The history of British and Irish towns

Norwich Market Place by John Sell Cotman (Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal)A town is not just an overgrown village. It has its own economy. Goods are made and traded there. So a good site might be on a bend in a navigable river, or beside a river crossing.

The development of towns is generally complex. In those of our historic towns not too mangled by Blitz or boom, you can trace the growth from medieval core through belts of Georgian, Victorian and modern buildings, almost like tree rings. Check your conclusions with a series of town maps. The date and magnificence of churches, public buildings and places of entertainment give other clues to the periods of greatest prosperity.

City status in England and Wales was traditionally given to towns with cathedrals, but from 1888 size of population became the chief factor in such designations.


In the century before the Roman conquest a few tribal centres (oppida) grew up in southern Britain, though only one appears truly urban - Calleva (Silchester), which was laid out c. 25 BC on a grid plan influenced by Roman town planning. Some tribal centres were rebuilt as Roman district capitals after the conquest - Canterbury, Silchester, St Albans and Winchester. Other district capitals, such as Carmarthen, Carlisle, Cirencester, Exeter and Wroxeter, perhaps replaced a tribal meeting-place nearby, but as towns they were Roman creations, as was London, capital of the new province of Britannia. Other towns began life as legionary fortresses with settlements of ex-soldiers, like Caerleon, Chester, Gloucester, Lincoln and York, while Bath and Buxton were Roman spas. Roman towns were laid out on a grid plan, with a forum in the centre forming a market place, surrounded by shops, offices and a basilica. In the 4th century AD many gained defenses. Bibliography.


Artist's impression of Viking DublinUrban life declined drastically after Britannia left the Roman Empire in 410. The early Anglo-Saxon arrivals had no use for Roman towns, living as they did at subsistence level. Even where Romano-British culture continued, the imperial economy which sustained urban life had collapsed. As trade revived in the 7th century, the Anglo-Saxons developed coinage and trading centres, for which they used the term wic (borrowed from Latin vicus). Some were beside former Roman towns well-sited for trade. Lundenwic lay west of the walled Roman Londinium. Hamwic (Southhampton) was downstream of the Roman fort and harbour of Clausentum. Eoforwic (York) was founded outside Roman Eboracum. Fordwich (Kent) and Ipswich (Suffolk) retain the -wic suffix which provides a clue to their trading status.

Urban life blossomed more widely in the 9th century. As the Vikings threatened, Saxon kings were driven to resurrect ruined Roman towns as walled market towns, which would generate income for their own defense (see Alfred's work on Bath and the Charter of Worcester). They also created new boroughs (burhs), such as Bristol, Hereford, Oxford, Shrewsbury and Wilton. Meanwhile the Vikings were founding their own boroughs. They too made use of Roman defenses where they could - at Leicester, Lincoln and York - but also founded towns like Derby.

In Ireland the Vikings built fortified bases to wait out the winter between raiding seasons. A few of these - Cork, Dublin, Limerick, Waterford and Wexford - developed into Ireland's first true towns in the 10th century. Viking Dublin (Dúbh Linn) was a major trading centre. Bibliography.


15C manuscript illumination showing pilgrims outside Canterbury             (British Library)The 12th century was a time of new town foundation throughout western Europe. The population was rising in a period of bountiful harvests. Kings, barons and churchmen hoped to reap the profits of urban property and markets. 100 new towns were created in England and Wales between 1066 and 1190. Some were to prosper, others to fail. Look for place-names like Newton, Newport and Newmarket. As the Normans pressed into Ireland they founded inland towns, such as Trim, as well as building on Viking foundations along the coast. Meanwhile the first burghs were formed in Scotland. Some were existing centres like Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Perth and Stirling, which were granted a degree of self-government by royal charter. Others were new creations, often beside a royal castle, such as Roxburgh.

New towns continued to spring up in the 13th century, for example Salisbury, created to serve the new cathedral begun in 1220. It was the most successful of the English medieval planned towns, rising in wealth above many an older town. Edward I was a notable town planter. He laid out a series of towns between 1277 and 1296 beside his new castles in north Wales, such as Caernarvon and Conway. But as the climate cooled after 1300, famine periodically stalked the land, weakening resistance to infection. People crowded together in towns became more vulnerable to epidemics. The Black Death nearly halved Britain's population in the mid-14th century. Few new British towns were founded after that, until populations began to rise once more in modern times.

