Great Britain - growth of great cities

By 1801, the date of the first census, change was apparent, the modern design was foreshadowed, and by the middle decades of the nineteenth century the regional distribution of population had wholly altered and so had its relation to industry. High density of population reflected no longer agricultural prosperity and fertility of soil, but industrial activity and the accessibility of coal. The great succession of inventions of the late eighteenth and of the nineteenth centuries from the flying-shuttle, the spinning-jenny and the waterframe to the spinning-mule and the power-loom, from Darby's successful smelting of iron with coke and Cort's puddling process to Bessemer's converter and Thomas and Gilchrist's basic process, these, together with Watt's steam-engine, revolutionized industry, bringing into being the factories and the plants, and giving great advantages to those situated on or near the coalfields. The improvement of roads and of river navigations, the cutting of canals and above all the building of railways and of steamships, made it possible to bring together in one place large quantities of food and raw materials, and to distribute far and wide the finished products of industry, and thus allowed the growth of great cities. West Yorkshire soon outpaced the West Country in the production of broadcloths and East Anglia in worsteds, and dominated both the home and export market; Lancashire outdistanced all other areas in cotton manufactures, importing raw cotton and exporting finished goods through Liverpool. The iron and steel industries of the Midlands, South Wales, Lowland Scotland and North-East England expanded rapidly. The last three grew at an especially rapid rate since a coastal situation made easy the import of the foreign ores, free of phosphorus, needed to make steel by the Bessemer process, and gave great advantage in marketing products in nearby shipyards, and in exporting to countries overseas voracious for the rails and railway-engines and machinery of all sorts that they had not yet learnt to make for themselves. Coal production soared, more was mined than could be used at home and much was exported, most of it from South Wales and North-East England.

During the first half of the nineteenth century, the upsurge of population affected the country as well as the town. In fact deathrates in the country fell faster than in the towns, in many of which the state of housing and sanitation kept death-rates high. The towns grew by migration to them of country people rather than by natural increase, and because of this movement the rural population grew less rapidly than the urban in spite of a flourishing agriculture encouraged by the growing demand for food of a rapidly increasing population. Arable farming reached its greatest extent in the 1880's when over 14 m. acres were under the plough. But even in the middle of the nineteenth century, after the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1845, the import of foreign wheat, which averaged about 4.5 m. quarters in 1852-59 when home production was about 14.3 m. quarters, was causing many farmers, especially on the heavier soils of the wetter west, to lay down arable acres to grass. By 1876 the import of foreign wheat had reached 13.7 m. quarters and home production had fallen to 11m. quarters. By the last two decades of the nineteenth century some rural districts were losing population absolutely, and many villages and small country towns reached their maximum size in the 1870's or 1880's. In 1911 for the first time the agriculturalists were no longer the single largest group in the occupational census; they were surpassed in number by those engaged in mining and metal-working. By the end of the nineteenth century some 75% of the population was living within the boundaries of urban administrative regions, and the conurbation -- the modern unit, wider than a town or city -- had come into being.

The essential features of the patterns of population seen in the late nineteenth century have persisted throughout the early twentieth century, in spite of, and in certain places perhaps because of, the needs of two world wars. Though some elements of the present pattern are stable and deeply rooted, there are evident signs of change in others now.

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