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Migration and Industrialisation

This was a two hour lecture I gave to first year undergrad students during my ill-fated stint as a grad student at the University of South Wales.

For clarification.

If we class 'rural' as a place with a population of less than 3,000 the vast majority of Europe was rural in 1700 - and would be in many areas well into the 19th century and beyond, as the rates of industrialisation differed. Another reason why migration was limited was that people were tied to the land. Their survival depended on the success of crops and, in a more literal interpretation, many people actually belonged to the owner of the land they lived on. While English serfdom died out in the middle ages, in France it was only officially abolished in 1789, and in Russia emancipation didn't occur until 1861. 

There were other legal restrictions. In Elizabethan times able bodied beggars could be whipped and branded, and the 1835 Vagrancy Act made it illegal to beg or be homeless. The idea was to prevent 'outsiders' becoming a drain on local resources - you see the same issues today. Legal opposition to the outsourcing of social housing tenants from affluent areas like Westminster to other authorities rests largely on the burden it places on council services in the host authority.

Finally, you need to consider the physical difficulty of travel. In 1700 canals were all but non-existent, the very first steam train didn't appear until 1804 and the first intercity railway - between Liverpool and Manchester - opened in 1830. Road conditions too were poor. In 1755, when arguing for the need for a Monmouthshire Turnpike Act a local landowner, Valentine Morris, claimed 'we travel in ditches'.

The so-called agrarian revolution started before industrialistion, but continued alongside it, and basically refers to changes in farming methods in Britain - which were then often exported abroad. This included more sophisticated crop rotation, and the use of fertilizer to reclaim 'waste' land. It also saw farmland being consolidated, so that instead of peasants all farming their little plots, the land would be amalgamated into a larger holding.

It wasn't all good news however. Enclosure Acts removed the rights of local people to use common land for grazing livestock, collecting timber, etc. About 6 million acres of common land was enclosed between 1770 and 1830. In addition the new, larger farms made use of machinery to help increase production and reduce the amount of necessary manpower. The threshing machine was invented in about 1784 and was beginning to come into regular use from the 1820s. One machine could do the work of up to 20 men and this sparked the Swing Riots of the 1830s.

They were really rioting against the change in the rural way of life. Because improved agricultural methods had given people more time, which had lead to a growth in proto-industrialisation. I.e. Market orientated craft production, also known as 'putting out'. For example in the Netherlands in the 17th century the urban craft guilds had a lot of power. So, instead, merchants would pay piece wages for peasants to spin and weave from their own homes. The net result is that increasing numbers of people become landless wage workers.

It is important to note that proto-industrialisation is not the only route into industrialisation. Out work continued throughout the period, particularly in fine needlework in the UK, and the lacemakers of Calais in France. Other industries did not rely on piecework at all, such as mining and smelting.

The industrial revolution took place between roughly 1760 and 1840. Some historians argue that the process was too slow to be a revolution, and the exact dates are hotly debated, but generally speaking 1760 to 1840 is the accepted timeline for Britain. There are four main areas which saw major, interlinked, developments:
  • The manufacture of textiles was transformed. The introduction of the flying shuttle in 1733 had doubled the output of a weaver. The introduction of mechanised cotton spinning using steam power increased the output of a spinner by about a thousand times. Cotton was particularly important to Britain as an export good - it accounted for about 15% of exports in 1794-6, but 42% in 1804-6. 
  • Steam power then was very important to industrialisation. It powered the cotton mills and helped transport raw materials and finished goods around the country. And not just goods but people. In 1830 there was 98 miles of railway in Britain, by 1860 there were 10,433 miles. 
  • Iron manufacture. Changes in furnace design helped Britain to increase its iron and steel production. Whereas in the 18th century Britain had had to import iron from Sweden and Russia, by 1800 it was exporting iron as well as using it domestically in machinery, etc. 
  • Then there was mining. Steam pumps had been introduced in 1698 to help remove water from mines, allowing shafts to be made deeper. But it wasn't until steam engines became more reliable and efficient that the profitability of mining soared. In 1700 the annual coal output in Britain was about 3 million tonns. By 1830 it was 30 million tonns. The extracted coal was then used to power the steam engines being used in the factories and on the railways.

In short we see declining mortality rates (e.g. In 1750 for every 1000 people in England, 31.5 died per annum. By 1800 that figure had come down to 27.1 per thousand per annum) combined with increased birth rates. It may be that more children increased the family income, but there were also improvements in childbirth procedures - the introduction of forceps, for example, and changes in midwifery. Prior to 1750 midwives were typically women who had learned 'on the job', especially in rural areas. But as Europe became more urbanised this was reigned in. Male midwives became much more common, and childbirth began to move from something which took place at home to something which took place in the hospital. In 1853 even Queen Victoria gave birth with the aid of chloroform. 

People also began to marry younger, which gave them more time to have children. Traditionally apprentices were not permitted to marry; in Germany, even after finishing an apprenticeship they would still be expected to serve around four years learning their craft as a journeyman. Many didn't marry until afterwards.

