Archive for the ‘urban history’ Category

One thing I really miss with my neurological illness is being able to walk around a place and explore. I used to love wandering around St Andrews as an undergraduate, and Hawick and other Borders towns when I was even younger. When the illness started in 1994, when I was just 22, it didn’t stop me walking right away, though there were issues. Walking difficulties have increased over time, especially after my major relapse in 2004.

I now always use two sticks out and about, and can hardly walk any distance. Often I have to use my wheelchair. I have had a Blue Badge since 2001 for good reason. It does mean that when we go on overseas trips I am extremely restricted. I have to sleep most days anyway, but even on other days I need the help of taxis or similar to get any distance away from the hotel. In Venice I had a huge struggle walking to the nearest water bus stop. And when I go back to Hawick I can’t explore as I’d like to. On trips my husband becomes my roving eyes, exploring a city on foot, with digital camera in hand, on the days I have to sleep. That helps me “see” a bit more of a place. But there’s still a great sense of loss. And I know I will never recover this. My disease is progressive.

It’s particularly frustrating for me as an urban historian. So much of my academic research in the last 20 years has been on towns, and town development, especially in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Luckily even with my disability I can make progress with a lot of documentary records – including digitised ones that I can access at home – and old maps and town plans. But there’s no real substitute for exploring a town on foot on the ground.

So yes, it’s sad, but I’m still able to explore my interests intellectually and academically. And life is still rewarding. Albeit not very mobile!

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I recently read the new book by Murray Pittock about Edinburgh in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and thought I’d jot down some notes. I was keen to read it, having studied urban history in my postgraduate taught Masters degree. But I also worked as the research assistant on the Scottish small towns project started by Bob Harris at Dundee, and later involving Charles McKean. Both of whom were successively my history PhD supervisors.

The book considers what made Edinburgh at this time such an ideal breeding ground for Enlightenment ideas. To do this the book examines the nature of Edinburgh society, the myriad of networks and connections within the city, and the wider influences at play, such as European links. A series of chapters focus on specific topics and themes in detail, such as trades and professions, the arts, and the literary aspect of life in the city as seen in bookshops and libraries. Generally these sections of the book worked well, and especially those where the complex intermingling of different parts of society was clearly demonstrated. The huge number of pieces of evidence cited could be overwhelming, but is generally well handled, and used effectively. A rare weaker subsection for me was that on divisions within the Church, which seemed to be more narrative than argumentative, and not adequately tied in to wider Edinburgh society and the core arguments that the book was making. But this was a rare exception in what was, generally, a well-written series of chapters and case studies, which amply demonstrated the complex networks within Edinburgh society well.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter examining demographic and socio-cultural aspects of Edinburgh life at this time. This relied to a large extent on incomplete data, especially for the seventeenth century. Fortunately a number of key sources were well utilised, and this chapter laid essential groundwork for all those that followed. Likewise I was constantly struck by how many connections the book highlighted between Edinburgh and the Netherlands, including in trade, education and the arts. I hadn’t realised that these links were so strong at this time, and the book demonstrated this very effectively.

Happily I also greatly enjoyed the chapter about print and reading culture, with its astute presentation of the state of newspapers, bookshops and libraries in Edinburgh. This was a mix of detailed examples – for example Allan Ramsay – and more numerous pieces of evidence, such as an insightful discussion of Edinburgh bookselling as a whole. I also appreciated, given that this fell within my PhD speciality, that this chapter of the book was reassuringly well grounded on prior research and academic writings.

I do have some other critiques though. Firstly for a book incorporating modern Smart City theory so prominently, including in its title and the publisher’s marketing and advertising, I would have preferred a more straightforward explanation of what Smart City theory is, and, indeed, what constitutes a Smart City. There is some coverage of this in the opening chapter, but not to the point enough for me; a pity in a chapter otherwise very good at introducing key concepts to the reader, such as theories of and approaches to the Enlightenment and relevant wider Scottish history. I wonder if the Smart City emphasis was added later in the publication process, but given the title of the book it would have been good to see it addressed more directly at the start.

The other major omission for me is the lack of any concluding chapter. In the print culture chapter the very last paragraph does act as an overall conclusion of a sort. But it’s extremely short, and it would have been nice to allow more space for reflection and a summary of the factors that made Edinburgh at this time such a hotspot for fermenting Enlightenment ideas. A section briefly addresses this in the opening chapter, but it was a shame not to see the threads of the arguments drawn together at the end of the book. Also some of these ideas have been theorised before, for example I well remember my supervisor Charles McKean covering many similar arguments in our urban history seminars nearly twenty years ago. But it could have been usefully summarised here, along with a clear statement of the book’s new contributions to the academic debate.

Those are downsides, but in other respects I would recommend this book highly to readers, and think that it makes an extremely valuable contribution to Scottish history in this period, and urban and Enlightenment history more generally. I would also like to praise how readable it is, very much a page turner. I found it frequently highly compelling, and dripping with interesting snippets. Also I would like to praise the decision to initially publish the book as a low-cost paperback alongside a more costly hardback version. This is still relatively unusual for an academic history book, and makes the book affordable for a wider audience, as it deserves to be.

