Prof. Mona Domosh
Mona Domosh is Joan P. and Edward J. Foley Jr 1933 Professor of Geography at Dartmouth College, having completed a PhD at Clark University. She has served as president of the American Association of Geographers (2014-15) and is the author of numerous books and articles including American Commodities in an Age of Empire (2006), Invented Cities: The Creation of Landscape in 19th-Century New York and Boston (1996); the co-author, with Joni Seager, of Putting Women in Place: Feminist Geographers Make Sense of the World (2001); and co-editor of the Handbook of Cultural Geography (2002).
“By the time I learned that there was a field of study called historical geography and that I could potentially “do” it, its few practitioners in the United States were already an endangered species. This was in the late 1970s, when the larger field of geography itself was under attack within the US academy as key departments closed or were failing or were under threat. And since geography is not a school subject in the US, those attacks could very well have been fatal. At Clark University, however, where I was an undergraduate, geography not only existed but dominated the university. And although my major in Philosophy fulfilled my romanticized notion of what University studies should be, a much more gut interest in understanding the material, grounded world left me dissatisfied with my clever papers on Aristotle and Kant. The geography department had the ‘buzz’ at Clark, and so I enrolled in ‘Introduction to Cultural Geography’ taught by Martyn J. Bowden. What I had loved much of my life—seeing and making sense of places—I realized had a name: cultural-historical geography. And so for me it was a very fortuitous set of circumstances that put me in the path of becoming a geographer and historical geographer. I was lucky enough to be in one of the few institutions in the US where geography was happening in a way that just sat right with my own passions.
In a way I had been a historical geographer long before I came to University. By the time I was 18 I had lived in eight different states, mostly on the US East Coast but with exceptions that included Indiana and Alabama. Trying to make new friends and fit into different schools each year was brutal but also, I realize in retrospect, informative. I learned that places are different, and that their histories mattered. And I realized that I liked figuring this all out. I also came from a family that was interested in US history, and many of our family vacations were spent at historic sites, particularly Civil War battlefields. The Civil War was my father’s passion, and as the youngest and I guess the most receptive in the family I listened to his mini-lectures about what had transpired on those corn fields over 100 years before. So by the time I found the discipline of historical geography, I had already been an amateur historical geographer for a long time.
In graduate school at Clark I was lucky to have a cohort of other students interested in historical geography. We organized an informal (or perhaps it was formal?) seminar with a loosely-defined theme of cities and cultures, setting ourselves the task each week of analyzing a particular city at a particular point in time and trying to figure out what and why had made things “cultural” happen there (Carl Schorske’s Fin-de-Siècle Vienna and Denis Cosgrove’s work on Renaissance Venice and Vicenza were our “models”). I assigned myself the task of presenting on New York City in the first half of the 20th century—Greenwich Village, Modernist art and architecture, Stieglitz and O’Keefe, Langston Hughes, Max Eastman, etc.—an assignment that led me to my dissertation topic on the development and symbolism of New York’s first skyscrapers. Equally important to my graduate career was an amazing group of smart, strong, women graduate students (Joni Seager, Kathy Gibson, Ruth Fincher, Julie Graham, Cindi Katz) who led by example and who made Clark Graduate School of Geography a feminist place without any coursework being offered or even those words being spoken. After all of my moves, I felt that I had finally found a home.
But the “real” world of the academy loomed large and I was anxious to make my mark. Unfortunately the real world wasn’t particularly interested in historical or cultural geography, nor, for the most part, were academics interested in hiring strong, smart women. Like all historical geographers in the US, I had to market myself as something else; I worked at the edges of urban and economic and that helped. The urban and economic descriptor at least got me some visiting positions, six of them, making me a sort of geographer for hire, teaching pretty much every class within the field of human geography (except, of course, historical geography).
Luckily one of those positions was a post-doc at Loughborough University in the East Midlands of England where cultural-historical geography was thriving. The Iconography of Landscape had just been published, and Denis Cosgrove and Steve Daniels along with their graduate students formed a community that couldn’t have been more inspiring for me. That year was vital to my intellectual trajectory; I had time to read and think, and I met the historical-cultural geographers who still today form what I consider my historical geographic community: in addition to Cosgrove and Daniels, I met Mike Heffernan, David Matless, Felix Driver, Miles Ogborn. Inspired by their work and by the feminist historians and geographers that I was reading, I wrote the draft of what became “Toward a Feminist Historiography of Geography,” still my most cited article!
