Context 155 - July 2018

18 C O N T E X T 1 5 5 : J U L Y 2 0 1 8 SIMON GUNN The old alliance of urban history and conservation Urban history and urban conservation shared common ground, and grew up together. Now the two disciplines are being drawn back together again to construct something distinctive. In October 2017 the MA in urban conservation at the University of Leicester was awarded IHBC recognition. Behind this achievement lay a hidden story of the relationship between urban history and historic conservation. In 1970 HJ (‘Jim’) Dyos was made the first professor of urban history in Britain. As a subject, urban history was the product of the creative ferment of the 1960s and Dyos at the University of Leicester was its founding father. Influenced by the polymath Lewis Mumford and the Chicago School of sociology in the United States, urban history in Britain brought together architectural and economic historians, geographers and sociologists, to explain how urbanisation had occurred in different times and places, and the connections between the ‘shapes on the ground’ and the ‘shapes in the air’; morphology and ideas. Like most new developments, urban history was a child of its time. The 1960s might have encouraged all things shiny, modern and futuris- tic, but they also brought a retro fascination with Victorianism. While pioneer gentrifiers bought up the former homes of artisans and furnished them with William Morris patterns, the Beatles appeared on the cover of Sergeant Pepper dressed in Victorian military regalia. Jim Dyos himself was obsessed with Victorian London, not only making it the object of a pathbreaking historical study, Victorian Camberwell (1961), but also stamping the numerous books in his collection with a personalised bookmark of an elephant (‘Jumbo’) superimposed on a Gustav Doré print of the slums of Victorian London. At Leicester, alongside urban history, in 1966 he founded the multi-disciplinary Centre for Victorian Studies, the first of its kind in Britain. A passion for Victoriana Dyos was not alone in his enthusiasms. Fellow historians at the period like Asa Briggs and Jack Simmons shared an interest in urban history with a passion for Victoriana. Briggs’ own pair of books – Victorian People (1955) and Victorian Cities (1963) – captured the mood in these years. Their interests went beyond the academic into the world of public campaigning: Dyos became chair- man of the Victorian Society in 1976; Briggs the society’s president 10 years later; and Simmons an influential figure in the fight to save St Pancras and other monuments of the Victorian railways. From the outset, then, urban history and urban conservation shared common ground.They grew up together: the late 1960s and early 1970s when urban history was taking off were also the years when conservation was becoming a force inside and outside parliament, the Civic Amenities Act 1967 creating the legislative framework for the introduction of conservation areas, while the success of the Covent Garden Community Association in preserving a historic site in central London ignited the wider conservation move- ment in towns and cities across the country. Skateboarding Like conservation, an activist element has been a continuous feature of urban history, bringing knowledge of the past to effect change in the present. RJ Morris, historian of Leeds and presi- dent of the city’s Thoresby Society, has used his extensive knowledge of the history and politics of the townscape of Edinburgh to help shape urban policy. Rebecca Madgin, a member of the editorial board of Context, is herself an example of the alliance of the two domains, researching the history of the conservation movement at the same time as exploring the value of the skateboarding site on London’s South Bank. Since its early years, urban history has gone on to become an international movement. Conferences such as the biennial meeting of the European Association for Urban History bring together scholars from around the globe, and there are now thriving groups of urban historians in countries as far apart as Belgium and China. In partial recognition of this expansion, in 2015 scholars in Berlin and North America founded the Global Urban History Project. Urban history has always been a meeting place for academics from many disciplines, from art history to cultural geography. Despite globalisation, it has maintained its roots in towns and cities in the UK, with close con- nections to local authorities and civic trusts in places like Leicester, Glasgow and Newcastle. Meanwhile, its interests have spread out from the Victorian period to encompass everything from medieval streets to brutalist buildings. Urban history has become a truly inclusive and international enterprise. Urban history’s growth occurred over the same period as the professionalisation of conserva- tion. In 1997 the Institute for Historic Building Jim Dyos: pioneer