C. W. Chalklin. The Rise of the English Town, 1650-1850 (New Studies in Economic and Social History). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. vii + 102 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-66141-6; $20.99 (paper), ISBN 978-0-521-66737-1.
Robert Tittler. Townspeople and Nation: English Urban Experiences, 1540-1640. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001. xi + 251 pp. $57.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-3868-2; $22.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8047-3869-9.
Reviewed by Jeremy Boulton (Department of History, University of Newcastle)
Published on H-Albion (July, 2002)
New Approaches to Old Towns: Urban History Revitalized?
New Approaches to Old Towns: Urban History Revitalized?
The two books under review here represent two distinct approaches to urban history. In the first, Dr. Chalklin achieves the notable feat of compressing two hundred years of urban history into less than eighty pages of text. Those two centuries, of course, were in many ways the key period of English urban history. As the author concludes, while "towns were just islands in a rural sea in the seventeenth century, in 1851 more than 50 per cent of the people lived in them" (p. 76). Deploying a familiar typology of towns--London, provincial centers, and market towns--the author begins by outlining the development, expansion, and restructuring of urban England. He goes on to discuss "some general aspects of urban life" such as urban demography, living standards, and residential segregation. Particularly welcome, and reflecting one of Chalklin's particular areas of expertise, is a wide-ranging chapter devoted to the construction of towns: their physical fabric, how building was undertaken, and who paid for it. His next two chapters survey the social and economic lives and cultural activities of the "elite and the middle orders" in urban England (pp. 47-65). The middling "orders or classes," in particular, get more attention than the "lower orders"; wage earners get relatively short shrift here (pp. 66-75). This useful survey is rounded off with a number of informative appendices and a "select" bibliography that lists over two hundred items.
It is naturally possible to quibble at the occasional statement. Was it really the case, for example, that "a sizeable proportion of the lower orders stole at some time" (p. 70)? And surely the work of Shammas might cause one to doubt whether sugar was really a luxury in the early nineteenth century? Although there are then, unavoidably, some debatable statements here and there, Chalklin has produced a judicious and succinct picture of the current state of research which will be welcomed by lecturer and student alike.
Chalkin's survey is predicated on the notion of the town as an entity, as a construct with its own identity and sets of relationships. In his descriptive sections, therefore, towns are individuals. "Most important in the dominance of London was its control of inland trade" (p. 1); Manchester "increasingly controlled linen-manufacturing in south-east Lancashire" (p. 7); "ties between London and provincial towns grew as inland trade and travel expanded" (p. 16). Inevitably, where such shorthand is employed, one can lose sight of the hundreds of thousands of life histories whose combined product determined both a town's economic and social profile and the course of its history.
Towns, of course, and particularly before 1800, were themselves constructs, dependent on their rural hinterlands for migrants to sustain their populations. It is easy to forget the implications of the fact that the majority of urban inhabitants were raised in the countryside. It was there that they learnt to read and write. It was existing ties between parents and their friends and relatives in towns that determined the decision of many men and women to sample town life.
Unsurprisingly, in the early modern period, many townsmen retained strong ties to their rural origins. This is reflected in bequests to their native parishes on their deathbeds, and in the substantial number (how many we do not know) who abandoned town life to pursue fresh careers, to retire, or to deploy skills learnt in towns--typically as apprentices--elsewhere in provincial England. Given the fact that the majority of townsmen were not native, is it not surprising that periods of migration and growth should produce an increasing anxiety to inculcate the values and prestige of citizenship and civic identity. Before the nineteenth-century, relatively few townsmen were born citizens, most were made.
Such points make Robert Tittler's splendid collection of biographies of individual townsfolk especially welcome. Townspeople and Nation is dedicated to the notion that scholarly reconstructions of the lives of individual townsmen and women can reveal much about the history and structure of towns and cities in the past. Each of the author's eight detailed biographies succeeds splendidly in this avowed purpose.
