Successive Applications of Sticking-Plaster

Andrew Saint

  • The Cambridge Urban History of Britain. Vol. III: 1840-1950 edited by Martin Daunton
    Cambridge, 944 pp, £90.00, January 2001, ISBN 0 521 41707 4

Do the authors of this volume of the Cambridge Urban History know how gloomy a book they have written? Pessimism suffuses these pages from start almost to finish. ‘Why have so many of Britain’s great cities fared so badly in the 20th century?’ Peter Clark, the general editor of the series, asks in his preface. Turn the page, and Martin Daunton’s introduction descends with unconcealed relish into the ‘decay, corruption, stench and stickiness’ of the early Victorian city – a hell from which the best escape reformers can imagine is the extirpation of stagnancy, and the setting of traffic, sewage and people alike moving on a joyless treadmill of ‘continuous circulation’.

Perhaps, you think, this adagio maestoso will break into an allegro hymning the triumph of public sanitation, better health and half-decent municipal services. Far from it. Soon, almost indeed before it had got going properly, ‘the autonomy of local government started to decline,’ Daunton says. By the interwar period, the institutional and social fabric that holds Britain’s cities together is fraying. New technologies of transport and power become slings for catapulting homes and industry clear of the tangled inner city. Reinforced by an improvident structure of taxation, these forces conspire to undermine civic leadership and create the moral vacuum familiar at the core of today’s conurbations. If nowadays British cities and major towns just about hang together, they do so more by successive applications of sticking-plaster than inherent unity or necessity. In his epilogue, Daunton toys with the argument that cities can no longer be meaningfully identified. ‘There is no place for an urban history of Britain after 1950: Britain is an urban nation, and a separate urban history is no longer realistic.’

No celebration of civic worthiness or progress here, then. Nor, saving a single essay in urban geography about London, are there set-pieces on individual cities. The book is just as chary of institutional structures: it includes little on education, and nothing to speak of on law and order. The burden of the 25 chapters is unremittingly analytic and causative. Here are academics signalling from their cells to one another rather than to ‘urbanites’ – as one of them calls the citizens whose fate is their concern. Indicative are the few pictures, thrown in without the affection lavished on the distribution maps and statistical charts and tables. Hackneyed images of overcrowding from Doré and Frith, balanced by drab photographs of empty streets, reinforce the tendencies of the text. No mayors decked with chains of office, no children drilling or scampering in the playgrounds of new schools, no patients prostrate in municipal hospital wards, no sturdy policemen or firefighters, not even men and women toiling or going about their business. Some planning sneaks in, but very little architecture: such things are vieux jeu. From today’s austere perspective of urban history, culture means a way of life, and the arts are bidden to the feast only to strum background music and interpret or ‘represent’ the city.

The various sub-disciplines of political economy have broadened and democratised our understanding of cities over the past forty years. They have transformed historiography and deserve respect. Nevertheless, the dominance of their methodologies in the present volume makes its prevalent gloom the more curious. Over its particular time-span, there is surely much to celebrate.

Looking for instance at the mess roads and redevelopment have made of our cities, we are quick to deplore a lost coherence of urban form or community. Yet the briefest acquaintance with demography refutes this idea. Daunton’s contributors make it clear that older authors such as Tocqueville and Engels got it right: British cities were at their grimmest round about 1840, when the book starts. Worst of all, and far worse than London, were the new industrial ones. Analysing fertility and mortality rates, Simon Szreter and Anne Hardy judge that in places such as these the 1830s and 1840s were probably the ‘worst ever decades for life expectancy since the Black Death’; and they repaint the ever pathetic picture of ‘relentless youthfulness’, of a ‘proliferation of hordes of infants, children, youths and young men and women on the unpaved and unlit streets of the smoky, industrial “frontier” towns’ – frenetically expending what energy they could muster before life closed in on them.

Things could only get better. Despite the forcefulness of Edwin Chadwick and his allies, they did so substantially only from the 1870s. Szreter and Hardy once more reiterate an older view against revisionists, when they argue that public health reform was unblocked after decades of opposition and stalemate by the extension of the franchise to working-class men. If this is accepted, it confirms the link between political and institutional reform and improved urban welfare. The great change in the health of the urban population took place between 1880 and 1920. After that, improvement was slower but could still be directly brought about by legislation. The last vicious London smog took place, Bill Luckin’s chapter on pollution reminds us, after the terminal date of this book, in December 1952. It caused 4000 excess deaths in three days, and led straight to the Clean Air Act of 1956.

