Some thoughts on ‘four nations history’ and the history of sexuality

Some thoughts on ‘four nations history’ and the history of sexuality

This week, PhD Student Simon Jenkins considers the implications of a ‘four nations’ approach for our understanding of the history of sexuality. 

In an  earlier piece on this blog, Daryl Leeworthy pointed towards the drawbacks of Anglo-centric approaches and historians’ frequent conflation of ‘Britain’ with ‘England’ in the field of labour history. Similar setbacks exist in the area of sexuality. Notwithstanding classic studies like Judith Walkowitz’s seminal work on towns affected by the Contagious Diseases Acts or Linda Mahood’s work on Scotland, for more recent and influential studies on British sexualities, particularly on the twentieth century, ‘England’ (and indeed, England viewed from the perspective of London) has provided a far more common framework. Likewise, as Leeworthy also pointed out, when ‘Britain’ is cited as the subject, England often provides much of the focus, marginalizing those areas or regions often considered to be on the periphery. How useful is it for historians to explicitly categorize their research within one of Britain’s constituent parts, or, in terms of the conflating of ‘Britain’ with ‘England’, to think of ‘Britishness’ as something that mainly applies to England?

My research on prostitution in interwar Cardiff, for instance, would not benefit from an explicitly ‘Welsh’ frame even though Cardiff was, and is, the largest settlement in Wales. Firstly, observers on the multicultural dockland of Butetown seldom framed their assessments in terms of ‘Welshness’ but instead talked about ‘Britishness’ or ‘Englishness’ when linking national identity to sexual activity. For Cardiff’s Chief Constable, James A. Wilson, café-brothels along Butetown’s main thoroughfare had grown through their Maltese owners’ ‘low moral character’, a lack of ‘any sense of decency’, and that ‘They do not appreciate the British point of view with regard to prostitution.’ For the Chief Constable, changes in the spaces of prostitution amongst wider racial anxieties were framed and represented within notions of ‘Britishness’, and the space of the Maltese café-brothel was also argued to have been home to perceived ‘un-British’ sexual practices like voyeurism and polyandry, as well as interracial sex.

For external observers, like a 1930s English social investigator, an arbiter of national identity was equally used in describing sexual liaisons that purportedly occurred in the Butetown café. In this case, an idea of the ‘Englishman’ was used in presenting ideas of the sexual behaviours of ‘non-white’ men involved in sexual relationships with ‘white’ women. While the use of the ‘Englishman’ may be dismissed as ignorance of the Welsh context, local observers like the police and the press also did not discuss ‘Welshness’ when linking national identity to sexual practice. As such, perceived sexual ‘problems’ in the Butetown were not seen as ‘Welsh’ problems, but ‘British’ or ‘English’ ones.

This persistent referencing of ‘Britishness’ signified notions of middle-class ‘virtues’ and ‘moral standards’, but was also influenced by space and place. Notions of Cardiff as port city playing a significant role in the British Empire were frequently emphasized in local debates when discussing Butetown’s socio-sexual ‘problems’. These were seen to be symbolic social consequences of being a ‘world port’, with commentators drawing comparisons and contrasts with major English ports like Liverpool, and not with other ports in Wales.

While the framing of Welsh national identities was complex – drawing on rural and urban values, notions of the gwerin or common people, language, religion, politics, and patterns of work – Cardiff often held an ambiguous position, with its civic identity being set apart from its industrial hinterlands and the spaces of rural Wales, which became an important feature of Welsh nationalist discourse in the interwar years. Given the spatial complexities of Welsh identities in my period of study and the ways in which debates on Cardiff’s prostitution sought to situate sexual identities in a wider British-imperial context, thinking about these debates in an exclusively ‘Welsh’ context would not be beneficial.

Returning the issue of Anglo- and London-centricity that began this post, I am left feeling that there are substantial gaps in our understandings of modern British sexualities, which a renewed ‘four nations’ approach may help to fill. At a time when there is increasing separation between the UK’s constituent parts – both politically and in popular discourse – it is vital that historians adopt a critical framework that seeks to look beyond Britain’s internal or administrative boundaries. Ideas of ‘nation’ and ‘region’ are fluid – both temporally and spatially – which problematizes approaching British history along strictly ‘national’ lines. Like Daryl Leeworthy, I believe that a ‘four nations’ approach should be reawakened to ensure that historians’ work does not become emblematic of contemporary ruptures in British politics and national identities, and to achieve a greater and more nuanced understanding of the complexities of constructions of identities, like sexualities, in Britain’s past.

Simon Jenkins is a PhD candidate in History at Cardiff University. His thesis examines prostitution in Cardiff from 1885-1960, and he is particularly interested in the relationship between space/place and prostitution, and the ways in which ideas of commercial sex were connected to ‘race’ and national identities.’ You can find out more about his research on his Academia.edu page and on his Cardiff University page.

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