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Round Table 'Barcelona, from Textiles to Technology: The Development of a Great City I'

Wednesday 9 October 2013
Barcelona, from Textiles to Technology: The Development of a Great City I
Speakers: Angel Smith, Francisco Romero Salvadó and Nick Rider
With the participation of Antoni Vives
Chair: Prof. Montserrat Guibernau 
Time: 17.30 h.
Place: LSE, Portugal Street, Cowdray House, 1st floor, Seminar Room 1.11

With the collaboration of:

This round table is the first of a series of events on the history of Barcelona from the nineteenth century to the present day.


  • 17.30 h. Welcome by Prof. Montserrat Guibernau (Queen Mary University of London)
  • 17.35 h. Introductory words by Antoni Vives (Deputy Mayor for Urban Habitat, Barcelona City Council)
  • 17.50 h. Angel Smith (Reader in Modern Spanish History, University of Leeds)
  • 18.10 h. Francisco Romero (Reader in Modern Spanish History, University of Bristol)
  • 18.30 h. Nick Rider (Cañada Blanch Centre Fellow, LSE)
  • 18.50 h. Debate


  • The Emergence of the Industrial City by Angel Smith

Between 1850 and 1914 Barcelona consolidated its position as a major industrial centre. At the same time, the construction of the Eixample and the appearance of a distinctive elite modernista cultural movement heralded its rise to the status of major European city. The consolidation of the Eixample as a centre of bourgeois culture was matched by the growth of a number of working-class suburbs on the city’s outskirts (La Barceloneta, Sants, Sant Martí de Provençals and Sant Andreu). Relatively large scale capitalist manufacture made its presence felt in areas like textiles, construction, and the metal industry, but there were also a myriad of small-scale workshops. Class barriers, therefore, hardened but the world of petty manufacture by no means disappeared. Industrial workers enjoyed little in the way of state social legislation, and endured hostility towards trade union organisation, relatively low real wages and high death rates. It was therefore a city marked by discontinuous but often violent labour protest. From the perspective of the republican and working-class Left the country was run by a ‘Vaticanist bourgeoisie’, who ruled in the interests of the rich and powerful. Hence, strikes could often become generalised and violent, and include elements such as attacks on the city’s tax booths and on church buildings. Such protest movements were exemplified by the general strike of 1902 and the Tragic Week of 1909.

  • A City Torn by Social War from 1914 to 1923 by Francisco Romero

Between 1914 and 1923, Barcelona descended rapidly into a state of virtual civil war. The socio-economic consequences of the Great War had a huge impact on the Catalan capital, Spain’s main industrial metropolis. At one extreme, Catalan industrial barons lived a period of economic bonanza spending their extraordinary profits on property, automobiles and jewels. At the other, the Catalan proletariat endured miserable conditions and saw their living standards depressed by the galloping inflation, shortages and high rents. With the waves of poor peasants from southern Spain lured by the industrial boom, the working class quarters of the city (ciutat vella), already derelict and unsanitary, became crammed as many were housed in re-converted old factories and shanty dwellings. This reality fuelled class hatred and social conflict. The 44 day long strike at the main supplier of electricity in the city (Canadiense) brought Barcelona to a stand-still and marked the end of the reformist initiatives endorsed by the Lliga Regionalista, the modernizing main-stream social-conservative party (assembly in 1917, campaign for autonomy in late 1918). In the aftermath of the strike, Barcelona was shaken by violent class warfare. The proletariat led by the Anarcho-Syndicalist CNT fought the alliance between the local garrison and the employers headed by the Federación Patronal. A bourgeois armed militia (Somatén) took an active part in the conflict. It was deployed as a cordon sanitaire around Sants, Les Corts and Sarrià to avoid their link with the ciutat vella (where most killings took place) and protect the bourgeois eixample. As violence engulfed Barcelona, the local authorities became virtually autonomous from the increasingly feeble administrations in Madrid. The final outcome was the Catalan-hatched military coup of September 1923.

  • Mass Immigration, Housing Crisis and Urban Growth by Nick Rider

The transformation unleashed in 1914 led to abrupt change in many facets of Barcelona, not just labour conflicts. Galloping inflation across rural Spain spurred mass migration. Barcelona nearly doubled in population between 1910 and 1930, to become one of few cities then with over a million people, and urban growth spread into surrounding municipalities like Hospitalet and Santa Coloma. By 1930 the modernity of the new Barcelona was a favourite theme for local commentators. But, this transformation had other contradictory consequences, particularly an acute housing crisis. In the first boom of 1914-1919, building lagged far behind population; overcrowding reached record levels, and shanty towns multiplied. From around 1922, in contrast, the city’s growth itself formed the primary economic motor. Major projects focussed on the 1929 International Exhibition, but around them small landlords engaged in a property and building boom. In central areas this meant significant improvements in housing, reflected in improved health indicators. Alongside them, though, other districts appeared, particularly in the city fringes and outlying towns, of sub-standard new housing and more shanties, occupied by a growing insecure working class, many construction workers and recent migrants. Their earnings were too low for new better-quality housing, but even so their rents had still risen by up to 150 per cent in the 1920s. Much of working-class housing also formed a black economy, where legal processes and rent and health legislation were inoperative. Cosmetic or inadequately-conceived public housing schemes made little impression. With the arrival of the Republic in 1931, these marginalised outer city areas became centres of conflict between tenants and lower middle-class landlords, with continual rent strikes. They were also strongholds of radical anarchism. Barcelona’s growth had created a complex reality that undermined the popular unity upon which the expectations of Catalan republicans were based.

Angel Smith and Francisco Romero
Angel Smith and Francisco Romero

Nick Rider
Nick Rider

Montse Guibernau & Antoni Vives
Montse Guibernau and Antoni Vives