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Posts Tagged ‘urban history’

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 159 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, 49 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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I’ve taken part in Academic Writing Month for the past two years. Some academics use this as a period of very concentrated intensive writing, writing for many hours each day they can manage it. That isn’t an option for me with my neurological disease, which wipes me out for most of the time, and means any writing has to be fitted in occasionally, in short concentrated bursts. So instead I use it to prioritise finishing off some outstanding projects, getting them done and dusted, and out of the house. It’s also a good ritual to go through to build up good writing practices, fitting in writing in limited time around other things.

Academic Writing Month starts on 1st November. For a good description see here.

Because it’s coming up soon I’m going to declare my AcWriMo goals in this blog. I will then blog about my progress during November, including a reflective blog at the end of the month looking back on how things went.

My three goals for AcWriMo 2014 are:

  • Get a journal paper in progress – a cross of book history and urban history – ready for a colleague to read, and thus that bit nearer final submission. At the moment it still has a few too many sections still to fill in, including some relevant historiography.
  • Produce a revised version of an accepted prizewinning journal paper, based on the editor’s suggestions. This will get it nearer to being published. I will have it ready to email to the editor by November 30th.
  • Produce first rough draft of a journal paper based on my SHARP Antwerp conference talk about Doctor Who and its fanzines. This will involve converting my spoken talk (largely improvised on the day, with slides supporting) into written text, and seeing how long that is in terms of words, and which areas might need further development post November.

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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 recently bought Eleanor M. Harris‘s historical map of old Edinburgh, and have now had a good chance to look through it. I developed a strong interest in urban history, and Scottish urban history in particular, thanks to my PhD supervisor Professor Charles McKean, and also the taught PG Masters course I did beforehand in Cultural and Urban Histories 1650-1850. Plus being born in Edinburgh I was always going to be interested in this map!

Layers of Edinburgh folded map

Eleanor did all the artwork and wrote the text, including the calligraphy work, herself. It’s impressive how much she has squeezed in. The map unfolds to open with a so-called “short history” of the city, but it’s full of detail, from the earliest dates through to the 21st century, and gives a good potted account of developments over time.

Layers of Edinburgh short history

But the bulk of the content is on the map proper, on the other side, accompanied with notes about specific places and people. The emphasis is very much on the Old Town, so there isn’t for example any content on the map from Princes Street and further north, the area developed so much in the 18th century. What is there though is generally well presented, with colour coding to show different dates of development, as well as numbers which can lead to further information in the notes section on the back of the map.

Detail of Layers of Edinburgh map

If I have one criticism, it’s a small one, but much of the text on the map is written at all different angles, which can mean you need to turn it around a lot to read the contents. But that’s sort of necessary, given how much information has been squeezed in. And I don’t think it would be a problem using the map in the field so to speak.

For anyone with an interest in Edinburgh’s history, or urban history in general, I strongly recommend that you get hold of this map. If you can use it on the ground, and explore the streets with it to guide you, all the better. Copies of the map are available from Eleanor’s Etsy shop.

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It’s the last day of the month now, and my Academic Writing Month of 2013 is drawing to a close. I thought I’d reflect here on how it’s gone, and lessons I’m taking from it for the future.

This year I had fairly modest goals. Last year I had more goals, but this year I had two main ones: finish revising an academic journal paper that’s been lingering since the summer, and write and submit a conference paper proposal (CFP deadline 30th November 2013) for a book history conference next year. Although they were just two goals, they were big ones. The journal paper was about 10,000 words long, and needed quite significant revisions before resubmission, and that couldn’t be done in a hurry. Equally the conference paper proposal was slightly outside my comfort zone, so I needed to familiarise myself with existing research and writings, before selling my pitch.

I’m pleased to say that both goals were achieved. The conference paper proposal was submitted mid month, and the revised journal paper resubmitted towards the end of the month. I started tackling both of them as the month started, and nibbled away at them, working steadily, as and when I could, until both were finished. So that was really good, and a big result of AcWriMo for me.

Another goal that I added part way through the month was related to my Melrose one-place study, and this was to put a person index, about 9000 persons (names, occupations, addresses, any relatives recorded) who were involved with the Melrose regality (local) court between 1657 and 1676. Although this was primarily a genealogical index it arose from my MPhil dissertation research a decade ago. Again I’m pleased to say this was done, and I blogged about it here.

More minor goals included judging the IF Comp games this year (done, at least 10 of them played, judged and rated), and to move my own text adventure writing project onwards (done: lots of player interaction added and coded up). I also wanted to move on my urban history research, and immediately after I resubmitted my journal paper I started planning a new one, that develops considerably on just a couple of sentences in my PhD thesis, combining book history and urban history in rather a nice mixture. It’s early days, but I will be able to take this forward in the coming month or two.

One thing I didn’t manage was to write any more of my roleplaying / history crossover articles which I am building into a book. But that’s ok, this month was primarily for academic writing projects, and I can tackle that next month. In December I will also be doing another piece of less formal writing: analysing and reviewing the Sapphire & Steel annual for my third article for an upcoming fanzine about the series. Fun.

So overall it’s been a very successful month for me. Although I set myself slightly more modest goals than last year, at least in terms of number and quantity, they were individually ambitious and time consuming, and it’s a big achievement to have managed all the big ones. This helped me finish one project that had been hanging around for too long, finish another that was urgently time critical, and set myself up for the next research project and journal paper I’m working on. And starting working on the AcWriMo projects from the beginning of the month, and blogging my progress week by week, got things done. I never spent a huge amount of time in the week on any one project, but kept working steadily at it, and that way progress was made, and things finished.

All going well I definitely intend to take part in AcWriMo 2014. Looking forward to it. In the meantime I hope to continue the momentum I have built from this year.

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