Chapter 8: Mill Towns Become Mill Cities

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Nearly half the world’s population today lives in an urban area. Before the first Industrial Revolution, only about 3% did. Industrialization created urbanization. Not only did it create incentives for people to pack themselves into dense cities, it also created the means to overcome the challenges of density.

What’s most amazing about this process is that many new metropolises were seemingly created from thin air. Some old cities did become big cities and some old big cities did become megacities, yes. But more amazingly, some villages that barely existed 500 years ago are now some of the world’s major population centers.

In this episode, we’ll discuss the impact of the first Industrial Revolution on the British cities of Birmingham, Manchester, and London, and the ways the British government had to adapt.

Sources for this episode include:

Allitt, Patrick N. “The Industrial Revolution.” The Great Courses. 2014.

Chalklin, Christopher. The Rise of the English Town, 1650-1850. Cambridge University Press. 2001.

Hills, Richard L. Power from Steam: A History of the Stationary Steam Engine. Cambridge University Press. 1993.

Jones, Peter M. Industrial Enlightenment: Science, Technology and Culture in Birmingham and the West Midlands 1760–1820. 1st ed., Manchester University Press, 2008.

Rhodes, Richard. Energy: A Human History. Simon & Schuster. 2018.

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. University of Chicago Press. 2010.

White, Matthew. “The Rise of Cities in the 18th Century.” British Library. 2009.

Woodman, Deborah. The Story of Manchester. History Press Limited. 2017.

Full Transcript

The story of the Industrial Revolutions is like a tree.

The roots of the tree run deep in history – from enclosure and the rise of the global empires in the 16th through 18th centuries, all the way back to the start of toolmaking by pre-human species millions of years ago.

The roots finally come together in the 18th Century and form the trunk of the tree. We’ve been discussing some aspects of that trunk over the last three episodes – machine and organizational advancements in the textile industry; improvements in farming, mining, and metalwork; and, of course, the power of steam engines.

And as we go further up the trunk, we’ll be discussing further developments of the first industrial revolution, and the subsequent technological and digital revolutions. Things like advancements in chemistry, the railroads, electric lighting, and more.

But we’re also going to start branching out into topics that were made possible because of the industrial revolutions. In this way we’re exploring the branches of the tree. Branches like the rise of democracy and communism, branches like women’s equality and Mormonism, branches like football and fashion, and modern music.

And on some of these branches we’ll probably follow little sub-branches of their own.

And today, we’re going to start exploring the first branch of the industrial revolutions: the branch of urbanization.

Throughout history, there had been some big cities from time to time. At its peak in the 2nd Century AD, the City of Rome had over 1 million inhabitants. In the 1100s, Baghdad had more than 1.2 million. In the 1300s, Hangzhou had about 1.5 million.

But those were exceptional examples.

Today, more than 500 cities around the world have a population over 1 million. There’s also nearly 40 megacities across the planet, with populations over 10 million.

Nearly half the world’s population today lives in an urban area. Before the first industrial revolution, only about 3% did.

Industrialization created urbanization. Not only did it create incentives for people to pack themselves into dense cities, it also created the means to overcome the challenges of density.

What’s most amazing about this process is that many new metropolises were seemingly created from thin air. Some old cities did become big cities and some old big cities did become megacities, yes. But more amazingly, some villages that barely existed 500 years ago are now some of the world’s major population centers.


This is the Industrial Revolutions

Chapter 8: Mill Towns Become Mill Cities


In 1700, one of the biggest cities in Europe was London, with a population of probably 600,000 at most.

And throughout the history of the island of Great Britain, London was the largest city, going back to Roman times. That never stopped being the case.

But what’s amazing is the relevance of other British cities, and how they’ve changed over the years. For most of medieval English history, the second most significant city was always York. After that, maybe Gloucester or Lincoln or something. Oxford and Cambridge became the cities of the great universities. And up in Scotland, few cities would have stood out at all.

But then, in the 1700s, little villages that seldom appeared in the annals of history suddenly started growing like crazy. Today they’re cities we know well. But to the people that would have lived there in Medieval Times, they wouldn’t just be unrecognizable. Their existence would have been totally unthinkable.

Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool, Leeds, Manchester.

Now, part of this is the fact that the population grew considerably after 1700.

For most of history, population swings were tied to food production. The more people a country could feed, the more its population grew. Population would come back down as the result of wars, epidemics, and bad harvests. Overall population never grew very much, at least not very fast.

That dynamic changed entirely thanks to the British Agricultural Revolution. Between 1700 and 1800, the population of England grew nearly 50%. It then doubled between 1801 and 1851.

But the population growth in certain geographic clusters wasn’t just the result of better food production. It was the result of new economic activity.

Port towns were of course growing, thanks to the increasing trade of the global empires. Mining towns were also growing, as timber resources were running low and coal mining became more and more important.

But it was manufacturing that really turned pastural England into the industrialized, urbanized country it is today. And it started in Birmingham.


