An economic history of the north of England. Part 3: The industrial revolution arrives

Charles Knight's engraving of Halifax as it was in 1834. Image: public domain.

The polycentric and scattered nature of the north of England gives it an urban form almost unique in Europe.

In the first two parts of his economic history of the region, Dr Stephen Caunce explored the “unparalleled urban failure” that followed the Black Death, and the pattern of scattered farmsteads and cottage industries that arose in the early modern age.

This time: the industrial revolution arrives.

The north of England offered plentiful coal in easily accessible seams. But, in the 1700s, the fact that transport costs doubled the sale price after only three or four miles made it uneconomic to mine it for other than very local use, and as yet there were no substantial communities in need of fuel. Other mineral resources found elsewhere in the Pennines had been eroded away, and so there was no proliferation of the lead mines seen to north and south.

The region’s many streams were fed by the peat, so nowhere had greater natural potential for year-round harnessing of water power via a multitude of small mills. This was used mostly in cloth finishing at first, or around Sheffield for tilt hammers and grindstones.

But this widespread access to water power simply reinforced the pattern of "scattered", rather than centralised, communities: it encouraged direct investment, rather than nucleation and outside involvement.

All these places were coming to be seen as towns, but few people lived in them and some had no legal existence at all. The built-up area of Rochdale spread across the boundaries between three townships, none of which was called “Rochdale”. As late as 1820, Accrington was described as two neighbouring villages, though by 1851 it was without doubt a substantial manufacturing town.

Manchester is the most famous case of a place that simply adapted its manorial courts to manage a town – and there is no evidence that commerce was hampered since it became the nerve-centre of the new cotton industry. However, it should be noted that it always served the surrounding area's commercial needs, rather than commanding them; and it never acquired any administrative superiority.

Most of the population growth was due to large families and very local migration: very few southerners moved north

This sort of development was mostly concentrated in the Pennines before 1800, the opposite of what might be expected, but the textile industry did spread out onto the plains. As the 19th century progressed, moreover, the economy diversified and new sectors found reasons to locate outside the hills. Certainly, steel making benefited from flatter sites than the old cutlers had favoured, and chemicals wanted access to shipping.

In the earlier stages, even merchants tended to live outside the towns, and journeys were measured in hours and days rather than weeks and months. Packhorses coped so well that turnpike roads developed very late and ineffectually. Even canals offered only a limited range of strategic, long-distance connection – quite unlike the pattern in and round Birmingham, say.


The canals finally did create some requirement of clustering, and with the start of factory production this was reinforced. However, the result was linearity rather than true centralisation, and even the railways had much the same impact as so many places acquired goods yards.

Moreover, northern lines were overwhelmingly intended to move freight, not people, and most industrial towns had very little rail commuting. Indeed, coal was present under much of the Pennine industrial area, and was widely mined through small family operated collieries rather than coming in by rail.

Even in the 19th century new towns were still emerging, most obviously Queensbury in Yorkshire and Nelson in Lancashire, both named after pre-existing public houses. However, most of the population growth was due to large families and very local migration: very few southerners moved north, and even the Irish influx is often overstated.

It should also be noted, for completeness, that outside the zones of intense urbanisation there was a full network of country market towns. And while they may seem too obvious to spend time on, in fact I would argue that they are part of the overall urban network of the region. Moreover, they have often preserved the pattern of populations geared to the minimum necessary level to service their surrounding areas; in Yorkshire they also rose and fell as needs changed.

After 1830 it was obvious that things had to change, with formalisation of urban status and ever increasing new powers for elected councils to run urban areas for the general good. But by then, this apparently chaotic urban pattern was fixed, and for another century it seemed to fit local people's requirements as well as any alternative; and local pride and sense of identity resisted even the most well-meaning attempts to re-organise on a more logical basis.

Even in 1974, the granting of strategic planning powers to new metropolitan county councils was met with a combination of indifference, dislike and hatred. Their rapid abolition caused very few regrets.

 

What I have been trying to communicate with this series is the historic reasons why the urban form of the north of England differs so much from that of the south. London is a classic case of a centripetal urban area: it has grown out from the Pool of London over the ages, with the communities surrounding it fitting into a hierarchy.

However, the M62 corridor is exactly the opposite: an inherently centrifugal, "exploded" version of urbanisation, stretched between the ports of Liverpool and Hull. It seems to defy the normal logic of human clustering. There are big risks inherent in trying to develop the region's economy now while ignoring that crucial difference.

Put it another way. Ebenezer Howard's theory of the "garden city" is usually treated as if it relates purely to the idea of including lots of greenery in and around towns. At least as important, though, was his vision of a system of manageable-sized, fairly self-contained settlements, where the inhabitants felt in control: big enough to offer people lots to do, but not so big they become anonymous.

The obsession with "dark, satanic mills" has completely obscured the fact that the north actually looks like a version of this already – yet we are now trying to turn it into one huge conurbation. Surely it's time we played to the region's strengths.

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.

 
 
 
 

Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.


School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.