Published by EH.NET (October 2001)
Christopher Chalklin, The Rise of the English Town 1650-1850.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. vii + 102 pp. $39.95 (hardback),
ISBN: 0-521-66141-2; $11.95 (paperback), ISBN: 0-521-66737-2.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Jon Stobart, Geography, School of Science and the
Environment, Coventry University.
Urban histories of England in the long eighteenth century are like buses: you
wait for ages and then three come along at once. Following a flurry of books
in the 1970s and early 1980s, there have been remarkably few introductory
texts written about this vital period in English urban development. As well as
the subject of this current review, we now have Roey Sweet’s The English
Town 1680-1840 (Longman, 1999) and Joyce Ellis’s The Georgian Town
1680-1840 (Palgrave, 2001).
Christopher Chalklin, formerly Reader in History at the University of Reading
in the UK, sets himself an ambitious task in this text. Rather than
concentrate on particular aspects of urban development, the book aims to
provide an introductory survey of the demographic, economic and social
structure of English towns through two centuries of change. As an introductory
text, this book has two great merits. One is that it makes some mention of
most aspects traditionally seen as being important in the English urban
history of this period. The coverage is certainly broad. The seven chapters
cover the urbanization of England, the growth of different types of towns,
urban demography and society, the built environment, the middle orders (two
chapters) and the lower orders. After reading this book, students will
certainly be aware of the complex and changing nature of English towns and
town life during the period. The other real plus is that the extensive
referencing. If the reader wants to know more, then they are guided to a
wealth of further reading with over 250 books and articles being cited,
although surprisingly few are chosen from the last few years. This reflects
the traditional approach, tone and structure of the book.
There are problems with Chalklin’s text, though. Two-hundred years of urban
history are packed in to just 76 pages of text, coverage is also patchy.
Migration, for example, is dealt with in very simplistic terms and there is
little on the debate over the role of London in national economic growth. In
contrast (and perhaps unsurprisingly given the author’s previous
publications), chapter four on the building of towns is the most convincing
and thorough. It is also the longest, accounting for nearly one-quarter of the
text. Here Chalklin has space to discuss processes, trends, debates and
methodologies in the sort of detail that is impossible in other, shorter
chapters. To this thematic unevenness is added considerable variability in
detail through time. Attention focuses very much on the second half of the
study period and we are told very little about towns in the seventeenth
century. Certainly, the stark contrasts between urban life during the
Commonwealth and that in Victorian cities are only glimpsed in the pages of
this book. Indeed, one wonders why such a long time period was chosen.
Throughout the text, there is a tension between breadth and depth. In general,
analysis, interpretation and debate are sacrificed in favor of ‘facts and
figures.’ That readers are left to come to their own conclusions is, in one
sense, a strength. But the lack of space to develop discussion of (new)
interpretations and ideas sometimes leaves one wondering what to make of the
riches on offer. Furthermore, whilst the level of detail is remarkable in such
a short book, only occasionally are the examples discussed in enough detail
to really tell us anything interesting or worthwhile. For example, in the
section covering the emergence of the middle orders, being told that the
wealthiest Liverpool merchant in the early-nineteenth century was probably
John Gladstone seems slightly pointless — what are we to do with this piece
of information? In contrast, the more detailed discussion of the Cadbury
family in early nineteenth-century Birmingham gives us a real insight into the
family life and household arrangements of the middle orders.
In all, this is a book that will prove very useful to students approaching the
subject for the first time, but does not, in itself, provide an adequate
introduction. There is a lack of balance between providing information and
presenting a cohesive argument about the changes occurring in and stimulated
by towns over these two centuries. Whilst remarkably detailed, this does not
form the coherent account that is promised.
Jon Stobart’s research interests include regional, urban and industrial
development in eighteenth-century England. He recently started a project on
leisure and consumption in the eighteenth century funded by the Leverhulme
|Subject(s):||Urban and Regional History|
|Time Period(s):||19th Century|