University of Portsmouth's History Blog

‘Making waves’: the activities of the Port Towns and Urban Cultures group.

This blog, by Dr Mel Bassett, research associate for the Port Towns and Urban Cultures project, discusses the many activities of the PTUC group, from working on major First World War exhibitions, to sharing their research with schoolchildren. Mel’s research interests centre on dockyard workers’ identities and the role of empire in the Edwardian period.

Situated on the south coast, and on the doorstep of some of the nation’s most important naval and maritime heritage, the History Department at the University of Portsmouth are undertaking exciting new research into the influence of maritime history on land.

Port Towns and Urban Cultures (PTUC) group was established in 2010 by Professor Brad Beaven, Dr Karl Bell and Dr Robert James, and now boasts a team of international collaborators from the academic and professional world.

We have a vibrant postgraduate environment. There have been 11 ‘Port Town’ PhD students so far, and the creation of the new Naval History MA in October 2016 has already welcomed over 40 students.  We also had the pleasure of welcoming a visiting scholar from the University of Oviedo, Asturas, Spain.

Indeed, Portsmouth has become the centre of all things ‘Port Towns.’ We have established links with universities and museum networks in Liverpool, Hull, London and Scandinavia, and are now looking East and forging partnerships with Kobe University’s ‘Port Cities’ project in Japan. Moreover, we have a presence on the internet and social media. The Port Towns and Urban Cultures website features a range of collaborators from established academics to postgraduate students and offers a vibrant platform in which those interested in the influence of the sea can share their research. This is complimented by our presence on social media where we have loyal followings on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. There is now also a book, edited by Beaven, Bell and James, which showcases the importance and social and cultural uniqueness of port towns from around the globe.

We are currently undertaking research into several areas. One of our most ambitious projects has been to map the impact of Royal Naval, merchant and fishing sailor communities on land in Portsmouth by using our ‘Sailortown’ app, which was officially launched this year. Scholars and the general public will be able to understand the relationship between maritime livelihoods and community structures and physically walk through sailortown using our online guides. We hope to also extend this project out to other maritime communities, and are working in collaboration with the University of Gothenburg to do the same in Sweden.

Profs Mark Connelly and Brad Beaven admiring the Jutland pop-up exhibition

Another exciting project has been to research the impact the First World War’s most famous naval engagement, the Battle of Jutland, had on the British public. The project was funded by the AHRC’s Gateways to the First World War research centre, and working with the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsdown University of the Third Age, and several undergraduate student volunteers, we traced every Royal Naval sailor killed at the Battle. This has enabled us to make unique insights into how the naval war affected contemporary society, where sailor families lived and the long-term effects of the war at sea on memorialisation and heritage.

Mel Bassett at the opening of Portsmouth City Museums WW1 Exhibition

I am the original PhD student that came out of the Port Towns and Urban Cultures stable, so to speak, and am now a Research Associate on the project. As a postgraduate a few colleagues and I helped to establish the PTUC website and social media presence, which has gone from strength-to-strength since its creation in 2013. I have been very fortunate to work on a number of important and interesting projects such as Portsmouth’s First World War Centenary commemorations which included staging a £97,000 Heritage Lottery Funded exhibition and events programme. I came from a Museum professional background before undertaking my PhD, and this has helped greatly in forging links and establishing working relationships with non-academic collaborators. Another great project was working with the University’s UP for Uni team on workshops introducing children to the world of ‘Sickly Slums and Sailortowns’ – a Horrible Histories-themed day where they could learn about slum living, sailor slang and create their own tattoos (on nylon).

Prof Brad Beaven placing exhibits of Centenary Exhibition 2014


‘Sickly Slums and Sailortowns’: showing off tattoos

I also teach part-time at the University of Portsmouth, and without doubt, the most exciting part of my work is getting the opportunity to spread our research to our undergraduates. We have had several students volunteer on high-profile projects such as our AHRC Gateways to the First World War-funded Battle of Jutland project. Through working on an actual research project in tandem with Professor Brad Beaven and me, the students were able to get a real sense of the purpose of the research. They could see the tangible results that were produced through assisting us, and also got to see their work make a difference too. As a result the students have not only learned skills to help them in their degree, but also have experiences to cite on their CVs; which will raise their chances of employability. We are also pleased to note that some were so inspired that they undertook dissertation projects based on the topic.

The University of Portsmouth’s History Department is making big waves on land on the subject of maritime history, and I am glad to be at the forefront of new and exciting research.


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Website: porttowns.port.ac.uk

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All images author’s own.

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