The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The South Industrial and Agricultural Region

Category: Land + People

This is the most important region in the country in terms of industry, agriculture and population. Only recently has the growth of population slowed largely as a result of government policies — and even this slowing down has not been reflected in the industrial development of the region. The region includes all the South of England, both the South East and the South West. Its northern border runs from the Bristol Channel to the Wash. The South is a region of various industries and of intensive agriculture. At the centre of everything is the city of London and its influence has become so widespread that the South East has, with some justification, been called the London City Region.

London is the largest city in Britain and its history stretches back to pre-Roman times. The first settlement grew upon a dry gravel terrace overlooking the marshlands alongside the river Thames. Protected by the marshes and by the streams flowing into the river, the site was easily defended. London’s early importance owed much to the fact that it was situated at the lowest crossing point of the Thames. As a result the Romans built a fortified town beside the Thames and called it Londinium. Previously the site was called by the Celts Llyn-dyn (lake fort).

In Roman times London became Britain’s leading port and links were established with the rest of the Roman empire. Because of its importance, London assumed political and administrative functions and, after the Norman conquest it emerged as the capital of England. By the nineteenth century its population reached about a million. In 1965 the area known as Greater London was created, covering 1606 sq. km. The population of this area rose to well over 8 million by the 1950s, and something had to be done to check further expansion and overcrowding. One scheme was to establish New Towns. The object was to set up satellite towns at some distance from London in order to relieve the overcrowding. With regard to London, about half-a-million inhabitants were to be housed in a number of New Towns, located in open country some 30 to 50 km from the capital.

Today about 6.7 million people live in Greater London. The outward movement of people from the inner districts of London is continuing. Its geographical position fitted London to be the chief commercial link of the United Kingdom with the outside world. One great advantage of the port, because of its high tides, was the ability of the vessels to sail up the estuary into the heart of the city. London handles the largest part of the country’s overseas trade. From 5 to 10 per cent of the exports (by tonnage) pass through the port of London, and 15—20 per cent of imports. The millions of people living in Greater London and its surrounding area provide a market for many imported goods, especially foodstuffs.

Ocean-going vessels today are generally much larger than they used to be, and ports and harbours have to be adapted accordingly. Trade was generally transferred farther down river. Tilbury Docks, 40 km below London Bridge, opened in 1886, formerly the main passenger port for London, was due for dock expansion, and new berths were constructed which could handle container ships.

The importance of London as an industrial centre depends largely upon its -situation at the centre of a vast national and international network of communications.. The oldest industrial areas are near the city centre. Here industries such as clothing, furniture making and jewellery have tended to cluster in small distinct areas. The building of the docks near to the city centre encouraged the development of a vast range of industries which processed imported raw materials. Later the extension of the dock system towards the sea led to the development of such typical port industries, as oil refining, steel-making, cement manufacture, paper-making, etc.

As with most capital cities, London’s industries are extremely varied, among them electrical engineering, precision instrument production, radio engineering, aircraft production, manufacture of electronics equipment, the motor car industry. These high technology industries are also sited in the satellite towns within Greater London. For example, just within Greater London, at Dagenham is the great Ford motor works. The chemicals and munitions industries are also developed in this region. Greater London is a major centre of pharmaceutical products. Greater London accounts for 25 per cent of the industrial goods of the country’s output in terms of value.

London has seen greater expansion in recent years, however, in the service industries. Service industries provide employment for twice as many people as manufacturing industries. This is due to the enormous concentration of population in the city and the resultant need for services, such as shops, public transport etc. But, in addition, there are service industries which occur there on a scale found nowhere else in Britain. For example, more than half of the national labour force employed in banking and insurance, the civil service and scientific research, work in London. Thousands of commuters travel to central London each day to work in offices, banks, insurance companies and shops. Add to these the work force catering for the tourist trade. Between 1968 and 1980 the number of foreign visitors to Britain increased from fewer than 5 million to more than 12 million. Thus, London emerged as by far the largest service centre in Britain. And, within London, the City of London, occupying an area of about a square mile and with a permanent population of less than twenty thousand, dominates these activities and forms a central business district of national and international importance.

