Rethinking the Postwar City

Speakers: Samantha Caslin, Kieran Connell, Sean O’Connell

Chair: Stephen Brooke

Using the case-studies of Belfast, Birmingham and Liverpool, this panel examines the changing dynamics of the post-war city.   The papers explore how urban spaces were both perceived and experienced during a period of rapid social change.  As they had been in an earlier period, urban spaces were a key site of moral panic in post-war Britain – over issues such as prostitution and crime, and increasingly over the issues of race, immigration, deindustrialisation and urban redevelopment.  The panel will explore ongoing efforts to curb the perceived immorality of urban spaces, the historic attempts by photographers and academic researchers to produce alternative representations, as well as the ways in which the residents of particular areas lived and attempted to come to terms with change in their daily lives.

Paper 1 Abstract: Samantha Caslin, ‘Controlling Urban Immorality: Vice and social control in 1950s and 1960s Liverpool’.

The postwar years were not, as they are popularly characterised, simply about social purity’s decline and the rise of a more permissive, youth-orientated culture. Concerns about street prostitution abounded and the prostitute continued to be identified as moral other. Questions about urban immorality and the need for official and more informal methods of social control were asked at both the national and local level after the Second World War. Consequently, official and unofficial attempts to control solicitation continued to reflect wider fears about female morality. In 1957 the Wolfenden Report led to more stringent regulation of sex workers and promoted the notion that the law had a legitimate part to play in pushing prostitution out of public view. Focusing on Liverpool, I will show how the Wolfenden debate was part of a broader cultural concern about young women and the morally corrupting effects of urban living. Liverpool had long been home to moral anxieties about young women’s virtue being corrupted by spending time on the streets of the port. Since 1908 the Liverpool Vigilance Association had run patrols around the docks and Lime Street train station. Though the organisation went into decline in the postwar years, this paper draws upon the Wolfenden debate to show that the moral discourses that the organisation engaged in still mattered. The idea that urban space was inimical to female respectability continued to have a currency, with the 1959 Street Offences Act that followed Wolfenden being about more than just punishing prostitution, it was about controlling urban, female sexuality in general.

Paper 2 Abstract: Kieran Connell, ‘“Turning Tricks”: prostitution, race and the city in the photography of Janet Mendelsohn’.

This paper examines the changing dynamics of the post-war inner-city through the photographic lens of Janet Mendelsohn, an American postgraduate student at the pioneering Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies.  Mendelsohn arrived at the Centre in 1966, two years after it was established by Richard Hoggart as a means of undertaking scholarly research into ‘mass’ culture.  She was encouraged by Stuart Hall, then Hoggart’s deputy at the Centre, to use photography as a means of doing cultural studies.  Over a two year period Mendelsohn would take more than 3,000 photographs and conduct scores of interviews with her subjects.  She was drawn to Balsall Heath, an area of Birmingham that – as the city’s largest ‘red light’ district – was the focus of considerable external anxiety.  This paper examines Mendelsohn’s attempts, as both a photographer and an academic researcher, at providing an alternative representation of the area and its residents.  It argues that Mendelsohn’s work provides an insight into the ways in which the city ‘in process’ was experienced – including by immigrants from south-Asia, Ireland and the Caribbean, as well as sex workers, their families and their clients.  Mendelsohn’s photographs, it will be argued, not only provide a view of the private lives of Balsall Heath’s residents, but also offer a starting point for thinking about how the intersections between class, race, gender and sex combined to transform urban space in the post-war period.

Paper 3 Abstract: Sean O’Connell, ‘Double Trouble: Social memory and Belfast’s Sailortown district’

Like other major UK cities, post-war Belfast underwent extensive ‘slum clearances’ and redevelopment that destroyed or dramatically re-shaped numerous inner city working class districts. Social historians have debated the nature of the impact of this traumatic experience on the working class social memory they examine in oral history testimonies and autobiographies.  This paper will set out to offer a new case study for this particular debate, whilst also offering a fresh twist to the discussion. It will argue that inner city Belfast underwent two sets of ‘Troubles’ from the late 1960s to the 1980s. The first was the sectarian violence most associated with the term, which broke down the uneasy social relations established between Catholic and Protestant workmates, neighbours, and communities. The second was the process of urban redevelopment, which alongside accelerating deindustrialisation, features as traumatic memory in popular representations of the city’s working class past.  Examining oral testimony, short stories and novels, photographs, and street art, this paper explores how the former residents of Sailortown have attempted to come to terms with the impact of urban redevelopment and deindustrialisation on their lives. This dockside district was one of Belfast’s most cosmopolitan areas.  Theft, illegal gambling, and prostitution were all features of life in the district. The Sailortown area prided itself on being ‘mixed’: meaning that unlike most Belfast working class districts, Catholics and Protestants co-existed in large numbers. The fracturing of those relationships by sectarian violence adds – potentially – an interesting gloss to the urban pastoral dynamic. This paper will investigate that issue as well as identifying the themes that feature most prominently (or are omitted) in the social memory of Sailortown.




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