BRITAIN’S EVOLVING TRANSPORT NETWORK, 1680-1830

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Date:
28 Mar 2017

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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.

A major new research project by Oliver Dunn and colleagues is exploring this transport change and its immense importance in the process of industrialisation. Findings to be presented at the Economic History Society’s 2017 annual conference reveal how the differences between places and the ways in which they were connected had long-term effects on the diffusion of new productive technologies and contrasting regional outcomes in terms of economic growth and occupational structure.

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The authors explain their study in more detail:

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 a research 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.

This will link 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. Dr Leigh Shaw-Taylor (Cambridge) is principal investigator and Dr Dan Bogart (University California, Irvine) in co-investigator.

Some of our GIS datasets are snapshots of the transport network for single years. For example, Dr 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 – that is, they reflect the system as it was in a given calendar year within the dataset date range.

Working at the University of Cambridge, Dr Edward Alvarez and I are creating a coastal shipping network in GIS covering 1680, 1830 and 1911 – the latter the period of the great steam liners. Dr Bogart and Dr Xuesheng You have created a GIS railways network and are appending new data relating to the transport of coal by rail. These sub-projects have drawn on both cutting edge computing and old-fashioned historical research drawing on thousands of historical documents.

The GIS maps below show images of the main road network in 1680 and 1830. A video shows the evolution of railways from 1811 to 1981, and the consequent devolution of railways from 1963 when government cuts ushered in our own over-crowded rail system. 

The significance of the differences in regional growth rates in British history, and in the linked changes in occupational structure have received insufficient attention from researchers interested in the British industrial revolution – the world’s first. 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 of industrialisation in Britain. 

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: 

  • How did population geography change and urbanisation develop?
  • How did the various transport networks evolve?
  • What were the relationships between changes in population geography, economic geography and urbanisation on the one hand and transport developments on the other?
  • What was the relationship between transport developments and the adoption of new technologies?

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 urbanisation, structural change and economic development. 

ENDS 

Coastal shipping and transport change in England and Wales, 1680-1830
Oliver Dunn (University of Cambridge)
od226@cam.ac.uk

 

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