Sarah Mass-University of Michigan

“…I thought that shopping and consumption would be an entry point to analyse my earlier interests around ethnicity and immigration. This hasn’t panned out in the archives the way I expected: “traditional” market shopping is largely coded as English and white.”

For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I was lucky enough to be able to catch up with Sarah Mass of the University of Michigan. Sarah’s doctoral work focuses on street trading and markets in post-war Britian, providing insights into the social role that they play and what they tell us about identity, especially amongst migrant communities.

What is your background?

I was born in San Francisco, but spent most of my childhood in a small suburban town north of the Golden Gate Bridge. I became interested in British history in the ways I think many Americansparticularly womenbecome interested in the subject: through novels, mini-series, and royal history. I completed my BA at Tufts University, during which time I spent a year abroad at Worcester College, Oxford. I received my MSc from the University of Edinburgh in Modern British and Irish History before I started by PhD at the University of Michigan in 2011.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

“…the last essay I wrote when I studied abroad at Oxford was on the Sikh community in late twentieth-century Gravesend. My tutor told me, ‘This is it, and this is what you need to be working on.’”

In my first 2 ¾ years of university, I remember writing essays on Imperialism, Chartism, Jacobitism, and all the other “-isms” that seemed to matter. Yet the last essay I wrote when I studied abroad at Oxford was on the Sikh community in late twentieth-century Gravesend. My tutor told me, “This is it, and this is what you need to be working on.” When I returned to the States, I wrote an honours thesis on the comparative experiences of difference among the Irish and Pakistani communities in West Yorkshire, and ever since then I would say my work has been concerned with the relationship between place, belonging, and identity in twentieth-century Britain. I thought I would continue to focus on immigration and community formation, but I veered off towards shopping and consumption. Ethnicity is still one lens in my scholarship (and I’ve pursued it more explicitly in other projects), but my main question has developed into how and why traditional city centre shopping survived an era of urban redevelopment and the rise of planned shopping centres.

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

“…one of the joys of urban history: methods, questions, and frameworks are transferable.”

Although I only discovered her work within the last few years, Alison Isenberg’s Downtown America is absolutely the kind of scholarship I hope to produce. Her ability to “people” the often un-peopled fields of planning and economic history is exemplary, and I only hope I can span the 1945 divide in urban history with as much dexterity. Erika Hanna’s Modern Dublin and Dolores Hayden’s The Power of Place have both shown me how to write urban history through a nuanced and careful analysis of heritage movements and public history. None of these scholars work on Britain, but that’s one of the joys of urban history: methods, questions, and frameworks are transferable.

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

“…I hope that my work makes people think twice about seemingly ‘unbuilt’ features of the urban environment (open squares, informal street markets, etc.)”

On the most basic level, I hope that Americans reading my work can learn to appreciate British urban history beyond London history. Seriously, this is a problem. On a more disciplinary level, I hope that my work makes people think twice about seemingly “unbuilt” features of the urban environment (open squares, informal street markets, etc.). I think twentieth-century urban historians have been quick to see outlying towns or the countryside as victims of urban residential growth, but there are open, public spaces in the centres of our towns and cities which are targeted by infrastructure projects or the real estate interests. Renewed interest in Jane Jacobs and issues around neoliberal urbanism have brought attention to these spaces, but I hope my scholarship can offer a pre-history to these debates in provincial Britain’s town and city centres.

How has your work evolved over the course of your project?

“I found the language of contemporary Leave voters who sold and shopped at the market remarkably similar to market defenders in the 1930s during war and post-war austerity, or through the upheavals of urban redevelopment…”

As I mentioned above, I thought that shopping and consumption would be an entry point to analyse my earlier interests around ethnicity and immigration. This hasn’t panned out in the archives the way I expected: “traditional” market shopping is largely coded as English and white. While I used to write this off as simply a turn in the project, the last six months have really changed my perspective. There have been multiple Brexit features that use the town or city centre market place as a set piece for quintessential, authentic British life. I found the language of contemporary Leave voters who sold and shopped at the market remarkably similar to market defenders in the 1930s during war and post-war austerity, or through the upheavals of urban redevelopment: markets “belonged” to localities, not to transient or outside traders. As I revise and write the last chapters of my dissertation, I’m striving to capture the categories of “local” and “English” as constructed, protected, and contingent categories wherein retail and ethnicity intersect.

