Friday, 25 April 2008

Urban growth: Great cities and manufacturing towns

Friedrich Engels wrote at the beginning of the chapter on 'The Great Towns' in his The Condition of the Working Class in England [1844] that[1]

'What is true of London, is true of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, is true of all great towns. Everywhere barbarous indifference, hard egotism on one hand and nameless misery on the other, everywhere social warfare, every man's house in a state of siege, everywhere reciprocal plundering under the protection of the law....'

J.G.Kohl, a German visitor to Britain in the early 1840s, reported on the appearance of Birmingham

'Birmingham, compared with Manchester is evidently deficient in large buildings and public institutions.... London has her Thames, Liverpool her Mersey....Birmingham has nothing of the kind, nothing but a dull and endless succession of house after house, and street after street.'

By the time he reached Leeds, Birmingham's ugliness was forgotten

'The manufacturing cities of England are none of them very attractive or pleasing in appearance, but Leeds is, perhaps, the ugliest and least attractive town in all England. In Birmingham, Manchester and other such cities, among the mass of chimneys and factories, are scattered, here and there, splendid newsrooms or clubs, and interesting exchanges, banks, railway-stations or Wellington and Nelson monuments. Leeds has none of these.'

Alexis de Tocqueville noted a decade earlier that

'At Manchester a few great capitalists, thousands of poor workmen and little middle class. At Birmingham, few large industries, many small industrialists. At Manchester workmen are counted by the thousand.... At Birmingham the workers work in their own houses or in little workshops in company with the master himself.... the working people of Birmingham seem more healthy, better off, more orderly and more moral than those of Manchester [where] civilised man is turned back almost into a savage.'

Certainly, the built environments of Birmingham and Manchester were very different: there was less overcrowding in Birmingham and the quality of street cleansing and drainage was better than Manchester and other Lancashire towns.  It is tempting to arrange England's industrial cities along a continuum of social and economic structure from Manchester at one extreme -- as Engels called it 'the classic type of a modern manufacturing town' -- by way of Leeds where factories in the woollen industry were smaller than in Lancashire cotton, to Sheffield and Birmingham, the principal examples of workshop industry. This is misleading to several respects:

  1. It ignores the major seaports, many of which like Liverpool were industrial cities as well.
  2. It suggests falsely that the satellites of each of the major cities could also be ranged alone a continuum paralleling than of the regional capital.
  3. Engels' view of Manchester as the archetypal manufacturing city is misleading and other writers stressed that it was not typical

It was, however, the great cities that Victorians contemplated when they considered the urbanisation of their society. These cities and towns were multi-purpose and multi-functional and most were, to a marked degree, specialists in one or two substantial activities. Their competitive positions as great cities were geared to the fortunes of particular trades. Certainly the early expansion of towns and cities in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century led to differentiation between communities and the recognition that all towns experienced, or thought they experienced, the same problems. Certainly the major reasons for the growth of regional centres were similar to the reasons for the growth of London. However, by 1900 as the result of more government intervention, especially with regard to health and housing, increased dominance of national and metropolitan influences, the spread of chain stores and the diffusion of ideas and fashions from London, towns came to be more alike.

The forms of towns

The massive increase in urban population resulted in a substantial physical increase of the built-up areas of towns. That, in turn, triggered a fundamental restructuring of urban land usage. As with London, there was an increasing segregation within urban communities largely as a response to a series of technological transformations.

  1. Industrial technology. This has traditionally been regarded as the critical area of change. In 1800 small-scale craft industries based on workshops scattered throughout the town produced for the local market. By 1900 two changes had occurred.  First, large-scale, factory-based industry came into being demanding extensive areas of land and accessibility to water and rail transport. The urban industrial region emerged.  Secondly, workshop-based craft industries were eventually displaced. For example, the boot and shoemaker were eventually ousted by mass produced factory goods from the East Midlands; the tailor became a retailer of centrally produced off-the-peg garments.  Manufacturing was concentrated into larger and distinctive regions within the town.
  2. Retail technology. A whole series of changes took place. They were not complete until 1900. Though they were not immediate and revolutionary, the end result was a radical change in the whole system.  The weekly market was gradually replaced by, or transformed into, the permanent shopping centre. Up to 1850 the first stage was characterised by the building of a market hall. Michael Marks, for example, started in Leeds as a peddler or packman. By 1884 he had a stall in the open market that operated two days a week; from there he moved into the covered market that had been opened in 1857 on a daily basis; the next stage was to open stalls in other markets and by 1890 he had five.  The old core of the town, or part of it, that had been a mixture of land uses became more specialised into retail or professional uses.  Mass produced goods undermined old local craft production and specialist retailers of manufactured goods replaced the old combined workshop-retailing establishments. The railways enhanced this process by providing speedy transport of even perishable commodities. Part of this process was the wider occurrence of the lock-up shop to which the retailer commuted each day.  By the 1880s both multiple and department stores appeared, the former especially in the grocery trade. Thomas Lipton started a one-man grocery store in Glasgow in 1872; by 1899 he had 245 branches throughout Britain. The greater demand for professional services, itself related to urban growth, resulted in lawyers and doctors seeking central locations. But a variety of other uses also located themselves here offering services to business, auctioneers and accountants or to the public, such as lending libraries.
  3. Transport technology. There were two aspects that greatly affected the towns.  First, the impact of a developing railway system was a significant consumer of urban land.  Secondly, in 1800 movement was primarily on foot: this has been called 'the walking city'. By 1900 this had been transformed. The railway supplemented by the carriage, electric tram and omnibus were the main means of transport.

