A Walking Historian

History is a sedentary pursuit. Much of our research as historians involves breathing in archive dust or sitting on an office chair. Archives, libraries and the digital sphere open new worlds to us. I regularly use and enjoy discovering the past through them. Nevertheless, research for me also involves an element of walking. I’m already a walker and I adore the connection I can have with the past when walking through cities. I’m reminded of Larry R. Ford’s statement ‘I love to move through space – to run, to climb, to crawl, and most of all, to walk. I love doing field work because it constitutes a kind of aerobic academics’.[1] Sometimes we need to physically move through our subjects of research, not necessarily to tread in the footsteps of those we research but rather to understand the spatial arrangements of the places we study.

Take for instance my recent research trip to Cardiff. Based in Pen-y-lan, I walked from here to Cardiff University Special collections, the city centre, and Splott. I also strolled from Glamorgan Archive in Grange Town to Cardiff city’s centre. Walking these many and varied streets reinforced to me that class and social identity was (and continues to be) materially represented through house size, appearance, and fabrication. These are important questions for me as I attempt to figure out why university settlement houses decided to settle in specific urban districts. Cities are geographically bounded and it’s interesting to see how they are put together. I was lucky in that Cardiff was a manageable size for a pedestrian to wander about and to think about the places of Cardiff University Settlement.

Map of Spott showing where Cardiff University Settlement was based from B. M. Bull, 'The University Settlement in Cardiff', (Cardiff; School of Printing, 1965)
Map of Spott showing where Cardiff University Settlement was based from B. M. Bull, ‘The University Settlement in Cardiff’, (Cardiff; School of Printing, 1965)

With a map in my hand and Skittles in my pocket, I walked Splott. During my stroll I was able to see and physically feel why Cardiff University Settlement decided to settle here in 1903. The Victorian terrace houses are smaller and more compacted together than those of Roath and Cathays. The pathways feel thinner and doors open straight onto the pavement. Splott was largely built up in the nineteenth century to house the city’s dock and steel workers. Cardiff University Settlement initially rented two shops on the Portmanmoor Road which they knocked together to make ‘University Hall’, a club house for local residents where they could attend lectures, debates, mother’s meetings, or play games of Ping-Pong, chess or draughts.[2] Alternatively, they could take classes in metal/ woodwork, singing or drill. In 1903 it was decided to build a new building, which would include a gymnasium, library and classroom. Viscount Tredegar offered a 99 year lease for the site on the corner of Walker Road and Splott Road. By 1906 the settlement had completely abandoned its earlier premises.

Portmanmoor Road
Portmanmoor Road

Yet, as I traversed Splott’s streets, I was continually reminded of George Glasgow’s statement that ‘the new buildings were situated in a part of Splott where the population was of the superior artisan type, as opposed to the very poor casual dock-labourer type of Portmanmoor Road’.[3] Why would the settlement house’s move a few streets away have been such a concern for supporters? For me, walking just several streets highlighted a shift in Splott’s appearance and feel. University Place, where Settlement Hall was built in 1906, was markedly different from Carlisle Street only a few streets away. The houses on University Place are taller and larger. The architectural design is more ornate and impressive. Sadly, Settlement Hall no longer exists. The Cardiff University Settlement was disbanded after the First World War, the building knocked down. Even with the removal of Settlement Hall, walking can remind you not to read too much into early settlement narratives which had a tendency to emphasise the ‘outcast’ and ‘submerged’ elements of a city. Moreover, the settlement movement was always more than its buildings; it was a community engagement which sometimes needs to be placed beyond its own buildings.

University Place. Cardiff University Settlement was located at the end of the road. Photograph taken by Lucinda Matthews-Jones.
University Place. Cardiff University Settlement was located at the end of the road. Photograph taken by Lucinda Matthews-Jones.
Settlement Hall based on the corner of Walker Road and Splott Road. 'University Settlement: New Hall Opened at Cardiff', 'Cardiff Times', 17th December 1904.
Settlement Hall based on the corner of Walker Road and Splott Road. ‘University Settlement: New Hall Opened at Cardiff’, ‘Cardiff Times’, 17th December 1904.

Walking for research purposes always has its downsides, too. As Cardiff shows, buildings can disappear. It can remind you that history is not static but physically changing. The gates of Toynbee Hall no longer exist, for instance, and bombs destroyed parts of its building. Extensions can change a settlement house’s appearance. The garden around the Mary Ward Settlement have been built on. My desire to see whether the oak tree of Charles Dickens’ day was still there was held back by my fear that I might look less like a researcher and more like a criminal. Similarly, there are times when I have felt like an imposer or, to use a Victorian analogy, a slummer. I’ve seen people in doorways put their hands on their hips or stop their doorstep conversations. Meanwhile urban gentrification of some ‘slum’ districts have changed the feel of a place; making it more difficult for me to read.

In trying to understand nineteenth-century settling, walking, nonetheless, enables me to settle into the past.

[1] Larry R. Ford, ‘Building Biographies: To Know Cities from the Inside Out’, The Geographical Review, 1-2 (2001), p.381.

[2] ‘Our Newest Development’, University College Magazine, December 1901, XIV:2, p.143.

[3] George Glasgow, Ronald Burrows: A Memoir (London; Nisbet & 1924).

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