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Economy / Jobs

Are small northern market towns doomed to fail? A brief history of Kendal

Possibly the most popular tune written by radical folk singer Ewan McColl (born James Miller) was “Dirty Old Town” – an anthem which not just Salfordians but many urban northerners have adopted with an unironic, affectionate inversion of the message of dislike. 

Strangely enough, while writing this piece the TV regularly aired puffs for a new programme, showing Ryan Giggs flatly stating that he has lived in Salford for 33 years and sees no reason to leave now. Paul Scholes also featured, and he has famously remained deeply involved with nearby Oldham, where he was born.

Therein perhaps, say many outsiders, lies the key to recent northern economic failure: inward looking people, strangely attached to places no-one else wants to live in.

This human side of the weakness of the economies of northern towns has taken on new relevance after widespread assertions that “left-behinds” were the motor of the Brexit result, which rumble on despite Danny Dorling’s analysis undermining them.

Certainly econometric models designed to explore causation paint a grim picture of regional economic disconnection over the last half century. Yet, while we certainly need analytical overviews, they can be dangerous constructs, interweaving vague categories of data in obscure ways, often with powerful assumptions built in. They can misfire very badly.

We should therefore occasionally adopt a more focussed examination of the way particular results fit a range of real northern towns. A disconcerting example is the case of Kendal – until 1974 the largest town in the “lost” county of Westmorland, and now the administrative centre of the section of Cumbria designated South Lakeland.

Those who holiday thereabouts will cry “foul”, saying Kendal isn’t a typical northern town. But actually, there is no such thing, and in a surprising number of ways it is ideal for this reality check exercise.

Above all, the current characterisation of the region’s industrial areas as “great northern cities” is extremely misleading. In 1900, say, successful, up-to-date manufacturing was found in communities that ranged from villages right up to substantial urban entities. Moreover, even those designated as cities had almost all achieved that status very recently.

A brief history

Westmorland has always had several market centres, but Kendal stood out from the 14th century onwards in its commitment to manufacturing and enterprise. It specialised in wool textiles, fuelled by skills learned from migrant Flemish experts ushered in by Edward III. Indeed, 20th century local historians often boasted that for several centuries it had been “the most important woollen town in the north”, as in the excellent historical summary included in the visitors’ guide issued in 1973.

Its widely-sold Kendal Green cloth was mentioned in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, and this was no luxury product, but a cheap and hard -wearing cloth for the mass of ordinary folk. No wonder the town took as its motto “Pannus mihi panis”, or “Wool is my bread”. Regionally, it was almost London-like, monopolising manufacturing and services, and building a population many times that of possible rivals. It even sustained a functioning corporation and guilds down to the 19th century based on its charter of 1189, a really rare scenario in the north.

Moreover, the river Kent, which the town straddles and is named after, was unusual for the far north. It resembled the hydrological systems of the industrial Pennines far more than other Lakeland rivers, and consequently provided a steady, fairly reliable supply of water at a series of readily accessible mill sites. Most other Lakeland feeder streams crashed down remote rocky mountain sides into lakes, whose outflows ran along more or less on the flat. They were prone to flash floods when it rained, as we have seen recently, and dry beds when it didn’t.

The string of mills which grew up along the length of the Kent by 1850 was therefore highly unusual, and by then included some involved in a thriving paper industry, and also gunpowder production. Moreover the Kent estuary, now the scene of the famous Cross-Bay Walks, had provided poor but usable port services about ten miles from the town centre.


 For a while, to quote further from the visitors’ guide, “a large export trade developed to America and the West Indies. The reciprocal trade founded the tobacco industry in 1623, which [resulted] in the manufacture of Kendal Snuff’‘. Appleby, the nominal county town, was land-locked, and despite a promising start before the Black Death, its economy then collapsed. Thereafter it was always a shadow of Kendal’s size and economic effectiveness, even though both towns lay in fertile agricultural zones well capable of feeding them and promoting early commerce.

It is true that after 1750 the great rush of textile innovations seen around Leeds and Bradford left Kendal behind. By 1800 a lack of cheap, local coal slowed the switch from water-power to steam. Its communications links were out-dated, and even the long canal to Wigan which was begun was never properly completed. 

Yet local business people did not despair. The mid-nineteenth century Bradshaw railway guide recorded a population a little below half the present one at 12,029, and described it then as “a market town… principally engaged in the carpet, woollen, linsey, worsted, clog, comb, bobbin, fish-hook, leather, rope, woollen cord, fruit trades and marble works”. It appears that cotton fabrics were also produced for a while.

Thus the challenge that largely de industrialised the equivalent southern textile centres produced practical diversification here, based on existing resources. Mechanised Pennine mills meant the Kendal area made less cloth; but it could supply a significant portion of the wooden accoutrements they relied on, especially millions of wooden bobbins.

