The building of cities was a characteristic Victorian achievement, impressive in scale but limited in vision, creating new opportunities but also providing massive new problems. Perhaps their outstanding feature was hidden from public view - their hidden network of pipes, drains, and sewers, one of the biggest technical and social achievements of the age ... Yet their surface world was fragmented, intricate, cluttered, eclectic and noisy, the unplanned product of a private enterprise economy developing within an older, traditional society. …Economic individualism and common civic purpose were difficult to reconcile.… Asa Briggs, Victorian Cities.Urban Growth
Individualist preference for avoiding public enterprise whenever possible died hard. J.K. Ensor, England, 1870-1914.
The Victorians continually commented on the speed of urban development. A north London rector wrote, ‘I have tried to keep Hornsey a village, but circumstances have beaten me’. The visitor to Birmingham could expect to find a street of houses in the autumn where he saw his horse at grass in the spring. In Victorian South London the houses could spring up in what seemed a single night.
Much of the effort went into church building, but particularly in the last quarter of the century there was a huge development of public offices, hospitals, schools, sewage farms, and water works.
Trains: The railway linked the new cities together and made their growth possible. The first railways encouraged the concentration of the urban population (contrast with the car which scattered cities further away from their centres). The first local passenger service to be authorized in London was started between Tooley Street and Deptford in 1863. The first workman’s fare was introduced in London by the Metropolitan Railway Company in 1864 and on a section of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1852. The Cheap Trains Act of 1883, which compelled the railway companies to offer workman’s fares was deliberately designed for further encouraging the migration of the working classes into the suburbs in order to relieve housing congestion in the central areas.
A new leisure industry sprang up in the wake of the railways. In 1841 a Baptist missionary named Thomas Cook conceived the notion of organizing excursions at a cheap rate and entered into negotiations with the Midland Railway Company to lay on special trains for private outings for temperance clubs and for Sunday schools. Thousands were taken by train to the Crystal Palace in 1851. Once Saturday half-holidays had become the normal practice in the 1860s trips were organized to places like Scarborough, Whitby, Blackpool, and Southport.
Trams: The first tram was introduced in Birkenhead in 1860 by the American engineer, George Francis Train. The Tramways Act of 1870 gave local authorities the option to buy out private tramways by compulsory purchase after twenty years of operation. By 1900 61 local authorities owned tramways and 89 undertakings were managed by private enterprise. The trams made it possible for working men to get to the football grounds and to the holiday firework displays and galas in the public parks.
London transport: In London, the advent of trams was fiercely resisted. But in the 1850s Charles Pearson, solicitor to the City of London, devised a plan to build an ‘Arcade Railway’ beneath the Faringdon Road to connect the Great Northern railway at King’s Cross with Faringdon in the City of London. The Great Northern agreed to subscribe £170,000, but one of its officials misappropriated the money and was transported for life.
The scheme was revived in the 1860s in the form of the Metropolitan Railway which would connect Paddington, Euston and Kings Cross to the Faringdon terminus. The Times condemned it as Utopian. Most of the capital was contributed by engineering firms, who hoped to gain contracts to build the proposed railway. The Metropolitan Railway was opened on 9 January 1863. The railway earned its shareholders reasonable dividends, though these were mainly due to the policy of building railways overground into the suburbs - Gladstone lost £25,000 worth of stock in 1884.
The Inner Circle was complete by 1884. The City and Southwark followed in 1890. An Act of 1893 authorized the Bakerloo Line to link Baker Street and Waterloo, though the building was held up by problems of funding.
The Northern Metropolitan Railway coined the term ‘Metroland’. In 1868 an independent railway company had opened a line from Baker Street to Swiss Cottage, and in 1880 the Northern Metropolitan extended it to Harrow. The slogan: ‘Live in Metroland’ showed that it was not so much satisfying existing needs as creating new residential districts.
The railway made chain stores and large department stores possible. W. H. Smith and Sons were directly dependent on the railway. They began to build their networks in the 1850s. Department stores began to flourish in London and the provinces in the 1880s and 90s.
Long distance commuting also became possible. In 1891 a commentator wrote of how ‘rich merchants and stockbrokers’ went up to town in the morning from Brighton, and returned in time for dinner.
In 1869 Manchester appointed its first medical officer of health - Liverpool had been even earlier - 1847. But in general, it was not until after the 1870s that health conditions in the poorer parts of the cities began to improve. The Sanitary Commission of 1869-1870 collected ample evidence concerning the petty jealousies and unwillingness to spend money of the mid-Victorian Boards of Health. This was the prelude to the setting up of the Local Government Board in 1871, the Public Health Act of 1875, which divided the country into urban and rural sanitary districts with clearly defined duties, and the Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwelling Acts of the same year.
In spite of the problems, the political vitality Victorian city was a cause of civic pride. Liberal politicians in particular praised it for its progressive spirit and lack of deference. In contrast to the Dorset labourers, Manchester working men were not expected to touch their caps to their masters.
However the problems of the cities were increasingly recognized. During the 1880s and 90s the detailed study of the poorer parts of the city became highly systematic and organized, and social surveys founded on statistical investigation familiarized the reading public with the awkward facts of deprivation.
There was also the phenomenon recognized by European observers that wealthy manufacturers did not wish to live in the town but in the country. Ruskin, Morris, William Booth and other commentators expressed horror at urban life. The paradox is that the most urban society in the world was deeply ambivalent about urbanization. One religious novelist wrote:
Adam and Eve were created and placed in a garden. Cities are the result of the fall.The settlement movement, seen in Toynbee Hall, founded in 1884, was an attempt to deal with the effects of urban deprivation.