Broadly speaking, what role do markets and shopping play in creating and sustaining community identity?

“…markets are therefore doubly romanticized as sites of community identity: they simultaneously represent pre-industrial local commerce and industrial era civic belonging.”

In Britain, many markets trace their charters back to the thirteenth century; therefore, they carry the weight of a deep, transhistorical sense of community. Since the nineteenth century, when local authorities bought market franchises en masse, these retail sites have been the spaces where public oversight meets private business. I think markets are therefore doubly romanticized as sites of community identity: they simultaneously represent pre-industrial local commerce and industrial era civic belonging. This makes their importance for post-industrial community identity particularly fraught.

How do you go about deciding which case studies to focus upon?

This is a great question and one I still struggle to explain. I knew I didn’t want to study London because it would invariably overwhelm other towns or cities in a comparative project. London also has a very different market culture than other localities, with the tradition of licensed street traders and street markets rather than covered retail markets. Instead, I’ve tried to get as much geographic, scalar, and structural coverage as I can. The one city that’s stayed fairly constant throughout the project is Glasgow, but other than that I’ve taken my cues from trade journals, heritage campaigns, and particularly strong local repositories. It’s not the most rigorous or systematic process, but it’s easier than going to every county record office in the country to look at their market committee meeting minutes!

Has it been fairly straightforward or quite hard to access the opinions and voices of the people and communities that you study?

“This… shapes a very particular rhetoric: markets are either horrendously out-dated or the physical manifestation of local heritage.”

Market traders are not “joiners” almost by definition, so it’s hard to trace them in institutional records. This is really why I’ve turned to planning and architectural sources: markets come into view when they are knocked down, developed, or protected. This, of course, shapes a very particular rhetoric: markets are either horrendously out-dated or the physical manifestation of local heritage. I’ve learned to read almost all of these accounts with an element of scepticism, keeping the politics of preservation and the professional interests of the speakers in mind.

Have you developed a sense of what leads to changes in the way that use shops and markets?

“Planners and developers could only do so much to shift the traditions of market trading.”

If I knew this, I think I’d make a very successful planning consultant! From my perspective, it’s an issue of how citizensespecially womenmade claims for retail stability during socio-economic crisis and change. During periods of interwar depression and wartime austerity, women patronized informal markets to make ends meet. When New Towns or outlying estates were constructed, housewives were often the citizens demanding markets alongside multiples or supermarkets. And as inflation constricted consumer buying power and women spent more time in the workplace, many markets rebranded themselves as one-stop family outings and bargain outlets. I think markets offer a corrective to the story of shopping we usually tell about post-1945 Britain: the usual tale is one of new precincts or modernist centres, but in the basements or outdoor squares of these structures, there were often bustling retail markets that continued to serve material and immaterial needs of sellers and shoppers. Planners and developers could only do so much to shift the traditions of market trading.

Sarah can be reached Twitter and the University of Mitchigan’s History Department, where you can find out more about her work. For more urban history profiles click here.

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Phyllis Nicklin, “Photograph of the Bull Ring street market, taken on the last day of street trading, 12/9/59”, Scanned by the Chrysalis project in 2004, from original 35mm slides held at the University of Birmingham. University of Birmingham all rights reserved

Nicola Blacklaws-University of Leicester

“…many boards were mindful of local public opinion, even if they didn’t always adhere to it!”

For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I speak to the University of Leicester’s Nicola Blacklaws. Nicola is completing a PhD exploring the operation of the poor law in early 20th Century England and is heavily involved with the University of Leicester’s “New History Lab”, a support network for postgraduate researchers.

What is your background?

