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Leisure, luxury and urban specialization in the eighteenth century


This article forms a contribution to the ongoing debate about the nature of an English urban renaissance. We draw on Schwarz's designation of residential leisure towns to explore the spread of leisure and luxury through a broad range of towns. Our analysis reveals that leisure facilities and luxury service and retail provision were widespread, but that residential leisure towns appear as qualitatively different places, the status of which was contingent upon social profile and cultural-economy, rather than demographic, political or socio-economic make up. We conclude by arguing that urban typologies based on specialization should be tempered with older-established and more subjective categorizations based on the status of the town.

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1 Defoe D., A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724–26; Penguin edition: Harmondsworth, 1971), 397.

2 This tradition can be traced back to Clark P. and Slack P., English Towns in Transition 1500–1700 (Oxford, 1976), and has been seen most recently in Clark P. (ed.) Cambridge Urban History of Britain, vol. II: 1540–1840 (Cambridge, 2000).

3 Corfield P., The Impact of English Towns 1700–1800 (Oxford, 1982), 11.

4 See Stobart J., The First Industrial Region: North-west England, c. 1700–1760 (Manchester, 2004), ch. 2.

5 Robson B., Urban Growth: An Approach (London, 1973); Pred A., City Systems in Advanced Economies (London, 1977); Lepetit B., The Pre-industrial Urban System: France, 1740–1840 (Cambridge, 1994).

6 This transition is modelled by Simmons J.W., ‘The organization of the urban system’, in Bourne L.S. and Simmons J.W. (eds.), Systems of Cities: Readings on Structure, Growth, and Policy (New York, 1978), 61–9

7 P. Borsay, ‘Health and leisure resorts 1700–1840’, in Clark (ed.) Cambridge Urban History, vol. II, 775–804.

8 Reeder D. and Rodger R., ‘Industrialisation and the city economy’, in Daunton M. (ed.) Cambridge Urban History of Britain, vol. III: 1840–1950 (Cambridge, 2000), 565–85; Borsay P., The English Urban Renaissance. Culture and Society in the Provincial Town, 1660–1770 (Oxford, 1989); B. Trinder, ‘Industrialising towns 1700–1840’, in Clark (ed.) Cambridge Urban History, vol. II, 805–30.

9 Sweet R., ‘Topographies of politeness’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 22 (2002), 355–74.

10 Schwarz L.D., ‘Residential leisure towns in England towards the end of the eighteenth century’, Urban History, 27 (2000), 5161. For more detailed discussion of the tax itself, see Schwarz L.D., ‘English servants and their employers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries’, Economic History Review, 52 (1999), 236–56.

11 See Sweet, ‘Topographies of politeness’, 360–2.

12 Berg M., Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Oxford, 2005), 2145 (quote from 37). See also Smith W., Consumption and the Making of Respectability, 1600–1800 (London, 2002), 63103.

13 Veblen T., The Theory of the Leisure Class (London, 1912); Schwarz, ‘Residential leisure towns’, 54.

14 Ellis J., ‘“For the honour of the town”: comparison, competition and civic identity in eighteenth-century England’, Urban History, 30 (2003), 325–37.

15 The residential leisure towns and the control group are listed in Appendix I.

16 These data are drawn from Barfoot P. and Wilkes J., Universal British Directory, 5 vols. (London, 1793–98); Borsay, English Urban Renaissance, 323–54; Stobart J., Hann A. and Morgan V., Spaces of Consumption: Leisure and Shopping in the English Town, c. 1680–1830 (London, 2007), ch. 2, and a wide range of local histories and directories.

17 Blome R., Britannia or a Geographical Description of the Kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland (London, 1673), 175; Defoe, Tour of Great Britain, 406.

18 For details of this tax, see Dowell S., History of Taxation and Taxes in England, vol. III, bk 3 (London, 1883), 209–15. The number of households liable for the silver plate duty in each town is taken from Langford P., A Polite and Commercial People. England 1727–1783 (Oxford, 1989), 402–3.

