Samiksha Jaiswal (Editor)

Second city of the United Kingdom

Updated on
Share on FacebookTweet on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Reddit

The second city of the United Kingdom is an unofficial claim made at various times by several cities since the establishment of the UK in 1801. Commonly a country's second city is the city that is thought to be the second most important, usually after the capital or first city according to criteria such as population size, economic importance and cultural contribution.


Historically several cities have been considered the "second city of the British Empire". In the early 19th Century, Dublin was considered by many to be the second city; later in the century, Glasgow and Liverpool burgeoned as major industrial centres and had competing claims to be the busiest ports in the world for ship building and freight transport. Calcutta also laid the claim from as far away as India as the most populous city, while in 1911 the editor of the Irish Times laid a second claim for Dublin during a ceremonial visit by George V. Since the establishment of the Commonwealth in 1949 several cities have made claims to be the "second city of the Commonwealth" (often with particular reference to the significance of the Commonwealth Games) in particular Manchester in 2000 and Glasgow again in 2012.

In contrast throughout much of the 20th and 21st Century Birmingham has generally been regarded as the second city of the United Kingdom in terms of populace and GDP while Edinburgh has been promoted as the second city by virtue as the capital of Scotland. Less authoratitive claims have been made on behalf of Cardiff and Belfast due to their status as the respective capital cities of Wales and Northern Ireland.


Since the formation of the United Kingdom, several places have been described as the "second city". Aristocrat-dominated Georgian Dublin was the second most populous city at the time of the formation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801 (it was also the fifth most populous in Europe), and was often described as the second city of the UK. Though it lost that position towards the end of the 19th century as the empire's Victorian cities grew through more rapid industrialisation. Dublin, and the rest of the Republic of Ireland, became independent of the UK in the 1920s.

Later, the title Second City of 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. Liverpool was constantly referred to as the New York of Europe. Others included Dublin, Glasgow (which continues to use the title as a marketing slogan), and (outside the UK) Calcutta and Philadelphia.

Prior to the union with Scotland in 1707, from the English Civil War until the 18th century, Norwich was the second-largest city 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. Bristol was the second wealthiest city in England in the 16th century; and by the 18th century, Bristol was often described as the second city of England. During the 19th century, claims were made for Manchester, Liverpool and York. York had also been named as the second city in earlier centuries.

By the early 19th century, Glasgow was frequently referred to as the second city; 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. However, slum clearances 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. 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, Birmingham and Manchester.

Modern points of view

Since World War I, and up to the beginning of the 21st century, Birmingham had been considered by many to be the second city, but recent polls and media references have indicated that Manchester is now considered to be the second city of the United Kingdom.

Based on population within actual city boundaries the City of Birmingham, the most populous local government district in Europe, is substantially larger than the City of Manchester, which is the fifth largest in the UK (2006 estimates, see List of English districts by population). However, most sources do not use formal city boundaries as the sole criterion for population comparison. The surrounding conurbations and the areas that can be considered informally part of each city are hard to define. However, 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.

While the 'second city' status of any country is decided upon a variety of economic or cultural indices, both Birmingham and Manchester have shown an edge in each over the years. For example, 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, whilst praise for Birmingham's striking modern architecture was cited as confirmation of its claim to second city status.

Public opinion polls

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 consistent 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. Only 85% of respondents put London as first City.
  • A 2007 survey conducted by GfK commissioned by the BBC in December 2006 investigating the subject of the "'Second city' of England" (as opposed to the UK as a whole), 48% of 1,000 people placed Manchester, with 40% choosing Birmingham.
  • A 2015 survey by YouGov showed that 30% thought Manchester was the second city, 20% thought Birmingham and 12% thought Edinburgh.
  • Ministerial statements

    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." On 16 February 2016 he emphasised that "We recognise Birmingham’s status as Britain’s second city". He repeated this claim on the 16th 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..."
  • 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,". 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." In 2011, Jones stated that Birmingham is now in danger of losing its unofficial title to Manchester
  • John Prescott (born in Wales and raised in Cheshire), former Deputy Prime Minister and Member of Parliament for the constituency of 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".
  • 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."
  • 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."
  • 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."
  • References

    Second city of the United Kingdom Wikipedia

    Similar Topics
    Love and a 45
    Parviz Boroumand
    Hernán Peirone