The Industrial Revolution: A New History

by Pat Hudson

For 200 years the British industrial revolution has been seen largely as a story of the triumph of British science, inventiveness and entrepreneurship, promoted by a progressive liberalisation of markets and the political economy of free trade. The idea that Britain precociously took off along a path to modern economic growth, providing a blueprint that other nations and regions of the globe would and should eventually follow has been, and continues to be, powerful. It became increasingly popular during the Cold War years when the British/Western path to economic development via free minds, free markets and liberal democracy was held as the antidote to state sponsored industrialisation in the command economies. It is currently enjoying a major revival. It is widely believed that Britain, followed first by other parts of Europe and then by the United States, achieved economic advancement and global dominance because of the development of a culture of economic rationality and institutions favourable to productivity increase, together with trade liberalisation and liberal democracy that other parts of the globe did not, and often still do not, possess. From a present-day Western perspective, this popular view fits with dominant beliefs about contemporary society and serves powerful economic interests.

However, looking back on the British industrial revolution from a contemporary global perspective makes the dominant view outlined above difficult, if not impossible, to sustain. Considering the British industrial revolution from the perspective of modern economic growth in diverse parts of the globe in more recent times, in Japan, parts of South America, Korea, India, and above all China, casts an entirely different light on the process. Recent research on economic development and technology in other parts of the world, particularly Asia, in the early modern period also highlights both the narrowness of Western Europe’s lead at that point, and the roots of East/West divergence. From these perspectives the British transition to modern and sustained economic growth may still seem precocious and remarkable, but also unpredictable, contingent, patchy and far from complete.

A new history of the industrial revolution in Britain, one fit for the twenty first century, involves resurrecting and reconsidering alternative interpretations of early industrialisation that have fallen by the wayside in recent decades but which are now receiving a great deal more attention. These interpretations stress the role of military-backed global trading hegemony, including the role of the slave trade, colonies, and the domination of India; favourable resource endowments and geographical location that are partly fortuitous; and the exploitation of labour within and outside of Britain. But there is also need for entirely new perspectives. The rise of Asian economies in the twentieth century has demonstrated that the ‘Great Divergence’ between the West and the Rest, ushered in by early industrial revolutions, was a temporary phenomenon. This has led historians to research both the timing and the exact nature of the Divergence before the eighteenth century. Our focus should now therefore be upon those global changes that, operating in a world of surprising similarities, as well as differences, in economic, political and cultural development, set Britain first, then other parts of the West, on a path of more intensive and more sustained economic growth than elsewhere for a temporary period. It is no longer satisfactory to argue that the first industrial revolution created a paradigm for modern economic growth let alone that it represented global destiny. Because economic growth in India, Japan, China and elsewhere in recent decades, has manifested new and different forms and cultures of industrialisation, it is clear that these need fully to be explored in order to place the earlier pattern of British and Western industrialisation in a proper perspective.

In the twenty first century we are also more concerned with the future development of technologies that create sustainable growth and that militate against environmental degradation and international political instability. It is thus strange that in our history writing we remain in thrall to technological changes that developed in Europe 300 years ago. The capital- and energy-intensive technologies begun during the industrial revolution will not solve our future problems. New economic history should therefore be keen to examine alternative traditions and transitions in economic growth and energy use in the past and to pay more attention to the impact of change upon incomes, employment and well being.

It is no longer appropriate or useful to see British industrialisation largely from the insular stand point of what happened in and to Britain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But even these internal changes look different when viewed in the context of wider European and global history; when compared with contemporary global shifts; and when placed within a chronology that looks further back and further forward than traditional interpretations have allowed.

A new history of the British industrial revolution must do the following:

1. Cast the net wide to include broader European scientific and enlightenment thinking as well as cultural and technological changes that were not confined to Europe in the early modern period. British success depended as much, if not more, upon technology and ideas transferred from other countries and cultures, European and Asian (particularly French, Dutch, Indian and Chinese), than upon purely British ingenuity. The coal fired blast furnace was in widespread use in China by the fifth century BC; chlorine bleaching and Jacquard weaving came from France; commercial attitudes and institutions from Holland; textile printing and dyeing from India, pottery and porcelain technology and design from China, laquerware techniques from Japan. The transfer and adaptation of these and other technologies and ideas to Britain is a crucial part of the story.

