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Response to Review of Protest and the Politics of Space and Place, 1789-1848

I would like to thank Mike Sanders for his generous review of my book. He captures both its spirit and narrative astutely and concisely, with a great attention to detail. I’d like to use this response to comment on the theoretical elements that he highlights.

I set out with two aims for the book. My first aim was to trace the continuities as well as the differences of democratic popular politics between 1789 and 1848, within a historiography that has increasingly broken up each decade and social movement into discrete sections rather than examining the period as a whole.

My second aim was to provoke historians to think more carefully about how protesters and authorities contested power over and within spaces and in different places. After the ‘linguistic and cultural turns’, space appeared to be the obvious subsequent ‘turn’ for historians to take, and I was concerned that space would simply be treated as another form of cultural symbolism. So although my book shows that many sites and buildings had symbolic meanings – and that popular politics often involved a contest between elites and their opponents over those meanings – I also emphasise that we must understand these spaces and these contests within place. Every building, site, local elite and social movement has a longer history shaped by the place in which it is situated. These places are in turn shaped by changing patterns of landownership and industry, physical construction, residents’ sense of belonging and history, and indeed the larger material(ist) structures of politics and the economy. Studying the semiotics of space alone neglects these key features which influence the everyday lives as well as the popular politics of industrialising England.

Sanders’ first main concern is that place is under-theorised in the book. I admit that much of the focus lies on unpicking contests over public space between ‘loyalist’ elites and radical social movements rather than interrogating place as a concept. I hope I have shown how these contests reflected the regionally varied features of local authorities and the histories of place. The triad of ‘place, custom and memory’ is central to the work of early modernists Andy Wood and Keith Snell, and I drew from their interpretation of how the memory of customary rules and practices defined the boundaries of places and the rights of their inhabitants. In part three of the book, I argue that this definition of customary places and rights increasingly conflicted with merchant and manufacturers’ demand for an economy free from state restrictions on wages and prices. The ‘task-scapes’ of small farms and workshops – whose male inhabitants were bound to place by skill – were being replaced rapidly by the new landscape of enclosure and large factories, where workers’ control over their own workspaces and skill was confined and unprotected. Luddites and trade unions fought against this economic transformation. I agree with Sanders that I sold myself short on this concept in the other two parts of the book, partly because I needed the room to describe the concurrent restrictions on the democratic movements’ own customary definitions of their rights, not least to occupy a space in the public sphere and to form part of the lists of ‘principal inhabitants’ of their towns signing petitions and addresses to parliament and the king.

What emerged most strongly in my reading of accounts of protests, the depositions at trials, the testimonies at enclosure commissions and other sources was a ‘sense of place’ among many of the actors in this story. I attempted to evoke inhabitants’ ‘sense of place’ in these contests over who had the right to meet in which space. In part I felt this would appeal to the general as well as the academic reader – the local historian browsing the shelves in Oldham Local Studies, or the political activist who picks it up in the Working-Class Movement Library. Therefore I did not want to find a theory for everything – sometimes it is people’s connection with the history of their place that matters the most for ‘impact’, rather than whether they can engage with Bahktin’s model of chronotypes or not.

I am nevertheless continuing to develop my ideas of place and time. Hopefully my new research will reflect on contemporary cultural geographers and sociologists’ concept of ‘translocality’, which argues that the local is always connected to the global, even among political activists who may not move physically but conduct campaigns or struggles on various levels of place.(1a) This concept also parallels the pioneering thinking of the late Doreen Massey, who argued that places may be composed of fluid and relative articulations of social relations at particular movements in time, ‘including local relations “within” the place and those many connections which stretch way beyond it’.(2a) I attempted to examine some of these connections in the short vignette on radical experiences of America, but admittedly ironically space and time precluded detailed analysis. Josh Gibson’s forthcoming PhD thesis on ‘Chartist Freedom’ will also, I hope, provide some of the answers that Dr Sanders is looking for on this topic.

Sanders comments that the March of the Blanketeers in 1817 lacks ‘a consideration of the way in which the Blanketeers politicised space in a markedly different way from the radicals of the 1790s’. I take his point on this, but the remarkable story of the attempted march from Manchester to London was a one-off, and never attempted again in the lifetime of the democratic radicals. The march was a product of frustration by the more radical wing of the democratic movement – as John Bagguley might have said, to the horror of Sam Bamford, ‘no-one is listening to local committees here up North: let’s go direct to the Prince Regent down South’ – as well as from a genuine belief, tutored by Major Cartwright, in the constitutional rights of the ‘free-born Englishman’. However, I don’t think the Blanketeers’ use of space resembled the Luddites or the Plug rioters, as Sanders argues. The Blanketeers had one goal of going to London with their petitions, constitutionally and orderly; by contrast, the Luddites and Plug rioters used both space and place completely differently, drilling on moorland and moving from place to place within a regional industrial ‘task-scape’ to ‘turn out’ workers from factories almost like guerrillas. Though all three groups worried the authorities in their use of military order, their use of their individual and collective bodies within space and place differed because they had different aims and indeed conceptions of place.

This point leads to Sanders’ second concern, that my concepts of ‘disembodied violence’ and ‘administrative geographies’ remain purely metaphorical and add little to our understanding of the spaces of popular movements. Embodied geographies is a dominant theme in contemporary cultural geography.(3a1) It conceptualises the first level of space as embodied within a human, animal or object. I’ve tried to apply this concept to my examination of how particularly violent protests were enacted. We cannot understand the actions of Luddites and Swing rioters or the anti-New Poor Law protesters and Chartists without examining how they used their bodies as a form of space and within space in order to defend their collective bodies of as trades or paupers. It also helps us understand the intersectionality of much collective action: the gendered and ethnic divisions within the trades and democratic movements that created boundaries around who could campaign for which rights. The ‘new administrative geographies’ of the Whig reforms of the 1830s were also much more than symbolic, not least the new constituency boundaries drawn for the 1832 Reform Act which defined which places had representation, and the New Poor Law unions, which determined where and how paupers would be treated.

I appreciate Sanders’ concern that ‘it is probably impossible for a single historian to achieve the necessary synthesis’ between local-national and diachronic-developmental model of history. There is only so far indeed that I could get with this until facing the pitfalls of, say, an Annaliste approach. My next projects involve much more collaborative and inter-disciplinary projects which will hopefully combine the skills of scholars from different fields of geography and architecture and produce new ways of thinking about space, place and time.

Notes

  1. See Translocal Geographies: Spaces, Places, Connections, ed. Katherine Brickell and Ayona Datta (Farnham, 2011).Back to (1a)
  2. Doreen Massey, Space, Place and Gender (Cambridge, 1994), p. 120.Back to (2a)
  3. James A. Tyner, Space, Place and Violence: Violence and the Embodied Geographies of Race, Sex and Gender (Abingdon, 2012).Back to (3a)