Archaeology and The Anarchy

The long-awaited paperback edition of The Anarchy is now available! We caught up with authors Oliver H. Creighton and Duncan W. Wright to discuss what archaeology can tell us about this turbulent time in Britain’s history.

Could you explain a bit about the history behind the ‘Anarchy’ and King Stephen’s reign?

The dramatic epithet ‘The Anarchy’ has been applied to the rule of Stephen, King of England, since the nineteenth century. This was one of the most turbulent reigns in English medieval history. Stephen of Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror, was crowned at Westminster in 1135 following a coup after the death of his uncle Henry I. The period until Stephen’s death in 1154 is notorious for the English crown being contested between the king and his cousin Matilda, while rebellious barons and Scottish invasions fermented the chaos. According to chroniclers the English landscape bristled with new castles while robber barons desecrated and fortified churches and ravaged the landscape, although our book tries hard to look beyond the image of the period painted by contemporary writers.

 ‘The Anarchy’ is the first ever archaeologically based study of the ‘Anarchy’ of King Stephen’s reign. Why do you think this is the case?

There is a vast body of work on Stephen’s reign written by some towering figures of English medieval history. In contrast, precious little had been written of the period’s archaeology, although we could glean enough from excavations of sites such as siegeworks (mini-castles, built to besiege other fortresses) to see that this approach had great potential. Our project was driven by deepening curiosity about what archaeology could (and could not) tell us about this bleak but fascinating period and its ‘real’ impact on society and landscape. We were keen to marshal and interrogate the full range of available archaeological evidence, from individual artefacts such as weapons and coins through to entire landscapes, and conduct fresh fieldwork to explore on a range of sites — especially castles, siege castles and settlements.

What were you able to learn about this particularly turbulent period by taking an archaeological approach?

In terms of the big question for historians — whether we genuinely see ‘anarchy’ in mid-12th-century England, or whether revisionist views that downplay the levels of chaos and violence are vindicated — what did our work show? Anarchy in the UK or business as usual? Is it playing safe to say that the material evidence of archaeology shows a bit of both? On the one hand, everyday material culture, such as pottery for example, shows precious little evidence for any Anarchy-period ‘event horizon’ in the archaeological record, and there are signs that in certain spheres, such as sculpture for instance, this was a period of experimentation and investment in the arts. On the other hand, our mapping of conflict events and portable material culture, such as coin hoards, (which can be argued to provide an index of insecurity) show that in those areas of the country where it was focused, the conflict hit the landscape hard. The fortification of churches and even cathedrals (Hereford’s had catapults positioned on its tower!) was just one indication of how the rules of war were being stretched. The focus of conflict in the Thames Valley and Wessex also shows that this was not a struggle over peripheral or separatist regions, but for the very heartland of English kingship. But the area of life brought into the sharpest focus by the archaeology is the rise to prominence of local lords and the seigneurial image —not just through castle-building, but through investment in sculpture within parish churches and through an unprecedented boom in monastic foundation. As local lords made their mark on local landscapes, this was unmistakably a period of image-making as well as war-mongering.

 How do you think this book paves the way for further research into this period of history?

We hope that our project and book can help inform and even inspire the study of other conflicts in Britain and Europe. While battlefield archaeology is a booming area of research, this project has highlighted that archaeology can help reconstruct and understand other modes and methods of conflict, especially siege warfare. Whatever form future archaeological studies of the Anarchy take, it is hoped that our work provides a useful springboard either for further investigation of other castles, siege-works and settlements or, indeed for research in other, as yet unexplored areas.

Duncan W. Wright is Senior Lecturer in Archaeology and Heritage at Bishop Grosseteste University.
Oliver H. Creighton is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Exeter.


Follow us on twitter, and sign up to our mailing list for updates.

The portrait of Frederick Douglass – In conversation with Celeste-Marie Bernier

February marks the bicentennial of the birth of Frederick Douglass. To celebrate this, we’re exploring the life of the compelling orator, abolitionist, and activist. Alongside the recent release of Pictures and Power: Imaging and Imagining Frederick Douglass 1818-2018, editor Celeste-Marie Bernier discusses the relationship Douglass perceived between activism, authorism, and artistry.

Celeste-Marie Bernier explores the life of Frederick Douglass further on the BBC ‘In Our Time’ podcast

Pictures and Power investigates Frederick Douglass as the subject of visual culture, could you tell us why you chose to focus on Douglass?

