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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 for the fields. Food became cheaper to buy and the average person had more money to spend on manufactured goods.

Britain's economy benefited from stable government and security in holding private property. Britain was becoming the leader in world commerce. Its 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.

In France Britain was described as a nation of shopkeepers. Great Britain had an extensive middle-class 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. Ignored was the old complaint that if God had intended this or that he would have made it so. 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.

In the early 1800s 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. Back in 1765 a Scottish instrument maker, James Watt, had 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.

It had been animals and humans burning calories that did the work. Burning wood had been another 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, for heating and running steam engines. It was abundant and near 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.

German states were also growing technologically, as were other states, including France and the United States. In 1830 Britain had 9.5 percent of the world’s manufacturing, a big jump up from 1.9 percent in 1750. China with a much larger population had 32.8 percent in 1750 and had declined to 29.8 percent in 1830. India had also declined, from 24.5 percent in 1750 to 17.6 percent in 1830.  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. note31

The Downside

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. Factories with steam power were replacing work in homes or small shops in rural areas or small towns. Through the Napoleonic war against France and following that war, employers were not burdened by a government empowered minimum wage. Those they needed to hire were in great supply, and employers paid wages that were bare subsistence or less as common people faced rising prices. Writes Evans:

There were no regulations or restrictions whatever 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 average factory working time seems to have varied from twelve to fourteen hours a day, with not more than two half-hours off for meals… And these hours were worked in dirty, ill-lit building, devoid of sanitation, or any arrangement or regulation to control the number of machines, or to protect the human beings packed to the limit of the available space. note32

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, " 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.” note33


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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