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.

 
 
 
 

The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.


Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.