Friday, 12 November 2010


Suburban growth is one of the great features of the nineteenth century.[1] It is possible to identify three phases of suburban growth in this period. First, 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. Then 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. Finally, in the late nineteenth century working-class dormitories threatened the status of suburbia again.

Suburbs 1

Rathmines Road, Dublin c1890-1910 (NLI, LROY 5953)

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. Suburban development was prompted by a series of factors. First, there was the demographic upsurge. Of particular importance was the expansion of the lower middle-class. Clerks increased from 2.5% of all occupied males in 1851 to over 7% in 1911: a rise from fewer than 150,000 to over 900,000 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. [2]

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 it was engulfed by the expanding city. 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.[3]

There was the ability of people to extend their journey to work. The combination of rising real wages and reduced hours of work by 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 also the matter of taste. Visions of family privacy and class exclusiveness

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 gave a special tone to these constructions.

Suburbs 2

Tranquil Vale, Blackheath Village, Blackheath, c1880

Suburbia tended to Conservatism in politics, a counterweight to urban Liberal radicalism and socialist collectivism. [4] Central city and suburban conflict fast replaced the town-country conflict that previously dominated politics. 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 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.[5] In 1914, tenancies remained the norm for 90% of the population. The property-owning democracy was a product of the post-war periods.[6]

The suburbs were much criticised by contemporaries. Walter Besant in 1909 said they were

...without any society; no social gatherings or institutions; as dull a life as mankind ever tolerated....[7]

Yet their benefits were plain. 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. 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.[8] 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.[9]

Suburbs 3

Railway station in Vincent Road, Woolwich, c1900

By 1900, a majority of its population of 259,000 both lived and worked in Camberwell itself. The extension in railway mileage by 50% between 1870 and 1912, from 13,562 to 20,038 miles, was the consequence of rural branch lines 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.

[1] Reeder, D.A., Suburbanity and the Victorian city, (Leicester University Press), 1980 and Bond, Winstan and Divall, Colin, (eds.), Suburbanising the masses: public transport and urban development in historical perspective, (Ashgate), 2003.

[2] Studies of suburbia have often focussed on London; see, for example, Dyos, H.J., Victorian Suburb: A Study of the Growth of Camberwell, (Leicester University Press), 1966 and Pullen, D.E., Sydenham: from hamlet to suburban town, ( D.E. Pullen), 1974.

[3] Cit, ibid, Waller, P.J., Town, City and Nation, England 1850-1914, p. 148.

[4] Coetzee, Frans, ‘Villa Toryism reconsidered: conservatism and suburban sensibilities in late-Victorian Croydon’, Parliamentary History, Vol. 16, (1997), pp. 29-47 and Roberts, Matthew,’”Villa toryism” and popular conservatism in Leeds, 1885-1902’, Historical Journal, Vol. 49, (2006), pp. 217-246. Moore, J.R., ‘Liberalism and the politics of suburbia: electoral dynamics in late nineteenth-century South Manchester’, Urban History, Vol. 30, (2003), pp. 225-250 gives a Liberal perspective.

[5] See, for example, Pooley, Colin G. and Harmer, Michael J., Property ownership in Britain c. 1850-1950: the role of the Bradford Equitable Building Society and the Bingley Building Society in the development of homeownership, (Granta Editions), 1999 and more generally Johnson, Paul A., Saving and spending: The working-class economy in Britain, 1870-1939, (Oxford University Press), 1985.

[6] See, Daunton, Martin J., A property-owning democracy?: Housing in Britain, (Faber) 1987 for the period after 1900.

[7] Besant, Walter, London in the Nineteenth Century, (A. & C. Black), 1909, p. 262.

[8] See, Lancaster, Bill, The department store: a social history, (Leicester University Press), 1995, Benson, John and Shaw, Gareth, (eds.), The evolution of retail systems, c.1800-1914, (Leicester University Press), 1991 and Chapman, S.D., Jesse Boot of Boots the Chemists: a study in business history, (Hodder & Stoughton), 1974.

[9] Boast, Mary, The story of Camberwell, rev. ed., (Southwark Local Studies Library), 2000.

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