The Industrialization of England

The Industrialization of England

During the eighteenth century, in spite of the disturbances brought about by five wars, culminating in the dramatic contest with the empire of Napoleon Bonaparte, the economic progress of England was outstanding in Europe.

Measured in terms of commerce, sustained growth can be dated from the seventeen-forties; and had it not been for the war against Spain (widening into war with France), which caused the downfall of the pacific Sir Robert Walpole in 1742, it might have continued even more rapidly. As it was, an extraordinary increase in England’s export trade had to await the conclusion of peace in 1748. Before the next war began exports (including re-exports) had doubled in value as compared with the position at the beginning of the century. Payments to the forces and subsidies to allies assisted the export trade during the Seven Years War (1756-63). Victories in this far-flung struggle, which embraced North America, the West Indies and India, directed by the eccentric genius of the first William Pitt, later Earl of Chatham, opened up new markets for English goods outside Europe. ‘The principal dynamic element in the English export trade during the middle decades of the eighteenth century’, it has been observed, ‘was the colonial trade, which created the largest free trade area in the world.”

At the same time internal demand for goods was growing. The population of England and Wales, which had been increasing slowly in the first half of the century, rose by three million between 1760 and 18o1, when the first official census was taken, reaching a total of more than nine million. The population of London was over half a million, while that of Birmingham doubled during the second half of the century and that of the sprawling towns of Manchester and Liverpool trebled. In general the fertility of married couples was higher in the industrial areas than in rural parishes. Families with three or four children were numerous among the poor; the gentry were even more prolific. The illegitimacy ratio was high, rising sharply during the second half of the century, particularly in the north-east and west. But the illegitimate were generally unwelcome: every year babies were allowed to die of exposure or starvation. The size of the population was determined partly by a higher birth rate in some areas, partly by a lower death rate, the result of improved hygiene and medical knowledge, and partly by more skilful midwifery. Though malaria and influenza were commonplace, the epidemics that pulverized society had come to an end with the Great Plague of 1665.2

Another factor contributing to the economic advance was that though harvests were occasionally poor, the price of grain had been cheap until the middle of the century, as was evidenced by substantial exports. This cheapness raised the value of the incomes of consumers of bread, who could afford to buy manufactured goods out of their earnings. Indeed, the opinion has been hazarded that labourers were actually prepared to work harder in order to be able to buy articles hitherto beyond their reach, like household gadgets and gardening tools for men and cotton dresses and crockery for their wives, and thus raised their standard of living. Writing in 1776, Adam Smith cautiously remarked that ‘the real recompense of labour . . . has during the present century increased perhaps in a still greater proportion than its money price’, and another famous economist of the time, the Reverend T.R. Malthus, noted that from 1720 to 1750 the price of wheat had fallen, while wages had risen, so that labourers were definitely better off.

In the mid eighteenth century agriculture was still the largest pursuit, occupying three-quarters of the population. In fact the new methods of cultivation which were then taking hold, the sowing of clover and the planting of turnips and potatoes, actually required more labour. They also enabled more livestock to be fed and to survive the winter, their manure enriching the soil on which crops were grown. England was becoming a country of meat and potato eaters, though the really poor still had to manage on bread and cheese.

While bountiful harvests kept prices low there was little impulse for radical changes. But from 1760 onwards prices rose and the number of acts of parliament permitting enclosure grew fast. Between 1760 and 1844 over 2,500 private acts were passed and over four million acres enclosed. Enclosure made the rich richer, but did not necessarily make the poor poorer. These enclosure acts heralded the end of the communal arable farming so long characteristic of much of the Midlands and south-east England and allowed owners to put their land to more profitable use by systems of mixed farming.

Proposals for enclosure were referred as a rule to committees consisting chiefly of local Members of Parliament. Once the committee approved, enclosure commissioners, who were interested parties or represented interested parties, carried out the detailed arrangements. Invariably the smaller farmers, who had to bear their share of the considerable cost of enclosing land, and villagers with no legally defined rights were worst hit. Yeomen farmers, as has already been noted, were starting to disappear before the end of the seventeenth century. On the other hand, the ordinary agricultural labourer was better off; employment was plentiful and the heavy demand for food during the wars against France kept up the level of his wages. The sowing of waste land and the cultivation of the commons for arable crops after enclosing gave him more work.

It was not until towards the end of the Napoleonic wars that England became a net importer of grain. However, an act of parliament, passed in 1815, prohibited the import of wheat from abroad unless the price of home-grown wheat was above 8o shillings a quarter. This meant that in order to benefit English farmers the price was being kept artificially high. But Parliament had to recognize one of the lessons of war, namely that an island needs to be capable of producing sufficient food as a second line of defence to prevent its people from being starved when the flow of imports is being impeded by enemy action. Without an efficient agriculture the two German wars of the twentieth century might well have been lost. Paradoxically the invention of the submarine in 1911 was to prove a boon to English agriculture.

In the eighteenth century rising food prices were in part owing to the needs of war time. They were steady during the first half of the century, rose by 30 per cent in the seventeen-fifties and doubled during the war against revolutionary France. Whereas before 1760 the incomes of landlords only grew slowly, afterwards their rents rose and their debts were paid off. As has been the case throughout much of modem history, it was the big farmers who profited most from the growing public demand for food. It has been estimated that by 1790, 400 great landowners had incomes of £10,000 a year, 700 to 800 wealthy gentry enjoyed incomes of between £3,000 and £4,000 a year, and 3,000 to 4,000 squires had incomes of between £1,000 and £3,000 a year, 3 while 10,000 to 20,000 owner-occupiers lived on £300 to £1,000 a year.

