Claiming the Streets: Processions and Urban Culture in South Wales c. 1830-1880

Claiming the Streets: Processions and Urban Culture in South Wales c. 1830-1880

by Paul O'Leary


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In Wales during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries an enormous number of public processions were held by benefit societies. This dense network of organizations paraded the streets during festivals and bank holidays to demonstrate their respectability, orderliness, and sobriety. Claiming the Streets examines these processions, and in doing so, provides an invaluable key to unlock the secrets of the urban culture during this period.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780708321720
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 12/15/2012
Pages: 241
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Paul O’Leary is a senior lecturer in history at Aberystwyth University. His most recent book is Immigration and Integration: The Irish in Wales, 1798–1922, also published by the University of Wales Press.

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Claiming the Streets

Processions and Urban Culture in South Wales, c. 1830â"1880

By Paul O'Leary

University of Wales Press

Copyright © 2012 Paul O'Leary
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7083-2172-0


Street Processions and Ritual in the Victorian Town

Civic identities were established, negotiated and re-configured in a variety of ways in the Victorian town. Such identities were formed and contested through mechanisms that ranged from official civic ceremonial to the creation of sporting teams associated with particular places. Processions were a key feature of this process of identity formation. The nineteenth century was a period when street processions proliferated as never before. Moreover, in terms of who organised them and took part in them, they became more democratic and inclusive than they had been in the past; street processions were organised from below as well as from above. The opportunities among ordinary townspeople for public display in organised processional activity were largely unprecedented, even if some members of the urban community were excluded from marching through the streets because of their reluctance or inability to conform to the behaviour and dress that were expected on such occasions.

One historian has identified an important aspect of street processions when she observes that they were 'both familiar and spectacular at the same time'. The balance between these two features was not the same on all occasions, however. Some processions emphasised the particularity of an occasion, such as when they were used to celebrate the opening of new docks, railways or hospitals. In so doing they abided by accepted conventions relating to processional activity, but the nature of the occasion meant that it stood out as exceptional. Such occasions can be characterised as more 'spectacular' than 'familiar'. By contrast, what can be described as the more familiar processions of urban life marked regular points in a town's calendar that recurred on an annual basis. These rituals achieved their effect precisely because their form and structure were largely predictable. They included funeral processions, the celebrations of friendly societies, temperance processions and the large Sunday school processions that marked Whitsun every year. These were 'extraordinary everyday' phenomena, a phrase that captures both the exceptional and cumulatively routine nature of the events.

The significance of processions in forming the ideal civic community in Victorian Britain has not been sufficiently studied, particularly when compared with the attention devoted to these phenomena in North America and continental Europe. The major exception to this generalisation is the work of Simon Gunn on the public culture of the middle class in the industrial cities of Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester. His research focuses on the 'high culture' of the middle classes, and he argues that we need to recognise the importance of ritualised modes of social behaviour in understanding the construction of authority in the nineteenth-century city. Among the social practices he considers are the civic procession and the public urban ceremonial. He demonstrates the significance of public visibility and display over and above domestic and other private spaces. Asserting power over others by symbolic means was an important feature of bourgeois urban culture during this period. Other historians have examined isolated events in British towns that demonstrate the richness of these phenomena for historical analysis.

The middle classes played a crucial part in the making of civic cultures in the nineteenth century. This book, however, throws the net wider to embrace the full spectrum of street processions, which, between them, involved a larger slice of society than just the urban elites. Studying these phenomena provides one way of understanding the boundaries of inclusivity and exclusivity surrounding participation in ritual activities in the Victorian town. Andy Croll's important study of public space in the industrial town of Merthyr Tydfil in the period 1870–1914 points to one way in which this can be done. His insistence on the drive to create genuinely civic identities (as opposed to class-based hegemony) raises important questions about the social dynamics at work in ritualised public action.

One way of contextualising street processions in Victorian Britain is to compare them with related phenomena in other societies. There are various potential candidates for doing this, but perhaps the American parade is the most obvious of these because it exhibits enough similarities and differences to make comparison a meaningful exercise, and it has been subjected to detailed analysis by a number of historians. Their research has underlined the quasi-military nature of these parades. Celebrations like those of the Fourth of July involved a sizable portion of the urban population organising itself into platoons, regiments and companies in order to walk through the main streets of cities such as Philadelphia, San Francisco, New Orleans and New York. In her pioneering study of parades in early nineteenth-century Philadelphia, Susan G. Davis interprets this phenomenon as 'an important, varied and popular mode of communication' in the city. She sees parades as public dramas that enacted and embodied social relations and power conflicts. However, she demonstrates that they were not simple representations of the status quo. Street ceremonies might reflect the existing social structure but they also provided a vehicle for challenging social relations. The limitations of street theatre were also important, with groups like women and African-Americans being excluded from them. Davis points out that power relations in the city shaped even those celebrations that appeared most inclusive.

