Dr Tom Hulme, early career lecturer in urban history at the School of Advanced Study’s Institute of Historical Research (IHR), explains how ‘shock cities’ and those that used to be shocking (such as Manchester and Chicago in the first half of the 20th century), shape urban intervention and ideas of citizenship.

TomHulmeOver the last few years, first as a PhD student at the University of Leicester and then as a postdoctoral research associate at King’s College London, the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) has been a vital part of my academic training. And it has served as induction into an international network of historians, so it’s a privilege to now be based here, devising training and networks of my own with the other institute members.

My work focuses on modern cities, from the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th. I am interested in how ‘shock cities’ and, more particularly, cities that used to be shocking, shape urban intervention and ideas of citizenship. Most of my writing has been on Manchester and Chicago in the first half of the 20th century.

Each city was a cause célèbre at a certain time – the ‘Cottonopolis’ of the British Empire, a frightening expression of new forms of social and economic organisation (or disorganisation) during the Industrial Revolution; and the hulking ‘City of the Big Shoulders’, meat-packing centre of urbanising America, and home to a bubbling melting-pot of ethnic tensions at the turn of the 20th century.


Alexander Hesler, lithograph of Chicago (1898)

But what happened when the muck-raking journalists and writers had shifted their attention elsewhere, and ‘shock cities’ simply ceased to be shocking? This question forms the basis for my first monograph, which is under contract with the Royal Historical Society Studies in History series (Boydell and Brewer). Manchester and Chicago, in building a distinctive identity and culture ‘after the shock’, continued to draw on older ideas of the city, taking the positives and reforming the negatives.

Action and intervention in a wide range of areas – such as housing, civic education, and public festivals – were shaped by an urban narrative of the overcome ‘shock city’. Analysing this link between representations and understandings of the past in contemporary culture and policy is an important and useful method to understand the continuing vogue for ‘lessons from the past’. The recent 800th celebration of the Magna Carta being just one example.

Going down this path has also led me into other areas of urban comparative research. At King’s College London, for the Redress of the past: historical pageants in Britain, 19052016, I turned these questions to the large urban spectacular pageants of the 1920s and 1930s. Wily urban boosters and politicians used more positive understandings of their city’s history to promote consumerism and civic pride in the present. At IHR I am keen to further this line of inquiry by looking at civic culture and ritual in London boroughs over the course of the London County Council, as well as several other potential projects – so watch this space…

If you are interested in these topics, you can follow me on Twitter or read some of my blogs and articles online.

Dr Tom Hulme is an early career lecturer in urban history at the School of Advanced Study’s Institute of Historical Research, and is based at the Centre for Metropolitan History. Before taking up this post he was a Research Associate at King’s College London on the project ‘the Redress of the Past: Historical Pageants in Britain, 1905-2015’. He received his PhD from the University of Leicester in 2013.

The next interview in this researcher series will be published on 19 January 2016, and focuses on Dr Claire Launchbury’s work at the Institute of Modern Languages Research and the Centre for Metropolitan History at the Institute of Historical Research.

Feature image: William Wyld, Manchester from Kersal Moor (1852), a smoky city with towering factory chimneys.