The farmers in the Home Counties possessed the advantage of a large and secure market in London and its suburbs. East Anglia and Leicestershire were centres of up-to-date management. It was in East Anglia that the second Lord Townsend earned the nickname of ‘Turnip Townsend’ and Thomas Coke, another enlightened aristocrat, presided over meetings of farmers at his great house of Holkham, while in Leicestershire the grazier Rober Bakewell improved the breeding of sheep and horses.

Thus, on the whole, in the second half of the eighteenth century agricultural enterprise was encouraged by the better prices obtainable for food. Wool and leather were also in demand. That was why enclosures went ahead so rapidly, why landowners provided finance for technical improvements, why ordinary farmers became more ambitious, why new tools and ploughs were introduced and why a semi-official Board of Agriculture was established in 1793. Finally, the country showed itself capable of producing sufficient food for its people at home as well as for the armies and fleets engaged in warfare.

As has already been seen, it was because of a prospering agriculture and a growing population that the demand for manufactured goods had increased. Industry was further helped by an expanding foreign and colonial trade, particularly in the last two decades of the century. It has been pointed out that ‘after 1782 almost every statistical series of production shows a sharp upwards turn. More than half the growth in the shipments of coal, more than three-quarters of the increase of broadcloth, four-fifths of that of printed cloth, and nine-tenths of the exports of cotton goods were concentrated in the last eighteen years of the century. ‘4 And in spite of the renewal of the war against France in 1803, during which Napoleon attempted to stop the sale of English exports throughout his empire (by the Berlin Decree of 18o6 and the Milan Decrees of November 1807), by 1815 exports from Great Britain had more than tripled in value as compared with those in the decade 1761-70. Out of a total of £37,000,000,

£17,100,000 worth of goods were sold in the New World where, thanks to the supremacy of the British navy, Napoleon’s decrees could not reach.

Among these exports cotton goods were becoming more and more important. Cotton or ‘cotton wool’, as it was usually called, had first been mixed with linen yarn to produce fustian, a coarse cloth, previously imported from Germany and elsewhere. It was spun and woven in cottages by men and women with the help of children, the materials being supplied by middlemen employing ‘putters-out’ and arranging for the finishing of the cloth, which was paid for by piece rates. Spinners carded and spun the cotton and weavers wove the cotton weft and the linen warp, the breadth and length of the threads across the loom.

It was the demand for the pure cotton cloth and dresses imported from India and sold at little more than the price of fustian that exerted pressure on English manufacturers to imitate the Indian calicoes and checks: their production was stimulated by an act passed in 1721, prohibiting the import of all printed and painted calicoes and other cotton goods except muslins and neckcloths. Raw cotton was plentiful, being bought chiefly from the West Indies and the Levant, and later from North America and Brazil. The experience gained in manufacturing fustian and linen in Lancashire and the relative cheapness of labour there meant that the county was to become the heart of the cotton industry for a period of nearly 200 years.

The industry developed rapidly. Measured by the amount of raw material imported, the output multiplied tenfold between 1760 and 1785. The invention of the flying shuttle or wheel shuttle by John Kay, a clockmaker, which doubled the weaver’s output, came into general use in the 1760s, and James Hargreaves’s ‘spinning jenny’ accelerated the work of the spinners. Both these machines could be employed in the operators’ own homes. But it was the application first of water power and then of steam power to the working of cotton machinery around the end of the century that decidedly quickened the production of cotton goods and cheapened their cost. Spinning was first mechanized; the power loom followed later. These inventions came in response to the growth of the cotton industry from the middle of the century onwards: they did not start the steady growth of the industry, but they made it leap forward.

The size and the expense of the new machines meant that they needed to be purchased by capitalists and to be housed in factories. The first factory containing water-driven machinery in Lancashire was built in 1777 by Richard Arkwright, a barber and wig-maker, who had invented both a carding machine and a spinning frame. By 1811 two-thirds of the cotton spun in Lancashire came not from cottages in villages but from factories in industrial towns.

The weaving looms were more complicated than the spinning machines. Power looms were in fact not introduced on any considerable scale until the reign of Queen Victoria. Capitalists were hesitant about embarking on the investment required, and the hand-loom weavers, who had built sheds attached to their cottages, where they did their work, were vociferous in defending their means of livelihood against novelties. Yet even without the immediate introduction of mechanized looms the progress of the cotton industry was astonishing. The soft, lime-free water available in Lancashire and the proximity of the port of Liverpool, convenient for the import of raw materials and the export of finished goods, all contributed to the growth of the new industry. By the end of the Napoleonic war it had outstripped the woollen industry in its economic significance for the nation.

No other industry in eighteenth-century England expanded as speedily as cotton. Iron, one of England’s oldest industries, showed marked progress. At the beginning of the century the demand for iron was high, notably for making agricultural implements. But it was then cheaper and easier to import it from Sweden than to buy it at home. The reason was that iron ore had to be smelted with charcoal, obtained from partly burnt wood; but timber had already become scarce during the previous century and most of the trees in the Sussex and Kent Weald, where iron had long been produced, had been felled because wood was also needed for building ships. As has been noted, Abraham Darby had succeeded in smelting cast iron in furnaces with coke obtained from coal. But his discovery was a well guarded secret; by 1775 the number of blast furnaces using coke was fewer than thirty. Moreover, coke was not then employed in the forging of pig iron (crude iron) for conversion into wrought iron, which was needed for industrial machinery. Cast iron was required chiefly for cauldrons, pots, kettles, fire grates and other smallish articles.