Civic Pride

Civic pride and civic rivalry among the industrial towns of the north were almost entirely materialistic and had few aesthetic issues. The motives that inspired both were in part those of business. Sanitary reform made business sense as much as moral sense. Healthier workers would improve output and individuals and public authorities would be spared unproductive spending on hospitals and funeral charges. Certainly a social conscience inspired civic improvements but it is an error to neglect business needs. For the Victorians humanitarian and business aims were complementary not contradictory.

In 1830 the prevailing style of Georgian urban design was theatrical, the prevailing aim one of spectacle. Cities and towns had been rebuilt and refashioned with elegant assembly rooms, town halls, residential squares, parades and public gardens, settings for the rituals that helped shaped a variety of interests -- landed, commercial, financial, professional -- into the cultural consensus of 'polite society'.

  1. Classical styling established a common, nation-wide code for polite townscape as did other improvements to the fabric such as paving, lighting, street cleaning and the provision of piped water and sewage disposal. Noxious or dangerous trades were expelled to the districts of the poor. Other areas for the poor, notably town commons were liable to be enclosed for the building of genteel properties.  The building of a genteel townscape articulated a growing segregation between polite and impolite culture. But this division was never complete. The urban crowd, riotous and unpredictable, was always a threat.
  2. Aristocratic motives for restructuring towns and styles were in part patrician, an expression of an aristocratic conception of society, but they were also financial. Leading aristocrats in London, like the Dukes of Bedford, Portland and Southampton, vied with each other to develop their estates. Long-term leases realised long-term financial returns: urban land was cropped as effectively as arable soil.
  3. The lives and living conditions of the poor were mostly kept off-stage. But after 1830 spectacle was replaced by surveillance. This reflected the attitudes of social reformers who frowned on spectacular public display.  London and city life generally became an object of concern. The conditions of the poor could no longer be ignored -- they ceased to have walk-on roles and became central to the condition of towns. Contemporaries developed the idea of the ‘dangerous classes’ especially as the working classes tended to be concentrated in particular areas of urban communities.
  4. The spectre of contagious diseases like cholera rampaging through towns and cities and with it a variety of social pathologies prompted the Victorian reformers into a more vigorous strategy for social and environmental control. Metropolitan improvements ceased to mean schemes to beautify London but came to be limited to ones that deal with specific evils such as traffic congestion, insanitary buildings, and inefficient sewage disposal in which aesthetic considerations were secondary.  There were a number of schemes, both privately and publicly funded, to improve the physical fabric of poorer urban districts and, by extension, their moral and social condition. Building wide streets, model housing estates and public parks was informed by the belief that slums nourished, if not caused, a variety of pathologies, not just physical disease but crime, laziness, irreligion and insurrection. At their core therefore schemes like this were concerned with principles of social discipline.

As towns and cities expanded so early Victorian reformers voiced their concern about the loss of open space for public recreation. The crisis was not actually as great as reformers believed; open country was only a short walk away in most cities. The issue was the use to which open space was put. Middle class reformers promoted 'rational recreation', constructive kinds of leisure as opposed to the dog racing, prize fighting and political rallies that occurred round the northern industrial towns. This too was a form of social control. The first purpose-built public park was the Arboretum in Derby opened in 1839 and the first municipal park was the more extensive Birkenhead Park opened four years later [soon known as 'the people's park']. From the 1850s new public parks and walks were built in most industrial towns and cities, often on the edges, sometimes by enclosing common land. Some were initially financed by large employers and then handed over to municipal corporations; others were municipal ventures from the outset. New cemeteries on the edge of cities were designed for rational recreation: Undercliffe Cemetery, high above Bradford, was run as a profit-making concern by local businessmen for families who walked beside extravagant tombs of the city's leading industrial families.

From the reform of municipal corporations in 1835 environmental improvement was entwined with middle class radicalism and attacks on what one Plymouth writer called 'a shabby mongrel aristocracy'. Between the mid 1830s and 1850s there were bitter disputes between the 'Economists' who associated improvement with sewerage, drainage and water supplies and 'Improvers' who took a broader view of civil improvement and who sought to build a new civil townscape of broad open spaces and magnificent public buildings. With the revival of urban fortunes it was improvement on the grand scale that captured the corporate imagination. The experience of Birmingham, especially under Joseph Chamberlain[2] in the 1870s, was not unique.


[1] F. Engels The Condition of the Working Class in England, 1844, various editions including W.O. Henderson and W.H. Chaloner, Blackwell, 1958, E.J. Hobsbawm in 1964 and Penguin, 1987. Two short studies of Engels, one by T. Carver, OUP, 1981 and a second by D. McLellan, Fontana, 1977, will be found useful.

[2] On Chamberlain in Birmingham the most recent study is Peter Marsh Joseph Chamberlain. Entrepreneur in Politics, Yale University Press, 1994.

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