Tuesday, 22 November 2016

The experience of industrialisation

The world's first factory.
Cromford mill, 1771
 Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons  

The term ‘Industrial Revolution’ was coined in 1884 by Sir Arnold Toynbee to describe the move from domestic to factory production, a process made possible by the application of water- and steam-power. 

Not all historians agree with this term. Those who prefer to think in terms of evolution point out that in the middle of the nineteenth century most people still worked on the land, or worked in unmodernised industries.

However, industrialisation should be seen as one of the great changes of history along with the prehistoric neolithic revolution. The census of 1851 revealed that the majority of British people were no longer living in rural areas but in towns and cities. This had never happened before in human history. 

The Industrial Revolution took place against the background of the eighteenth-century consumer revolution. The demand for more goods stimulated innovation, which then produced more goods at lower prices and provided a further stimulus to consumerism.

Cottage industry

In 1700 industry was located in the countryside. Between a sixth and a third of all men living in the countryside were primarily employed in non-agricultural jobs such as textile manufacture.
These were independent artisans producing for local markets, or they were employed by clothiers who might have access to international markets. 

Textiles: In 1700 the largest item in British exports (70 per cent) was wool. Production was household production. Weavers were usually men, working at (usually rented) looms in their homes. At least four women and children would be employed to prepare and spin enough flax or wool to keep a single loom at work. The advantage of cottage industry was that it was cheap and flexible, not bound by guild regulations. 

Minerals: Pre-industrial Britain also produced minerals in large quantities. The Weald of Kent produced iron-ore though production was being overtaken by iron-ore from Liège and Sweden. Swedish iron ore was imported to Hull and reached the rest of England through the great river system of the Humber basin. 
Coal was mined in Fife, lead in the Mendips.

The first wave

The first wave of industrialisation began in Britain for a set of complex geographical, economic, cultural and political reasons. 
It was centred upon relatively simple and cheap innovations in two leading sectors, iron-making and cotton textiles. 

One of the motors for industrialisation seems to have been the combination of cheap power with relatively high wages.Traditional sources of power were replaced by new ones, and these were applied to production. Manufacturing was increasingly (though not uniformly) organised in large-scale units or factories.
The economy changed as the share in national wealth contributed by agriculture dropped back and that derived from industry and trade moved into the lead.

The reform of agriculture

Industrialisation coincided with a demographic revolution as the population of Britain rose from 13 million in 1781 to 23 million in 1831. The pressure of numbers meant that farmed land had to be made to produce food more efficiently. Reform of agriculture enabled a higher proportion of people to leave the land. 

The reform of agriculture involved enclosure, both of the common land and of open strips. Enclosure was usually done by Act of Parliament, following a petition from the local landowners.
Enclosure came with a high social cost, involving the destruction of communal and collective traditions and the conversion of small farmers into an agricultural proletariat. 

Water and steam

Steam engines were invented by Thomas Savery (1698) and Thomas Newcomen (1712) for pumping water out of mines.

'Sir Richard Arkwright' by Mather Brown 1790
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons 

In 1769 the Preston barber Richard Arkwright (1732-92)  patented the spinning frame, which, because it was initially powered by water, became known as the water-frame. This machine produced a strong twist for warps, substituting wooden and metal cylinders for human fingers. This shifted textile production from the home to factories. Arkwright created the world's first factory at Cromford Mill in Derbyshire. Three hundred 'hands', mainly women and children, were employed.

Arkwright's original mill, Cromford.

Because of this change in production, inexpensive yarns were able to manufacture the cheap calicoes on which the subsequent great expansion of the cotton industry was based.

By 1800 cotton had replaced wool as Britain’s major export. This transformation was made possible by the invention of the cotton gin in the US and by a series of inventions (the flying shuttle, the spinning jenny, the water frame, the mule).

King Cotton

Manchester was already a centre of textile production in the mid-eighteenth century. In 1761 the Bridgewater Canal was opened. It was the first modern artificial waterway and linked Manchester to the the duke of Bridgewater's coalfields at Worsley.

