Space, Place, and Protest: The Historical Geography of Contentious Politics in London

This is a post I wrote for the Landscape Surgery blog describing my PhD and explaining what I plan (or hope!) to do.

Landscape Surgery

The Hyde Park Railings Affair ( Source: Anon., “The Riot in Hyde Park,” Illustrated London News, August 4, 1866, accessed March 24, 2014, Illustrated London News Historical Archive) The Hyde Park Railings Affair ( Source: Anon., “The Riot in Hyde Park,” Illustrated London News, August 4, 1866, accessed March 24, 2014, Illustrated London News Historical Archive)

In my PhD I plan to investigate the relationship between space, place and protest in London since 1780. Using case studies including the Gordon Riots (1780), the Hyde Park Railings Affair (1866), the Battle of Cable Street (1936), the Grunwick Strike (1976–8), and the Student Tuition Fee Protests (2010), I will attempt to argue that space, place, and protest are mutually constitutive, that they influence and impact each other (although I am fully prepared to find my hypothesis incorrect!)

The case studies were selected to be representative of the time frame, but also to represent different types of spaces, such as the street, parks, commons, and buildings. Although these distinctions do not stand up to much scrutiny, they help to ensure that…

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‘Archaeology by Twilight’ at the Museum of London Archaeological Archive

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Archaelogy by Twilight at the Museum of London Archaelogical Archive (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Last Thursday, I went to the ‘Archaeology by Twilight’ open evening at the Museum of London Archaeological Archive in Hackney. Part of a summer series of tours and events at the archive, the evening included tours, displays of items, spoken word performances and a bar. The archive holds information on almost 8,500 archaeological sites that have been investigated in Greater London over the past century, including many of the items found ( With a huge variety of items, from human remains, medieval hairnets, cars and carriages to board games, horns, and Roman pots, it was a fascinating evening.

My favourite part of the evening was an atmospheric tour around the ceramics and glass archive, with the lights switched off and the chanting of medieval monks playing in the background. Armed with torches, we were let loose amongst the rows of cabinets and shelves, to gaze at pottery that was, in some cases, more than 2,000 years old. Once I got over the sensation that this was exactly how an episode of a murder mystery drama would start, I was struck by the sheer volume of material, each item with a story to tell about London’s past. The further we moved away from the door, towards the back of the room, the further back in time we went, to the Romans and beyond. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was very excited to see so much history in one room!

For me, the evening highlighted the process of museum exhibits. Displays and exhibitions in museums have the air of being complete, an accurate record of the past. This glimpse ‘behind the scenes’ suggested how much work goes into curating an exhibit in a museum. Most of the items in the archive will probably never go on display, what a visitor sees in the galleries of the Museum of London is just a fraction of everything that they hold. One of the most fundamental lessons I have learnt since starting my university education as an undergraduate is to question everything, to take nothing at face value. But I still find myself overlooking things, and welcome being reminded of the complexity and intricacy of seemingly simple things as I was on Thursday evening.

Another element that struck me was the particular materiality of this archive. When imagining archives, most people probably think of documents, records, letters, photos, maps, pieces of paper in various shapes and sizes. And whilst the Archaeological Archive no doubt has this kind of thing too, it also has thousands upon thousands of objects. Listening to the curators on Thursday night it was obvious that huge amounts can be learnt from the collections in the archive. For example, because the volume of material is so large, comparisons can be made between similar objects, leading to more general conclusions about life in London than it would be possible to make from one object. After exploring what the archive has to offer, it’s clear that it does not fit into the stereotypical image of ‘the archive’. Materiality has become a popular topic within geography over recent years, and I can think of at least a few historical geographers who use objects in their research. However I’m sure it is not the sort of research that springs to mind when people think of historical geography (when they think about historical geography at all!). ‘Archaeology by Twilight’ reminded me of the huge variety and potential of archives, which is something I wish that more people knew about!

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The Archaeology by Twilight bar (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

Call for Papers: Contesting the Capital- Historical Geographies of Protest in London

International Conference of Historical Geographers 2015, London, 5-10 July 2015

“Contesting the capital: Historical geographies of protest in London”

Convenors: Hannah Awcock (Royal Holloway, University of London, UK) and Diarmaid Kelliher (University of Glasgow, UK).

In recent years London has been the site for a wide range of protests: marches against austerity, student occupations, the 2011 riots, UK Uncut and protests by (and against) the English Defence League. Such protests in the capital and elsewhere have coincided with a growing interest in protest in the past amongst geographers and historians (Navickas 2012). Within this work there has often been a strong rural focus (for example, Griffin 2014). This session seeks to explore the historical geographies of protest in London as a contribution to these debates.

A number of recent works in geography have suggested ways in which the politics of London is embedded in expansive translocal and international connections (Featherstone 2010; McDowell, Anitha, and Pearson 2012; Brown and Yaffe 2014). From the Peasants’ Revolt to Women Against Pit Closures marching in London during the 1984-5 miners’ strike, the national and imperial capital has also often functioned as a focus for a broad political imaginary. This session invites both empirically-based papers and methodological debates on researching London’s relationship to historical geographies of protest. A broad understanding of ‘protest’ will be employed, and we welcome papers reflecting on what constitutes protest.

Please send abstracts of no more than 200 words to both convenors by 29 August. In a separate paragraph, please provide details of any special audio-visual requirements or mobility requirements.

Hannah Awcock, Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London,; Diarmaid Kelliher, School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow, UK,

Further details on the ICHG Conference are available at:

Details of conference fees are available at:

Brown, Gavin, and Helen Yaffe (2014). Practices of Solidarity: Opposing Apartheid in the Centre of London. Antipode 46(1): 34–52.
Featherstone, David (2010). Contested Relationalities of Political Activism: The Democratic Spatial Practices of the London Corresponding Society. Cultural Dynamics 22(2): 87–104.
Griffin, Carl (2014). Protest, Politics and Work in Rural England, 1700-1850.
McDowell, Linda, Sundari Anitha, and Ruth Pearson (2012). Striking Similarities: Representing South Asian Women’s Industrial Action in Britain. Gender, Place & Culture 19(2): 133–152.
Navickas, Katrina (2012). Protest History or the History of Protest? History Workshop Journal 73(1): 302–307.