In 1784, however, a naval agent or supplier named Henry Cort invented a process known as puddling for converting pig iron into wrought iron in a reverbatory furnace. The pig iron was reheated with coke, then stirred with rods until the impurities were burnt away, and was finally passed between rollers. Thus Cort’s invention ‘had the effect of freeing the forge-masters from their dependence on the woodlands, just as Darby’s discovery had freed the furnace owners’.5 Cheap wrought iron was of immense value to industries such as shipbuilding and engineering, just as cast iron was to agriculture and home life. The output of pig iron shot up between the mid seventeen-eighties and the start of the nineteenth century almost as sharply as did that of cotton goods. By the end of the eighteenth century iron was being exported for the first time; from 1800 to 185o a fifth of the pig iron produced in England was exported.

Although ten tons of coal were needed to produce one ton of pig iron, supplies of coal were ample; so the iron industry shifted away from Sussex to areas like South Wales, Yorkshire, Derbyshire and parts of the Midlands, where ore was to be found and collieries were established, thus reducing the expense of transporting coal to the ironworks. Coal had long ceased to be mined from outcrops. Shafts had to be sunk and the problems presented by carbonic acid or marsh gas and water in the mines overcome. Early in the century the invention by Thomas Newcomen, an ironmonger in Devonshire, of a steam engine for pumping water out of mines enabled seams in or below water layers to be mined, and thus increased production. James Watt’s steam engine, invented in 1775, made pumping cheaper and more effective. The invention by Sir Humphry Davy of a safety lamp in 1815 reduced the danger of explosions from firing the gas and permitted dangerous seams to be worked. By 1829 the output of coal had risen to 16,000,000 tons a year, as compared with only 4,750,000 tons in 1750.

Miners were usually rough and independent characters (as they still are), who did not relish working long hours, especially as they often had a bit of land to cultivate. Not only boys but women were employed in carrying the coal that had been hewed along the underground passages and up ladders to the surface, but by the seventeen-eighties Newcomen’s steam engine had been adapted to lift baskets of coal to the top of the shafts. Coal miners were paid either at piece rates or by the hour. In some cases they might have to hew and draw the coal and deliver it to customers as well before they received their pay. It was in fact the delivery of the coal that was the bottleneck in the industry. The coming of canals and railways solved this problem.

Of other industries, woollen textiles and pottery were the most notable. Woollen cloth manufacture was now chiefly concentrated in the southwest, East Anglia and Yorkshire. Up till the end of the eighteenth century it was still the most profitable export. But it was not as cheap to make as cotton because it was mainly produced by the ‘putting-out’ system, which neant that the work was divided between carders, spinners, weavers, fullers, dressers and dyers, all paid for at piece rates; it had then to be sold in a variety of markets besides the most famous, Blackwell Hall in London; secondly, the power loom, operated by water or steam, made slower progress in the wool industry than in the cotton industry and so fewer factories were then set up, which meant a reduction in overhead costs. Furthermore the demand for woollen textiles was less elastic than that for Cotton goods. By the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign the value of woollen exports was only a quarter of the value of cotton exports.

English pottery, which was rather crude during the first half of the eighteenth century, was, like ironwork, handicapped by the scarcity of charcoal needed for baking the clay. This drove the industry nearer to the coal mines: a large number of small factories were built in north Staffordshire. There Josiah Wedgwood established in 1769 his famous pottery works, which he named Etruria after the district in Italy where classical vases had been discovered. He was a man of vision and foresight who employed artists to design his neo-classical ‘creamware’. The duller clays of Staffordshire were mixed with clay bought in Cornwall and Devonshire. Wedgwood took a close interest in the development of transport, installed a steam engine in his factory and built a village for his workpeople. But the conditions in the industry as a whole were far from idyllic, particularly for the boys employed.

By the end of the eighteenth century industry ‘had ceased to be the handmaid of commerce, but had become its mistress’.6 Between 1770 and 1830 the national income had nearly doubled. What were the causes of the spurt forward, which had contributed to the victory over Napoleon and paved the way to Victorian affluence? In the first place can be put the rise in population, which increased the size of the home market for all sorts of goods. But a large population does not necessarily lead to economic progress, as the histories of India and China demonstrate. Secondly, the innovations and inventions, particularly in the textile, iron and coal industries, stimulated the division of labour in the processes of production, reduced costs and therefore also prices. Hundreds of patents were taken out and some inventions were cumulative: that for using coke for smelting was one, the pumping of water from coal mines another.

It has been asserted that ‘the new methods, new ideas and new departures in organization were discovered not mainly because they were needed but because we wanted them and were well enough off to try them out and accept the changes they brought’ .7 But one should not underestimate the inventive genius of the British people. The spirit of discovery was first fostered by Francis Bacon; it was exemplified by the experiments of the Royal Society; the genius of men like Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle made them pioneers of modern physics and chemistry; and the twentieth century has given us men like Lord Rutherford and Sir Alexander Fleming. A fascinating point about the inventions of the eighteenth century is that most of them were the discoveries of more or less uneducated men like John Kay and Henry Cort.

Another factor was the amplitude of cheap capital to invest in industry. The establishment of the Bank of England and the reform of the currency at the end of the seventeenth century created a money market based, after the South Sea bubble had burst, on public confidence. Following the success of the Bank of England private concerns had multiplied; but these banks were vulnerable because they were not allowed a joint-stock basis until 1826 and were limited to partnerships of six. By 1821 some 6o banks were functioning in London and another 370 throughout the country, all issuing their own notes. The Bank of England did not have the power and authority that it has now; and many country banks went bankrupt in the early nineteenth century.

