Transcending space? Port towns, community and place identity: the experience of civilian bombardment on the North East coast of England during the First World War

Photograph © M. Reeve

Photograph © M. Reeve

The bombardment of towns and cities across Britain during the Second World War (1939-45) – what we know as The Blitz – left an indelible mark upon the physical and cultural landscape of the country. What is often overlooked in mainstream narratives of war in the twentieth century is the bombing of civilians during the First World War (1914-18), by Zeppelin airships and in offshore raids by battleships. The nature of ‘total war’ was brought home to many millions of people across Britain, as bombs fell on city streets, houses, churches and schools for the first time. This was a war which mobilised all sections of the community. For this mobilisation to be successful, central government worked alongside local councils, voluntary organisations, charities and military bodies to encourage not only young men to fight for the nation, but for the wider population of non-combatant men and women to support the war at the front by ‘keeping the home fires burning’ in every community.

Community, as a ‘constantly changing collective entity’, is the central focus of this project (Lancaster, 2007). In times of intense stress and fear, such as bombing raids, there are significant political, social and cultural shifts in civil society. During the First World War, this entailed overtly negative, violent actions such as anti-German riots and the imprisonment of ‘alien’ elements in local populations. But these were counterbalanced by a widespread call for community defence. Many localities drew upon pre-war local and regional loyalties, to family, home and place, combined with the ubiquitous ‘King and Country’, to implore men to enlist to fight and for those on the ‘home front’ to defend the country from possible invasion. This project will explore the construction and reinforcement of local and regional identities during the war, focusing in particular on the ways ordinary people and civic elites reacted to bombardment. It will also assess the degree to which sense of place intersected with these identities to form a basis for social solidarity within and between maritime communities.

Port towns and cities stand as a unique kind of community, inevitably exposed and therefore the first line of defence in a war fought across land and sea. The North East coast region, encompassing, among others, the strategically and economically important ports of Hull, Whitby, Scarborough, Hartlepool and Tyneside, bore the brunt of civilian bombardment, starting in December 1914 and continuing intermittently until 1918. This project seeks to link together these localities in an analysis of civilian experience, with a view to suggesting a unique port town collective identity capable of transcending geographic space, within the region and internationally. Trends in community experience will be traced across the North East coast region, contributing to a deeper understanding of the specific wartime cultures and identities of port-towns.

The research will contribute to a shift in traditional local history, by establishing a framework for comparison within the coastal community context. It will also address gaps in local historical scholarship dominated by military history and narrative-based civic histories, while eschewing the conventional national or metropolitan focus of First World War studies. This will enrich the national picture by paying attention to the ‘local specificities’ of northern port cities (Purseigle, 2011).

In line with the 2014-18 period of commemorations, this project will attempt to establish a lineage between the events of the First World War and local communities today, through a number of heritage activities that engage the public. This will include a museum exhibition exploring the experience of North East port communities during 1914-18, alongside an interactive smart phone/tablet app which will work in tandem with ‘heritage trails’ of bombed sites. Through these methods, the social, cultural and spatial heritage of the First World War will be made relevant and engaging to people across the North East today, ensuring that the experience of wartime bombardment in northern port communities is not forgotten.


Michael Reeve was born in Hull and has lived in Leeds since 2008. He gained a BA in English and History from Leeds Beckett University in 2014 and an MA in Social & Cultural History from the University of Leeds in 2015. He commenced his PhD research, funded by the AHRC Heritage Consortium, in October 2015 and is currently based at the Maritime Historical Studies Centre, University of Hull, with secondary supervision from the School of Cultural Studies, Leeds Beckett University.

Twitter: @mjohnreeve

Supervisors: Dr Richard Gorski, Department of History, University of Hull and Dr Shane Ewen, School of Cultural Studies and Humanities, Leeds Beckett University