Second city of the United Kingdom

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The second city of the United Kingdom is an unofficial claim made at various times by several cities since the establishment of the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707 (the United Kingdom was formed in January 1801). Commonly a country's "second city" is the city that is thought to be the second-most important, according to criteria such as population size, economic importance and cultural contribution. The UK adheres to the primate city rule, meaning that its largest city is disproportionately larger than all the others. London, the UK's capital, is by far its largest city, with the UK's other major cities generally more like each other in population and economy than any one of them is to London. As the title is unofficial and there is no agreed set of criteria, the 'second city' debate is ultimately a subjective one.[1]

No one city has consistently held claim to the 'second city' title over the course of British history. In the middle ages, Norwich was the second-largest city in England,[2] being gradually superseded by Bristol from the seventeenth century onwards.[3] During the latter half of the Georgian era (ca. 1750-1830), Dublin was widely considered to be the second city of the British Empire, although by the turn of the 20th century the city had been eclipsed by several rapidly industrialising cities in Britain.[4][5] This included Glasgow, which by Victorian times was sometimes described as the second city of the Empire.[1][6]

Today, Birmingham is typically described as the UK's second city.[7][8] In recent decades it has also been common for Manchester to be described either as the second city or as a contender for the title.[9][10][11]

There are alternative claims for Edinburgh, by virtue of being the capital of Scotland,[12][13] and for Cardiff and Belfast due to their status as the respective capital cities of Wales and Northern Ireland.[14]


The title Second City of the Empire or Second City of the British Empire was claimed by a number of cities in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. Commercial trading city Liverpool was regarded as holding this title with its massive port, merchant fleet and world-wide trading links.[15][16][17] Liverpool was constantly referred to as the New York of Europe.[18] Others included Dublin,[19] Glasgow (which continues to use the title as a marketing slogan),[20][21] and (outside the UK) Calcutta[22] and Philadelphia.[23]

Prior to the union with Scotland in 1707, from the English Civil War until the 18th century, Norwich was the second-largest city of the Kingdom of England, being a major trading centre, Britain's richest provincial city and county town of Norfolk, at that time the most populous county of England.[2] Bristol was the second-wealthiest city in England in the 16th century;[3] and by the 18th century, Bristol was often described as the second city of England.[24] During the 19th century, claims were made for Manchester,[25] Liverpool[26] and York.[27] York had also been named as the second city in earlier centuries, by virtue of its prominence in Roman times as the northern capital, Eboracum, of the Roman province of Britannia Inferior.[28]

By the early 19th century, Glasgow was frequently referred to as the second city;[6] and during much of the 20th century it had a population of over one million, larger than that of Birmingham until the 1951 census. For example, the Official Census population for Glasgow was 0.784 million in April 1911; 1.034 million in April 1921; 1.088 million in April 1931 and 1.090 million in April 1951.[29] However, slum clearance in the 1960s led to displacement of residents from the city centre to new communities located outside the city boundaries. This, together with local government reorganisation, resulted in the official population of Glasgow falling sharply. The Glasgow City Council area currently has a population of 600,000 although the surrounding conurbation of Greater Glasgow has a population of 1,199,629.[30] In contrast, the population of the city of Birmingham has remained steady around the one million mark; its central population fell like Glasgow's, but the city boundaries were extended several times in the early 20th century. Occasional claims were made for Liverpool,[31] Birmingham[32] and Manchester.[33]

Modern points of view[edit]

Birmingham has generally been considered to be the second city since the time of World War I.[34] It is still frequently referred to as such in the national media,[35][36] and international media.[37] However Manchester has in recent years become a contender for the title.[34]

The populations of Birmingham and Manchester are often compared. The City of Birmingham is the most populous local government district in Europe - substantially larger than the City of Manchester, which is the fifth largest in the UK (2006 estimates). However, local government boundaries are problematic for comparing modern cities: many suburbs of Birmingham and Manchester fall outside city limits largely drawn up in Victorian times. Manchester is regarded as a particularly 'under-bounded' city, whose archaic boundaries no longer accurately reflect its real size or economic importance.[38][39]

To circumvent this, many attempt to compare between the urban sprawls of modern Birmingham and Manchester. The surrounding conurbations and the areas that can be considered informally part of each city are hard to define. After the 1974 reorganisation of local government and the creation of metropolitan counties, the City of Birmingham was included with the City of Coventry and five other metropolitan boroughs (one, Wolverhampton gained city status in 2000) in a new West Midlands county. The City of Manchester joined with the neighbouring City of Salford and eight other Metropolitan boroughs within the County of Greater Manchester.