Though the rate of interest had been low throughout most of the eighteenth century (it was 3 to 4 per cent in 1750) it does not seem that the enterprise of private bankers was particularly helpful to industrial and commercial progress: they provided short-term credits for working capital, but were reluctant to engage in long-term investment. Most of the fixed capital for manufacture was found by industrialists ploughing back their profits. The fact that the rate of interest is low does not necessarily increase investment in industry, as has been proved during the twentieth century: high interest rates normally prevail during booms, low during slumps. What is essential is confidence. It is not evident that the percentage of the national income invested was exceptionally high, or that savings rose substantially before the second quarter of the nineteenth century dawned.

One other factor in promoting economic advance was the liberation of trade from some of its medieval shackles. Sir Robert Walpole had freed English manufacturers from export duties, though he retained them on raw materials, notably wool, for he was no advocate of free trade. The publication of Adam Smith’s Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations and Jeremy Bentham’s Fragment on Government in the seventeen-seventies, however, influenced informed public opinion in favour of more freedom for commerce and industry in order to secure the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Adam Smith argued the case for promoting international division of labour: ‘if a foreign country can supply us with a commodity cheaper than we can make it’, he wrote, ‘better buy it off them with some part of the produce of our own industry, employed in a way in which we have some advantage’. As an instance he suggested that good claret and burgundy might be produced from grapes grown in Scotland, but their cost would be thirty times that of wines imported from France. Forty years later another economist with business experience, David Ricardo, published an Essay on the Influence of the Low Prices of Grain on the Profits of Stock in which he condemned import duties on corn.

After the end of the American War of Independence William Pitt the Younger, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer as well as First Lord of the Treasury for eighteen years, lowered the tea duty and other import duties and negotiated a trade treaty with France, which reduced the duties on French wine and brandy, and obtained in return reductions of French duties on textiles, pottery and hardware. But Pitt did not believe that free trade was a theory that could be quickly put into effect. In 1825 Thomas Huskisson as President of the Board of Trade reduced other import duties, but his reasons for doing so were financial rather than economic.

Free trade as the battle cry of progress awaited the reign of Queen Victoria. Such changes as were made in the tariff played only a minor part in helping industry before and after the war against revolutionary France. On the other hand, the apprenticeship laws were modified; compulsory apprenticeship in the woollen textile industry was abolished in 1809 and in all other industries during 1814. The impulse for their abolition was humanitarian.

Of all the inventions and innovations in British industrial history during the eighteenth century, James Watt’s steam engine was the most significant. Hitherto power to drive machinery had been provided by animals, wind or water, all of which were slow and unreliable. Watt’s first steam engine, patented in 1775, was a great improvement on that of Newcomen. After Watt entered into a partnership with a Birmingham industrialist, Matthew Boulton, he patented in 1782 an engine with a rotating movement capable of turning machinery instead of the vertical movement required for pumping. The policy of Boulton and Watt was restrictive: they controlled the manufacture of their engines under licence, insisting on high standards of workmanship. In 1795, instead of being consultants, they opened their own engineering works at Soho outside Birmingham. It was not until their patent expired that these steam engines proliferated. In 1800 1,200 of them were in operation. They were invaluable to the two growth industries – cotton for spinning and iron for blowing the blast at furnaces using coke – as well as furnishing mechanical power for forging. Moreover, since coal was necessary to produce steam it gave a boost to that industry. Once the use of coal as power was added to its value for heating and cooking, the supreme importance of British coal mines was fully recognized.

It was largely to facilitate the carriage of coal that canals were built. The first canal in England, known as ‘the Sankey cut’, was sponsored by the Liverpool Council; the second, constructed by the second Duke of Bridgewater four years later in 1761, joined up his coal mines in Worsley with the cotton town of Manchester; later it was linked with the river Mersey. These canals halved the cost of coal in Liverpool and Manchester. In 1770 a canal between Liverpool and Leeds was begun; it was to join up with the river Humber and Hull, enabling goods to be carried right across the country. The lock, first invented in the fourteenth century, was employed to carry water up- and downhill. But the engineering problems involved in building these canals were formidable. The aqueduct across the river Irwell, built by Bridgewater’s self-educated foreman engineer, James Brindley, created a sensation. The canals took a long time to complete; it was forty-six years before the Liverpool-Leeds canal was finished. The Grand Trunk canal, begun by Brindley in 1767, was not finished until seven years after his death. This canal connected Lancashire and Cheshire with the Midlands, while the Grand Junction canal linked the Midlands with London. The Oxford canal was used to carry coal there from the Midlands; the Kennet and Avon canal joined the river Severn with the Thames so that goods could be brought along it from Bristol to London.

The money for building these canals was raised privately and their construction was permitted by acts of parliament. For a time they were extremely profitable, but they had marked disadvantages. As each canal was paid for by its users, the company owning it was not much concerned with through traffic from one canal to another; consequently the canals often had different levels and depths and sometimes goods had to be trans-shipped from one waterway to another. Secondly, since they took such a long time to build, some of them wasted national resources. By the middle of the nineteenth century they had been largely superseded by the railways. The reason for this was that carrying goods by horse-drawn barges along canals was a leisurely business. Manchester merchants complained that it took longer to bring their raw material from Liverpool than it did to carry it by ship across the Atlantic.