There was also the issue of land. If you're a landless peasant in the feudal system, you're really waiting for your parents to die so you can have their land. Younger brothers had next to no prospects in such a system. Increased employment enabled people to marry younger as it provided a means of supporting a family.

When talking about migration you have different types - internal migration takes place within an area. For example in South Wales people moved into Merthyr, where four ironworks had been built by 1784. In 1801 it was the most populous parish in Wales with around 7 and half thousand inhabitants. In 1851 it had overtaken Swansea as the largest town, and had over 46,000 inhabitants. People were not just moving to established big cities. They were moving to where industry was and creating new big urban centres.

Up on the screen is a picture of the Merthyr Rising of 1831. The protest was sparked by the decision of William Crawshay, one of the town's leading industrialists, to lower wages in May 1831. The situation flared quickly and strikes spread throughout South East Wales. By June 7th the authorities had regained control of the town, through the use of force, and one of the ringleaders, Lewis Lewis, was sentenced to transportation. This story shows us the tensions that could exist in urban areas, and how quickly problems could spread.

Transportation of convicts had three main benefits to the minds of contemporary lawmakers. It removed troublemakers from their communities, it helped ease the overcrowding in the prison system, and it provided a cheap means of consolidating a nation's presence in far off places. It could also be used to get rid of other undesirables - France transported convicts to the Devil's Island, just off the coast of French Guinea, from 1852. First it was used primarily as a leper colony, then expanded to hold political prisoners and the most hardened criminals. 80,000 had been sent there by the time the last prison closed in 1953.

Britain made even more extensive use of transportation. First to North America, sending around 50,000 between 1620 and the American Revolution of 1776. In 1787 the British began sending convicts to Australia. Most famously, perhaps, is the penal colony of Van Dieman's Land (modern day Tasmania) which took about 75,000 convicts between 1803 and 1853. That figure represented around 40% of the entire number transported to Australia.

A couple of years ago I got to see the Tasmanian Grassroots Union Choir perform a folk opera on the life of George Loveless, one of the Tolpuddle Martyrs who was transported to Van Dieman's Land in 1834. That's just a taste of some of the exciting things you can look forward to if you decide to take up Labour History.

Empires weren't only good for providing somewhere for you to ship your criminals to. Empire building also provided raw materials for manufacture, as well as export markets to sell finished goods to. Britain's involvement in India was initially lead by the East India Company, not the government, highlighting how well business understood the potential of empire building. India became Britain's main export market for cotton. On a grander scale there was the discovery of diamonds in South Africa in 1866, and gold in 1886. This became one of the main incentives behind the second Boer War in 1899 and 1902. The British won control over the Afrikaaners but cost around £2million.

New inventions would also direct imperialism. For instance the invention of the car in the late 19th century lead to a 'rubber boom' and Brazil became hot property. The search was on to find other countries where it could be grown, Britain settling on Ceylon and Malaya.

Empire also provided nations with their own safe trading routes, and ensured trade outposts across the globe. A good example of how trade lead to empire can be seen in the Opium Wars of 1839-42 and 1856-60. In the 18th century there was a high demand in Europe for Chinese goods like silk, tea and porcelain. In contrast the only thing China wanted from Europe was silver. After the British gained control of Bengal in 1757 however they began monopolising the opium trade and, despite the fact the importation of opium into China was illegal, the British were shipping in 75 tonnes by 1773. By the 1820s China was importing 900 tonnes of Bengali opium from the British, and when they began the blockade of the British over the trade in 1839 that figure was around 1400 tonnes. The result of the wars was that China was forced to cede Hong Kong to the British, and to open its ports to British trade.

All of these conflicts lead to developments in warfare. Industry allowed more powerful weapons to be developed, and then to be produced in large quantities. The first modern breech-loading rifle was invented in 1837. There were also improved explosives. Traditionally this had been gunpowder, but in 1847 nitroglycerin was developed. Dynamite was invented in 1867.

The result of empire building was that the great European powers carved up the globe. The tensions that grew up between established empires like France and Britain, and emerging powers like Germany would be a major factor in the first world war.

Okay, let's go back to migration, this time within Europe.

Continental Europeans came to Britain to look for work - If we go back to Merthyr there were Spanish and Italian immigrants. From the 1820s to the 1850s around 4000 Italians came to Britain where they worked primarily as organ grinders, ice cream merchants, plasterers and modellers. As you can see there were also immigrants from France and Germany, along with the rest of Europe. The main source of immigrants into Britain was Ireland. This was particularly true during the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, which saw around a million people die and a further million emigrate. The Irish born population in England, Scotland and Wales was 415000 in 1841, and 727000 in 1851. In 1851 about a quarter of Liverpool's population was Irish born. Europeans also moved to other European countries. Italians worked in the mines of France, Germany and the Netherlands.

Manchester is a good case study because it was famed at the time as an industrial centre and faced all the problems associated with industrialisation. The quotes on screen are pretty damning assessments of the place, but let's think about why they had come to those judgements.

