Atlantic History British Port Cities
Tony Webster
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0095


There has been much recent academic interest in the development of port cities generally, arising principally from growing awareness of the processes of globalization of the world economy, in which the great trading ports of the world played a vital role. But academic work on British ports predates this recent concern for several reasons. First, as a series of islands off the European mainland, Britain has always enjoyed substantial international trade, in which ports have played an important part; thus, as early as the period of Roman rule, the port that eventually became London rapidly assumed political and economic significance. Second, with the expansion of European commerce with the non-European world from the 15th century, Britain was well placed to benefit hugely from commerce with the Americas, Africa, and Asia, particularly the trades in spices, sugar, tobacco, and slaves. The latter grim line of commerce has of course attracted enormous academic and popular interest; and the pivotal role of some British ports in the slave trade has generated a huge volume of publications, too many to include even in such an extensive bibliography as this. With the increased growth of British imperial power in the 19th century and its continuance into the 20th, the country’s ports increased in national importance and global significance. Third, Britain’s emergence in the 18th and 19th centuries as the first industrial nation ensured that its ports would become instrumental in the country’s process of industrialization and its rise as a global supplier of manufactured goods. This role involved not only the import and export of substantial quantities of raw materials and finished manufactures, it also entailed a massive increase in food imports to meet the demands of a growing and increasingly prosperous population. As such, the port cities of Britain became the center of a global hub of trade, commercial networks, and population migrations. This defined not only the commercial and business profiles of these cities but also their prevailing population trends, ethnic mixes, and political cultures, which in many cases set them apart from the other industrial and non-maritime conurbations of Britain. Consequently, much of the literature on British port cities reflects these trends. The bibliography will consider each of the major ports and highlight the most important texts on each of these key areas.

General Overviews

There is a quite engaging general literature of port cities in general, especially in Britain. The contributions of Jackson 2000 and Palmer 2000 on ports in volumes 2 and 3 of The Cambridge Urban History of Britain are excellent introductions to the general field of British port cities, while Jarvis 1999 on the themes of port city history is useful for insights into the developing debate about them. Starkey and Jamieson 1998 and Lawton and Lee 2002, both edited collections on western European port cities, are also useful for acquaintance with the various theoretical and historiographical approaches. Driver and Gilbert 1999 deals with the question of the extent to which some cities were “imperial” ones, whose cultural, social, political and economic features were shaped by empire. Though only referring to a couple of British port cities, the book opens the way to exploring the extent to which other British port cities were “imperial cities.” Finally, Starkey and Murphy 2007 reviews the fortunes of a range of maritime industries in several major British port cities, providing an important theme of economic historical analysis of port city development.

  • Driver, Felix, and David Gilbert, eds. Imperial Cities: Landscape, Display and Identity. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1999.

    Important academic study of the development of the identities of a number of cities across the world, emphasizing their roles in empires. There are two particularly important chapters on Glasgow and Liverpool.

  • Jackson, Gordon. “Ports 1700 to 1840.” In The Cambridge Urban History of Britain, vol. 2: 1540–1840. Edited by Peter Clark, 705–732. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    Useful overview of the development of British ports during this period, especially in relation to the growth of the country’s imperial and international commerce. Aimed at an academic audience; a good introduction to the wider literature.

  • Jarvis, Adrian. “Port History: Some Thoughts on Where it Came From and Where it Might be Going.” In Harbours and Havens: Essays in Port History in Honour of Gordon Jackson. Edited by Lewis R. Fischer and Adrian Jarvis, 13–34. Research in Maritime History, 16. St John’s, Newfoundland: International Maritime Economic History Association, 1999.

    Important overview of the development of academic thinking and historiography about ports and their role in the wider fields of economic and social development. Aimed at an academic audience.

  • Lawton, Richard, and Robert Lee, eds. Population and Society in Western European Port-Cities c. 1650–1939. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2002.

    An important collection of essays on various European cities that, in the introduction, brings out important general trends within which the evolution of British ports can be contextualized. There are important chapters on Glasgow and Liverpool. An important academic tome aimed at scholars in the field of port city development.

  • Palmer, Sarah. “Ports.” In The Cambridge Urban History of Britain Volume 3, 1840–1950. Edited by Martin Daunton, 133–150. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    Outline of the development of British ports in the period from the mid–19th to the mid–20th century. Useful introduction for academics and students new to the field.

  • Starkey, David John, and Alan G. Jamieson, eds. Exploiting the Sea: Aspects of Britain’s Maritime Economy since 1870. Exeter, UK: Exeter University Press, 1998.

    A collection of academic essays on a range of themes affecting the British maritime economy, with important implications for British port cities.

  • Starkey, David John, and Hugh Murphy, eds. Beyond Shipping and Shipbuilding, Britain’s Ancillary Maritime Industries in the Twentieth Century. Hull, UK: Hull Maritime Historical Studies Centre, University of Hull, 2007.

    Important collection of essays that reviews the major ancillary maritime industries since World War II. Important contributions about a range of industries and several British port cities. Important academic contribution to the debates about port cities.

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