We edited this collection on Frederick Douglass in light of the fact that he is the most photographed American, black or white, in the nineteenth century. This collection came from a previous co-edited volume, Picturing Frederick Douglass, in which we gathered the entire archive of Douglass’ portraits. For Douglass, who was a formerly enslaved man, photography was a way to fight back against racist caricature and we wanted to do justice to the question in this collection of how art is a means to self-representation and to self-liberation.

The book is being published alongside the bicentenary of Douglass’ birth. How and why do you think work of Douglass is still impactful today?

Douglass as a figure is committed to social justice on the grounds that he held the belief that the fight for freedom had no colour, creed, nation, sex, or class. He lives on to teach us how to continue the fight for self-representation, for equality, and for human rights and his language has a power that lives on. Douglass was interested in what he described as writing as a power, and he also used images as a power. He found that through images he was able to speak and tell his story in different ways. For Douglass, the question of the fight for social justice is all about how you control your own self-representation, a notion that is still really pressing today in how you fight back with regards to white supremacy and police brutality. He’s was very much about grassroots campaigning which is at the heart of Black Lives Matter radicalism.

Did you find any of the images particularly striking or memorable?

Douglass’ view in creating his own image or portrait is a really powerful one. You see, across all of his images, his belief that the image is a touchstone not for his own self-representation but for the representation of enslaved people. Douglass, in his photographs and his portraits, is representing not an individual experience but the experiences of enslaved people generally. He spoke in an interview himself about how he was trying to show the inner via the outer man. His portraits are mesmerising and powerful because they captivate you with this pained, powerful, difficult expression and in that he is trying of speak to the suffering of those who didn’t survive slavery.

The book draws upon previously unseen archival material. How did you go about conducting your research? Did you learn anything particularly surprising from the unpublished material?

That there are SO many Douglasses! The book is really about the fact that we have Frederick Douglass, and we have the great myth, we have a great freedom fighter, we have the big American hero, but we also have the Frederick Douglass that is harder to find. He’s much more located in the life of Frederick Bailey (the name of Douglass when he was born into slavery). The big idea is that when you move from slavery to freedom you move into a new world of self-representation and liberation. Douglass’ archives and especially his unpublished archives show us that he took the traumatised self with him into freedom. A surprise of the archive is one letter in which he writes, I looked so ugly, I hated to see myself in the glass, they want no living for me. Douglass had a real struggle with his sense of his memory of slavery, and you see that pain of the memory of slavery in the photographs. That’s probably the most powerful experience in looking behind the myth of Frederick Douglass.

Why do you think this is the first book on Frederick Douglass? How do you think it will pave the way for further research into his life and work?

The big question in slavery studies is often historical, political, socio-cultural, and is rooted in bodies of evidence, finding historiographical proof and finding factual material. The life of Douglass, and thousands of enslaved individuals has often been located around finding the biographies of their lives, trying to establish the facts of their existence which are really difficult to find given that they live in enslaved records. The focus on discovering their narratives, stories and experiences means that there has been less attention on trying to understand their use of images and how they used visual culture to communicate their experiences. Increasingly, scholars are starting to do this, and our hope with the book was to create a body of work, essays by folks working across academia, activism, museums and archives and to include a large number of photographs so that people can go on and do closer readings and begin to sift through real detailed ideas of how he’s using photography.

Celeste will be giving talks on Douglass on the following dates:
Friday 23rd February – The Legislative Services Building, Annapolis Maryland
Sunday 25th February – The National Gallery of Art

Listen to Celeste-Marie Bernier discuss Frederick Douglass on BBC In Our Time

Pictures and Power: Imaging and Imagining Frederick Douglass 1818-2018 is the latest in our Liverpool Studies in International Slavery series.

Celeste-Marie Bernier is Professor of Black Studies and Personal Chair in English Literature, University of Edinburgh. Her co-editor, Bill E. Lawson, is Emeritus, Distinguished Professor in Philosophy at the University of Memphis.


Follow us on twitter, and sign up to our mailing list for updates.

The history of the Oxford Anonymous Chronicle – In Conversation with Dimitri J. Kastritsis

An Early Ottoman History focuses on the so-called ‘Oxford Anonymous chronicle’, a comprehensive history of the Ottoman dynasty in Turkish. We caught up with author Dimitri J. Kastritsis to discuss Ottoman history and what we can learn from the Oxford Anonymous Chronicle. 