London is a typical capitalist city with all the social problems created by urbanization. These problems occur in all large British cities, but here they occur on a much larger scale. It is a city of social contrasts. There are districts where the rich live in comfortable surroundings and slum areas where the poor make a semblance of existence in overcrowded houses. As there is a serious shortage of housing and rents are very high the poor are concentrated in these slum districts. The latter are mere illustrations of what is known as urban decay. Here, most of the buildings were constructed in the nineteenth century and are now old and dilapidated. This is particularly true of the residential districts which generally consist of high density terraced houses, lacking such basic amenities as inside toilets and bathrooms, and often designated as slums. Being areas of comparatively low cost housing they have attracted the poor, including immigrant populations. The abnormal conditions in these districts found vent in the riots which took place in the major cities of Britain in 1981 and 1985 including London.

Traffic congestion, which has increased enormously due to the increasing use of motor transport, air and noise pollution, the growing crime rate and other social factors make life unattractive in the capital with the resultant movement of people out of the city.

Some schemes, though piecemeal, have been introduced to tackle the formidable problems of the capital. The ‘lungs’ of London such as Hyde Park play an important role to improve the quality of life of the inhabitants. By arranging for smokeless zones and generally cleaning the atmosphere, the city-planners abolished the notorious ‘pea-soup’ fog, or smog (a combination of smoke and fog), and so to some extent improved London’s climate. Nevertheless, these efforts are of limited character and the situation remains serious.

The other towns and cities, situated to the north of the Thames, and closely connected with the capital in industrial specialization are Oxford, Cambridge and Luton.

Oxford was first mentioned in recorded history in the tenth century. It was a bridging point of the Thames, which made it an important trade centre in medieval times.

Oxford (98,000) also became a leading educational centre, and by the end of the thirteenth century the earliest colleges of its world famous university had been founded. For centuries, however, its population grew slowly, and its more rapid development into an industrial centre waited till the twentieth century. This came with the establishment of a large motor works in the suburb of Cowley in 1912, which together with other engineering works, was largely responsible for the rapid rise in its population, reaching today about a hundred thousand inhabitants.

Cambridge (90,000) is also best known for its ancient university. As with Oxford, the fine architecture of its colleges draws many visitors. Its industries, concerned with electronics — including the manufacture of radio and television sets and scientific instruments — and printing have links with the university, which has an international reputation for scientific research, facilities for high technology research and highly trained labour, that can be recruited from the university.

Luton (164,000) provides an example of a town which became famous for one industry, but prospered and expanded because of another. Luton became the country’s leading hat-making town, straw from the local crops furnishing the raw material. But the demand has shrunk greatly in recent years.

Early this century a motor-car firm built its principal factory at Luton. The motor works is the chief employer. It also attracted other engineering industries such as the manufacture of electrical appliances, roller bearings, etc. Nearby there is also one of the largest brickworks in Western Europe. The basic raw material, clay is extracted locally.

The Thames valley in general, between London and Bristol is an area of concentration of high technology industries, which include electronic engineering, micro-electronics, data processing industry, etc. This area has been called the ‘Sunrise Strip’ due to its specialization on the industries of the future.

Bristol (384,400) dominates southwest England, both as the region’s chief seaport and as its largest city. Bristol is a historic inland port situated deep in the Bristol Channel. If we look into the history of the port, we find that it once held a far more important position than it does today. Today it accounts for about 2 per cent of the country’s trade. One reason for the decline of Bristol as a seaport is its unfavourable location about 13 km above the mouth of the Avon. This meant that in course of time its docks could no longer accommodate the larger vessels that were constantly being built. Outports to Bristol were built at Avonmouth and Portishead: an outport is one that belongs to the main port, but is nearer the open sea and therefore has deeper water and can accommodate larger vessels. Avonmouth has been specially equipped to handle various goods, such as imported frozen meat, butter, bananas. Import exceeds export. Different ores make a considerable percentage of the import as well as timber, grain, fodder. Automobiles, tractors, locomotives, aircraft, cement form the export trade. Imports influence the character of local industries. This is very well seen in the manufacture of tobacco products and chocolate in Bristol and its neighbourhood. However, of greater importance are other industries. Bristol is a major centre of non-ferrous metallurgy, aircraft and automobile industry, military hardware is also produced in this city. The British version of the supersonic ‘Concorde’ was assembled at an aircraft plant in Bristol. The chemical and petrochemical industries are also developing at a rapid pace.