By 1300 about thirty English provincial towns had over 5,000 inhabitants, but none in Wales. In Ireland and Scotland only Dublin and Edinburgh qualified. Dublin was the centre of English government in Ireland, while Edinburgh was emerging as the Scottish capital. But London dominated Britain's trade. With a population of over 60,000 it was by far the greatest city in these islands, and the first to recognise a need for building regulation. Bibliography.

Tudor and Stuart plantations and ports

The late 16th and 17th-century policy of encouraging English and Scottish settlement in Ireland created a swathe of new towns, since land grants to the immigrants required town building. Most towns in Ulster date from this period, including Belfast and Londonderry, the last walled city built in western Europe (see the Irish Historic Towns Atlas vols. 12 and 15 and BBC: London Companies). Some of the new towns were more successful than others.

In Britain several completely new ports were created in a wave of 17th-century enterprise. Falmouth in Cornwall was established by the swashbuckling Sir John Killigrew of Arwenack House, long occupied by his family and now within the town. Falmouth gained its charter in 1661. Whitehaven, Cumbria, also owes its existence to a local landowner, but this time a newcomer. Sir Christopher Lowther purchased the estate of the former Priory of St Bees in 1630 and in 1634 built a stone pier at the fishing hamlet of Whitehaven. The estate had coal which could be exported to Ireland. Sir John Lowther laid out a grid of streets in the 1680s. Soon it was to rival Liverpool and Newcastle as a port. Bibliography: see General works on towns.


Engraving of Dublin c.1784. Click to enlarge in pop-up window.An early 18th-century growth spurt transformed Dublin into the next largest British city after London. That growth was partly fuelled by cloth-making, even before the industrial revolution changed the focus from craft to mass-manufacture. As industry gathered pace, good sources of raw materials and power could turn a small town into a city. Manchester and Birmingham were not even among the 40 largest provincial English towns in 1662, but by 1801 they were first and third on the list. (See provincial town ranking.)

View of early Victorian Edinburgh by David Roberts (Guildhall Art             Gallery, London)At the same time Britain was seeking wider markets or securing them by conquest. The west-coast ports of Bristol and Liverpool expanded dramatically with cross-Atlantic trade, while London remained the country's greatest trading magnet. The population of the capital doubled during the 18th century to reach one million; by the end of the Georgian era it was the largest city in the world and held that title for a century. From a novelty at the start of the 18th century, house numbering became the norm in new districts of expanding Georgian London. This concept gradually spread to other cities, which facilitated the creation of local directories. Guidebooks too start in the 18th century for London and major British resorts.

A confident Enlightenment Edinburgh trumpeted its status as the Capital of North Britain with an entire New Town laid out across Nor Loch from the old city to plans approved in 1767. By 1820 much of it was complete. The wide streets on a grid plan were in stark contrast to the steep, narrow ways of the old town clustered below the castle.

Bibliography. And see Georgian style.

Resorts of health and pleasure

With rising wealth came a new type of town - the resort. The established spa of Bath burst out beyond its medieval walls in a flowering of late Georgian squares and crescents. Fishing hamlets blossomed into Regency seaside resorts such as Brighton, which grew as the railways brought travel within the means of the masses. In the mid-19th century they catered mainly to the middle classes, but by the 1890s the wages of factory workers were high enough for a seaside holiday. By 1900 Blackpool was a city of pleasure. The Edwardian period saw more resort development, such as the creation of Frinton-on-Sea from 1903. Bibliography.

Suburban sprawl

The Victorian population explosion added to urban sprawl, putting a Victorian fringe around market towns or joining villages to city in one huge conurbation. That trend gathered pace in the twentieth century, with council estates adding to private developments creeping across the countryside. Modern transport made possible the dormitory surburb; people no longer had to live within walking distance of the workplace. Bibliography.

