Urban Humanist

Sydney Checkland

  • Exploring the Urban Past: Essays in Urban History by H.J. Dyos edited by David Cannadine and David Reeder
    Cambridge, 258 pp, £20.00, September 1982, ISBN 0 521 24624 5
  • Themes in Urban History: Patricians, Power and Politics in 19th-Century Towns edited by David Cannadine
    Leicester University Press, 224 pp, £16.50, October 1982, ISBN 0 7185 1193 X

The young Wordsworth, standing on Westminster Bridge, felt the wonder of the city. He did not try to comprehend it as a scientific phenomenon, for it was not his job to provide a systematic explanation of the integrated operation of its ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples. And yet there is a sense of marvel that such an organism, with its mighty heart, could come into being and function in its baffling complexity, heaving with activity as so many people went about their separate occasions by day, and lying in a deep calm by night.

Many since Wordsworth have felt the magic of the city, but until recently there has been little real attempt to rationalise urban processes. There have been plenty of topographical, antiquarian and anecdotal accounts: the Victorians were profuse with their ‘Annals’, ‘Memorials’, ‘Reminiscences’, ‘Fragments’. But until different minds, like that of Patrick Geddes, had had their say in the early decades of this century, projecting the city as a living thing, with its own identifiable but subtle relationships, the city was no real challenge to the intellect. Classical economics, the leading social science until recently, had largely dismissed the city, airily treating it, along with the rest of collective behaviour, as part of a Newtonian self-equilibrating system. Thus the city was created and held together by each man going about his business of buying and selling, among other commodities, human labour, either his own or somebody else’s. There is, indeed, much truth in this notion, for, as Adam Smith had implied, the market, together with its twin, private property, was the great invoker of city-building energies and the great though blind mediator of their outcome.

But then in the last years of Victoria’s reign the great faults of the cities began to become apparent and indeed strident – the fearful slums, the disease, the housing failure, the claustrophobic life chances of the children of poor families, and the fear of crime and civil unrest. With the cities malfunctioning on this scale, it was time to try to understand them in less simplistic terms. Even so, however, there were delays. The first attempts at comprehension had of necessity to be ad hoc, starting severally from the most pressing problems including health and housing. Only much later was the city to be viewed as a system of interrelated parts, as an ecology. At this new level of comprehension, British urban historians have played an important part.

The outstanding figure among them has been Jim Dyos. Before his death in 1978 at the age of 57 he was recognised as the focus of British urban history and its leading exponent. It has been rare among British historians for a single scholar both to sponsor and draw to himself a major field of study. Urban history in Britain was given its lead by the union in Dyos’s mind of history and the social sciences, applied, not to a period or a theme, but to a phenomenon – the city. It was he, more than any other, who, late in the 1950s, hit upon the city as a unit of study, and single-mindedly devoted his career to it. London was the home soil of this Anteas of British urban history, bearing and sustaining him. For Dyos, London was the great sui generis among cities, the ‘world metropolis’, that ‘dear, damned, distracting town’. But it was Leicester University that gave him the opportunity to do what he did. It was a place highly favourable to his interests, an example of how a school of history in a civic university can make its mark, building on the work of predecessors – in this case, H.R. Finberg and Jack Simmons – and sustained by its press. At conferences Jim Dyos would be accessible to all, urbane as the doyen of urban historians ought to be. Any new approach to towns and cities interested him.

But not many proposals reached him from the British community for the setting-up of generalised thought-frames by which the city could be made to yield uniformities and universals – in short, theory. This was in part agreeable to his own cast of mind. For though he would listen attentively to the few ideas of this kind that British scholarship generated, he was not really at ease with them. He was a man who was happiest when close to the realities, exercising his marvellous sense of place and working out the interrelationships occurring within it. For him, the truth was rooted in closely observed situations and had to be kept open to the serendipity that can only operate within a mind soaked in the context of living experience. The present essays from his hand splendidly reflect this cast of mind. The urban fabric for Dyos was epitomised by London. Eight of the twelve essays have London in their titles; the rest are London-impregnated. It was not only the great Victorian urban epitome but was also the place that people now want most to read about. On Leicester, where he spent the whole of his academic career, he published not a line, though he was active locally as a conservationist.