Tittler writes about the century before 1640. His introduction stands alone as an excellent introduction to urban history in that period. It paints a familiar picture of urban expansion, economic restructuring, the growth of poverty and the development of oligarchic town government. He notes that the Reformation had a major impact on urban life. The Dissolution revolutionized the urban property market, doctrinal reform swept away much civic ceremonial and also degraded the ritual and rich material culture of parochial life. The author argues that the century after the Reformation saw a deliberate attempt to replace such planks of civic harmony with an enhanced culture of citizenship and a celebration of civic pride and awareness. With growing poverty and increased rates of migration, townsfolk sought stronger government. Incorporations that strengthened legal identity and civic power, whilst usually promoting exclusive oligarchic rule, increased dramatically from the late sixteenth century. Many civic leaders found that "Puritanism," with its emphasis on internal and external discipline, fitted in nicely with attempts to achieve good order in their communities.
In many ways Tittler's introduction serves as a companion to Chalkin's brief survey. This comparison extends to some of the subject matter, since the first two of Tittler's townsfolk were involved in some way with the reconstruction of the physical fabric of their localities. His biographical study of John Brown of Boston, shows how one man could exploit the new property market, and rise from obscurity to the rank of gentleman. Townsfolk also seem to have had short memories, since despite openly challenging the local leaders and being typically litigious, success brought "public esteem." His chapter about the role of the local dignitary John Pitt and the building of Blandford Forum Town Hall reveals much about the huge financial investment that such projects involved, and their symbolic as well as economic significance. Thereafter the author moves away from the physical fabric of towns to their symbolic construction, or more properly re-construction. His splendid chapter on the posthumous portrait of John and Joan Cooke, Mayor and Mayoress of Gloucester, reveals how the civic elite of that city attempted to celebrate and encourage civic virtues by extolling the generosity and civic-minded piety of two of their more noteworthy predecessors. Such acts of "memorialization" were particularly necessary following the abolition of regular prayers for the souls of the dead at the Reformation. Another civic dignitary who was much painted posthumously was the benefactor Thomas White, said to be the richest man in mid-sixteenth-century London. Tittler surveys White's wide-ranging bequests, intended to encourage the clothing industry in no less than twenty-four provincial localities. White's charitable endowments, which provided journeyman clothiers with loans, were, despite coming from a Catholic, in Tittler's striking phrase, not only "interest free, but prayer free as well" (p. 117). This emphasis on celebration and the promotion of the correct civic image finds echoes in the next chapter on Henry Manship and his manuscript History of Great Yarmouth. Manship's intention was to promote the civic identity of the town, defend its puritan government from critics and extol the nature of "good citizenship" (p. 138). Puritan government is examined again in the author's next chapter on Henry Hardware (the second) whose reform of the Chester Midsummer show turns out to have been prompted as much by practical financial and political imperatives in a time of peculiar stress in the 1590s, than by ideological convictions.
The last two chapters of the book depart from themes of civic identity and construction. In a foray into metropolitan history Tittler uncovers an early thief-taker and a professional swindler in early seventeenth-century London. His essay suggests an unsuspected level of criminal organization in the capital. The swindler in question clearly benefitted from the fact that, as Craig Muldrew has recently reminded us, most merchants still "relied on interpersonal trust" in the early seventeenth century (p. 176). Provincial merchants were, sensibly, inclined to use relatives and friends wherever possible. Money-lending, too, was often a service performed for those with whom the lender already had a pre-existing relationship. This is one of the points made in a revealing biography of the Hereford spinster and gentlewoman, Joyce Jefferies which forms the last chapter of the collection. Jefferies proves to have led a full and active social and economic life, despite her supposedly marginal marital status. She was (refreshingly given the unwarranted dominance of Puritans in early modern historiography) an anti-Puritan royalist who maintained business relationships with just short of 150 people (p. 197). Taken together, then, each of Tittler's essays reveal the lifeblood of the process of urban development in the century before 1650. The range of sources used to reconstruct the biographies here is impressive and the process by which the details were extracted and validated must have been intricate and time-consuming. This biographical approach, too, involved extensive traveling between English record offices: all this from a historian based in Montreal. One cannot help, too, admire a historian equally at home in art appreciation, architectural history, who is able to appreciate developments in political structures, economic fluctuations, demographic shifts, religious motivation, and criminal jurisdictions.
