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Industrial Revolution

A/N: Part I, paper 10 essay from Michaelmas term of the 2008/09 academic year. I was supervised by Dr. E. Foyster at Clare.

Is there a case for reasserting the notion that there was an ‘Industrial Revolution’?

Today with historical research becoming increasingly fragmented and specialised it is perhaps unsurprising that in some quarters the idea of an ‘Industrial Revolution’, as laid out by Toynbee in the 1880s, has been completely disregarded. No longer is it believed that between roughly 1750 and 1850 Britain saw an ‘unprecedented’ level of industrial growth and economic expansion. In truth the concept has been under attack since at least the 1920s when Clapham planted the seeds of the ‘slow growth theory’ of British industrialisation; this argument suggests that, in fact, ‘revolution’ was the wrong label to put on a process which began in the sixteenth century and was by no means complete by the mid nineteenth. Even the rise of cultural and social history in the 1960s and 1970s could not save the idea from the waste basket of historical concepts. Historians such as Berg have pointed to the huge impact of urbanisation and changing social structure brought about by industrialisation; yet historians more set on quantitative data, economic historians such as Crafts in particular, have been quick to refute such claims, arguing that the figures do not show such marked discontinuity or even, as in Fores’ case, claiming that dictionary definitions of ‘Industrial Revolution’ cannot be stretched to include the shifts in the world outside factory economics. This essay will seek to prove that the modern historiography is too bogged down in minor detail and semantics and that not only is there a case for the reassertion of the notion of the ‘Industrial Revolution’ but that this reassertion is, in fact, overdue.

In 1814 Patrick Colquhoun speaking of the progress of manufactures claimed, ‘its rapidity, particularly since the commencement of the French revolutionary war, exceeds all credibility’. With contemporary statements like this it seems almost ridiculous that modern historians should deny the existence of the industrial revolution, and yet, claiming the gift of hindsight, many do. The modern preoccupation with quantifiable data has led to the reliance on figures and statistics almost to the exclusion of more qualitative data. What are the opinions of Colquhoun against carefully constructed tables of employment figures and the average annual growth per capita? Crafts’ important 1981 study seemed to prove beyond doubt that Deane and Cole’s 1960s figures were overoptimistic. Far from industrial growth of 3.4 and 4.4 percent per annum, during the time periods 1780 to 1801 and 1801 to 1831 respectively, as laid out by Deane and Cole, Crafts found the figures were closer to 2.11 and 3 percent per annum. Similarly he disputed Deane and Coles’ estimate of agricultural output growth for 1801 to 1831 – 1.64 percent – issuing a new, much lower, estimate of 0.18 percent. In truth however all of these figures are dogged by a shared problem: they simply are not reliable. This is not to suggest that Crafts or his fellow economists have been lax in their sums – although one does wonder how many historians outside of the regular contributors to the Economic History Review would be able to tell if this were the case – rather that the data they have to base their calculations upon is fundamentally flawed. It is incomplete, only covers a small percentage of industry and, as Berg and Hudson point out, relies too heavily on burial records which focus on adult males, meaning that the labour of women and children is ignored in these statistics, even though we know from anecdotal evidence that their use in the workforce grew massively in this period. As a result of these shortcomings error margins are huge. That said O’Brien and Quinault point out that even using the most recent figures, accelerated industrial growth is apparent: based on figures for 1750 it would have taken 120 years for national income to double, by 1825 it would have taken only 28 years. Clearly the statistical evidence is at best a flimsy pretext for denying the existence of an industrial revolution in the period 1750 – 1850.

It is not just the statistics which provide a barrier to the reassertion of the ‘Industrial Revolution’ as an accepted concept, the theory they are most often used to ‘prove’ has, in recent years, become almost as entrenched as the original label itself. The ‘slow growth’ theory has become the dominant interpretation as historians such as Kreidt argue that industrialisation had started long before the start of the ‘classic’ industrial revolution. To such historians the period 1750 to 1850 represented nothing more than continuity as an economy relying on natural materials inevitably gave way to a fossil fuel based economy. The suggestion that the development of industry from ‘proto-industrialisation’, based on domestic out work, to factory industry must have been linear lends weight to claims that the process of industrialisation was not complete by 1850, hence an ‘Industrial Revolution’ could not have occurred. Coleman’s discovery that fossil fuels were being used in some areas of industry in the sixteenth century or the assertion that tens of thousands of weavers continued to work from their homes as late as the 1850s, proves that industrialisation was not confined to the period 1750 to 1850 and was not a process which drew every worker into the factories. It does not prove that a substantial change in industry and working practice, an ‘Industrial Revolution’, did not take place. There is no reason why ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ industry could not have coexisted. Working from home did not prevent technological innovations, such as the spinning jenny, being introduced to speed up the process in spite of workers opposition - best remembered in wide scale form such as the ‘swing riots’ of 1830. Likewise the fact that there had been factories before 1750 does not detract from their wide scale development during the period 1750 to 1850. People are always dying for want of food, this does not make a famine any less exceptional and the argument that the ‘Industrial Revolution’ was somehow an unremarkable event because industrialisation had been occurring on smaller scale for centuries beforehand seems ludicrous.

