Charting a Course: From Shock Cities to Sexy Sailors (and Pilgrim Fathers)

Tom Hulme is author of After the Shock City: Urban Culture and the Making of Modern Citizenship, available now in the RHS Studies on History Series with Boydell and Brewer. In this post for the Historical Transactions blog, he considers how the threads from that project continue to weave through two very different new historical ventures.

My book, After the Shock City: Urban Culture and the Making of Modern Citizenship, is a transnational study of urban belonging from the late-19th to mid-20th century. Building on the classic concept defined by Asa Briggs, it’s an attempt to understand how cities adapted to or overcame the ‘shocking’ experience of rapid growth and how they also incorporated that experience into a positive contemporary narrative. Manchester and Chicago are used as case studies, and the chapters range broadly across a range of areas: sociology, philosophy and educational discourse; civic festivals and historical re-enactment; welfare relief and public housing. Above all, the book is an analysis of how ‘citizenship’ was fundamentally linked to the representation and lived reality of urbanity. Lots of historical work on this period has looked away to the nation to think about identities, both individual and collective. Instead, I’ve gone back to the local to argue that the idea of urban belonging – despite all its problems, fractures and inequalities – was a powerful one until at least the late 1930s.

Image 1 - Manchester Pageant
Manchester Historical Pageant, Manchester 1938, Credit: Manchester City Archives, B127.M740/2/8/2/39.

One of the most joyous and surprising things about writing the book was all the new questions it raised. I had naively thought that a monograph was an opportunity to have my final say on a topic, with only critical readers then qualified to pick up (or pull down!) the ideas it contains. I wanted to leave it all behind, to let my author’s copy gather dust while I moved onto fresh and exciting projects. After many years of struggling with ‘the first book’, never again did I want to think about ‘citizenship’, ‘modernity’ or ‘shock cities’. And, at first, I thought I’d succeeded. Even before I had handed over the final manuscript I’d started to work on other things – visiting archives, writing funding bids, attending new conferences. On the face of it, the new projects that have emerged look very different: one, an investigation of the cultural afterlife of the Mayflower voyage in British culture; another, homosexuality in the booming Belfast of the late 19th and early 20th century. Manchester and Chicago were in my rear-view mirror; ships and sexy sailors were ahead of me.

Image 2 - Mayflower
Charles Lucy, ‘The Departure of the Pilgrim Fathers’ (1847). Credit: New York Public Library (public domain)

Now I’ve had time to reflect, I’m more aware of the lineage between the things I found out and the questions I’m starting to ask. One of the themes of After the Shock City is how history was a powerful tool in the shaping of urban culture, growing in power rather than declining as Britain and the USA became more ‘modern’. A chapter on ‘historical pageantry’, an incredibly popular if now mostly forgotten phenomenon, demonstrated this in microcosm. These re-enactments involved tens of thousands of local people coming together to take part in a celebration of their city. Often this was an idealised view that ironed out the conflicts of the past to encourage stability in the present: a chance to anchor modern progress in an evocation of civic pride and continuity. My project on the Mayflower, in collaboration with Martha Vandrei and Ed Downey, begins from a similar perspective: how and why have stories from the past been remembered in the centuries that followed? In a chronologically longer and more comprehensive approach, we’re now applying some of my findings from urban culture to the poems, monuments, films and pageants that featured the Mayflower tale.

Image 3 Belfast
Alexander Hogg, ‘Donegall Square North, Belfast, 1918’. Credit: WikiCommons (public domain)

Sexuality in Ulster is a long way from the voyage of the Pilgrim Fathers (at least, as far as I know, I’d be happy to hear from anyone who knows any different). The genesis of my other growing interest, though, also came from researching and writing After the Shock City. I was fascinated by how modern urban culture gave rise to fears about immorality, changing gender norms and casual sex between men and women. More methodologically, I was also interested in how the urban environment – public, private and the more liminal spaces between – had shaped representations and performances of 9780861933495_9both belonging and non-belonging. Men who had sex with men were never a part of my research on Manchester and Chicago. But, like other historians who have studied queer culture and urban life, I now want to investigate how the specific circumstances of industrial Belfast – with its ethno-religious tensions, ‘Irish’ and ‘British’ identities, and status as regional capital – shaped the lives of men who had sex with men.

So I may no longer be working on Manchester and Chicago, nor directly on the idea of urban belonging and citizenship, but the TomHulmeexperience of finishing that work – the trials and tribulations, the paths followed and those left behind – has opened up a whole field of research in front of me.

Tom Hulme is a Lecturer in History in the School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at Queen’s University Belfast. Follow him on Twitter @TomHulme87 .