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Regional Identity in the East Midlands

Leicester research finds little evidence of 'regionalism' even in eighteenth century

Uncertainty over the regional identity of the East Midlands is nothing new. The region was just as difficult to define in the past as it is today. In fact, a researcher at the University of Leicester’s School of Historical Studies has found little evidence that an East Midlands region even existed in the eighteenth century.

Claire Townsend’s three-year research project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, has investigated the links between the counties of Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire in the period 1700-1830, to see whether these three counties formed an integrated and distinctive East Midlands region.

Through studying patterns of migration, family and friendship ties, and industrial linkages, Claire Townsend has found that most people’s working and social lives were played out within a restricted area. Few people had contacts beyond their neighbouring parishes, and an average of 80% of connections were between people who lived in the same county.

The idea of the East Midlands as an inter-connected region seems to have been an alien concept for most people at the time.

Her research shows that the East Midlands could only be described as a region in industrial terms. The area was famous for its hosiery industry, which employed as much as half the population of the East Midlands by the middle of the eighteenth century. Much of the stocking knitting was carried out in workers’ own homes, so there were numerous linkages between suppliers, customers and workers across the three different counties.

Claire Townsend commented: “In one sense it’s not surprising that there was relatively little interaction between people across the region, because transport and communications links were so much slower in the eighteenth century than they are today.

“However, what is surprising is how different the East Midlands was from other English regions. Many historians have found that regional identity became stronger during the industrial revolution, but this doesn’t seem to have been the case in the East Midlands.”

The next stage of the research will involve a study of local newspapers and diaries, to investigate whether people at the time were at all conscious of living in an East Midlands region. Regional identity was of course just as subjective in the eighteenth century as it is today.

Note to editors: Further information is available from Claire Townsend, Centre for Urban History, University of Leicester, tel 0116 270 9727, email cht7@le.ac.uk.

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