Is there a North-South divide? And where is it?

The latest New Statesman issue is all about the north, or t’north. See, I’ve already read Stuart Maconie’s piece, How to write about the north, so I got a typical northern accenty bit in there as soon as I could. Actually, it should have been t’ bloody north, as everyone knows that northerners swear more than southerners.

Inevitably, this has re-started the whole debate about what counts as the north, ignoring Mr Maconie’s first rule that, if you are going to write about the north, whatever you do, don’t define it. People were putting lines on maps and then getting confused about places like Harrogate, York and Durham which seem a bit posh and might have to be classed as detached parts of the south.

Does this mean that there isn’t really a north-south divide?

There are exceptions on both sides but, as the Economist noted last year, in general, the north is poor, the south is rich and the gap between them is widening.

As Danny Dorling of the University of Sheffield puts it, the difference is that, in the north, there are “islands of affluence in a sea of poverty”. In the south, the sea is of affluence. And the contrast is growing.

One of the most recent studies on the economics of the north-south divide was done by Danny Dorling’s team, Sheffield University’s Social and Spatial Inequalities group (SASI). They concluded that there is most certainly a north-south divide and that, in Europe, the only other economic fissure of similar magnitude is the line of the old Iron Curtain.

In terms of life chances the only line within another European country that is comparable to the North-South divide is that which used to separate East and West Germany. This is found not just in terms of relative differences in wealth either side of the line, but most importantly in terms of health where some of the extremes of Europe are now found within this one divided island of Britain.

They came up with this map showing the dividing line.

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 13.04.20

If you are not sure which side of the dividing you are on, you can see the map in more detail here and here.

This looks and feels about right. I grew up in Nottinghamshire and I’ve often been asked over the years whether Nottingham is in the north or the south. It all depends on where you are looking from, of course. I know Londoners who insist that Northampton is in the north. When I lived in Newcastle, I was told that Cockneys start at Scotch Corner. If I had to come down on one side or t’other, though, I’d say that Nottingham has more in common with other old industrial towns, which are mostly in the north, than it does with the more prosperous south. The SASI report seems to bear that out.

Professor Dorlings remarks about Nottinghamshire’s neighbouring county, Lincolnshire, are interesting. Apart from its industrial north, which contains Scunthorpe and Grimsby, Lincolnshire, is now south of the divide. Professor Dorling says Lincolnshire has moved from north to south due to affluent southerners retiring to places like Gainsborough, Boston, Grantham and Lincoln.

But the north south divide isn’t just about economics. It’s also cultural, though quite what this means is difficult to determine. Most obviously, it’s about the way people speak.

My dad, who spent most of his life in the construction industry, said that you could tell where people were from by how they pronounced ‘toughened glass’. There were those who said ‘tooffened glass’ and those who said ‘tuhffened glahse”. I use ‘bus pass’ as a similar example. Do you say ‘boos pass’ or ‘buhs pahse’?

This sort of pronunciation divide is known as an isogloss.  Linguists Jack Chambers and Peter Trudgill mapped the two most significant isoglosses in England, the difference between the pronunciation of ‘a’ and ‘u’.

For the ‘a’ sound, north of the isogloss, ‘bath’ rhymes with ‘math’, south of it ‘bath’ rhymes with ‘Darth’. For the ‘u’ sound, north of the isoglass it rhymes with foot. This is known as the foot-strut split; because, about 300 years ago, southerners started pronouncing the ‘u’ differently. As a result, north of the divide, ‘foot’ and ‘strut’ rhyme, south of it, they don’t. A few words survived the split. Everyone says ‘push’, ‘put’, ‘full’ and ‘butcher’ more or less the same way, whether they are in Surrey or Sunderland. The foot-strut split is explained in this amusing video made by a northern chappie.

I’ve always found this next bit interesting. The northern ‘u’ (the solid line) comes further south than the northern ‘a’ (the dotted line).

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 16.32.39

So my dad was wrong. There is narrow band of the country where they would say ‘tooffened glahse’ and ‘boos pahse’.