19 Berg, Luxury and Pleasure, 162–8. It was indeed only practical to tax silver plate whilst its use was restricted.

20 Schwarz, ‘Residential leisure towns’, 57–8.

21 Elliott P., ‘Towards a geography of English scientific culture: provincial town identity and literary and philosophical culture in the English county town, 1750–1850’, Urban History, 32 (2005), 391412.

22 Ellis, ‘“For the honour of the town”’.

23 See Borsay, English Urban Renaissance, 39–113; Stobart J., ‘In search of a leisure hierarchy’, in Borsay P., Hirschfelder G. and Mohrmann R. (eds.), New Directions in Urban History. Aspects of European Art, Health, Tourism and Leisure since the Enlightenment (Munster, 2000), 1940; Ellis, ‘“For the honour of the town”’; Stobart, Hann and Morgan, Spaces of Consumption, 57–85.

24 David Hume, ‘Of luxury’, in Essays and Treatises on Several Subjects (1758), 157: quoted in Sweet, ‘Topographies of politeness’, 356.

25 McInnes A., ‘The emergence of a leisure town: Shrewsbury 1660–1760’ Past and Present, 120 (1988), 5387; Sweet R., The English Town 1680–1840. Government, Society and Culture (London, 1999), 251–6.

26 Even establishing the presence of a function can be problematic, especially in the case of assemblies and music concerts – one-off events have been discounted from the present analysis.

27 There are, of course, problems with the data: the apparent absence of a function from a town may mean that it was not there or merely that we have found no record of its presence. The figures presented in Table 1 should be treated as minima rather than exhaustive lists. Even allowing for under-counting in lesser towns, the focusing of these facilities and improvements into residential leisure towns remains clear.

28 Borsay, English Urban Renaissance, 183–5; Stobart, Hann and Morgan, Spaces of Consumption, 26–56.

29 This exercise took population into account. Facilities per thousand of population were averaged for the two groups and compared. The t-test is a parametric test used to determine the significance of the difference between two groups of data measured on an interval scale.

30 Beckett J. and Smith C., ‘Urban renaissance and consumer revolution in Nottingham, 1688–1750’, Urban History, 27 (2000), 3150.

31 Stobart J., ‘Building an urban identity. Cultural space and civic boosterism in a “new” industrial town: Burslem, 1761–1911’, Social History, 29 (2004), 490.

32 Blome, Britannia, 204, 230, 232.

33 See Schwarz L., ‘On the margins of industrialisation: Lichfield, 1700–1840’, in Stobart J. and Raven N., Towns, Regions and Industries. Urban and Industrial Change in the Midlands, 1700–1840 (Manchester, 2004), 176–90; V. Morgan, ‘Producing consumer space in eighteenth-century England’ (Coventry University Ph.D. thesis, 2003).

34 Beattie D., Blackburn: The Development of a Lancashire Cotton Town (Halifax, 1992), 115.

35 Borsay, English Urban Renaissance, 333–4; Morgan, ‘Producing consumer space’.

36 For a fuller discussion, see R. Sweet, The Writing of Urban Histories in Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford, 1997). Numbers of town histories are taken from 295–310.

37 See Stobart, Hann and Morgan, Spaces of Consumption, 92–8.

38 Borsay, English Urban Renaissance; Girouard M., The English Town (New Haven, 1990), 101–26, 155–70.

39 Girouard, English Town, 127–44; Stobart, ‘Leisure hierarchy’, 25–30; Green V., Survey of the City of Worcester (Worcester, 1764), 228–30.

40 Borsay, English Urban Renaissance, 329; Platt J., The History and Antiquities of Nantwich (London, 1818), 76–7.

41 Ryley S., The Itinerant or Memoirs of an Actor (London, 1808), 263–4; Defoe, Tour of Great Britain, 360.

42 See Stobart, Hann and Morgan, Spaces of Consumption, chs. 1 and 6.

43 Defoe, Tour of Great Britain, 142.

44 Borsay, English Urban Renaissance, 225–83; Langford, Polite and Commercial People, 61–84, 116–21. The avoidance of excessive intimacy with social inferiors who happened to be in the same room also became an art at which the English were renowned internationally: Langford P., ‘The uses of eighteenth-century politeness’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 22 (2002), 311–31.

