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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

Some Urban History :- Rus in Urbe

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece on my blog about Rural History. Today, I am writing about one aspect of Urban History, namely 'Rus in Urbe'. This phrase, coined by the Roman author Martial in the first century AD, literally means 'the country in the city'. It expresses the widespread desire of urban dwellers to take a piece of the countryside with them into the city.

This blog will cover the following far from exhaustive list of topics:

  1. Rus in Urbe - An Overview

  2. Medieval towns and cities with rural life still on hand

  3. Urban markets for rural produce - a look at Chichester

  4. Urban Allotments

  5. Private urban gardens

  6. Public Urban Parks

  7. Urban Tree Planting - The London Plane Tree

  8. Public Swimming Pools and Lidos

  9. 'Urbs in Regione', the city in the countryside - Horse Muck!

  1. Rus in Urbe - An Overview

We didn't always have towns and cities in which to live. We were once all rural dwellers. The massive urbanisation of the globe began with The Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century. The Factory system depended on large numbers of people living in close proximity to their place of work, hence the development of the modern city. This change in style of living separated the urban dweller from a ready source of food, and so the division of town and country became established.

Of course, there were towns and cities in existence well before the late 18th century, but these were, with rare exceptions, small in both size and number. The countryside remained both near and accessible.

In England the time of urbanisation was also the time of 'Romanticism', especially in terms of approaches to the natural world and rural life. This romantic attachment to the world beyond the city has deepened over the centuries. Today it is taken up by The Green Movement with ideas such as 're-wilding our towns and cities', as well as the 21st century worker seeking to live in the countryside and commute into the city. Perhaps, however, in the wake of Covid 19 commuting will become a less dominant feature of our working lives. Many of those obliged to work in an urban environment carry a dream of a retirement rural cottage with roses around the door.

2. Medieval Towns and Cities with rural life still on hand

In The Middle Ages town dwellers often kept one foot, metaphorically speaking, in the countryside from which they had come. This often took the form of fields inside the city, where folk could keep some livestock or grow some food. Such set-ups were often established on common land. In medieval York, however, such land was outside the bounds of the city - in the so-called 'Strays', of which four still exist, if in a truncated form, for general leisure use - Knavesmire (the site of York racecourse), Hob Moor, Monk Stray, and Walmgate Stray. They occupy today an area of some 800 acres. The reason York, unlike the nearby city of Lincoln, didn't have common fields outside of the city is because that land was largely owned by ecclesiastical bodies who jealously guarded their territory.

It is amazing to think that as late as Tudor London the area around modern day Ely Place, off of High Holborn, then the London residence of the Bishop of Ely, was famed for its strawberry fields. Shakespeare in the play Richard III has Gloucester say these lines, 'My Lord of Ely, when I was last in Holborn, I saw good strawberries in your garden there. I do beseech you, send for some of them'.

3. Urban Markets for rural produce - a look at Chichester

Medieval towns grew up largely for economic reasons. They acted as distribution centres for local rurally produced food and crafts, having a number of weekly markets and annual fairs. One such city in West Sussex was the episcopal see of Chichester. Chichester's markets dealt with the produce and animals of the surrounding countryside. Chichester's Cattle Market was said in 1815 to be second only in size to London's Smithfield. It also dealt in the produce of the sea from the adjacent coast. This included oysters from Bosham and Lobsters from The Manhood Peninsula (Selsey Bill area). One interesting archaeological gem is the Butter Market, opened in 1808, and designed by none other than the great Regency architect John Nash.

4. Urban Allotments

Allotments first arose in the 18th century in rural areas. They were an attempt to help labourers who had lost access to common land due to the Enclosure Movement. They were also cynically seen as a means of keeping the rural populace from plotting revolution!

The idea soon spread to urban areas, such as the cities of Birmingham, Nottingham, and Coventry. Here the target group was the lower middle class and upper working class, who had no gardens in which to grow vegetables to supplement their purchase of food. They were often known as 'Guinea Gardens' because that was the cost of their annual rent. In the latter part of the 19th century, interest in urban allotments declined as more and more middle class homes had a garden attached. The Allotment Act of 1887 placed an obligation on Local Authorities to supply allotments was there a local demand. Brought back to life during the two World Wars of the 20th century, today they figure largely in The Urban Green Movement.

5. Private Urban Gardens

These took off in a modern way in the mid to late 19th century. The earlier private squares, found most noticeably in London, such as Bloomsbury Square, were the first widespread private gardens in modern towns. Admission was by a locked gate, to which only residents had a key.

Victorian 'Villas' soon had an obligatory garden, small at the front, and large at the back, complete with glasshouse, potting shed, and a gardener, the latter much in demand by the Lady Chatterleys of the day!

6. Public (Urban) Parks

One of the great achievements of The Victorian Age. They typify that era of public good works allied to quality. Floral Clocks, Drinking Fountains, Ornamental Fountains, Public Sculpture, Public War Memorials, Children's play areas, boating lakes, bandstands, seating shelters and public benches, refreshment rooms and cafes. All giving pleasure to generations of children and adults living in cramped urban conditions. Some parks are small, pocket handkerchief gardens, others large and imposing, all without fail with character.

These additions to our urbanscape began to be created in the 1830s and 1840s. One of the first to open was in Bath in 1830. It was named Victoria Park, the first of many such designations across the country in the decades to come. In Bath's case it has every right to the name as the park was opened by a young Princess Victoria.

7. Urban Tree Planting - The London Plane Tree

The London Plane itself is a combination of The Oriental Plane and the American Plane. This hybrid came about by accident in Spain and from there reached Britain in the 17th century. However, another story says the hybrid came about by accident in the nursery of the great London horticulturalist, John Tradescant.

By the 1920s it dominated London's trees, accounting for about 60% of all London's trees. Today the percentage has dropped dramatically to around 4%, a combination of change in taste and of a wider choice being available.

8. Public Swimming Pools and Lidos

The Industrial Revolution and its accompanied housing meant that urban rivers and ponds quickly became too polluted to swim in. As a result Public Authorities began to open Public Pools, at first open air and subsequently indoor. The first was opened in Bath in 1815 by which the Avon had become too polluted. Although the actual reason was to ensure that the Authorities could prevent nude bathing. It is planned, following refurbishment, to reopen in 2022.

The first indoor pool was opened in 1828 at St George's Bath in Liverpool.

Lidos normally refer to outside pools and the word was first used in the 1930s, when many lidos were constructed in an art deco style, such as that at Saltdean (1937/38) on the Sussex coast. The very first to use the name 'lido' was at Edmonton in 1935.

9. Horse Muck - Urbs in Regione ('the city in the country')

This was a case of taking the city, or more precisely its horse manure into the countryside. There are medieval records of London's waste being transported by barge to rural Essex where it was spread on the fields as a manure; the barges returning to the capital with fresh vegetables.

However, by Victorian times the amount of manure produced by London's horses was so immense that the countryside could no longer keep up with its disposal. This is much the same as it is today with our own waste disposal.

Of course, London was not alone in having this problem, but in London the situation reached a crisis point in 1894 with the so-called 'Great Horse Manure Crisis'.

By 1900 London had 11,000 hansom cabs and several thousand horse-drawn buses. Each bus required the use of twelve horses per day, thus 50,000 in total, producing between 15 and 35 lobs of manure per horse per day. In addition each horse produced two pints of urine per day.

The Times reported in 1894 that within fifty years London would be buried beneath nine feet of manure. The situation was resolved with the increased use of motorised transport, itself in due course producing the crisis of today.


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