruitment and social mobilisation. To some extent, my comparative, regional approach owes much to Purseigle, as it allows under-studied localities like Hartlepool and Hull to come to the fore, hopefully enriching the national picture of the conflict. On the urban and civic history side, I have always learnt upon Simon Gunn’s work on civic culture and have taken a lot from one of his acolytes Tom Hulme, who has pushed further the work started by Gunn. Ben Roberts is also doing great work, as he emphasises the continuity of civic display during wartime. On the specifically maritime side, the recent book edited by Brad Beaven, Karl Bell and Robert James – Port Towns and Urban Cultures (2016) – is a vital addition to a literature that has tended to focus on the industrial and technological aspects of port towns, rather than the cultural and social. I also read Joanna Bourke’s work on fear quite frequently, as the articulation of feelings of fear and anxiety before and following bombardment plays a crucial role in my thesis.
What do you hope that readers take away from your work?
I hope that readers will find at least some of my insights enlightening, especially as a lot of historical work in this area has tended to focus on military and naval aspects. This can even be true in social histories, where experiential perspectives are linked causally to the development of military technology and naval hardware. I am endeavouring to do something fairly ambitious, in that I am taking in not just a wide geographical area but a wide variety of historical sources. This is because I want to unpick the multiple layers of perspective contained within the historical narratives of civilian bombardment. We have a number of players in these narratives, from politicians and agents of central government, to local council representatives and officials, to industrial elites and home front workers. As such, I think it is important to try to capture a sense of how these levels interacted. An analysis of government documents and memoranda alongside intimate correspondence, press reports and literary depictions is my way of accessing and re-presenting this multi-vocal experience.
How has your work evolved over the course of your project?
“I’m… interested in the continuity of civic performance and display during the First World War, particularly through recruiting pageants and fundraising events. This is an area that has been largely ignored by urban historians, as the war is usually seen as a cut-off point.”
I’m increasingly interested in civic culture and identity more broadly and have recently done some research on the development of processional culture in Hull, where dock openings and royal visits predominated. I’m also interested in the continuity of civic performance and display during the First World War, particularly through recruiting pageants and fundraising events. This is an area that has been largely ignored by urban historians, as the war is usually seen as a cut-off point. I am hoping to do some more work around this, as well as returning to twentieth-century consumer history by looking at smoking again.
Now I am beginning my second year, I think that I also have a firmer grasp of the political history of the war, particularly the fluctuations in Anglo-German relations. This is really vital, as I am looking at British (however localised) views of Germany and ‘the Germans’ as people reacted and responded to their experience of bombardment. I also have greater appreciation of the work of naval and military historians, who do a lot of the nitty-gritty work on bombs and ships that has never really been my focus. This provides some of the technological background I need in order to explore social and cultural aspects of wartime experience.
Does your research indicate that there was much solidarity between port towns in the north east engendered by the threat and experience of bombardment?
“A lot of promotional literature that emerged in the immediately post-war period highlighted the unique debt owed by the nation and empire to the town or city in focus, whether in terms of lives lost or money raised in the form of war bonds or charitable donations.”
My research so far has pointed to an awareness across the North East region of the perceived vulnerability of ports and coastal conurbations. To some extent, people did see a ‘natural’ affinity between ports within the same region, and often those outside, especially as they were drawn together through similar experiences. In the case of Whitby, Scarborough and ‘the Hartlepools’ (Hartlepool and West Hartlepool were not formally unified until 1967), the experience of bombardment as a shared event was a very tangible link across geographical space. But the picture is much more complex than this. Different kinds of identities, most pertinently place, local and regional, intersected within expressions of solidarity, muddying the waters somewhat. For instance, despite sharing bombardment experiences, towns and cities still competed for a share in the ‘economy of sacrifice’ that helped frame local experiences and narratives of war. A lot of promotional literature that emerged in the immediately post-war period highlighted the unique debt owed by the nation and empire to the town or city in focus, whether in terms of lives lost or money raised in the form of war bonds or charitable donations. Hull and Hartlepool were especially vocal in this regard. There is also the issue of international solidarity. Through charitable activity, in events such as flag days and through comforts funds, longstanding links were stressed and reinforced between maritime centres. Hull often did this through flag days, where miniature flags of Allied nations, including Russia and France, were sold for donations for men at the front, as well as in aid of refugees. Often the traditional trade links fostered by trade and fishing were underlined as specific reasons for supporting the troops of other nations and this even extended to flying the flags of Russia and France from important civic buildings. But I would argue that shared experience of bombardment also drew disparate populations together, even if only symbolically. Events such as the shelling of Scarborough, nominally a renowned spa resort, also became nationally-utilised motifs for the propagation of British war aims, as they defined the German enemy as fundamentally ‘other’, undergirded by brutality and beyond the pale of ‘gentlemanly’ wartime conduct.
