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Cities of Empire: The British Colonies and the Creation of the Urban World
Cities of Empire: The British Colonies and the Creation of the Urban World
Tristram Hunt
Metropolitan Books, 2014
544 pp., $35.00

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Michael Ledger-Lomas


How the British Empire Got Its Spots

A tale of ten cities.

One way to understand Tristram Hunt, a member of the British House of Commons and of any future New Labour government as well as a mere university lecturer in British history, is to think of him as a member of the "urban gentry." The term was coined by Hunt's teacher, the historian Gareth Stedman Jones, to describe the cluster of clergy, writers, and public moralists in Victorian cities who explained to their contemporaries the problems of urban poverty and class conflict and how government might fix them. Living in terraces or villas rather than lording it over broad acres like the old gentry, they nonetheless inherited their self-assurance and their paternalism.

As a historian of Victorian urbanization, Hunt not only writes about this class but resembles it in his privilege and in his anxiety to improve urban life. The son of a Labour peer, educated in Hampstead and at Trinity College, Cambridge, he worked for a progressive think tank before studying for a doctorate under Stedman Jones on civic pride. His first major work, Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City (2004), was not much interested in the messy processes through which Britain's industrializing cities grew. Instead it charted the hope that they could be turned into healthy, morally vital places. It presented architecture as the built expression of that hope: the classical pillars and Gothic spires that eventually filled Manchester or Leeds expressed the commitment of their citizens to turning turbulent, stinking places into gracious public spaces. Hunt's history was also policy: Building Jerusalem ended with the aspiration that the battered architecture of Victorian cities and the social zeal it had represented could be revived by government investment. Elected in 2008 as mp for Stoke-on-Trent, a declining town in England's rustbelt, Hunt has been able to lobby for his vision, talking up the town's ceramics industry and its Wedgwood museum. Yet the ...

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