Centre for European and International Studies Research


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Dr Karl Bell

  • Qualifications: BA (Hons) in Modern History (Anglia Ruskin University), MA in Modern History (Birkbeck College, University of London), PhD in History (University of East Anglia), FHEA, FRHS
  • Role Title: Reader in Cultural and Social History
  • Address: Milldam, Burnaby Road, Portsmouth PO1 3AS
  • Telephone: 023 9284 2274
  • Email: karl.bell@port.ac.uk
  • Department: School of Social, Historical and Literary Studies
  • Faculty: Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences


I joined the University of Portsmouth in 2007, having previously taught at the University of East Anglia. My research explores the history of the fantastical imagination, mainly in the period 1750 - 1920. My research interests include magical and supernatural beliefs, witchcraft and the occult, ghosts, legends and folklore, monsters and teratology, the urban Gothic, prophecies and early science fiction. I frequently relate these to my interest in the relationship between environment and imagination, especially urban spaces and cultures. I also have developing research interests in steampunk and the reimagining of Victorian cultures. My first monograph, The Magical Imagination: Magic and Modernity in Urban England, 1780-1914 was shortlisted for the Royal Historical Society’s 2012 Whitfield Prize. My second book, The Legend of Spring-heeled Jack: Victorian Urban Folklore and Popular Cultures won the Katharine Briggs Award in 2013.

I am a keen advocate of public engagement and frequently seek to develop collaborations with creative writers and other artistic practitioners. Previous activities include the crowdsourcing of local ghost stories and the co-editing of Dark City, a collection of short stories and poems produced by local writers. In 2016 I led the creation of Portsmouth DarkFest, a new cultural festival that drew its inspiration from my Supernatural Cities project (see below). This was developed in collaboration with local writers, artists and other members of Portsmouth’s diverse creative communities.  

Teaching Responsibilities

I teach across the undergraduate programme, including core level 5 units such as Empires and Identities 1750-1914, and Masses and Modernity 1750-1914, options such as In Darkest England: Culture, Conflict and the City, and my level 6 Special Subject, Magic and Modernity 1800-1920. I also supervise third-year dissertations on the social and cultural history of the nineteenth century.

At postgraduate level I am the course leader for the MA Naval History. I am also the History department’s course liaison tutor for the MRes in Humanities and Social Science and regularly supervise MRes research projects.



  • Social and Cultural History


  • History
  • Cultural Studies


  • I am director of the Supernatural Cities research project (www.port.ac.uk/supernaturalcities/). Based at the University of Portsmouth, this network of interdisciplinary scholars explores how urban geographies are culturally constructed, negotiated and understood through supernatural, Gothic, uncanny, and weird narratives. The project co-hosts an annual conference. We also frequently collaborate with a range of artistic practitioners on activities that blend academic and creative approaches to the understanding urban space and the fantastical imagination.
  • I am Principal Investigator on ‘Lost Voices: Spiritualist Communities and Wartime Afterlives on the Home Front, 1914-1919’, an AHRC-funded project exploring spiritualism and the emotional history of the home front in Britain during and immediately after the First World War.
  • Conducting research into proto-science fiction ideas in British culture, c.1750-1900. Rather than the familiar focus on the genre’s key literary figures this book will examine broader cultural expressions of what we now recognise as science fictional tropes linked to imagined times and spaces, technology and mechanization, and visions of the future.
  • I am a founder member of the University of Portsmouth’s Port Towns, Urban Cultures research project (http://porttowns.port.ac.uk/) and remain actively involved in its wide range of activities, including its interest in synthesising historical data and digital technologies, and the ongoing development of its international networks.

PhD Supervision

In 2018 I was honoured to receive the University of Portsmouth’s Outstanding Supervisor Award. I welcome proposals from PhD candidates on any of the fantastical, supernatural or environmental research topics listed in the biography above.

Current PhD supervision includes:

  • Eilis Phillips, ‘Monstrous Citizens and Citizen Monsters: Exploring Monstrosity as Belonging in Britain, 1780-1850’ (first supervisor)
  • Beatrice Ashton-Lelliott, ‘Magical Lives: Life-writing, Performance Magic and Crafting the Self in the Victorian Period and Beyond’ 
  • Joe Davey, ‘Sailors and Working-Class Communities in Bristol, 1850-1914’ (second supervisor)
  • Jenna Twyford-Jones, ‘Tiger Bay: Cardiff’s Sailortown in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries’ (third supervisor)
  • John Bolt: how the organisational culture and military identity of the Royal Marines developed in nineteenth century Britain (second supervisor)

Completed PhDs that I have supervised include:

  • Hilary Morris, ‘Empire, Quantification, and Public Health: British Military and Naval Medicine, 1700-1830’ (first supervisor)
  • Christopher Spackman, ‘The Boys Brigade and Urban Cultures, 1883-1933’ (second supervisor)
  • Louise Moon, ‘Sailorhoods: Sailortown and Sailors in Portsmouth, c.1850-1900’ (second supervisor)
  • Melanie Bassett, ‘The Royal Dockyard Worker in Edwardian England: Culture, Leisure and Empire’ (second supervisor)

Research profile

Explore my research profile, publications and activities on the Portsmouth Research Portal

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