Saturday, 26 April 2008

Urban growth: New towns

New urban developments in the nineteenth century were, in part, the result of expansive capitalism. It is natural that they should excite polemicists. Did they favour some social groups more than others? This needs to be considered against the background of the new urban growths of the late Victorian period: the resort and pleasure towns, the suburban and satellite towns and planned communities of both businessmen and utopians.

The seaside resort

John Glover-Kinde issued the song I do like to be beside the seaside in 1909. The most copied artist of mid-nineteenth century England was W.R.Frith whose most popular painting was Ramsgate Sands or Life at the Seaside painted in 1853-4. By 1911 55 per cent of English people were visiting the seaside on day excursions and 20 per cent were talking holidays requiring accommodation. The holiday industry involved about 1.25 per cent of the occupied population and 1.5 per cent of consumer expenditure. No previous society gave so many people the chance for a holiday beside the sea.  Seaside resorts were not places of production but of conspicuous expenditure where people wasted time and money: many contemporaries regarded them as parasites.

Transport permitted the expansion of coastal resorts and presented each with a problem of how to define and preserve its character. The Kent resorts -- Broadstairs, Ramsgate and Margate -- had a popularity before the railways arrived owing to cheap fares on the hoys and, after 1815, the Thames steam-packets. Steamboat services had an impact in other areas. From Liverpool after the Napoleonic wars, boats went along the Lancashire, Cheshire and North Wales coastline as well as to the Isle of Man. There were comparable stirrings in the Bristol Channel.  Some resorts owed their early expansion to Court connections. George III visited Weymouth in 1784, then almost every August and September from 1789 to 1805. Worthing and Southend were briefly favoured by royal princesses and Brighton undoubtedly owed its expansion to the patronage of the Prince Regent [later George IV 1820-30].

In the eighteenth century the seaside resort largely took second place to the spa and the appeal of the spas persisted into the nineteenth century. In 1841Dr A.B. Granville's map showed seventy spas, but the depression of the 1830s had taken its toll of their prosperity. Railway links and individual initiative brought renewed spa development after 1840. Tenbury Wells and Droitwich grew as offshoots of John Corbett's salt-extracting business; Matlock and Buxton revived after the coming of the railway in 1863 and the support of the seventh Duke of Devonshire. There was also municipal investment: Bath Corporation made extensive renovations in the late 1880s and the expansion of Harrogate owed much to vigorous corporation investment and rivalled some continental spas as an aristocratic and middle class centre.

Spas also developed as locations for fashionable sport or as general tourist centres: Harrogate utilised its proximity to the Yorkshire Dales; Cheltenham promoted general tourism in the Cotswold; Leamington exploited Shakespeare country; Llandrindod Wells brought visitors to Wales.  For recreation the spas lagged in popularity behind the inland tourist centres and inland tourist centres ran second to seaside resorts. Between 1861 and 1871 the 48 places classified as seaside resorts had grown by 21.5 per cent. Seaside towns were not the same. They catered for different classes of visitors and often combined holiday facilities with other pursuits, usually shipping and fishing. But tourism in some areas thrived and in others barely stirred. The railway reached Cornwall in 1859 but it remained comparatively unexploited until after 1914: it lost population in every decade from 1861 to 1901 and grew only 1.86 per cent between 1901 and 1911.

Only one resort in the south-west enticed visitors in any quantity. Torquay's population quadrupled between 1841 and 1901. It retained some port traffic and well as minor industry but its position as a social centre determined its expansion. Sir Lawrence Palk was active in the 1820s and 1830s in developing Torquay and the arrival of the railway in 1848 was greeted with a town holiday. It was promoted as an autumn and winter resort deliberately to offset the spasmodic conditions of the holiday trade. The late holiday season was largely a middle or upper class prerogative and to attract this clientele resorts needed to offer both creature comforts and the right tone. New middle class resorts, like Bournemouth and Eastbourne, were better able to lengthen their seasons, something working class resorts like Southend and Blackpool could not do. Exclusivity was encouraged. At Folkestone the resident Earls of Radnor were responsible for the new town that emerged on the cliffs to attract genteel society. At Skegness the prime mover was H.V.Tippet, agent of the Earl of Scarborough. Fleetwood commemorated its developer by name.