The City of Birmingham began as a small Anglo-Saxon settlement. In 1166, the lord of the local manor started holding weekly markets there, turning it into a small, Medieval market town. It had a population of just 1,500 or so residents as recently as the 16th Century.

But then it started to take off in the age of cottage industry. How it happened is complicated, to say the least, but it was largely due to the cluster of ironmakers in the town, making everything from agricultural tools, buttons and nails to, of course, cannons and gun parts. Birmingham also had a high concentration of nonconformists, barred from climbing the social ladder, and left with few options but to reinvest their wealth in their businesses.

The population nearly tripled between 1650 and 1700, and by the end of the 18th Century, it totaled about 74,000, as the industrial enterprises expanded and drew in more workers. The old manor and parish system for governing the town became useless as the population kept expanding. The Birmingham Improvement Act was passed in 1769, creating a street commission, an early version of a local government.

Birmingham also had a tight-knit industrialist community. The center of this new bourgeoises was an Enlightenment club called the Lunar Society, so named because they met once a month during a full moon. What exactly they did, we’ll never know, because they never took any minutes. But it was probably a place where scientific ideas were exchanged.

Prominent in the Lunar Society was Mathew Boulton and, later, his partner, James Watt. Also prominent were three men whose children would intermarry in one of the most extraordinary power-families of all time. They were Erasmus Darwin (a radical scientist and poet), Josiah Wedgwood (a Unitarian pottery businessman who we will return to in a future episode) and Samuel “John” Galton (a Quaker arms dealer who we will also get to in a future episode).

The descendants of the Darwin-Wedgwood-Galton family would include four famed businessmen and inventors, three members of Parliament, about 15 different writers and artists, and 11 famed scientists, including Charles Darwin.

Then there was the City of Glasgow, up in Scotland, a college town with a population of about 7,000 in the 1600s, before the tobacco trade made it a key port in the new British Empire. Ship building soon followed, as did a burgeoning textile industry.

But, of course, no city really captures the industrial revolution quite like Manchester.

The founding of Manchester is hard to pinpoint, but it existed by the time of the Norman conquest. For most of the middle ages, it was a small provincial town of little note. Then, in 1301, it received a charter to hold a market and become a free borough, essentially converting a village on a Medieval estate into a guild town.

Without that charter, it’s difficult to imagine the city we know today as Manchester. Perhaps it would still exist, but we’d know it by a different name – the name of a different historic village in the area.

As the 1300s went on, England began to attract Flemish linen weavers who were weary of wars on the Continent. It helped that King Edward III’s wife was Flemish, and the couple encouraged the immigration. It picked up more in the 1500s, as the Protestant Reformation sparked violence in the low countries.

Among the places they settled was Lancashire, the historical county in northwest England that included towns like Preston, Bolton, Liverpool, Burnley, Blackpool, Blackburn, and Manchester. As a result, the area would become an economic hub for textiles in the age of cottage industry.

And the Protestant Reformation left its mark on Manchester in another way. It became a stronghold for Puritans in the lead up to the English Civil War. During England’s brief experiment as a republic, Manchester was, for the first time, represented in Parliament. But the situation turned south for them after the Monarchy was restored. Manchester would be blocked from representation until the Great Reform Act of 1832.

But for what they lacked in political power, they would make up for in economic prowess, as the Puritans morphed into nonconformists.

Lancashire – especially the subdivision of Salford, where Manchester was located – became the epicenter for the increasingly industrial textile trade in the 1700s. It was the birthplace of the Fly Shuttle and the Spinning Jenny. Richard Arkwright invented his water frame in Lanchasire, and Samuel Greg would build his Quarry Bank Mill in Salford.

Helping grow the cotton industry in Salford was the extension of the Mersey and Irwell rivers in the 1720s and 30s. This allowed raw cotton to be imported from British colonies, offloaded in Liverpool, and shipped up the locks and canals to the Manchester area.

But it was the adoption of steam power in the cotton mills that would make Manchester the city it is today.

In 1782, Arkwight and his partners, including Simpson & Simpson, built a new mill in the city center of Manchester: the Shudehill Mill. The 5-story building was constructed like a typical Arkwight mill, but it wouldn’t be on a river with a strong enough current to create water power. Instead, the water was cycled between two storage ponds thanks to a Newcomen engine. This created the power needed to run the water frame.

Then, in 1790, they got a new steam engine from Boulton & Watt. With the rotative power of a Watt engine, they were able to spin 4,000 cotton yarns at once without a water frame. And as Watt continued to improve his steam engine, the Simpsons continued to upgrade their machines with it in the mill.

Other mills followed, especially after Trevithick’s strong steam power caught on in the early 19th Century. And free from needing to set up shop on rivers with strong currents, they began to cluster in the growing city of Manchester, attracting workers far and wide.

Unfortunately, there’s no good population statistics for Manchester prior to the first census in 1801. But the previous hundred years had certainly had an impact by the time of that census. The population of the city was over 70,000. Over the next forty years, that figure would more than triple. And then came the Irish potato famine, which brought in tens of thousands of more residents.