2. Recognise that an early take off in innovation and economic growth in Britain was spurred by incentives arising from favourable resource endowments (especially cheap coal, compared with the cost of timber as a fuel source) and by the relatively high cost of labour compared with some other parts of Europe and the globe (which encouraged the substitution of machinery for hand power). British wages on average were well above the subsistence minimum whilst wages in the poorer parts of the Europe and most of Asia were not. Certain combinations of factor costs were vital in incentivising innovation of particular kinds. Cheap coal from relatively accessible coal seams in Britain was a boon to a large range of key heat intensive industries: iron, glass, brewing, sugar refining, brick making, pottery. It was also of course vital to steam power innovation although this came largely in the mid nineteenth century when Britain had already gained economic ascendancy. By 1800 Britain consumed about 15 million tons of coal per year compared with around 3 million in the rest of Europe. If the same energy had had to be produced from wood this would have taken the equivalent of 88% of the arable area of the country. In Eastern parts of Europe and in much of Asia in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries fuel, especially fossil fuel, was very expensive relative to the cost of labour and other paths to maintaining economic buoyancy were necessarily sought.

3. Understand that the growth of markets and technological innovation were interdependent. Technology and invention should not be seen in isolation as the main cause of the British (or any other) industrial revolution because the innovation of new techniques requires commercial and cost incentives. The stimulus of growing demand – often protected demand, sometimes demand from the state – was vital. The demand for British textiles, for example, was protected from foreign competition in domestic and many overseas markets for most of the eighteenth century and government orders for military goods – iron, ships, sails, cordage, uniforms – underpinned demand in many industrial sectors.

Innovativeness can certainly stimulate the extension of markets by creating new or improved goods and/ or by lowering the prices of commodities and making them more affordable or competitive. Brighter and lighter cloths stimulated market growth in the textile industry of the eighteenth century and price reductions as a result of productivity increase were important especially from the 1820s, after mechanisation. But innovation generally gets off the ground in the first place only when market conditions are favourable. Growing demand for textiles for both domestic consumption and export in the early eighteenth century created bottlenecks in the supply chain that stimulated the search for new technologies of weaving and spinning: the fly shuttle, spinning jenny, throstle frame and later developments with water-powered and steam-powered mechanisation can be seen in this light. Long delays between some major inventions and widespread innovations provide further evidence of the key role of demand in stimulating technological development. The innovation of steam power for rotary and motive force in Britain was very slow partly because of the innumerable improvements that were needed to make it efficient, but primarily because water power and water transport were preferred. Steam power only triumphed with the concentration of industries on coalfields (which reduced the transport costs and hence the price of coal), when demand for manufactures was such that it justified the huge fixed capital investment required, and when it paid to keep machinery moving day and night.

4. Recognise that the progress of new production technologies represented a step change in productivity in many sectors, especially textiles. However even in the leading sectors of the economy, the innovation of capital intensive and labour saving technologies was often slow, incomplete, and less than impressive. In 1830 no single industry had experienced a complete technological revolution (though iron manufacture had come close), and even by 1850 this could only be said of iron, cotton and railway transport. Furthermore, process innovation in the period rarely needed new knowledge and even less frequently depended upon the progress of peculiarly British science, scientific enquiry or inventiveness. Neither can the British elite be described as peculiarly progressive nor risk taking in their outlook compared with their European contemporaries. Some major inventions were pioneered in Britain: Cort’s iron puddling; Newcomen, Smeaton, Watt and Trevithick’s work with steam engines; the spinning technologies of Hargreaves and Highs (which Arkwright patented); and the weaving machines of Kay and Cartwright. But many others were not indigenous: roller spinning; the pottery and china techniques of firms like Wedgwood; the main technologies for bleaching, dyeing, fancy weaving; and the patterned printing of cotton in varieties of colour and style (this latter of course copied from Indian imports).

5. Accept that British inventors generally had little connection with pure science or scientists. There was some connection in steam development (Watt, Boulton and Trevithick maintained connections with the Royal Society), but there was hardly any relationship between science and textile technology or metal wares, for example. Hargreaves was a carpenter and weaver from Blackburn with little formal education but he had mechanical skills and intimate knowledge of weaving. Arkwright was a barber and wig maker who had no experience in textiles. His machine was constructed by a clock maker. These and other biographies of well known figures will be used to illustrate the argument of the book. Britain was not exclusively at the forefront of science or scientific knowledge. Much industrial science was done on the continent. British technological successes depended more upon bringing ideas from elsewhere to full development or fruition than upon any peculiar prowess of British science or invention. Furthermore, innovation depended as much upon constant tinkering and on-the-spot adjustments (micro-inventiveness) as it did upon the more famous technological breakthroughs (the macro-inventions). Micro-inventions were vital in order to make new technologies work and become profitable. Analysis of the interface between divisions of labour, skills, work practices and routines and ‘shop-floor’ initiatives in specific industrial sectors such as textiles and metal wares are a vital part of the story. Arkwright stole his idea for the water frame from a workman named Thomas Highs. It is also important to recognise that many productivity gains before 1830 were had from longer hours and greater disciplining of labour; from the extension and gradual improvement of existing technologies, by employers and workers themselves; and from improved organisation of production and better information flow, than from massive new innovations or new motive energy sources.