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Earlier this year I researched the history of this building, the first time I’d done that type of historical research. And I thought it might be useful to reflect on my experiences of doing it.

I did have some advantages going in. My postgraduate taught Masters degree was partly in urban history, taught by architectural historian Professor Charles McKean. So I picked up some tips. As well I had my academic historical research experience, and 35+ years as an amateur genealogist. So I was well used to researching people in the past, and the main sources that can help. But this was still a new challenge.

I was prompted to do it when I spotted that 2018 was the 200 year anniversary of the building where my husband works, now the HQ for the space technology company STAR-Dundee. They are a Dundee University spinoff company, and the building used to be university owned. Earlier its history was much less clear, though it was believed to have been a merchant’s house originally, and built for a man called James Gray.

So not too much to go on, when I wackily emailed STAR-Dundee boss Stuart in early April and offered to trace the history of the building and is inhabitants over two centuries. I wasn’t optimistic about what I’d find.

One of the first things I did was to check the architectural records held by Historic Environment Scotland. The Canmore database listing for the building mentions it was called Grange House. Well, I found that was wrong, probably from someone – quite possibly even my PhD supervisor Charles! – misreading the original architect plans, that, miraculously, the HES search room holds, as part of a volume of plans by the building’s architect David Neave. That sort of survival just doesn’t usually happen for buildings of this age. I was able to order digital copies of the original plans, and get permission from HES to reproduce them in my finished report. The plans show how the building, which went by the name Graybank for much of its history, was laid out in 1818 as a house, including the use of each room. The 1818 plans also included front and rear elevations of the house, which gave a lovely insight into what the building originally looked like – remarkably similar to now.

Alongside that I was able to quickly check records from core sources. Most were readily available online. For example the National Library of Scotland has a marvellous digitised collection of local directories, showing the occupants over time. Likewise ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk has all the 19th century census returns, digitised valuation rolls, wills and inventories, and much else besides. As a disabled academic, being able to access so much material online, conveniently and easily, was a real benefit, and speeded up the building research process enormously. For example from ScotlandsPeople.gov.uk I was able to download digital copies of the detailed lengthy wills and after-death inventories of many of the house’s owners, allowing me to transcribe them conveniently at home, and add much useful information to the finished report. This included the original owner, James Gray, whose inventory recorded the many ships he was a part owner of. We now have a confirmed vision of him watching for some of his ships from the vantage point of his new riverside house!

Perhaps most surprisingly – although maybe I shouldn’t have been too surprised – was the wealth of material found in old newspapers, searched by keyword search on the British Newspaper Archive website. These provided much rich detail about the house and its occupants. There were a number of sale or rental advertisements, describing it at different points. But there were also lots of marvellous obituaries for the various members of the family, and also mentions of family celebrations. One particular delight concerned a resident’s time before he moved into 166 Nethergate, revealing that he’d given a talk at Dundee University on the history of the solar system. A marvellous find given that the building is now the home of a space company!

We also managed to trace the family grave of the original owner in Dundee’s Howff cemetery, and my husband photographed it, to go into the report. A nearby Flowerdew family gravestone can’t be read any more, but we were able to find a record of its original inscription. Overall we were able to manage to find lots about the families who lived in the building for its first 130 years – Gray, Flowerdew, Lowson, Buist, Moodie plus some others in between – even in some cases tracing family photos and home movies from the 1930s.

The university connection was valuable from a research point of view. As a university property, a wealth of paperwork was preserved relating to the house from the late 1940s through to its sale to STAR-Dundee in 2011. This included more architectural plans, but also original surveyor reports, correspondence relating to the sale and use of the building, and even a duplicate old key lurking in the paper files! All of this information filled out the picture immensely.

In the end, in just about 10 weeks, I was able to compile a detailed report about the building and history, 48 pages long, in A4 format. We arranged for this to be printed and bound, and copies were given to STAR-Dundee, and posters about the building’s history put up for employees to look at. Copies of the printed report were deposited with Historic Environment Scotland’s archive in Edinburgh, and Dundee University Archives, so people can still access the research in 50, 100 or more years time.

Would I research a building’s history again? Yes, probably, though almost certainly with more modest expectations of what I might be able to uncover for another case. I think this first one rather spoilt me in terms of being so rich in source material, and, yes, those original plans. Enormous fun anyway.

Photo of 166 Nethergate

Photo of 166 Nethergate

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I’ve various academic history research projects on the go, and one of these, still in the early stages, is to look at 18th century Scottish shop tax records. My taught postgraduate Masters degree at Dundee was in Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850, and I also worked as a Research Assistant on a pilot study of small towns in Scotland circa 1750-1820. So to study shops and their development in this period is perfect given my background.

