University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Nationalism, Regionalism and British identity in early 20th century England

Dr Melanie Bassett is a Research Associate for the Port Towns and Urban Cultures project. She also teaches undergraduate units in History. Here she talks about her chapter which is published in the Four Nations Approaches to Modern ‘British’ History. A (Dis)United Kingdom? edited collection, which is out now.

In 2015 I gave a paper at the United Kingdom? Four Nations Approaches to Modern ‘British’ History conference which prompted me to look at my research from a different perspective. My PhD thesis (completed at the University of Portsmouth) was entitled The Royal Dockyard Worker in Edwardian England: Culture, Leisure and Empire, and although I briefly considered the role of ‘Englishness’ and four nations (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland) perspectives on the British Empire, it was not a central consideration in my argument.

However, there were certainly parallels in my research with the Four Nations methodology. This approach was sparked by J.G.A. Pocock’s call in the 1970s for a more integrated approach to the history of Britain by incorporating the influences, perspectives and histories from the other nations that made up the British world (this also could include White settler colonies such as Pocock’s native New Zealand). In subsequent years historiographical movements towards a ‘New British History’ have illuminated new discourses for understanding what it meant to be ‘British.’ [1] This was really interesting to me as my subjects of study were state-employed Dockyard workers. These were the men who built the British Empire’s warships during the time of the great naval arms race which heightened tensions prior to the First World War. They came from across the United Kingdom for work and as a consequence Portsmouth, as Britain’s premier Royal Dockyard town, saw great expansion both geographically and in terms of its population.

My research focused on how Royal Dockyard workers processed the messages of the British Empire, and how this was communicated through their culture and leisure patterns. What struck me when writing my abstract in application to speak at the conference [2] was that there was a burgeoning leisure culture of regional and national societies (such as the Portsmouth and District Caledonian Society, the Portsmouth Cambrian Society, the Portsmouth Society of Yorkshiremen, and the Portsmouth Pembrokeshire Society, to name but a few) which were being established around the Edwardian period. Their proliferation showed that, not only were the public aware of their roots, but they were very keen to highlight and exploit these! Certainly, these societies were not just about ‘having fun’, but were important mechanisms for migrant workers to establish networks and kinship-like relationships away from ‘home.’ They were also important conduits through which to explore ideas of citizenship (and citizen rights) both in their adopted city, and within a wider context.

Following the conference I was invited to write a chapter for the book which was inspired by the conference. [3] The book combines prominent scholars in the field of ‘New British History’, and also Early Career Researchers such as myself, and will stand as an anthology which re-examines and challenges the four nations methodology as much as it celebrates and highlights its usefulness. My chapter, entitled “Regional Societies and the Migrant Edwardian Royal Dockyard Worker: Locality, Nation and Empire”, combines a four nations perspective with an understanding of social and workplace relations. Royal Dockyardmen, especially those who had relocated to work in the Dockyard, had many concepts about belonging to contend with – not least ideas about where they fitted in locally, nationally and in the British Empire as a whole. They also were subject to influential codes of conduct based on their place in society – as a skilled or unskilled worker and as part of the working class more generally – and they had limitations on what they could feasibly take part in in order to express their interests and wants.

What I wanted to explore was the process of identity-making in-situ through a case study of the naval dockyard town of Portsmouth, in the South of England, c.1900-1914. I did this by comparing local newspaper reports, the surviving archives of regional societies, and cross-referencing Royal Dockyard employment and Census records. Using these primary sources I was able to quantify the migrant experience and build up a picture of the activities and attitudes surrounding ideas of regionalism, nationalism and imperialism in the Edwardian era. By doing this I was able to highlight the intersection between national and local identities, personal and professional identities, and articulate the nuanced and complex subjectivities of working people.

The chapter extends and challenges the historiography of ‘New British History’ by adding nuance to the idea that there is a monolithic, one-size-fits-all interpretation of Britishness. Instead, the chapter highlights the importance of regionalism and the diffuseness of the British experience. It asserts that by investigating the national and regional societies formed in this period, alongside national and local expectations of the British ‘imperial citizen’, we can begin to explore the hybridity of British identity in a way that moves away from a ‘top down’, Anglo-centric history of the United Kingdom. A four nations approach is a useful conceptual model with which to seek out British patriotism and imperial identity. However, this should not negate other considerations which enable a more holistic understanding of the state of ‘Britishness’.



[1] J.G.A. Pocock, The Discovery of Islands: Essays in British History (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2005). See also, D. Cannadine ‘British History as a “New Subject.” Politics, Perspectives and Prospects’ in A. Grant and K. Stringer (eds.) Uniting the Kingdom? The Making of British History (London: Routledge, 2005), p.22.

[2] In order to speak at a conference you are either invited as an established academic in the field, or more likely as someone who applies through sending an abstract. The abstract is generally 200-500 words about what you intend to speak about alongside an accompanying CV or profile. Speakers are then selected by a panel of the conference convenors.

[3] I also wrote a short blog on the Four Nations History Network website. Melanie Bassett, “Working-class leisure and Four Nations History: A study of regional societies in Edwardian Portsmouth.” Four Nations History Network https://fournationshistory.wordpress.com/2015/06/29/working-class-leisure-and-four-nations-history-a-study-of-regional-societies-in-edwardian-portsmouth/ last accessed 09/11/2017.


Out now: M. Scull and N. Lloyd-Jones (eds), Four Nations Approaches to Modern ‘British’ History. A (Dis)United Kingdom? (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

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