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An economic history of the north of England. Part 2: Cottage industries and market towns

In the north of England, dozens of towns and cities have grown into each other and vied for dominance. This pattern of urbanisation, without a regional capital, is almost unique in Europe.

In the first part of his brief economic history of the region, Dr Stephen Caunce explored the medieval north and the depopulation that followed the Black Death. By the early 1600s, towns existed as sites for more markets rather than population centres in themselves, a “pattern of urban failure without parallel in Europe”.

In this next part of the story, Caunce explores the early modern north, the emergence of a string of new cities – and the “scattered” pattern of inhabitation that persisted long into the urban age.

After 1550 or so, recognisable but still tiny northern trading centres emerged. Many of these were on entirely new sites, mostly along the interface between the hills and the plain, where they could act as intermediaries: Leeds, Wakefield, Sheffield, Manchester.

The chief exception to this pattern was Halifax, firmly located in the Pennines, but providing a trading link to Leeds that lifted it above the rest. Colne was its much less important Lancashire equivalent, passing very low grade woollen textiles on to Halifax: in this period, all marketing took place through Yorkshire.

The leading centres usually developed at parish churches simply because of existing habits of regularly gathering there (though most new “towns” had no place of worship at all). As an area with little strategic significance, most early medieval castles were abandoned and so did not attract settlements. Conventional town structures like defensive walls, paid officials and guilds were inherently expensive, and were apparently never considered.

The countryside was actually “infinitely full of people, all full of business”

This pattern of apparently random development accompanied and reflected the evolution of a new system of manufacturing in rural areas; one that ultimately led to production systems based on factories using powered machinery that was at least semi-automatic. But it’s important to stress here that economic importance did not translate into population growth. It was entirely their market functions which made these places significant.

The preamble to an act of parliament of 1555 shows that contemporaries were well aware of this. Responded to attempt to enforce a more modern commercial structure of dependence on rich clothiers, the preamble said that the clothing settlements around Halifax were

planted in the grete waste and moores, where the Fertilitie of Grounde ys not apte to bring forthe any Corne nor good Grasse… the same inhabitants altogether doo lyve by clothe making

This activity had been vital to the population of the area however. Thanks to the clothing industry

the barreyn Gronde in these partes be nowe muche inhabited, and above five hundrethe householdes there newly increased within theis fourtye yeares past.

A century and a half later, Daniel Defoe became fascinated in the area while researching it for the Great Britain’s first reliable and comprehensive travel narrative. Noting a complete lack of visible people as he rode around, he realised that they were all working away within their houses, which combined living and working quarters. The countryside was actually “infinitely full of people; these people [were] all full of business; not a beggar, not an idle person to be seen”.


This was a stark contrast with most towns, and certainly with London. He summed it up as “a noble scene of industry and application”, and as a man who also wrote a guide to good business practice based on his own experience, he should be heeded.

They also farmed “small enclosures… from two acres to six or seven acres each, seldom more”. What was happening was a process of general thickening of the population with land constantly reclaimed and improved by family labour, not landlord initiatives.

Defoe also commented that “as for the town of Halifax itself, there is nothing extraordinary except on a market day, and then indeed it is a prodigious thing”. Even the market in Leeds had no permanent infrastructure, yet goods worth millions of pounds in modern terms were traded there at every session.

The ultimate shaper of the new urbanisation pattern was the highly unusual landscape of the area, which in turn moulded local culture of the people into a striking variant of the English norm. The Pennines divide the north into two unequal sections; between Manchester and Leeds and Sheffield, not only are they narrow and low, but ridges which run from east to west project out far beyond the main alignment, creating a cross-shaped pattern. These cross country ridges provided vital trans-pennine transport links; an obsession with connections to London has generally obscured this.

It still does. In pushing the M62 across the Pennine moors, engineers largely reinvented the Roman route between their two main northern military centres of York and Chester. In the middle ages it became a series of more local packhorse causeys, and the direct long-distance route served no purpose. It was this alignment that provided the focus for the early growth of wool textiles, together with a branch over to Colne from Halifax. Sheffield was similarly served, but here it was more of a dead end.

To understand why the change in urbanisation occurred in the centuries after the Black Death, we must return to the landscape. No glaciers bulldozed the valleys here in the ice age, chiefly due to its low altitude. They remained relatively narrow and deep, unlike the famous U-shapes seen not far away in the Peak District and the Dales. Alternating gritstones and shales often create steps on the sides, on which settlement generally happened. The flat and bleak moorland became covered with deep blanket peat and was left empty, while the valley bottoms were also unusable.

Before about 1780, opportunity even for the ordinary people clearly lay in rural manufacturing, not in towns.

The pattern of inhabitation, as described by the Halifax petitioners, took the form of a scatter of farmsteads developed rather than nucleated urban settlements. This pattern thickened over time; but in essence, it persisted into the 18th century, even though the population multiplied many times over.

That’s partly because the original population was extremely thin indeed. In Tudor times, all Lancashire probably contained fewer people than Blackburn does today; by 1850 it had a population larger than Scotland.

But one result of this low population is that population pressure and land hunger never occurred – and flight to urban centres by desperate peasants never happened.

Before about 1780, opportunity even for the ordinary people clearly lay in rural manufacturing, not in towns. Despite being vulnerable to periodic crop failures, in normal times people lived simply but reasonably comfortably. In the Pennines they had never been manorialised into a typical peasant society:  agricultural rents simply did not make the effort worthwhile.

The north was also never divided into the kind of small, community-oriented parishes seen in lowland England. Whalley parish had 43 separate townships’ Halifax had 23, and covered 120 square miles. People therefore largely lived independently of supervision from squires, priests and fellow open-field farmers.

Possibly because they lacked external enforcers, the rule of law was valued, quite unlike the randomly violent culture that developed further north along the Scottish border. They paid their rents and taxes, always pleading poverty to keep them as low as possible, and they managed their own community affairs in an efficient manner for the same reason.

With very few gentry to act as magistrates, making life run smoothly rested with the yeoman class, who became very aware of their status and influence. When things needed doing, communities did them, especially with regard to transport improvements; but most of life was left to families. Their ideology underpins so much of development patterns, whereas the bourgeoisie simply did not exist.

Next time: the revolution arrives.

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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