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Towns, Politeness and Consumer Culture



P. Langford, A Polite and Commercial People, chaps. 1,3,10, 12,13

Collection on Politeness, Transactions of the roya Historical Society, vol. 12 (2002), pp. 263-472

E.A. Wrigley, People, Cities and Wealth, chaps. 6 & 7

Peter Borsay, The English Urban Renaissance, chap. 5,6, 8-11.

P. cornfield, The Impact of English Towns 1700-1800, chaps. 2,5,8

Peter Clark, ed. The CambridgeUrban History of England

G. J. Barker-Benfield, The Culture of Sensibility, chaps. 1,4


  • The middling classes were most closely associated with towns and cities. Towns were the locus for knowledge, refinement and pleasure.
  • At the beginning of the eighteenth century 20 to 25 per cent of English people lived in towns of some description
  • by 1750 between 15 and 21 percent of the population as a whole lived in towns of over 5,000 people. By 1801 this proportion rose to 27.5 per cent.


  • By 1700 it had 11 per cent of the total national population, it was also the largest city in Europe
  • the West End was developing rapidly with housing booms in the 1680s, the 1710s and the 1720s. There were 4,000 aristocratic and gentry families living in London in 1700
  • There were 4,000 aristocratic and gentry families living in London in 1700, on financial transfers from the country properties; they stimulated the London season,
  • Crossing into these groups were London’s big bourgeoisie of merchants, bankers and wholesale traders, probably another 4,000 early in the century.
  • An elite group of 12% of the population – below this the middling orders
  • There were said to be 170,000 urban middling people in 1700, but 475,000 in 1801


Spa Townsand Seaside Pleasure Towns


  • Population 3,000 at the beginning of the 18thC. and 35,000 at the end.
  • 12,000 visitors descended on it each season in the middle of the century

Other Spa Towns

  • Tunbridge Wells, Beverly, Lichfield, Warwick, Ludlow and Stamford
  • Epsom, Buxton, Harrogate, Margate, Cheltenham, Matlock and Lyme Regis held similar attractions for visitors


Industrial Towns

  • Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham ranked second, third and fourth after London, and other new seats of industry, Leeds, Nottingham and Sheffield and Wolverhampton also ranked among top towns of over 20,000, while Bristol, Newcastle and Norwich were the only older established centres left holding their own with the top players.
  • Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Leedsquadrupled their populations in the last fifty years of the eighteenth century
  • In Scotland, Glasgowgrew nearly as quickly as Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, rising from 13,000 in 1700 to 24,000 in 1750 and up to 77,000 in 1800
  • medium and smaller-scale towns. Towns from Wolverhampton and Leicester to Warrington and Stockportbecame themselves major contenders; the smaller urban centres doubled their populations over the eighteenth century, and grew at more than four times the national aggregate


Growth trends of industrial towns

  • They gathered their populations in a long sweep from the late seventeenth century.
  • Birmingham Its really rapid period of growth was in the early eighteenth century, and by 1750 it led Manchester and Liverpool with its rise in population to 24,000, from 7,000 at the beginning of the century.
  • Birmingham moved rapidly to the forefront of Britain’s consumer goods production. It focussed from early in the century on international, European and colonial markets; its industries were largely export and consumer goods industries. It concentrated on transport and financial links to London and the nation.
  • Glasgow
  • Glasgow, one of those northern rivals, by contrast, grew more rapidly in the latter half of the eighteenth century and in the early nineteenth century. Its middle ranks made up a disproportionately low proportion of its population, in comparison with other British towns; and fewer of these owned luxury goods.


New Towns

  • We can best imagine the dramatic impact made by such towns as Birmingham and Sheffield if we think of the heady reconstruction and re-invention of those same towns over our own last decade.


Traditional Towns


  • twice the size of Birmingham in 1750 with its 50,000 inhabitants, but by 1800 had only grown to 60,000, a mere 80 per cent of Birmingham’s size
  • But the town, from early in the eighteenth century, was closely integrated into the wider consumer culture. Those assessed up to 1740 with wealth of £166 or more owned a whole array of consumer goods, and many small shopkeepers and artisans assessed with less than £40 in wealth lived in houses with several rooms, and displayed prints and pictures, chinaware and silver


Exeterand Shrewsbury, Yorkand Chester

Small Towns

  • 1790s listed 325 small towns, and over half of these, especially in the West Midlands and the Northwest, had a spectrum of consumer activities.


Town Characteristics

  • Britain’s distinctively high urban population contained a full range of middling-class groups from the extremely wealthy to very vulnerable tradespeople.
  • Ubiquitous shops throughout smaller and larger centres - one to every forty inhabitants
  • replication of London’s amenities. By the 1760s most of the larger towns were c connected to London by coach, and there was a national network of turnpike roads by 1770.
  • Most had a cultural quarter; there were paved streets and rebuilt civic buildings, as well as assembly rooms, coffee houses, enclosed walks and pleasure gardens. Street lighting appeared in Norwich and Bristol after 1700, and other towns followed suit
  • The population of many of these towns was young and mobile
  • taverns, inns, alehouses and coffee houses, the clubs
  • Industrial towns – recent regeneration
  • James Bisset – domestic sociability



  • Accessible gentility
  • Informality
  • Correct decorative goods and dress