I’m originally from North Shropshire, although I lived in Germany and Cyprus as a kid (my mum taught in British Forces primary schools). After a gap year where I answered phones at my former secondary school, waitressed and flirted with the idea of joining the Royal Marines Band Service, I came to the University of Leicester to do my BA in History, and have been here ever since. I did an MA at Leicester’s Centre for English Local History, and started my PhD here in 2014, funded by a Midlands3Cities DTP studentship.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

Initially, quite a lot of luck. I happened to be allocated Keith Snell as my undergraduate dissertation supervisor, and in our first meeting he showed me an eighteenth-century settlement examination. This is a document that could be created when a person applied for poor relief, and often recorded the key features of a person’s life, including various places they had lived and worked and for how long. I was gripped by the idea that for many people, these kinds of documents would be the only surviving evidence of the course their lives had taken, and that poor law sources could act as a window into the lives of individuals and families who otherwise don’t loom very large in the historical record.  I’ve since moved into the New Poor Law, focusing in particular the last 30 years of its life, from 1900 to 1930, which grabbed my interest largely because people are often so surprised that the poor law was still operating beyond the First World War!

“I was gripped by the idea that for many people, these kinds of documents would be the only surviving evidence of the course their lives had taken…”

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

I aspire to Keith Snell’s rigorous use of both quantitative and qualitative material, and his clear, engaging writing. I return to the chapter in his book Parish and Belonging on outdoor relief over and over again. I also think of John Hatcher’s book The Black Death: An Intimate History often. It was the first micro-history I ever read, and I dream of bringing the places I study to life as vividly.

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

“The poor law continued to function and relieve people through the First World War and beyond…”

That the poor law isn’t quite as ancient history as we’re often led to believe, and there is no clear line separating it and the beginning of our modern welfare state. The poor law continued to function and relieve people through the First World War and beyond, overlapping with reforms we often see today as the beginnings of state-provided welfare. I’d also like it to fly the flag for the importance of local context. Finally (and perhaps most ambitiously), I’d hope that it invites readers to consider current debates about poverty and welfare in their historical contexts. To paraphrase something I heard Simon Szreter say in an interview, welfare systems are not historically a luxury that we give ourselves when we’re doing particularly well, something that we can cut back when the going gets tougher – they’re an integral ingredient of successful advanced societies.

How has your work evolved over the course of your project?

I’ve definitely become more flexible in terms of the sources I feel like I need to do a decent case study. When I first started my PhD I had very high standards regarding the kinds of sources that had to survive before I would consider a union for case study status – my supervisors eventually had to talk me down from that! I think I’ve also become more interested in the actual ending of the poor law – what did its ending, and the transfer of authority to Public Assistance Committees, actually look like on the ground? Did guardians and paupers feel like they were coming to the ‘end of an era’? How did the approaching termination of the system impact on day-to-day operations? I haven’t fully answered these questions yet, but I’m going to get there eventually!

What factors do you think principally influenced the differing ways in which the 20th Century poor law was administered in various locales?

“The personalities and attitudes of the guardians shouldn’t be overlooked…”

Oh, there are so many potential factors! Perhaps most obviously, the economic conditions in a region could be hugely influential. Downturns in key regional industries could put enormous strain on local poor law resources, as in places like Staffordshire in the 1920s. Density of population could also play a role – how well did the poor law officers know the poor they were dealing with? It’s been argued, and I think I agree, that if a relieving officer had more of an established relationship with a pauper, they might be less likely to offer them ‘harsher’ relief options like entry into the workhouse. Local politics could be impactful as well, as could individual unions’ relationship with the central authorities – the Local Government Board at the beginning of the period, and the Ministry of Health from 1919. The personalities and attitudes of the guardians shouldn’t be overlooked either.

Was there much local campaigning to influence the decisions made by poor law guardians during your period?

