For generations London had been not only by far the largest city in England but one of very few cities at all; only Bristol, Norwich and York had anything approaching a recognisable urban layout and culture. But the beginnings of industry led to a proliferation of rapidly growing urban centres, no longer dominated by London. By 1801, the year of the first Census, there was a new-found confidence in provincial towns, of which Leicester was one; arguably, too, one of the ‘new frontier’ towns of the rapidly industrialising North and Midlands. The coming of the Canals – not just to Leicester but to Sheffield and Birmingham and Leeds and the Potteries made the lack of a navigable river irrelevant. A new national market, with increased specialisation of new industrial staples in the new frontier towns, driven by cheap transport and new lines of communication, transformed the economy. In 1750, the number of town dwellers outside London equalled those in the capital; by 1801, they were twice those of London.
Market towns became professionalised. The C17th agricultural revolution led to a commodities boom. In addition to the traditional market activities, a correspondent in 1718 noted with surprise that some farmers and merchants did not seem to bring goods to market, but ‘only parcels of corn in a bag or handkerchief, which are called ‘samples’; and these are exposed, perhaps, in private houses, to a few jobbers or engrossers.’ Pubs and coffee shops became places of business; offices and business premises appeared alongside houses overlooking the market; where merchanting was a success, new buildings – the Corn Exchange – were constructed, as in Leicester Marketplace, as symbols of the new order.
The degree of specialisation was striking; in the middle of the C18th, fully half of men and boys in Leicester were engaged in hosiery work, from master to journeyman to apprentice. Specialisation was a function of competitive advantage and resources. Northampton, thirty miles south of Leicester was a county of dairy and forest; the perfect combination of leather hides and oak bark for tanning, the boot and shoe industry expanded rapidly, as part of an early military-industrial complex; army boots were in high demand as first the American War of Independence, then the interminable Napoleonic wars dragged on in the last quarter of the C18th. Specialisation could be copied, of course; Leicester adopted the boot and shoe industry as a supplement to hosiery in the early C19th
A town cannot feed itself from its own internal market-garden resources; it encourages specialisation and adaptation in its immediate hinterland, creating a market and, for successful agents in the market, a surplus;
Towns act as nodes on a network of production, exchange, and consumption, driving improvements in transport and communications. A day’s ride from Leicester market is Welford, on the county boundary; a day’s ride from Welford is Northampton market. And Welford has a market place, good coaching inns, and excellent roads.
Places of industry drove services; medicine, banking, law, insurance; education, entertainment; ideas, skills, and technological marketplaces. Increased profits created capital for investment in public goods; wages and dividends drove consumption, to the disgust of the moralists; ultimately, consumerism.