Could you tell us a bit about the Oxford Anonymous Chronicle and the history behind it?

The term Oxford Anonymous Chronicle (abbreviated OA) has come to be used for an Ottoman history completed in 1484, which survives in a single manuscript now at Oxford (Bodleian Library, MS Marsh 313). Not much is known about the history of the manuscript, which had previously belonged to the Dutch orientalist Jacob Golius (d. 1667). It seems Golius had used it to teach himself Turkish, as it contains many notes in pencil translating Turkish words into either Persian or Latin. After Golius’s death, the manuscript was purchased at auction by Narcissus Marsh, Archbishop of Armagh, who bequeathed it to Oxford University in 1714. That is how the manuscript came to be associated with Marsh and Oxford.

Unfortunately, nothing is known of its history before it arrived in Holland. It is likely that Golius or someone else acquired it in Istanbul. It is clear from the quality of the manuscript itself (the nice calligraphy and use of gold ink) that it was originally intended as a presentation copy, almost certainly made for the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II (r. 1481–1512). That Bayezid was the patron of the work itself is stated explicitly in its introduction, and is also clear from the content of the historical chapters (see below). The author-compiler is unknown. There must originally have been a title page with his name, which is now lost. He was probably a member of the scribal and religious classes (the ulema) and informs us that his family was ‘nourished for generations’ by the bounty of the Ottoman dynasty. Also, he tells us he was asked by Bayezid to compile a history of the dynasty in Turkish, the vernacular language ‘which is in use in the lands of Rum’ (Byzantium or eastern Rome, which by that time had come under Ottoman rule). This was a common trend in the fifteenth century, and reflects similar movements in western Europe and elsewhere toward the production of works in vernacular languages. It is important to bear in mind that when the Oxford history was being written, there were still scholars who believed the proper language for history was not Turkish but Persian.

Which sources did you draw upon during your research? Did you come across anything that you found particularly surprising?

For my research on the Oxford Anonymous Chronicle (as reflected in the Introduction and extensive footnotes, as well as the translation itself) I drew on a broad knowledge and interest in this period of history. My ultimate objective is to try to see the early Ottomans, late Byzantium and the wider Middle East as a whole. This is what I did in my first book, The Sons of Bayezid (Brill, 2007), which is a detailed study of a single decade in the early fifteenth century. It is also the goal of my next, much broader book project, for which I have an advance contract with Harvard University Press. In fact, I did most of the research for An Early Ottoman History while on a Byzantine Fellowship at Dumbarton Oaks (Washington DC, 2013–14) awarded to work on the aforementioned broader historical study. But all these projects are actually related. It is impossible to understand this period as a whole without an interdisciplinary perspective, as well as an understanding of cultural production, which includes histories like Oxford Anonymous.

From the beginning, what I have found most surprising about Oxford Anonymous is the fact that fully a third of the history (the middle part) deals with a single decade: the dynastic wars between the sons of Sultan Bayezid I (r. 1389–1402) following his defeat by Timur (Tamerlane) at the Battle of Ankara (1402). This is the reason I became interested in Oxford Anonymous already as a Ph.D. student at Harvard University. Working on An Early Ottoman History gave me the opportunity to broaden my perspective and see how this text fits into the larger compilation (see below).

How does the Oxford Anonymous Chronicle compare to histories written around the same time? Is there anything that makes it stand out in particular?

The Oxford Anonymous Chronicle should be seen in the context of other comprehensive histories of the Ottoman dynasty written under Bayezid II (r. 1481–1512). This was a time when the Ottomans were consolidating their empire following the conquests and centralizing measures of Bayezid II’s father, Mehmed ‘the Conqueror’ (r. 1444–46, 1451–81). During this time, the Ottomans felt the need to explain who they were, how they compared to other Islamic dynasties, and how their great conquests in Europe (especially Constantinople) fit into the course of history. There was controversy over right religion: different faiths, but also different ideas and schools within Islam. Other points of contention included the role of the state and different elites within it, and escatological expectations which were part and parcel of all these political and religious controversies.

