An economic history of the north of England. Part 2: Cottage industries and market towns

Stanage Edge, in the southern Pennines: the landscape of the north is the key to its urban form. Image: Rob Bendall/Wikimedia Commons.

In the north of England, dozens of towns and cities have grown into each other and vied for dominance. This pattern of urbanisation, without a regional capital, is almost unique in Europe.

In the first part of his brief economic history of the region, Dr Stephen Caunce explored the medieval north and the depopulation that followed the Black Death. By the early 1600s, towns existed as sites for more markets rather than population centres in themselves, a "pattern of urban failure without parallel in Europe".

In this next part of the story, Caunce explores the early modern north, the emergence of a string of new cities – and the “scattered” pattern of inhabitation that persisted long into the urban age.

After 1550 or so, recognisable but still tiny northern trading centres emerged. Many of these were on entirely new sites, mostly along the interface between the hills and the plain, where they could act as intermediaries: Leeds, Wakefield, Sheffield, Manchester.

The chief exception to this pattern was Halifax, firmly located in the Pennines, but providing a trading link to Leeds that lifted it above the rest. Colne was its much less important Lancashire equivalent, passing very low grade woollen textiles on to Halifax: in this period, all marketing took place through Yorkshire.

The leading centres usually developed at parish churches simply because of existing habits of regularly gathering there (though most new "towns" had no place of worship at all). As an area with little strategic significance, most early medieval castles were abandoned and so did not attract settlements. Conventional town structures like defensive walls, paid officials and guilds were inherently expensive, and were apparently never considered.

The countryside was actually "infinitely full of people, all full of business"

This pattern of apparently random development accompanied and reflected the evolution of a new system of manufacturing in rural areas; one that ultimately led to production systems based on factories using powered machinery that was at least semi-automatic. But it's important to stress here that economic importance did not translate into population growth. It was entirely their market functions which made these places significant.

The preamble to an act of parliament of 1555 shows that contemporaries were well aware of this. Responded to attempt to enforce a more modern commercial structure of dependence on rich clothiers, the preamble said that the clothing settlements around Halifax were

planted in the grete waste and moores, where the Fertilitie of Grounde ys not apte to bring forthe any Corne nor good Grasse... the same inhabitants altogether doo lyve by clothe making

This activity had been vital to the population of the area however. Thanks to the clothing industry

the barreyn Gronde in these partes be nowe muche inhabited, and above five hundrethe householdes there newly increased within theis fourtye yeares past.

A century and a half later, Daniel Defoe became fascinated in the area while researching it for the Great Britain's first reliable and comprehensive travel narrative. Noting a complete lack of visible people as he rode around, he realised that they were all working away within their houses, which combined living and working quarters. The countryside was actually "infinitely full of people; these people [were] all full of business; not a beggar, not an idle person to be seen".


This was a stark contrast with most towns, and certainly with London. He summed it up as "a noble scene of industry and application", and as a man who also wrote a guide to good business practice based on his own experience, he should be heeded.

They also farmed "small enclosures… from two acres to six or seven acres each, seldom more". What was happening was a process of general thickening of the population with land constantly reclaimed and improved by family labour, not landlord initiatives.

Defoe also commented that "as for the town of Halifax itself, there is nothing extraordinary except on a market day, and then indeed it is a prodigious thing". Even the market in Leeds had no permanent infrastructure, yet goods worth millions of pounds in modern terms were traded there at every session.

The ultimate shaper of the new urbanisation pattern was the highly unusual landscape of the area, which in turn moulded local culture of the people into a striking variant of the English norm. The Pennines divide the north into two unequal sections; between Manchester and Leeds and Sheffield, not only are they narrow and low, but ridges which run from east to west project out far beyond the main alignment, creating a cross-shaped pattern. These cross country ridges provided vital trans-pennine transport links; an obsession with connections to London has generally obscured this.

It still does. In pushing the M62 across the Pennine moors, engineers largely reinvented the Roman route between their two main northern military centres of York and Chester. In the middle ages it became a series of more local packhorse causeys, and the direct long-distance route served no purpose. It was this alignment that provided the focus for the early growth of wool textiles, together with a branch over to Colne from Halifax. Sheffield was similarly served, but here it was more of a dead end.

To understand why the change in urbanisation occurred in the centuries after the Black Death, we must return to the landscape. No glaciers bulldozed the valleys here in the ice age, chiefly due to its low altitude. They remained relatively narrow and deep, unlike the famous U-shapes seen not far away in the Peak District and the Dales. Alternating gritstones and shales often create steps on the sides, on which settlement generally happened. The flat and bleak moorland became covered with deep blanket peat and was left empty, while the valley bottoms were also unusable.