The structure of British historiography, when Dyos began his academic career in 1952, had scarcely begun the process of amoeba division which was to develop in the Sixties and early Seventies, and which is now the object of pruning knives wielded by universities and colleges. Economic history had indeed asserted a distinct identity (though not without struggles and resentments), but only on a scale that posed no threat to the hegemony of political history. Social history was still largely innocent of sociology. There were studies on the Trevelyan model of the ‘what it felt like to be a villein or a yeoman’ school, finding their market in empathy and nostalgia. The Hammonds and others had provided an impetus for the ‘industrial revolution was hell’ school, finding their market among the indicters of contemporary society. But real work on the social construction of society was lacking. It was in this atmosphere that two new idioms came into being in the Fifties. Business history was largely a sub-set of economic history, and the bias of urban history was toward the social. But the two shared certain common ground. Both proceeded in terms of structure and function rather than in terms of themes such as power. Business history took as its unit the firms of which the economy was composed; urban history centred itself on communities within a defined space and subject to sub-national government. The two were of course related, for until well into the present century British cities were in large measure the outcome of business decisions taken within the firm.

But the two branches of study were kept largely distinct by their respective practitioners. Partly, this was because of differences of approach. Business historians have been much preoccupied with policy: perhaps the best test of a business history lies in its treatment of the firm’s performance in terms of the policy options open to it, especially at critical phases. Urban historians do not make policy their focal concern, and indeed many have ignored it, declining to see the town or city as the outcome of considered choice by politicians or bureaucrats. The response of Japanese historians to the two approaches to history has been interesting. They have seized eagerly on business history, but have left the urban aspect largely untouched. Perhaps this reflects Japanese national priorities, with business success high on the scale and welfare preoccupations low.

With respect to policy considerations, there was something of a paradox in Dyos’s work. His writing greatly illuminated the settings in which policy problems developed, but he did not start from them, nor did he directly address them to any great degree. It is remarkable in retrospect how he could so effectively promote the city as a unit of study without really considering it as a unit of choice and direction. Nor did he seek to fuse urban history with business history, except perhaps in his studies of speculative house-builders.

These self-imposed limitations stemmed from the basic nature of his approach. He tended to begin with urban agglomeration (what David Reeder in his useful introduction calls ‘accretive growth’), seen as a process of population concentration, with resultant shifts in the national rural-urban balance, together with related demographic changes within the two modes of life. From demography, the next step in the reasoning was the functioning of the city in all its parts and in its full complexity – as a totality. This urban holism yielded a sense of how the urban fabric had come into being and had changed. An essential and always prominent part of the approach was the quality of social life as generated by the city: the implications for ordinary Londoners and their way of life were always foremost in the mind of this urban humanist.

But two things were muted if not missing. The economic base of the city never greatly concerned him. This meant that he gave little attention to the product mix of a city – how it arose, what potential it had for responding to changing circumstances, and what kind of labour force, and therefore what kind of local society, it called into being. Where these matters are left largely uninvestigated urban history is without its mainspring. This omission paralleled the failure to consider the degree to which British cities were or might have been subject to policy interventions from government at the centre or in its local manifestations. On neither of these matters was his mind closed. But he gave no lead, leaving serious omissions in his work. Perhaps the centrality of London in his approch promoted this relative indifference to the economic base of cities, because London had the advantages of agglomeration, metropolitan status and the role of capital. Perhaps also the impotence of London, in terms of integrated local government, at least until the long-delayed founding of the London County Council in 1888, served to minimise consideration of policy.

This truncation of interest and initiative is wholly understandable; all students of societal processes must put up their investigative fences somewhere. But it raised difficult questions of methodology. Dyos desired a theory of urban phenomena, and knew perfectly well that it was lacking. The result was that when he died, as David Cannadine says in his sensitive summary of ‘the Dyos phenomenon’, British urban history stood for very little intellectually. Indeed Dyos took refuge in the view that the study of the city was a field of knowledge, rather than a single discipline. Nor was it a set of stable theorems, much less a universal paradigm within which they could be unified.

At the other end of the scale, that of the scholarly monograph, Dyos has left behind him, in association with Leicester University Press, the plan of a set of books that would present to the best advantage the results of thesis work. The general editor of this series, Derek Fraser, and the editors of the respective volumes, represent the post-Dyos wave of British urban historians; they in their turn have sponsored the third generation, the authors whose theses are rewritten here.