However back in the US, historical geography remained an un-marketable subfield. In fact for my 30-plus years of teaching I have yet to teach a course with historical geography in the title. But it has infused all of my teaching and shapes my research. My work has never strayed very far from early 20th century New York (class structure in New York compared to Boston; women, gender, shopping, and department stores; New York as the center of an economic empire), nor from the community of strong women geographers who shaped my sense of self. I found a space at Florida Atlantic University where I spent a decade, and at Dartmouth College for the past 17 years I have had the pleasure of helping to build a strong and vibrant department. Some of us in the department now call ourselves critical historical geographers. We might still be an endangered species, but if the exciting and intellectually-challenging work being done by this group of young geographers is any indicator, the future of historical geography in the US is one that I’m looking forward to.”
*This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2017 issue of the HGRG Newsletter
Dr Simon Naylor
Simon Naylor is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Glasgow. He is also currently one of four co-editors of the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. His research interests include the historical geographies of science, technology and exploration. He is the author of Regionalizing Science: Placing Knowledges in Victorian England (2010) and the co-editor (w/ James Ryan) of New Spaces of Discovery: Geographies of Exploration in the Twentieth Century (2009). Simon is currently working towards a new book on meteorological observatories in nineteenth-century Britain and its empire.
“I wish I could begin this potted autobiography with the story of an inspiring geography teacher, or of tales of geographical auto-didacticism in the landscapes of my youth. But frankly both would be fabrications. For point of information, I grew up in Camborne, a generally down-at-heel tin-mining town in West Cornwall. (The eagle-eyed reader of this column will note that Nicola Thomas, who wrote a lovely ‘How I became…’ in the Summer 2016 issue of this Newsletter, also harks from the same place.) I did study Geography at school although I can’t remember the name of my teacher or indeed much of what I studied. The only thing I can actually recall was a laughably bad project on the quality of road surfacing in and around the village of Illogan. I didn’t study history at all after about the age of 14. I do though remember my English teacher, Mr King, with much fondness, a Labour activist and Cornish nationalist, who encouraged us all to study for a GCSE in the Cornish language (I didn’t to my shame). I decided to study A-Level Geography, with a vague plan to study English Literature too, but when I went to an open day the geography teacher told me it would be much better if I stuck with the sciences and did Geology instead. So I did. Turns out he also taught Geology. Anyway, I enjoyed both.
Like many aspiring Cornish students I decided to head across the Bristol Channel to purse a degree in Geography at what was then (in 1991) University College Swansea. I took Geology as a subsidiary subject, for the not very noble reason that I thought it would be less work than studying a new subject. One of the lecturers on the course (Danny McCarroll I think) spent a lot of time talking about the history of geology, which was the first time I’d come across the history of science and I found it fascinating. I was really fortunate to be an undergraduate at Swansea just as they took on a crop of new young human geography staff, including Pyrs Gruffudd, Gareth Jones, Paul Boyle and Keith Halfacree. All of these people helped me to develop as an academic geographer, despite only sporadic efforts on my part. Gareth and Pyrs were especially supportive. It is not a stretch to say that I wouldn’t be an academic myself if it hadn’t been for them. With their encouragement I put in a PhD application to study Anglo-Argentine relations in the second half of the nineteenth century. I didn’t get the funding to work with them at Swansea, but did get a grant to study for a PhD with Steve Hinchliffe and Tony Phillips at the University of Keele. Although I stuck with the same topic, Steve introduced me to exciting new perspectives—Science and Technology Studies (STS) and Actor-Network Theory. It was a heady time to be at Keele in that regard. John Law, in Sociology at Keele, had just established the University’s Centre for Social Theory and Technology. John became something of an informal mentor. The University received a steady flow of leading STS thinkers, including the likes of Bruno Latour and Michel Callon. I still remember with some embarrassment an awkward conversation with Donna Haraway about jacket potato toppings at a barbeque in John Law’s back garden.
After Keele I took up a job as a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Oxford. The project was a census of religious architecture in Britain, specifically its mosques, gurdwaras and mandirs. It was led by Ceri Peach, while James Ryan was the co-investigator on the grant. I’d got to know James when we were both members of the Social and Cultural Geography Research Group of the RGS/IBG and had both helped to organise the Research Group’s ‘Cultural Turns, Geographical Turns’ conference in 1997. I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with James ever since. Another advantage of being at Oxford was getting to know the historians of science there and spending time in the extraordinary Museum of the History of Science on Broad Street. After Oxford I took up a lectureship at the University of Bristol. I remember early on in my lectureship a strong feeling of freedom to pursue whatever topic I chose, without the constraints of a qualification or demands of a funding body. (Don’t worry, the sensation soon passed.) I chose to begin a study of nineteenth-century natural history and antiquarian societies back in my home county of Cornwall. I ended up spending 10 years on that project before a book eventually came out in 2010. It was certainly helped by a move to the University of Exeter’s Cornwall campus in 2007. I have very fond memories of the 50-mile round trip to the Morrab Library in Penzance on my road bike—cycling and archive study, with a pasty for lunch! In 2013 I left Cornwall again for the University of Glasgow, where I am now. The run to work along the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Kelvin River is frankly no match for the Cornish coastline, but getting to pound the paths with Hayden Lorimer goes some way to making up for that.