But the first Industrial Revolution didn’t just turn villages into metropolises. It also transformed the capital city, London.


The population of London had swelled to nearly 950,000 by 1801, roughly a 72% increase over the previous century. Over the next fifty years, it would more than double to 2.3 million.

Despite Liverpool’s growing importance, thanks to the cotton trade, London continued to dominate in terms of shipping commerce. New docks were built along the River Thames, allowing easy access for ships coming from the English Channel or the North Sea.

Additionally, London had its role as a financial center, thanks to the Bank of England and other entities. By the 1780s, it overshadowed Amsterdam. In 1804 a new stock exchange was built, and following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the City of London – as the financial district is known – became a lending source for much of Europe as the Industrial Revolution spread.

And London was industrializing too.

It began, perhaps, with coal power. The woodlands around London had been seriously depleted by the end of the Tudor period. Coal was imported to serve as a replacement fuel for the fires that kept the city running. The smoky London we think of in Victorian times had begun much earlier than the Industrial Revolution.

As early as 1578, Elizabeth I had a London brewer sent to prison because of the coal smoke from his brewery blowing into her lodgings at Westminster Palace. In the 1600s, children could find work as chimneysweeps. Some as young as 5 or 6 years old would be “apprenticed” to walk the streets crying “Sweep! Sweep!” to solicit business. They were small enough that they could crawl through the chimneys, cleaning them of the intense coal soot that built up.

And the pollution in the city wasn’t limited to the air. The water in the River Thames and in the wells was incredibly unsafe. The lack of clean drinking water led people to drink beer instead, since the brewing process would kill of the harmful microorganisms in the water – not that people understood the science of it yet. As a result, drunkenness at work was common.

And distilled spirits became more common too, especially gin. And this wasn’t the gin we know today. It usually contained additives like turpentine, since it the practice so difficult to regulate. Bad gin may have contributed to a spike in the mortality rate during the early 1700s in London. The people of the time certainly saw how the drunkenness it caused was destroying their communities.

The pollution had an effect on cuisine as well. By the 19th Century, there was little left in the way of fish in the River Thames. Some of the only river life that could survive were the eels. As a result, eel became a staple of the London diet, especially in the working-class communities around the docks in East London.

Mills were built as well, including the infamous Albion Mills that produced grain with the power of an early Watt steam engine. Over the years, industrial jobs would attract rural laborers and immigrants to London just as they did in the up-and-coming cities of northern England.

The British government had come to terms with the explosive growth of its capital city by 1774, when it passed the Building Act of London, a comprehensive set of building regulations that served as an early example of modern urban planning.

And in the 19th Century, urban planning was going to become a greater necessity, because the nature of cities was changing.


The first industrial revolution changed the patterns of settlement like nothing before, and housing the new industrial population reflected the change.

A mill would go up and attract workers from across the region. Small, back-to-back houses were built to shelter them. Crowded and dirty slums became the normal living conditions for England’s new working class. They usually had to share buildings as well as facilities, like toilets. Sewage usually had to be carried to waste sites, which often leaked into the water supply. Disease became rampant.

The new cities were also younger and more vibrant, attracting the newer generations of workers not yet tied down by marriages. They came for the prospect of work, but they found all sorts of entertainments.

Storefront shops also became more common in the years leading up to the first Industrial Revolution. Horse drawn traffic created tremendous sounds in the cobblestone streets. Merchants would shout out their sales and specials. Traffic congestion became a greater problem in the older cities and towns, as the patchwork of small streets and alleys from the Medieval period proved too small for the increasing activity.

And as small, Medieval villages transformed into industrial cities, the British government was forced to rethink its structure of local governance. In 1835, Parliament passed the Municipal Corporations Act, reforming the constitutions of boroughs, which were by that point operating on a seriously outdated (and often times corrupted) system.

Like the Great Reform Act that preceded it, the Municipal Corporations Act recognized the huge geo-demographic changes that had taken place during the first industrial revolution. Birmingham and Manchester were especially eager to incorporate.

Further reforms in 1844, 1888, and in the 20th Century would go on to reshape England’s historic counties. For example, Manchester is now is a district called the Greater Manchester Area, separate from Lancashire.

British law today is a complex mix of the old and the new. In addition to being divided by country – England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland operate on different systems of governance, after all – it is often divided by historic county, metropolitan county, borough, and lieutenancy, for different purposes.

Many statutes have been passed since the beginning of the Industrial Revolutions to modernize the United Kingdom, but many precedents from Medieval times can still be cited today. At the heart of much of that change is explosive population growth and urbanization.

So what is going on here?

How is it that major cities came out of nowhere? Why is Britain finding itself forced to adapt? And how is it that there are so many more people and so much more money?

Today these answers are obvious to us, but at the turn of the 19th Century, that wasn’t really the case. The people at the time were only beginning to wrap their heads around this.

But a few of them are going to start figuring this out. And from their work and research, a brand-new academic field will emerge: Economics. Next week on the Industrial Revolutions.


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Thank you.

Dave Broker