The canal era (1760-1830) coincided with a considerable improvement in the roads, which had been unsatisfactory ever since Roman times. Theoretically the parish authorities were responsible for their upkeep, amateur surveyors being allowed to use a local tax on real property, levied by the justices of the peace, to pay for the work or to employ labourers for the purpose. The first Turnpike Act, passed in 1663, permitted a local company to form a trust to build and maintain lengths of road, recouping itself by levying fees on travellers at turnpike gates. During the first half of the eighteenth century the central government had been more concerned over laying down regulations about the weights of loads than over building new roads to meet the needs of traffic. It was an instance of the way in which money was easily made available for investment, and of the fact that industry urgently required better transport, that by 1830 turnpike roads covered a distance of 23,000 miles (out of a total of 128,000 miles).

The turnpike roads were far from popular. The toll gates could be avoided by horsemen, but wagons and coaches were subject to irritating delays and sometimes to arbitrary increases in charges. They were disliked by drovers because the hard roads hurt the feet of their cattle. Turnpike roads were built only over short stretches, ten to twenty miles long, where they were thought likely to be most profitable; in London, for example, toll gates were sited at Hyde Park Corner and near where Marble Arch now stands; and most of the country still had nothing but grass tracks, impassable in winter.

The names of three engineers who built new roads are well known: John Metcalf, who was blind yet organized the construction of roads with adequate drainage in Lancashire and Yorkshire; Thomas Telford, surveyor of the road from London to Holyhead through north Wales and designer of the Menai Bridge; and John Macadam, whose name is associated with a method of road-making which involved using layers of broken stone, each subjected to pressure before the next was laid. Such roads inaugurated the era of flying coaches and quickened the delivery of the royal mail. But they were not so valuable for carrying bulky cargoes as were the canals and later the railways.

One of the most extraordinary facets of the prosperity of England in the second half of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth is that it was not materially injured by wars. The East India Company, it is true, went through a difficult period. When late in 1773 it was allowed by the Government to sell tea cheaply in America, paying the duty and eliminating colonial merchants and smugglers, the American reaction was swift and fierce; coercive measures by the British Government followed, angering the Americans even more.

It was because of this well-meaning but ill-timed attempt to let Americans buy inexpensive tea that they became a nation of coffee drinkers. Whereas the consumption of tea rose enormously in the eighteenth century, the English, for their part, did not take their coffee seriously. A Frenchman noted that the English ‘attach no importance to the perfume and flavour of good coffee … their coffee is always weak and bitter and has completely lost its aromatic flavour’. Writing in 1782, a German traveller said: ‘I would always advise those who wish to drink coffee in England to mention beforehand how many cups are to be made with half an ounce or else people will probably bring them a prodigious quantity of brown water which. .. I have not yet been able wholly to avoid’.8 During the American War of Independence that followed the fiasco over tea the official figures of British exports plummeted, for in turn the French, Spanish and Dutch came in on the American side, so that European as well as American markets were lost.

Yet within a year of the signature of the Peace Treaty of Versailles, recognizing American independence in 1783, exports exceeded those of the last years of the colonial period; and the ten years when Pitt the Younger was peace-time Prime Minister were among the most prosperous in English history. During the early years of the long war against revolutionary France British iron and steel provided weapons, and cotton and woollen textiles uniforms and blankets. Although ultimately nearly half a million men served in the army and navy, the number of workmen required to sustain the needs of the forces overseas was much smaller than those required in the twentieth century. Agriculture sufficed to produce most of the food wanted, except in years of bad harvests; and while grain prices rose, so did the wages of farm workers. Furthermore the contribution of the potato to the final victory must not be underestimated.

The loss of foreign markets again brought temporary distress, but the burgeoning cotton trade discovered new markets in South America and elsewhere. Imports of raw cotton, the best index to the success of the industry, had actually doubled by the time the Peace of Amiens was signed in 1802. The output of iron and steel more than doubled. Well over half the British exports at this time went to the United States of America. Indeed, the total value of all exports doubled and that of imports rose substantially. Timber had to be bought – first from the Baltic and later from Canada – for the building of ships, but the extension of the docks in London and other ports, essential to the expansion of the mercantile marine, went ahead, cheap iron replacing timber in their construction.

After the renewal of the war Napoleon, having been forced to abandon his attempt to invade England by the defeat of his fleet at the battle of Trafalgar in 1805, aimed to damage his enemy (‘the nation of shopkeepers’) by boycotting all British exports to Europe; he was in a position to do so because in the following year he was able to compel the Tsar of Russia to close his ports to British ships. The ‘Continental system’, as Napoleon called it, succeeded in reducing British exports to Europe for a time, but in 1809 total exports reached the record value of £50,000,000. Moreover poor harvests in 1808 and 1809 required the import of food, much of which, ironically enough, came from France and was paid for in gold. This was permitted by Napoleon because, unlike Adam Smith, the French Emperor equated wealth with precious metals and hoped to bleed his enemy of them. In 1811 British exports fell to the value of £32,400,000, but after the French army’s retreat from Moscow in 1812 the Continental system collapsed. Its most harmful consequence was to involve England in a war with the United States, fought at sea and on the land frontier of Canada. But the war did not last long enough to damage trade seriously.

What were injurious to the economy in the years 1793 to 1815 were the financial costs of the war against France. While Pitt the Younger remained Prime Minister he tried to pay for a large part of them out of taxation rather than by borrowing. The income tax was introduced in 1799 at the rate of 2 shillings in the pound. Two years earlier, because of heavy borrowing by the Government and loans to allies, the Bank of England, which had now in effect assumed the functions of a central bank, ran short of gold and a panic set in; prices of stocks fell and many bankruptcies followed. The Government was obliged to relieve the Bank of its obligation to pay cash against its notes. The price of gold then rose and the value of the pound fluctuated, causing retail prices to rise and real wages to fall. Though this created discontent, the Government’s policy of raising taxes to meet much of the cost of the war was effective in keeping the rate of inflation within reasonable limits, while the increase in prices stimulated industry.

