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Britain and the Industrial Revolution, to 1830

British agriculture advanced in the 1700s with the use of crop rotation that had been in use in the United Netherlands – the periodic planting of turnips and clover, which return nitrogen compounds to the soil. Potatoes were being grown. And a seed drill was being used to put seeds deeper into the ground, away from the wind and out of reach of birds. The planting of grass and root crops improved the soil, eliminating the need to leave one-third of a field fallow every year. Larger herds provided more manure. Food became cheaper to buy and the average person had more money to spend on manufactured goods.

Britain's economy benefited from stable government, security in holding private property and relatively free enterprise. Britain was a leading nation in world commerce. Britain's economy benefited from an effective central bank and from well developed credit mechanisms. Internally Britain was without tariff barriers. All of England was connected by waterways, with no place no more than twenty miles away from water transport, and in the 1700s this inland transportation was being improved with more canal building. Government believed in and was friendly toward commerce, and it had an extensive middleclass, whose values included industry, thrift, initiative and education in matters practical. A spirit of audacity contributed to initiative. The shackles that had been put on Galileo were off. And complaints that if God had intended this or that He would have made it so were ignored.

Some in other nations described the British as a nation of shopkeepers, while the British were moving ahead of them economically. Improvements had created a belief in progress, and while working in the sciences and tinkering with mechanics a few people were able to come up with new ways of doing things. New machines were developed. There were the Luddites – workers in the spinning industry during hard times who feared being replaced by machines and who rioted. This was in Nottingham in 1811. A few were hanged. The rioting resumed over much of Britain in 1816, but power was on the side of the mill owners, and prosperity was returning. By the 1830s, mechanization had increased productivity in the spinning industry in Britain between 300 and 400 times what it had been decades before.

The production of steel made steam engines possible, and in 1765 a Scottish instrument maker, James Watt, created a condenser for steam engines that made them more efficient and practical. Steam engines were used to pump water from mines, and steam engines began replacing waterpower in the cotton spinning and flour mills, in the crushing of sugar cane in the Indies and in driving bellows in iron and steel production.

A part of technological change was a change in use of energy. Traditionally, it was animals and humans burning calories that did the work: a horse pulling a plow, a woman behind her spinning wheel using her hands and arms. Wood had been the source of energy for the British, but much of Britain's forests had been chopped down and replaced by fields of grain and hay. The new source of energy was coal, which, fortunately for the economy, was abundant and close to the surface in Britain, eliminating the need to trade for it or to transport it across the seas. In 1800 Britain was producing 90 percent of the world's output of coal. (Beginning in 1800, Britain was called the United Kingdom.)

The German states were also growing technologically, as were the Habsburg Empire, centered in Austria, the French and that new nation, the United States of America. Societies in the Far East, Middle East and Africa were not keeping up. Industrialization was putting military power on the side of the Europeans. Here are the comparistons in manufacturing growth: In 1830, Britain was doing 9.5 percent of the world’s manufacturing, a big jump up from 1.9 percent in 1750. China’s manufacturing declined from 32.8 percent in 1750 to 29.8 percent in 1830. India had also declined, from 24.5 percent in 1750 to 17.6 percent in 1750.  China and India had much larger populations, and in production per person (per capita) Britain led in 1830 with 25 percent of the world’s manufacturing, compared to 6 percent each for China and for India, reflecting the greater intensity of manufacturing in Britain. (Paul Kennedy, Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, 1987, p 149.)

The British historian, Sir R J Evans described the industrial revolution as rising out of an agricultural revolution and these revolutions as having “destroyed the balance of society,” New farming methods required fewer hands, and people left for the new factory towns. The factories were stream powered, replacing rural or town and work in homes or small shops. Through the Napoleonic war against France, and following that war, employers were not burdened by a government enpowered minimum wage. Those they needed to hire were in great supply and they pay wages that were bare subsistence or less as common people faced unstable, rising prices for life’s bare necessesities. Writes Evans:

There were no regulations or restrictions whataever to govern the physical state of the factories, the age or suitability of the workers … or to limit in any way the hours worked. In 1815 the avereage facory working time seems to have variesd from twelve to fourteen hours a day, with not more than two hal-hours off for meals… And these hours were worked in dirty, ill-lit building, devoit of sanitation, or any arrangement or regulation to control the number of mahines, or to protect the human beings packed to the limit of the available space.  (The Victorian Age, 1950, p 19).

As British historian Jan Morris describes it, “…stylish English cities of the eighteenth century were invested now by tenements and factories." According to Morris as late as 1837, "...at least one in ten of the British people were paupers, naked women pulled wagons through mine shafts, poor little children of eight and nine were working twelve-hour days in the dark factories of the north.” (Jan Morris, Heaven's Command, 1973, p 22.)


The Victorian Age, by R J Evans, 1950

Heaven's Command, by Jan Morris, 1973

Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, by Paul Kennedy, 1987

The Relentless Revolution, by Joyce Appleby, 2010

Additional Reading

The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848, by E J Hobsbawm, 1962

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