Professor Matt Houlbrook

Professor Matt Houlbrook

Department of History
Professor of Cultural History
Head of Department of History

Contact details

I work on the cultural history of modern Britain, with particular interests in histories of gender, sexuality and selfhood.

Qualifications

  • PhD History, University of Essex
  • BA Hons History, University of Cambridge

Biography

I moved to the University of Birmingham in September 2013, after working at the Universities of Liverpool and Oxford for over a decade, I grew up just outside Scunthorpe, and went to my local comprehensive school and sixth form college, before going to university in Cambridge and getting my PhD from the University of Essex. 

I have an obsession with cycling and bikes that borders on the unhealthy.

Postgraduate supervision

I offer PhD supervision across the cultural history of modern Britain, particularly in subjects relating to my research interests. Feel free to get in touch if you’re interested in discussing potential projects.

Until August 2017 I was Head of Postgraduate Studies for the School of History and Cultures. I am committed to ensuring the highest quality in PGR supervision and professional development. In 2017 I received the University of Birmingham Graduate School Award for Excellence in Doctoral Researcher Supervision for the College of Arts and Law, after being nominated by some of the scholars I am lucky enough to work with.

PGRs I have worked with as supervisor or co-supervisor include:

University of Birmingham:

  • Martha Robinson Rhodes, ‘Not Totally Gay, I Suppose:’ A Queer Oral History of Multiple Gender Attraction in the British Gay Liberation Movement, 1969-1983 (2017-present)
  • Simon Briercliffe, The Stafford Street Area of Wolverhampton, c.1800-1871 (2016-present)
  • Thomas Allen, Space, Segmentation and Civic and Regional Identity in Edwardian Birmingham (2016-present)
  • Katherine Jones, Masculinity, Contraception, and the Politics of the Everyday in Britain, 1967-97 (2016-present)
  • Chelsea-Anne Saxby, Sex and the Sitcom: Constructing Love, Sex, and Marriage on British Television, 1954-1981 (2016-present)
  • Ruth Lindley, Breaking the Binaries: The Goddess Movement and Religion in Contemporary Britain (2015-present)
  • Laura Sefton, Learning to Consume: Childhood, Citizenship, and the Reproduction of Capitalism (2014-present)
  • Julie Davies, The Voluntary Aid Detachment during the Great War (2015-present)
  • Roger Deeks, Officers Not Gentlemen: Officers Commissioned from the Ranks of the Pre-War British Regular Army, 1903-1918 (2017) 

University of Oxford:

  • Simeon Koole, Nervous Hands, Stolen Kisses, and the Press of Everyday Life: Touch in Britain, 1870-1960 (2017). Sim is currently Lecturer in History and Liberal Arts at the University of Bristol.
  • Sarah Newman, The Talk of London: Interpreting Celebrity in the British Newspaper Gossip Column, 1918-1939, (2013)
  • Eloise Moss, Notorious Thieves and Housebreakers: Burglary and Burglars in London, 1860-1939, (2013). Eloise is currently Lecturer in Modern British History, at the University of Manchester.
  • Charlotte Greenhalgh, The Emotional Experiences of Ageing in Mid-Twentieth Century Britain, (2012). Charlotte is currently a Discovery Early Career Research Fellow at the University of Monash, Australia.
  • Matt Hollow, Homemade Subjectivity: Power, Identity and the British Council Estate, 1920-1970, (2011). Matt is currently Research Associate, Leverhulme funded ‘Tipping Points Research Project, University of Durham

University of Liverpool:

  • Samuel Hyde, ‘Highly Coloured Fiction’: Political Newspaper Cartooning and Social and Labour Politics, c.1881-1926 (2010). Sam is currently Lecturer in English at Edge Hill University.

Research

I work on the cultural history of 20th century Britain, with a particular interest in gender, sexualities and selfhood. Increasingly my focus is on the politics of cultural life, and the politics and practice of writing cultural history in the here and now. You can listen to me reflecting on these themes here.

My most recent book Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook was published by the University of Chicago Press in 2016. The book starts with a simple question: how can we be confident in something? This is a recurrent philosophical and ethical question, but it is also always an historical question, shaped by social relations and cultural forms that are time and place-specific. It became a compelling question in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. The legacies of war and the accelerating pace of peacetime change made confidence and authenticity prominent yet precarious values. 