By the time the war ended in 1815 Great Britain might claim to have become the emporium of the world. The income tax was abolished in 1815; the gold standard was restored in 1821. By then, although the population of England and Wales had risen to over twelve million (with two million in Scotland), prices were beginning to fall following the war-time inflation. The outlook was excellent for the wealthy landowning classes and the industrious middle classes, whose placid existence is pictured in the novels of Jane Austen and in Charles Dickens’s Dombey and Son, ‘for whom the earth was made to trade in’.

But what of the wage-earners? English wages in the second half of the eighteenth century were higher than those in France and lower than those in the newly founded United States of America. Their real value varied in accordance with the price of bread and whether the country was at war or peace. Agricultural workers were better off in war time, but other workers were not necessarily so because ‘the proportion of the energies of Englishmen that went into the production of exports was extraordinarily high’ and the export trade both to Europe and America was interrupted by wars.9 In between the wars, shortages of workers in particular industries occurred, for an integrated national market for labour was lacking. Coal miners were needed after the Seven Years War, which led to higher wages being offered them; and Josiah Wedgwood had difficulty in finding workmen for his potteries in 1769, when he wrote that ‘almost everybody wants hands’.

Wage-earners were by no means unvociferous. Whenever bad harvests and a consequent rise in food prices threatened them with hunger they rioted. In 1740-I demonstrators burnt down mills and attacked corn dealers and bakers. By the seventeen-sixties, when the population was growing fast, this pressed upon the supply of food. London was usually plentifully provisioned; indeed, the sight of grain being shipped through the countryside to the capital provoked the anger of famished spectators: but in 1767 the metropolitan poor became equally restless as, owing to a bad harvest, the price of the quartern loaf rose steeply. In other parts of the country coal heavers, who unloaded ships arriving at docks, merchant seamen and silk workers were all clamouring for higher wages, either rioting or going on strike. The Government was reluctant to call out troops to suppress the disorders, and the interference with normal trade was such that to some extent at least they made their point and enlisted public sympathy. Rural magistrates, usually country gentlemen, often pitied hungry strikers and encouraged them to turn their wrath against rich farmers and profiteering middle men who kept up high prices for grain, thus showing indulgence to rioters who were agitating for higher pay.

Nevertheless those who struck for better wages in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were rarely sufficiently united to win a victory. Local trade clubs, the successors to the medieval journeymen’s and craftsmen’s gilds, were the characteristic wage-earners’ organizations of the time rather than national trade unions. Skilled workmen, shipwrights, for example, were the most successful at forming strong unions. Some of the clubs were benefit societies more than unions and less militant than they might have been. Because of the lack of unified force among workmen employers were able to apply to Parliament for a ban on combinations and for the imposition of maximum rates of wages in their own particular industries.

Strikes induced by hunger and poverty were not the only symptoms of unrest. The substitution of expensive machinery, which had to be housed in factories, for the spindles and looms that were worked by hand in the cottagers’ own homes aroused the hostility of textile workers. It was not simply because of the fear that their earnings would be cut by the competition of factories that this fundamental social change was disliked, but because domestic workers, not being strictly disciplined by their employers, could organize their lives to suit their own convenience, calling upon their families to assist them when necessary and allowing them to take a day off from work when they felt like it. They often did not work on Mondays. Men who worked in factories were required to do twelve- to sixteen-hour shifts, starting early in the morning and, when artificial lighting improved, through the night.

After a clergyman named Edmund Cartwright invented a power loom that could be operated by steam in 1789 it was taken up by cotton manufacturers during the war against Napoleon and later by the woollen textile industry. The hand-loom weavers, who had enjoyed their last period of prosperity before the war, were shocked by the economic and social consequences of mechanization; for among other things the new looms could be handled by boys and girls. The hand-loom weavers soon took demonstrative action. When Cartwright’s first steam looms were installed in a cotton mill they were destroyed by incendiaries before the equipment was completed. Wool-combers were equally opposed to the introduction of machinery and shearers tried to obtain the prohibition of gig mills, on which the work could be done more quickly.

In protest about the unemployment created by mechanization workers calling themselves Luddites resorted to a campaign of smashing the new apparatus. Their name may have come from a boy named Ludlam who, to spite his father, broke a knitting frame. The Luddite movement began in the hosiery and lace industries and then spread to the cotton and woollen mills during the latter part of the war and after. But all such protests by agitation and violence proved vain. The number of power looms rose from 2,400 in 1813 to 100,000 in 1835. Although the number of hand looms in use remained considerable, the attempts of their operators to compete with the power looms in factories formed the most depressing chapter in the economic history of the early nineteenth century. Some Luddites were hanged and others were transported for life.

It was in response to social unrest during the Napoleonic wars that Combination Acts applicable to all industries were passed by Parliament.

The first act of July 1799 was aimed against combinations of masters as well as of workers. Some employers would have preferred statutory minimum wages as a safeguard against strikes. In 1824, owing to the initiative of radical Members of Parliament, the Combination Acts were repealed. The acts had not been very effective either in preventing employees from striking or restraining employers from price-fixing. Strikes by both spinners and weavers demanding higher wages were frequent in Lancashire between 1815 and 1830. They usually collapsed, owing to want of adequate strike pay or sufficient support from other unions.

