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.

 
 
 
 

To beat rising temperatures, Vienna launches a network of 'Cool Streets'

A Vienna resident cools off at one of the city's new Cool Streets installations. (Courtesy Christian Fürthner/Mobilitätsagentur Wien)

Over the past several months, Austria has recorded its highest unemployment rate since World War II, thanks to the economic aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. With no job or a suddenly smaller income – not to mention the continued threat of the virus – many Viennese will opt for a staycation this summer.  

At the same time, last year, Austria’s capital experienced 39 days with temperatures of over 30°C (86°F), one of its hottest summers in history according to the Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics.

Climate experts expect a similarly sizzling 2020 season, and city officials are now doubling down on efforts to combat the heat by launching a “Cool Streets” initiative as well as a new, state-of-the-art cooling park.

“As the city councilwoman in charge of climate, it is my job to ensure local cooling,” Vienna’s deputy mayor Birgit Hebein proclaimed at the opening of one of 22 new “Cool Streets” on 22 June.

“In Austria, there are already more heat deaths than traffic fatalities,” she added.

Hebein was referring to the 766 people the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Security included in its 2018 heat-associated mortality statistics. The number was up by 31% compared to 2017, and in contrast to the 409 people who died in traffic collisions the same year.

The project includes 18 temporary Cool Streets located across the city, plus four roads that will be redesigned permanently and designated as “Cool Streets Plus”.

“The Plus version includes the planting of trees. Brighter surfaces, which reflect less heat, replace asphalt in addition to the installation of shadow or water elements,” said Kathrin Ivancsits, spokeswoman for the city-owned bureau Mobilitätsagentur, which is coordinating the project.


Vienna's seasonal Cool Streets provide shady places to rest and are closed to cars. (Petra Loho for CityMetric)

In addition to mobile shade dispensers and seating possibilities amid more greenery provided by potted plants, each street features a steel column offering drinking water and spray cooling. The temporary Cool Streets will also remain car-free until 20 September.

A sensor in the granite base releases drinking water and pushes it through 34 nozzles whenever the outside temperature reaches 25°C (77°F) . As soon as the ambient temperature drops to 23°C (73°F), the sensor, which operates from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., turns off the water supply.

The sensors were included in part to allay concerns about legionella, a pathogenic bacteria that can reproduce in water.  

“When the spray stops, the system drains, and therefore no microbial contamination can develop,” said Dr. Hans-Peter Hutter, deputy head of the Department of Environmental Health at the Center for Public Health at Medical University Vienna, in a televised interview.

Hutter also assured the public that there is no increased risk of a Covid-19 infection from the spray as long as people adhere to the one-meter social distance requirement.


But Samer Bagaeen of the University of Kent's School of Architecture and Planning notes that air cooling systems, like the ones used in Germany at abattoirs, have been found recently to be a risk factor for Covid-19 outbreaks.

“The same could be said for spay devices,” he warned.

Vienna’s district councils selected the 22 Cool Street locations with the help of the city’s Urban Heat Vulnerability Index. The map shows where most people suffer from heat by evaluating temperature data, green and water-related infrastructure, and demographic data.

“Urban heat islands can occur when cities replace the natural land cover with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb and retain heat,” as the US Environmental Protection Agency states.


A rendering of Vienna's planned park featuring a Coolspot, which is scheduled to open in August. Click to expand.
(Courtesy Carla Lo Landscape Architecture)

Vienna’s sixth district, Mariahilf, is such an area. The construction of the capital’s first “Cooling Park”, a €1 million project covering the 10,600 square-metre Esterházypark, is designed to provide relief. 

Green4Cities, a centre of excellence for green infrastructure in urban areas, designed the park’s main attraction, the “Coolspot”. The nearly 3.40-metre high steel trellis holds three rings equipped with spray nozzles. Textile shading slats, tensioned with steel cables, cover them.

The effects of evaporation and evapotranspiration create a cooler microclimate around the 30 square-metre seating area, alongside other spray spots selectively scattered across the park.

The high-pressure spray also deposits tiny droplets on plant and tree leaves, which stimulates them to sweat even more. All together, these collective measures help to cool their surroundings by up to six degrees.

The landscape architect Carla Lo and her team planned what she calls the “low-tech” park components. “Plants are an essential design element of the Cooling Park,” Lo says. “By unsealing the [soil], we can add new grass, herbaceous beds, and more climate-resistant trees to the existing cultivation”.

Light-coloured, natural stone punctuated by grass seams replaces the old concrete surfaces, and wooden benches meander throughout the park.

Living near the park and yearning for an urban escape close by, Lo says she’s motivated to ensure the park is completed by mid-August.

“If we don't do anything, Vienna will be another eight degrees Celsius hotter in 2050 than it already is,” Hebein said.

Vienna recently came in first in the World's 10 Greenest Cities Index by the consulting agency Resonance.

“There is no one size fits all on how cities respond to urban heat,” says the University of Kent’s Bagaeen, who points out that Vienna was one of the first European cities to set up an Urban Heat Islands Strategic Plan in 2015.

In the short term, prognoses on the city’s future development may be more difficult: Vienna votes this autumn.

Petra Loho is a journalist and photographer based in Austria.