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Response to Review no. 424

Steve Caunce focuses a welcome critical gaze on my study of north-west England in the years leading up to the classic period of industrial revolution. In reading his review, I found there was very little with which I would disagree. I might take issue with one or two points of detail (the portrayal of Chester as “never particularly successful” belies its prosperity and importance as a regional administrative and retail centre), but would generally agree with what Caunce writes. However, in concentrating on specific places, on problems of definition, and on wider issues of economic development in a more broadly defined North, I feel that many of my central arguments have been overlooked.

Part of the purpose of the book was, of course, to communicate something of the historical geographical details of development in the region, but I was more concerned with exploring regional specialisation and inter-dependence, and with understanding them as mutually formative processes which encouraged and shaped economic development in early-industrial north-west England. This involved an attempt to reconstruct the complex geographies of the regional space economy, highlighting the very different spatial and functional organisation of two sets of industries (textiles and coal-using industries), plus the service sector – the latter too often overlooked in analyses of economic change. It also involved sustained and critical engagement with a variety of models of economic development, spatial integration and urban systems. These included Wrigley’s notion of organic and mineral-based energy economies; Mendels’s proto-industrialisation theory; Krugman’s arguments concerning path-dependency; Christaller’s central place theory; Vance’s ‘gateway cities’, and Simmons’s model of long-term development of urban systems. None of these are exactly novel ideas, but their comparative and critical application to the historical development of a British region is new and, I would argue, helpful in understanding processes of industrialisation.

What this analysis reveals is the complexity of the space economy of north-west England. As an industrialising region, it was characterised by detailed local specialisation, but also by strong internal linkages and a clear cohesion. This was, in short, a real region. As Caunce suggests, we can debate its precise delimitation (boundaries could, of course, be differently drawn to include Lancaster and even exclude places like Malpas or even the whole of south Cheshire), but even a superficial analysis of the inter-personal linkages of people living within the defined region confirms its essential integrity. This is not to suggest that the region was isolated – far from it. However, internal linkages were much stronger than those linking the North West to places elsewhere. The study also shows that towns, and the linkages between towns and townspeople, were central to processes of spatial integration. Moreover, this integration and the urban system upon which it was based was not only essential to the ‘modern’ industrialisation that characterised the North West from the second half of the eighteenth century; it also served to shape the pace and geography of that development. This is an area with which Caunce does not engage in his review, yet it forms both the central thesis of the book and a potential blue-print for (comparative) analyses of other regions. In arguing this, I am not implying, as Caunce suggests, that “there is no point in treating this region as a special case”; but rather that the analysis undertaken forms a ‘methodological and historical exemplar’ (p. 5).

Clearly, there are evidential, definitional and conceptual problems in achieving the kind of systematic region-wide analysis attempted here, and Caunce rightly highlights a number of these. The coverage of the main source of occupational information certainly under-represents the poorer sections of society, and especially what might be termed ‘proletarianised’ industries. That said, about 40 per cent of the adult population left probate records and it would be wrong to see these as being drawn only from “middling and upper income groups”. Furthermore, while probate records represent individuals at the end of their lives, the possibility that they would be “winding down their business activities” seems overplayed: internal evidence from probate inventories suggests that many remained extremely active and, in any case, winding down a business would rarely involve changing one’s occupation. There is some evidence that the title ‘gentleman’ was occasionally adopted in these cases, but such status titles could just as readily be affected by those in their prime.

Similarly, the definition of towns is always a highly contentious issue. The thirty towns included in my analysis are those places identified by contemporaries as towns. The bases for their definitions are not always apparent, and it would be wrong to suggest unanimity of opinion: Newton, for example, was certainly of questionable status. It is clear, however, that for those compilers of gazetteers, there was a discernible difference between those places which they listed as towns and the dozens of others which were thoughts of as villages. Their criteria were not exclusively commercial, though the presence of a market appears to have been critical. Population thresholds were and remain pretty meaningless: de Vries might fix a minimum of 3000 inhabitants, but this has little relevance to the English experience of urbanisation. Taking this figure would mean that the only towns in north-west England in 1664 were Chester and Manchester. Even by 1775, places that were clearly towns (Congleton, Bury and Ormskirk, for instance) fell well below this threshold. Nor can we readily list a number of key functions which were essentially urban. Leisure activities tended to be concentrated in towns, but, as Caunce argues, they were far from ubiquitous and several, such as horse-racing, were also found in rural areas.

Lengthy discussion of definitions and methodologies might be academically intriguing, but it is, I feel, an essentially sterile debate. What mattered much more – and what I attempt to show in my analysis – is that these towns had a collective impact far greater than their individual size or economic significance might suggest. Through their integrative functions, they helped to structure the regional space economy and thus shaped both the geography and pace of subsequent development. Others might disagree with this interpretation of the role of towns in regional development: reading between the lines, I suspect that Caunce would argue that other factors were more important. Disagreement over the nature of the development process is inevitable: what is much more significant, and where I hope my book makes an important contribution, is opening up the debate to new ideas and concepts. To judge from Caunce’s comments, that process has already begun.