The repeal was followed by attempts to form national unions, the most ambitious of which were a National Association for the Protection of Labour, sponsored by John Doherty, an Irishman who had settled in Manchester as a cotton spinner, and a Grand National Consolidated Trades Union, founded in 1834 under the influence of Robert Owen, himself a mill owner with advanced ideas. The first, which claimed to have recruited 100,000 members, disintegrated in 1832 through internal squabbles; the second, which boasted 500,000 members, including women, foundered for much the same reasons and was converted into a less belligerent society. Both these organizations were a kind of response to the passing of the first Reform Act of 1832, with its modest transformation of the constituencies and the electorate. Many radicals had pinned their hopes of industrial reforms on the election of a more representative Parliament with a membership sympathetic to the aspirations of the wage-earning classes. But the Reform Act was of direct benefit only to the middle classes.

The epilogue to the political and social drama of the early eighteen-thirties was the decision in March 1834 of the magistrates of the village of Tolpuddle in Dorset to condemn six labourers to transportation for seven years because they had administered oaths to fellow members of a union: for the abolition of the Combination Acts had left intact the right to convict labourers of conspiracy under the common law of the land.

One reason for the discontent that prevailed after 1815 was the treatment of poverty. The functioning of the Elizabethan Poor Law, which laid responsibility for dealing both with the able-bodied poor, usually unemployed, and the impotent poor or unemployable on justices of the peace, had never proved satisfactory. Poor rates had been levied and workhouses built, but the problems of the unemployed and under-employed had not been solved. After the outbreak of the war against France the magistrates of Speenhamland in Berkshire had begun in 1795 to give outdoor relief on a scale based on the price of bread and the size of the family concerned.

Relief was also given to the underpaid whose earnings fell short of that scale, thus subsidizing the wages of the lowest-paid workers. The Speenhamland system spread throughout the country, particularly in southern England, but it applied only to rural areas. As a result the annual expenditure out of the poor rates grew from £2,000,000 in the seventeen-eighties to £6,000,000 in 1812.

After the war ended in 1815 poverty increased, especially among agricultural labourers. Landlords and farmers had invested capital in equipment such as threshing machines and tedders to spread and dry hay and extended their operations to less fertile soil in the expectation that the higher prices obtained for food in war time would continue, but they were disappointed, even though they were protected by the Corn Law of 1815. A Member of Parliament claimed in 1816 that many small farmers were becoming pensioners on the poor rate. At the same time the miserable plight of the hand-loom weavers was only one instance of the way in which mechanized processes in industry were creating pockets of poverty. Wages fell when demobilized soldiers and sailors were flooding the labour market. Some industries that had profited from war conditions lost ground and had to dismiss workers.

By the eighteen-twenties the position began to improve somewhat, since the standard of living of wage-earners was helped by a fall in the price of food. Yet the problem of poverty remained. In 1832 a Royal Commission was appointed to suggest remedies. It urged that relief should not be left entirely to the parishes, as it had been since the sixteenth century, and that a Board of Commissioners should supervise the regulation and building of workhouses. By the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 parishes were grouped into ‘unions’ and a Board of Guardians, elected by rate-payers, was appointed to carry out the regulations of the Commissioners. Though relief in aid of wages had been condemned, it was in fact continued. On the other hand, the total amount of relief was cut down because many who were offered relief only if they entered a workhouse refused it. In fact during the eighteen-thirties unemployment was not excessive and real wages were reasonably good in most manufacturing industries.

But what were the conditions of those at work like? Factory workers were, on the whole, better paid than either agricultural labourers or domestic servants, but money was not everything. Agricultural labourers usually had a garden or patch of land on which they could grow fruit and vegetables and sometimes had a pigsty. Their cottages could be of stone or brick, with glazed windows. Meals could be elaborated with game, for in spite of ferocious penalties laid down in an act of 1817 poaching was widespread, usually commanding public sympathy and even on occasions the connivance of the village constable. The position of domestic servants was by no means bad: ‘the servants’ table’, wrote the author of The Complete Servant in 1825, ‘is usually provided with solid dishes and with ale and table beer’. Upper-class servants, like the clerk of the kitchen, the chef, the butler and the valet, had well-furnished, comfortable rooms and pickings from the family table.

By contrast, factory workers had to toil for long hours in stifling conditions in rooms that were dirty and badly lit. Women and children were also employed for long hours in factories, particularly in the cotton industry. Mill owners contracted with Poor Law authorities for batches of pauper children to serve as apprentices, who were lodged in sheds adjoining the factories, where they were liable to catch fever in insanitary surroundings. An act of parliament of 1819, out of keeping with the attitude of laissez-faire that then prevailed, prohibited the employment of children under nine in cotton mills and restricted the hours of work for older children to twelve a day. But as no factory inspectors were appointed the act was easily evaded. However, fourteen years later another act laid down that children between the ages of nine and thirteen employed in all textile factories (except silk) should not work more than forty-eight hours a week and inspectors were appointed to enforce its clauses. Night work was forbidden to all persons under eighteen and they were not to be required to work for more than twelve hours a day or sixty-nine hours a week. It also legislated for two hours a day of schooling for children working in the textile industries. Loopholes in the act were plugged in 1844, when night work was forbidden to women. Gradually, enlightened public opinion was persuaded that because of the need to protect women and children who worked in mills and mines it was necessary to reduce by law the appalling hours of factory labour.

Though coal miners were relatively well paid, the iniquitous truck system was commoner in it than in other industries. Mine owners set up shops on the premises of the mines, where for one reason or another the men and their wives were expected to spend at least a part of their-wages. In remote areas where few shops were to be found, manufacturers might actually pay their workers in truck, that is to say, in goods instead of money.