45 For a general appraisal of the source, see Walton J.R., ‘Trades and professions in late eighteenth-century England: assessing the evidence of directories’, The Local Historian, 17 (1987), 343–50.

46 Ryley J., A History of the Town and Parish of Leeds (Leeds, 1797); Raffald E., Directory of Manchester and Salford (Manchester, 1781); Broster P., The Chester Guide (Chester, 1782); Cowdroy W., The Directory and Guide for the City and County of Chester (Chester, 1784).

47 In Hull, for example, the UBD records 15 of these trades and a total of 94 tradesmen giving a retail score of (15 × 94 =) 1,410; for Shrewsbury, there were 15 trades, but only 62 tradesmen giving a score of 930. For use of this technique in analysis of a regional urban network, see Stobart J. and Hann A., ‘Retailing revolution in the eighteenth century: evidence from north-west England’, Business History, 46 (2004), 171–94.

48 The Spearman's Rank Correlation Coefficient is 0.637, suggesting a close correlation between the two series.

49 At the opposite end of the scale, around one quarter of both county and commercial towns were counted amongst the lowest order centres.

50 This matches the findings of the more impressionistic survey undertaken by Stobart, ‘Leisure hierarchy’. See also the arguments in J. Ellis, ‘Regional and county centres, 1700–1840’, in Clark (ed.), Cambridge Urban History of Britain, vol. II, 673–704.

51 Whilst lower than that between employers of manservants and luxury service score (0.637), the correlation between population and luxury service score is statistically significant.

52 Those that remain in the top 20 are Liverpool (which has the highest luxury service score, but falls to twentieth when population is taken into account), Bristol (which goes from third to eighteenth) and Newcastle (which falls from sixth to fourteenth). Of the others, Manchester falls from second to thirty-first, and Birmingham from fifth to fifty-second.

53 Stobart, Hann and Morgan, Spaces of Consumption, ch. 3.

54 Vickery A., ‘Women and the world of goods: a Lancashire consumer and her possessions, 1751–81’, in Brewer J. and Porter R. (eds.), Consumption and the World of Goods (London, 1993), 274301; Whitbread H. (ed.), I Know My Own Heart: The Diaries of Anne Lister (London, 1988), 105, 245–55.

55 Cheshire and Chester Archives, WS 1728 Zacariah Shelley of Congleton, WS1716 Richard Upton of Stockport, WS1702 James Rathbone of Macclesfield.

56 Mitchell S.I., ‘The development of urban retailing 1700–1815’, in Clark P. (ed.), The Transformation of English Provincial Towns 1600–1800 (London, 1984), 259–83; Stobart J., ‘County, town and country: three histories of urban development in eighteenth-century Chester’, in Borsay P. and Proudfoot L. (eds.), Provincial Towns in Early Modern England and Ireland: Change, Convergence and Divergence (Oxford, 2002), 171–94.

57 Green, Survey of the City of Worcester, 235; Hemingway J., History of the City of Chester (Chester, 1831), vol. I, 388.

58 For more detailed analysis of Bath's attraction to national figures, see Borsay P., The Image of Georgian Bath, 1700–2000 (Oxford, 2000), 99142, 396–9.

59 Sweet, ‘Topographies of politeness’, 364–5.

60 Wallace J., A General and Descriptive History of Liverpool (Liverpool, 1795), 283. See Stobart J., ‘Culture versus commerce: societies and spaces for elites in eighteenth-century Liverpool’, Journal of Historical Geography, 28 (2002), 474–6.

61 Ellis, ‘Regional and county centres’, 697–702.

62 Gore's Advertiser, 23 Feb. 1770.

63 See Sweet, ‘Topographies of politeness’, 365–6.

64 Raffald, Directory of Manchester; Kennett A., Georgian Chester (Chester, 1987), 2631 and 36–41.

65 Hemingway, Chester, vol. II, 341.

66 J. Ellis, ‘“For the honour of the town”’.

67 Taken from Schwarz, ‘Residential leisure towns’, 56–7.

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