No doubt the authors’ reluctance to derive satisfaction from the hard slog of urban improvement and redemption is partly due to professional caution or, as they might see it, objectivity. But it is also attributable to the shock waves induced by the collapse of independent local government, urban government in particular, over the past twenty years and more. For how many more years than twenty that had been brewing is one of the questions the Cambridge Urban History most searchingly addresses. Had it been published in 1950, the notion that cities such as London, Manchester, Glasgow and Cardiff were not in principle self-governing, or that local authorities existed to administer nationally determined policy, would hardly have surfaced. And yet by the 1920s, where costly services such as public education were concerned, the balance between money raised on the rates and grants from the Treasury already prefigured local government’s craven dependence on Whitehall.

Reaction to this intractable issue takes several forms. First, who provided what services? In the heyday of local government it seemed natural to stress the progressive municipal takeover of services such as the utilities, public transport, housing, schools, health clinics, libraries and baths from grasping private companies or inconsistently spread and patronising voluntary bodies. Now scholars are less sure. As regards transport and the utilities, Robert Millward points out that councils tended to buy out only enterprises which were in consistent profit, such as gas companies. Councillors’ motives were often not so much to provide an economic or efficient service overall as to relieve the rates (especially in Northern cities where the rate base was lower) or control utility supply and prices for their own businesses (since Victorian and Edwardian cities tended to be governed by manufacturers and small businessmen). Public or private: which is better? As Millward notes, almost all comparisons end up as inconclusive. The political choice will always be made for reasons external to the enterprise itself.

Turning to the social services, Marguerite Dupree argues that voluntarism was there first in the Victorian cities, in such sundry guises as the pawnbroker, insurance agent, church or charitable club. Twentieth-century municipal and state provision fitted around all this. Urban governments were always bit-part players in social welfare. Until 1929, the Poor Law was run by separate Boards of Guardians; its transformation at that point into a local government hospital and health service was a partial step, the shortcomings and shortfalls of which led to the creation of the National Health Service less than twenty years later. By then the call for uniform social provision across the country had been anticipated by National Insurance, the great blockbuster in service expenditure. National Insurance ‘virtually bypassed local government’ from its commencement in 1911, John Davis remarks in his chapter on central government and the towns. In this way, equity jilted devolution. Central expenditure on social services rose more than fourfold between 1918 and 1921 – a rise made possible by the ‘more buoyant central tax system’ emanating from the reform of income tax. Once it was clear that municipalities would never be permitted a local income tax or the levy on land values advocated by the Webbs and others, the writing was on the wall for their autonomy.

Describing the British system of government to Germans in 1903, Josef Redlich was amazed that central and local authorities were equal before the law. The corollary, of course, was an absence of constitutional safeguard, as Davis’s authoritative essay explains. He pushes back the moment of catastrophe for central-local relations to the Local Government Bill of 1887-88, which set up the county councils. A bout of dirigisme from the centre having failed in the 1850s, well-governed cities such as Birmingham had briefly savoured near medieval measures of independence from central control, like towns which showed the local time on the clocks before the coming of the railways. The County Councils Bill might have been, Davis says, ‘the last occasion on which central government actively pursued decentralisation for its own sake’. But through amendment it became the Trojan horse that froze administrative boundaries, pressed down urban budgets, and filtered national party organisation into local government. An Edwardian debt crisis soon forced towns and cities to surrender much of their initiative; and by 1939, ‘the image presented by local government was unedifying.’ In conclusion, Davis quotes the poignant warning of a famous father, Alderman Roberts of Grantham, in 1946: ‘You have only to look around the world today and find that efforts are being made to govern countries without local authorities, and we want to avoid that by all means in this country.’

The collapse of Britain’s particular style of localism was doubtless inevitable, given capitalism’s rampaging tendency to migrate wherever costs are lowest, and the strides in mobility afforded by 20th-century technologies. To take an example mentioned in two chapters, the rapid development of the National Grid after 1926 broke up local ownership patterns of electricity supply and in due course severed the local link between power generation and manufacturing – processes hitherto locked together. As a result Britain got cities that were cleaner and healthier but somehow lacking a former integrity. The old local structures were poorly equipped either to accommodate or to alleviate such forces. The question remains whether better alternative structures were possible. After all, the urban consequences of what Patrick Geddes christened the ‘neotechnic’ age were international in effect. Did German, Italian or American cities, with their constitutional guarantees, stronger civic elites but consequent rigidities, do better or worse in the face of the 20th-century maelstrom? The answer is not hinted at in a volume that achieves its close focus at the price of a certain insularity.

