Tale of two humpty dumpties

Provincial Towns in Early Modern England and Ireland - Two Capitals

April 4, 2003

Here are two finely produced volumes sponsored by the British Academy and Royal Irish Academy, stemming from two closely related conferences held in 1998 and replete with illustrations, plans, maps and tables. The books are framed by very serviceable editorial introductions and together offer 24 essays. Though the two volumes share a common provenance and are marketed by Oxford University Press as a pair, there are some obvious differences in format and structure.

Two Capitals divides its chapters equally between England and Ireland, though several of the Irish chapters are notably shorter. Provincial Towns , by contrast, is 65 per cent Irish in content. The first volume is written entirely by historians. The second enlists the services of three geographers. Two contributors - Peter Borsay and T. C. Barnard - are present in each of the volumes and provide some of the very best essays. As complete entities, the two volumes are devoted to comparative history and the overriding mission is to explore divergence and convergence between the English and Irish urban experience.

Introductory chapters aside, however, only one other essay in each volume is intrinsically comparative. The extent of metropolitan dominance in each country by London and Dublin receives a considerable amount of attention, as does the role of major landowners and patrons in re-shaping the urban landscape. Anglo-Irish links, especially the cattle and linen trades and the political dimensions of the imperial connection, are frequently underlined. The different significance of the Anglican church as a factor in urban evolution in the two capitals is considered. The role of small towns, the place of markets and fairs in urban and regional economies, and the shifting patterns of urban culture come under review. Ruling elites in both English and Irish towns always claim the limelight, but the lower ranks do not get squeezed out. Two Capitals , in fact, has a great deal to offer on servants and servant keeping.

London and Dublin were completely different in 1600 - the English capital's population of 200,000 was at least ten times greater than that of its Irish equivalent - but two centuries later the gap had narrowed as the two cities achieved populations of 1 million and 182,000 respectively. London's West End and Dublin's East End - the fashionable districts - shared an increasing number of common denominators as new houses and public buildings, new squares, parks, amenities and genteel lifestyles took root. Derek Keene and Colm Lennon survey the two urban landscapes, Lennon making exceptionally good use of maps of 1610, 1673 and 1756 to document the changing face of Dublin.

Both cities had their social problems, as essays by Joanna Innes, Neal Garnham, Ian Archer and J. R. Hill make clear. Eighteenth-century Dublin, though much smaller than London, seems to have been relatively more disordered. However, London's rapid suburbanisation and the explosive growth of West End parishes such as St George's, Hanover Square, which had a population of 75,000 in 1801, brought problems of policing and poor relief into stark prominence.

Leonard Schwarz, in another chapter, makes a convincing case for viewing Westminster as the "quintessential service town" in the century after 1750 with its unrivalled concentration of domestic servants. Dublin, by contrast, as David Dickson points out, in some ways suffered setbacks from the loss of the separate Irish Parliament at the time of the Union. There were fewer government contracts around and, faced with a reduction in their clientele, luxury trades declined. But church building continued apace in both cities, with clergy in both London and Dublin functioning as vocal agents of moral reform. Dublin's religious life, of course, had civic dimensions as well since Protestantism buttressed the hegemony of the city corporation. Raymond Gillespie's essay provides an excellent treatment of the subject.

Dublin was a metropolis as well as London, but, as contributions by Peter Clark and Edel Seridan-Quantz make clear, these cities contained few whose vision was truly metropolitan; this period witnessed, for example, a huge outpouring of London charity, but this was invariably channelled in specific directions to individual parishes and not to the capital as a whole. Clark, in a telling phrase, describes London as an "urban humpty dumpty", characterised by fragmentation, worlds within worlds, and by a mosaic of internal jurisdictions and administrations. No wonder fire-fighting was such a problem.

Dublin faced similar problems in miniature, despite its Wide Streets Commission of 1757 and bold urban developers such as the Gardeners and Fitzwilliams. The cultural scene of the two cities was dominated by elites and gave the illusion of metropolitan unity. But Borsay is right to argue that London's capacity to function as an "engine" of cultural change was much greater than Dublin's. The Irish capital's cultural life, despite high points such as the premiere of Handel's Messiah in 1742, was essentially that of a second-rank capital city, in some ways akin - Barnard suggests - to that of a more distant imperial outpost such as Philadelphia or Calcutta.

Despite the growth of both London and Dublin in the early modern period, regional and local economies still flourished and small towns, markets and fairs were firmly integrated into the fabric of provincial life. Alan Dyer, in one of the essays in the second volume, presents the period 1660-1800 as one that saw "the small town at the highest point of its development". If Ashbourne, Derbyshire, Loughborough and Whitehaven, Workington and Maryport - some of his chosen examples - form a representative sample, one can only agree. W. H. Crawford's chapter provides a parallel discussion of small-town development in Ulster in the 17th and 18th centuries, making clear that "small" was smaller in Ireland and that those residing in towns of more than 2,000 people in 1800 accounted for less than 7 per cent of the population. T. C. Barnard shows how visitors to Ireland tended to make unfavourable comparisons between provincial towns there and in England.

Susan Hood, however, shows what could be done in settled conditions to remodel an existing town (Birr) and to launch a new one (Strokestown).

Case studies are provided of two English and two Irish provincial towns.

Borsay makes skilful use of the documentation concerning the great fire of Warwick in 1694 and the rebuilding programme that followed. Jon Sobart surveys the fortunes of 18th-century Chester as it clung to its craft industries and coastal and Irish trade and transformed itself into a leisure/service town for the region. John Bradley and Anngret Simms, rather too descriptively, chart the histories of Kilkenny and Kells, respectively.

Lindsay Proudfoot makes exemplary use of the 1853 Report on the State of Fairs and Markets in Ireland to show that the failure rate of markets in Ireland in the 200 years previously was two and half times greater than for less frequent but more specialised fairs.

Few Irish towns (Dublin apart) in the 18th century were the subject of separate histories: there were few town directories and no guidebooks were published. A less stable past, different political agendas, less urban self-consciousness, less trumpeting, less pressure from town corporations, less competition between towns - as Rosemary Sweet makes clear in her important chapter in the second volume - were all contributory factors. In England, by contrast, urban historiography in this period was a growth industry: at least 240 town histories appeared between 1700 and 1820.

Ireland has lagged far behind England, too, in the resurgence of urban history since the 1970s. These two welcome volumes help to make up for lost ground.

R. C. Richardson is professor of history, King Alfred's College, Winchester.

Provincial Towns in Early Modern England and Ireland: Change, Convergence and Divergence

Editor - Peter Borsay and Lindsay Proudfoot
ISBN - 0 19 726248 1
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 8

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