One of the chapters of my book on Cornish science looked at the pursuit of meteorology and climatology. Nowadays I seem to work on little else. I was very lucky to collaborate with a talented group of scholars on a large project, led by Georgina Endfield, on the historical geographies of extreme weather in Britain since 1700. Spending time on the Outer Hebrides with Neil Macdonald and James Bowen was one of the real highlights of the grant. I continue to be fascinated by the history of meteorology and have been visiting archives for something like eight or nine years with a view to writing a book on the subject, although with no immediate end in sight or reassuringly thick draft manuscript to show for all that labour. It has been my great privilege to have my intellectual vistas expanded through recent collaborations with Simon Schaffer at Cambridge and through the supervision of a group of very talented PhD students at Glasgow. I recently took on the co-editorship of the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. I remember being in awe of Pyrs Gruffudd’s 1994 paper in Transactions as an undergraduate, and utterly thrilled when I managed to get a paper published in the journal in 2002. So it is genuinely with feelings of happy bemusement that I find myself at the helm of this august publication. It is of course a journal that endeavours to represent the geographical discipline as a whole and so quite rightly does not privilege certain sub-disciplines over others. But, strictly between you and me, it has been particularly rewarding to work with the authors of some excellent papers on historical geography topics.”
*This article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of the HGRG Newsletter
Dr Elizabeth Baigent
Elizabeth Baigent is the University Reader in the History of Geography at the University of Oxford, and Senior Tutor and Academic Director of Wycliffe Hall’s international programme. She was educated at Oxford and Münster, has held research fellowships at Oxford and Stockholm, and a visiting professorship at Johns Hopkins University. From 1993 to 2003 Elizabeth was Research Director of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. She is fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, the Royal Historical Society, the Royal Geographical Society, and the Higher Education Academy.
“Like many, perhaps most, people who become geographers, I owe my choice of career to an inspiring teacher. Norah Stevens (now Laurie) was young, UCL-trained, intelligent, and energetic, and blew a blast of fresh air through my genteel Bath school. Her field trips were memorable, particularly for those who travelled in her thunderously loud Mini which had a road clearance of about an inch, but primarily because we discovered what the landforms we had learned about in lessons really looked like. The most influential text I read at school was W.G. Hoskins’s Making of the English Landscape (1955). This, I thought, was a geographer whose writing, method, and deep affection for the English landscape were inspiring. The discovery that this geographer was a historian did not prevent the text’s encouraging me to pursue geographical study. Perhaps three elements of my geographical life can be traced to my school experience: geography outside its disciplinary bounds, formidable women, and a temperamental and intellectual preference for empirically informed work, often with links to landscape.
Geography outside its disciplinary bounds
My early experience with Hoskins’s writings exemplifies my conviction that geography need not be done in geography departments or by geographers. My professional life has been split fairly equally among geography departments, history departments, and research institutions outside the departmental mould. My undergraduate and doctoral degrees were from Oxford’s School of Geography (1977–80 and 1980–4), but I took a year out to work at the Institut für vergleichende Städtegeschichte (Institute for Comparative Urban History) in Münster (1983–4). A succession of postdoctoral fellowships saw me work inside geography departments (a Leverhulme fellowship at the University of Stockholm (1984–5) and a Fulbright at Johns Hopkins University (1990–91)) and outside them (a Junior Research Fellowship (1985–90) and a British Academy Research Fellowship (1991–4) held at Oxford colleges). My most formative post, that of Research Director of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the largest humanities research project ever in the UK, brought a Research Lecturership in Oxford’s history faculty. The dictionary’s editor, the political historian Colin Matthew, wanted a second in command who had a different historical perspective from his and valued my geographical training. I spent ten happy years at the ODNB surrounded by an international team of scholars of the highest calibre. Among other tasks I oversaw the rewriting of the geographical sections of the dictionary—revising articles which had accumulated over the hundred odd years since the dictionary was first published, and adding new ones. Some of my biographical subjects had worked in geography departments, but there were also travellers, explorers, surveyors, cartographers, writers, civil servants, imperial servants, missionaries, diplomatists, naval and army officers, teachers and writers for children, officers of learned societies, and others besides, all doing geography, widely interpreted. After the ODNB was published in 2004 I moved to a Readership in the Oxford geography department where I remain. My career and my ODNB experience exemplify the fact that much geography happens outside geography departments, and that this can deepen and broaden our discipline and our understanding of it.
