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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 13: The City •

The City

Book cover: Urban Governance: Britain and Beyond since 1750

R. J. Morris's response


Urban Governance: Britain and Beyond since 1750

ed. R. J. Morris and R. H. Trainor
Ashgate, 2000
ISBN-13: 978-0-7546-0015-2; 268 pages, price £60.00

Barry Doyle

University of Teeside

First, thanks to Barry Doyle for a very positive and supportive review. He correctly points to the 'incompleteness' of some of the argument and hence this is not so much a 'reply' in a conventional sense but rather an attempt to suggest that what we need to do is to place some of the debate involved, both in the book and in Barry Doyle's review, in the broader context of what is happening in urban history in Britain.

In many ways urban history in Britain is still identified with the 1960s and 1970s and the leadership and stimulus given by Jim Dyos, - see David Cannadine and David Reeder, Exploring the Urban Past: Essays in Urban History by H J Dyos, especially the essays by the two editors, if you want to know more. That activity faded in the late 70s and the meetings of the Urban History Group were suspended, though not interestingly enough those of the Pre Modern Towns Group. The revival began in the early 1990s, in part from a series of conversations between Richard Rodger and myself, mostly in Leslie's Bar in Edinburgh. Richard Rodger had taken over the editorship of Urban History, a child of the Urban History Yearbook and a grandchild of the Urban History Newsletter. We were both impressed by the growing interest from younger historians in urban history and the lack of any theoretical awareness. The evidence was in the many articles submitted to the journal.

We both saw theory not as a prescriptive or deeply abstract way of directing historical writing but as a way of organising enquiry, generating questions and giving coherence to the urban focus of our interests. Some of this is evident in the introduction to Morris and Rodger, The Victorian City, 1820-1914. A Reader in British Urban History. Perhaps at that time we had in mind a revival of some of the older, and still relevant issues raised by Wirth, Park and others of the Chicago school, by Max Weber, by Braudel and others, questions about power, urban rural distinctions, size, density and variety, as well as the analysis of urban systems and internal differentiation by Pred and other geographers. The revival of the Urban History Group meetings showed us that younger, and sometimes not so younger historians wanted to modify these themes and above all to add to them. This development was informed by cultural history and by the breaking down of the barrier between the political and the social/cultural in intellectual enquiry. The process was driven forward by the 'why don't you .. ' conversations at the conference bar, as well as by an increasing number of emails.

The conferences were excellent as 'events' for the 50 or 60 people who were able to attend, but it was felt that the stimulus should spread beyond this and the questions, the theoretical shaping of enquiry and the exemplars derived from specific papers should be more widely available. We felt that historians planning an urban study should at least consider the questions and directions that informed these meetings. Hence the publications. The first based upon the relationship between civil society and the urban appeared in Urban History in 1998, the next on governance is the subject of this review and a third on conceptions of space will appear shortly under the editorship of Simon Gunn and myself. Knowledge and the city will be the focus of the UHG conference in Glasgow at Easter 2001.

Doyle is correct in noting that this is a British collection with a number of articles on France, Canada and India added in, but this derived from a recognition that British urban history tended to operated with little awareness of what was happening elsewhere. There was and is a tendency to take the British experience as self-evident and then 'explain' variations within that experience. The classic example of this is the manner in which we 'explain' why the Scots built tenements, forgetting that most of Europe and much of North America did the same. Historians then neglect to ask, why the English built urban low-rise cottages and terraces. The three none British essays in this collection can never be the base for a comparative history but they are a reminder that the British need to revise and devise their questions about Britain in light of wider experience. When the essays on industrial pollution in France and Britain were put together, what struck the editors was not the central control/local control contrast but the fact that the end result was very much the same, a failure to control the industrialists, - the remnants of a mildly 1960s materialist self still stirs. The willingness of the British to be involved in wider debates over the nature and impact of urbanism has been recognised by the European International Urban History Association in their decision to hold their conference in Edinburgh in 2002. We hope that Barry Doyle and many others will be there. The conference will extend knowledge of the variety of approaches and experiences of urban history across the world. An increasing number of British based urban historians are already part of groups based on European meetings, notably in studies of the growth of municipal officials and employees, and in studies of civil society and associational culture. These European meetings involve scholars from Japan, India, South Africa and Australia as well as from USA and increasingly from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Another issue raised with considerable justice by Doyle is the relative strength of 19th century urban history compared to that offered for the 20th century. This is actually a reflection of current British historiography. Having just finished different but related survey articles for Philip Waller's, The English Urban Landscape, and for vol. three of the Cambridge Urban History of Britain (Martin Daunton, ed.), this 'replier' can testify to the fact that writing the 19th century section of each article had the guidance of a very strong literature, whilst the 20th-century section, especially that between 1920 and 1974 did not, except in the fields of housing and planning. We simply have very little guidance on how to write the urban history of this period. As Trainor shows in his article in the book reviewed here, the notion that this was a period of decline from the 'golden age' of the late 19th century, simply will not do. There were some clues in this collection, though perhaps not spelt out fully. The articles that looked at regulatory professional bodies and arbitration boards were 19th century based but not as tangential to the book as Doyle implies. Such agencies were probably increasingly important for power and decision making in the 20th century city, hence these studies have lessons for the historian of the 20th century. It is easy to see the period after 1920 as more of the same with local authority housing and planning added in and there was considerable continuity. Discontinuity tends to have a less specific urban focus. This is evident in some of the newer the agencies of governance. The journey from the poor law to the NHS and DHSS is one worth reflecting upon. There is a need to identify the new but this is problematic because the new tended to lack identity with the specific urban place. Technology and media presents other problems for the urban historian. There is a growing literature on the social history of radio and the motor car but in Britain this avoids any consideration of the impact on the specific urban location and identity. When Newcastle United Football Club won the FA cup in 1924, the crowds in Newcastle gathered around the newspaper offices to hear the score from the telegraph, whilst in 1932 Jack Allan's dad was doing his delivery round and people ran out of their houses to tell him that his son had scored the winning goal. They had heard the news direct from London in the 'wireless' sets based in their own domestic space but transmitting information controlled nationally by the BBC.

So this book is part of a larger task to produce an urban history which is informed by as wide a range of theoretical concerns as possible, by a knowledge of the variety of practice and by an awareness of what is happening in Europe and beyond.

March 2001

R. H. Trainor's response

Original review

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