In Oxford Anonymous, the importance of all this is apparent especially in the introductory sections, where the Ottomans are compared to other dynasties and given a genealogy tracing their origin to Esau, the son of the Hebrew Prophet Isaac. There is an interesting argument about how the Ottomans are legitimate because they did not usurp other major Muslim dynasties. This was important at a time when they were known for having absorbed the territories of many neighbours, including Muslim rulers. Another aspect of the Oxford chronicle that is remarkable is its focus on dynastic struggles between Ottoman princes. As already suggested above, the compiler of the history chose to base over one third of his survey of Ottoman history on an older epic account of such dynastic wars. In fact, there is similar material elsewhere in the history as well. I believe the obvious explanation is that when the compilation was being made, its patron Bayezid II was facing a rival claimant to the throne: his brother Cem Sultan (d. 1495), who was living in western Europe as a diplomatic captive.

How do you feel An Early Ottoman History paves the way for further research into the Oxford Anonymous Chronicle and the Ottoman Empire?

As an original study of the Oxford Anonymous Chronicle, my book picks up where the late Victor Ménage left off in the mid-1960s. Ménage, who taught at SOAS in London and died in 2015, is still viewed as having laid the groundwork for understanding early Ottoman historical writing. He had plans for an edition and study of Oxford Anonymous, but these never came to fruition. So in a sense, my book revisits the work of Ménage and other pioneers, but with a new eye since these people were of an older generation. Put simply, following the so-called ‘linguistic turn’ in the humanities beginning in the 1970s, it is no longer enough to focus simply on historical facts or the sources from which compilations like Oxford Anonymous are derived. These aspects are still important, and are ones where Ménage did exceptionally well; so I have done my best in the book to follow in his footsteps. However, it is also important to look in more detail at the relationship between language, culture, and society, and at the different meanings that can be conveyed through different styles.

In my translation, introduction, and footnotes, I have taken pains to show the reader unable to read the original text how the language and style change from section to section, and what this could signify. For this reason, among others, I think An Early Ottoman History will pave the way for further research in early Ottoman history and historiography. Moreover, these days there is a growing awareness of the need for translations of Ottoman texts to be used for teaching, as well as research by non-specialists. In this respect, I believe my book will play a truly pioneering role, as there is nothing like it available in English.

Dr. Dimitri J. Kastritsis is Lecturer in Ottoman History at the University of St Andrews.


Follow us on twitter, and sign up to our mailing list for updates.
History, Liverpool Interest

The contribution of Black seafarers to British maritime history – in conversation with Ray Costello

 The Black Salt exhibition at the Liverpool Maritime Museum is due to reveal the contribution Black seafarers to some of the most significant maritime events of the past 500 years. To celebrate its opening we spoke to Ray Costello, author of the accompanying book Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships about the roles of and experiences of Black sailors in the British navy. 

Black Salt

The Black Salt exhibition opens at the Liverpool Maritime Museum 29th September. Could you tell us a bit about the exhibition?

This major exhibition the Merseyside Maritime Museum are putting on is derived from my LUP book, Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships (2012). It will occupy most of the ground floor, beginning in the reception area, and is to be presented as –

BLACK SALT: “… in the shipboard company of ‘old salts’… the greatest ‘melange’ of different cultures, races and languages… an important ingredient were seafarers of African descent – Britain’s Black Salt.”

I had already approached LUP to publish Black Salt when Rachel Mulhearne, the former Head of Merseyside Maritime Museum, told me that she was very keen on the idea of staging an exhibition based on this topic. This seemed a good idea at the time, as the book would be a good companion, but it was unfortunately at a decidedly ‘iffy’ time insofar as funding was concerned. At the time, the exhibition did not happen but fortunately the book went ahead and was considerably more than a slim ‘companion book’, never to be forgotten by the Maritime Museum, thanks to Janet Dugdale, the Head of Waterfront and Rachel’s successor, who was adamant that this exhibition was going to happen one day. Through her determination, it has!

How does it emphasise the ways in which sailors of African descent contributed to Britain’s maritime identity?

Black seamen have served on British ships since at least the Tudor period, and by the end of the period of the British slave trade at least three per cent of all crewmen were black and a far higher percentage since. Both the new exhibition and the book, Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships, (Liverpool University Press 2012), help to highlight this overlooked group of servicemen by examining the work and experience of black sailors in the British merchant marine and Royal Navy. These ranged from all over the Black Diaspora, from impressed slaves to free Africans, British West Indians, and even remembering African Americans who served on British ships both before and after the independence of the American colonies.