Tittler's essays have established that taking a biographical rather than a "communal" or "town-based" approach to urban history is not just a valid approach, but an exceptionally revealing one. Townsfolk here are fully rounded individuals placed in their proper historical context. These lives are by no means bounded by the town wall. It might be also argued that reconstruction of such biographies is a particularly vital exercise since they go some way to filling a gap in the sources available for urban history. It is an odd, but little remarked fact that there are very few townsfolk amongst the hundreds of clerics and pious laymen and women who left behind autobiographies and diaries in early modern England. To take one example, seventeenth-century London is peculiarly ill-served. Despite its huge population there is a frustrating absence of metropolitan diaries and autobiographies. Aside from the obvious, and hardly typical, example of Pepys, it is something of a struggle to name more than a handful of personal recollections and records of daily life in the metropolis. This relative silence is the more odd, when one considers the exceptional literacy of urban inhabitants, and London's in particular. It is doubly odd when one recalls that one motive for keeping diaries and compiling spiritual autobiographies was the "Puritanism" found so frequently amongst the capital's inhabitants. Tittler's book then represents an implicit challenge to urban historians to make more sustained attempts to uncover the processes underlying urban history via the reconstruction of the lives of townsfolk. The material for such work is plentiful, and there are of course scattered examples of urban biographies or case-studies, but few which draw out the general lessons from the particular example with as much skill and clarity as Professor Tittler.
. See Carole Shammas, The Pre-Industrial Consumer in England and America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), esp. pp. 81-3, 136-7, 293.
. For a recent excellent example, see Ian W. Archer, "The Arts and Acts of Memorialization in Early Modern London," in Imagining Early Modern London: Perceptions & Portrayals of the City from Stow to Strype, 1598-1720, Julia F. Merritt, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 89-113.
. See Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England (London, 1998).
. Apart from Pepys, I can offhand think only of the following examples of printed diaries and autobiographies for seventeenth-century London. Nehemiah Wallington, the Eastcheap turner, whose life has been so splendidly reconstructed from his voluminous spiritual ramblings by Paul Seaver, Wallington's World: A Puritan Artisan in Seventeenth-Century London (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985). One might also count the mariner and shipwright, Phineas Pett (1570-1647), W. G. Perrin, ed., The autobiography of Phineas Pett (Navy Records Society 51, 1918). I here discount the occasional disjointed commonplace book, represented by such "diaries" as Robert Parker Sorlien, ed., The Diary of John Manningham of the Middle Temple, 1602-1603 (Hanover, N.H., 1976). I also discount that (otherwise fascinating) list of dead people known to Richard Smyth--see Sir Henry Ellis, ed., The obituary of Richard Smyth: secondary of the Poultry compter, London; being a catalogue of all such persons as he knew in their life, extending from A.D. 1627 to A.D. 1674 (Camden society 44, 1849). Heather Creaton of the Institute of Historical Research is due to publish a checklist of all unpublished London diaries for all periods, forthcoming in the London Record Society.
. A particularly good, if venerable, London biography is that of the draper, Sir Thomas Cullum, found in Alan Simpson, The Wealth of the Gentry, 1540-1660 (Cambridge, 1961), pp. 115-41. For another see A. H. Dodd, "Mr Myddleton, the Merchant of Tower Street," in S. T. Bindoff, J. Hurstfield and C. H. Williams, eds., Elizabethan Government and Society: Essays presented to Sir John Neale, (London: Athlone Press, 1961), pp. 249-81. For a rare and illuminating attempt at a "career reconstruction" of London citizens from livery company records, see Steve Rappaport, Worlds within Worlds: Structures of Life in sixteenth-Century London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
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Jeremy Boulton. Review of Chalklin, C. W., The Rise of the English Town, 1650-1850 (New Studies in Economic and Social History) and
Tittler, Robert, Townspeople and Nation: English Urban Experiences, 1540-1640.
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