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Archive for the ‘urban history’ Category

So often as an academic historian I’m asked to explain my research interests. It’s rather broad. I typically say I’m a social, cultural, urban and reading historian, with particular interests in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. But of these my main focus is the late 18th and early 19th century – part of the so-called long 18th century – and I was musing on how I got to that.

My first academic history study at university was a 16th century course with the Open University. Then this was followed by a 19th and 20th century course on family and community history, also with the Open University. And then two classical studies courses completed my Open University BA(Hons), on Homeric poetry and archaeology, and the early Roman empire. But although I was interested in all of these periods, none of these completely grabbed me.

I suppose the 18th century beckoned with my subsequent postgraduate taught Masters course in Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850. This course was led by Professor Charles McKean, and focused in particular on the 18th century, and the cultural changes that happened, and changes in towns, particularly throughout Scotland and Britain, but also overseas, for example in Europe and North America. And I found it fascinating, particularly from an intellectual viewpoint. It was a period of such change, but also such influence on later times. And it was a period rich in historical evidence to allow it to be studied. Of course I retained my interest in other periods. In particular my Masters dissertation looked at late 17th century court records for the Melrose area, although this was partly because of this being something I could work on easily from home, using largely transcribed records. I was very much not a specialist in that time period.

Then my 18th century interest, and early 19th too, grew further for a year as I worked as a research assistant on a pilot study looking at the cultural development of small Scottish towns. The pilot study looked at the towns in Angus, former Forfarshire, and it was my job to work through a mass of records for the various burghs. This was followed years later by a larger study of small towns Scotland-wide, which has led to a book which is about to be published. But my MS-like illness had progressed too much for me to work on the main project. My year on the pilot study was glorious though. I learned how towns grew and changed in 18th century Scotland and Britain, and how the cultural and social facilities were transformed. Again fascinating, intellectually.

And then my history PhD built on this, again focusing on circa 1750-1820, but this time looking at reading habits. And again there were intellectual challenge reasons. It was a period of huge change in the print trade and growth of reading venues, one of the biggest reading revolutions Scotland, and indeed Britain, has seen. Studying reading habits was more of a needle in a haystack hunt than studying urban history, with far fewer sources to work with, and more need for efficient use of those you could find. But in a way that made it even more fun.

So I suppose I am a specialist now in the 18th century, though I still have much to learn about it. And I still retain my interests in the other periods. For example I am preparing an academic journal paper based upon my Melrose 17th century court research, and still tinker with the 19th century. And, taking things even further forward, my SHARP 2014 book history conference talk looks at the TV series Doctor Who and its fanzines in the late 20th and 21st centuries – quite a challenge for me given my past record. But fun!

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I’m doing another one of my occasional posts here about things I’m working on research and writing wise. I find these useful for my own purposes to keep a note of what I’m up to, and I’ve found that declaring goals somewhere like this can be helpful for getting things done.

I’m planning on taking part in Academic Writing Month again this year, in November, but probably in a more low-key way than last year. I have a particular goal for the month, to get a revised journal paper completed and sent on to the relevant editors before the end of November. But that’s probably my main goal for then. I need to finish some relevant reading for that, as well as work on the paper directly. So I need some thinking time, before doing my final revisions.

Beyond that I want to focus on doing things I find fun. For example, inspired by my much missed late PhD supervisor, I want to return to urban history research, and am planning a variety of things I can get started with. I have a number of ideas for academic urban history things I can do from home using both trade directories I have access to in digitised form and the detailed 18th century Scottish tax records available online at Scotlandsplaces. I’ve been jotting down ideas for research possibilities in a mind map on my iPad. All would be fun to research, and could potentially lead to more academic journal papers.

Urban history research ideas mind map

I also want to carry on with my series of crossover history and roleplaying game articles, which I’m planning to compile into a book once I’ve written enough. I completed my 10th and 11th articles for this the other night, and now have the challenge of figuring out which places to write about next. I’ve generally been writing about two Scottish places for every one English place. To be honest I’m impressed I’m managing to write that much about England, ranging from Northumberland, down to Suffolk, and over to Somerset and Cornwall. I like writing these pieces, and find them enormous fun.

And I really must resume my text adventure work in progress. Though I could argue I’m doing research for it at the moment, because I’ve just started reading Rosemary Goring’s After Flodden, a novel set in the same area at about the same time as the interactive fiction game I’m writing. Hopefully it will help inspire me and give me more of a feel for the time, which I need for continuing developing the plot and interaction side of my game. Writing text adventures in Inform 7 is enormous fun – like playing them, not like conventional programming – but I find the more traditional aspects of writing harder.