One of the most important roles has also been in wartime, of course, spanning centuries. This includes not only actually fighting in the Royal Navy, but also the tremendous contribution made by black merchant seafarers. At the Battle of Trafalgar, one of Britain’s most important naval victories, sailors of African descent can be found in a variety of roles. The outcome of the battle would determine the command of the oceans for decades, of course, and when Nelson gave his famous signal, ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’, many of his ‘old salts’ had sailed and fought with him before, including Britain’s seamen of African descent.

How does the exhibition depict the challenges faced by sailors of African descent both at sea and ashore?

In the exhibition we show that the dangers faced by even free early black sailors during the slave trade era could range from being captured by enemy ships and sold in America and the West Indies to being sold by the captain of the ships on which they served.

Later in their history, black crew working below deck could sometimes be overcome by heat exhaustion, especially in the tropics, when the temperature could rise to anything between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Black tartaric acid ointment was used to smear on burns, most men working in the stokehold wearing protective leather boots and an old pair of trousers. Trimmers in the bunkers sometimes wore little more than boots. This, then, became the norm well into the twentieth century and lasting until the decline of British shipping.

How did you come to focus your research on the topic of sailors of African descent in the British navy?

Over the past year I have enjoyed co-curating this exhibition, so I am naturally pleased. It had to be Liverpool, of all locations, as its old black community is largely derived from seafarers. As black seafarers have been an established part of both the Royal and Merchant Navies for centuries, it comes as a surprise to many that, although there been at least a publication in the United States about their own black sailors, there has been never a comprehensive exhibition or book on the topic in Great Britain. Any national memorial to seafarers of African descent is still lacking. The history of seafarers of African descent on British ships is very much a forgotten narrative, unknown to most people, and we have been happy to perhaps play a small part in rectifying this situation!

The book draws attention to the fact that the navy was possibly unique in that black and white could work alongside each other. Was this the case in any other industries? What was the impact of this?

You could say that black and white sailors simply had to have some sort of relationship, as, particularly in the Royal Navy, charged with protecting King and country, they were very much reliant upon one another. This did have its limitations, however, as there was always the possibility that as soon as they set foot on dry land their relationship could at least be altered as the cold reality of the societal norms of the day were re-established once more. Even aboard ship, there could be expressions of segregation, such as the ‘chequeboard’ system of a black crew keeping watch for so many hours, only to change with an all-white crew for the next watch. Few other forms of employment in shore jobs offered even a temporary relaxation, as men would be working together, or more likely segregated, in a very different ‘world’ from the strange little society of the ship at sea. In spite of these restrictions, we always find exceptions throughout the book, and in many different scenarios, an example being the officer who kept up a life-long friendship with a black able seaman, even leaving him something in his will. There was a good reason – this black seafarer had saved this officer’s life at the Battle of Trafalgar!

How did the experiences of black seamen or sailors differ to those of their white counterparts?

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, covering the Napoleonic Wars, they were to be found in deck occupations such as gunners, deck-hands and ‘top men’. ‘Top men’ were very much respected by both crew and officers alike, as they had the responsibility of working at heights in the rigging, setting sail and looking out for enemy ships, etc.

There were far less favourable conditions in the age of steam than in the days of the old sailing ships, when a black seaman could occupy a far wider range of employment aboard ship in both the Royal and merchant marine. In the age of the steam-driven ironclad ships, there were changes in the employment of seafarers of African descent, who were more likely to be found below deck; as cooks, stewards and stokers from the West African coast, India and Madagascar, as they were thought to be better suited to the heat of the engine room. Steam ships required fewer sailors of the traditional type, schooled in the intricacies of rigging and sail, and a newer breed of seaman replaced them.

Larger passenger ships also meant more black seafarers occupying a life below deck, as they were not thought to be suitable for passenger-facing jobs. Compare this with the first black female captain Belinda Bennett shown in our exhibition as now being in in charge of a passenger vessel!

Was there much chance of mobility in terms of rank for black seamen and sailors?

