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.

 
 
 
 

Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.

 

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).


Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

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