City Status in the British Isles, 1540–2002

Beckett, John
Date published: 
July 2005

What is it that defines a British city? In the wake of the Norman Conquest city status was linked to cathedrals, a connection that was formalised in the sixteenth century and continued until the nineteenth century. Indeed, it is still widely believed that a city is simply a town with a cathedral. Yet, once the industrial revolution had so radically redrawn the demographic map of Britain, the folly of this system became apparent. To deny that major conurbations such as Birmingham, Sheffield and Leeds were cities simply because they did not possess cathedrals, while recognising the city status of much smaller places was clearly an unsustainable position.

Based on a wide variety of government and civic records, this book traces the evolution of the changing nature of city status, particularly through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Beginning with an explanation of how city status first became connected to cathedrals in the medieval period, the book explores how during the nineteenth century, links evolved between Anglican diocesan sub-divisions and city creation. It then shows how in a few years, between 1888 and 1907, the traditional interpretation of a city was overturned as the most major British industrial and commercial towns received city status and lord mayoralties.

The second half of the book concentrates on city status during the twentieth century, and particularly the politicisation of the process and the linking of grants to royal occasions. To conclude the study, the city status competitions of 2000 and 2002 are examined in relation to the previous two hundred years of city history.