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.

 
 
 
 

How can cities protect common green space for the future?

Newcastle Town Moor. Image: Chabe01/Wikimedia Commons.

Urban green space comes in a variety of forms – parks, allotments, gardens, ‘strays’ to mention just a few. One of the most iconic is the urban “common” – these are often extensive tracts of green space in or adjacent to large urban areas that provide publicly accountable, open, green, spaces vital for culture, health, wellbeing and biodiversity in the metropolitan context. Examples include Epping Forest and Wimbledon common in London, Town Moor in Newcastle, Mousehold Heath in Norwich, or Clifton Downs in Bristol.

The term “common” creates in the public consciousness notions of communal ownership, control and use. In fact, this is often a misconception. Most urban “commons” are not community-owned assets, and many have different legal identities, and differing degrees of legal protection and security. These are often the result of a history of different political, social and economic forces shaping land use in each metropolitan context. Epping Forest and Town Moor in Newcastle are, for example, protected by Acts of Parliament. Clifton Down in Bristol is a “traditional” common registered under the Commons Registration Act 1965, which guarantees its status as common land.

Other areas commonly regarded by the public as commons are in actual fact simply urban green space that is preserved by some lesser legal protection - for example, through the planning system, which may designate them as green space or as conservation areas within the local development plan. But plans can change, and much green space is lost to development annually.

Indeed, in the age of austerity, local authorities have been driven to sell much green space that they themselves own to raise funds to provide front line local services, like schools and social care. In this context, true urban commons – those that have the legal status of common land – are extremely precious community assets, in that they are protected from development and preserved for future generations.

But do we value them highly enough? Do we appreciate their importance in shaping our community’s consciousness of its own identity and history? Do we use them to the full as recreational open spaces and if not, how can we champion our urban commons and develop new ways to engage the urban public more fully in their use, management and stewardship?   


A new interdisciplinary 3-year project (“Wastes and Strays”) involving academics from Newcastle University, Exeter University, Sheffield University and Brighton University will address many of these issues. The project will explore the complex social and political history of the urban common, as well as their legal and cultural status today, and in doing so devise tools and methods of negotiation, inclusivity and creativity to inform their future.

The project will make in-depth studies of four iconic urban commons: Town Moor, Newcastle; Valley Gardens, Brighton; Mousehold Heath, Norwich; and Clifton Down, Bristol. It will look at the multiple, negotiated historic uses and legal origins of the common in each case, and its contemporary meaning, popular perception, biodiversity and public use.

One strand of the research is closely focussed to encouraging the more extensive use of urban commons as vital green space for recreation and other community uses, important for mental and physical wellbeing. It will be looking to develop new strategies for community engagement with the urban commons as community assets and will work in partnership with local communities and relevant stakeholder groups to generate ideas for the future of urban commons, in the spirit of their negotiated pasts.

The big idea is to generate a multifaceted definition of the urban common to provide a robust base for education initiatives and future public policy guidance, informing their development and use as a diverse cultural and ecological space.

For hundreds of years, these unique, open spaces have played a varied, but important, role in the individual stories of our towns and cities. We need to develop new and imaginative ways to use them and foster a greater sense of community involvement if we are to preserve them for future generations.

Chris Rodgers is a professor of Law at Newcastle University.