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A TV series which I’ve enjoyed in recent years is Paul Murton’s Grand Tours of Scotland using an old 19th century guidebook as his guide. I bought a copy of the same guidebook, Black’s Picturesque Guide to Scotland, in my case the 1892 edition, and have been enjoying reading it. It has useful descriptions – often illustrated – of the main tourist destinations, as well as information on lesser-known attractions.

Edinburgh pages in 1892 guidebook

Although it’s hardly the main focus of the book I particularly like the series of advertisements at the back, many from Scotland, but some from other parts of the UK and Ireland too. These include adverts from hotels touting for guests. The one that really made me grin was the thought of buses transporting people from the railway station at Melrose to the George & Abbotsford Hotel. It’s only about 2 minutes walk round the corner! But I guess if you were a high-falutin guest you would not want to walk and get your shoes and clothes – especially skirts for ladies – dirty or wet.

Hotel advertisements from 1892 book

I used travel guides and similar books quite a bit during my year working as a Research Assistant looking at towns in Angus in the late 18th and early 19th century. Such books were a very useful insight into how the different towns were perceived by outsiders at this time. In a similar way I used travel guides in my postgraduate Masters degree in Cultural and Urban History, using them for an essay looking at urbanisation in the Borders, and specifically whether individual places were regarded at the time as towns (with all the appropriate trappings and facilities) or were the lesser-regarded villages.

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I’ve just been revisiting references I found to the start of street lighting in 18th century Dundee. Street lighting spread throughout Britain from the 18th century onwards, with larger towns and cities tending to acquire it sooner. In Dundee street lighting started in the winter of 1752, and the lights were powered initially by whale oil. References to the street lighting can be traced in the records of the town council treasurer. Here for example is the account from 1766-1767:

Lamps
By Cash paid for a Tun of oyle drawing off bought at the Whale Fishing Warehouse – 6 6
By do paid the men bring down the Lamps & cariing them up to the Town house – 2 –
By do paid the Three Lamp lighters for the Season 4 10 –
By do paid James Syme for a Tun of oyle 23 3 –
By do paid for Tow for Cleaning the Lamps the Season – 10 –
By do paid John Thomson for his accot of mending & Cotton wick 3 10 –
By do paid for Casks to draw off the oyle in – 15 –
======
32 16 6

Street lighting was one of a number of improvements that started in 18th century Britain, and can be used, along with other things such as paving and changes to street layout, as well as increased provision of cultural facilities such as theatres and assembly rooms, as a measure of how much a specific town had improved living conditions for its inhabitants. In England much research and useful writing on town improvement in this period, the so-called urban renaissance, has been carried out by Peter Borsay. In Scotland less has been done, especially below city level, although the pilot study into Angus burghs that I worked on for Dr Bob Harris was followed more recently by a larger study looking at small towns in this period through Scotland. This has led to a number of academic journal papers sharing the results, and may lead to a book in future too.

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The Guardian today posted a gallery of old map images, to tie in with a book newly out looking at maps charting the development of cities. There’s also a related podcast, where map experts Simon Garfield and Jerry Brotton talk about Maps from Ptolemy to Google.

I used maps a lot in my taught postgraduate MPhil degree which was studying Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850. Maps are a wonderful tool for viewing changing urban layouts, and understanding how towns worked in the past, figuring out the relationship between different areas and different functions, and also the relationship between a town and its surrounding hinterlands. Of course we relied on maps being created in the first place and still surviving today. I remember once finding a reference in the town council minutes to a map created of Montrose in Angus in the 1740s, but the map couldn’t be found now in the local archives. It may be lurking somewhere still though, as part of the unprocessed Montrose burgh collection held locally, and if it survived would be a fascinating glimpse into what the town looked like then.

There are lots of collections of old maps online. As a Scottish researcher I particularly like the National Library of Scotland’s digitised maps collection. This includes large area maps, for counties and countryside, as well as town plans, such as John Wood’s famous ones from the 1820s. Wood’s town plans capture Scottish towns in a period of considerable change, where old medieval structures and roads were often being transformed to a new urban layout. He also surveyed a number of more recently-established towns, which had quite a different physical layout from those with a medieval legacy.

I studied an Open University senior honours art history course last year, purely for fun, and for my end of course project I analysed Barbari’s groundbreaking plan of Venice circa 1500. There are various surviving prints of this map around the world. I saw one in the Museo Correr in Venice, the civic museum in the Piazza San Marco. And my jaw hit the floor when I walked into the room. This is a map on a massive scale, spread across six printed sheets, over a total area of 135 by 282 cm. The level of detail is staggering, but hard to appreciate when you’re standing at a distance from the map. Luckily there is a good digitised copy, thanks to a modern Venetian architect. I would recommend checking this out.

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