In 2010, Manchester City Centre became second to London for new office building take-up with almost a million square foot (86,400 m2) occupied in the year,[40] whilst praise for Birmingham's striking modern architecture was cited as confirmation of its claim to second city status.[41]

Public opinion polls[edit]

As the second city is an unofficial title and one of subjective opinion, a number of polls have been conducted over the years. Despite Birmingham being viewed as the traditional second city, public polls have shown a slight preference for Manchester since 2000. This shift has been attributed to Manchester's and the wider Greater Manchester region's rebranding of itself, most notably after the 1996 Manchester bombing and the successful hosting of the 2002 Commonwealth Games:

  • A 2002 survey conducted by Ipsos MORI, commissioned by "Visit Manchester" (Manchester's tourism department), Manchester received the highest response for the category of second city at 34%, compared to Birmingham at 29%; and in the same poll, Manchester had the highest response for the category of third city with 27% of the vote, 6% more than the 21% for Birmingham.[42] 85% of respondents put London as first City.[43]
  • A 2015 survey by YouGov showed that 30% thought Manchester was the second city, 20% thought Birmingham and 12% thought Edinburgh.[44]
  • A 2017 survey by BMG Research, commissioned by the Birmingham Mail, showed 38% preferred Manchester as the second city versus 36% for Birmingham. 16% choose Edinburgh with 10% for other cities. The opinion poll also found a stark generational divide with 44% of 18 to 24 year olds choosing Manchester as their preferred second city compared with only 19% who stated Birmingham and 25% of this age group also selecting Edinburgh over Birmingham. However, of those 65 and older, 40% preferred Birmingham and 38% preferred Manchester.[45]

Ministerial statements[edit]

There have been a variety of Ministerial statements and opinions on the subject for some time. These include:

  • In February 2015 UK Prime Minister David Cameron stated "Birmingham is Britain’s second city, it is a powerhouse."[46] On 16 February 2016 he emphasised that "We recognise Birmingham’s status as Britain’s second city". He repeated this claim on 16 March 2016 when he stated "Birmingham is the second city of our country" during Prime Minister's Questions.
  • David Miliband, the former Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, and former Shadow Foreign Secretary said "However, if you look at Birmingham, I think a lot of people would say that it's a city, Britain's second city..."[47]
  • Digby Jones, Baron Jones of Birmingham (born and raised in Birmingham), former Minister of State at the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Foreign Office (former Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) said "Birmingham is naturally the second-most important city in Britain after London because of where she is and how important she is as part of that crossroads".[48] Jones later said "As a Brummie it's not easy to say, but I can find no better place than the north west in terms of having a diverse manufacturing base, whether it's engineering manufacturing at Rolls-Royce, automotive manufacturing at Bentley or pharmaceuticals manufacturing at AstraZeneca." which contradicts what he said about Birmingham being the most important base outside London. He also praised "Manchester's 'first-class global' university, knowledge and transport infrastructure were the two key factors that determined the success of a city or region."[49] In 2011, Jones stated that Birmingham is now in danger of losing its unofficial title to Manchester[50]
  • John Prescott (born in Wales and raised in Cheshire), former Deputy Prime Minister and Member of Parliament for the constituency of Kingston upon Hull East, was also quoted as saying "Manchester – our second city", but this was later played down by his department, claiming they were made in a "light-hearted context".[51]
  • Graham Stringer (born and raised in and currently representing Manchester), MP for Blackley and Broughton, responded with "Manchester has always been the second city after the capital, in many ways it is the first. Birmingham has never really been in the competition."[51]
  • Sandra White (born and raised in and representing Glasgow), a Scottish National Party MSP for Glasgow, claimed "Glasgow was always seen as the second city in the Empire, and Glasgow is still the second British city. Manchester is probably the second city in England after London."[51]
  • Phil Woolas (born in Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire, living in Lees, Greater Manchester and representing the constituency of Oldham East and Saddleworth), Former Minister of State for the Environment – "And, of course, I, and colleagues in Manchester, am pleased to see its very sensible plans to relocate to Manchester – Britain's third city."[52]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "What Is the Law of the Primate City and the Rank-Size Rule?". ThoughtCo.
  2. ^ a b Williams, Laura; Jones, Alexandra; Lee, Neil; Griffiths, Simon. "Enabling Norwich in the Knowledge Economy" (PDF). The Work Foundation web pages. The Work Foundation. p. 11. Archived from the original (PDF) on 5 October 2007. Retrieved 20 August 2007.
  3. ^ a b J. E. T. and A. G. L. Rogers, A History of Agriculture and Prices in England, p.82, 1887
  4. ^ Sidney Edwards Morse and Jedidiah Morse, A New System of Geography, Ancient and Modern, p.177, 1824
  5. ^ Groom, Brian (25 February 2013). "Splendidly pointless second city debate". The Financial Times. Retrieved 19 October 2021.
  6. ^ a b For example, see T. H. B. Oldfield, The Representative History of Great Britain and Ireland, p.566, 1816 or Spencer Walpole, A History of England from the Conclusion of the Great War in 1815, p.103, 1878
  7. ^ "Has Britain's second largest city reached breaking point?". the Guardian. 22 November 2020. Retrieved 10 January 2022.
  8. ^ "10 reasons to visit Birmingham, Britain's second city". Lonely Planet. 7 February 2019. Retrieved 11 January 2022.
  9. ^ "No prizes for coming third: The fight to be Britain's second city". The Independent. 16 May 2011. Retrieved 10 January 2022.
  10. ^ "Splendidly pointless second city debate". Financial Times. 25 February 2013. Retrieved 10 January 2022.
  11. ^ "Birmingham or Manchester: Which is Britain's second city?". New Statesman (in American English). 10 June 2021. Retrieved 10 January 2022.
  12. ^ Hopkins, Eric (2001). Birmingham: The Making of the Second City 4850-1939. Tempus Publishing. ISBN 0-7524-2327-4.
  13. ^ The New York Times, 6 August 1989: "Edinburgh's castle high on the rock has looked down on many a triumph and tragedy in the proud Scots capital, but every year since 1947, Britain's Second City steals the spotlight from London during the three weeks of the international festival."
  14. ^ Hoge, Warren (25 June 2003). "LETTER FROM EUROPE; The Last Hard Case: Bleak, Stubborn Belfast". The New York Times. Retrieved 23 May 2010.
  15. ^ "The Empire in one city?". Manchester University Press. Archived from the original on 28 July 2011. Retrieved 17 July 2009.