Other historians have seen the American parade as a mirror of the social world in which it thrived. Both American society and the parades enacted in its towns and cities have been characterised as mobile, voluntaristic and open. Mary Ryan argues that the parade was like a 'civic omnibus', in the sense that it 'offered admission to almost any group with sufficient energy, determination, organizational ability, and internal coherence to board it'. One of the features of these occasions was the parade's ability to incorporate different contingents of people as distinct elements in the overall body of marchers. In other words, it used a modular structure. This was achieved by rigidly dividing the parade into platoons, companies, regiments, ranks and columns. The different contingents of people who took to the streets in the cities of America were permitted to 'write their identities on the streets in full public view'.

Canada also provides important studies of urban processions. In his work on nineteenth-century Toronto, Peter G. Goheen describes parades as 'a popular, practised form of publicly enacted ceremony' that involved the 'symbolic capture' of urban space. This capture of public space conferred prestige on those who took part in the event. He emphasises that, for participants, parades entailed a withdrawal from normal modes of behaviour. They created an 'intensified awareness' both for participants and observers, which was underlined by the ritual of the parade itself and the values represented by the spaces through which they passed. Goheen's work emphasises the importance of the central streets of Toronto both to the processional culture of the city and to the more contentious and violent activities of the crowd. He sees the streets as a 'valuable collective asset' that was the object of claims by different groups to its use. His important insight is that such spaces were not reserved for consensual events or violent activity, but that both happened in the same space at different times. Claiming the streets could take a variety of forms at different times.

This brief survey of the nature of North American parades reveals some key similarities with street processions in Britain. In the US and Canada, as in Britain, these ritualised occasions involved people dressing for the occasion and walking in order. They provided opportunities for different groups to 'write their identities on the streets in full public view', while spectacular events in all three societies were organised along 'modular' lines. Nevertheless, the North American city parade was clearly distinctive in its militaristic character, a feature that was largely absent from street processions in Britain. An additional distinctive feature of the North American parade that stands out is the increasing participation and prominence of ethnic groups from mid-century. Parades provided an avenue of integration in public life for the large number of ethnic minorities in American cities. Events such as St Patrick's Day parades rapidly became expressions of immigrant identity, and other groups also found occasions to express their hyphenated identities by parading in public. By contrast, the picture in British towns was more mixed. In Liverpool, for example, the Irish were largely excluded from participation in public space, a situation reflected to a lesser extent in other towns in the north of England. Sectarianism was a feature of the use of public space where the Orange Order had a significant presence. This affected how putatively consensual events were viewed. As the chief constable of Liverpool put it in 1905, sectarian opinion changed the popular perception of routine processions. Ethnicity also formed a part of the processional culture of south Wales. Both Welsh and Irish migrant identities were 'performed' through ritual acts on the streets of the region's towns (but not, it would appear, the separate identity of English migrants, the largest migrant group in Welsh urban society). Nevertheless, ethnicity in south Wales did not become the dominant organising principle of processions in the way it did in the North American parade.


A study of processions raises the question of the role of public rituals in a plural society and how bystanders or spectators are implicated in those rituals. Moreover, it alerts the historian to the variety of meanings associated with ritual, and encourages an enquiry that goes beyond the 'official' explanations of events, emphasising instead the different readings of ritual among participants as well as between participants and spectators. Simon Gunn has identified the rituals of civic culture as being in part an antidote to the increasingly acute problems of order and authority in the industrial town. Yet the conviction that ritual practices declined under the impact of industrialisation has been a pervasive one. It stems from the influence of the pioneering sociologist Max Weber, who argued that cities were associated with rationality, and that social behaviour in them was less rule-governed than in rural society, particularly in the period of industrialisation. In spite of his compelling description of this process as 'the disenchantment of the world', rituals did not wither on the urban vine, as demonstrated by the post-revolutionary rituals developed in France after 1789 and the royal rituals invented in Britain after about 1870. A number of studies of specific events, such as the oyster feast at Colchester, the celebrations of Queen Victoria's jubilee at Cambridge in 1897, and the public ceremonial associated with the investiture of the prince of Wales in 1911, have shown that there remains something to be learned from a consideration of urban ritual in the modern period. In this respect, there was possibly more continuity in the culture of some towns than sometimes has been allowed.

