English Towns

These days, the soaring cost of housing means that a growing number of people who work in London cannot afford to live there. A few years back I read that the closest a London fireman could afford to buy a house was in mid Wales. That’s why traffic to the capital is so bad on Monday mornings and Friday evenings – lots of people commute.

But London has long been a problem, sucking in the young and ambitious from the countryside. Its huge size is due to the fact that it is the national centre for politics, industry, commerce, the court, banking, and media. Due to the widespread use of pesticides in the countryside, it is also said to be the biggest source of honey.

In 1700, Norwich was the 2nd city in the country, later overtaken by Bristol, but this is to ignore the huge gap between towns and the capital. In 1700 London had a population of about 675,000 whilst Norwich had a mere 30,000: ie a ratio of 22.5 to 1. But it was more than just a matter of size. One of the rare times I shouted at the tv was when historian Michael Wood claimed that Shakespeare was a real country boy. Everyone was! In 1800 cornfields were still within ¼ mile of Liverpool Town Hall. Many towns maintained their common land, and the early industries such as pin making and weaving were carried out in the winter to supplement the income for families who worked in the fields. This is again from Reed’s book, a list of the inhabitants of Harleston, Norfolk in 1789 which shows how they were important centres of commerce, which complemented and interlocked with each other to be relatively independent. Of the 1,344 inhabitants:

“they included 38 husbandmen, and 12 farmers.. 26 spinners, 5 blacksmiths, 6 bakers, 8 tailors… 3 attorneys, 3 surgeons, 1 or 2 each of watchmaker, draper, breeches-maker, mason, brick-maker, midwife, milkwoman, bookseller, milliner, wheelwright and mole catcher, in addition to the rector and his curate. Towns like this were distinctive, living communities, perhaps self-centred and introvert, but quite unlike present-day dormitory towns. Their sense of importance was of course enhanced by the difficulties of travel.”

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