The Historiography of the Eighteenth Century Town

Corfield notes that too much of popular view of the urban sphere of the past is dominated by the ‘idea’ of the mid-C19th and late-C19th city, written for us as the ‘social-problem novel’ (Hard Times, Mary Barton) or as social problem (Condition of the Working-Class in England), illustrated by Dore and mapped by Booth; “after the 1840’s it was never again possible to regard the industrial landscape with the same confidence and optimism of earlier generations” (Trinder).

But for Watts in 1800 urban development was a source of civic pride; contextualising the dramatic developments into a long-term historic pattern of advancing prosperity and progress.  She did not, and could not, associate urbanism with ‘the Victorian Babylon’ (Nead) or the ‘New Hades’ (Hunt).

The context of the Project is to rediscover a distinct enlightenment view of urban development; excitement for opportunity and modernisation, the power of revolutionary scientific change to make a new, better world.  Breathless anticipation. Beauty. The impact of industry and commerce in the townscape was to be celebrated, not overlooked in shame; and nowhere is this clearer than in Watts’s enthusiastic treatment of the new canal basin.

The ‘English Urban Renaissance’ (Borsay) accelerated towards the end of the C17th, with investment; rebuilding vernacular architecture with architectural classicism; the replacement in the urban landscape of timber, plaster and thatch with brick, stone, and tile; private residences, institutions, civic buildings, commercial premises, street widening and public walks and parks.  The (relative) abundance of capital for investment and a period of (relative) low and stable interest rates made investment both possible and attractive.  Urban infrastructure was improved; water supply, drains, street cleaning, paving, lighting.  ‘Night life’ began to develop; rural patterns of activity driven by the length of the day or the phases of the moon were extended and regularised.

The physical marks of a town – its inward looking and defensive nature in a hostile hinterland, manifest by the city walls – were changing.  The physical infrastructure of walls and gates, often damaged in the Civil Wars, were largely demolished, remaining structures becoming urban curiosities, islands in a swell of development; Watts refers to The Magazine in this way.

The concept of suburbia lay in the future.  When transport meant walking, or for the particularly wealthy, a hackney carriage (first noted in Leicester in an urban directory of 1794), physical concentration in the town centre remained the only practical alternative.  The result was the development of residential areas within the town; ‘affluent citizens retired, not to the wilds, but to join select groups of other wealthy citizens’.  Smart town houses sprang up; fashion reinforced by necessity.  The area to the south of St Martin’s Church was redeveloped in Watt’s time; New Street was new to her.

The urbanism that Watts observed in Leicester is unusual in several respects; the town straddles the hinterland between the prosperous south and east (driven for generations by the motor of London) and what was to become the industrial north and west; it showed no sign of the coming of the factories; it was rooted in its rural hinterland, with a large and traditional marketplace; it had a substantial and long established population; it had self-government and political representation at Westminster.  Commercial development started early, generating money for expressions of civic pride and institutional development (for example, the creation of New Walk in 1785).  The town was not limited in its growth by topography (bar the River to the immediate east of the town) or by patterns of land ownership.