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New Left Review I/166, November-December 1987

Eric Hobsbawm

Labour in the Great City

The giant city was a new phenomenon in Western capitalism, and a type of human settlement virtually unprecedented in the non-oriental world before the eighteenth century: that is to say, the city whose population was measured in several hundreds of thousands, and very soon in millions. [*] This article was first given as a lecture in memory of the American labour historian Herbert Gutman, author of Work, Culture and Society in Industrializing America and The Black Family from Slavery to Freedom, who died unexpectedly in 1985. It has been very slightly modified. Until the nineteenth century cities of more than one hundred thousand were regarded as extremely large in Europe, and probably no city except an international port could have been larger than 500–600,000, because its food-supplying hinterland could not have been adequate. In fact, we know that there was no city of a million in the West from the end of the Roman empire to the eighteenth century, when London reached this figure, and probably no cities of even half that size except Paris and Naples. But on the eve of World War One Europe contained seven cities ranging from one to eight million inhabitants, plus another twenty-two between half a million and a million. What is more, such cities were expected to grow and expand without a foreseeable limit, and this also was quite new. This article considers the problem of labour movements in such giant urban areas. When social historians of labour have focused on particular locations, it has naturally been on the characteristic settlements of the industrial working classes, the centres of factory and forge, mill and mine. But these, in the nineteenth century, were smallish by our standards, though they were, of course, growing rapidly in size. In 1849 the union of Operative Stonemasons recognized only four towns in Britain where tramping journeymen were allowed to stay for more than one day to look for work: London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester. In 1887 there were forty-eight such towns. Nevertheless, the average working-class settlement was not large. Paterson, New Jersey had 33,000 inhabitants in 1870, at a time when the major cotton-mill towns of Britain, the world’s workshop at the peak of its glory, contained between 30,000 and 80,000. Mining settlements were, notoriously, more like villages than towns. Even the centres of heavy industry were, in themselves, not enormous. Clydebank, which contained major shipyards, chemical works, distilleries and the Singer Sewing Machine factory, had 22,000 inhabitants in 1901; Barrow-in-Furness, a purpose-built engineering and shipbuilding boom town, had 58,000. In short, we are talking about communities in the literal sense of the word: of Gemeinschaft rather than Gesellschaft, of places in which people could walk to and from work, and sometimes go home in the dinner-hour, of places where work, home, leisure, industrial relations, local government and home-town consciousness were inextricably mixed together.

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Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Labour in the Great City’, NLR I/166: £3

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