Of the towns situated on the southern fringe of England the largest ones are Plymouth (244,000), Southampton (204,000), Portsmouth (179,000), Brighton (146,000) and Bournemouth (145,000).

Plymouth, situated at the head of Plymouth Sound, has a magnificent natural harbour, and it is well placed to guard the western apporoaches to the English Channel. Nearly 300 years ago work began on a dockyard nearby, and from then onwards the great naval base developed. Today Plymouth is a major naval base of the British navy. The city has no major traditional industry and the naval dockyard remains the leading employer of labour. However, in recent years it has attracted a variety of light engineering industries such as the manufacture of television sets. The food industry has also developed due to its role as an importer of fruit and vegetables from France and the Mediterranean area.

Southampton is primarily a seaport, the most important one on the south coast. For a long time it was the leading passenger port in the British Isles, with special significance for its services to North America and South Africa. It was from here on April 12, 1912′ that the famous Titanic made its first and last voyage for New York. The distinction belongs to the past, however, for most travellers now cross the Atlantic by air. Southampton continues to serve as a port chiefly because of the development of its freight traffic. Many of the vessels which enter Southampton port are oil tankers carrying petroleum to the great oil refinery at Fawley. Petroleum, in fact, is the most valuable single item in the imports. This refinery supplies fuel to power stations, raw material to chemical works, and aviation spirit to London Airport (Heathrow). Its expanding petrochemical industry has contributed much to the prosperity of Southampton.

Brighton and Bournemouth are the leading and most popular seaside resorts of the southern fringe of Britain. Brighton offers every kind of holiday accommodation, a generally brisk sunny climate, a variety of amusements. Brighton is a favourite site for the annual congresses of the leading political parties of Great Britain. The town has grown steadily and has acquired a number of light engineering industries. Brighton is also a dormitory town of London, for it houses many commuters. Bournemouth too attracts a lot of holiday-makers in the summer. As a matter of fact, F. Engels frequented this seaside resort in the later years of his life.

There are other numerous resorts on the southern shore very popular with holiday-makers because of the mild climate, warm seas and wonderful beaches.

The South is a major agricultural region of Great Britain. However, agricultural specialization is different in the South West and South East and East. Owing to the mild, moist climate of the South West, grass grows for a long period in the year, and farming chiefly consists of rearing livestock. On the fertile lowland soils cattle are the principal farm animals, especially dairy breeds which thrive on the lush pastures. Hence, dairying is the main farming activity here. Oats and barley make up the principal cereal. The former are grown for fodder for the cattle. In the very south-west horticulture is developed: the growing of early vegetables and flowers. In the very south of the country barley is the most important grain crop, grown in rotation with other crops, while wheat is produced on the heavier soils. An increasing demand for milk has stimulated dairy farming.

Cereals occupy an important part of the arable farmland in the South East, with barley the main crop and wheat second in importance. However, the region is much better known, especially Kent, for its fruit farms. The requirements of millions of people in Greater London and the seaside towns have also stimulated milk production. In the Thames basin there is an emphasis on market gardening — the production of vegetables and flowers for the growing needs of the Londoners.

Agricultural specialization in the east, which consists of East Anglia and the Fens, is quite different. The Fens is the district situated round the Wash. It is an area of low-lying, marshy land. Now the area has been much changed and put to good use by man’s efforts. It may be described nowadays as reclaimed marshland. The climate of this part of the country is more ‘continental’ in character. This has determined the growing of cereal crops, which are the mainstay of the local economy. East Anglia and the Fens are one of the most important farming areas in the British Isles, with a special emphasis on arable farming. Wheat and barley cover a high proportion of farmland. More than 90 per cent of farmland is occupied with wheat and barley. Sugar beet and potatoes are also important crops. Market gardening and fruit farming are also widespread especially in the south owing to the demands of Greater London.

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