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.

 
 
 
 

Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.


Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.