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The First Industrial Region: North-West England, c. 1700-60

Author(s):Stobart, Jon
Reviewer(s):King, Steve

Published by EH.NET (October 2005)

Jon Stobart, The First Industrial Region: North-West England, c. 1700-60. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004. xi + 259 pp. ?45/$75 (cloth), ISBN: 0-7190-6462-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Steve King, Department of History, Oxford Brookes University.

This is an excellent book. It synthesizes a regional case study of the processes of industrialization in the cradle of the industrial revolution (north-west England, particularly Lancashire) with a challenging agenda to explore the spatial aspects of that process. In terms of research, theoretical grounding and technical execution, the book is a must read. It also has one other advantage: read alongside the work of other north-west regional historians such as Timmins, Walton and Phillips and Smith, Stobart’s volume opens up the history of industrialization for an identifiable region, in ways not currently duplicated in England or on the continent.

At the heart of Stobart’s book lie four key issues. First, the way in which eighteenth century regions are internally knitted (in his view ever more closely) together and how they gain strength through the development of regional specialization, a process that both adds to the perceived regional character and emphasizes the fragmentation between collections of places. In this sense, Stobart’s analysis of the space economy of the north-west as an historical experience is outstanding, synthesizing sources as diverse as probate records, apprenticeship books and the records of individual entrepreneurs. The second and related issue is how we might meld together geographical and historical methodologies in the exploration of the space economy of industrialization. His work here is of the highest order, and I am particularly struck by his exploration of the intra-regional industrialization process as a spatially uneven and fluid experience. Of course, it might be objected that we already knew that, but as I often say to my students, show me someone who proves and explains it in anything other than anecdotal fashion. His exploration of this issue throughout the book is a model for identifying, analyzing and understanding other industrial regions. The third key theme of this book is the role of urban places in the development process. Most keenly in chapters 2, 6 and 7, but also elsewhere, Stobart argues persuasively that urban areas are the key to understanding the spatial division of production and consumption. Moreover, urban areas were also the physical location for adding most value in the process between working of raw materials and finishing of the final product. Not all towns fulfilled the same function, and Stobart offers an interesting discussion of types of urban influence, but the link between urbanization, transport change, regional specialization and regional economic growth in the eighteenth century north-west is unmistakable. While I have always had my doubts about the influence of towns, this is a thoughtful discussion which might lead me to think more fully about their influence. Finally, and this is the locus of most of the empirical detail, Stobart explores the relationship between specialization and integration in the different industrial and service economies that drove the process of industrialization and urbanization in the north-west. Some of the general themes — the interrelationship between textile and mineral economies for instance — have been explored before by scholars such as Langton or Timmins, but this discussion, making use of new sources such as probate inventories, is genuinely fresh.

In terms of chapter structure, chapter 2 lays the theoretical foundation, reviewing the various frameworks (proto-industrialization etc.) that have been used to predict and understand regional industrial development. At the heart of his critique of these models is the lack of any urban focus, noting that urban areas are largely relegated to a side issue. Stobart offers an alternative view melding together central place theory and the concept of gateway urban areas to offer a different approach to understanding the development of a regional economy. Chapter 3 offers a more detailed look at the space economy and issues of specialization and integration in the economy of north-west England. Chapters 4 and 5 focus on the textile and coal using industries respectively. Stobart argues that the development of the textile sub-regions was driven by the development of an urban hierarchy and contrasts this with the intense local specialization of the coal using industries. Chapter 6 might best be read alongside chapter 7, though Stobart himself draws a distinction in structural terms between them. He shows that urban areas were at the heart of the development of the service trades which themselves saw sub-regional specialization. Increasingly, those urban areas were linked together by better transport routes, but, argues Stobart, transport was a dependent variable. The urban hierarchies were the key phenomenon and, we might usefully think, the service rather than industrial sectors were the key element in cementing this urban hierarchy onto the regional topographical and historical superstructure.

For historians interested in welfare, industrialization, labor etc., etc., this is a must read book. Jon Stobart (Professor of History at the University of Northampton) provides the missing link to generating a rounded and complex picture of the development of the north-west regional economy.

Steve King is Head of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Health, Medicine and Society. He is currently working with Pat Hudson on a book detailing the relationships between industrialization and everyday life in eighteenth and nineteenth century West Yorkshire.

Subject(s):Urban and Regional History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):18th Century