Until the beginning of the industrial revolution, Manchester was a small market town with a population of around 17,000. But it proved to be ideally situated as a distribution centre for the textile industry. Raw cotton and yarn was brought in from Liverpool primarily, then turned into cloth in the great mills. It was soon dubbed 'Cottonopolis'. To supply the trade Manchester's population increased 6 fold between 1771 and 1831 when the population was 142,000. It had doubled again by 1851. This rapid expansion put huge strain on housing supply. In 1808 the poet Robert Southey wrote that "The dwellings of the labouring manufacturers are in narrow streets and lanes, blocked up from light and air, crowded together because every inch of land is of such value that room for light and air cannot be afforded them. Here in Manchester, a great proportion of the poor lodge in cellars, damp and dark, where every kind of filth is suffered to accumulate because no exertions of domestic care can ever make such homes decent."

The situation only deteriorated further in the early 19th century. When Engels visited in 1844 he wrote: "Here, as in most of the working-men's quarters of Manchester, the pork-raisers rent the courts and build pig-pens in them. In almost every court one or even several such pens may be found, into which the inhabitants of the court throw all refuse and offal, whence the swine grow fat; and the atmosphere, confined on all four sides, is utterly corrupted by putrefying animal and vegetable substances. Such is the Old Town of Manchester, and on re-reading my description, I am forced to admit that instead of being exaggerated, it is far from black enough to convey a true impression of the filth, ruin, and uninhabitableness, the defiance of all considerations of cleanliness, ventilation, and health which characterise the construction of this single district, containing at least twenty to thirty thousand inhabitants."

If living conditions were atrocious, working conditions were often just as bad. It was commonplace to work up to 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. The air in the mills had to be kept hot and humid - 65 to 80 degrees - and the air was also full of cotton dust which irritated the eyes and settled in the lungs, leading to respiratory problems. The machinery was loud and dangerous, and many workers suffered accidents or became deaf from the noise. In 1848 the life expectancy of the professional and gentry classes of Manchester was 38, which sounds very low until you consider the fact that the life expectancy of a worker was just 17.

Given the conditions in the industrial centres, and the hard life of farm workers in the rural areas, it is not surprising that many people aspired to starting a new life in the land of the free. In 1790, the year of the first US census, the population numbered around 4 million. About 60.9% were English in origin, 9.7% were Irish, 8.8% were German, and 8.3% were Scots. From about 1820 immigration grew massively. Between 1840 and 1860 alone, 4.5 million Europeans arrived in the US, primarily from Ireland and Germany.

Annual migration from the UK to the US was high; it was 60,000 per annum in 1868 and 75,000 in 1872. Between 1820 and 1860 almost 2 million Irish emigrated from Ireland to the US, three quarters of those after the Great Famine. The number would have been much higher but many died on the journey over - many travelled on cheap fares on so called 'coffin ships' on which the mortality rates could be as high as 30%.

Nordic Countries: Emigration was illegal in Sweden until the 1830s, but mass emigration began in the early 1840s. By 1890 the US census reported a Swedish-American population of around 800,000. By 1920 about 1.3 million Swedes had left Sweden for the US.

Norway - between 1825 and 1925 about 800,000 Norwegians moved to North America, representing about a third of Norway's population. The main reasons were religious tolerance, and economic opportunity - population growth was putting strain on Norway's resources.

Finland: The years between 1870 and 1930 are sometimes referred as 'the Great Migration' of Finns into North America. In the 1870s, there were only 3,000 migrants from Finland, but this figure was rapidly growing. New migrants often sent letters home, describing their life in the New World, and this encouraged more and more people to leave and try their luck in America. There were also professional recruiters, or 'agents', employed by mining and shipping companies, who encouraged Finns to move to the United States. It was eventually brought to an end in the late 1880s by legislation in the U.S., but the decade still saw a 12-fold increase in the number of Finnish migrants compared to the previous decade, as 36,000 Finns left for the States. The movement was strengthened even further in 1899, as the Russian government started an aggressive, coordinated campaign for the Russification of Finland. During the 1900s, there were 150,000 new Finnish migrants arriving in the USA.


  1. Thank you for sharing this amazing article. I am worning on my thesis about Migration and Industrialisation and your article is very helpful for me. If you wonder what thesis is, below is an explanation of thesis from which I find quite comprehensive:
    A thesis is a written summary of an essay. It often appears at the end of an introduction to a literature review essay or of a thesis statement in a student's final composition. It provides a brief overview of what the essay claims to do, study, or offer as well as a brief description of its main idea or thesis. It is generally expressed in only one sentence, and sometimes the statement can be repeated elsewhere.The thesis is almost always the topic of an argument in a written thesis. However, there are some types of essay that do not contain any discussion of a thesis at all. These include descriptive essays and character studies. A descriptive essay normally contains no discussion of a thesis or ideas about it. In such cases the essay relies on evidence to support its conclusions rather than on a thesis statement.A strong thesis statement gives readers the sense that you have done your homework and are relying on sound research. It reassures your readers that you are aware of issues related to this topic. A strong thesis also gives you credibility by convincing your readers that you have objectively assessed the literature and are confident in your conclusions. A strong thesis can have a substantial effect on the success or failure of your essay. Therefore, writing a strong thesis statement gives great value to the time you spend on essay writing.


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