Why the North matters

Journalist, expert on UK regional and national affairs, alumnus of Manchester Grammar and Balliol College – and with career highlights including editorial roles at the Financial Times and Scotland on Sunday, Brian Groom tells Mag North exactly why the North matters, as his new book ‘Northerners: A History, from the Ice Age to the Present Day’ (published by HarperNorth) hits bookshops.
April 20, 2022

Historians in the past have tended to write off northern England, prior to the Industrial Revolution, as backward or barbaric.

Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1848 suggested that before the discovery and exploitation of coal, ‘physical and moral causes had occurred to prevent civilisation from spreading to that region’. He put it down to centuries of armed conflict with the Scots, leading inhabitants to sleep with weapons at their side.

Even in the seventeenth century people on the upper Tyne were, he said, ‘scarcely less savage than the Indians of California … half-naked women chaunting a wild measure while the men with brandished dirks danced a war dance’.

When I began thinking about writing my book Northerners: A History, from the Ice Age to the Present Day a decade ago, I was astonished to discover that only one previous general history of the north had ever been published, and that was more than 30 years ago (Eric Musgrove, The North of England, 1990).

Killingholme Refinery, East Yorkshire

It seemed like an omission and an opportunity. Dramatic events have played out in the north –waves of migration, invasions and battles. It has made its mark on European culture and the global economy and played a huge part in shaping modern Britain. A new history also seems timely in the light of developments such as the ‘red wall’ and ‘levelling up’.

My emphasis is not simply on events, but on people who have made northern England what it is. Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes, deserves to be as famous as Boudica. Neanderthals and Vikings, Central European Jews, African-Caribbeans and South Asians have all played their part in the making and remaking of the north.

Northern writers, activists, artists and comedians are celebrated the world over, from William Wordsworth, the Brontes and Elizabeth Gaskell to LS Lowry, Emmeline Pankhurst and Peter Kay. St Oswald and Bede shaped the spiritual and cultural landscapes of Britain and Europe, and the world was revolutionised by the inventions of Richard Arkwright and the Stephensons.

The Industrial Revolution, viewed by many economic historians as the key event in human history, is obviously of fundamental importance, but there is far more to the story. At least six Roman emperors ruled the empire from York. The Anglian kingdom of Northumbria became for a period Europe’s leading cultural and intellectual centre. For 1,000 of the past 2,000 years – in Roman times and in the middle ages - northern England was the site of border warfare with what is now Scotland.

Manchester Skyline

The past has shaped the present in myriad ways. The devastation of factory and pit closures in the 1980s, for example, evoked for some a folk memory of the trauma of William the Conqueror’s Harrying of the North. Echoes of the Wars of the Roses, Tudor rebellions and seventeenth-century civil war divisions could be discerned in the Brexit referendum. The north also played a leading role in creating the Labour Party and the trade union movement.

The north’s story raises many intriguing questions. Had the kingdom of Northumbria survived, northern England might today be at the heart of a northern-focused nation instead of an outlying region of one governed from the south. The Norman conquest shifted England’s strategic orientation southwards, while William’s Harrying arguably laid the foundation for centuries of economic disadvantage.

My book also includes chapters on social and cultural themes such as the significance of sheep, the north-south language divide, ethnic diversity, the legacy of slavery, the growth of leisure and professional sport, northern women and the contribution of northern writers, artists and comedians. The north has exported some of sport’s biggest names and defined the sound of generations, from the Beatles to Britpop.

One reason why so few books about northern England have been published may be to do with the region’s diversity. Allegiances to cities, towns, counties and sub-regions are often greater than those to the wider region. Tyneside, Merseyside and Yorkshire have a particularly strong sense of distinctiveness. People can hold multiple identities, however. Identification with class and ethnicity exists alongside that with locality, region or nation. Identity is often fashioned against an ‘other’. In the case of the north, that other is the south.

Stuart Maconie, writer and broadcaster, argues that ‘there’s no conception of the south comparable to the north’. He adds: ‘Good or bad, “the north” means something to all English people wherever they hail from. To people from London … it means desolation, arctic temperatures, mushy peas, a cultural wasteland with limited shopping opportunities and populated by aggressive trolls. To northerners it means home, truth, beauty, valour, romance, warm and characterful people, real beer and decent chip shops. And in this we are undoubtedly biased, of course.


’Inevitably, I am often asked: where is the north and what is a northerner? I take a liberal, inclusive view. The north is broadly where the people who live there think they are in the north. A northerner is someone who thinks of themself as a northerner. The region has rarely been a single administrative unit, so the question is more cultural than constitutional.

Around the world there is a diaspora of people born or raised in the north who consider themselves northerners. Others come from families with northern roots. Equally, the region has many people born elsewhere who live or have lived in the north and consider themselves adoptive northerners.

Two sides are bounded by the sea. The Scottish border has changed in only a couple of ways since it was agreed at the Treaty of York in 1237. There is a grey area in the south including Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire, and in so far as boundaries have been drawn for one purpose or another, these have shifted. Cheshire, for example, now officially belongs to the north west for government and statistical purposes, while in Anglo-Saxon times it was in Mercia rather than Northumbria.

Northern England has contributed so much to modern Britain and the world. Its economy, though diminished in relative terms from its industrial peak, remains bigger than that of countries such as Argentina, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Norway and Sweden. Northerners have a fascinating story that deserves to be heard.

Brian Groom is author of ‘Northerners: A History, from the Ice Age to the Present Day’ (HarperNorth)

Liverpool Waterfront - Beverley Goodwin

Killingholme Refinery - Andy Beecroft

Manchester Skyline - ChrisClarke88

Berwick-Upon-Tweed - mattbuck