Urban Humanist

Sydney Checkland

  • Exploring the Urban Past: Essays in Urban History by H.J. Dyos edited by David Cannadine and David Reeder
    Cambridge, 258 pp, £20.00, September 1982, ISBN 0 521 24624 5
  • Themes in Urban History: Patricians, Power and Politics in 19th-Century Towns edited by David Cannadine
    Leicester University Press, 224 pp, £16.50, October 1982, ISBN 0 7185 1193 X

The young Wordsworth, standing on Westminster Bridge, felt the wonder of the city. He did not try to comprehend it as a scientific phenomenon, for it was not his job to provide a systematic explanation of the integrated operation of its ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples. And yet there is a sense of marvel that such an organism, with its mighty heart, could come into being and function in its baffling complexity, heaving with activity as so many people went about their separate occasions by day, and lying in a deep calm by night.

Many since Wordsworth have felt the magic of the city, but until recently there has been little real attempt to rationalise urban processes. There have been plenty of topographical, antiquarian and anecdotal accounts: the Victorians were profuse with their ‘Annals’, ‘Memorials’, ‘Reminiscences’, ‘Fragments’. But until different minds, like that of Patrick Geddes, had had their say in the early decades of this century, projecting the city as a living thing, with its own identifiable but subtle relationships, the city was no real challenge to the intellect. Classical economics, the leading social science until recently, had largely dismissed the city, airily treating it, along with the rest of collective behaviour, as part of a Newtonian self-equilibrating system. Thus the city was created and held together by each man going about his business of buying and selling, among other commodities, human labour, either his own or somebody else’s. There is, indeed, much truth in this notion, for, as Adam Smith had implied, the market, together with its twin, private property, was the great invoker of city-building energies and the great though blind mediator of their outcome.

But then in the last years of Victoria’s reign the great faults of the cities began to become apparent and indeed strident – the fearful slums, the disease, the housing failure, the claustrophobic life chances of the children of poor families, and the fear of crime and civil unrest. With the cities malfunctioning on this scale, it was time to try to understand them in less simplistic terms. Even so, however, there were delays. The first attempts at comprehension had of necessity to be ad hoc, starting severally from the most pressing problems including health and housing. Only much later was the city to be viewed as a system of interrelated parts, as an ecology. At this new level of comprehension, British urban historians have played an important part.

The outstanding figure among them has been Jim Dyos. Before his death in 1978 at the age of 57 he was recognised as the focus of British urban history and its leading exponent. It has been rare among British historians for a single scholar both to sponsor and draw to himself a major field of study. Urban history in Britain was given its lead by the union in Dyos’s mind of history and the social sciences, applied, not to a period or a theme, but to a phenomenon – the city. It was he, more than any other, who, late in the 1950s, hit upon the city as a unit of study, and single-mindedly devoted his career to it. London was the home soil of this Anteas of British urban history, bearing and sustaining him. For Dyos, London was the great sui generis among cities, the ‘world metropolis’, that ‘dear, damned, distracting town’. But it was Leicester University that gave him the opportunity to do what he did. It was a place highly favourable to his interests, an example of how a school of history in a civic university can make its mark, building on the work of predecessors – in this case, H.R. Finberg and Jack Simmons – and sustained by its press. At conferences Jim Dyos would be accessible to all, urbane as the doyen of urban historians ought to be. Any new approach to towns and cities interested him.

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