6. See that innovation was as much about new products, fashions and designs (often copied from other cultures and parts of the globe), and their promotion through new forms of advertising and retailing, as it was about new methods of production. Product innovation was vital alongside process innovation. In textiles, new patterns and colours drove up demand, as did new mixes of cotton with other fibres. Innovation in fancy silverware and snuff boxes, lace, woollens, cottons, guns and cutlery extended the markets for these goods whilst, even in the manufacture of everyday tools and equipment, adapting design for particular niche markets was vital. In North America, for example, British hoes were sold in a bewildering array of sizes and shapes to suit different agricultural conditions and the preferences of particular natives and settlers. Cotton and wool textiles similarly needed to be designed to suit various and varying markets and climates across the Atlantic and in Europe. Getting the mix and design of products right for particular markets – for example, cottons, metal wares and guns used in bartering for slaves on the West Coast of Africa in the eighteenth century – was more important than their prices, and in this the role of merchants, commercial travellers and information flow was vital. The home market meanwhile was also driven by innovations in information, newspaper advertising, retailing, shop window displays and warehouse discounts.

7. Recognise that the role of the state in the British industrial revolution has been deliberately downplayed in many conventional accounts, often for ideological reasons. State activity, including a revolution in state finances and taxation, underpinned many aspects of industrial development and efficiency. Taxing certain goods (e.g. window glass, soap, wigs, Dalmatian dogs) and dealing with evasion and smuggling led to innovations in design, quality and record keeping. Between 1670 and 1815 total state revenues from taxes rose 17 times whilst national income rose only threefold. Most of the revenue was spent on the navy and the military, in trade protection, trade advancement and wars. Eleven wars were fought against European rivals, including four against the Dutch, between 1670 and 1819. By the latter date national debt reached £850 million, nearly three times national income. The British were the most taxed nation in Europe and probably on the globe. Far from being the product of market liberalisation and free trade, British primacy before the mid-nineteenth century was driven by a mercantilist policy of protectionism, militarism and trade wars. This resulted in: colonial and Asian markets for exports; imports of raw materials, luxuries and groceries that stimulated industriousness; protected sea lanes; large scale shipping, ship building and munitions industries; higher wages for an urbanising workforce; greater internal and external security and political stability. The rights of Britons to own and use capital and natural resources throughout Britain and her empire, as well as to employ capital and military force in the mercantile marine, were bolstered by the state more than was the case for any other elite group in Europe or beyond. This was the result of mercantilist policies.

8. Consider how the agricultural sector contributed to industrial growth. High yields per acre in agriculture compared with other countries were important: they enabled high levels of animal husbandry and horse use for power, leading to high value outputs. The industrial revolution and transport changes were supported by capital investment from landowners and many smaller manufacturers used landholdings as collateral for loans and to spread their risks. Much of the growing labour force for industry was recruited from surplus population on the land. Agricultural improvement was incremental over earlier centuries and agricultural productivity was improved by mixed farming and crop rotations as well as institutional changes promoted by enclosure and the enlargement of farms. Agriculture was increasingly profitable in the late eighteenth century especially as population growth, urbanisation and the demand for foodstuffs accelerated. This was even more the case in the Napoleonic War period when overseas supplies of foodstuffs were interrupted. This raised the incomes of landowners and farmers, but there was a danger that agricultural profitability and the attraction of agricultural investment might starve industry of much-needed funding and capitalisation. That it did not is a vital ingredient in the story.

9. Fully accept that industrial revolutions in other countries, global contexts and periods were rarely similar to the one that occurred in Britain. Every national and regional experience of industrialisation is different depending upon prior conditions, resource endowments, political and economic policies, cultural perspectives and motivations, and place in the global economic power hierarchy of the time. Seeing industrialisation as something to be experienced in a similar way as other parts of the globe ‘catch up’ with Britain is misleading and distorts our understanding of the British industrial revolution as well as the processes occurring elsewhere and at other times.