Needless to say, during the early days, certainly the period of the slave trade, black seafarers served at a time when the status of black people in European society was possibly at its lowest ebb, regardless of their social rank in their home countries, but even during the eighteenth-century, examples of royal naval officers of African descent individuals can be found who rose above that situation, finding respect and recognition from their crew-mates. It was by no means easy, however. A very sad case was that of a Black British seamen, 25 ­year­ old Norfolk-­born Barlow Fielding, who was thought to be petty-officer material, possibly at least a boatswain, by his captain, John Colpoys of HMS Orpheus. It did not take long before Fielding asked to be demoted, as his white fellow seafarers took exception to his rank and were making life difficult. His captain tried his best to help by having him transferred to another ship, but failed, resulting in Fielding having something that we would probably now call a nervous breakdown and ending up in Hasler Hospital in Portsmouth.

The book draws upon the experiences of individuals during this time, ‘their experiences span the gamut of sorrow and tragedy, heroism, victory and triumph.’ How did you discover these experiences? Did the experience of any one individual particularly surprise or move you?

Apart from the usual secondary and primary documentary sources, contemporary narratives written or dictated by black seamen themselves were sought, alongside oral testimonies of living seamen. Oral histories are the most fascinating, as some of the sailors’ stories have never seen the light of day before, adding something new to the narrative.

Although not oral testimony, I think my favourite is probably the Jamaican-­born John Perkins, possibly the first British post captain of African descent in the Royal Navy. The rank of post captain is an obsolete alternative form of captain in the Royal Navy, extremely high-ranking, even more than an officer in charge of a ship who is usually called captain regardless of rank, or commanders, given the title of captain as a courtesy, even if they did not currently have a ship! A post captain could eventually become an admiral if he lived long enough. What is surprising is that John (nick-named affectionately by his men as ‘Jack Punch’) is that he was black and achieved that rank in 1797 when the slave trade was still in operation. Later in their history, it was less unusual to find officers of African descent on commercial vessels and smaller riverine craft, but the Royal Navy would have to wait until the late twentieth century for another black captain, along with the United States, who did not commission its first African American naval officers, a group known as the ‘Golden Thirteen’, until 1944.

There are others, such as William Hall, the first black Royal Navy recipient of the Victoria Cross, but that, as they say, is another story, also included in the Black Salt Exhibition.

How to you think the book and the exhibition pave the way for wider discussion and further research into black seafarers and their role in the British navy?

I think that there is endless scope for further research, as most people I have spoken to seem quite surprised that so little has been done in this area, as, particularly in ports such as Liverpool, black sailors are common-place. I have been delighted at the interest already shown in the book and look forward to seeing the public’s response to the exhibition. I am sure that my publishers, ever in the lead of promoting new research, are no doubt as interested as I am.

There are both individuals and groups out there whose stories, both oral and written, have hardly been looked into. My own hope is that other researchers will ‘take the bait’ and delve into what must surely be a vast area of untapped knowledge just waiting to be discovered and publicised in a way that shows just how diverse a country Great Britain really is and has been for a surprisingly long time. Both the Black Salt book and exhibition at Merseyside Maritime shows that the City of Liverpool, with its old black community descended from African seafarers, is an excellent place to start.

Ray Costello is an independent historian and writer and an honorary research fellow of the School of Sociology and Social Science, University of Liverpool.

Black Salt: Britain’s Black Sailors opens on 29th September at the Liverpool Maritime Museum. Click here for more information.

For more information on Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships please visit our website.

Follow us on twitter, and sign up to our mailing list for updates. 
History, Liverpool Interest

How Battles Over Booze Shaped Modern Liverpool – In Conversation with David Beckingham

How did Liverpool transform its 19th century reputation for drunkenness? David Beckingham, author of The Licensed City explains the social impact of licensing laws in a city centred on drinking culture. 

What made you decide to study Liverpool and what did you focus on in your research?

For much of the nineteenth century, Liverpool enjoyed a terrible reputation for drunkenness. According to police statistics it was at various times the most drunken city in England. At its peak in the 1870s, there was something like 20,000 annual police proceedings for drunkenness. I was interested to find out more about why Liverpool looked so at odds with other cities.

I began by considering the role of numbers in constructing municipal reputations. I was cautious of these numbers, aware that they were counting incidents of policing and not every act of consuming alcohol. But I wanted to know what that record said about Victorian Liverpool, a city whose civic ambitions betrayed a series of social anxieties.

