7. The cities and the places between

Andrew Sissons
8 min readMay 8, 2021

The industrial revolution didn’t just make us rich; it changed the shape and the fabric of Britain. The revolution was man made, but it changed the land irrevocably, probably more than any other period in history.

Today, most people still live near to the coalfields and the docks that drove the industrial revolution. The mines may have vanished, the docks may have moved out to deeper waters, but the towns and cities they spawned still remain. The demands of industry altered the natural course of our rivers, sometimes even hiding them underground and always making them dirty. The canals, railways and roads which criss-cross the land between the towns and cities still largely follow the routes that were needed to transport raw materials in and manufactured goods out two centuries ago. The pattern of life in Britain still follows the template that was set by Georgian and Victorian industrialists.

This story is partly about cities — everyone knows that the industrial revolution led to rapid, often miserable urbanisation — but it is not just about big cities. It’s also about smaller towns, about connections across the country, and about much of the land in between. And many of the debates that rack Britain today — about “Levelling Up”, about towns versus cities — have their roots firmly in the industrial revolution.


A city is a place where many people live and work together, in a confined space, because it benefits them to share the space. There are different reasons why this might be advantageous. Many Roman cities, for instance, were primarily cities of consumption, built around baths and other amenities which people wanted to live near to; consumption has made a bit of a comeback in cities recently as well. Cities can be centres of control, administration and religion — the famous cities of the pre-industrial world were often built around great palaces, temples or fortresses. But one of the key functions of cities today — as centres of production, places where people go to work and make things — was largely a creation of industrial Britain.

Before the industrial revolution, cities as we know them today barely existed. London, the only British city of any size in 1700, had grown to a little over half a million people, mainly supported by the vast, global trade networks centred on London’s docklands. It was then among the largest cities in the history of the world; today there are at least ten British cities bigger than London was in 1700.

In the rest of Britain, cities were small places, rarely exceeding ten thousand people, that were called cities because they happened to have cathedrals. They were centres of administration and control for the nobility and clergy, and they were marketplaces that enabled local farmers to trade their excess produce. Some cities would have had guilds and clusters of artisans, especially during the proto-industrialisation of the early 1700s, but their role in the economy was pretty small compared to the agricultural economy. Pre-industrial people mostly lived on the land, where they mostly made their living.

The industrial revolution changed that by turning cities into major centres of production. Cities were no longer just places to exchange goods — they became places to turn the produce of the land into something more valuable. The new industries needed workers to come together in one place to make things, in mills and factories and mines, and these places became towns and cities.

This centralisation of production was partly driven by efficiency — huge factories could use more machinery and be more productive if everyone was in one place. Cottage industries could never justify the investment in a steam engine, but a huge cotton mill could.

But even more so, it was driven by the availability of resources — coal, iron, cotton and the many other inputs that industry demanded and produced. Coal in particular became crucial to most industrial processes, especially after steam power took off after the 1770s. And coal was expensive to move around, which meant most industries set up as near as they could to coal mines.

You can see this effect in the map of Britain’s coalfields below. With one very obvious exception, you will find most of the major British conurbations on or near a coalfield. You could map the coalfields against the canal network, or places connected by motorways, or places that tend to vote Labour today — or any other indicator of urbanism — and you will find a similar trend. Most of Britain’s cities were built on coalfields, and all of them remain, even with the coal mines gone.

Source: Northern Mine Research Society (www.nmrs.org.uk — a fabulous resource on mining around Britain)

However, neither the factory system nor coal fully explain why the industrial revolution led to the growth of very large cities. There’s no reason why factories couldn’t have been evenly spaced around the countryside, springing up next to coal mines and avoiding some of the worst effects of urban squalor.

And indeed, to some extent, factories were dispersed. If you look at major industrial regions like Greater Manchester, or West Yorkshire, or the North East, you don’t just see one big urban centre; you see lots of separate-but-related towns and cities. Much of Greater Manchester is made up of separate towns like Wigan (coal), Stockport, Bury, Bolton, Oldham (textiles). West Yorkshire has Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield, Huddersfield and Halifax, all of which are sizeable and clearly separate even today. You don’t really find this kind of effect in a more trade-oriented city like London — London mostly grew out from the centre, swallowing villages as it went.

Although regions like Greater Manchester had separate industrial towns, they were still closely connected. The rise of canals helped move coal, as well as finished manufactures, between the towns and cities. Manchester’s growth was partly triggered by the opening of the Bridgwater Canal, the nation’s first fully man-made waterway in 1761, which connected the coalfields of Worsley to the then water-powered mills of Manchester. Likewise, improved navigation down the Mersey to the Liverpool docks helped Manchester’s textiles reach the global market, while new canals soon linked each of the coal and textile towns in Greater Manchester together*.