In 1877 Manchester Town Hall was completed, and was at that date unequalled for size and convenience among the municipal buildings of Europe. Bradford’s Italianate town hall also dates from the ‘70s. In the great provincial cities, the ‘municipalization’ of the ‘natural monopolies’ became increasingly the vogue - though more from empiricism than from a collectivist ideology.
Birmingham and the Civic Gospel
This phrase is associated with the Birmingham Congregational minister, R.W. Dale.
During the 1870s and 1880s Birmingham (population 344,000) acquired the reputation of being the best governed city in the world. It had a very diverse labour force, skilled and therefore relatively prosperous. Housing was better than in most English cities, and there was a high degree of social mobility. In the early Victorian period it was the home of radical politics. From 1857 John Bright was one of the MPs. He had been defeated in Manchester because of his opposition to the Crimean War, but welcomed in Birmingham.
The radical tradition continued with the formation of the Birmingham Liberal Association in 1865. It campaigned with the Reform League for the extension of the franchise. The Association became a powerful body within the Liberal party, and in the general election of 1868 it secured the return of three Liberal MPs. This type of ‘caucus’ organization was unprecedented. In the following decade the main beneficiary was Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914).
Chamberlain had arrived in Birmingham in 1854 at the age of 18 and quickly established a reputation as a businessman and forceful personality. A Unitarian, he was drawn into politics by his opposition to Anglican privilege. He became a councillor in 1869 and in 1870 of the first School Board. Four years later he was chosen as Mayor as well as Chairman of the School Board. He was re-elected mayor in 1874 and 1875.
His three years of office from 1873 to 1876 saw the implementation of his civic gospel.
There is no nobler sphere for those who have not the opportunity of engaging in imperial politics than to take part in municipal work, to the wise conduct of which they owe the welfare, the health, the comfort and the lives of 400,000 people.His radical programme in Birmingham and the caucus system of securing it were wildly controversial, yet both forced the problems of big cities into national prominence. ‘City government was never quite the same again.’
Chamberlain’s achievements in Birmingham were:
the purchase by the corporation of the gas-works, water-works and sewage farmGas figured prominently in the working out of the civic gospel - it was the classic symbol of ‘improvement’. Chamberlain gave three reasons for ‘municipalizing’ the gas and water companies.
the destruction of the slums in the heart of the city
the provision of artisans’ dwellings
the extension of free libraries and galleries
1. Financial: its profits could be used to improve the health of Birmingham.Agreement with the gas companies (the Birmingham Gas and Light Co and the Staffordshire Gas Light Co) was finally reached in March 1874. The first year’s profits greatly exceeded expectations. Plant was extended and modernized, the price of gas was lowered and the working conditions of the employees improved.
2. All monopolies in any way sustained by the state should be in the hands of the elected representatives of the people, to whom their profits should of right go.
3. Municipalization would increase the power and influence of the local council, which should be encouraged to become a real local parliament, supreme in its own sphere of jurisdiction.
In the same year the Council began negotiations to acquire public control of the Birmingham Waterworks Company. This put up more of a resistance than the gas companies, and in the Lords the bill was bitterly opposed as ‘compulsory purchase’ and unjust to shareholders. The bill passed the House in August 1875 and the Works were transferred in January 1876.
Chamberlain’s third venture was his town improvement scheme. The 1875 Artisans’ Dwelling Act allowed corporations to purchase slum property for the purchase of clearance. Chamberlain saw in this not only an opportunity to clear away the slums in the centre but a chance to carry out a radical new town improvement. His intention was to create a new ‘Parisian Boulevard’ (Corporation Street) lined with blocks of modern dwellings - though when it was built the new street was composed of shops and office buildings. Work began in 1878. Corporation Street was opened as far as Bull Street in 1881.
As early as 1853 the Council bought the site of the future Council House but because of bickering and misunderstandings it remained undeveloped until 1870. In that year a proposal of the Estates Committee was at last accepted for the construction of ‘town buildings’ and Alfred Waterhouse was hired as a consultant. Chamberlain laid the foundation for the new buildings in 1874. They were completed in 1897. On the central pediment of the town hall was a sculptured group representing ‘Britannia rewarding the Birmingham Manufacturers’. The interior of the building included a mayor’s parlour, reception rooms and a semi-circular Council Chamber. The windows of the upper tier were filled with stained glass and both the walls and ceilings were ornamented with frescoes representing Birmingham industry.
Behind it stood the museum and art gallery.
In 1874 Chamberlain stood unsuccessfully for Sheffield. At a by-election in 1876 he was elected for Birmingham. In 1877 he reorganized the Liberal party in the constituencies by forming large local associations on a representative basis in federating them in a central organization, the National Liberal Federation. He was thus able to claim substantial credit for the Liberal victory in 1880. The election was regarded as a test of ‘the efficiency of the new democratic machinery of which Birmingham is the capital’.
Writers from all parts of the world went to Birmingham to report on what they saw there. In 1890 an American writer called it ‘the best governed city in the world’. The doctrine of ‘municipal socialism’ rapidly enveloped the 19th century city. In 1909 of the 74 county boroughs in England and Wales, 53 owned their water undertakings, 33 the gas supply, 65 electricity and 50 the tramways. Sidney Webb described the route of a town councillor as he walked along
the municipal pavement, lit by municipal gas and cleansed by municipal brooms with municipal water.But for all its impressive achievements, Birmingham suffered the usual fate of Victorian cities - alternating between periods of civic spending and going slow. Battles about rates were endemic.
Click here for photographs of Victorian Birmingham.