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Leicester Special Collections

The Victorian City

Urbanization provides one of the traditional ‘grand narratives’ of nineteenth-century British history. It is often repeated that the 1851 census recorded that, for the first time, half of the population of Britain were living in towns. At the beginning of the Victorian period, London was home to over 1.8m inhabitants, rising to 6.5m by the time Victoria died in 1901. The growth of London was only part of the story, however, alongside the rapid expansion of regional centres such as Birmingham, Manchester, and Glasgow. In 1871 Liverpool, Birmingham, and Manchester were described in British Parliamentary Papers as ‘almost metropolitan in wealth and population’. Victorian cities were often closely linked to a specific local industry, such as the metal trades of Birmingham or the cutlery trades of Sheffield. However, they were also centres of distribution, exchange, and administration, and of culture and pleasure as well as industry. They were frequently associated with poverty, poor sanitary conditions, and immorality.

A key figure in the founding of the Victorian Studies Centre was H. J. (Jim) Dyos. In 1962 Dyos had organised the first meeting of what would become the Urban History Group in Sheffield. The following year he launched the Urban History Newsletter, which by 1974 had become the Urban History Yearbook. With fellow Centre member Bill Brock, Dyos was a founding member of the Leicester Group of The Victorian Society in 1977, which continues to campaign to preserve Victorian buildings in the city today. Dyos contributed a course on ‘The Victorian City’ to the MA Victorian Studies programme until his death in 1978. Many of his books can now be found in the local history section on the 3rd floor or in Special Collections. The link between Victorian Studies and Urban History continues today, particularly through James Moore’s work on urban history and political culture of Britain and the empire.