The reason Manchester rose to be a great urban centre among its neighbouring textiles towns was not just down to how many mills opened up. It also became the trading centre for the region’s textiles industry, the place where intermediate products were bought and sold and gathered for onwards transport. With that came some financial services and insurance, further creating work and wealth in Manchester, making it the larger hub in a network of new industrial towns and cities. The maps below show concentrations of jobs in Finance and Business Services in 1841, across England and in the North West, with darker colours indicating more jobs in that industry.

Source: A Vision of Britain Through Time, a great resource presenting census data back to 1801. Local authorities shown are modern district / unitary areas; data from the 1841 census

The geography of each of Britain’s major urban areas reflects its industrial development. The trading ports of Liverpool, Bristol and London mostly built out in a radius from around their docks. The major textiles centres — Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire — mostly grew in many separate towns and cities, with mills often located near smaller, faster flowing rivers. In each case though, the main cities of Manchester and Leeds developed as the main textile trading centres of these regions, and hence were larger and had more diverse economies. The major metalworking areas — Birmingham and the Black Country, and South Yorkshire, typically spawned major industrial centres with hinterlands of mines and localised workshops, while the shipyard centres — including Glasgow and Newcastle — followed a similar pattern.

And this growth of urban areas happened at an extraordinary rate. The chart below shows the population growth of some of the biggest conurbations outside London, from 1801 until the present day (1801 was the first modern census in Britain, an invaluable source of data). Greater Manchester’s population grew more than six times over in a century, and many other cities were not far behind. Most of the population growth stopped by the time of the first world war (although Birmingham kept expanding until the 1970s) — but even after a century with limited population growth, these remain among the biggest cities outside London.

Source: Census data for modern local authority boundaries, sourced from A Vision of Britain Through Time. Note — some decades are missing from the time series.


So why do these 250 year-old economic patterns still persist in Britain today, even after many decades of industrial decline?

Economic geography has a habit of being surprisingly sticky. The infrastructure laid down during the rapid expansion of these cities — the railways and roads, the sewers and water supply — is valuable, and we tend to build on it rather than create brand new places. Likewise, many of the rapidly built Victorian houses and streets have stood the test of time (despite the best efforts of post-war planners), and remain places where people want to live. Britain has the oldest median housing stock in Europe. It is generally easier to improve on the cities you already have than to create new ones.

This stickiness doesn’t just apply to the built environment — it also applies to people and businesses. When local economies develop specialisms, they tend to remain for long periods, with skills passed on through generations of workers. Industrial clusters of all sorts, from the early insurers in London, Bristol and Liverpool, to the early aerospace industries in Preston and Derby tend to stick around, even as technologies change.

This is acutely relevant to today’s debate about levelling up, and addressing the plight of towns as well as cities. Most of the big cities created by the industrial revolution developed more than just a production economy. The city centres of Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Leeds, Birmingham (and London, starting even earlier) all diversified their economies somewhat, as centres of trade with finance, business services and other activities alongside their docks and factories. It is no surprise, then, that these city centres today have generally coped with deindustrialisation better than the smaller towns that surround them.

The big cities have had some success — though by no means complete success — in developing new service and high-tech industries. For many of the towns, there was nothing to replace industries when they closed down. The economic purpose of many towns disappeared, and they’ve had little else to fall back on. You can see this clearly in economic and social statistics, or more recently in voting patterns — Newcastle has headed in a very different direction to Hartlepool or Sunderland in recent years.

It’s clear that Britain’s natural geography was a crucial factor in enabling the industrial revolution. The huge coal deposits, the easy access to the sea, the water flowing at the right speed downhill all helped make the ground-breaking industrial conurbations work. In industrial Britain, geography really was destiny. But destiny has also become geography in Britain. The patterns of the industrial revolution have stayed with the country, and we still live with the consequences today.

Technical notes

* The role of water is easy to underestimate. The industrial revolution began some 75 years before the arrival of the railways, and water was by far the most efficient way to transport industrial goods. Water was also the main power source for the mills before the introduction of steam power. Greater Manchester in particular benefited from having many smaller, faster-flowing rivers that could drive mills; its topography could also support the building of canals at relatively low cost. If all of England’s coal had been in the Lake District, the revolution may have been delayed; it is not easy to build canals through mountains.



Andrew Sissons

I write for Nesta’s All You Can Heat by day, and am writing the What Would Make Life Better? series by night. With occasional economic history thrown in too!