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 apart from London 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 centres.
Urbanism became more pervasive and individual towns became more populous. In 1831, some 44% of the population of England and Wales and 32% of Scotland’s was urban dwelling. By 1891, the proportions had increased to 75 and 65% respectively. 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.
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 and 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. 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.
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). Railways also played a key role in the growth of specialist resorts and residential towns.
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 market 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 but it was ad hoc expansion rather than planned growth.