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The Industrial Revolution

Aberdulais Falls, site of one of the oldest industrial sites in Britain

The Industrial Revolution which occurred in Britain in the nineteenth century can be compared with the Neolithic Revolution which gathered momentum from the end of the last Ice Age. Agriculture and stock rearing slowly replaced hunter gathering. This is estimated to have raised the maximum human population per square mile in ancient Britain from around four, to about twenty five. A similar change took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when agricultural methods advanced dramatically. Agricultural equipment improved, and the open field system where peasants farmed scattered strips of land, was replaced by a system of enclosed farms, where a farmer held land in one block. (A small area of open field farm land survives at Rhossili on the Gower Peninsula.) Between 1740 and 1850 the population of England increased by around 150%, and over roughly the same period the proportion of people working in farming fell from about three quarters to one quarter. Now it was feasible to support a huge urban population working in industry.




Royal Opera Shopping Arcade, London, opened 1818

Improvement in farming methods explains a lot, but it still does not really get to the bottom of why the Industrial Revolution should have happened first in Britain. I've read some historians who suggest that it is simply not possible to say why large scale industrial development first took place in Britain. Others have had a go. The following suggestions were put forward by Harold Perkin in his book Origins of Modern English Society:

According to Perkin the explanation for industrialisation first taking off in Britain might involve the nature of British society. People owned their own land, and land could be freely bought, sold and leased. This meant that individuals seeking to enrich themselves through industrial schemes had land available to do so. In other countries the only authority with enough influence to provide such areas of land was the state, not usually a source of business innovation. Britain had a long tradition of wage earning. After the ravages of the Black Death, labour was in short supply, and former peasants tied to their lord could become more mobile and sell their services to the highest bidder. This helped make British society relatively mobile. The main requirement for social prestige was land, and anyone able to afford land could become a gentleman. The famous Spencers of Althorp, for example, were originally peasant farmers, who through their good husbandry began to rise up the social scale. Social mobility such as this bred snobbery, a desire to emulate classes higher in society. This in turn fed a need for goods required to demonstrate social aspiration, creating a demand which was so vital to the Industrial Revolution. Shopping became increasingly popular. Four fifths of industrial production during the Industrial Revolution went to the home market, driven as it was by a desire to keep up with the Jones's.


The Old Railway Station

Iron Bridge

Meanwhile industrial innovation gathered pace. There had of course long been industrial activity in Britain. The production of iron had begun around 500BC. The Clearwell Caves in the Forest of Dean, reveal evidence of early iron mining in the British Isles. A process was developed for smelting iron ore in small batches using charcoal to provide the required heat. Iron smelting and forging took place at many locations in Kent, Surrey and Sussex. Ashdown Forest in East Sussex was a major centre of production. At Friday Street in Surrey a huge hammer pond survives as evidence of the scale of this industry. Slowly production of other metals also developed. By the sixteenth century copper smelting was taking place at Aberdulais Falls in Wales. Then in the early eighteenth century the momentum of change really began to increase. This was driven by a complex interplay of social pressures already mentioned, clever men coming up with inventions, and good access to raw materials. The gorge of the Severn Valley in Shropshire, for example, served as a ready made mine. Flood waters released at the end of the last Ice Age 15,000 years ago cut what is now known as Ironbridge Gorge down through layers of clay, iron ore, limestone and coal. Iron smelting was carried out here from the reign of Henry VIII. While the original process for smelting iron ore used charcoal, in 1709 Abraham Darby perfected a way to produce iron much more cheaply and efficiently by using coke - coal baked at high temperature. He used freely available coal and iron ore deposits in the area of Ironbridge Gorge to do this. The famous Iron Bridge built over the river Severn by Abraham Darby III is a fitting memorial to the role this part of England played in the Industrial Revolution.


Newcomen Engine, Dartmouth

But if there was one moment in the progress of technology on which history turned, then it perhaps came in 1712. This was the moment when Thomas Newcomen, a Dartmouth ironmonger, devised a steam engine powerful enough to pump water out of deep coal mines. Coal was the fuel of the Industrial Revolution, and Newcomen's machine made it easier and cheaper to get hold of. The machine also revealed a new way in which power latent in coal could be used. Newcomen's steam engine was a crucial invention, and is now designated as an International Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark. An original Newcomen Engine is on display in Dartmouth. It was a Newcomen engine which in 1765 James Watt improved, leading to the powerful steam engines which truly drove the Industrial Revolution. Steam engines then provided the power for an improvement in communications via railways. The Railway Trials of 1830, won by George Stephenson's Rocket, launched the Railway Age, the first public railway running between Manchester and Liverpool. Isambard Kingdom Brunel soon followed on with the Great Western Railway, linking Bristol to London by 1841. Railways were the first mass transportation system, and produced a different, more mobile society. Following the Great Exhibition in 1851, which offered discounted rail travel, day tripping became fashionable. Sea travel also became more dependable. The Royal Observatory had been plotting the course of the moon and stars since 1675 in an attempt to enhance navigation at sea. With John Harrison's invention in 1774 of a sea going clock, accurate navigation at sea was finally possible. The adoption of clocks to organise time was in itself a significant development. Life was no longer arranged loosely around the rising and setting sun, and the passage of seasons. The industrial world was run according to orderly time pieces.