  16. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 16 November 2007. Retrieved 8 October 2007.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) Liverpool University: "... the city's pre-eminent position at the turn of the 19th century resulted from the port's willingness to handle a very wide range of cargo (including millions of migrants to the new world). Liverpool was second only to London in this respect – and this, together with its great ethnic diversity, was the basis of its claim to being the 'second city of empire'."
  17. ^ "Untitled Document".
  18. ^ "Port of Liverpool contact information". Retrieved 13 September 2013.
  19. ^ "When you remember that Dublin has been a capital for thousands of years, that it is the second city of the British Empire, that it is nearly three times as big as Venice it seems strange that no artist has given it to the world." James Joyce, Letter to Stanislaus Joyce, c. 24 September 1905 (Letters of James Joyce, vol. II, pp. 109–112. (Viking Press, 1966).
  20. ^ "The Second City". Glasgow City Council ( Archived from the original on 2 April 2007.
  21. ^ Fraser, W Hamish. "Second City of The Empire: 1830s to 1914". The Glasgow Story.
  22. ^ "Tourism of India – Special Feature – Relics of the Raj". Archived from the original on 14 August 2007.
  23. ^ "Philadelphia, Pennsylvania facts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania travel videos, flags, photos". National Geographic. Retrieved 13 September 2013.
  24. ^ Charles Knight, The Popular History of England, p.8, 1859
  25. ^ Robert Southey, Letters from England, p.177, 1836
  26. ^ James Richard Joy, An Outline History of England, p.26, 1890
  27. ^ John Major, Aeneas James George Mackay and Thomas Graves Law, A History of Greater Britain as Well England as Scotland, p.xxxvi, 1892
  28. ^ John Macky, A Journey Through England, p.208, 1722
  29. ^ Roberson, D. J. (1958). "Population, Past and Present". Chapter 2 in: Cunnison, J. and Gilfillan, J. B. S. (1958). The Third Statistical Account of Scotland, Volume V. The City of Glasgow. Glasgow: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd.
  30. ^ "Key Statistics for Settlements and Localities Scotland". General Register Office for Scotland. Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 8 September 2008.
  31. ^ D. Appleton, Appletons' American Standard Geographies, p.130, 1881.
  32. ^ W. Stewart & Co., The Journal of Education, p.38, 1867.
  33. ^ Chetham Society, Remains, Historical and Literary, Connected with the Palatine Counties of Lancashire and Chester, 1862, p.531.
  34. ^ a b "England's second city". BBC Inside Out. 9 February 2007. Retrieved 7 January 2022.
  35. ^ "Brum deal: A second city with a third-rate reputation". The Independent. 9 May 2011. Retrieved 7 January 2022.
  36. ^ "An ode to Birmingham: how can the UK's second city fix its image problem?". The Guardian. 12 July 2014. Retrieved 7 January 2022.
  37. ^ "Birmingham, the UK's second city, could be heading towards a local lockdown". euronews. 20 August 2020. Retrieved 7 January 2022.
  38. ^ Using evidence: Greater Manchester Case Study (PDF). What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth. 2015. p. 7.
  39. ^ Rae, Alasdair. "How Big is London?". Retrieved 10 January 2022.
  40. ^ "Commercial property will continue to prosper in 2011 – Manchester Evening News". 3 January 2011. Retrieved 13 September 2013.
  41. ^ "Birmingham: Britain's second city | EuroCheapo". EuroCheapo's Budget Travel Blog. 21 December 2010.
  42. ^ "// Visit Manchester / Homepage //". Retrieved 13 September 2013.
  43. ^ "Manchester 'England's second city'". Ipsos MORI North. 2002. Retrieved 9 February 2007.
  44. ^ "Manchester top choice for UK's 'second capital'". 21 May 2015. Retrieved 25 March 2016.
  45. ^ "The battle of the second city". Birmingham Mail. 13 January 2017. Retrieved 11 June 2017.
  46. ^ "Cameron: Birmingham is England's second city". Birmingham Post. Trinity Mirror. 13 February 2015. Retrieved 25 February 2015.
  47. ^ "New Labour troubles". BBC Sunday AM. BBC. 5 March 2005. Retrieved 1 August 2007.
  48. ^ "Manchester tops second city poll". BBC News. BBC. 9 February 2007. Retrieved 10 February 2007.
  49. ^ "Jones: North west best for innovation". Manchester Evening News. 10 April 2008. Retrieved 14 April 2008.
  50. ^ Leading Article: Second Best, accessed 18 May 2011
  51. ^ a b c "Prescott ranks Manchester as second city". Manchester Evening News. M.E.N media. 3 February 2005. Retrieved 20 August 2007. We have had fantastic co-operation here in Manchester – our second city, I am prepared to concede.
  52. ^ "'Setting the Standard' – Speech by Phil Woolas MP at the fifth Annual Assembly of Standards Committees on 16 October 2006". Department for Communities and Local Government. Department for Communities and Local Government. 16 October 2006. Archived from the original on 16 February 2008. Retrieved 2 September 2007. And, of course, I, and colleagues in Manchester, am pleased to see its very sensible plans to relocate to Manchester – Britain's third city.