If my schoolmistress led me to choose geography, my decision to apply to Oxford was inspired by another formidable woman—my mother who read history at Oxford. Of the colleges to which I have been attached, the two most formative were women’s colleges: St Hugh’s and St Anne’s. Much of my academic work—whether early work on household types in nineteenth-century Sweden, later work on improving the coverage of women in the ODNB, or my recent volume on Octavia Hill, a founder of the National Trust—has been influenced by a wish to write women into the historical record. As an individual I have been treated with great courtesy by my male colleagues (though I experienced sustained antagonism from one when the demands of small children put an end to long hours in the office); but those male colleagues have unquestionably shaped the culture and system within which I have worked. Being vastly outnumbered by men, and often being the only woman in high level meetings have been simple facts of my professional life. I wish I were confident that matters were improving.
The material world and empirical study
My early enthusiasms for being in the field and understanding landscapes remain. I was lucky to have as my doctoral supervisor Jack Langton, though it was not perhaps until I coedited a Festschrift for him (English Geographies, 2009) that I realised how much I had been affected by his insistence on the highest standard of empirical work, informed but never overwhelmed by theory, and always aiming to shed light on the material world. This perspective was consolidated by my stays in Germany and Sweden with their empirical geographical traditions, and work at the ODNB where empirical details had to be comprehensive and correct. I now lead regular field trips, for example, for scholars from the International Commission on the History of Geography’s London meeting (2015), and I included an excursion in the conference I organised with the National Trust on Octavia Hill (2013) so we could see the landscapes she worked in. My interest in the material world includes an interest in maps as representations of the world and as material objects, and I continue to work on the history of cartography following an initial collaboration with Roger Kain.
I have been lucky enough to have a non-standard but thoroughly enjoyable geographical career and, with a contractual retirement date of 70, I still have plenty to go! ”
*This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016-17 issue of the HGRG Newsletter
Prof. Gerry Kearns
Gerry Kearns is Professor and Head of the Department of Geography at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. He has written widely on the intersection of historical, political and medical geographies, with a current focus on the cultural politics of AIDS. His book Geopolitics and Empire (2009) won the Murchison Award from the Royal Geographical Society and he was Distinguished Historical Geographer at the Association of American Geographers Conference in 2015. He sits on the editorial boards of Historical Geography, Journal of Historical Geography, and Irish Geography.
“I have rediscovered some of my school-friends through Facebook. It’s a strange experience to meet again the person I was when last these people knew me, some forty years ago. I am told I was more conservative than I now appear to be. I recall that we argued about ideas, religious and political, but rarely academic. In fact, the subjects with the most discussion of ideas for their own sake were Art and Religious Education (R.E. to us all); R.E. perhaps inevitably since this Catholic comprehensive school had been salted by the high tide of Vatican II and we were encouraged to debate–as long as we landed in the right place (another story, another time), but discussion in Art was down to an inspirational teacher, Rosemary Young, who set topics like “Fear” and then told us we must think before we could know how to respond with pencil, crayon or paintbrush. My sense is that I chose Geography for University studies because I had the ambition of postponing the existential choice between Arts and Sciences. I had no sense that I might actually “do” Geography. I was going to learn it. The few “advanced” Geography books that I found in my local “Paperback Parade” (the Chorley/Haggett collections from the Madingley conferences for school teachers—how many school students were told that this was the discipline’s challenging future?) were written by people who had access to arcane texts such as Bull. Geol. Soc. Am. (not on the shelves or known to the staff of Luton Public Library). Clearly Geography was made by other beings in other places.
I went to Cambridge and enjoyed the impish and scholarly Professor “Dick” Chorley, editor and author of so many Madingley texts (Frontiers, Directions, the three volume Models). His own ‘re-evaluation of the geomorphic system of W. M. Davis,’ from Frontiers in Geographical Teaching was a delightful, even sly, piece of writing, recruiting Davis for a new Geography based on General Systems Theory. There was grandeur in this view of life. Everything was related to everything else. Systems had a shape. The world did, or should, behave as the models men like Chorley devised. In this form it might even be controlled. Heady stuff for me. And that Bull. Geol. Soc. Am.: in those days it had a P number, a letter indicating its height, and bound back issues were in a stack in the glacial heights of the University Library, whereas recent issues were in the pigeon-holes of the balmy Periodicals Room. So this was where one could do Geography, and mercurial Dick was clearly doing it. But, so was the insurgent and inspirational Derek Gregory, and this was where Historical Geography began.
