Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Knowing One's Place: Perceptions of Community in the Industrial Suburbs of Leeds, 1790-1890

Academic journal article Journal of Social History

Knowing One's Place: Perceptions of Community in the Industrial Suburbs of Leeds, 1790-1890

Article excerpt

"Community" is a widely used but elusive concept. Its continued popularity is well explained by Williams's famous observation that, however the term is used, it carries wholly positive connotations. As Gemeinschaft it was once thought to have been destroyed by the anonymity and alienation of urban society, but since 1945 sociologists have rediscovered community life in the city.(1) Modern historians, who come equipped with no standard degree of skepticism, have reacted in a variety of ways to the concept. Some have dismissed it as nebulous, unmeasurable and of little use as an analytical tool.(2) Others have used the term freely, while failing to define or examine it closely, often leaving the reader to assume its meaning.(3) A growing number of historians, on the other hand, have placed "community" at the center of their inquiries, but have produced widely differing accounts of its role and importance in social change. In particular, recent studies of early industrial England have begun to pay more attention to the relationship between community and class formation, still stimulated to a considerable extent by Edward Thompson's work.(4)

This paper examines two dominant and contrasting notions of community in the southern out-townships of Leeds--Armley, Beeston, Bramley, Holbeck, Hunslet and Wortley--as these developed from clothing villages in the eighteenth century to industrial suburbs in the nineteenth. The first, examined in part II below, was held by the domestic woollen clothiers--masters and journeymen--who comprised the bulk of the adult male workforce in these townships until the early nineteenth century. As the production system and culture of the domestic clothier disintegrated under the weight of industrial capitalism, new social groups emerged in the out-townships with new views of community. The best articulated of these views belonged to the lower middle class, a heterogeneous body of tradesmen and small employers who came to dominate the public life of the industrial suburbs in the mid-Victorian decades. Their perception of community will be examined in part III below. The paper concludes that community, as perceived and defined at different times by these dominant groups in Leeds suburbs, entailed the articulation of two interrelated identities, firstly, a sense of place, and secondly, a sense of the past. During the eighteenth century, the woollen clothier's perception of community was rooted in his production relations, and in the social, economic and political institutions of his locality. After the breakup of the domestic system of cloth production, however, and the dislocation caused by demographic and economic change, the identities of place and past drew the attention of a Victorian lower middle class attempting to redefine "community" in its own image of social harmony. Under these circumstances, class relations in the out-townships came to influence the way community was perceived and articulated in a way they had not during the eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. This paper, therefore, attempts to distinguish between community as structure and community as construction, and places its focus on the tension between the two. This is not to deny the socioeconomic reality of the former. Indeed it will be argued that perceptions of community are rooted to varying degrees in this reality, although never entirely subsumed by it.

I

Frankenberg's "working definition" of community as an "area of social living marked by some degree of social coherence," is adopted here as a starting point for this study of suburban Leeds.(5) Variants of this have been widely used by historians, however the definition has its difficulties.(6) "Social living" cannot everywhere be circumscribed to a particular locality. This is not a major problem in the industrial out-townships of Leeds, where long established township boundaries, topography and non-contiguous building development make it quite clear where, for instance, Armley ends and Wortley begins. …

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