'Spinning jenny'.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons - 

With easier access to coal and the patenting  of the spinning jenny in 1770, the population of Manchester took off, making it Britain's fastest growing city.  The 1831 census revealed a population of 142,000.

Cotton mills at Ancots, c. 1820
Public Domain

The bulk of the population lived in dire poverty and squalor - conditions memorably described by Friedrich Engels. However, alongside this went a genuine civic pride. Manchester was the up-and-coming town - the Singapore or Shanghai of its day.

Manchester from Kersal Moor
William Wyld, 1852
Public Domain


In 1709 Abraham Darby I smelted iron from coke at Coalbrookdale in the Severn Valley. With the invention of this process, iron manufacture could move from the Weald to the Severn Valley and South Wales, areas that combined rivers with reserves of coal and iron ore. In 1760 steam power was first employed to provide the blast for a coal furnace. In 1779 the world’s first iron bridge was constructed at Coalbrookdale.

'Sunset at Ironbridge'
Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0
via Wikimedia Commons - 

What about the workers?

Historians are continually debating about whether the lives of the workers improved or deteriorated in this period. Their lives differed in three different respects from those of the pre-industrial workers:

  1. They had no power to set their own working conditions. Their lives were dominated by the rhythm of the machine for twelve to fourteen hours a day.
  2. They were dependent solely on wages.
  3. They lived in a separate world from their employers.

Many working-class autobiographies paint a grim picture of life in industrial society. See here for a useful BBC site about the grim conditions of child labour. But wages were higher than for agricultural work or domestic service. Concern for the working conditions of women and children led to a reduction in their hours. But for most of the nineteenth century the adult male worker was unprotected by law. 

The plight of the weavers: The handloom weavers were among the greatest casualties of industrialisation. As the cotton industry expanded in the late eighteenth century, there was a greater demand for weavers to weave the thread into finished cloth. Weavers earned good wages. They worked in their own homes, sometimes owning, sometimes renting their looms, but as the power of the clothiers grew, they lost the power to set their own working conditions. With the slackening of trade at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, their earnings declined dramatically, and their plight worsened with the introduction of the power-loom from the 1820s. A Bolton witness reported to a parliamentary Select Committee in 1835:

'Since I can recollect, almost every weaver that I knew had a chest of drawers in his house, and a clock and chairs and bedsteads and candlesticks, an even pictures, articles of luxury; and now I find that these have disappeared; they have either gone into the houses of mechanics, or into the houses of persons of higher class.' Quoted E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Penguin, 1968, p. 319) 
A weaver's cottage in Yorkshire
late nineteenth century

In 1839 the writer, Thomas Carlyle, published an influential essay on ‘the Condition of England’. The same concern was reflected in the ‘industrial novels’ of the 1840s and 1850s by Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens: Mary Barton, North and South and Hard Times.

How much of a revolution?

We need to be  cautious in using the term 'revolution'. Most people did not see dramatic changes in their lives. Industrialisation was a long drawn-out process and was also a regionalised one. Urban Lancashire bore little resemblance to rural Dorset. Even in textiles only a relatively few operatives worked in large factories. The typical Lancashire worker in 1841 worked in a factory employing fewer than a hundred hands. 

Until the end of the nineteenth century capital was limited. The largest class of cotton mill in late 18th century Britain had a fixed capital of no more than £10,000. The finances of these mills and factories were provided by the informal sources of family, congregational, local or partnership funds.

Traditional sectors composed of agriculture and non-factory craft manufactures survived down to 1914. Until the 1890s far more women worked in domestic service than in factories.


  1. The Industrial Revolution caused great hardship, but it brought about the production of cheap mass-produced goods.
  2. This enabled working-class people to accumulate a far greater range of goods than had been possible in the past. Over time, people were better clothed and their homes were better furnished. 
  3. We can debate endlessly whether this was a price worth paying.

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