Garden cities

Ebenezer Howard developed the concept of the garden city - a happy meld of town and country. His ideal was to make it a pleasant environment which would be fairly run, with ground rents used to benefit all the townspeople. It was put into practice at Letchworth (begun 1903) and Welwyn (begun 1919). Garden suburbs sprang up along similar lines. Two of the most successful were Hampstead Garden Suburb outside London (begun 1907) and Wythenshaw outside Manchester (begun 1927). Bibliography

Post-war new towns and redevelopment

Influenced by the garden cities, the New Towns Act of 1946 designated 14 sites for the creation of new towns, eight of which formed a ring around London. Another two were in Scotland (East Kilbride and Glenrothes), one in Wales (Cwmbran) and the rest in the North-East (Peterlee and Newton Aycliffe) and East Midlands (Corby).  Cumbernaud followed in 1956 and a further 11 new towns in the 1960s, such as Telford, Redditch and Milton Keynes. Meanwhile the Blitz had devastated a number of city centres, giving scope for bold new town plans to transform the urban landscape. These swept away yet more of the historic fabric and sacrificed local character in favour of uniform modernism. Bibliography

More recently Charles, Prince of Wales, has set an example of urban planning with his development of Poundbury as an extension to Dorchester on 400 acres of Duchy of Cornwall land, formerly Poundbury Farm. The aim was to design on a human scale, respecting the varied traditions of Dorset building. Architect and urban planner Leon Krier created the masterplan and building began in 1993. At the beginning of 2013 approximately 2,500 people were living in Poundbury. It is due for completion in 2025.



Roman towns


Medieval towns

Georgian towns and cities

Resort towns


Garden cities


Primary sources

Much useful material can be gleaned from the guide books and street directories which began to appear in the 18th century. By the late 19th century any significant town should appear in county directories, while major cities had their own directories.

Census returns from each decade after 1801 are prime sources for population data, now online at Vision of Britain. For the previous centuries some taxation records give an indication of the number of people living in a town and their occupations. For England see town ranking and The Poll Taxes of 1377, 1379 and 1381 ed. C.C. Fenwick, Records of Social and Economic History New Series vols. 27 and 29 (1998, 2001). Online transcripts of medieval tax records are listed by Medieval English Genealogy.

Local authority records will generally be found in the relevant local record office. Many are now catalogued online: see archives. Some early borough records have been published by local record societies. British History Online has digitised some urban record volumes for Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and York. For other contemporary surveys and descriptions see primary sources in print.

And see maps, images and building regulations.

Specific towns and cities

Online interactive maps

Mapping Medieval Chester: an interactive online digital map of Chester c.1500, interlinked with medieval descriptions of the city c.1200-1500. 

The Map of Early Modern London using the Agas map of London as its platform, this project by the University of Victoria, Canada, links articles, scholarly work, student work, editions, and literary texts to the streets and sites of London 1560-1640.

Lobel, M.D. (gen. ed.), British Historic Towns Atlas

  1. Banbury, Caernarvon, Glasgow, Gloucester, Hereford, Nottingham, Reading, Salisbury (1969). Available to download free from the link above.
  2. Bristol, Cambridge, Coventry, Norwich (1975). Available to download free from the link above.
  3. The City of London from Prehistoric Times to c.1570 (1989; rev. edn. 1991). Available to download free from the link above.
  4. Windsor and Eton (2015).
  5. York (2016).

Irish Historic Towns Atlas

Historic map of Dundalk
  1. Kildare (1986).
  2. Carrickfergus (1986).
  3. Bandon (1988).
  4. Kells (1990).
  5. Mullingar (1992).
  6. Athlone (1994).
  7. Maynooth (1995).
  8. Downpatrick (1997).
  9. Bray (1998).
  10. Kilkenny (2000).
  11. Dublin, Part 1: to 1610 (2002).
  12. Belfast, Part 1: to 1840 (2003).
  13. Fethard (2003).
  14. Trim (2004).
  15. Derry~Londonderry (2005).
  16. Dundalk (2006).
  17. Belfast, Part 2: 1840 to 1900 (2007).
  18. Armagh (2007).
  19. Dublin, Part 2: 1610-1756 (2008).
  20. Tuam (2009).
  21. Limerick (2010).
  22. Longford (2010).
  23. Carlingford (2011).
  24. Sligo (2012)
  25. Ennis (2012).
  26. Dublin, Part 3: 1756 to 1847 (2014). Ancillary publication: Dublin 1847: city of the Ordnance Survey (2015).
  27. Youghal (2015).
  28. Galway (2016).

Town and city surveys by national heritage bodies

Property surveys

A few historic towns have been analysed in detail, property by property, drawing on deeds, original surveys and other sources:


For some historic towns, there are gazetteers giving the history of street-names and some individual buildings. Those with full references are to be preferred, such as:

Regional studies of urban development: SW England

Online map and image databases

See Finding Aids for Historic Images of Buildings in the UK and Ireland.