Britain was the first country to industrialise. That was before our rulers turned against manufacture...
Astonishing, unprecedented changes occurred in 18th and 19th century Britain, which heralded an utterly different way of life. Britain was the first country to become an industrial nation and embrace a mechanical age. Its industrial revolution broke a tradition of economic life rooted in agriculture and commerce that had existed for centuries.
Britain was the first to industrialise because a conducive mix of internal circumstances cleared away hindrances: there was a national identity, the peasantry had disappeared, tenant farmers and labourers weren’t so tied to the land, feudal regulations had gone, there was free trade across the country, a commercial revolution had taken place, the Civil War had ended royal monopolies, the aristocracy was involved in commerce and capitalist farming, our island was free of foreign armies with lots of natural resources, rivers and ports.
Salt’s Mill, Bradford: the textile mill was built in 1851. Now it’s a heritage centre...
There was a leap forward in society. Previously the only sources of power available had been wind and water, human and animal strength. These were gradually displaced by machines and inanimate power. Industrialisation demanded new skills, especially in the precision engineering, machine tool and metal-working trades.
New expertise was needed to build and maintain machinery, operate boilers, drive locomotives, mine coal and tend spinning-mules and power-looms. Work grew more specialised, while the new type of worker could command high wages, belong to a trade union, maintain a family and aspire to education.
There was a spectacular trans-formation of the coal, iron and textile industries with the development of steam power to drive machinery, as in the cotton industry, which had an amazing effect on the productive energies of the nation. Factories no longer had to sit by rivers, and could run 24 hours a day with shifts.
The factory system developed fast in the textile areas of Lancashire, Yorkshire, the East Midlands and in certain parts of Scotland. Fresh sources of raw material were exploited. Capital increased in volume and a banking system came into being.
Coal was the fuel of the industrial revolution. Production doubled between 1750 and 1800, then increased twenty-fold in the nineteenth century. Pig-iron production rose four times between 1740 and 1788, quadrupled again during the next twenty years and increased more than thirty fold in the nineteenth century.
The inventors of the new machines – people like James Watt, James Hargreaves, Richard Arkwright, Samuel Crompton, Edward Cartwright – were as much products as producers of the new conditions. As conditions grew ripe, the great technical inventions came. A combination of rapidly expanding markets, a supply of available wage labour and prospects of profitable production set many minds to work on the problem of increasing the output of commodities and making labour more productive.
Child labour was widespread during industrialisation, particularly in textiles. In the early 18th century it is estimated that around 35 per cent of ten-year-old working class boys were in the labour force, rising to 55 per cent (1791 to 1820) and then almost 60 per cent (1821 to 1850). Factory owners were looking for a cheap, malleable, fast-learning labour force and found them among the children of the urban workhouses, who were only lodged and fed, not paid.
Industrialisation allowed the population to increase rapidly. In 1700 Manchester, Salford and suburbs had perhaps a population of 40,000; by 1831, it was nearly 238,000. Other great manufacturing centres underwent a similar swift expansion and often hamlets grew into populous towns. The estimated population of England and Wales in 1700 was about 5 million; in 1750, 6 million; in 1801, 9 million; in 1831, 14 million. In 1801, there were only 15 towns with a population of over 20,000 inhabitants; by 1891 there were 63.
Advances in farming such as an increase in the acreage of land under cultivation, crop rotation, machines for planting seeds, selective breeding of animals and better use of fertiliser expanded food production. Forced enclosures of land concentrated it into the hands of bigger landowners. That was blatant robbery but the process produced enough food for those flocking to growing industrial cities and meant smallholders became either hired labourers or worked in industry.
The balance of population shifted from the south and east to the north and midlands. Men and women born and bred in the countryside came to live crowded together as members of the labour force in factories. Mass production demanded popular consumption. Average incomes rose though the rich benefited more than the poor. It brought higher standards of comfort and made a wide range of consumer goods available such as matches, steel pens, envelopes, etc.
The increasing demands of industry meant that good communications were of fundamental importance in order to transport things and people. The difficulty of travel that was typical of medieval times onwards was ended. Better surfaced roads, canals, steam packets at sea and eventually railways transformed the economy and people’s lives. The village was no longer the world.
The transformation caused by the industrial revolution brought suffering as well as improvement, notably in the long working hours, overcrowded urban conditions and use of child labour. But life had been harsh in the preceding rural existence where individuals were left to fend largely for themselves. The industrial revolution concentrated attention on economic and social defects and brought collective solutions to the problems people faced whether through the formation of trade unions, a factory inspectorate or demands for health and urban planning.
Britain was for a while “the workshop of the world”. Latterly its rulers have destructively turned against manufacture. Now, wanting a future, the people and manufacturers must press for its return. ■