For some the Industrial Revolution brought riches, and in general wages rose. This general increase in wealth is clearly demonstrated by a huge change in the role of sport in people's lives. In the 1850s sport as we know it today really came into being, and that could not have happened without money, and leisure time to devote to sport. But inspite of a general rise in incomes there was much fanciful nostalgia for the rural life people lived before widespread industrialisation. This nostalgia, which is still with us, manifested itself in a number of ways. Villages were idealised - thousands of people would take steamer excursions from industrial cities in South Wales to the quaint village of Clovelly in north Devon. Nineteenth century painters such as Gainsborough and Constable produced pictures of contented country people spending their time in rural Edens - many of these can be viewed at the Tate Britain. Public parks were created as idealised pockets of countryside in the middle of towns and cities. This trend began with Hyde Park, remodelled in a naturalistic manner from 1728. Into the nineteenth century the fashion for parks continued. John Nash redesigned Green Park and St James's Park as naturalistic landscapes, with public opening in 1826 and 1827 respectively. Parts of the John Nash designed Regent's Park opened to the public in 1835. The Derby Arboretum followed in 1840, opened by the industrialist Joseph Strutt. People began to value nature generally, and in 1847 London Zoo in Regent's Park opened fully to the public.




The old Reading Room at the British Museum - Karl Marx wrote Das Capital here

Illusions of rural nostalgia were then linked to what were considered to be the increased sufferings of a new urban working class. For some historians this was the time when social class came into being, and the struggle between classes began. Industrialists such as William Morris reflected general concerns that the new industrial society was inhuman. The worry was that working conditions would lead to revolution and social breakdown. Morris himself suggested the Arts and Crafts Movement as a remedy, setting up factories where individual craftsmen got on with making hand made products. Inevitably, however, the products made in this way were so expensive that they could only be afforded by the rich, as can be seen at the Arts and Crafts inspired property at Standen in Sussex. In many ways the views of Morris were fanciful in their nostalgia, unintentionally elitist, and missed the fact that most people did better in the new industrial towns. The first real "working class" organisation as it might be recognised today grew up not in industrial towns and cities but in the countryside. The late 1820s and early 1830s saw riots amongst disaffected agricultural workers in southern and eastern England, the so called "Swing" riots. Agricultural workers were earning far less than their counterparts in the towns. Life was certainly hard in the factories, and we can all be thankful that laws were eventually passed making them better places to work. But in the nineteenth century people who worked in factories generally did not riot. The famous Tolpuddle Martyrs are often thought of as the first working men to organise themselves to try and better their lot. The Martyrs were agricultural workers in rural Dorset. They were not factory workers.

Frank Musgrove, Professor of History at Manchester University, points out that the early trade union movement was not designed to try and improve the lot of people working in inhuman factories. Musgrove reiterates the fact that most nineteenth century labour unrest did not involve the new industrial working class. The people who actually turned to violence were small scale pre-industrial capitalists who had been left out, or were trying to get in to the new order. The Peterloo Massacre of 1819 is often held as a crucial event in the struggle between the ruling and working classes. The Peterloo meeting was organised in Manchester mainly by disgruntled hand-loom weavers, independent entrepreneurs who were angered by high taxes, corrupt bankers, and less than honest MPs. They were not interested in the working class, which was ironic when the cotton spinners of Manchester in 1819 were suffering greatly. Of course this argument turns on who you classify as working class. A detailed study of the Industrial Revolution will show that there was no single "working class". In the Midlands particularly there was often a characteristic arrangement of subcontracting. Independent tradesmen would work in small workshops, taking on finishing work from manufactures. These people would set their own hours and hire their own teams. Even in large concerns workers often had considerable autonomy. Marie B. Rowlands, an expert on Midlands history describes in her book The West Midlands from AD1000, how the bridgestoker who worked at the top of a furnace in an iron foundry took on his own team, as did the founder who worked at the bottom of the furnace. There was not a working class, but many working classes, with each one finding its own identity, each with its own bosses and workers.