The history of pleasure resorts is more complicated than that of the middle class resorts. The outstanding new resort was Blackpool made by the customs of the textile trades: many northern textile towns had their 'wakes' [or holiday weeks] when factories closed and the towns emptied for the seaside. In some places the whole town took a rest, as in the July Glasgow Fair when excursion steamers on the Clyde and the railways to the Ayrshire coastal resorts were packed. The turning point was the late 1860s and 1870s. Bank Holidays (under an Act of 1871) gave working class trippers time for holidays, though legislation to provide a week's holiday with pay did not come until 1938. As real wages increase in the 1870s and as friendly societies and holiday clubs encouraged the habit of saving, so the prospects of textile workers spending time at the coast increased. The organisation of holidays, some with pay but most without, resulted in the development of block bookings and bargain rates. Blackpool did not discourage middle class visitors and Lytham St Anne's offered sanctuary for those affronted by Blackpool's common side. Blackpool was established as a mecca for entertainment: there were winter gardens, pleasure pavilions, aquarium, music-halls, its three piers, ballrooms and theatres [Frank Matcham created the Grand Theatre in 1894] but its 500 foot imitation Eiffel Tower [1891-4] was astonishing. Nowhere was everything gathered together, and in such proportions, as at Blackpool.

Blackpool gained a reputation as the premier, not just a plebeian, resort though Brighton vastly exceeded it in size. As an older community, Brighton contained deeper pockets of resistance to the new tourist trends. Blackpool had three times as many lodging-houses and the seaside landlady was very much a creation of Blackpool. But Brighton had three times as many hotels. Brighton resisted the influx of revelling lowborn Londoners and certain residents and hoteliers lobbied the railway companies to limit the number of cheap return tickets to London. It was, however, investment in amenities that turned the plebeian tide or at least stemmed it. Two substantial piers were built in 1866 and 1896 but the principal investment was in baroque hotels in the late nineteenth century to seduce the rich and nouveaux riches from the French Riviera. Royal patronage was essential: first class ticket sales from London to Brighton doubled following the visit of Edward VII in 1909.

There was more to Brighton than grand hotels. In the 1870s observers commented that both Brighton and Hastings were 'marine suburbs of London'. Several other resorts qualified as satellites or suburbs. Southport, twenty miles north of Liverpool, is a good example. Connected by rail in 1848, its population rose from 5,000 in 1851 to 48,000 in 1901. Southport had all the trappings of a middle class holiday centre but it also represented Liverpool wealth by the sea. The second home phenomenon was evident at resorts both inland and coastal. Leeds and Bradford businessmen colonised Scarborough as well as Ilkley and Harrogate. Wealthy Lancashire businessmen settled in the Lake District as well as in Cheshire. This was part of the general movement, temporary and permanent, from big cities.

Suburban growth

This is one of the great features of the nineteenth century. It is possible to identify three phases of suburban growth in this period:

  1. In the first half of the century improved road communication, by private carriage or public coach, facilitated ribbon development. City merchants built grand villas in picturesque settings along the highways that radiated from the major cities, especially London.
  2. From the mid-nineteenth century a new wave emerged, aided by the railways, that threatened to engulf exclusive villadom with the lower- and middle-middle classes.
  3. In the late nineteenth century working-class dormitories threatened the status of suburbia again.

Many contemporaries believed the development of suburbia,, to have spoiled the cities. The suburban dream equalled selfishness, a rejection of the obligation and commitment to the city where the suburbanite earned his living. Suburbs highlighted class distinctions residentially and the core of the cities became depopulated. What prompted suburban development? The following reasons can be identified:

  • There was the demographic upsurge. Of particular importance was the expansion of the lower middle class. Clerks increased from 2.5 per cent of all occupied males in 1851 to over 7 per cent in 1911: a rise from fewer than 150,000 to over 900,00 individuals. Though the composition of the class was varied and the single category concealed a range of character, responsibility and income, the clerk was the butt of snob jokes. Clapham, once among the most affluent Georgian suburb, remained in the 1860s a citadel of stockbrokers and merchants with easy access to open countryside. By 1900 Clapham was closed in and had deteriorated socially into a clerkly capital. Around provincial cities the same process is evident. Acock's Green, a village four miles from the centre of Birmingham, became unbearable for the upper-middle classes as the expanding city engulfed it. By 1903 it had become, as the Birmingham Daily Mail commented '[abandoned to] the smaller house -- the house adapted to the means of the family man of limited income who like to live just outside the artisan belt encircling the city.'
  • There was the ability of people to extend their journey to work. The combination of rising real wages and reduced hours of work -- allowing more travelling time -- were necessary preconditions for the growth of mass suburbs.
  • The presence of a responsive building industry, ready capital and compliant landowners was essential to organise and effect the transfer.
  • There was the matter of taste. Visions of family privacy and class exclusiveness gave a special tone to these constructions.