One of the contributory reasons for the neglect of ritual events in modern society is the legacy of a view of ritual as a form of traditional behaviour that cannot be reconciled with rapid change and social conflict. In fact, when we focus on the specific example of urban processions it can be suggested that the most appropriate framework for discussing their significance is the one provided by the functionalist tradition of sociology, initiated by Emile Durkheim. The emphasis of this approach is on the role of ritual as a means of ensuring social integration and reducing conflict. The interpretation of ritual in terms of behaviour and practices that shore up existing social and political structures is one legacy of this tradition. As will be seen, a key aspect of the processions discussed in this book is their function in integrating people in urban culture and in cultivating local identities that were more or less inclusive. Even so, the possibility of dissenting voices in relation to processions must be recognised, as must the possibility of conflict lying not far below the surface; this might not always have been the dominant feature of these events, but the fact that dissent and conflict could occur (and occasionally did) means that an emphasis on ritual as a tool of social integration should be qualified.

The understanding of ritual employed in this book is that of 'formalized, repetitive, stylized, and symbolic behaviour'; ritual events are located in specific places and enacted at particular times, and they 'act persuasively upon everyday life through the expressive and symbolic use of the body, often through the multisensory experience of performance'. This definition immediately raises important questions for the historian seeking to understand such events in the past. The repetitive and stylised element of many processions means that they have not always been recorded in as much detail as the historian might wish. We should not, however, confuse this with the assumption that they carried little significance. Similarly, the expressive and performative aspects of urban ritual are sometimes difficult to recapture from the historical record. One way to address this particular problem is to accumulate evidence on processions in a variety of towns over a long period.

The sociologist Gerald D. Suttles provides one pointer to how this can be done. He argues that 'local culture is not something that starts full blown but [is] something that accumulates', and describes this in a compelling phrase as the 'cumulative texture of local urban culture'. Generally this process means that local cultures become denser and richer over time, although he allows for the possibility that some towns develop such a culture relatively quickly. Suttles's use of the term 'culture' includes expressions of both high and popular culture, the 'collective representations' of urban identity. He uses the suggestive term 'mnemonic relatedness' to explain the interconnectedness of different expressions of urban culture, using the example of how the sight of the statue of a local hero suggests a series of related heroes. This idea has particular relevance to the study of processions. Reports of processions across time and in different towns often suggest a degree of repetition in the form of the event and of the behaviour of participants. Suttles, however, asserts that when an event like a procession is viewed it is more than a simple repetition of other processions, instead acting as a prompt, or mnemonic, to bring to mind those other processions. In this way processions by different groups and organisations and on different occasions are judged for how they integrate in local culture and add to it, or diverge from that culture and potentially subvert it. Repeated processions on familiar occasions also contribute to the creation of social memory. Suttles's work relates particularly to the familiar everyday processions as opposed to more spectacular events, but both contributed to the creation of a thickly textured urban culture.

This insight into the way urban culture develops involves a consideration of how habitual behaviour in social contexts meshes with memory to create a series of expectations of what should, or should not, happen on a particular occasion. What Paul Connerton describes as 'social habitmemory' acts as a way of legitimating some types of performance and judging others to be illegitimate. He insists that habit-memory is inherently about performance and that therefore social habit-memory is inherently about social performances. Processions that were held at particular times of the year and in designated spaces provide an example of how this habit-memory was formed in towns at a time of rapid social change. The regularity of the form of processions and their dependability in the urban calendar meant that they became familiar features of town life. They were memorable because they were public performances rooted in familiar practices that existed outside the worlds of family, business and work.


Excerpted from Claiming the Streets by Paul O'Leary. Copyright © 2012 Paul O'Leary. Excerpted by permission of University of Wales Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations and Tables

1. Street Processions and Ritual in the Victorian Town
2. Town and Region: the Urban Context
3. Protest, Processions and Stability
4. Ordering the Streets: Friendly Society Processions
5. Sobering the Streets: Temperance and Teetotal Processions
6. Sacralising the Streets: Religion and Urban Space
7. Diversity on the Streets: Corpus Christi and the Salvation Army in the 1870s


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