The local press were often very interested in poor law goings-on – there were often reporters at guardians’ board meetings, and guardians were usually keen to avoid public controversy. For instance, one Leicestershire board of guardians had a very fractious relationship with one of their vaccination officers in the early 1900s – he actually took the board to court multiple times over non-payment of expenses – and both the guardians and the LGB were conscious that the conflict reflected poorly on the union. Another example that comes to mind is from a Staffordshire board who were obliged during the First World War to investigate claims that the bodies of paupers who had died in the workhouse were not being properly shrouded. There are explicit references in the minutes to the coverage the issue had attracted in the press. So many boards were mindful of local public opinion, even if they didn’t always adhere to it!

Postgraduate study (especially in the humanities) can be lonely. How do you think that having a forum like New History Lab benefits researchers?

“Building a support network of other postgrads is… crucial to maintaining your mental wellbeing.”

You’re absolutely right that MAs and PhDs in the humanities have the potential to be SO isolating, especially if you don’t have an office or workspace to go to every day. Building a support network of other postgrads is, I think, crucial to maintaining your mental wellbeing. New History Lab gives our researchers a guaranteed space every fortnight where you can turn up, eat some cake (in itself therapeutic) and meet other people going through the same processes as you. I started going along to Lab events when I was doing my MA, and some of the people I met there became really good friends, who are often the first people to hear about my PhD-related triumphs and tribulations. I see the connections you can make in forums like the Lab as, in a lot of ways, more valuable than the ‘networking’ we’re often encouraged to attempt in more formal settings with more senior academics, which can feel cold, manipulative and stressful. As the Lab is run almost entirely by postgraduate students (we do have a staff representative on our committee as well), we can also design programmes of events that cater explicitly to postgraduates. We can both expose people to interesting corners of history other than their own field of study (it can be easy to forget there are other people working on other things out there!), and organise events that speak to specific concerns of postgraduate life. The last two terms, for instance, have included Clare Anderson on getting your first article published and Matt Houlbrook on blogging as a historian, as well as talks about Star Wars and medieval culture, the Rolling Stones Redlands scandal, palaeontology and the Easter Rising. All postgraduates should have a New History Lab in their lives.

How do you think that postgraduates can become better at working collaboratively with each other?

I think practice is key, as with anything – taking opportunities to be part of an organising committee of some kind can be really helpful in getting experience of planning and problem-solving as a team. Having the infrastructure in place to support collaborative projects is also important, such as funding, so that if researchers have an idea that they want to try out (like the New History Lab!) then the provision is there to enable them to have a go. Having said that, in my experience, postgrads are mostly pretty good at working collaboratively; I think sometimes humanities researchers can be stereotyped as being solitary beasts who aren’t able to work in teams, but I haven’t so far found that to be the case!

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If you would like to contact Nicola about her research she is on Twitter and can be reached via the University of Leicester’s School of History. Her academia.edu profile can be read here.  For more urban historian profiles follow this link.

“Municipal Dreams”

“Most councillors are barely household names in their own household so I’d really like to speak up for all the unsung councillors… Who have laboured long and hard doing the unglamorous but essential donkey work of local government.”

For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I’ve been lucky enough to grab a word with John, the stalwart social historian who writes and curates Municipal Dreams. Municipal Dreams is a blog that explores the multifaceted, but generally very positive, legacy of activist local government in Britain.

What is your background?

I was brought up in a small Norfolk seaside resort and enjoyed it but I was determined to experience something urban and grittier when the opportunity arose. So I did voluntary work on a Leeds council estate during my gap year and then headed to the University of Manchester where I studied History. I’d joined the Labour Party aged 16 in 1974 and I was lucky to be able to pursue my interest in labour history in some depth at Manchester. I followed this with a PhD in the Centre for the Study of Social History at the University of Warwick. After seven years straight HE – no fees, full grant (we were a lucky generation) – I was ready for something else so I worked in a couple of roles for Norwich City Council before taking a teaching qualification. I also served as a Labour councillor for four years.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

You probably already have the answer. Firstly, there are my politics. Secondly, there’s my education. My PhD was on working-class politics in interwar Birmingham and Sheffield (I spent a lot of time in the late, lamented Birmingham Central Library so it’s great to see that as the header image for this blog) and in both – Birmingham, Tory; Sheffield, Labour – you had councils determined to use the power of the local state to serve their communities.

