✍ Victorian Cities [1963]

por Teoría de la historia

1975 Victorian Cities - Asa Briggs‘There have been three main types of city historians -the antiquarians, the boosters and the academics’ (p. 47). Professor Briggs sets out to study not only the Victorians but the city; that is to say he is not writing only ‘the portrait of an age’, he is also seeking to make a contribution as historian to the worldwide, inter-disciplinary study of the city as social form. This is a very good book, which falls short only of the high standard thus set. Professor Briggs has the gift of interesting quotation and his learning is enormous: but there are others who convey better the extraordinary combination of power with absurdity which marked the high Victorian period. As a historian he is scrupulous in demonstrating that no two cases are ever exactly alike; and his scruples blur slightly the impact of his thesis about the sweep of urban history in England in the nineteenth century. His thesis is in fact dramatic. In so far as it has a statistical basis, this is to be found in the figures of successive censuses from 1801; but Professor Briggs uses these rather difficult figures mainly to give substance to his appreciation of social change. (As he says, a typology could be constructed for Victorian towns, on the lines of ‘Moser and Scott’: but it would be hard, p. 35). The starting point is the England of the third quarter of the eighteenth century: one dominant city, a number of country towns embalming various stages of past economic growth, an upper class which linked country and town culturally in a more positive way than elsewhere in Western Europe. By 1780 there is a new trend; London’s industry is challenged and quickly surpassed by new rivals, some built in open country, others growing (‘like polyps’) out of old towns. By the 1820’s the world is aware of what has happened, and a process of adjustment begins. ‘Every age has its shock city’ (p. 5); and Manchester was the shock city of that age, as Chicago was the shock city of the 1890’s. Professor Briggs’s third chapter is not so much about the real Manchester as about the symbolic Manchester; the way Manchesterthum appeared to contemporaries throughout Europe and America, as well as in England; the stamp given to modern ideas of social class by Engels and others, not observing scientifically, but listening to what they heard in Manchester. That sort of ‘Manchester’ cannot be refuted by patient explanation of all the exceptions to its supposed practice; the concept ‘Manchester’ has its place as something separate from what Manchester really was like, concretely, at any given date. Similarly with the concept ‘Birmingham’, in some ways allied, in some ways antithetical. ‘Birmingham’ succeeds ‘Manchester’ in the 1860’s. To extend one of Professor Briggs’s remarks, there was a period from perhaps the depression of the late 1830’s till the fall of urban radicalism in the mid-1880’s when ‘Manchester’ (and later Birmingham) ‘spoke… in the name of the provinces, and the provinces spoke in the name of England’ (p. 116). One must be cautious, as Professor Briggs is, not to hammer the point home too hard. The period was also the heyday of Taper and Tadpole, of the Duke of Omnium, of the sinister and corrupt London of Phineas Finn and Fanny by Gaslight (an analogue, I suppose, of Fanny Hill). London never ceased to be much more than a provincial city. For a time London values were challenged by provincial values, a London upper class by a provincial upper class. But the balance in rate of growth began to shift back from the provinces to London in the decade9780140135824 1861-71 (p. 324); at the same time the biggest family firms became joint stock companies, the new upper class retreated from provincial cities and provincial schools. London moved back into the centre of the stage, and became once more the voice of England. As in the aristeia of the provinces, there are two levels of discussion, what people thought of London and what London really was. As Professor Briggs says, the decade of the 1890’s is still one of the least studied by English historians, and his line is tentative. But surely he is right? There is on the one hand, the London of the L.C.C. and of Charles Booth, a tough practical problem of social administration. On the other hand, there is ‘London: the World City’ (chap. VIII), the capital market of the world, politics and society corrupted by the barons of the Rand, the city of Sherlock Holmes, the city of ‘Imperialism: the Last Stage of Capitalism’, the city of Tit-Bits and the Daily Mail. ‘Socially the days of autonomous provincial sub-cultures were doomed’ (p. 368). This is Professor Briggs’s main theme. On it, he plays a number of variations, or perhaps they are only added cadenzas. Leeds he handles ironically. Leeds Town Hall really is a fine building of its time: but irony has pursued its pride, and it is (so far as I know) the only town hall familiar to most rugby players in bawdy rhyme. Middlesbrough is a boom town on a relatively small scale, which lived its life quickly and which can be fully documented, from its inception by a small group of family entrepreneurs to the time when their businesses were all launched on the Stock Exchange and their descendants were dispersed (for instance, Gertrude Bell of Arabia was a Bell of Middlesbrough). Finally, there is the application of the theme to Melbourne and Sydney. The facts of their histories have much in common, yet their mythologies were always different. First, there was ‘marvellous Melbourne’, the ‘wide open’ town of the South, against the colonial respectability of Sydney. Then later, after the slump which hit Melbourne in the early 890’s, the present notion of respectable Melbourne and raffish Sydney. Professor Briggs may not help to attract the young to one of the most fascinating of all fields of study, simply because his conscience as a good Yorkshireman and good historian often gets the better of his equally strong imagination. Surely he is completely right in his main contention, that one must study not only what cities are, but what people think about them? And surely there is nothing disreputable in the second approach, which is open to documentation as strict as that available to the first (provided we make the first leap, and take what people said and wrote as evidence of what they thought)? A sweeping hypothesis about the movement of ideas is of course dangerous; we must be able ‘to take it 609266or let it alone’. But if one can take it, it sharpens the perception, and at this stage of history, surely Professor Briggs’s main theme -the ideological sequence of Johnson’s London, ‘Manchester’, ‘Birmingham’, H. G. Wells’s London- is strong enough to sustain variations and to stimulate questions? For instance (pp. 13-14) have we now left behind us the age of cities? London is a centre for ‘commuters’ now from all England (Wales and Scotland, too), at least at the level of the direction of opinion and affairs. Those who are important must from time to time assemble in London, much of what they decide is promulgated from London. But need they ‘live’ in London? Have we not passed the stage at which everybody who is somebody ‘lives’ in London? If so, what is left of London as a city? It is the forum of almost all decisions: but has it a corporate entity capable of identification as culture or sub-culture?

[W. J. M. MACKENZIE. “Victorian Cities by Asa Briggs, Odhams, 1963, pp. 416” (reseña), in Urban Studies, nº 1, mayo de 1964, pp. 82-84]