Urbanisation and the Suburbs

Britain in 1800

The landscape of Britain was already beginning to change by 1800 with the first growth of the process known as Industrialisation. Previously, Britain had been largely a rural country, with one large city, London, the largest city in Europe, and just three or four other cities of any size. Most of the population lived in villages, small country towns or ports.

Industrialisation & urbanisation

The growth of new cities

In 1750, there were, in fact, only two cities with a population above 50,000. By 1801, there were eight. These new larger towns were either where new industries were developing, such as Manchester, or where new trade was entering and leaving the country, as at Liverpool. Between 1800-1840 cotton and wool mills were set up in the north of England as the clothing industry became industrialised in such centres as Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, and Preston. In other areas coal mining and ironworks grew, mainly in South Wales, the Midlands, the north of England, and in central Scotland, between Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Population migration

Necessarily, these new industries demanded large numbers of people as workers. These new workers came from the country areas, where increased mechanisation and enclosing of the land had made many farm-labourers and self-employed weavers unemployed. Increasingly, migrants also came over from Ireland. In 1801, 82,000 people lived in Liverpool; by 1851 that figure was 376,000, to give but one example. London also grew enormously, reaching 1.4 million by 1820, 2.8 million by 1861, and 4.5 million by 1911.

Housing developments

A Victorian SlumWhere were the new factory hands to live? There were no large-scale builders, nor were there local councils with building codes. It was left to small-scale builders to throw up houses as quickly as possible, for landlords to rent them out as profitably as possible.

However, the supply could never catch up with the demand. This resulted in:

  • Tremendous overcrowding in the new urban centres - population concentrations reached 138,224 people per square mile in Liverpool
  • People living in poorly built houses, lacking piped water or sewage
  • Disease becoming rife with the conjunction of unsanitary living conditions and poor and unregulated working environments.

Most of this housing was clustered round the factories and mines, or near to city centres. The mill-owners themselves would at first live over the mill, only later moving out of the cities to healthier environments.


These conditions were a new and worrying phenomenon to the Victorians of the mid-century. Not only were there reports by medical men and Government inspectors, but also by journalists and writers. A number of authors wrote what have become known as 'Industrial novels':

  • Charles Dickens is probably the best known writer of the period to depict such conditions, mainly those in his native London, but also in the industrial Lancashire town of Preston in his novel Hard Times
  • Mrs Gaskell lived in Manchester, where her husband was a church minister. She wrote about urban conditions in Mary Barton and North and South
  • The future Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, wrote Coningsby and Sybil, the latter about mining villages and unregulated towns
  • Charles Kingsley, in Alton Locke, describes the notorious sweatshops of central London.

Environmental change

A number of factors combined to provoke changes:

  • Public identification with the concerns addressed by Victorian novelists
  • Frequent epidemics of water-born diseases such as cholera
  • The fear of revolution among the working classes

As a result there was a gradual introduction of:

  • Reforms in public health, including a sewage system
  • The setting up of Local and County Councils, which could regulate urban growth
  • A police force
  • Street lighting
  • Piped gas and water supply.

For example, the 1875 Artisans' Dwelling Act gave local authorities powers to pull down slum buildings.

This went hand in hand with the growth of civic pride, seen in:

  • The erection of rather grand public buildings such as Town Halls in city centres
  • The founding of libraries, museums, art galleries and schools
  • The building of many new churches
  • The establishment of public parks in urban areas.

Growth of suburbs

Haphazard development

At first there was no obvious pattern of growth. Some cities developed as a warren of closes, back to back houses, cellars, tenements and Hampstead, photo by Stephen McKay, available through Creative Commonscourtyards for the working classes, with better houses for the relatively small number of middle-class people. Other cities grew by swallowing up outlying villages. London, for example, had swallowed up Hampstead and Hammersmith by the 1840s. Dickens' Great Expectations shows Richmond as a separate town outside London. By the end of the nineteenth century it was encompassed within the capital.

Local transport

Sometimes, these swallowed-up villages became the first suburbs of a city, as Hampstead did. The growth of such suburbs was made possible by the growth of local transportation systems such as:

  • Local railways (from the 1840s)
  • Horse-drawn omnibuses
  • Trams (later in the century).

In Dickens' Hard Times, Mr Gradgrind can move out of Coketown because the railway system has been extended into the local countryside. He becomes one of literature's first commuters.

Differentiated suburbs

Most suburbs were specifically built for the working classes who needed better living conditions. The development of long terraces, often of 'two up two down' houses can still be seen in some industrial towns, and date from the 1860s. These spread out into the surrounding countryside, eating it away. In Howards End, (1910) E.M.Foster referred to these developments as a 'creeping red rust' over what had been countryside.

The growing number of prosperous middle-class people had villas built in more leafy suburbs outside or next to these other suburbs.

This development was most pronounced in London, where the railway network was extended later by the underground railways. Birmingham, Manchester and Newcastle followed suite. On Merseyside, the city of Birkenhead was developed as a 'sleeper town' for Liverpool, though it soon developed its own shipbuilding industries. Soon, suburban living was the norm, though it took till World War II to get rid of the last of the slum buildings of the earlier Industrial Revolution.

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