Can you get any sense of how alert the civic authorities along the north east coast were to the potential for seaborne attacks prior to 1914?
“It seems to me that, despite prevalent fears as to the destructive capabilities of aerial technology and the possibilities of invasion… many local authorities did not believe air raids would actually occur.”
I find this point particularly fascinating. So far, the general picture is of a lack of awareness and preparedness among civic authorities. Despite there being plenty of talk nationally and locally in the press about aeronautical developments from the late nineteenth-century, alongside the perceived threat contained in Germany’s military-industrial growth, very little was put in place concretely, in terms of air raid precautions like shelters. Generally, people were encouraged to stay in their homes if the air raid ‘buzzer’ sounded and no mass shelters were built in any of my case studies. On the whole, debates around air raid preparedness did not increase is voracity until 1915 and the first Zeppelin raids had occurred. In the absence of local official action, some ordinary people took to the streets to enforce rules like the extinguishing of lights, forming ersatz street patrols. It seems to me that, despite prevalent fears as to the destructive capabilities of aerial technology and the possibilities of invasion (common from even earlier, in the 1850s), many local authorities did not believe air raids would actually occur. The belief seemed to be that the Royal Navy would be able to deal with any conflagrations that came Britain’s way. This view was especially visible in local newspapers in Hull and Whitby, where there were repeated calls for more dreadnoughts and anti-aircraft defences to be built. On the whole, I think the potential for seaborne and air attacks was present among civic elites, but its seriousness was not grasped until it was too late. The destructive abilities of dirigible airships were also underestimated at national and local levels, with many local authorities not possessing the required guns and armaments vital for defence.
Have events during the First World War fed into local “myth” in the east coast ports, or is the period one that people are surprised to hear about?
“The well-worn narratives of the Blitz have tended to predominate in public history and school curricula, side-lining less-easily-told stories of the first truly total war.”
In places like Hartlepool, the collective memory of the bombardment on 16 December 1914 is kept very much alive through commemorative events and public memorials. Similar events have also taken place in Whitby and Scarborough. The difference in Hartlepool is that the commemorative activity seems to have a longer tradition and is still very much written into the urban landscape, and popular historical narrative, of the town. In Hull, the 2014-18 centenary has been marked through many events, but the Zeppelin raids have taken something of a secondary role to wider narratives away from the home front. Hartlepool has also marked the bombardment in the urban landscape, by placing a plaque in the spot where the first shell hit the shore. Nothing of this kind exists (as far as I know) in Hull or Scarborough, though a commemorative garden was unveiled to mark the event in Whitby in 2014. I think that a lot of people across the region are still largely unaware that bombing raids on civilian areas occurred during the First World War. The well-worn narratives of the Blitz have tended to predominate in public history and school curricula, side-lining less-easily-told stories of the first truly total war. There is still plenty of public engagement work to be done to underline the importance of the local experience of the First World War, particularly the uneven share of bomb damage and its centrality to home front experience and collective responses to war in the North East. I think my ongoing work is attempting to present the regional experience in a more interconnected way.
In your work to date, have you found that the “public engagement” aspects of your project influence the way that you read and make sense of historical source material?
“A lot of the historiographical debates just don’t work in public history (traditional vs. revisionist views of wartime patriotism, for instance), but it is possible to discuss them in a way that is accessible to people beyond the academy.”
I think that I always have public engagement in the back of my mind as I do my research. I’m always on the lookout for a story or image that would work well in a local project, like an interactive phone app or a walking tour. This is especially important, as a lot of public engagement work relates to locality as a matter of course, as the activities take place in or around particular streets and neighbourhoods. I tend to tweet about historical sources I’ve found amusing but still have a firm basis in my research questions and aims. A lot of the historiographical debates just don’t work in public history (traditional vs. revisionist views of wartime patriotism, for instance), but it is possible to discuss them in a way that is accessible to people beyond the academy. I usually do this by suggesting that a lot of the history we learn at school and from TV documentaries overlooks the local nuances of historical events, bringing to bear the evidence I have marshalled through research to problematise some of the ‘myths’ that maintain currency today. The use of local anecdotes from diaries and newspapers helps bring this point home to people, I think.You can find out more about Micheal by reading his page on the Heritage Consortium website. An overview of his work to date can be found on his academia.edu profile, and his is also on Twitter. More urban history profiles can be read here.