If General Systems Theory made our world predictable, then, scientists could sort it out. Historical Geography did not sit easily with this positivism. The problem was not the holism of GST but rather its technocratic inflection. In part this was philosophical, and Derek led us confidently through the epistemological criticisms of positivism, but it was also political, and here Derek incited us to engage the Marxist case against the idea of neutral expertise. If society was divided into antagonistic classes, and if the neutrality of science was accepting of the status quo, then, managing an unfair society was not necessarily the highest calling of science. We might call this an ideology critique. These were big “ifs,” however, and the plausibility of Historical Materialism rested upon its claims about the sources of historical change. We might call this a historical materialist explanation. And so to Historical Geography. Historical Geography offered a space to interrogate the claims of Marxism, treating it as a research project rather than as a purely philosophical stance.
At Cambridge, we had a stats class where historical data was used to illustrate the modeling of contagious disease in spatial models. I went to the University Library and found a reprint (the wonderful Irish University Press series) of the Parliamentary Paper in which the cholera data had first appeared. It was clear that rather than being a neutral scientific concept, contagiousness in nineteenth-century Britain was an ideological concept. People understood disease through spatial metaphors that expressed fundamental assumptions about interpersonal responsibility and even about the nature of humanity itself. Why should this be any different today? Geographical ideas, then, circulate in public debate and can carry an ideological charge, contradicting the claims to neutrality in science. In the archives of former times, I could find traces of the ideological use of geographical ideas in many fields from public health to British imperialism.
Ideology critique was interesting and it gave me purchase upon modern debates about the nature and future of the British National Health Service, about the nature and future of American imperialism. The Marxist claims about the sources of historical change sent me back to archives with a related but rather different set of questions. Alongside the enjoyment of reading Karl Marx on the transformation of industrial capitalism in nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland, I also recovered a materialist analysis from the works of Michel Foucault. Foucault’s discourse analysis linked ideology to institutions, and Marx’s Capital linked institutions such as the Poor Law to the class dynamics of industrial capitalism.
This set of connections made Historical Geography an exciting field to research and also to teach. I have always found teaching a particularly instructive way to stretch my reading and understanding. If you want to understand something, try to teach it. My own teaching was developed at Liverpool with enthusiastic Dick Lawton and obsessive Paul Laxton and, with their emphasis upon archive-based field-trips, I was continually following the example of Edward Thompson, Philip Corrigan and Raphael Samuel in operationalizing Historical Materialism for projects tracing the social and economic fissures of nineteenth-century British society. With other friends in Historical Geography, I produced Urbanising Britain, a set of essays about nineteenth-century Britain combining theoretical and empirical work in precisely this way.
The most important political questions in modern society rest upon claims about how society was and is changing. These claims are also germane to arguments about desirable social and economic change. Having moved from Liverpool to Madison, Wisconsin, I was confronted by a new historical context. US society is formed by the violent taking of land from indigenous peoples and I found myself trying to think whether Historical Geography could serve as a critical space for reflecting upon that new society. Again, it was the imperative of teaching Historical Geography that broadened my reading, and led me into New Western Society. If I had been closer to African-American or indigenous people at the time I lived in Madison, I might not have found this set of historians quite as original as I did, but nevertheless from this reading I tried to explicate a way of relating critique, norm and utopia and developing new historical projects for myself and with my students. I described this approach in a paper on ‘The virtuous circle of facts and values.’
I returned to Cambridge after a few years in the US and found a great group of graduate students with whom to develop further the Foucauldian themes of my earlier work. Foucault’s own work on sexuality was being published and the lectures on Biopolitics had appeared in English. There was a community of colleagues and students from Geography and from the Cambridge Group for the Study of the History of Population and Social Structure with whom to debate new books and articles on Biopolitics. In part under the pressure of this stimulating discussion of Biopolitics, I became increasingly interested in the Irish famine and in the anticolonial nationalism that was probably the most articulate contemporary response. This felt like a significant shift because I had previously been studying urban public health as part of the dynamics of British industrial capitalism and had focused upon the cholera epidemics of the mid-nineteenth century. Yet, for most of the cities I had been studying the typhus epidemic of 1847 had been more serious than the cholera epidemic of 1849. Historians treated typhus as a disease of Irish emigration, one of the sequelae of the Irish famine, whereas cholera was understood as part of the broad process of urban growth; the first contingent, the latter structural. Yet, by refocusing upon Ireland and Britain as a single system, the question of the relations between colonialism and capitalism was reposed in a new way and cholera might be seen as yet another consequence of the Irish famine.
