Explorations in European Urban History

By Richard Rodger

The British Welfare State was “invented” in 1942 by the social reformer and Liberal politician William Beveridge. After a landslide post-war election win in 1945, however, it was the Labour Party that launched a “Welfare State” – a comprehensive legislative programme that included universal health, employment, and social benefits while also nationalizing utilities and reforming the structure of high school education. Together these reforms attempted to address the “Five Giants” of poverty identified by Beveridge: idleness, want, disease, ignorance, and squalor. Between 1945 and 1950 this “Welfare State” agenda also coincided with initiatives to renew and re-plan cities, partly in response to enemy bomb damage but also due to years of minimal wartime maintenance. The resulting Town Planning Act (1947) was the foundation of modern city planning in post-war Britain. This programme of infrastructural renewal also caused Britain to re-assess the form and function of cities themselves, and was a stimulus to the development of urban history as a field of study.

The Five Giants of Poverty, 1943. Courtesy of author.

This interest in social structural reform foregrounded the social sciences in the university sector in Britain. It was enthusiastically taken up in the 1950s at the University of Leicester, where a conjunction of interests in economic history with that of established international figures in sociology (Neustadt, Elias) centered on urban issues, both contemporary and historical. Extensive British networks of urban historians developed through newsletters, research seminars, conferences, and the publication of an Urban History Yearbook, with H. J. Dyos the catalyst for many of the initiatives. Lasting academic and personal friendships were also forged with Leicester links to North American academics, which included Michael Wolff, Lynn and Andrew Lees, Clyde and Sally Griffen, Eric Lampard, Ted Hershberg, Zane Miller, Stuart Blumin, and Gil Stelter. Scholarship and friendship went hand in hand.

There was a pivot in the relationship in the early 1970s. As the UK embraced the potential of the European Economic Community (EEC), the forerunner of the European Union, so the scholarly and friendly elements pivoted towards continental European partners. Dyos’s lecture tours to European cities resulted in reciprocal visits to Leicester by a star-studded cast of visitors, which included Parisians Maurice Aymard (La Maison des Sciences de L’homme), Bernard Lepetit (École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales), Jean-Claude Perrot (Sorbonne), and François Bedarida (Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politique); Lutz Niethammer (Essen); Herman Diederiks (Leiden), Ingrid Hammarström (Stockholm), Antoni Maczak (Warsaw), Vera Bacskai (Budapest), and Alberto Caracciolo (Perugia). Links were also made between Leicester and Melbourne, Tokyo, and Delhi.

In a digital age it is difficult to comprehend the scale and velocity of hand- and type-written correspondence which underpinned these partnerships, though some measure of this can be gained from the papers in both the Dyos and Wolff archives lodged in Leicester University Library. If Dyos’s death in 1978 seemed to mark the passing of an era, there was in fact a passing of the baton, or more accurately, batons, to Peter Clark and Richard Rodger, both appointed to the Department of Economic History at Leicester University in the second half of the 1980s, and to David Reeder (History of Education). From 1980, the European credentials of urban history at Leicester gained momentum through teaching exchanges between Leicester and both Leiden and Amsterdam Universities. Student mobility, rather than staff exchanges, were increasingly favoured by the European Union, choreographed by Peter Clark, Heinz Schilling, Raymond Van Uytven, and Herman van der Wee amongst others, and funded through the ERASMUS programme, which from 1978-96 also included a graduate research workshop and undergraduate exchanges. The participating institutions were Leicester, Leiden, Leuven, and Gießen in 1987, subsequently expanded to include Ghent, Antwerp, Santander, and Lisbon (New University).

The contractor for these EU programmes was the Department of Economic History at Leicester University, within which a newly founded Centre for Urban History (CUH) was formed in 1985 in College House on the main University campus. Peter Clark, David Reeder, and Richard Rodger were all variously involved in the initial stages. What the dedication of physical space in the form of College House facilitated was the creation of a community. This took time to build, but with dedicated space and a specialist library, research seminars and training programmes for undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students, the newly established Centre for Urban History (see photograph) attracted visiting staff and students from all over Europe, through various exchange and enrichment programmes. It was a place to meet and greet scholars, young and old, to engage in intellectual conversations, and to plot future initiatives in urban history. Undergraduate courses were provided within economic and social history, and a Master of Arts course in European Urbanisation was designed, with nationally funded studentships, in association with the partner universities of Stockholm, Leiden, and Dublin. Personal friendships with Lars Nilson (Stockholm), Herman Diederiks (Leiden), and Anngret Simms (Dublin) were instrumental in developing these academic courses for Leicester exchange students, and the transfer of Tony Sutcliffe from Sheffield to Leicester also strengthened the menu of graduate courses available in the 1990s by offering a history of planning strand.

