Teaching the Victorian City

by Matthew McCormack, University of Northampton

How do you teach urban history? Moreover, how do you inject life into the midterm slump of a 25-week, second-year survey module? These were questions that I sought to address three years ago as I prepared to teach HIS2006 ‘Victorian Britain’ at Northampton University.

I had taught the module since 2004 and – as every ‘action researcher’ should – had altered it slightly every year in the light of my experience of teaching it. I had always included the obligatory week on ‘The Victorian City’. Here I covered the standard narrative of urbanisation and the sanitary ideal, but also tried to introduce the theme of governmentality: how planners used the bricks and mortar of the city to mould the conduct of its dwellers, and to turn them into responsible citizens. Although the ideas here were quite challenging, students usually engaged well with them and saw analogies with contemporary issues such as CCTV and urban regeneration. It was also one of the module’s topics that I really enjoyed teaching.

So I decided to expand this section of the module from one week to four. The lecture remained, but served as an introduction to a range of activities that would culminate in a field trip. In the second week we watched Tristram Hunt’s 2005 documentary ‘The British Middle Classes’, which isn’t about class as such, rather about the architectural ethos of Victorian civic elites. Given the documentary’s polemical tone, and distinctly New Labour politics, it generated a good discussion afterwards. In the third week, my colleague Jon Stobart gave a lecture on urban retailing, and in particular the growth of the department store, of which the building that is now Debenhams in Northampton is a notable example.

For the final week, I considered a field trip to a ‘classic’ Victorian city like Manchester. But the practicalities of transporting 60 students (who might not be willing to pay for it) forced me to look closer to home. Northampton predated the nineteenth century as a regional centre: it suffered the second most famous Great Fire of the late seventeenth century, so it was rebuilt as a model town and many of the key buildings in its centre are Georgian. The town expanded significantly as the centre of the shoe and leather trades, so the ring of housing and industry around the centre is Victorian. One such district is The Mounts, just north of the centre: this is the focus of a field trip in the first year, where we explore how shoe production took place in relatively small factories, and how living and working spaces – and the middle and working classes – were cheek-by-jowl in Victorian Northampton. This offers an interesting contrast with zoning in a ‘typical’ industrial city.

The centre of Northampton does, however, boast many notable Victorian buildings. Northampton’s civic elite were not quite as zealous as those of a Leeds or Halifax, but in the Guildhall (Image One) they made a statement about their town and its role in the nation’s history. (Hunt’s documentary asserts that it is an underrated gem of Victorian gothic.) In a previous seminar, we looked at the contemporary debates about what sort of building it should be, including whether it should be of a classical or gothic design, and also analysed the symbolism of its murals and carvings.

Image One: The Guildhall

Northampton Guildhall offer guided tours of the building, so this became the centrepiece of ‘urban history day’. The tour was an eye-opener for students, who got an insight into its design and function that they would not otherwise have had in the classroom. The council chamber, for example, is probably more imposing and ornate than the House of Commons: it reinforced the decidedly unsexy point in my lecture that local democracy mattered to the Victorians, and was where decisions that affected the lives of ordinary people were made.

For practical reasons, I split the group in two, and while one group was being shown around the Guildhall I took the others on a walking tour of the centre. In the previous week I had asked the students to get into small groups, and each group was assigned a ‘type’ of building to research: churches, banks, pubs, theatres and commercial premises. I then selected examples of these buildings for the tour, on which they would give short presentations as we gathered on the street outside. Being in situ enabled us to discuss stylistic features and to discuss the effect that the building was supposed to have on those who beheld and used them. Why did they choose a neoclassical design for College Street Baptist Church and Northamptonshire Union Bank (now NatWest)? Why was the Royal Theatre plain on the outside but lavish within?

Walking between these sights enabled us to take in other hidden gems, such as the quirky office of Weights and Measures on St Giles (Image Two). Students learned that, in modern shopping streets, you have look above the ground floor to get a sense of the building’s original design and function. Subway, for example, was the ‘Wrenaissance’ Malcolm Inglis building, replete with civic emblems and symbols of the leather trade. Less attractively, Northampton centre is notable for retaining its alleyways known as ‘Jetties’. The darkness, smell and sense of threat in these narrow thoroughfares gives a sense of what Victorian urban reformers were trying to do away with: it underlined the point about governmentality from the seminar (Image Three). Finally, and fittingly, the two groups reunited for a drink in a pub, which was formerly a Victorian working men’s club.

Image Two: Weight and Measures

Image Three: Swans Yard, an example of a narrow thoroughfare

Such an exercise would be replicable in many university towns and cities: clearly historians in Glasgow, Belfast, Lancashire or Yorkshire are spoilt for choice in this respect, but there is plenty of Victoriana elsewhere. Many town halls offer tours: I have been on several of them.

What was to be gained from it? The study of urban history is fundamentally about physical environments, so there is much to be gained from dealing with the subject matter experientially, in a (literally) concrete way. Issues that students might struggle with in a lecture or seminar can come to life; complex theories can be put into practice. The research element offers a more active learning experience than the usual ‘reading’ or ‘homework’. Importantly, the students enjoy it: it evaluates well at the end of term and I get the impression that it helps them to bond as a group. It certainly makes the spring term more enjoyable, and helps to keep up the momentum at a point in the year when the exam seems a long time away.

Matthew McCormack is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Northampton, where he teaches eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British history. He is a fellow of the Higher Education Academy and tweets about history, education and various other things at http://twitter.com/historymatt. His first book, The Independent Man: Citizenship and Gender Politics in Georgian England (Manchester UP) has recently been republished in paperback.

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