Regional studies on the subject have been being conducted since the mid nineteenth century, however whilst those early antiquarian works served to show the speed and extent of industrialisation, more recent studies have been used to disprove the concept of an ‘Industrial Revolution’. As cotton mills began mushrooming throughout Manchester, the resulting urbanisation making it Britain’s second largest city by 1801*, such studies show that the traditional cottage textile industries of Essex, Suffolk and the West Riding all but disappeared by the early nineteenth century. The serge industry of Exeter, to provide a case in point, was worth £500,000 in 1700 but next to nothing by 1800. Similarly Cornish tin mining, an important part of the local economy since at least the Middle Ages, struggled as demand for tin fell with the new ironworks appearing in Birmingham amongst other places. Some areas seem to fit Bellini’s ‘flash in the pan’ model of the industrial revolution; North Wales for example saw the start of a cotton industry and copper and coal mining, yet by the 1820s industrialisation was faltering and by mid century the area was given over to tourism. Similarly historians who see the British experience as simply small part of a wider European whole, such as Crafts, appear unimpressed with British industrial expansion. They point to the inequalities between countries; between 1810 and 1900 British total commodity output grew an average of 2.6 percent per annum compared to 1.5 percent in France, less impressive when it is revealed that the British population expanded threefold in the same period whilst the French scarcely grew by a third. By arguing that Britain had a ready market through her Empire for low quality produce, the near inedible pickled herring exported from Scotland to the slave population in the West Indies for example, and the early shift from subsistence farming was based on the relatively fertile soil downplays the extent and speed of change, suggesting that as industrialisation throughout Europe was inevitable the events of this ‘first Industrial Revolution’ were nothing special. Both arguments are easily countered however; in the case of regional differences, it is to be expected that any generalisation will have exceptions; such is the nature of life. As I will discuss late however, a move away from industry back to agriculture as happened in many of these areas does not mean that a revolution in working practice and attitudes towards the workplace did not occur. Secondly the idea that the ‘Industrial Revolution’ does not deserve its label because other nations also became industrialised is simply ignoring the main issue – even in the European context the transformation was swift and widely recognised; the French were the first to use the term ‘Industrial Revolution’ in the 1840s to describe the rapid process the whole world had witnessed.

Instead of an ‘Industrial Revolution’, ‘England experienced an urban evolution’ claimed Fores, exemplifying the nitpicking over semantics that hinders argument on the wider issues of the industrial revolution. The 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of social and cultural history as inter-disciplinary history became fashionable; historians like Mokyr wrote about the huge social impact of the industrial revolution, in particular the impact of mass urbanisation as towns grew up or expanded around industry. Thompson wrote in the 1970s of the creation of the working classes, arguing that they were bound together primarily by their shared experience of the new industrialised urban landscape. Similarly the rise of the competitive business mentality is acknowledged as being an important factor in creating, if not a unified middle class then, a coherent middle class ideology incorporating self-improvement. It was this erosion of paternal charity which so moved Toynbee to write of the Industrial Revolution as causing misery to the masses as the welfare of the lower orders was sacrificed to the altar of commercial profit. Yet many of the historians who would deny the existence of an ‘Industrial Revolution’ refuse to acknowledge such social and cultural research as relevant to their study of the economy. By focussing too narrowly, in some cases even dismissing all industry that does not fit the factory or mill based structure found within the textile industry, economic historians have been obscuring the wider picture and alienating their statistical evidence from its historical context, something which Landes has lamented. To state that there was no such thing as an Industrial Revolution based on such a narrow, questionable definitions is easy to do; justifying that belief when looking at the era in context is a much harder task.