Since then we’ve seen the work of local councillors so traduced and the role of local government so diminished that it seemed vital to defend their record; not blindly, of course, as not everything done was wise or wonderful, but with a proper historical understanding of what was achieved and why things sometimes went wrong.

The blog has a particular focus on housing and this has become incredibly timely. We could begin writing the epitaph of council housing from 1979 but recent and proposed legislation seems determined to kill it off once and for all or, at the least, so radically reduce it to housing of last resort that it seems to me really important to defend it and to present an alternative history – far removed from contemporary caricatures – which properly celebrates its positive and transformative role in the lives of so many of our fellow citizens.

“…we’ve seen the work of local councillors so traduced and the role of local government so diminished that it seemed vital to defend their record…”

I’m aware that all this makes my work far more obviously and directly ‘political’ than that of some of your other respondents. I’d only say that, while the blog does have a clear political perspective and (I hope) message, I’m not interested in writing propaganda or polemic. It is, to my mind, precisely the nuance and rootedness of an historical approach that allows a proper and more persuasive case to be made.

Are there any historians or other writers that particularly inspire your approach to your topic?

“…‘class’ now – in always mutating forms – seems as powerful a determinant of people’s life experiences and opportunities as ever.”

Karl Marx. That may sound like a provocation but, as I think back to my formative influences and reading, I realise just how much I’ve taken from a Marxist approach – not the great man’s revolutionary aspirations and predictions, nor ever the practice of ‘actually existing socialism’, but the basic and profound insight that society and its ruling ideas are shaped (I would say ‘determined’) by the economic system of the day. Maybe this is now so commonplace a notion that our debt to Marx doesn’t need to be stated but it is an approach, I believe, that should inform the work of any social historian. And ‘class’ now – in always mutating forms – seems as powerful a determinant of people’s life experiences and opportunities as ever.

As a teenager, I devoured EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class – a wonderfully rich and humane book which added a cultural dimension to class and ideology which Marx’s more schematic approach largely neglected.

I came of age in another era, a time when labour history was in vogue and ideas of class, rather than all the multifarious identities currently celebrated, were dominant. I’ve learnt a lot from the latter but I feel a sense of loss too. I worry that current preoccupations are too fragmentary and lead us to neglect the broader realities which still shape most lives.

What kind of sources do you use to inform your work?

Basically, as I range widely, I use whatever sources are to hand and the available sources tend to shape the approach taken to a particular case-study. Council records tend to be very dry, such is the nitty-gritty of local government work, but occasionally council publications will provide a more colourful and ‘political’ account of local reforms. The local press, particularly in its hey-day, often provided rich detail on local government controversies and achievements. The architectural press is often informative on particular schemes though overwhelmingly and narrowly design-focused. Sources recording the lived experience of ‘ordinary’ lives are still too rare but very valuable where they exist. In terms of secondary sources, I’m thankful for the work of the relatively few academics working in the field and very grateful to those doctoral students who have produced fine local studies.

“…the available sources tend to shape the approach taken to a particular case-study…”

I’m grateful to various people who have written guest posts for the blog and I’d love to extend this so that it becomes a resource centre for everyone – academics and non-academics, local historians, people researching their own stories – interested in the field or with a history to share.

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

At its most basic, a renewed belief in the positive and necessary role of the state in securing a fairer and more equal society and an appreciation of the enormously constructive role played by local government over many years. This, as the consistent failure of the free market to provide decent homes for all, makes clear is most apparent in the field of housing.

“…the blog is an extended argument in favour of practical reformist politics and the slow grind of persuading people, winning elections and getting things done…”

At the very least, because I try to write to people across the political spectrum, I hope that readers come away with a more rounded and contextualised understanding of council housing – to see the ideals and ambitions which shaped it and the social and economic forces (rather than, in most cases, any inherent flaws in conception and execution) which have sometimes undercut those founding aspirations.

More generally, the blog is an extended argument in favour of practical reformist politics and the slow grind of persuading people, winning elections and getting things done – ‘instrumental’ politics rather than the ‘expressive, virtue-signalling and identity politics that is consuming many on the left at present.