Increasingly, I take up the relations of Ireland and Britain when I consider any of the big themes in Historical Materialism and Biopolitics. This is the basis of work with Irish colleagues, collected as two special issues of Historical Geography (vols. 41 and 42). It is also central to my recent work on security and territory (published in Society and Space 32.5 and in Territory, Politics, Governance, in press). As I develop the theme of colonialism from the perspective of a historical geographer, my work in Historical Geography is now much closer to my longstanding interest in Geopolitics. I am now in Ireland and find myself asking myself what it means to live in a postcolonial society. My formation as a historical geographer sensitizes me to these matters and gives me a scholarly context for doing Geography that might be useful for myself and my neighbours.”
*This article originally appeared in the Autumn 2016 issue of the HGRG Newsletter
Dr Alan Baker
Alan Baker is a Life Fellow of Emmanuel College having been a university lecturer at Cambridge from 1966 to 2001. He was a founder member, and twice Chair, of the HGRG and served as Editor of the Journal of Historical Geography from 1987 to 1996. His research is focused upon the changing society, economy, culture and landscape of France during the nineteenth century. He is currently completing a book on amateur brass bands, choirs and sports clubs in France, 1815-1914.
“My life-long interest in the histories and geographies of peoples and places began in my teens. I was born and lived in Canterbury until leaving for university in London on approaching my 19th birthday. Canterbury was centrally placed in East Kent. As a pillion-rider on my father’s Matchless motorcycle and then on my own Raleigh pedal-cycle, I became acquainted with the distinctive landscapes and life-styles of the North Downs, the Stour valley, the Weald, Romney Marsh, Dungeness, and Kent’s varied coastlines and contrasting seaside towns. That local experience was enhanced by many Scout camps in the county and broadened by ‘foreign’ explorations when camping in the Norfolk Broads, Epping Forest and the Thames Valley.
At school I focussed on the humanities. My Geography teacher, a Cambridge graduate of St Catharine’s College, nearing retirement, taught effectively rather than inspiringly. Lessons in English and History did more to sharpen my critical faculties, but my nascent interest in places, landscapes and maps was best served by those in Geography. In 1956 I sat the State Scholarship examination, taking papers in Geography and History. For Geography, I answered questions on glaciation, long-shore drift, rivers and the settlement history of Australia—scant sign there of a preference for human geography! For History, I had to answer just two questions: “Consider the view that the French Revolution brought benefits to every European country but France” and “What qualities distinguish the great historian?” I have spent much time since then trying to answer the latter question!
The seed of a historical geographer planted in me before I left school was brought to fruition at university. My school entered me to read Geography at St Edmund Hall, Oxford, and Trinity College, Cambridge. I was interviewed frighteningly at both and thankfully rejected by both. Subsequently, I was interviewed at University College London and accepted its offer. I cannot recall the extent to which applying to UCL was my decision or that of my school. But it was, deliberately or fortuitously, an excellent and life-changing choice.
Geography at UCL was led by Clifford Darby. He had created a department whose staff all had historical-geographical interests—even the physical geographers were denudation chronologists and historical climatologists. Challenging courses by Darby on the historical geography of England and on the methods of historical geography enthused me, as did stimulating courses by Bill Mead on the historical geography of Scandinavia and North America, Hugh Prince on that of England, Tony French on Russia, Jim Johnson on Ireland and Karl Sinnhuber on Central Europe. During the Easter Vacation 1958, first-year students enjoyed a week’s residential field class in Norfolk. Darby lectured us in the field about the coming of the Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians to East Anglia and about the Agricultural Revolution in Norfolk. One evening we were joined by Jean B. Mitchell, a lecturer in historical geography at Cambridge University and author of the classic Teach Yourself book Historical Geography (1954). After supper, Darby invited me to join him and Miss Mitchell to discuss issues in historical geography. I was overwhelmed by the occasion but it served Darby’s purpose—to encourage me to become a historical geographer.
That summer I spent a week with Hugh Prince in Norfolk on a research project. Together with another student, Clifford Green, we stayed at a pub/hotel in Fakenham. We investigated the numerous “holes” that had been noticed in Norfolk’s fields during our Easter field class. We spent four days observing the holes, recording their features, and then two days searching the archives of the Earl of Leicester at Holkham Hall, in north Norfolk. We concluded that most of them were abandoned marl pits, relicts from the agricultural improvement of the light soils of Norfolk during the eighteenth century. That was an exhilarating week. It provided an insight into research methods and into the thrill of the intellectual chase that is historical enquiry; it taught me the importance of combining field and archival evidence when investigating landscapes; it revealed to me the excitement of working with archives, intensified by our doing so in the magnificent library of Holkham Hall; and it gave me a taste for debate, because during the week the three of us had lively and wide-ranging discussions about historical geography.