Talking to people from the north who have moved south, they fund the northern ‘u’ easier to lose than the northern ‘a’. If someone says ‘buhs pass’ (to rhyme with Bass), chances are, they are a northerner living in the south or a northerner trying to sound posh. Or an American. (OK, then, a Scot, as the Americans wouldn’t be on the bus in the first place.) People who have grown up north of the isoglass usually feel silly saying the long southern ‘a’. Therefore, they often get it wrong and so they sound silly too.

So much for accent then. What else defines the north? Liking a good head on your beer is often cited as a sign of northernness. A decade or so ago, I went through the Good Beer Guide and noted the breweries where beer was brewed to be served through a sparkler to give a thick head and those where it was designed to be served with a smaller southern head. The line across the country followed the SASI map almost exactly. The West Midlands and South Wales were thick head country while Lincolnshire beer, surprisingly, was southern.

Edmund Schluessel did something similar in 2007, with slightly less conclusive results.

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 18.06.29

Green represents strong (two-sigma) preference for a sparkler, blue represents mild (one-sigma) preference for a sparkler, red represents strong rejection of sparklers, orange represents mild rejection of sparklers, and grey represents insufficient data or a statistical tie. Sheffield University’s north/south line is projected (badly — it should be a little to the left) in black.

When I looked at this, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire brewers were firmly in the ‘sparkler preference’ camp. The reason for the difference over the space of a few years is almost certainly due to the proliferation of small micro-breweries who brew beer they like and often have less reverence for local tradition. For example, you get hoppy English-style ales brewed in Scotland now and some brewers happily make southern-style beers in the north and vice-versa. That’s the point of newcomers, they are supposed to be iconoclastic. Consequently, though, our north-south beer divide is becoming less clear cut.

But enough about beer. What does God say? Well we don’t know but the church formally divided England into north and south in the middle ages and the division survived the Reformation. This is a rather curious split but, once again, my home town finds itself in the north.

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 18.22.03

As I said to my wife after we were married in a church near where I grew up, “Cost tha see? Tha’s got ‘Province o’ York’ on t’ marriage certificate.”

She’s still getting over it.

The north-south divide is hard to define, then, but most people would agree that it’s there in one form or another. Speech is the most obvious divide but there is some strong evidence of an economic split too. Cultural things like beer and food are less easy to pin down. Perhaps there are some differences in attitude too but good luck with trying to nail that one.

In the end, while all the other stuff is interesting, it’s the economics that will matter. The cultural stuff just reinforces it. If the recession and the public spending cuts are worsening the divide, this is likely to be reflected in how people vote. And that will just dig the trench that bit deeper.

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15 Responses to Is there a North-South divide? And where is it?

  1. Pingback: Is there a North-South divide? And where is it? - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Thanks for a very interesting article.

    Time to draw a line between the Severn and The Wash and have an independence referendum?

  3. TickyW says:


    I believe I read somewhere that ‘received pronunciation’ essentially stems for the dialect of English that was spoken around Leicester and its environs many years ago. Just to throw a spanner in the works.

    Am surprised to read that the good people of Yorkshire like their beer with a good head. More head, less liquid beer!?!?! This seems inconsistent with the fabled Yorkshire character which as been defined as that of a ‘tight Scotman’s’ !

    T’was a regular game of cat and mouse with Yorkshire pub landlords pulling pints with maximum head and me persistently asking for the glass to be topped up, which, with great reluctance, some did.. Oh, how easily I adopted the traits of a good and true Yorkshire person, traits which I still have!

    On a more serious note, I wonder whether HS2 will steepen the north-south gradient instead of levelling it as claimed by its proponents.

  4. Q: What did the Romans ever do for us?
    A: They established the original North/South divide – the Fosse Way.

  5. John Dowdle says:

    Actually, the division is pre-historic.
    Look at the maps of the last glacial ice age at and
    Uncanny – or wot?

    • There is a theory among ancient historians that the Fosse Way was built on a pre-existing border. This is thought to reflect the extent of 1st century BC incursions by later Celtic tribes, notably the Belgae, who were pushed out of Northern Gaul by the Romans. But as most migration from the continent landed in the South East, this simply suggests that the natural “ripple” of any immigration would always be roughly around the Severn-Trent line.

