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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

Trust.