Questions of who provides what services and how administrative boundaries conflict with networks of transport and supply are meat and drink to the urban historian. But they mean little to those in towns who just want to be sure that the bus comes on time and that baby will be checked at the clinic. If the framework of urban life is too much attended to, its content will be lost. Cognisant of this, Daunton’s contributors focus much of their attention on the common experience of cities. This development in urban historiography has not been entirely easy. If you want to savour the everyday experience of Victorian London, why not go to Dickens, Gissing and Mayhew, or, for industrial towns during the Depression, Priestley and Orwell? Such authors are quoted here, but less copiously than they would once have been, no doubt because their readings are now often felt to be singular or distorted. The modern urban historian feels happier with original testimony – diaries, letters, the archives of Mass Observation and so on – or, as more often here, extrapolating from statistical evidence to the pattern of everyday experience. Yet though extrapolation can convey the broad picture, it cannot offer the sense and quality of experience.

An example comes in David Feldman’s elegant chapter on migration. By defining this simply as the crossing of boundaries, he is able to embrace almost a majority of the urban population and juxtapose the longer-distance Victorian economic influx into cities with the 20th-century suburban outflow. In the earlier period his measures are mostly quantitative. That the biggest single class of migrants from the countryside was young girls dispatched into service tells us much, but to tap the nature of their experience we must go to the various graphic diaries of servant life, or George Moore’s Esther Waters. When he comes onto 20th-century suburbanisation, Feldman engages more broadly with the quality of life, no doubt because there was and continues to be so much debate on the topic. This is one of the few subjects that divides the contributors. Feldman (as also Abigail Beach and Nick Tiratsoo, writing about the planners and the public) takes a cautiously benign attitude towards the sociology of interwar suburbs in the face of snobbery and sentimental criticism. Colin Pooley’s chapter on urban form, to the contrary, mounts an old-style attack on suburbs as destructive of communities and countryside.

It is often a corrective as well as a relief to read about local experience and activity. Thus Stephen Royle’s chapter on small towns, heavily based on Leicestershire, seems at first to paint a picture of stagnation (Hinckley’s ‘stinking state’ in 1840 etc) and cultural decline. Then abruptly he tells us that Edwardian Market Harborough, a town just short of 8000, boasted Sunday schools, friendly societies for young men and girls, a Church Lads’ brigade, a Territorial Army branch, a debating society, a reading society, a choral society, an opera society, a brass band, an angling ‘society’, clubs for cricket, football, tennis, golf, polo, water polo, bicycling and point-to-point riding, a swimming-bath and a roller-skating rink, and regularly put on carnivals, flower, produce and horse shows and swimming galas. I abridge. There can have been little room for masterly inactivity in Market Harborough.

Towards the end of the book cheerfulness almost breaks in, as authors engage with the personal habits of citizens. In the first half of the last century, almost all classes were getting gradually healthier, richer and, within reason, freer. With hours of work reducing (the biggest drop came in 1914-20) people enjoyed not just more time but more energy. John Walton and Douglas Reid divide between them what happened to the surplus. Walton’s concern is with what people bought, and the shift, in the artisan classes and upwards, from improved patterns of consumption for subsistence, through mechanisms such as the co-operative movement, to optional, ‘conspicuous’ habits of spending and the decline of thrift. Even at the optional end, he argues, consumption was for years governed by motives of respectability and belonging before it became a manifestation of individualism and performance; and he traces a lineage of ‘must-have’ items fashionable at different moments, from pianos to bikes and radios, and the particular social patterns they supported. The only difference today perhaps is that though buying can still deliver belonging, it seldom implies respectability.

Reid’s chapter neatly combines ‘playing’ with ‘praying’. ‘When I was young there were no sports in our lives,’ a tailor born in the 1890s is quoted as saying. ‘Working hours were long and the men were too tired to play. They had no money. All sports cost money, in the boots you wear out, if nothing else.’ If hardly in the spirit of Market Harborough, the remark does much to explain the huge popularity of parks: 100,000 went to Regent’s Park one summer Sunday in 1857, for instance. From the same perspective, sitting quietly in church or chapel was maybe not too bad an option. Yet few working-class people ever did so, because church-going offered little or nothing to their advantage. Once more pleasurable forms of passive attendance such as the cinema came in, they became immediately popular. Sunday schools on the other hand kept up quite well, because something could be gained from them: 65 per cent of under-15s attended Sunday school in Glasgow in 1890.

With some exceptions, church and chapel attendance was always poorest in the English industrial areas, and lower north than south of the Trent. When, therefore, the 20th-century collapse in urban church-going came, it was really among the respectable classes, who had lost not their faith but the practical social incentives for going – and, like the increasingly leisured working classes, now filled up their lives with other things. The so-called ‘empty church’ was, Reid concludes, just one token of people’s ‘massively expanded realm of choice about how to develop their humanity outside the necessity of making a living’. The consequences of these freedoms surely explain, if they do not justify, the muddle of the urban environment today. Britain’s citizens have, on the whole, fared well since 1840, at the expense of its cities. The unanswered question is whether citizens of cities that look better in other countries have also fared better, and if so, how and why.