If then, the arguments used to try and disprove the existence of an ‘Industrial Revolution’ are found wanting, it would seem clear that the notion should be reinstated. Yet there are still other persuasive reasons to be put forward in its favour. The ‘Industrial Revolution’ was not just a growth in the economy and a move of industry closer to centres of transport and coal mines. It encompassed a fundamental change in the ‘norms and values’ of the workplace. Employment before the ‘industrial age’ had been paternalistic in nature: it was taken for granted that workers would receive benefits such as free meals or access to shared pasture ground for their services. Commercial competition eroded this idea to the extent that employers who provided benefits such as food and subsidised education were regarded as exceptional by the mid nineteenth century. Urbanisation, although not a new phenomena, grew quickly enough for contemporaries to remark on it. Glasgow provides a good example; the population of Glasgow rose fourfold between 1750 and 1821, then a further 38 percent by 1831 - this growth helped lead Glasgow towards having the highest death rate in Scotland by 1841, 60 percent of all deaths being caused by infectious diseases. Population growth it seems sped up the erosion of the paternalistic bonds between employer and employee as the workforce became increasingly expendable. Women and children were drawn fully into employment, children made up 84 percent of employees in Renfrewshire’s 41 cotton mills in 1809. Even outside the factories the labour of women and children was important in the cottage industries such as straw plaiting, far from being the result of the new mania for consumer products suggested by Pollard, it was the increasing insecurity of living standards that drove this relentless toil. Thrifty employers preferred the cheap labour of women and children to the higher wages demanded by skilled artisans. This transformation in the labour market encouraged not only the radical political groups emphasised by Thompson but also a wave of despondency; literacy levels fell and alcohol consumption soared as the lower orders sought escapism, Wrigley and Schofield’s research shows that marriage age fell and illegitimacy rates rose, suggesting the traditional idea of saving to start a household before marriage looked hopeless and people gave up on it. The shift from subsistence agricultural economy meant that the means of survival were no longer under the worker’s control, they could be more industrious than before yet not even earn a living wage. As the business led ideals of self-improvement and laissez faire began to hold sway the security net provided by the Poor Law were removed by the Amendment Act of 1834. By 1850 a fundamental change had taken place in relation the workplace, the ‘Industrial Revolution’ had not only transformed the fortune of the British economy, and seen significant technological advancement, it had also resulted in a huge restructuring in how people worked and expectations surrounding that employment.

In conclusion the arguments that have been used to invalidate the notion of an ‘Industrial Revolution’ have been flawed. Historians such as Fores have focussed too heavily on semantics in an attempt to play down its importance in British history. Economic historians have obscured the wider context by focusing on slight differences between figures produced, regardless of the fact that the inevitable error margins from such calculations render all but the most general inconclusive anyway. The idea that an ‘Industrial Revolution’ could not have taken place because industrialisation was not consistent in every quarter is too petty; even in areas, such as the West Riding, where deindustrialisation occurred, marked changes took place in the methods of working and the expectations of employers. Machinery was opposed so vehemently because it represented a higher output from workers for lower wages, commercial competition creating an environment where little was done to support those who then found themselves unable to support their families. The ‘Industrial Revolution’ was a revolution in terms of the British economic structure – cotton, coal mining and steel became the country’s main industrial interests and remained so for many years – but also in social terms. Competition transformed the way workers were treated and how they saw themselves. Hobsbawm may have been overstating the case somewhat when he claimed in 1968 that the industrial revolution was ‘the most fundamental transformation in the history of the world recorded in written documents’ but it certainly deserves greater respect as a concept from the historical community. It may not have been entirely unprecedented nor entirely comprehensive but it did fundamentally change the structure of the British economy and transform, in some ways, society.

Industrial Revolution Bibliography 

  • P. Hudson, The Industrial Revolution (1992), Introduction and Chapter 1. 
  •  P. O’Brien and R. Quinault (eds.), The Industrial Revolution and British Society (1993), Introduction. 
  •  S. King and G. Timmins, Making Sense of the Industrial Revolution: English Economy and Society (2001), chapter 1. 
  •  J. Hoppit, ‘Understanding the Industrial Revolution’, Historical Journal 30 (1987). 
  •  M.J. Daunton, Progress and Poverty (1995), Chapter 5. 
  •  J. de Vries, ‘The Industrial Revolution and the Industrious Revolution’, Journal of Economic History 54 (1994) 
  •  M. Berg and P. Hudson, ‘Rehabilitating the industrial revolution’, Economic History Review 45 (1992). 
  •  M. Berg, The Age of Manufactures (1985), Chapters 1 and 5. 
  •  C.A. Whatley, Scottish Society 1707-1830 (2000), Chapters 6-7. 
  •  N.F.R. Crafts, British Economic Growth during the Industrial Revolution (1985), Introduction and Chapter 2. 
  •  M. Fores, ‘The myth of a British industrial revolution’, History 66 (1981).


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