chapter  12
The English provinces
Pages 4

Though I have focused principally on Britain’s cultural history as it was experienced in London, culture in the eighteenth century was scarcely confined to the capital: in other towns and in country houses, at regional assemblies and in local theatres, British men and women were shaping a national culture which, though it bore more than a passing resemblance to the refined entertainments of London, was nevertheless quite distinct from them. Before the eighteenth century Britain had not been a very urban country. London was

its one metropolis, only a small proportion of the population lived in a town of any size, and few cities rivalled the numerous rich towns of the Netherlands, Italy and France, with populations of more than 20,000. In 1700, when London’s population was over 500,000, making it the largest city in western Europe, only Norwich and Bristol had more than 20,000 inhabitants. It was possible, if not to know everyone in one’s own community, at least to know where almost everyone belonged. This changed radically during the course of the eighteenth century, when England

became the most rapidly urbanizing part of Europe. In the first half of the century England was responsible for more than half of all European urban growth; between 1750 and 1800 it accounted for a remarkable 70 per cent. Provincial towns grew even faster than London. At first nearly all of them, including market towns, expanded at about the same rate, but soon a few cities far outstripped the rest. By the time of the first national census in 1801, seventeen cities besides London had populations between 20,000 and 90,000; more than one quarter of the inhabitants of England and Wales lived in towns. The new urban giants were chiefly those we associate with the Industrial Revolution – Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds, Birmingham, Sheffield and Nottingham – although the fastest growing town in late Georgian England was the fashionable resort of Brighton. The growth of these towns was fuelled by an expanding economy of coal, textiles, metal goods, manufactures, shipping and trade, and their wealth went into the private refinement of their richer citizens and on lavish projects of civic improvement. These rich and populous towns rooted their cultural innovations in local soil: set up

their own theatre companies, arranged art exhibitions showing local artists and formed concert groups with local professional musicians. Their culture was dominated by their own elites of gentlemen, merchants, doctors and lawyers, but in the larger towns shopkeepers, artisans and skilled craftsmen established their own institutions. Gentlemen and shopkeepers were sometimes found in the same book clubs and debating societies, though events like assemblies, balls and concerts, which were vital to genteel courtship and marriage, tended to be more socially exclusive.