Most of the best performing cities today had residents with above average skills at the turn of the century, according to a new study.
The Centre for Cities think tank said skill levels in 1901 is mirrored in the economic strength of areas today.
The study also found that investment in infrastructure and other areas which fuel economic growth had helped cities like Preston, Warrington and Swindon buck the trend.
Spending on roads, railways and homes had eased the movement of skilled workers and made the cities more likely to attract businesses, said the report.
Alexandra Jones, chief executive of Centre for Cities, said: "History tells us that failure to invest in city economies has long term effects for the UK economy. The Government needs to preference the policies that support cities to grow.
"The research shows that skills and transport in particular can shape the economic health of a city. Ensuring the education system prepares children for the world of work when they leave school is vital for those children and for the future health of the UK economy.
"If the Government holds back on investing in these fundamental policies now, history shows that it will pay later."
Cities Minister Greg Clark said: "The Government is handing over power to cities across England, which will allow them to take control of their economic destinies and unlock their potential.
"Through the recently-announced city deals, unique plans are now in place to help cities address their individual needs, whether this is helping employers take on apprentices, freeing up investment for local infrastructure projects or encouraging business investment.
"These deals, which are the first of their kind, have been secured by Bristol, Manchester, Nottingham, Liverpool, Leeds, Sheffield. Birmingham and Newcastle, and collectively expected to create an estimated 175,000 jobs over the next 20 years and 37,000 new apprenticeships.
"We're now looking at extending this radical devolution of power to other cities."