While an undergraduate, I was minded to become a schoolteacher. I held a place at the University’s Institute of Education for its PGCE course. But on being awarded a First Class degree in 1960 and a postgraduate scholarship by the University of London, some quick rethinking had to be undertaken. I discussed the dilemma with my fiancée, Sandra—on the golf course at Herne Bay, walking her Corgi dog, she persuaded me to grasp the opportunity to do a PhD.
Clifford Darby was my research supervisor. He had three topics on which he was keen for research students to work: the 19th century British manuscript census, the Tithe Survey, and field systems. As I was from Kent, Darby invited me to work on its enigmatic field systems. But I had found Hugh Prince’s approach very open-minded and stimulating and for my first term as a research student at UCL I worked on the landscape gardens of Kent, Surrey and Sussex, as an extension of Hugh’s work. Darby was unimpressed with the topic and advised me to change, which I did during the Christmas vacation of 1960. Hence my research for a PhD was on the field systems of medieval Kent. I worked with enormous fascination and enjoyment in the archives of the Public Record at Chancery Lane in London (where the taps in the washroom were labelled H, C and D—hot, cold and drinking—constantly reminding me of my supervisor, known to his colleagues amicably as “HCD”); in the Kent Archives Office at Maidstone (adjacent to the daunting County Prison); and in the archives of Lambeth Palace and Canterbury Cathedral. But in the middle of my second year as a research student I had nagging doubts about the social value of what I was doing. I considered seriously an alternative—training to become a probation officer. For a few weeks I struggled with my conscience, finally concluding that abandoning research would mean two wasted years and that I could pursue such training after completing my doctorate if I still wanted to do so. In the event, my PhD was awarded in 1963 and I determined to remain in academia. I viewed it as a career not only in research but also in teaching and thus with opportunities to make a positive contribution to changing society through influencing individual students. I have never regretted that decision. Unexpectedly, much later, my role as Senior Tutor of a Cambridge college was at times not unlike that of a probation officer.”
*This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of the HGRG newsletter
Dr Nicola Thomas
Nicola Thomas is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Exeter. Nicola is a previous HGRG Chair (2009-12), having served on the group’s committee since 2002 as Newsletter Secretary and Secretary, and currently serves on the Council of the Royal Geographical Society (2014-17). Her research interests include postcolonial geographies of gender, race and empire; the creative economy; histories of geography and science; and gendered labour practices and career progression in higher education.
“Some of my favourite conversations are with sixth form students who are choosing what undergraduate degree to do. They arrive for taster days on campus, and I frequently share with them that I regret all the stress I generated around whether to study geography or history, and my sadness at ceasing to study English literature. I go on to tempt them with historical and cultural geography. Their anxieties start to recede as they realise, as I did in my second year of undergraduate study, that they can ‘have it all’. These conversations remind me of my 17 year old self, finding my easy enjoyment of the past offset by my passion to single-handedly resolve global warming, and my curiosity piqued by an article in the Geography Review introducing me to the thinking of Amartya Sen written by Bill MacMillan, a lecturer at Oxford.
My Geography teachers didn’t think I should apply to Oxford. They failed to appreciate the power of sibling rivalry, and the lure of recognising that the person who wrote in the Geography Review might teach you at University. I applied to Hertford College, Oxford and was interviewed by Bill. During the first year I was possibly the only person in my college cohort to enjoy the module about ‘The History of Oxford’ and the seeds were sewn in a module on ‘Ethnology’ where we analysed the visual culture of ‘Nanook of the North’. I now see the discussion of the politics of the film produced by Robert and Frances Flaherty as my first encounter with postcolonialism, although it was not described as such at the time!
There are four academics who were fundamental to my becoming a historical geographer: Susan Parnell, Jack Langton, David Matless and James Ryan. I only had two tutorials with Susan Parnell, visiting from South Africa. She told me that I had interesting things to say, and should be more confident. A small lull in rough sea where you needed some resilience against persistent micro-aggressions.
Jack Langton was the person in Oxford who enabled me to appreciate the way you could understand the relations of time, space and intersections of materiality, class and power as a historical geographer. In an armchair at St Johns, tutorials may have started with debates about proto-industrialisation in Northern England, but my mind was taken to the terrain I was knew well—Cornwall. Jack, enabled me to place the familiar with a new geographical sensibility. He offered intellectual curiosity, interest, encouragement and kindness. I still regret my 20 year-old self for not appreciating the value of a week spent with Jack in a record office. I went on a University rowing training camp instead.