Over the course of your research have you come across any recurring difficulties or challenges that municipal reformers faced?

Two connected difficulties confront municipal reformers and do so even more powerfully in the present: parliamentary sovereignty – that local government can only ever do what has been specifically authorised by Westminster, and finance – that councils have very rarely enjoyed the resources needed to execute their plans optimally. As a state and society, we have been consistently unwilling to provide the social investment needed to enable all our people to thrive. Local councillors can only ever work within this reality.

Which of the municipal pioneers you’ve written about do you think we can learn most from today?

Most councillors are barely household names in their own household so I’d really like to speak up for all the unsung councillors – of all parties – who have laboured long and hard doing the unglamorous but essential donkey work of local government.

“Labour’s election-winning manifesto in Bermondsey in 1922 proclaimed that it would ‘strive to make it a worthy home for all of us.  This is our conception of the object and purpose of local government’.”

Of course I do have my heroes – Alfred and Ada Salter in Bermondsey, George Lansbury in Poplar and the rebel councillors of Clay Cross but each were representative of a time and place and it’s hard to see their actions replicated in the present. However, I’d give a special place to Ada. Bermondsey pioneered health and housing reform – vital functions of local government – but for the Salters politics had a profoundly spiritual dimension expressed in their practical Christian socialism. Those who had created Bermondsey, in Alfred’s words, ‘did not realise that they had cut off the people from the chiefest means of natural grace. They did not appreciate the curse and cruelty of ugliness’. As a councillor and mayor, Ada established a Beautification Committee. It planted 10,000 trees and created pocket parks across the borough. In Fenner Brockway’s words, ‘Bermondsey became a place of unexpected beauty spots’.

Labour’s election-winning manifesto in Bermondsey in 1922 proclaimed that it would ‘strive to make it a worthy home for all of us.  This is our conception of the object and purpose of local government’. That – and the civic pride it speaks to – seems something to aspire to and emulate.

Conversely which do you consider the most egregiously wrong-headed or damaging?

That’s an interesting question and the easy response is to point to those councillors who oversaw the system-built high-rise debacle of the 1960s. Sometimes personal aggrandisement further tainted their judgement. T Dan Smith in Newcastle is the obvious example. And yet even here one sees an ambition to house the people and get them out of the slums and the pressures to do that from central government using ‘modern’ methods were enormous. It’s easy to criticise some of the housing schemes of the sixties and lament the loss of the old working-class terraces (though we too readily forget just how bad the slum housing of the era was). In fact, the rehabilitation drive began in the mid-sixties and some of the best council housing ever was built in the seventies so, even here, lessons were learnt.

“I’m horrified by some forms of current ‘estate regeneration’. The demolition of good homes and strong communities…”

For all that I defend local government, I’m horrified by some forms of current ‘estate regeneration’. The demolition of good homes and strong communities, as we see, for example, in Lambeth in the present (the Cressingham Gardens estate being a case in point), seems entirely wrong whatever the pressures to ‘densify’ and however justified by proponents as a means to build and finance new social housing. There’s a fine line between working a loaded system for progressive ends and complicity in that system and this, to me, oversteps the mark.

Do you see any scope for comparable local action today?

The opportunities for councils to engage in bold reform are very limited now given central government cuts and restrictions. Some councils are working imaginatively to build new social housing within the current hostile framework but it’s all necessarily legalistic and unheroic. Too often, councils are forced into unholy alliance with commercial interests and lack the acumen and clout needed to secure even the limited gains such deals are supposed to generate. We need to change central government policy and liberate local government to serve its people. And local councils must work with, be seen to genuinely represent, and mobilise their communities.

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In addition to his main blog, John also posts shorter pieces and pictures on tumblr. He can be reached via Twitter here.

 

Tom Hulme-Centre for Metropolitan History

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.

For more about Tom and his work; check out his page on the website of the Institute for Historical Research’s Centre for Metropolitan History. His academia.edu profile can be viewed here.