These were positively reinforcing conditions. There were also certain negative conditions in, for example, the prejudice against apartment building that ensured that English cities expanded outwards rather than upwards. Purpose built flats for the poor only emerged after it was clear that they could not take advantage of decentralised housing. The need for cheap, central accommodation was undeniable for the poor who needed to be close to possible work. The exception was in the industrial north-east where two-storey flats were commonplace. Generally, relatively low-density housing spilling out of open towns was the norm. City centres were vacated for residential purposes, left to bankers by day and prostitutes by night.

Suburbia tended to Conservatism in politics, a counterweight to urban Liberal radicalism and socialist collectivism. Central city-suburban conflict fast replaced the town-country conflict that dominated politics in previous ages. Lord George Hamilton's election for Middlesex in 1868 is commonly noted as having inaugurated the Conservative trend in suburban south-east England. By 1900, as a party organiser commented to a leading Liberal Lord Rosebery ‘.... as the middle and artisan classes had prospered or acquired their houses they have inclined to the Conservative party because they dread the doctrine which Sidney Webb thinks would be so popular.'

The suburban movement represented the beginnings of the gradual move from a society in which most people rented accommodation to one in which many envisaged owning their homes. About 1,500 building societies existed in 1850 but by 1895 there were some 2,600 societies with 600,000 members placed in a statutory basis in 1874 and 1894. In 1914 tenancies remained the norm for 90 per cent of the population. The property-owning democracy was a product of the post-war periods.  The suburbs were much criticised by contemporaries. William Besant in 1909 said they were 'without any society; no social gatherings or institutions; as dull a life as mankind ever tolerated....' Yet their credit side was plain:

  1. Thousands gained a precious privacy in a home of their own in quiet and healthy surroundings, within reach of the countryside. This is important because the Victorians left open fields that were only this century built upon.
  2. Shopping facilities, initially poor, improved dramatically with the displacement of the stall-holder and local craftsmen by the lock-up shop in the 1850s and the emergence of shopping centres in the 1880s containing branches of national retail chains like Boots, Liptons and Freeman, Hardy and Willis.
  3. The infrastructure of suburbs was reinforced in other ways with the building of churches, schools, pubs and theatres. There was also some decentralisation of industrial and business activity, some of which catered entirely for suburban needs: building and repair trades, bakeries and breweries, laundries, gas and electricity works. But lack of space and high rents and rates in city centres were driving other businesses to suburban sites. This development was generally part of the process of evolution of suburban sites. Camberwell, for example, began as a detached village outside London, became a satellite community and was fully absorbed as a suburb. By 1900 a majority of its population of 259,000 both lived and worked in Camberwell itself.
  4. The extension in railway mileage by 50 per cent between 1870 and 1912, from 13,562 to 20,038 miles, was the consequence of rural branch or suburban services. Many railways followed rather than anticipated suburban expansion. The growth in third-class suburban travel was of major importance in London. Outside London the railways were underused by commuters: the Nottingham Suburban Railway opened in 1889 could not withstand the competition of trams and closed in 1916.

Planning urban growth

The distinctive tradition of English town planning was not extinguished by industrialisation but it was repressed. When the term 'town planning' gained currency in the early part of this century, it emerged as a result of debates in Germany and the USA[1]. The problem with town planning in Britain, today as in the late nineteenth century, was that too many planners thought in one-dimensional terms: architects concentrated on houses, engineers on roads and so on. The need was to co-ordinate people and functions, to complement social and industrial organisation and to produce plans that would permit growth and change. Much of the planned developments of the nineteenth century were largely the work of individuals or individual employers:

  1. Many of the model factories and towns were motivated by feelings of industrial paternalism such as providing adequate housing for the working classes. Railway centres like Swindon and Crewe found captive workers caged in regulation housing.
  2. The enlightened employer had humanitarian, philanthropic and other motives to experiment. Robert Owen's New Lanark blended capitalism and paternalism. For the Oldknows, Ashworths and Gregs the motives were more ones of social control. Some model factory villages did involve ideas beyond the utilitarian or disciplinarian. The factory estates outside Bradford and Halifax planned by Titus Salt, Edward Akroyd and Francis Crossley between 1850 and 1870, were essays in urban regeneration. In Somerset the Quaker family of shoemakers, C & J Clark Ltd, built model housing for their workers in the industrial village of Street after production was mechanised in the 1850s. It was in the industrial Midlands and north that the most significant extensions of the tradition were made: Lever's Port Sunlight [1888], Cadbury's Bournville [1895] and Rowntree's New Earswick [1902].
  3. The Garden City was the ideal, the concept of Ebenezer Howard author of Tomorrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform [1898], reissued in 1902 as Garden Cities of To-morrow. Town and country, Howard argued, must be married in garden cities to enjoy the best of both, with low density housing, green belt and separate industrial and agricultural zones. The result was the first garden city at Letchworth.
  4. Decentralisation of housing, as in the development of suburbia and planning, reflected land values, social forces and cheaper transport. From the 1870s a growing 'civic gospel' began to create progressive municipal involvement in provision and regulation of housing and such amenities as baths, markets, libraries, art galleries and museums, parks and recreation spaces, as well as gas, electricity and, by the late nineteenth century, transport services. This larger social role was a prelude to more interventionist planning principles and policies. By 1900 most large towns were involved in such 'municipal socialism'.

The first direct state intervention in town planning per se was the Housing, Town Planning etc. Act 1909. It was limited in scope to building and land-use plans for developing peripheral areas of towns and was permissive rather than mandatory. Where enlightened municipal officials, such as Liverpool's Chief Engineer James Brodie, and a philosophy of planning [as in the University of Liverpool's Department and Lever Chair of Civil Design established in 1910] came together the result was a degree of quality of layout of suburbs and roads. But little was achieved before 1918.


Transport played an essential role in the development of bigger, functionally more specialised towns from 1830. It was only with the coming of railways and the establishment of a national rail network in the 1840s that a fully integrated urban system developed and the constraints of time and distance that kept all cities -- London apart -- tightly bounded in the early Victorian period were progressively reduced. This profound social revolution led to a period of great change in the structure of the urban system and the extent, characteristics and internal and external relations of cities. The first phase of railway construction confirmed the new regional urban hierarchy of the nineteenth century in its focus on London, the provincial capitals and industrial areas.

  1. Urbanism became more pervasive and individual towns became more populous. In 1831 some 44 per cent of the population of England and Wales and 32 per cent of Scotland's was urban dwelling. By 1891 the proportions had increased to 75 and 65 per cent respectively.
  2. Big towns grew at the expense of the small. In 1830 London was the only 'million' city but about one-sixth of Britain's population lived in large towns of over 100,000. By the 1890s nearly two-fifths did so and, in addition to London, another five city-regions had over a million people: Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool and possibly Leeds. Such regional capitals were major centres of commerce and industrial services. Major ports, such as Liverpool and Glasgow, rivalled and in some activities surpassed London.
  3. There was an increase in the size and number of manufacturing towns. Many were highly specialised. The total number of towns of over 2,500 in England and Wales doubled between 1831 and 1901 from 412 to 895. Up to 1850 the fastest growing towns were in the major manufacturing areas of the industrial revolution -- the West Midlands, the Potteries, south Lancashire, west Yorkshire. By 1871 some of the new industrial towns like Cardiff and Middlesborough had almost outstripped slow-growing historic centres such as Chester, York and Exeter.
  4. Towards 1900 renewed urban concentration of economic activity led to overspill of great cities into surrounding residential and satellite towns. In parallel, some older centres were revitalised as new industries sought out skilled labour from declining crafts or as shifting values drew industries back to older towns such as Norwich, Coventry, Northampton, Leicester and Derby.
  5. The railways created new towns such as Swindon, Crewe, Ashford and Wolverton, workshops and company headquarters at strategic sites and junctions within their regional system. Rail companies also added new impetus to old-established towns such as Derby, Doncaster and Newton Abbot, while specialist suburbs or satellites focused on railway and engineering works developed at Springburn [Glasgow], Hunslet [Leeds], Gorton [Manchester] and Saltley [Birmingham].
  6. Railways also played a key role in the growth of specialist resorts and residential towns.
  7. One level in the urban hierarchy -- the small country town -- lost ground and the percentage of Britain's population in towns under 10,000 had changed little by the 1890s. Rural depopulation reduced the demand for crafts and services in markets and many county towns; cottage industries lost ground to factory production; and increased accessibility by rail to the larger towns reduced the range of shopping and services, leading to a decline of many hitherto thriving little towns.

Between 1830 and 1914 Britain became an overwhelmingly urban culture. It led to new ways of living and a range of environmental and governmental problems. It was ad hoc expansion rather than planned growth.

[1] On the development of urban planning see Helen Meller Towns, Plans and Society in Modern Britain, Cambridge University Press, 1997, an invaluable synthesis of recent research.

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