- Protest and the Politics of Space and Place, 1789–1848 by Katrina Navickas
Depicted as outmoded and arid by the linguistic turn of the nineteen-nineties, the field of labour studies has often been consigned to the margins. The linguistic turn wrestled with some of the complexities and difficulties thrown up by attempts [End Page 418] to recreate the language, narratives and inflections of the rhetoric of radical leaders and platform politicians in the past. The result was a new emphasis on the leaders and the led, as well as on the performative aspects of nineteenth-century radicalism. This engagement with past discourses of labour politics created a context in which historians became more attuned to the situations and surroundings that shaped platform radicalism at its height. More recent work has moved this agenda forward to consider the "spatial" context within which reformers operated. Inevitably this has paved the way for a so-called "spatial turn" that draws on the insights provided by philosophers like Habermas, Foucault, and Edward Soja. New avenues of scholarship have thus emerged which seek to address the complexities of the changing urban environment in Victorian townscapes.
Drawing on this body of work, Katrina Navickas' new book is a timely intervention in a burgeoning field of inquiry for historians of popular politics and British domestic radicalism. Examining the subject of platform radicalism from the 1790s through to the end of the Chartist movement, she reconfigures a well-worked period into an overall study of the ways in which space in Victorian towns, cities and villages became a site of contention between older traditions of community politics, and the new forces represented by the state, local government and civic voluntarist organisations. This tension between older and newer forms of politics has been noted by others working in the field, but by expanding her inquiry into consideration of rural society, and the ancestral freedoms conferred by the "liberty of the landscape," this study provides the fullest analysis of the subject to date. The backdrop is the Pennine hill-towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire, and the large urban centers of Northern England. Here the book is unabashed in its emphasis on areas seen as traditionally important by historians of class, industrial change and transport and communications. In this innovative work, however, previously marginal concerns about places of public meeting, the construction of purpose-built radical halls, assemblies in public houses and chapels, and the public and private memories that repeatedly drew reformers back to the same holy ground are now foregrounded as the essence of the radical experience. Some of this is not new. The sacred nature of the open ground reserved for expropriation by radicals on the basis of its association with a lively "people's history" has been scrutinised before. Nevertheless, the wealth of detail on offer here and the dexterity of the interpretation converts this into a volume likely to remain the last word on the matter for some time to come.
For anyone with a familiarity with the open ground, market places and moorlands in the regions described, there is great pleasure to be gained from the close micro-readings of the evolution and development of these areas and spaces. As in the case of Kersal Moor in Manchester, such sites frequently followed an arc of development from spaces of popular pastimes and entertainment, to places of full-blown radical assembly, to tamed and domesticated parkland or ribbon development. Brown field sites in towns and cities were often temporarily colonised by radicals, but then lost their function when appropriated for redevelopment or civic purposes. Navickas captures this sense of the opening up and later closing off of places of radical usage well. Although not heavily theorised, the text here works with Soja's notions of a "thirdspace" where the meanings of civic buildings and metropolitan parkland could be captured, subverted and, on occasion, temporarily undermined by radical assemblies. For a densely argued monograph, the writing is also surprisingly lively in places. At its [End Page 419] heart...