urban history

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urban history can be defined variously. Histories of individual British towns have been written for over four centuries; studies of towns and urbanization in general came later; while as an academic discipline British urban history is no more than 40 years old.

An interest in the history and antiquities of towns can be traced back to Anglo-Saxon times, and by the 13th cent. London had civic annals. From the end of the 16th cent. true urban histories started to appear, the first published being John Stow's Survey of London (1598). Between the 17th and 19th cents. many towns received substantial histories, though in general they contain undigested raw materials, ‘the uncooked potatoes and not the finished meal’. A controversial literature after the 1688 revolution produced one enduring work of urban scholarship ( Madox's Firma burgi, 1726), while another, in connection with the municipal reform of the 1830s, generated a History of the Boroughs and Municipal Corporations of the United Kingdom by Merewether and Stephens (1835), still a useful corpus of information.

A new direction was taken at the end of the 19th cent. under German and American influences. The most notable pioneers were Charles Gross (1857–1909) and F. W. Maitland (1850–1906), who laid the foundations of British urban history as of so much else. They and their pupils initiated a period of meticulous scholarship (mostly on medieval municipal history) which lasted until the 1940s, though the histories of individual towns fell behind American standards. However, at the end of that period new works were appearing which heralded wider perspectives both on the periods covered (breaking out of the medieval strait-jacket) and on themes dealing with society and economy as well as institutions. Hoskins's Industry, Trade and People in Exeter, 1688–1800 (1935) and W. H. Chaloner's The Social and Economic Development of Crewe, 1780–1923 (1950) were notable pioneer works.

The subject was transformed in the 1960s largely through the influence and inspiration of H. J. ( Jim) Dyos (1921–78). He not only wrote and edited important exemplars, but founded an Urban History Group (1962), with its own Newsletter (1963) and Yearbook (1974) on the American model. He also developed work in his own University of Leicester, formalized since 1985 as a Centre for Urban History. Work has proliferated since the 1960s, in Wales and Scotland as well as England, and there is a separate Scottish Urban History Group. Other disciplines have been brought to bear on the subject, including archaeology, cartography, and historical geography. A large body of urban archaeological data has been produced and partly published; three volumes have so far appeared of a British Atlas of Historic Towns; and an Urban Morphology Research Group at the University of Birmingham has developed the pioneering approaches of M. R. G. Conzen in the historical study of town plans.

David M. Palliser


Clark, P., (ed.), Cambridge Urban History of Britain, (3 vols., Cambridge, 2000).