In the industrial towns housing conditions were generally bad. In Manchester, for instance, many workmen and their families lodged in damp and unhealthy cellars. As the cost of building rose in the early nineteenth century, houses put up by Jerry-builders at rents workmen could afford were small and crowded together, like the back-to-back houses still to be seen in some northern towns. Overcrowding reflected the growth in the population. Nevertheless the death rate also rose after 1831: this was the result of inadequate sanitation and polluted water supplies. It was scarcely surprising therefore that cottage labourers, accustomed to being masters in their own homes, however humble, and working such hours as they thought necessary for the good of their families, were reluctant to submit themselves to the discipline, long hours and unhygienic conditions that unquestionably prevailed in the majority of factories.

The contrast between elegance and squalor, between the ideals of the so-called Romantic Movement of early nineteenth-century England and its industrial realities, is striking. Anyone who reads the novels of Jane Austen, describing the life of the country gentry of her time, where the main excitement was who was going to marry whom and the best way of avoiding boredom, learns little of what was happening on the battlefields of Europe or in the crowded cities. The French Revolution sparked off lyrical poets like Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats, who rejected the ordered classical universe of Dr Johnson and his circle, stood for liberty and personal freedom and found city life distasteful. In London one could see the beautiful houses built by the Adam brothers and John Nash on the one side and the slums of Westminster and the East End on the other. The aristocratic portraiture of Reynolds and Romney was far removed from the paintings of Turner, whose later work may be seen to symbolize the advent of the age of steam.

In his novel Hard Times Charles Dickens painted a memorable portrait of an imaginary Coketown:


It was a town of red brick, or brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it … . It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast buildings full of windows, where there was a rattling and trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.


There were produced ‘the elegancies of life’ that ‘found their way all over the world’.

Another contrast could be drawn between the dark, smoke-laden towns of the industrial north and Midlands and the pleasurable, leisured existence in such seaside resorts as Southend, Broadstairs, Brighton and Weymouth. Bath was still a popular resort with the well-to-do, but the beauties of the Lake District had only just been discovered. Lydia Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice thought Brighton heavenly and her more mature sister, Elizabeth, was disappointed at not being able to visit the Lake District.

However fairly the landscape of the early nineteenth century is depicted, it is hard to forget its grimmer aspects. It is true that a German visitor, writing in 1828, said that ‘outside some of the northern factory districts and the low quarters of London one seldom sees rags and tatters, as seldom as broken window panes and neglected cottages’;10 but wherever coal mines and ironworks were to be found, a blackened country came into being. Factory workers had little to cheer them at their toil or at home except mugs of beer or cups of tea. Apart from a few notable exceptions, employers were mostly self-made men who were far from being philanthropic. When in 1797 the copper miners in Cornwall were faced with starvation and threatened their masters with violence, John Wilkinson, who made a fortune out of armaments, advocated the use of a press-gang and the lowering of the miners’ wages to teach them a lesson. Many of the ironmasters were nonconformists, who lived austere and frugal lives, but had little of the milk of human kindness. They were opposed, for instance, to the building of a theatre in Birmingham: yet workmen and their families badly needed distraction from the stark daily round.

England was in the process of being divided into two nations, on one side the industrial north and Midlands, on the other the rural south and east. Scattered around were benevolent landlords occupying gracious houses which few today can manage or afford. The census Of 1831 recorded huge numbers of domestic servants, nearly 700,000 of them, who catered for the comforts of the upper and middle classes.

The invention of mechanical means of manufacturing textiles drew many families away from the countryside, graced by the landed gentry and their minions, into the ugly towns of industrial England. William Cobbett, once a farmer and always a journalist, deplored the way in which the ‘Lords of the Loom’ had attracted countryfolk into their factories to make ‘many work for the gain of a few’. He thought of such capitalist employers as ‘greedy, grinding ruffians’ who were changing men, women and children into their slaves. But another journalist, Edward Baines, a Yorkshireman, proclaimed that in his opinion ‘manufacturers’ had ‘transformed heaths, deserts, quagmires, bogs and scenes of desolation into lands of fertility and abundance’. No doubt both would have admitted that a new rich and a new poor had been created, peopling the divided society of which the novelist and statesman Benjamin Disraeli was to write, between whom there was no intercourse and no sympathy.

It was ironical that the opening year of the reign of Queen Victoria, which we now look back upon as the most prosperous in English history, should have been a year of recession, hunger, much poverty and unemployment, heralding the first of those periodic social and economic crises in peace time that have since punctuated the story of industrialized England.


  1. Ralph Davis, ‘English Foreign Trade 1700-1774’, in W.E. Minchinton, The Growth of English Overseas Trade in the 17th and 18th Centuries (1969), chapter 2
  2. J.D. Chambers, Population, Economy and Society (1972), pp. 37 seq.; Peter Laslett, Family Life and Illicit Love in Earlier Generations (19), chapter 3
  3. G.E. Mingay, English Landed Society in the Eighteenth Century (1963), p. 54
  4. T.S. Ashton, An Economic History of England: The Eighteenth Century p. 12
  5. Ashton, The Industrial Revolution 1760-1 830 (1968), p. 54
  6. J. H. Plumb, England in the Eighteenth Century (1950), p. 8i
  7. H.L. Beales, The Industrial Revolution 1750-1850 (1958), p. 49
  8. André Parreaux, Daily Life in England in the Reign of George III (1969), p. 37; Carl Philipp Moritz in England in 1782 (introduction by P.E. Matheson, translated 1924), p. 33
  9. Cf.John B. Owen, The Eighteenth Century 1714-1815 09), p. 305
  10. H. Meidinger, Reisen durch Grossbritannien und Irland (1828), p. 27