Historians are fond of describing urbanization in terms of the growth of towns. At one level this kind of analysis satisfies by constructing a positivist language through which to map a conceptually complex process. If we define a town as a settlement with over 2500 inhabitants, urbanization seems both impressive and ineluctable. In 1700, 18.7 per cent of the population of England and Wales lived in towns. By 1750 this had risen to 22.6 per cent and by 1801 it reached 30.6 per cent. In the nineteenth century urban growth, thus measured, was still more striking, with 54 per cent of the population living in towns by 1851 and 78 per cent by 1901.1 But such figures distort as much as they describe. In 1700 some settlements that we might regard as characteristically urban contained fewer than 2500 inhabitants, while by 1900 many settlements of 2500 were hardly towns at all. Viewed in another light, these figures reveal the profoundly rural character of large areas of England and Wales until well into the Victorian period. As late as the census of 1871, agriculture was the largest single employer of male labour, and only after this census did the population of rural England begin to fall in absolute terms.2 What gave Victorian towns and cities their increasing cultural and political power was not that they were home to a majority of England’s people but, rather, that they were home to England’s new wealth and economic elites.
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