ICS2021 Alternative Belfast: shared histories of an industrial city

Impact: Cultural Impact, Economic Impact, Societial Impact

Description of impact

Purdue's work has challenged societal attitudes and encouraged a wider and more nuanced understanding of Belfast's history. It has also made a vital contribution to the work of major cultural institutions, visitor attractions and media companies, and has engaged hard-to-reach audiences in an exploration of their shared histories.
The history of Belfast is often seen, internationally and locally, as simply one of sectarian conflict and deep division. Purdue's research has challenged this perception and changed the way people think about Belfast's past, engaging local and international audiences in an alternative, more nuanced, social history of a remarkable city and of the shared experience of those who lived and worked in it. It has informed the interpretation of Belfast’s history by major cultural and heritage institutions and reached millions of people in Northern Ireland, Great Britain and globally through television, museum exhibitions, internationally-acclaimed visitor experiences and a community engagement project

Who is affected

- Visitors to Titanic Belfast (+6M since 2012 of which 80% are from overseas)
- Visitors to the Ulster Museum (+600K annually, of which 30% are from overseas)
- Viewers of a range of TV documentaries, including Britain’s Hidden Heritage (BBC1, 2015, 4.25M viewers); Britain’s Most Historic Towns (Channel 4, 2018, +1.5M viewers), BBCNI’s Belfast: mud sweat and 400 years (2015 and repeated twice), and BBCNI’s 3-part series Family Footsteps (2018)
- Belfast City Council, Titanic Belfast, National Museums of Northern Ireland, and the TV production companies IWC Media, Waddell Media and Evergreen Media
- The 32 young people who participated in the '1932: Our Stories' project, and the audience for the resultant play 'People of Gallagher Street 1932' (2,253)


Purdue began researching the history of Irish urban working-class life in 2007 as a researcher on the ESRC project, 'Welfare regimes in nineteenth-century Ireland'. Her work focused on the administration and experience of the Poor Law in the north of Ireland and led to a 2011 article in Irish Historical Studies, the leading peer-review scholarly journal in Irish history. In 2010 she organised a conference at QUB that explored the history of Belfast as an emerging Victorian city, leading to the publication in 2012 of Belfast: the emerging city 1850-1914 with Irish Academic Press. During her Irish Studies Fellowship at QUB (2010-11) she developed a project on the history of welfare and public health in Belfast and successfully applied to the AHRC (as Co-I) for a major grant which has resulted in the publication of an article on the working women of early twentieth-century Belfast in Urban History, the leading journal for the history of urban life, and a 2018 edited volume on Irish urban life, published by Liverpool University Press, which includes her own chapter on poverty and the workhouse in early twentieth-century Belfast. Her reputation as a leading scholar on the social history of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Belfast led to her being invited by Belfast City Council and Event Communications to act as historic advisor for Titanic Belfast, the city's multi-million-pound visitor experience opened in 2012. Her role was to develop historical content for the first gallery, 'Boomtown Belfast', which introduces visitors to the social and economic history of the city in which Titanic was built, as well as to advise and sign off on the historical narratives in the remaining galleries. The galleries have been a huge success, attracting over 6 million visitors, of which 80% are from overseas, and winning the prestigious Travel Awards' 'World's Leading Tourist Attraction' category in 2016. Belfast City Council and Event Communications have both commented on the significant impact her research had on the success of the galleries, particularly the 'Boomtown Belfast' gallery. Reviews on TripAdvisor and participants in a survey have commented on how this opening gallery is so important for making sense of the rest of the experience, and that they have learned a lot about the history of the city as a result. In 2013 she was invited to collaborate with the Ulster Museum on the development of their new permanent history galleries, particularly the curation of the gallery on Belfast's history as an industrial city: 'Industrial Giant and the Shadow of Poverty'. In addition to advising on the selection of items from the museum's collections and the text for the interpretive panels, she produced an audio-visual installation which explained the wider historical context of the period. The museum attracts over 600,000 visitors a year, many of whom visit this particular gallery. In a survey of visitors to the gallery in 2019, the majority of participants stated that they found it really interesting, had learned something new about Belfast's social history, and were inspired to find out more. Purdue was also invited to become part of the Academic Advisory Panel for the museum's new 'Troubles and Beyond' gallery. NMNI’s Head of Collections, William Blair, has stated that her collaboration with the museum has been ‘highly productive and impactful, enabling us to locate contested history within a broad social, human centred context’. During the same period Purdue's research on Belfast's history reached audiences of millions across the UK though her work as historical advisor and expert interviewee on a number of TV documentaries. These included 'Britain’s Hidden Heritage' (BBC1, 2015, 4.25M viewers); Belfast: Britain’s Most Victorian Town (Channel 4, 2018, >1.5M viewers); 'Belfast: mud sweat and 400 years' (BBCNI, 2015 and repeated twice), and the 3-part series 'Family Footsteps (BBCNI, 2018). She also wrote and produced a documentary on poverty and welfare in Belfast, 'Belfast: a tale of two cities' which has been used by PRONI, the Linen Hall Library and the Ulster Museum. Her work has also had important impact through her work with groups of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in Belfast. In 2017 she ran a series of events and research workshops for young people from north and east Belfast on the social history of their streets in the 1930s. This led to them producing  an exhibition and dramatic reading, and contributing to the production of a play written by Martin Lynch and Gary Mitchell, 'The People of Gallagher Street, 1932' which ran for a week in the MAC in 2018. The 32 young people involved in the project, and the audience of the play (c. 2300), stated that they had learned so much they hadn't previously known about the social history of their neighbourhood and their city and were inspired to find out more. 
Impact statusCompleted
Impact date20122020
Category of impactCultural Impact, Economic Impact, Societial Impact
Impact levelBenefit


  • heritage
  • culture
  • shared histories
  • tourism
  • Northern Ireland
  • divided societies