Centre for Urban History, established in 1985 in College House, University of Leicester. Courtesy of University of Leicester.

As the geopolitical configuration of Europe changed with German reunification, further partnerships developed. An early indication of things to come was the academic relationship established with Heinz Reif (Technical University, Berlin). From 1990, predictably, EU initiatives became more inclusive towards Eastern and Central Europe. The TEMPUS programmes in the early 1990s meant that Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest and Warsaw University were partnered with Leicester University for the purposes of research funding applications and research enrichment generally. Specifically, significant sums of research funding were available for computers and research materials, as well as for graduate student workshops, as in Keszthely, Hungary (1992) and Warsaw (1993), organised by Vera Bacskai. In this wider geopolitical climate, the TEMPUS programme also encouraged EU-USA partnerships, and once again CUH at Leicester negotiated such an agreement with both William and Mary College and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, which resulted in American students participating in EU funded urban history workshops. A similar approach was adopted between the CUH and Moscow State University which produced mainly staff exchanges between the two institutions. The SOROS foundation funded Masters studentships for Hungarian students at Leicester until in 2004 financial contributions abruptly ceased. There were also contacts through exchange visits, research seminars, and publications with Suzanne Zimmermann and the Central European University, Budapest, and in the Ukraine with Harald Binder’s imaginative foundation in Lviv of the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe, where Richard Rodger gave the Inaugural Lecture in 2006. Other friendships and CUH collaborative initiatives developed with Katalin Szende, Markian Prokopovich, Erika Szivos, and Katalin Straner.

Between 1991 and 1994, two major collaborative grants, both of about €1.25 million, were awarded by the EU to the CUH and its partners. One on “Comparative Urbanisation from the Middle Ages to the Present” involved a programme of research and publication. The other successful partnership was financed by the EU Social Fund Transnational Programme. Under this programme, Leicester and Leiden both trained about thirty graduate students each year in information technology and historical research methods. At Leicester, this was linked to an Economic and Social Research Council Project on Small Towns (Clark), and in developing bibliographical tools and research methods and materials (Rodger).

By these varied means – friendship, scholarship and partnership – the principal figures in European urban history scholarship and those in Leicester steered their various institutions and departments, mapped out new spheres of academic endeavour, and developed mutual trust and respect for one another and the study of urban history. Through their administrative roles in the various units and through national organisations in each country, a group Leicester academics and representatives from almost every European nation worked collaboratively to extend the range and depth of scholarship of urban history. Entrusted in this manner, succeeding generations have stepped up to advance the historical study of cities.

Editor’s note: The above piece is based on a longer journal article “Explorations in European History” published in Moderne Stadtgeschichte 2020:2, pp. 64-85. Click on the title in the previous sentence or here.


Richard Rodger obtained his MA and PhD from Edinburgh, and has held academic posts at Liverpool, Leicester, and Kansas Universities, returning to Edinburgh University as professor of Economic and Social History in 2007. Rodger was editor of Urban History for 21 years, co-organiser of the Urban History Group annual conference for many years, and general editor of more than 35 books in the series “Historical Urban Studies” (1996-2011), many of which have continental European perspectives. While at Leicester as Director of the Centre for Urban History and Director of the East Midlands Oral History Archive, Rodger also built research capacity by bringing audio and visual resources together. He continues this thread of innovative urban historical research through his current project “Mapping Edinburgh’s Social History” (MESH), which enables urban historians and the general public to develop historical and contemporary maps of the city.  His prize-winning monograph The Transformation of Edinburgh: Land, Property and Trust is just one of a dozen books, and he has contributed numerous articles on urban history to European journals. Rodger was elected to the UK Academy of Social Sciences in 2004. 

Featured image (at top): Gallow Tree Gate, the Main Street of Leicester, Eng., [1927]. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.