Lewis Methyr Pit, Rhondda Heritage Park, South Wales

Even in areas where industrial workers did turn to active protest, it is necessary to tread carefully. In Wales the whole of the Welsh coalfield was at a standstill in 1822, 1830 and 1832. But the idea that people were forced to leave a rural idyll for a bleak life in mines or factories is as false in Wales as it is elsewhere in Britain. As Philip Jenkins says in his History of Modern Wales: "...even the harsh conditions of Aberdare or Tredegar offered economic and social opportunities far greater than the highly limited world of rural Wales." (P288) The two great socialist writers of the nineteenth century, Marx and Engles, would have agreed with this view. In the Communist Manifesto they say that industrial society had "rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life" (Communist Manifesto P9). When strikes did come in the Welsh industrial areas they were rarely of the type we think of today. Certainly in the early nineteenth century most unrest took the form of food riots in response to crop failures, and the sale of crops outside Wales. The popular vision of industrial history is still generally based on people rebelling against life in dark satanic mills. But in part at least, this is a measure of the continuing power of a strange nostalgia for an ideal rural past that never really happened.





Reform Club

It wasn't until the 1880s that we begin to see labour disputes as they are known today. One of the first triumphs of organised labour in an industrial concern took place at the Bryant and May match factory in the East End of London. Phosphorous fumes filled the premises, and ventilation was poor. Many workers as a result developed "phossy jaw", a form of skin or bone cancer. In July 1888 a Matchmakers Union was formed, and a three week strike resulted in the company conceding to most of the union's demands. Two years previously around 10,000 people had marched down Pall Mall to a meeting of the unemployed in Trafalgar Square. The unemployed were jeered as they passed the Reform Club, and then again as they passed the Carlton Club in St James's. The club men soon found paving stones and other missiles flying in through the windows of their smart clubs. Sometimes you wonder, given the conditions in some factories, and the callousness often shown by the wealthy towards those less fortunate, why the reaction wasn't even more dramatic, and why full scale revolution did not occur. It could be suggested that revolution did not happen because in the end more people did well out of the Industrial Revolution than not. As A.N. Wilson puts it: "...for many, even in the working class, and particularly in the upper working and lower middle classes, the opportunity of self-betterment, self-promotion, even against a cruel atmosphere of risk, was preferable to nihilism and ideas culled from foreigners with funny names." (The Victorians P446.)




Bourton-on-the-Water, Gloucestershire

Overall then the picture is more complicated than is usually portrayed. From a personal point of view, a visit to the villages of Loose in Kent and Bourton-on-the-Water in Gloucestershire bring the contradictions of this crucial time in history into focus for me. Both Loose and Bourton-on-the-Water owe much of their present appearance to the Industrial Revolution, not a period well known for creating beautiful villages. Nevertheless both villages grew up around mills which harnessed water power from rivers. Loose and Bourton-on-the-Water seem to hark back to better, simpler times, when in fact it was the dawn of the industrial world that brought them into being. History is a strange and winding path, and sometimes brings back what it threatens to destroy. William Morris, and many others, claimed that the passing of a rural village society resulted in a more impersonal way of life. However, it is quite obvious that new communities replaced the old. Urban workers lived in terraced housing, a style of housing which actually became a by-word for community when the time came to pull them down in the twentieth century. Idealistic nineteenth century capitalists such as George Cadbury and William Hesketh Lever tried to recreate communities by building villages at Bournville and Port Sunlight, but perhaps a few isolated attempts to recreate the past are not really relevant, when communities for most of us can only be found in the modern world. The growth of new styles of communities has continued, and the most recent industrial revolution has been in electronic communications. In 1963 J.C.R Licklider of American technology company BBN formulated a concept for a "galactic computer network", essentially describing the internet. Over following decades, ideas developed by the United States' ARPANet computer network, and by Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist at the CERN particle collidor, and others, resulted in a world wide interlinked network of computers known as the internet. The internet has fostered its own communities which are now able to grow free of the physical limits of distance. Like minded people, wherever they may be, are more able to come together.

A commentary on the Industrial Revolution cannot really end without mentioning the modern preoccupation with global warming, which it has been suggested has been caused by industrialisation. During the Industrial Revolution itself no one worried about this, since the world was living through the general drop in temperatures known as the Mini Ice Age. In the last half of the twentieth century temperatures seemed to be increasing in an unusual way, and there is much debate about the possible human role in this change. For a fuller discussion of this subject, see our page A History Of The Weather And Climate Change.











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