An economic history of the north of England. Part 1: Medieval failure and the "urban desert"

How did this happen? The urban form of the north today. Image: Alasdair Rae, University of Sheffield.

Even other multi-centred conurbations don’t generally have quite so many competing cities as the north of England. The region stretching across the Pennines, from Liverpool to Hull, is all but unique.

How did it get that way? In this three part series, Dr Stephen Caunce, a former history lecturer from the University of Central Lancashire, explains that it’s all a matter of history and economics.

As CityMetric has noted before, the area between Liverpool and Preston in the west and Hull and Sheffield in the east is remarkable in having four of the major English conurbations in a linear sequence.

The Merseyside conurbation is more conventional than the rest, but from the M6 east this is utterly unlike south-eastern England. Hull is a detached port for the West Yorkshire conurbation, which itself is effectively an empty-centred urban ring whose leading element lies in its north eastern corner.

Even today the various elements of the whole sequence consist of a set of strong and very local identities, exemplified by intricate and sometimes strong accent differences and, until recently, a thriving mosaic of truly local newspapers. The region lacks any dominant city which could credibly emerge now as a "capital" of the whole system.

This is an unusual pattern of urbanisation, even when compared to other urban regions, like the Ruhr or the Randstad. Yet few academics have really investigated its origins.

As a historian, I have researched this for nearly two decades. In this three-part series, I’ll offer a very brief account of my findings. Nearly everything discussed here has long been accepted in isolation: it is largely the combination and conclusion that is novel.

To explain this pattern of urbanisation, we must go back to before the Black Death of the mid 14th century. The area's urban patterns at the time simply reflected its low population: Medieval towns had been founded there as elsewhere in western and central Europe.

There was even a clear regional equivalent to London in York, located on the river Ouse, about forty miles from where the vast Humber estuary forms at the junction with the Trent. Ships would moor right in the city centre and offload their cargoes for sale or trans-shipment.

The site of the city had been continuously occupied from Roman times onwards, and whenever the economy supported organised international trading, York emerged as the best potential regional capital. The Vikings even created an independent kingdom of York, comparable to their more successful try in Dublin.

By 1300 York was a significant European trading city, supported by a substantial zone of fertile soils. It boasted one of the largest and most splendid cathedrals in northern Europe, which was the seat of an archbishop the equal in law of his Canterbury equivalent. The city had a stone castle and substantial walls, plus elaborate civic buildings and many parish churches. Many gilds had been established, and its Merchant Adventurers acted jointly with their equivalents in London in trading with Europe and beyond; it was the main centre of northern wool textiles, too.

Occasionally, York was used as a royal base of government, and a very active executive agency, the Council of the North, was based here for a century before the Civil War. Its main weakness was that the Ouse had little capacity for river transport beyond the city as it divided into many small tributaries, unlike the Thames, but both were convenient for European voyages.

E. Ridsdale Tate's panorama of 15th century York. Image: public domain.

Elsewhere in the region, Hull grew steadily as York's external port. Beverley had been of some European significance, but had totally inadequate river links and declined rapidly. Along the Humber were several prosperous ports, notably Howden and Selby which, like Beverley, had splendid, enormous churches that showed the wealth generated in this area. The agricultural Vale of York supported numerous towns, some with castles as well as markets, such as Pontefract and Ripon. 

These towns formed a network up to the Pennine edge; but there the hills prevented any easy integration of the land beyond into a unified north. The medieval north west also had nowhere to trade with to the west, and almost all its land was hard to farm. Villages were scarce and towns decidedly fewer and smaller than in Yorkshire.

If there was a theoretical equivalent of York and London on this side of the hills, it was Chester. But it lacked most independent trading connections and the Dee was already silting up badly. It, Carlisle and Lancaster had functioned mostly as fortresses, or to support military operations against the Welsh, Irish and Scots.

Pestilence and death

The Black Death, which reached England in 1348, delivered a massive blow, killing between a third and a half of the population. Afterwards, economic recovery tended to centre on London as its natural advantages were so strong. Its merchant community established a pre-eminence that has remained unchallengeable ever since; they reduced the York Merchant Adventurers to irrelevance.

The northern economy stagnated, and in 1660 York's city council lamented: "The shoes of our predecessors are too big for our feet, and the ornaments which they had will not serve now to cover our nakedness... Trade is decayed, the river become un-navigable… Leeds is nearer the manufactures and Hull more commodious for the vending of them."

By 1750, York was primarily a county town – even though Yorkshire's three traditional ridings mostly ran their own affairs, and York was part of none of them. It remained a leading regional centre in population terms; but London had monopolised almost all urban growth since the Black Death. The gulf between the capital and other towns on the island of Great Britain was unparalleled; outside London, 20,000 people was a substantial place; London had 650,000.

Such universal urban failure has no parallel anywhere that I know of, and certainly none in Europe

York had never possessed either the legal or de facto powers seen in European cities to hinder the leakage of economic activity to other places. And against the assumptions of proto-industrialisation theory, York merchants seem not to have played any role in organising the growth of cloth manufacturing then visible in scattered rural locations in the Pennines – much less controlling and exploiting it. This was probably because they had dealt in luxury products, whereas the new producers could only make very low quality goods aimed at poorer people. The rewards therefore seem to have gone entirely to local people, and to have been consistently re-invested on the spot from the start.

Any textbook map of towns shows that, by the 17th century, the north had become an urban desert. Its medieval town foundations survived only to host markets and fairs, or more commonly reverted to village or even hamlet status. Only a handful maintained any vestige of corporate identity, and in none apart from Hull and Preston and Chester did it have any meaning beyond empty ritual.

Much further north, Newcastle-upon-Tyne grew to equal York's population; but that was a special case driven by London's need for house coal (which could be exported via boats down the east coast). Its growth had no connection at all with Lancashire and Yorkshire.

Such universal urban failure has no parallel anywhere that I know of, and certainly none in Europe. Historians agree that, across western and central Europe, the urban network of today was already more or less complete by 1500, and since then there have been few additions or deletions.

Even Scotland, with a more hostile natural environment, tiny population and weak economy, possessed a large and growing number of miniature but active towns eager to assert their separation from rural life, in the way normally held to be the essential pre-requisite for developing a modern way of living.

The northern urban failure alone would definitely not have led to what we see today, of course Yet it was the essential pre-requisite, allowing a fresh start. 

The second part of this series, which you can read here, looks at how the economy of the north developed during the early modern period.

Dr Stephen Caunce was formerly a senior lecturer in history at the University of Central Lancashire. He has published a range of books on oral history and the north of England. You can buy them here.


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