Unraveling the lies and lives of the confidence trickster, discredited journalist, and scandalous royal biographer Netley Lucas, Prince of Tricksters explores the crises of confidence that wracked Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. Lucas’s prolific storytelling repeatedly questioned the possibility of trust in the identity of individuals and the ‘truth’ of popular journalism and publishing. In tracing how authenticity was constructed and confidence sought in everyday social encounters and diverse forms of mass culture, the book suggests new ways of thinking about Britain in the 1920s and 1930s. Highlighting the resonances between crime, consumerism and monarchy, allows us to see how questions of confidence abraded the boundaries between society, culture and politics. Netley Lucas, gentleman crook, gives us a way of integrating historiographies and histories that have usually been treated as discrete.

Prince of Tricksters is also my attempt to show how history might be made differently — to explore different ways of writing about the past. In pursuing a prolific storyteller given to tall tales and changing names I have been forced to acknowledge the limits of what we can know as historians. The book tries to recognise rather than conceal those limits. Taking its cue from Lucas himself, it plays with the boundaries between ‘fact’ and ‘faction’, and switches between different forms of writing. Serious historical analysis is mixed up with fragments of newspaper gossip, romantic fiction, and a screenplay. This has been my way of exploring how history itself is a kind of narrative — a way of telling stories with its own disciplinary codes and conventions. 

The book grew out of my desire for a debonair gentleman crook and his flamboyant lives, but I had to find ways of justifying the stories I wanted to tell about him.

Prince of Tricksters was named “book of the day” in the Guardian

At the moment I am juggling two book-length projects, both of which tease out questions around the politics and practice of cultural history and elaborate case studies I've touched upon in previous research. 

Postal Pedagogies and Petty Capital: The Global Business of Self-Improvement traces the remarkable rise and fall of the Pelman Institute and the correspondence course known as Pelmanism. From the 1890s to the 1960s, tens of thousands of people across the world committed themselves to the task of “improving” their personality. Lured in by adverts promising social and professional success, they industriously read textbooks and completed worksheets — or, perhaps just as often, gave up on the course within days. The project follows the Pelman Institute and its members between its offices in Britain, France, India, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the United States. In so doing I hope to explain why self-improvement became a global business, and how, in turn, Pelmanism disappeared from popular memory as anything other than a children’s card game. It is a book about the global movement of psychological knowledge, ideas of personhood, advertising techniques, and corporate capital. It is also an intimate history of what self-improvement meant to the ordinary men and women who signed up for the Pelman Institute’s courses — about the changing nature of aspiration and anxiety in the modern world.

Seven Dials: A Cultural History, by contrast, focuses tightly on a small area of central London. A notorious slum and cosmopolitan working-class neighbourhood, Seven Dials was apparently in a constant process of redevelopment between the construction of Shaftesbury Avenue in the 1880s and the high profile battles over its conservation and regeneration a century later. In exploring this history, my starting point is the furore around a small cafe in Great White Lion Street in the mid-1920s. Run by a Sierra Leonean man and his white British wife, the cafe is my prompt to explore how the encounters between metropolitan governance, corporate finance and property development, and diverse local actors shaped the transformation of urban society and culture. Placing Seven Dials’s history in its imperial and global context, and emphasising the relationship between culture and capital, the project moves across scales of analytic to consider the politics and prehistory of the process we now call gentrification.

My earlier research explored the relationship between the city, social practice and sexual identities--how modern urban culture shaped the ways in which men and women experienced, organised and understood their sexual desires and practices. Part of this was published as Queer London: Perils and Pleasures in the Sexual Metropolis, 1918-57 by the University of Chicago Press in 2005. Queer London was awarded the Longman-History Today Book of the Year Prize and the Royal Historical Society's Whitfield Prize for the best first book on British history.

I am also involved in a number of ongoing collaborative research projects. These include the 20s30s Network, which I co-convene with Elizabeth Darling (Oxford Brookes) and Richard Hornsey (Nottingham); a workshop and edited collection on Masculinities in Twentieth Century Britain, organised with Katie Jones (Birmingham) and Ben Mechen (UCL); and a developing project on Prisons and War, working with my colleague in the Department of Geography, Dominique Moran.

Other activities

I am a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, a member of the AHRC Peer Review College, and an Associate Editor of the Journal of British Studies

I tweet at https://twitter.com/TricksterPrince

I used to blog at https://tricksterprince.wordpress.com

Publications

Books

Journal special issue

  • with Sarah Newman, ‘The Press and Popular Culture in Interwar Europe’, Journalism Studies, 14 (5) 2013.

Articles