This chapter aims to challenge traditional assumptions about the role of towns in the British migration system from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, using evidence from north-west England.
The conventional picture of nineteenth-century migration, painted by contemporaries (for instance Danson and Welton, 1859; Ravenstein, 1885, 1889; Redford, 1926) and frequently restated by a large number of later writers (for example Lawton, 1959; 1973; Friedlander and Roshier, 1966; Anderson, 1974; Pooley, 1983; Tucker, 1983; Mills, 1984; Withers, 1985; Baines, 1986; Nicholas and Shergold, 1987; Swift and Gilley, 1989; Withers and Western, 1991; Pooley and Whyte, 1991), is of a direct short-distance shift of population from the countryside to towns, or from small towns to larger towns up the urban hierarchy. Thus in 1859 Danson and Welton stated of migration to the industrial town of Preston in Lancashire:
A stream of population constantly passes into Preston from the north. This we may reasonably suppose to consist, to a large extent, of persons born in the districts of Fylde, Garstang and Clitheroe, to whom such movement is not only obviously profitable, but also comparatively easy. (Danson and Welton, 1859, pp. 48–49).
The districts named as sending migrants to Preston were all predominantly rural.
More generally, Charles Dickens caught the flavour of contemporary opinion when he stated in Dombey and Son:
Day after day, such travellers crept past, but always … in one direction – always towards the town. Swallowed up in one phase or other of its immensity, towards which they seemed impelled by a desperate fascination, they never returned. (Dickens, 1982, pp. 404–05)
Although, cumulatively, large numbers of people were transferred from the countryside to towns in the nineteenth century, it is argued in this chapter that the process was less simple than such contemporary comment would suggest. Rather than a series of one-way moves up the urban hierarchy, it is suggested that many moves were complex and circulatory. Moves between villages and from one small town to another were common, and return migration from large towns to small towns and rural areas was quite frequent. Furthermore, reasons for migration were also complex, and it is suggested that for many migrants the attractions of an urban labour market were not the only or most important motives for moving. Figure 28 suggests some of the complex connection between migration, economy and society.