City or Nation? Combining Urban History Approaches with a Four Nations Perspective

City or Nation? Combining Urban History Approaches with a Four Nations Perspective

This week, PhD student Joe Curran (University of Edinburgh) examines 19th century urban history through a four nations prospective to enrich our understanding of national issues.

a town is always a town, wherever it is located, in time as well as in space…..over and above their distinctive and original features, they all necessarily speak the same basic language[i]

Studies of towns and cities often emphasise both the uniqueness of particular urban centres and the common ‘urban’ features that, by definition, all towns share. Given this concern with the local and the global, is there space for the nation in urban analyses? This post argues that combining a Four Nations perspective with an urban focus can enhance our understanding of both urban and national issues in the nineteenth-century United Kingdom. Combining these approaches does not require that towns be microcosms of the nations in which they were located. There was significant variation among towns within each of the nations, but, as demonstrated by previous posts, a nuanced Four Nations approach can incorporate local and regional diversity in a way that enhances our understanding of the complexity of the British Isles.

The local context remained extremely important for nineteenth-century towns. Many of their activities were governed by local acts of parliament. Yet the influence of national-level decisions should not be underestimated.[ii]With the exception of Wales, several key urban issues were dealt with by nationally-specific laws. There were separate municipal reform acts for Scotland (1833), England and Wales (1835), and Ireland (1840) which differed considerably from each other. For example the Irish borough franchise was more restrictive than those in England and Wales or in Scotland.[iii] Similarly, nationally-specific Poor Laws strongly affected the management of urban as well as rural poverty. A Four Nations approach might also be applied to voluntary activity in urban centres. Nineteenth-century charities usually raised money locally but they often had national-level aims or were linked with national ‘parent’ associations. Dublin and Edinburgh were home to missionary and educational societies that had local branches throughout Ireland or Scotland.[iv]Indeed an approach that recognises both the national focus of such organisations and the local and wider UK contexts in which they operated is particularly useful for understanding their activities. Missionary associations in Scottish towns, for example, raised funds for nationally-focused ‘Scottish’ societies based in Edinburgh and some of these in turn donated funds to UK-level organisations based in London.

Similarly an urban focus can enhance our understanding of different national issues in each of the Four Nations. Historians have argued that activities such as newspaper publishing, or socialising in voluntary associations played a key role in the development of national affiliations.[v]Such activities were disproportionately urban, suggesting that comparing towns from each of the Four Nations may produce detailed insights into the mechanisms through which different national identities developed. Graeme Morton argued that mid-nineteenth-century Edinburgh’s vibrant civil society helped to promote a ‘Unionist-Nationalist’ identity there. Scottish people supported the Union because it provided significant autonomy for local urban communities.[vi]Comparison with Irish towns, which enjoyed a lower level of autonomy might prove useful for understanding differences between Irish and Scottish nationalism. Similarly urbanisation followed a different course in each of the nations. Wales for example had only six towns with a population of 8000 or more by 1841, in the same year Scotland had six towns with more than 35000 inhabitants.[vii] Such contrasting histories of urbanisation might explain differences in how national identity was perceived and articulated. For some Irish nationalists, for example, towns and cities were alien impositions and the ‘real’ Ireland was that which was Gaelic and rural.[viii]

W. Hamish Fraser argued that Morton’s choice of Edinburgh, a city in which Scottish national affiliation was particularly important, strongly shaped his conclusions about ‘Unionist Nationalism’ and that if he had extended his focus to other towns he might have uncovered different kinds of identity.[ix]This reminds us of the importance of recognising intra-national diversity but such diversity does not mean that national identities were unimportant outside of capital cities, rather it suggests that such identities were experienced in different ways in other towns.[x]Indeed exploring national identities in a variety of urban centres in each of the Four Nations would be a good way of emphasising the complexity of the issue of national identity in the nineteenth-century UK. Nineteenth-century British and Irish towns were complex entities that could be intensely local or linked with wider UK or international networks, yet their social and economic complexity means that their relationship with Irish, English, Welsh or Scottish affiliations is worth exploring in more detail.

[i]Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism 15th-18th Century: The Structures of Everyday Life (California, 1992, First French Edition, 1979), p. 481.

[ii]Joanna Innes, ‘Legislating for Three Kingdoms: How the Westminster Parliament Legislated for England, Scotland and Ireland, 1707-1830’, in Parliaments, Nations and Identities in Britain and Ireland 1660-1850, ed. Julian Hoppit (Manchester and New York, 2003), pp. 20-24.

[iii]Matthew Potter, The Municipal Revolution in Ireland, A Handbook of Urban Government in Ireland since 1800 (Dublin and Portland, Oregon, 2011), pp. 85-88.

[iv]See the lists of charities recorded in Thom’s Irish Almanac and Official Directory for the Year 1845 (Dublin, 1845) and Oliver and Boyd’s Edinburgh Almanac and National Repository…for 1845 (Edinburgh, 1845).

[v]Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London and New York, 2006, First Edition, 1983), pp. 33-36, pp. 43-46, R.J. Morris, ‘Introduction Civil Society, Associations and Urban Places: Class, Nation and Culture in Nineteenth-Century Europe’, in Civil Society, Associations and Urban Places: Class, Nation and Culture in Nineteenth-Century Europe Graeme Morton et al. eds (Aldershot, Hampshire, and Burlington, Vermont, 2006), pp. 9-14.

[vi]Graeme Morton, Unionist Nationalism, Governing Urban Scotland 1830-1860 (East Linton, East Lothian, 1999), pp. 190-197.

[vii]Louise Miskell, ‘The Making of a New ‘Welsh Metropolis’: Science, Leisure and Industry in Early Nineteenth-Century Swansea’, History, 88 No.289, (2003), p. 32.

[viii]Ciarán Wallace, ‘Fighting for Unionist Home Rule Competing Identities in Dublin 1880-1929,’ The Journal of Urban History, 38 No.5, (2012), pp. 932-933, p. 946, Mervyn Horgan, ‘Anti-Urbanism as a Way of Life: Disdain for Dublin in the Nationalist Imaginary’, The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 30 No.2 (2004), pp. 38-42.

[ix]W. Hamish Fraser, ‘Review: Unionist Nationalism: Governing Urban Scotland, 1830-1860 by Graeme Morton’, Scottish Historical Review, 80 No.209, (2001), p. 148.

[x]See for example Helen M. Rapport, ‘Edinburgh and Glasgow: Civic Identity and Rivalry, c.1752-1842’, Unpublished PhD Thesis (University of Stirling, 2012), pp. 276- 282.

Joseph Curran is in his second year of a Ph.D. in Economic and Social History at the University of Edinburgh. His Ph.D. examines philanthropy and associational culture in Dublin and Edinburgh between 1815 and 1845. His research is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the Jenny Balston Scholarship.


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