      The geological map is perhaps the most telling (and to understand the later implications of this, look at the boundary between the coalfields and the Jurassic). The rich agricultural land has always been the SE corner (with the Vale of York and Cheshire as arable outliers due to geology). In this respect, one anomaly of the line proposed by Dorling, Schluessel et al (but not by the Romans, who terminated the Fosse Way at Exeter) is that the South West (or at least Cornwall) should really be considered as “North”, i.e. poorer agricultural land and dependent on minerals.

  6. Ann Ballinger says:

    thank you for a very interesting article. Im sure that after Independence our wee country will look favourably on counties wishing to leave rUK and join Scotia for a fairer & more democratic society.

    • John Dowdle says:

      Geologically, Scotland and mainland Britain were separate at one time. Scotland just sort of drifted down and joined itself to England and Wales. If Scotland now chooses to move away again, I am sure most of us in England and Wales will barely notice it is gone, unless – that is – Scotland does the decent thing and picks up all the UK national debt. That is not unfair as part of the deal for the Union was that England and Wales paid off the entire Scottish national debt which, in today’s money invested over 300+ years at the average Bank of England interest rate, cumulatively represents around £1.2 Trillion – roughly the same amount as today’s UK national debt.

  7. Metatone says:

    Interesting maps. As a son of Yorkshire who has travelled a lot (around the world, rather than the UK) I have lost most of the Northern U, but retained most of the Northern A.

    What the rise of Lincolnshire (and to some degree the SW too) says to me is that we have an extra factor compared to the 80s. In the 80s the NS divide was about decline of Northern industry and the rise of business that located itself relative to the capital. So the real divide was between the London commuter belt (+ Thames Valley business belt) and the rest. Part of the modern picture just involves the expansion of that conurbation. But the new factor is retirement, which biases towards areas nominally with decent transport links to the capital, better than average weather and rural qualities (nice market towns, villages, supply of old houses for people to retire into)…

    What interests me is that Manchester isn’t doing better than it is. Yorkshire is bedevilled by geography, so despite have pockets of university and industry (Leeds, York, Sheffield, Hull) that in theory should generate some positive agglomeration factors, the travel times don’t really add up well enough to compete with London. Manchester however seems like it should have enough agglomeration factors to compete, yet it isn’t really happening…

    Side note, unspoken in the above is that the real economic force at work is not so much N/S as urbanisation and that London is so far beyond the other cities in agglomeration effects that it’s the real centre of gravity… An alternative explanation would be the rise of the Channel Tunnel and the investment in docks in the SE and the relative downgrading of Hull and Liverpool, but I have never seen good figures on that.

  8. redmark66 says:

    Great stuff and confirms a lot of my gut instinct as someone born in what is now Greater Manchester, lived in York for over 30 years with couple of years off in the Midlands, now living on the Pennine divide. Just one question: if foot doesn’t rhyme with strut what does it rhyme with?

  9. Chris says:

    I like this, but I was reading into Danelaw and found an image on Wikipedia which labels the North and South. Obviously this map is out of date (it’s about 1100 years old), but it’s definitely interesting to see how things changed from how they were. Instead of heading from the South West to the North East, it goes South East to North West and puts some really unlikely places in the North.

    Leicester, like in some divides only just makes it to the North, but Norfolk (which has a little more in common with the South West now in terms of speech) was firmly north while even Essex appears to have had a place.

    Personally, I prefer the line heading in the opposite direction. I’ve lived in Derby, Norwich and Nottingham and find that Norwich is easily southern, Nottingham has become a victim of the south moving north meaning great loss in East Midlands culture within the city, while Derby definitely falls above the line. From what I can see, I imagine that Danelaw had an influence on modern accents bringing what is (albeit weaker than a few decades ago) the North Midlands accent and mixing with Northumbrian northern accents. Or it could be some other influence.

  10. Phil says:

    Northerners think ‘dull’ rhymes with ‘full’, ‘lush’ rhymes with ‘push’, ‘thudding’ rhymes with ‘pudding’ and ‘blood’ rhymes with ‘good’. Silly Northerners!

    Was that isogloss there before the Great Vowel Shift? I wonder.

  11. Surely the north starts where the locals start saying “Eeee bah gum”? Or own a whippet.

    Case closed

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