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.footnote 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.

It was in exactly this sort of location that labour movements established their strongholds. In 1906, the year of Labour’s first major parliamentary breakthrough, out of the thirty mps elected by the British Labour Representation Committee five came from cities over half a million, four from cities between 200,000 and 500,000, and the rest from smaller places, including districts whose main township was of the order of 20–25,000 or even 10–15,000. Or, to take another index of proletarian consciousness, the places whose teams were in the First Division of the British League in the early 1890s—a time when cup-finals were already attended by 65,000 (Manchester 1893). Out of the sixteen leading teams of England, eleven came from towns ranging from 60,000 to 200,000, another two from cities of the order of 200–300,000 (Nottingham, Sheffield), and only three from parts of giant cities (Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham): all three, characteristically, were named not after the city but after the neighbourhood or borough within it (Aston, Everton, Newton Heath). At that time London was not yet a major force in football.

The phenomenon was by no means only British. The municipalities first captured by the Parti Ouvrier in France in the 1880s and 1890s were not large by European, even by French standards. They were places like Commentry, Montluçon, Roanne, Roubaix, Calais, Narbonne. The first strongholds of the German spd in the 1870s were in rural industrial zones of central Germany which never generated more than one city which we would today call even medium-sized (Chemnitz, now KarlMarx-Stadt). We may suppose that this was for the reasons suggested by that admirable historian of American labour, the late Herbert Gutman. ‘The size of the industrial city,’ he wrote, ‘and the particular composition of its population made the industrialist’s innovations more visible and his power more vulnerable there than in the larger and more complex metropolis.’

But what was the situation of labour in the larger metropolis? For there, precisely, the conditions favouring its organization were notoriously absent. Its population was far too large to make virtually unavoidable (to quote Gutman again) that ‘close contact with the large factory, the corporation, and the propertyless wage-earners’, and made it difficult or impossible to ‘judge the industrial city’s social dislocations by personal experience.’ More than this, it even made the basic task of organizing and mobilizing the working class difficult. For the giant city had enormous and unprecedented physical dimensions, and it kept on expanding. Paris incorporated a suburban belt in the 1860s, as did Berlin. Vienna more than trebled its area in 1892 and increased it yet again by twenty per cent in 1902. New York trebled it in the 1890s. We should not read too much into scores or even hundreds of square miles of what might often be just open space, although for all nineteenthcentury cities we must allow far more than earlier for spaces not occupied by housing: for wider streets and squares, vast belts reserved for transport, open spaces, parks, as well as, of course, public, commercial and industrial building. Haussmann’s Paris contained 300 inhabitants per hectare, compared with 500 to 700 in eighteenth-century Paris, let alone the 900 in pre-industrial Genoa. Twentieth-century New York and London were even more thinly spread (apart from isolated patches). Hence, as the century advanced, the city area for a given size of population would have increased in any case.

However, even if we do not take the official area of cities as our measurement, the actual built-up area of London in the early twentieth century stretched twenty miles from east to west, and the same distance from north to south; Chicago stretched 26 miles along the lake-front. And until the construction of rapid urban transport systems, which began in London and New York in the third quarter of the century but elsewhere not until near its end—e.g. the Paris Metro in 1898—for practical purposes working people walked. As many union working rules tell us, they were expected to walk at the rate of 3 miles per hour and, if they had a job more than 4 miles from the starting-point, they expected to be paid a lodging allowance for an overnight stay. Four miles, in fact, seems to have been the limit for what might be called ‘spontaneous’ urban cohesion. The London Tailors in 1834 defined their ‘London District’ by means of a radius of four miles from Charing Cross, and the bricklayers of Newcastle and Gateshead in 1893 did so by means of a radius of 41–2 miles from the Central Station.