This meant asking why the authorities in Liverpool thought that the city had such a drink problem. Because policing reflecting anxieties about largely public behaviours, I started to consider the role that drink played in the social and street life of the city. This took me on a kind of archive tour of the docksides, the slums of north Liverpool, the mercantile heart around the Town Hall, and the theatre land of Williamson Square. I focus on the regulatory mechanism for controlling the sale of alcohol through pubs. This is the licensed city of my title, a city where regulators were keen to address the links between drink and a range of social problems.

How did you go about your research for this book? Were you surprised by any of your findings?

My book grew out of a PhD in Geography. Most of my research was done in Liverpool’s Central Library, where I read the minute books of the Council, Watch Committee (which was in charge of policing) and magistrates. Newspapers were also fantastically useful. I particularly liked reading old satirical papers like Porcupine. They provide a very different angle on the sometimes rather dry tone of official minute books and, even through their criticisms, revealed the sense of civic pride and identity so central to social reform.

The archives also have some wonderful temperance material, produced by reformers campaigning against drink. This included an amazing set of maps of pubs in different parts of town, which are reprinted in the book. Being trained as a geographer, I was interested to think about what kind of political work was done by representing information in this way. They show us how tempting it can be to construct reductive moral arguments about people and places.

I really wanted to learn about the cultures of Liverpool’s pubs. We know what they looked like: plans formed part of the licensing process and there are plenty of street photographs that reflect changing branding and design. Liverpool still has some famous examples of pubs from the period. I tried to imagine what they would have sounded like as people talked over their beer about their daily concerns. The written records aren’t really set up for that, of course. Things were usually recorded when they went wrong, but by understanding this it is still possible to glimpse daily life.

Most surprising, to me, was just how detailed these records could be. They show magistrates manipulating the layout of pubs, doing away with screens or doors to cosy corners where people could get up to mischief. My favourite examples come from cases where publicans were tasked with managing women who were reputed to be prostitutes. The law didn’t ban women from seeking liquid refreshment, but it asked that they stay no longer than was necessary for ‘reasonable refreshment’. Importantly, it didn’t spell out how long this was. One London Road publican was told that if he spotted a known prostitute she should not be allowed to stay on his premises for longer than four minutes. The obvious concern was to prevent pubs being used by prostitutes to solicit for sex. To me it conjures up an image of the pub’s staff lining up clocks along the bar. I can’t imagine the magistrates’ intention was to endorse speed drinking, but this tells us a lot about their priorities. It has been really instructive to see just how these gendered moral codes ran right the way down through the social life of the city.

Photograph courtesy of Colin Wilkinson at Blue Coat Press

Why did alcohol become such a pressing political issue in the nineteenth century?

In a way, that concern with prostitution helps explain something very important about drink. It intersected with such a broad range of social issues and policy arenas, right the way from labour productivity and criminality through to health and housing reform.

It is clear to me that the problem of prostitution played a particular role in politicising the management of pubs in Liverpool, in no small part because of the political clout of some of the city’s brewers. This helped turn drink from a question of individual moral responsibility into a collective question about the city’s management to be challenged through the ballot box.

Nationally, the growth of the temperance movement also reflects a distinctive feature of drink: it made really very tangible an important and unresolved debate about the rights and reach of the state to govern individual behaviours. This is really what got me interested in drink in the first place. It is a great case study for understanding the developing governance of everyday life in Victorian Britain.

To what extent did you find that reforming licensing laws tackled the social issues that Liverpool was facing in the nineteenth century?

That’s a really important question. It is wrong to assume that the broader social changes I narrate were all down to licensing. Licensing has to be seen alongside other reforms such as slum clearance, as well as changes in prosperity and social attitudes to drink. But that’s the interesting thing about drink: it links to so many other features of urban life. The magistrates reduced the numbers of licences, particularly beerhouses in the working-class parts of town, and they really did try to address what went on in pubs. They also learnt how to use licensing to shape the world beyond the pub. In that, they showed that licensing was a useful tool of social governance, and the argument I make is that this was often directed at behaviours other than simply drinking.

It would also be wrong to see any successes as all their own work, however: I place great emphasis on the campaigns of social reformers. They were central to the definition of particular behaviours as problems that required intervention. For me the most telling thing is that reformers thought that licensing was working. This fed into a really useful political narrative that their social action was helping transform how their city was run. That takes us full circle back to the idea of reputation.


For more information on The Licensed City please visit our website.
Follow us for more updates and sign up to our mailing list