Before about 1780, opportunity even for the ordinary people clearly lay in rural manufacturing, not in towns.

The pattern of inhabitation, as described by the Halifax petitioners, took the form of a scatter of farmsteads developed rather than nucleated urban settlements. This pattern thickened over time; but in essence, it persisted into the 18th century, even though the population multiplied many times over.

That's partly because the original population was extremely thin indeed. In Tudor times, all Lancashire probably contained fewer people than Blackburn does today; by 1850 it had a population larger than Scotland.

But one result of this low population is that population pressure and land hunger never occurred – and flight to urban centres by desperate peasants never happened.

Before about 1780, opportunity even for the ordinary people clearly lay in rural manufacturing, not in towns. Despite being vulnerable to periodic crop failures, in normal times people lived simply but reasonably comfortably. In the Pennines they had never been manorialised into a typical peasant society:  agricultural rents simply did not make the effort worthwhile.

The north was also never divided into the kind of small, community-oriented parishes seen in lowland England. Whalley parish had 43 separate townships’ Halifax had 23, and covered 120 square miles. People therefore largely lived independently of supervision from squires, priests and fellow open-field farmers.

Possibly because they lacked external enforcers, the rule of law was valued, quite unlike the randomly violent culture that developed further north along the Scottish border. They paid their rents and taxes, always pleading poverty to keep them as low as possible, and they managed their own community affairs in an efficient manner for the same reason.

With very few gentry to act as magistrates, making life run smoothly rested with the yeoman class, who became very aware of their status and influence. When things needed doing, communities did them, especially with regard to transport improvements; but most of life was left to families. Their ideology underpins so much of development patterns, whereas the bourgeoisie simply did not exist.

Next time: the revolution arrives.

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.

 
 
 
 

So why is Peterborough growing so quickly?

Peterborough Cathedral. Image: Jules & Jenny/Flickr/creative commons.

The latest instalment of our series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.  

The 2001 census put the population of Peterborough at 156,000. Some time before next spring, it’s projected to pass 200,000. That, for those keeping score, is an increase of about 28 per cent. Whether this makes it the fastest growing city in Britain or merely the second or the fourth – the vagueness of Britain’s boundaries means that different reports reach different conclusions – doesn’t really matter. This is a staggering rate of growth.

Oh, and since austerity kicked in, the city council has had its grant from central government cut by 80 percent.

Expansion on this scale and at this rate is the sort of thing that’d have a lot of councils in our NIMBY-ish political culture breaking out in hives; that seems to go double for Tory-run ones in Leave-voting areas. This lot, though, seem to be thriving on it. “I think the opportunity in Peterborough is fantastic,” says Dave Anderson, the city’s interim planning director. “We’re looking at growing to 235,000 by the mid-2030s.”

More striking still is that the Conservative council leader John Holdich agrees. “I’m a believer in ‘WIMBY’: what in my back yard?” he says. He’s responsible, he says, not just to his electorate, but “to our future kids, and grandkids” too – plus, at that rate of growth, a lot of incomers, too.

All this raises two questions. Why is Peterborough growing so quickly? And what can it do to prepare itself?

If you’re a little uncertain exactly where Peterborough is, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Until 1889, the “Soke of Peterborough” was an unlikely east-ward extrusion from Northamptonshire, far to its south west. Then it was a county in its own right; then part of the now-defunct Huntingdonshire. Today it’s in Cambridgeshire, with which it shares a metro mayor, the Conservative James Palmer. When I ask Holdich, who’s giving me a whistlestop tour of the city’s cathedral quarter, to explain all this, he just shrugs. “They keep moving us about.”

Sitting on the edge of the Fens, Peterborough is, officially, a part of the East of England region; but it’s just up the road from East Midlands cities including Leicester and Nottingham. I’d mentally pigeonholed it as a London-commuter town, albeit a far flung one; but when I actually looked it up, I was surprised to discover it was closer to Birmingham (70 miles) than London (75), and halfway up to Hull (81).


The more flattering interpretation of all this is that it’s on a bit of a crossroads: between capital and north, East Anglia and the Midlands. On the road network, that’s literally true – it’s where the A1 meets the A47, the main east-west road at this latitude – and railway lines extend in all directions, too.

