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The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure

Department of Geography and Faculty of History


Transport, urbanization and economic development in England and Wales c.1670-1911

Transport, urbanization and economic development in England and Wales c.1670-1911


Between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries England underwent both massive urbanisation and a radical transformation of the urban hierarchy not paralleled in any other European country. Over the same period the country's transport infrastructure was transformed, by river improvements, by turnpike road construction, by the creation of a canal network, the railways and the advent of steam-powered iron and steel hulled ships. These two developments were closely related to a third, the diffusion of new productive technologies.

In this project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, the National Science Foundation and the Isaac Newton Trust, we are taking advantage of the new technological possibilities created by Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to combine the massive body of datasets created by the Occupational Structure of Britain c.1379-1911 project at the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure with a range of new datasets to explore the relationships between improvements in transport infrastructure (navigable rivers, canals, turnpike roads etc), urbanisation, market access, technological change and long-run economic development. Some of our GIS datasets are snapshots of the transport network for single years. For example, Max Satchell, one of the project leaders, has created a map of the road network in 1680 based on John Ogilby's Britannia. Other GIS datasets are dynamic: i.e. they reflect the system as it was in a given calendar year within the dataset date range. The following maps show images of the main road network in 1680 and 1830. The following videos show the evolution of turnpike roads from 1663 to 1896 and of railways from 1811 to 1981.

Main road network in 1680 and 1830

Evolution of turnpike roads from 1663 to 1896

Evolution of railways from 1811 to 2001

Evolution of navigable waterways from 1600 to 1911

Since the 1980s the national income accounting approach has figured prominently in studies of the Industrial Revolution. The significance of the differences in regional growth rates and in the linked changes in occupational structure have received insufficient attention. Recognition of the immense importance of transport change in this context has also suffered. The current project is intended to help to redress the balance. We cannot afford to neglect the differences between places and the ways in which they were connected, if we wish to have a fuller understanding the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

Hypotheses and questions

Our starting point is to create a radically improved quantitative picture of the evolution of this country's population and economic geography linked, through GIS, to dynamic maps of the evolving transport network. The key questions, for the period 1670-1911 are:

  1. How did population geography change and urbanisation develop?
  2. How did the various transport networks evolve?
  3. What were the relationships between changes in population geography, economic geography and urbanisation on the one hand and transport developments on the other?
  4. What was the relationship between transport developments and the adoption of new technologies?
  5. Subject to securing further funding we are hoping to examine much more fully the relationship between transport changes, the adoption of coal as the primary source of energy and how that relates to urbanization, structural change and economic development.