Pathways to modernization and the separation of town and countryside: urban and agricultural rents in London and the Sou

Lead Research Organisation: University of Kent
Department Name: Sch of History


The British industrial revolution is increasingly understood as part of a larger process of modernisation centred on the North Sea zone, gathering momentum from the late sixteenth century. Concurrently, econometric modelling has assigned a greater role to urban and commercial growth than traditional narratives focused on changes in the rural sector of North-Western Europe.

It is clear that urban growth depended on positive feedback between primate cities and their hinterlands, and that London's rapid and sustained expansion was untypical compared to that of other European cities. But a clearer understanding of the dynamics involved requires more precise information about the strength of the urban variable, expressed in terms outside the circular logic of 'reciprocity'.

This project assembles new data showing the course of London rents together with agricultural and urban rents in the metropolitan hinterland, for the period 1580-1914. Associated information about tenancy arrangements, concentration of tenancies and estate management will shed new light on the extent to which urban growth in London and the South-East developed a momentum of its own. A comprehensive rent index for urban and rural property will be constructed, and time series analysis will demonstrate the strength of the urban variable in different sub-periods.


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Description 1. During the course of the research, we developed a new methodology for separating urban and agricultural rents: estate reconstitution, which involves the reclassification of property as patterns of land use changed and relies on the comparison of rents and leases with estate maps, surveys and building plans.

2. The most significant improvement in rental income occurred on the 'rural-urban fringe'. In broad terms, the changes involved a shift from agricultural uses to (i) commercial uses, such as the building of wharves and warehouses, industrial uses such as paper mills, residential development, and in London, the familiar shift from residential to workshop, warehousing and retail uses, to office development. The results pinpoint these changes chronologically and enable us to measure both the extent of change in the aggregate and for specific types of property. Changes in the pattern of farming made much less impact on the course of agricultural rents.

3. We were thus able, perhaps for the first time, to identify and analyse the emergence of a rural-urban fringe as a dynamic factor in the economy, and to throw light on the flexibility and overall stability of the property market in providing a secure institutional basis for growth. Although industrial development contributed to the enhancement of rents within ourl sample, commercial, residential, retail and office development form a much more significant part of the story. This lends weight to the Cain and Hopkins thesis on the dynamic role of 'gentlemanly capitalism' in the industrial revolution; and at another level is consistent with the findings of Wrigley and Shaw-Taylor about changes in occupational patterns in traditional heartlands of the industrial revolution (North-West Lancashire) compared with Southern England.

4. We therefore modified one of our principal aims which was to compare rent movements for two main types of property, agricultural and urban, which inter alia would shed light on the extent to which improvements in agricultural productivity formed a precondition for urban growth, or vice-versa. The introduction of a third element, the rural-urban fringe, has a distinctive regional significance for London and the South-East. Indeed the most useful context for interpreting our results is the emergence of a 'metropolitan region' in late medieval and early modern England: the growth of London and its relations with its hinterland.

5. The dynamism of the 'urban variable' is reflected in long-run rental trends:
For the first half of the 17th century, Kent and Essex farm rents are rising more rapidly than the city of London, well ahead of inflation, but London catches up by the 1660s. From 1715 to 1730, London rents rise even more steeply, but flatten out for the rest of the century. From 1809, they resume a steep rise until mid-century when they stabilise, before extensive rebuilding for offices affects over half the Leadenhall Street site. Rents double in 1881, following the granting of 80-year building leases. The site was sold in 1919. The Kent and Essex farm rents followed a similar pattern for the first half of the 19th century, but flattened out thereafter. During the 18th century, the story was one of periods of moderate growth interrupted by agricultural depression and crisis. The Rochester and Medway urban rent series catches up with London by the 1790s.

The underlying reasons for the higher efficiency gains accruing to landlords from urban property arise from certain structural characteristics. In particular,
a. the pattern of rent arrears was much more stable and manageable in London than on Essex and Kent farms;
b. tenancies became highly concentrated in London from 1660-1830, and therefore easier to manage;
c. the value of urban estate was readily enhanced by changes in use and increased building density, initiated by main tenants (head lessees)

6. The change in methodology from an index based on incoming revenue from a given sample to one based on rents per acre has major advantages. It facilitates comparison with rent levels elsewhere in Britain and Europe, including short runs of data, where spatial dimensions are known.
Exploitation Route Our sample of sites in Kent and Essex needs to be balanced and enlarged by the addition of sites to the west and north of London; and our results for London were based on one street characterised by extremely high rent rises in the long run, (Leadenhall Street). Clearly a larger and diverse range of London sites should be added to provide a balanced picture
Sectors Environment
Description Our findings have been made available on a web-based research platform ( as well as an online research paper and two published essays (contributions to books). A further phase of work is needed to enlarge the sample into a fully representative one, together with improvements to the interactive capabilities of the website, before the findings can be regarded as having unquestionable validity. Unfortunately, an application to ESRC for this further phase of development was not approved (2012)
First Year Of Impact 2011
Impact Types Economic