The polycentric and scattered nature of the north of England gives it an urban form almost unique in Europe.
In the first two parts of his economic history of the region, Dr Stephen Caunce explored the “unparalleled urban failure” that followed the Black Death, and the pattern of scattered farmsteads and cottage industries that arose in the early modern age.
This time: the industrial revolution arrives.
The north of England offered plentiful coal in easily accessible seams. But, in the 1700s, the fact that transport costs doubled the sale price after only three or four miles made it uneconomic to mine it for other than very local use, and as yet there were no substantial communities in need of fuel. Other mineral resources found elsewhere in the Pennines had been eroded away, and so there was no proliferation of the lead mines seen to north and south.
The region’s many streams were fed by the peat, so nowhere had greater natural potential for year-round harnessing of water power via a multitude of small mills. This was used mostly in cloth finishing at first, or around Sheffield for tilt hammers and grindstones.
But this widespread access to water power simply reinforced the pattern of “scattered”, rather than centralised, communities: it encouraged direct investment, rather than nucleation and outside involvement.
All these places were coming to be seen as towns, but few people lived in them and some had no legal existence at all. The built-up area of Rochdale spread across the boundaries between three townships, none of which was called “Rochdale”. As late as 1820, Accrington was described as two neighbouring villages, though by 1851 it was without doubt a substantial manufacturing town.
Manchester is the most famous case of a place that simply adapted its manorial courts to manage a town – and there is no evidence that commerce was hampered since it became the nerve-centre of the new cotton industry. However, it should be noted that it always served the surrounding area’s commercial needs, rather than commanding them; and it never acquired any administrative superiority.
Most of the population growth was due to large families and very local migration: very few southerners moved north
This sort of development was mostly concentrated in the Pennines before 1800, the opposite of what might be expected, but the textile industry did spread out onto the plains. As the 19th century progressed, moreover, the economy diversified and new sectors found reasons to locate outside the hills. Certainly, steel making benefited from flatter sites than the old cutlers had favoured, and chemicals wanted access to shipping.
In the earlier stages, even merchants tended to live outside the towns, and journeys were measured in hours and days rather than weeks and months. Packhorses coped so well that turnpike roads developed very late and ineffectually. Even canals offered only a limited range of strategic, long-distance connection – quite unlike the pattern in and round Birmingham, say.
The canals finally did create some requirement of clustering, and with the start of factory production this was reinforced. However, the result was linearity rather than true centralisation, and even the railways had much the same impact as so many places acquired goods yards.
Moreover, northern lines were overwhelmingly intended to move freight, not people, and most industrial towns had very little rail commuting. Indeed, coal was present under much of the Pennine industrial area, and was widely mined through small family operated collieries rather than coming in by rail.
Even in the 19th century new towns were still emerging, most obviously Queensbury in Yorkshire and Nelson in Lancashire, both named after pre-existing public houses. However, most of the population growth was due to large families and very local migration: very few southerners moved north, and even the Irish influx is often overstated.
It should also be noted, for completeness, that outside the zones of intense urbanisation there was a full network of country market towns. And while they may seem too obvious to spend time on, in fact I would argue that they are part of the overall urban network of the region. Moreover, they have often preserved the pattern of populations geared to the minimum necessary level to service their surrounding areas; in Yorkshire they also rose and fell as needs changed.
After 1830 it was obvious that things had to change, with formalisation of urban status and ever increasing new powers for elected councils to run urban areas for the general good. But by then, this apparently chaotic urban pattern was fixed, and for another century it seemed to fit local people’s requirements as well as any alternative; and local pride and sense of identity resisted even the most well-meaning attempts to re-organise on a more logical basis.
Even in 1974, the granting of strategic planning powers to new metropolitan county councils was met with a combination of indifference, dislike and hatred. Their rapid abolition caused very few regrets.
What I have been trying to communicate with this series is the historic reasons why the urban form of the north of England differs so much from that of the south. London is a classic case of a centripetal urban area: it has grown out from the Pool of London over the ages, with the communities surrounding it fitting into a hierarchy.
However, the M62 corridor is exactly the opposite: an inherently centrifugal, “exploded” version of urbanisation, stretched between the ports of Liverpool and Hull. It seems to defy the normal logic of human clustering. There are big risks inherent in trying to develop the region’s economy now while ignoring that crucial difference.
Put it another way. Ebenezer Howard’s theory of the “garden city” is usually treated as if it relates purely to the idea of including lots of greenery in and around towns. At least as important, though, was his vision of a system of manageable-sized, fairly self-contained settlements, where the inhabitants felt in control: big enough to offer people lots to do, but not so big they become anonymous.
The obsession with “dark, satanic mills” has completely obscured the fact that the north actually looks like a version of this already – yet we are now trying to turn it into one huge conurbation. Surely it’s time we played to the region’s strengths.
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.This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.