All of which makes Peterborough a pretty nifty place to be if you’re, say, a large logistics firm.

This has clearly contributed to the city’s growth. “It has access to lots of land and cheaper labour than anywhere else in the Greater South East,” says Paul Swinney, director of policy at the Centre for Cities. “Those attributes appeal to land hungry, low-skilled business as opposed to higher-skilled more knowledge-based ones.”

That alone would point to a similar economy to a lot of northern cities – but there’s another thing driving Peterborough’s development. Despite being 70 miles from the capital, the East Coast Main Line means it’s well under an hour away by train.

In 1967, what’s more, the ancient cathedral city was designated a new town, to house London’s overspill population. The development corporation which owned the land and built the new town upon it, evolved into a development agency; today the same role is played by bodies like Opportunity Peterborough and the Peterborough Investment Partnership.

The city also offers relatively cheap housing: you can get a four-bed family home for not much over £200,000. That’s fuelled growth further as London-based workers scratch around for the increasingly tiny pool of places that are both commutable and affordable.

The housing affordability ratio shows average house prices as a multiple of average incomes. Peterborough is notably more affordable than Cambridge, London and the national average. Image: Centre for Cities data tool.

It’s made it attractive to service businesses, too. “London has probably played quite a big role in the city’s development,” says Swinney. “If you don’t want to move too far out, it’s probably one of the cheapest places to move to.”

The result of all this is that it has an unusually mixed economy. There’s light industry and logistics, in the office and warehouse parks that line the dual-carriageways (“parkways”) of the city. But there are also financial services and digital media companies moving in, bringing better paying jobs. In a country where most city economies are built on either high value services or land-hungry warehousing businesses, Peterborough has somehow managed to create a mixed economy.

Peterborough’s industrial profile: more services and less manufacturing, and more private and fewer public sector jobs, than the national average. Image: Centre for Cities.

At the moment, if people think of Peterborough at all, they’re likely to imagine a large town, rather than the fair-size regional city it’s on course to become. Its glorious 12th century cathedral – the hallmark of an ancient city, and at 44m still by far the highest spot on the horizon for miles around – is stunning. But it’s barely known to outsiders, and at least twice on my tour, the council’s communications officer proudly announces that the Telegraph named her patch as one of the best towns to live in within an hour of London, before adding, “even though we’re a city”. 

So part of the council’s current mission is to ensure that Peterborough has all the amenities people would expect from a settlement on this scale. “What the city needs to do is to adopt the mind-set of a slightly larger city,” says Anderson. Slightly smaller Swansea is developing a new music arena, of the sort Peterborough doesn’t have and needs. He frets, too, about retail spend “leaking” to Cambridge or Leicester. “Retail is now seen as a leisure activity: in the core of the city it’s important that offer is there.”

To that end, the early 1980s Queensgate shopping centre is being redeveloped, with John Lewis giving up a chunk of space to provide a new city centre cinema. (At present, the area only has road-side suburban multiplexes.) There’s major office, retail and housing development underway at North Westgate, as well as work to improve the walking route between the station and the commercial centre, in a similar manner to Coventry.

Fletton Quays. Image: Peterborough Investment Partnership.

Then there’s the city’s underused riverside. The council recently moved to new digs, in Fletton Quays, on the far bank of the River Nene from the centre. Across the river from the Embankment, the city centre’s largest green space, it’s a pretty lovely spot, of the sort where one might expect riverside pubs or restaurants with outdoor seating – but at the moment the space is largely empty. The Fletton Quays development will change all that, bringing more retail space and yes, new homes, too.

Jobs in Peterborough are unusually distributed around town: in many cities, most jobs are in the central business district. Image: Centre for Cities.

The big thing everyone agrees is missing, though, is a university. It already has the University Centre Peterborough, where degrees are provided by Anglia Ruskin University. The plan is for the site – a joint venture between ARU and Peterborough Regional College – to go its own way as an independent institution, the University of Peterborough, in autumn 2022. That should help provide the skills that the city needs to grow. A growing student population should also bring life and cash to the city centre. 

How big could Peterborough get? Could its enviable combination of good location and cheap housing and grand ambitions combine to make it the modern equivalent of Manchester or Liverpool – one of the great cities of the 21st century?

Well, probably not: “I think the optimum size for a city is probably about 250,000,” says Holdich. But that’s still a whole quarter bigger than now, and the council leader even discusses the possibility of refitting his dual-carriageway-based-city with some kind of light rail network to service that growing population. Peterborough’s not done growing yet.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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