A new history of the industrial revolution must also show that:

i) The skyline of many industrial regions in Britain was transformed by the spread and smoke of steam powered factories, but small workshops and hand technologies remained just as efficient for many processes and therefore very common. In many senses the British industrial revolution was patchy, partial and incomplete. De-industrialisation occurred alongside industrialisation and some regions and industries were significantly transformed whilst others exhibited decline or continuity rather than progressive change. Lancashire, West Yorkshire, the Scottish lowlands, the West Midlands, the industrial North East, and London flourished whilst other areas declined. From the outset in Britain the finance and service sectors increased their profile and were to endure as a more important feature of the British economy than manufacturing during and beyond the nineteenth century. Although the shift from agrarian to manufacturing and industrial occupations was significant, the growth of service sector employments (in domestic service, retailing and transport as well as in trading wholesaling, banking and insurance) was equally a hallmark of the industrial revolution. In fact the structural shift in employment in the economy in favour of manufacturing, for male labour especially, appears to have occurred largely in earlier decades and actually slowed in the period most closely associated with the industrial revolution (c 1780-1830) compared with before and after.

ii) The industrial revolution depended as much upon the labour of women and children as upon that of adult men (a fact that bears interesting similarities with industrialisations in the twentieth century). The population growth that accompanied industrialisation considerably lowered the age structure of the population, encouraging youthful employment. Women and children sought manufacturing work to boost family incomes at a time when agricultural occupations for these groups were declining and when male employment in manufacturing was uncertain because of technological and organisational changes. Employers found that women and children provided a cheap and flexible labour supply that was more amenable to change and less able to resist it. Much labour in manufacturing was carried out in domestic premises and employed most family members plus servants and apprentices. The shift into waged work for women and children impacted upon their subsistence activities (home weaving, sewing, food preserving and preparation, tallow candle making, rush plates etc.). Subsistence products came increasingly to be bought in from markets, peddlers and shops. It seems that workers, including more family members, worked longer hours in order to afford more of the desirable ranges of necessaries and small luxuries that were becoming available with the extension of the market and the lowering of prices for manufactured consumer goods. The working population, through a mixture of necessity and choice, became more industrious.

iii) Overall, the industrial revolution did not result in a sudden massive increase in the growth rates of industrial output, GDP or productivity advance. Changes were pervasive throughout the economy and society but their impact on economic growth was mixed and took many decades, well into the mid-nineteenth century, to achieve. Innovations left earlier machinery idle through obsolescence and were also capital hungry. Many pioneer innovations were also unreliable or inefficient at first. These factors retarded productivity advance and economic growth. Later industrialisers often had the benefit of moving straight into tried and tested technologies and of avoiding costly errors. Deindustrialisation in many regions also slowed the pace of national development overall. Recent research on the role of regional change in other countries during more recent industrialisations demands that we look again at the geography of British development: at regional cultures, traditions, skills and institutions that could promote or retard industrial transformation.

iv) Economic changes were accompanied by social changes, not least rapid population growth; a lowering of the age of marriage; more procreative activity that resulted in higher illegitimacy rates and larger families; migration; and urbanisation. People married younger and had more children both inside and outside of marriage. This was related to growing wage dependency, migration and the social changes that accompanied these. Population expansion in turn contributed to the high unemployment, poverty and ‘crime’ caused by economic upheaval. Revolutionary sexual and social changes were a hallmark of the period.

Although the benefits of modern economic growth eventually filtered down the social scale to benefit the mass of the population, this was a very slow and uneven process. Living standards stagnated or declined for many whilst the growing middle and entrepreneurial class, financiers and landowners generally gained (sometimes enormously) in wealth and conspicuous consumption (seen in marked contrasts in housing, diet, clothing, disease and death rates between rich and poor). This polarisation of economic experiences, combined with the cultural upheaval caused by rapid urbanisation and the work pressures created by technological innovation and growing competition, contributed to political instability and to a shifting political and social structure. There were movements of resistance to the introduction of machinery that undermined the skill, status and remuneration of workers. These were often sufficiently powerful to mould the pace and course of change in Britain and even more on the continent. Hargreaves’s workshop was twice attacked and destroyed by workers, for example, and he never fully benefited from the value of his invention. Arkwright’s factory at Chorley was sacked and burned: so worried was he that he provided his workers with weapons and canons. Mills were commonly built with crenellations and other defences. These movements of resistance are a vital element in understanding the economic changes of the early nineteenth century and the nature of British society thereafter.

Pat Hudson had a career in academia, becoming Professor of Economic History at the University of Liverpool before taking a Chair in History at Cardiff University in 1997. She retired early to concentrate on research and is currently writing ‘A New History of the Industrial Revolution’. She holds Honorary Professorial fellowships at Swansea University and at the London School of Economics.

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First published: 12 July, 2011

Category: History

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