- Port Towns and Urban Cultures. International Histories of the Waterfront, c.1700–2000 ed. by Brad Beaven, Karl Bell and Robert James
This book is the outcome of a conference held at Portsmouth in 2013 and according to its acknowledgements, includes the publication "… of the strongest themes in the conference." We are not informed if all the conference papers are in this published volume. The overall scene is set by the reproduction of an extremely attractive portrayal of an active harbor at Portsmouth perhaps dateable to sometime in late nineteenth century England.
The publication comprises of some thirteen essays of varying length, theme and locale. A slight majority of the essays are set in English port centers; an international dimension is provided by those located in Australia—New Zealand, Finland, Sweden, and South Africa. The vast majority of contributors are practicing academic historians, however architecture and geography are also represented amongst the authors.
The book is divided into two sections and their rationale is stated in detail in the introduction; the division is by no means watertight. There is little effort to theorize relationships that nurtured distinctive urban cultures and connect recent advances in history to more conceptually advanced disciplines influenced by innovations in critical thinking such as anthropology, geography and sociology. This reviewer was not clear about some of the assertions made by the editors in their introduction; for instance on page 4 we are informed that the book argues that port towns need to be understood as "cultural entities." While the volume consists of a collection of discrete articles, no central shared thesis is evident, though a series of connected and related themes are diligently explored.
What then of the contents? The first section is entitled "Urban maritime cultures." What impressed this reviewer were the enormous diversity of sources mined by the authors and what results emerged from their efforts; they endow the book with much richness and flavor. Sources range from official Cape Town Council of Justice records during the mid-18th century to the poems and songs of sailmaker Gilchrist written and sung in 19th century English Tyneside. Examining further oral sources and published accounts, editor Bell delineates, in an incisive account, the roles of different types of religiosity in Victorian Portsmouth in England. An examination of official police archives in Swedish [End Page 1471] Gothenberg charts different aspects of how violence, amongst "other" behaviors, represented forms of resistance towards "authority" in the 1920s.
The Americanization of Antipodean port cities is examined through an understanding of architectural styles in an attempt to confirm that their impacts were differentially experienced by different classes there. It is convincingly argued that the process of Americanization helped to solidify and consolidate class consciousness and dilute attachments to British imperial geographical attachments. Trawling through a series of interviews conducted in some Finnish port cities during the 1950s, Steel extols the value of oral sources as a means of understanding and recognizing what he titles as "encounters on the waterfront" by a selection of professions whose lifeworld was there, as well as through a survey of visiting sailors in 1956, all of whom constructed their particular versions of "sailortowns."
A further seven articles make up the final section of this work entitled, "Representations and Identities." Taylor leads here with a masterful characterization of London's docklands from the 1790s onwards focusing upon a range of themes evident in its sailortown at Ratcliffe Highway as the setting for material cultures involving dockland expansion and varying forms of criminality. Changes in its character are narrated by quarrying through the works of some social commentators who wrote about the district.
The under-researched human content of the British navy at Plymouth, "…as a social institution and social force…" in the period .c.1850–1928 forms the substance of Robert James's valuable chapter. The role of the British navy's popular image as an element in nation-building is stressed as is the role of portside geographic location...