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Urban History: A personal retrospect

by David A Reeder

The opportunity to form so many strong collegial relationships has been the most rewarding aspect of my life in urban history. This is why the forthcoming festschrift1 means so much to me. It also provides an excuse for providing this summary retrospect of the highs and lows of an urban history progress that can be said to have begun as long ago as 1958 when H J (Jim) Dyos, then a lecturer in the Department of Economic History at Leicester, accepted me as a part time research student.  [Photo: David Reedeer]

The most precious memories I have of the following six years are of long tutorials held at Jim’s house brought to an end frequently by his wife ringing a bell for supper. A charismatic figure, always bubbling with ideas about how to promote studies of the city, Jim Dyos kept me involved during a period when I was simultaneously pursuing a career that by 1965 had taken me from school teaching in Leicester to a departmental headship in a London college of education. 

Thus I was able to share the sense of adventure associated with the pioneering years from being at the meetings that led to the founding of the Urban History Group, and giving papers to the Dyos research seminar and at early conferences. I also gained much from a year at Leicester as research fellow in the Department of Economic History, 1966-7, not least the opportunity to observe at first hand the Dyos networking skills in action carried out with the unstinting help of a departmental secretary. On returning to the University in 1973 as a lecturer the urban history bandwagon was rolling strongly and Jim recruited me to his steering committee and to the editorial board of the newly established Yearbook. Editorial meetings, lubricated with sherry, took the form of think-tanks on the future of urban history, although the subsequent editorials never seemed to bear much relationship to the discussions. 

But my Leicester appointment had been to the School of Education, so urban history remained still a kind of avocation, as it had been since the beginning. It was not until 1979, a year after Jim’s untimely death, that my involvement - which included some University teaching and the editorship of the Yearbook - was legitimized with a post in urban studies in the Victorian Studies Centre, although I still had to maintain educational duties and additional responsibilities as a university academic officer. At one point I inhabited three rooms in the university, one of which housed the Dyos files until they were properly archived. 

The eighties were a transitional period for the Urban History Group during which key supporters moved on and I endeavored to keep some momentum going as conference organizer and Yearbook editor until new initiatives by Bob Morris, Richard Rodger and others helped to rekindle more enthusiasm. One important development was the creation of the Pre-Modern Towns Group in late 1978, which helped provide a new focus for a remarkable burgeoning of studies in earlier periods than the nineteenth century and in the smaller towns. However the initial link of the pre modernists with the Urban History Group was broken during the 1980s and the older Group attempted to go it alone in holding conferences as and when individual colleagues sponsored them rather than on a regular annual basis in association with the Economic History Society, as had previously been the case and was to become so again from the mid 1990s. I supported that separation at the time on the grounds that any renewal in the leadership of the Group had to be more broadly based than in the Dyos era as I think probably it now is. Moreover, some excellent conferences were organized. Indeed, the pessimism sometimes expressed in this period about the future of urban history turned out to be misplaced. True, urban history as a field seemed to be somewhat embattled methodologically for a time, nevertheless research on cities kept being pushed forward vigorously to produce a spate of outstanding publications, many of them thematic in character and especially concerning urban society. 

However, the immediate post Dyos period to the mid eighties was undoubtedly difficult for me personally, In 1987 frustration with the demise of academic studies in the School of Education, combined with health problems, drove me to early retirement, albeit on the understanding that I could have a part time appointment in the recently founded Centre for Urban History. I have never regretted a decision that gave me the freedom to enter on a new phase in my career at the age of fifty-six as Peter Clark’s deputy, and to establish an enduring friendship with him as with Richard Rodger who took over the Yearbook and transformed it so very successfully into Urban History

Given this somewhat ad hoc career it is not surprising perhaps that my research interests were deflected this way and that. The first phase - my higher degree research on urban land tenure and building finance - was in keeping with the emphasis on city making, especially the big city, characteristic of the pioneering years. However in the mid sixties I determined on making a study of the social and community structures of suburbia, a topic that reflected the more general trend of turning from shapes on the ground to studying shapes in society. My fellowship year was spent entering data from the census enumerator’s returns (1851, 1861) on to punch cards following the methodology that Armstrong and Dyos had pioneered. Since there were no computer facilities for social science research on site, cards had to be transported to a computer laboratory at Cambridge. Years later examples were displayed at a conference as an example of the inflexibility of the old methods: they had become museum pieces! Unfortunately career demands precluded a sustained period of writing, although I managed several essays, most famously the joint essay on slums and suburbs written during a summer vacation. I can recall Jim Dyos visiting me in Surrey to discuss how it should go and then subsequently polishing my first draft with the kind of metaphorical elaboration that students have found so difficult to précis ever since. 

The move back to Leicester brought new relationships, not least with Brian Simon, whose educational work I much admired, and opened up a new research agenda in history of education, in which respect I linked up with a group seeking to introduce broader perspectives, which in my case meant urban perspectives, the marker for that laid down in a conference I organized in 1979. My own paper focused on the discourse of educational reformers with regard to city children, which, I like to think, anticipated the more sophisticated analysis of movements and texts figuring in a recent conference publication on education and urbanization. But I still kept up my London connections in this period, giving occasional lectures at the Architectural Association, chairing conferences of local historians, and working with the London Topographical Society on a reproduction of the Booth poverty survey. In addition, the Dyos legacy carried over into collaborative publishing ventures, one with David Cannadine, the other a rather quixotic endeavour of bringing David Owen’s posthumous manuscript on the Metropolitan Board of Works into publication. This last project gave me an opportunity to renew acquaintance with the American architectural historian, Donald Olsen, another inspirational figure, whom I had first met in the Greater London record office in the 1960s, as also Francis Sheppard, editor of the London Survey - and to enjoy a celebratory reception at County Hall still the headquarters of the GLC. 

I was based in the Centre from 1988 until my second retirement in 1993 and then on a non-stipendiary basis to a third retirement in 1999, although I am proud to be associated still as a Fellow. This phase brought an even greater variety of interests – mostly generated by the indefatigable Peter Clark - in what seems now a whirlwind of teaching, meetings, workshops, research, writing- and receptions! I particularly enjoyed teaching courses on the Victorian city, especially in the three MA courses to which I contributed, but the most memorable experiences were provided by Rob Colls’ Humanities students at Vaughan College and Ruskin College – the last an Easter course to which I would arrive already elated after having just attended the urban history conference.
These were my best years, more deeply involved in urban history than ever before, teaching and supervising students, assisting Peter Clark to set up two new series, contributing to city biographies, and research projects on public health and education. The high points of these years included working with another good friend, Herman Diederiks, in helping to set up and organize an international conference in Amsterdam. Then there was the stimulating experience of collaborating with Richard Rodger and Martin Daunton on the Cambridge Urban History chapter, and the excitement of making academic visits and reading papers in European cities: Leyden, Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, and latterly Helsinki – where I am contributing still, along with Patricia Garside, to a project on the green city led by Peter Clark. I value these European contacts and regard the formation of the European Association as the major step forward for urban history in recent years. The international conferences have undoubtedly enhanced my enjoyment of academic life: what could be better than convivial talk, glass in hand, with colleagues and students from different countries, all sharing in varying degrees this love of historical research on cities and urban themes that Jim Dyos had fired in me more than forty years ago. 

1Robert Colls and Richard Rodger (eds) Cities of Ideas: Civil Society and Urban Governance in Britain 1800-2000. Essays in honour of David Reeder Ashgate Press, forthcoming April 2004.

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