Fortunately for me these records have been digitised at ScotlandsPlaces.gov.uk, and so are conveniently accessible. As a disabled academic, with a severely disabling neurological illness, this access is particularly important, meaning I can work on these records at home. You used to have to go to Edinburgh to look at these records in manuscript form, which I certainly can’t do any more.

The shop tax records that survive for Scotland only cover years 1785-1789, but cover many towns across the country, large and small. The amount of detail varies. Sometimes you just get names and no details of shops. At other times you can see what the shops were. For example the image below shows part of the 1787 Haddington shop tax list, including my 6xg-grandfathers Dr Richard Somner (surgeon and apothecary, shop type not specified in the tax records) and William Veitch (watchmaker, recorded in the tax record).

Such a high degree of variation means that the shop tax records aren’t all suitable for study. Indeed a core question is how much of these records are detailed enough for adequate analysis. But more interesting, I think, is to see if we can use these records to explore how developed the shopping hierarchy was in urban Scotland by the 1780s, including how shops varied between different towns. This ties into the work of my PhD supervisors Professors Bob Harris and Charles McKean, whose Saltire prize winning book on Scottish towns addresses this to an extent, and especially so re the provision of luxury goods.

At the moment I’m still in the early stages of this research project, currently part way through looking through the records systematically, to see which towns have detailed shop tax records at specific dates.

Then I want to consider which types of towns can be analysed, e.g. large cities like Edinburgh or Glasgow, versus manufacturing centres like Paisley, Hawick etc., or elite centres like Dumfries or Montrose. Towns in Scotland fell into many types, and it’s important to consider what type each town was when analysing its records.

Thinking along these lines will give me a target list of towns, whose shop tax records I can then transcribe and start to analyse. I will need to formalise my list of research questions more fully, but such questions ought to come partly out of the records themselves, and partly out of the academic literature.

Anyway it should be fun! I would aim to publish the results, but also aim to report back here on progress and findings, as well as any final results.

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Mainly as a prompt for myself, to encourage me to get it all done, I thought I’d blog about some writing projects I want to finish off in the next year.

First up is a rewrite of a conference talk, which I want to submit in print to a new academic journal. It’s almost finished. I just need to tidy up the last few bits. And some sections are time, or more pertinently date, critical. So I need to get on with it. That should be done soon.

Secondly I have a brand new journal paper combining urban history and book history, the topics of my PG Masters and PhD. It needs more work, but I’m really pleased with it as it stands. I think it’s one of the strongest pieces I’ve written, and it’s a topic that probably only I could do, given my combined background. The trickiest bits are sorting out illustrations for two case studies. For the first, a town, I can probably work from a published town plan, if I can pick a suitable one, and get permission to use it. The other case study, a regional case study, is possibly going to need a new map. I’m not good at drawing maps! So I’m still pondering what to do re that. It definitely needs some kind of cartographic illustration, to explain unfamiliar geography to the reader. But if I can crack the mapping issues I ought to be able to submit this journal paper in the first quarter of 2018.

Slightly more straightforward is developing an already accepted manuscript publishing proposal for the Scottish History Society. This concerns a poem from the 17th century, which I have transcribed, and will be published in annotated form. The key work to do is to add numerous annotations and expand the introductory essay. Annotations will be added for people’s names, places, events, anything else needing explaining. This should be largely straightforward, but will be somewhat time consuming, and may hit tricky patches. The introductory essay needs more on the possible provenance of the poem and its mystery writer. I may need to consult an academic specialist on poetry of this period for that. I expect that I can finish this by summer 2018, but have a much longer deadline option available if need be.

I also have a short journal paper in progress, concerning a 16th century poet ancestor of mine, a royal courtier, whose family history as published eg in DNB is very wrong. I thought I might write a note putting on record a corrected version, based on my research. This is in progress, in Scrivener on my iPad, but isn’t urgent to finish. It can wait until all the more important and heftier items are out of the way. So while it might be nice to submit it in 2018, in practice it may be done later. Not least because of how ill I am, with a severely disabling MS-like illness.

I have other academic writing projects in the air, but for most I need to do more research in primary source materials, i.e. documents, first.

As well as the academic writing projects I have two fun recreational things that I hope to submit in 2018. I am writing a number of interactive fiction (IF) or text adventure games in Inform 7. And I may be ready to submit two of them to IF competitions in 2018. One of my games, a 15th century set game about the Border Reivers, is about 80% finished at the moment. I need to add further refinements, and improve interactivity, and it still needs thoroughly playtesting. But that could easily be completed well in advance of the 2018 IFComp, the main annual competition for interactive fiction games that takes place each autumn. The other historical game I’m writing, about mathematician John Napier and a treasure hunt he was employed on for my ancestor Sir Robert Logan of Restalrig, around 1590 or so, is much earlier in development. But I expect I should be able to get an opening portion ready to submit for IntroComp, for the opening sections of games, if that competition runs again in 2018, most likely in the summer.

So those are my writing goals. Submit two journal papers, complete another already accepted publishing piece, and submit two interactive fiction games to competitions in 2018, all going well. Let’s see what happens!

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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:

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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