I grew up in Camborne, amongst the decline of Cornwall’s mining industry. The global history of Cornish mining was part of my own family story. My mother was quietly passionate about this place, and in enabling others living in our deprived neighbourhood to value the something of its history. She embedded this through her secondary school teaching practice. As a child I accompanied her as she prepared for the many history field trips she led. I learnt through her own development of teaching materials—in country houses, on the mine dumps, taking town walks, and then in discussion around the kitchen table. She trained me by stealth: my primary school history project on Camborne Church involved me hunting down the features described by archaeologist Charles Thomas; the ‘living history’ survey I did with my grandparents generation who remembered their schooling at Troon; and through the conversation about archives that we had when I helped cover copies of the local 1901 census with plastic fablon ready for the next day class. I joke I had an ‘improved childhood’ but I’ve only recently come to value those ‘quick flips’ we used to make to drop into the Cornish Studies Library to grab some more material from the archivist for one of her research led school projects. There is a reason for my comfort in the archives.
David Matless and James Ryan stand alongside Jack in providing the foundations for my development as a historical geographer. Fresh from their own PhDs, their lectures were captivating. David taught me in my second year and I discovered cultural geography. What I would later read in Landscape and Englishness were the delights of his lecture series. James held my attention with his careful crafting of postcolonial theory and slide shows. The pitch black lecture theatre with arresting images of atrocity and the narrative analysis of colonial power drew me in. Orientalism. I just knew I needed to spend more time with Edward Said. I would later write in the first paragraph of my DPhil thesis that it was an image in my third year lecture course that lead me to my research. James flicked the slide forward, and there was George Curzon, foot on dead tiger, the Viceroy of India. Standing against the tree behind was his wife Mary, with the Indian beaters in the background. James must have invited Felix Driver to give a seminar. The foundations became deeper.
It was James that led me to Royal Holloway (“there is a new MA in Cultural Geography – you should look at it”) and so I met Dennis Cosgrove, Felix, David Gilbert, Klaus Dodds, Deborah Sugg-Ryan, Keith Lilley, and the host of cultural geographers, including Alison Blunt and Catherine Nash, who came to give seminars. My MA cohort included Jo Norcup who carried on to complete a PhD and continues to be such an inspiring force. Highlights of the year were writing a review of James Duncan’s City as Text, and then meeting him when he came to external examine. Dennis was entertained when my sister recognized him at graduation from The Iconography of Landscape, which she told him was an excellent diversion from her endocrinology revision. We celebrate the 20th anniversary of this Masters this year, and it is a great honour to be the current external examiner on this Masters programme, which continues to shape the field.
Felix Driver said during my Masters year, “you seem to keep coming back to Mary Curzon”. Mary and James Ryan, who became my supervisor back at Oxford. These were years where the joy of immersion into the archives sat against the collateral of becoming stuck in a difficult relationship. James offered persistent support and encouragement. The network of historical geographers became critical as I extracted myself, and valued the confidence boosts that others talking to you about your work brings: my first interaction with HGRG, ICHG, London Group of Historical Geographers, the ongoing support from Royal Holloway, and the everyday companionship of PhD colleagues.
My foray as a post-doctoral research associate into the contemporary world of South Asian transnationality and commodity cultures has been unexpectedly important in shaping my career. It felt good, however, to be appointed as a lecturer at Exeter University and be preparing undergraduate modules on postcolonial historical geographies. During the first eight years of my time at Exeter, David Harvey, Catherine Leyshon, Jude Hill and James kept me tethered as my parents’ health took an early, tortuous, and incredibly saddening decline. Through the grief, grants were gained, new projects flowed, a clutch of PhD students were nurtured and I enjoyed my teaching. My long-term cultivation of stakeholders became well matched to the new ‘engaged research’ culture, and my tentative foray into creative economy historical geographies exploded as my new research around craft took hold.
HGRG committee work became part of my practice through the gentle encouragement of Hayden Lorimer: from stuffing newsletters into envelopes to inviting the International Conference of Historical Geographers to London. The strength of the network of historical geographers, across all generations, is an inspiring element of the culture of historical geography in the UK. Preparing for the 2015 ICHG with Felix, Charlie Withers and the RGS-IBG team was an extraordinary time. The generosity of the UK historical geographers in creating a vast portfolio of activities to share with our guests was humbling to witness and very energising. When asked about organising the conference, I share “it was a once in a lifetime experience”. Said with relief (it had been rather all-encompassing at times) and celebration, of our collective achievement.
Writing this piece connects me with a sense of being incredibly fortunate to be in a position to follow my curiosity, and be connected to people who care for me, and my work. My pillars of research around creative historical geographies and colonial historical geographies are converging, with projects in development that are exciting and compelling in equal measure. This Autumn I’ll be having a mini-sabbatical. It arrives at a good time, having slowly emerged from the darker side of grief, to a space where I am ready to flourish and enjoy communicating my historical geographies.
I became a historical geographer through the people who shared their own curiosity with generosity and quiet determination, and have encouraged me to do the same. Thank you.”
*This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of the HGRG Newsletter.