Kendal Castle has seen better days. Image: Tom Richardson/Wikimedia Commons.

The town evidently still had people who could and did mobilise capital locally, both formally through its own banks, and informally through social networks, especially that of the Quakers who were then so important across many parts of the north. The railway then improved trading possibilities, and the mounting effectiveness of the response is reflected in the grand urban buildings which were created in this era, which still make the town centre so fascinating to walk through.

However, less desirable consequences paralleled those seen in the newer centres. To quote the visitors’ guide again:

 “Within and close to the main thoroughfares are to be found some of the oldest parts of the town, consisting of a unique combination of ‘yards’ or ‘courts’, with narrow cobbled pavements. These narrow yards were, according to one local tradition built as a necessity in order that the inhabitants could barricade themselves in against the Scottish border raiders, or according to another tradition, built in order to provide easy access, for purposes connected with the woollen industry, to the main thoroughfare, and also to the River Kent.”

These certainly supported the growth of a densely packed working-class community whose living conditions caused much soul-searching by the 1890s. Ultimately major slum clearance occurred after 1945. As elsewhere, and in contradiction of MacColl’s song’s vision for Salford, the consequences within the central area did not enhance the town’s image.

By the early 1970s, as manufacturing industry nationally peaked, mass tourism offered what seemed to be a profitable sideline for Kendal, which described itself in the visitors’ guide thus:

“An ancient town… bounded on the West by the Lake District National Park, which has for long been known as ‘The Gateway to the Lakes’. For centuries… its grey limestone buildings earned for it the title of “The Auld Grey Town’.”

“The buildings spread along the east and west banks of the river, and slowly merge into the wide expanse of lovely countryside and majestic fells that rise steeply on either side of the town. In the distance the glorious colours of Lakeland mountains form a background of great beauty. Kendal serves the surrounding countryside, which is essentially agricultural. It has a wide variety of industries, and … has achieved considerable note as a shopping centre of quality. On the occasion of the weekly market, the town presents a scene of great activity….

“The importance of [the woollen] industry in Kendal has dwindled with the passing years, but its place has been taken by a number of other large and important industries, including the boot and shoe works of K Shoes, the engineering works supplying water turbines, pumps and laundry machinery to all parts of the world, and carpet works, hosiery works, snuff manufactures, Kendal mint cake, horn manufactures, and the headquarters of a large insurance company with world wide connections.”

Kendal had thus avoided the over-commitment to one staple trade which proved so toxic to many small northern towns between 1920 and 1960. Its population in 1971 was 18,599 (whereas Appleby had only 1,755); and it was still thriving, with insignificant unemployment and a wide range of activities that strongly identified with the town. In particular Gilkes’s, the engineering firm mentioned above, was already expert in the green, hydraulic technologies that the world was just seeing a renewed interest in.

What cause for worry could there be? It was an excellent place to live by most people’s standards, and if the lack of coal had once been a problem, it now meant the town was far less grimy and industrial in appearance. In transportation terms its remoteness was offset by early access to the new motorway network once the pioneering Preston bypass was opened in 1958. After that was incorporated into the M6 in 1970, a motorway junction lay just four miles away.

It has also retained direct rail links to the capital via Oxenholme station, which literally sits on the traditional town boundary, 2 miles from the town centre. Regular express services now take 2 hours 50 minutes to reach London Euston. There are connections with Kendal station in the town centre, and those trains continue to Windermere town. To add an exotic touch, Japanese tourists were falling in love with the area, and with Beatrix Potter in particular, leading to signs in Japanese appearing at Oxenholme.

The roofs of Kendal. Image: Humphrey Bolton/Wikimedia Commons.

Today the enlarged local government area has a population of well over 28,000, sufficient to give it all the expected services and amenities of a real urban centre. It has two substantial museums and an art gallery which attracts excellent travelling exhibitions; an arts complex of national standing; and a further education college which scores well on external assessment, and is extending into higher education. It has schools highly rated by Ofsted.

In leisure provision, there are good quality football, rugby and cricket teams, When the Guardian gave it an outstanding review as a place to live in 2009, it called it “a proper sturdy stone town untroubled by tourist tat”. The wonderful and varied walking country all around it led Alfred Wainwright to move there from his native Blackburn in 1941, ultimately creating his own, very unusual celebrity cult which has now grown to enormous size. A huge range of other outdoor leisure activities flourish close by, notably fell-running.

The small, traditional seaside resorts of Grange over Sands and Arnside lie on the Kent estuary, about 30 minutes away by car. L’Enclume in nearby Cartmel is regularly voted the best restaurant in Britain by critics.

