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Eighteenth-century England was not merely ‘polite and commercial’; it was also notoriously competitive. This article argues that competition and contrast were not confined to weighing up the comparative status and achievements of individuals but were also fundamental to the development of civic consciousness and identity. Contemporaries developed a wide, comparative frame of reference which encouraged a heightened sense of competition with rival urban centres. However, this process also encouraged elements within urban society to define themselves in opposition to rival ‘communities’ within their own walls.
it is now widely recognised that towns played a central role in the development of a new, more modern British economy and society in the years between 1700 and 1840. However, it is often assumed that the expansive element in urban society, the new social attitudes and cultural values that were helping to change patterns of consumer demand, to mobilise capital resources and to generate novel industrial processes and products, were confined to the great metropolis of London and the specialist ports, resorts and industrial towns whose growth attracted so much attention from contemporary observers. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to ignore the role played in this process by the established regional centres and historic county towns, many of which retained their importance well into the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Their experiences during this period of substantial and sometimes dramatic change in the urban system encompass every possible permutation from explosive population growth to sullen stagnation and raise pertinent questions about the very nature of ‘success’ in the context of urban development. Rather than being passive spectators of a drama taking place elsewhere, regional and county centres were fully involved in the action.
STATUS, FUCTIONS AND PATTERNS OF DEVELOPMENT
A substantial number of the ‘Great and Good towns’ of early modern England fell into the category of county centres, towns whose social and economic influence over a broad hinterland beyond their immediate market area was recognised by their contemporary classification as ‘the capital of all the county’ or simply ‘county town’.