David Cannadine edits four essays on England’s landed patricians and their part in town formation. His interest in urban history began in the countryside with the landed aristocracy and gentry. Inevitably, he encountered their role in the life of the towns and was led to a concern with the interface between country and town and city. He sternly demands of students of urban phenomena a strong self-discipline in the matter of generalisation, insisting that one great value of scholarship in depth is to give greater precision to our ignorance. But he clearly feels the intoxication of the higher synthesis, and indeed offers two such syntheses. They are, however, generalisations of historical phasing, which, though they have their own difficulties, are of an easier order than generalisations that are really general. Thus in terms of the encounter between the landed men in England and Wales and their towns he offers a six-phase model, expressed in dualities: ‘power and conflict, influence then confrontation, ornamental impotence then territorial abdication’. His gratification that this framework accommodates the findings of his contributors may be somewhat overdone.

His second synthesis is a broader one which includes the lesser. It has to do with the role of the landed men in English life in a much more general sense, and represents a current reinter-pretational convergence. It is that the landed patricians were not seen off either in wealth or in power until late in the 19th century, and even then only over a further period of time extending to the 1930s. Thus their tenacity, adroitness and luck (including steeply rising land values that proved impossible effectively to tax) delayed their eclipse until the age of industrial maturity was well advanced. In a sense, the real age of urbanisation came only from the 1880s. This was also the time when middle-class dominance of city government was strongest. The civic gospel peaked in the course of the thirty years or so between 1880 and 1914. It was then that, on a local basis, the secularised evangelicalism of the middle classes submerged their individualism, doing so in collectivist schemes for the provision of water, gas, electricity, trams and a host of other services.

The authors of the monographs that Cannadine edits operate perforce at a much more basic level, and find it hard to take wing. John Davies’s essay on the Marquises of Bute and their dealings with Cardiff provides the vertebrae for a history of that city. The Bute initiative of the 1830s in equipping the coal export trade of South Wales with its infrastructure, mainly docks, was crucial, making possible a city of 168,000 people by 1911. But it seems to have been bad business for the Butes, in the sense that the family might well have done better had they left the dock-making to others and captured the collateral advantages of growth. The industrial frontier of which Richard Trainor writes, the Black Country, was a more complex affair. He has two noble families, the Earls of Dartmouth and Dudley, together with their respective towns, West Bromwich and Dudley. The Black Country was a supply area for the metal trades as well as a source of coal, and the two earls were heavily involved in a regional complex of mining, iron and steel production, local canal and railway systems, together with residential building. Their towns were the foci of their activities. They were also dominant in the local magistracy and militia. Here, indeed, was not so much an interface between landowners and towns as an extraordinary mingling of activity. The earls in their dual roles of landowner and industrial entrepreneur were popular in their localities down to 1914. Southport provides John Liddle with an opportunity to test the thesis that a town under the control of a single landowner will have notably higher standards of planning, development and amenity than others. Southport was the classic example of the single-landowner town. But this pre-emption of the land gave rise to a challenge from the rising middle-class leadership in the town, couched in Radical terms in general, but arguing in particular that the system had been inhibitive locally. Liddle accepts the legitimacy of the Radical indictment of the leasehold system, though he recognises some merit in it in terms of planning. The leasehold system was also dominant in Bournemouth. There, as Richard Roberts points out, land ownership was not centred on a single family but dispersed among a dozen or so estates and half a dozen land companies. Because of this, the landowners abdicated from town affairs, leaving them to local residents and the small-scale businessmen who provided the service industries that dominated the town’s economy.

These essays, taken together, cast much light on part of the pattern of town formation in Victorian England – that of the small to medium-sized unit. It would have extended the gallery of towns in a useful way had a true company town been included in which the necessities of industry gave rise directly to the town, as at Saltaire, Port Sunlight or Crewe. A further perspective-setter would have been a 20th-century New Town, springing from the will of government and brought to birth by a government agency. These extensions would have helped to provide a broader base for understanding the lesser urban centres. But they would have carried the investigation beyond the limits of the patrician élites – the chosen focus of the volume.