“The biggest threat here seems to be that success might lead to a takeover”

Despite all this, in the twenty-first century it has experienced an unprecedented, steady and serious slimming down in its economy. The town now needs a food bank even though outright unemployment has always been low even by national standards: 1.4 per cent of the workforce in 2000, slightly over a third of the Cumbrian rate. However, in 2015 the local MP, Tim Farron, commented that “the impressive headline figures must not cover up the very difficult situation many local people face”. It doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of money in the pockets of the majority, which must reflect a severe downturn in the prospects for run of the mill while collar employment in particular.

The tiny Provincial Insurance had moved in from Bolton in 1919, largely due to the attractions of the town as a place to live, and it flourished down to the late 1980s, when it had a large workforce. It then suddenly recorded serious losses, and in 1994 it was taken over by UAP of Paris, which had already swallowed Sun Life two years earlier. Axa then bought the whole group in 1997, and currently boasts that it is “the #1 Global Insurance Brand” – but Kendal has no share in that, for loss of independence was soon followed by its operations moving south. This happened even though this was when expectations of electronic distance working were at their height, and the firm had been a pioneer of computerisation. Austerity hits to local government have recently done more damage in this area, as to everywhere in the north.

For manual workers, the earlier merger of the nationally respected K Shoes with Clarks had the same result over a longer term, and all its many local factories had closed by 2003. It had developed from the extensive leather tanning activity historically associated with Kendal’s livestock markets, and in its heyday the firm employed a fifth of the population. Every family was said to have had a member working there. Indeed, it had to open branch factories in Lancaster and Whitehaven to cope with orders, and as late as 1987 it made a record profit of £8m. However, closures began just a few years later.

One site became a factory outlet shopping centre which boomed in the 1990s, but its redevelopment in an upmarket fashion was disastrously timed as internet shopping took off, and it is now almost empty of tenants. It went into administration in 2014, and was bought out, but has seen no improvement. Also, a July 2016 review from Tripadvisor said, “Although the Westmorland Shopping Centre (a modest town centre mall) used to be one of the highlights of Kendal’s town centre, it now serves as a showcase for the death of the High Street as we know it”.


The main shopping streets are mostly let – but there are always a significant percentage of voids as new openings seem to be balanced by closures. As elsewhere, charity shops fill a lot of other gaps. There are few of the independent shops associated with high-end consumerism.

It would be quite wrong to talk about disaster: it is certainly nothing like many ex-mining towns, for instance. However, it has now to be classed as “failing to thrive”, which requires meaningful, nuanced analysis as to why things are this way in such a setting. The pattern of survival in shops and businesses is either local ownership or local resources, or both. No major employer has moved in. If such a town cannot attract them, which can?

Yet, success is still perfectly possible for firms with commitment. Gilkes are winning orders for micro-hydro electricity schemes around the world, and have just finished one above Ambleside a few miles from its factory. The biggest threat here seems to be that success might lead to a takeover – one aimed only at acquiring the technology and the order book, as happened so often elsewhere across the north, and which leads business to leave.

Outside the town, two paper-making concerns also still function, though employing far fewer people. One was taken over by a Swedish firm, which apparently recognises the continuing virtues of a plentiful and clean water supply and skilled workers; while another remains in the same hands, the Cropper family, as it has for over two centuries. A remarkable insider-written business history shows that it has kept going since the 1970s, as previously, through being very innovative, and refusing to become attached to any particular set of products, however successful they are at a given moment. Lakeland Plastics are firmly based in a lavish flagship store and administration complex in Windermere town. They have built a national business of internet and mail order kitchen and domestic equipment.

The Cumberland Building Society, based in Carlisle (which had assets worth £1.6bn in 2013), and the Furness Building Society, based in Barrow in Furness (£813m in 2010), both show that sophisticated financial operations can flourish. Both offer a full range of banking services for ordinary customers and businesses. The Cumberland has regularly innovated faster than other societies and won awards. Both remain mutuals, an instructive comparison with all those which de-mutualised in the 1980s, and which subsequently were sent into meltdown by their new managements. These includes the Halifax, which had boasted of being the biggest such operation in the world. It is now valueless, due to appalling commercial loan policies adopted after merger with the vainglorious Bank of Scotland.

Tourism might be expected to have taken a lot of the strain, but as with the general experience, it has proved to be a very mixed blessing, especially for a town not actually located at the heart of the Lakeland experience. Many jobs are seasonal, part time and low paid. Far fewer people today seem to want to base themselves, in the “gateway”, preferring somewhere more central instead. However, ta desire forLake District living, plus holiday let opportunities, has still driven up Kendal house prices beyond local incomes.

Can the town cope with the social consequences of seeing most of its aspirational young people feeling compelled to move to within commuting distance of London? Can London cope with that? Do we have powers as communities and nations to influence how we want the future to look?

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.

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