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Europe Industrialising During The Nineteenth Century History Essay

Whilst the term ‘industrial revolution’ is widely-taught in classrooms across the country, historians, including Cameron, see the publics’ familiarity with the expression as “unfortunate because the term…conveys a grossly misleading impression of the nature of economic change” [1] . Many students are taught that the industrial revolution was synonymous with an increase in factories and mechanised production. However, this is an oversimplification of the matter; the term ‘industrial’ extends to rural and urban workshops, mining, commerce and the service trades, for instance. In order to assess whether Europe can be thought of as industrialising during the nineteenth century, it is first necessary to establish how industrialisation can be judged. For example, a study of Gross National Product, urbanisation, production figures, export data and proletarianisation will all indicate varying levels of industrialisation. As a result, some historians question the term ‘industrial revolution’, preferring the term the ‘industrious revolution’, a “process of household-based resource reallocation that increased both the supply of marketed commodities and labour and the demand for market-supplies” [2] . Moreover, while the conventional wisdom of nineteenth century industrialisation is one of rapid and widespread growth, some historians would argue the century heralded “accelerated (but not revolutionary) growth” [3] , explained by the concept of regionality and also an appreciation of later de-industrialisation. In this essay, attention will be paid to four significant areas which require examination in order to assess whether Europe was industrialising during the nineteenth century. The first section of the essay will focus on economic indicators and production figures, before a consideration of the extent to which proletarianisation occurred is offered. In the third section of the essay, the concept of regionality will be addressed before the issue of de-industrialisation is considered.

It is relatively easy to be misled into the belief that European industrialisation was extremely rapid and concentrated in the nineteenth century. However, industrialisation was not confined to this period alone. Thus, it is possible to argue that Europe was industrialising long before the nineteenth century. In countries, such as Britain, industrialisation can be traced back to the 1300s where the ‘Black Death’ devastated the British peasantry [4] . This immediately poses a question: why is the nineteenth century more strongly associated with industrialisation than any other century? The answer to this question lies in the array of economic statistics and production figures for European nations between 1815 and 1914. For instance, coal production in Britain more than doubled between 1855 and 1910, rising from 67 million tons to 270 million tons [5] . These dramatic increases were also seen in German iron production where, in the Rhineland region alone, production of pig iron increased from 110,000 tons in 1834 to 7.5 million tons by 1900 [6] . Moreover, an additional method of determining the scale of industrialisation is to address the issue of infrastructure and, in particular, rail. Between 1850 and 1890 in France, for example, the number of miles of rail track increased fivefold from approximately 1,869 miles to 10,518 miles. Belgium also tripled rail mileage from 531 to 1,800 [7] . Thus, statistically at least, it appears that Europe was not simply experiencing a period of growth and prosperity in this period, but undergoing full-scale industrialisation.

However, by overplaying the significance of such data, it is possible to achieve a false impression of the scale of Europe-wide industrialisation in the nineteenth century. In a parallel with the twenty-first century, there were nations whose economies grew at a faster rate than others and those who lagged behind. While specific data on raw material production is helpful to a certain degree in gaging the success of a nation’s economy, a far more accurate depiction can be gained from annual growth figures. This highlights the fact that while nations, such as Britain and the Netherlands had rapidly developing economies, nations such as Italy and Spain had slower performing economies. Concealed behind European economic growth figures of 3 per cent per annum in the late nineteenth century, lies a more varied picture. Spain’s yearly growth is estimated at as little as 1 per cent while Britain’s growth is estimated at a maximum of 4.5 per cent per annum [8] . This suggests that the rate of industrialisation fluctuated across Europe. As a result, perhaps it is too general and misleading to think of Europe as a whole industrialising during the nineteenth century. Surely a more accurate assessment would conclude that some regions and nations industrialised, while others did not in any tangible sense.

In addition, a further factor which indicates Europe did indeed industrialise during the nineteenth century involves proletarianisation. Proletarianisation is the process by which an individual becomes wage dependent and, in doing so, loses control of the means of production [9] . This is characterised by people moving to towns and cities in search of work and a wage, thus losing their connection with the land. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, nations such as the UK were highly proletarian, as highlighted by the fact that the 1.9 million people working in agriculture were outnumbered by the 8.1 million people employed in manufacturing and the additional 3.6 million people employed in the service sector [10] . Whilst such dramatic statistics suggest industrialisation was having notable social effects in Britain, the same cannot be said of all European nations. In Germany for instance, 5.7 million people were employed in agriculture compared to just 3.7 million and 1.1 million employed in the manufacturing and service sector respectively [11] . This emphasises that the levels of industrialisation varied greatly; all across Europe, “contrasts in experience” [12] existed within communities, regions and nations. However, what is clear is that proletarianisation is a process rather than an instant event and, as a result, occurred incrementally. What is clear from the figures discussed is that nations across Europe were becoming increasingly proletarian, albeit at varying rates, throughout the nineteenth century. The very fact that nations were becoming organically proletarian suggests that Europe can be thought of as industrialising during this period.

In contrast, the alternative view regarding proletarianisation suggests that, when considered as a whole, Europe cannot be thought of as industrialising. After all, by the 1880s, Britain was one of Europe’s only proletarian nations. This gives rise to the suggestion that it was perhaps the result of luck rather than design that Britain became proletarian faster than other European nations. For example, Britain was not as widely affected by diseases, such as Cholera, as other European nations, including France and Italy, Disease and mortality are two factors which could easily have hindered Britain’s process of proletarianisation [13] . In addition, whilst it is impossible to dispute that proletarianisation was an incremental process, it is possible to suggest that it portrays a false image of industrialisation. It perpetuates the view that industrialisation was widespread, affecting every corner of each European nation, masking the fact that, while highly-proletarian industrial districts existed, much of Europe remained agrarian. Even within Britain, which appeared to be proletarian by the end of the nineteenth century, there were significant areas of the country which did not industrialise in any tangible sense.

Moreover, it is clear that the concept of regionality is of vital importance to any study of industrialisation. Historians have identified “distinct regions” [14] of industry within countries, such as Britain, emphasising the fact that nations as a whole did not industrialise. Rather, Britain for example, relied upon “industrial regions” [15] , such as Yorkshire, Lancashire, Sheffield and Birmingham. It is possible to argue that Europe can be thought of as industrialising during the nineteenth century due to the very existence of these industrial regions. Granted, the entire continent was not industrialising but, significantly, the regions which were developing are evidence of the process of industrialisation which, over time, spread outwards from these small, specialised regions. Cornwall is an excellent example of this; mining, which defined ‘industrial Cornwall’, spread westwards, engulfing more of the region throughout the nineteenth century [16] . King and Timmins emphasise the clear “regionality of the industrial revolution” [17] . They also describe the effects of regionality, creating wealthy, urban, industrial regions whilst also leaving vast swathes of nations relatively poor, rural and agrarian – ultimately untouched by industrialisation.

Thus, regionality can be seen as both an argument in support of the assertion that Europe was indeed industrialising during the nineteenth century, and also as an argument against. Whilst it must be accepted that some regions did industrialise heavily, it was at best “patchy” [18] , “uneven and incomplete” [19] adding weight to the suggestion that, when discussed as a single entity, Europe did not industrialise during this period. Rather, some regions within Europe did, but industrialisation had not spread to all areas of the continent by 1900.

Whilst the nineteenth century is often considered to be a pivotal century in terms of industrialisation, it is also important to consider the role and extent of de-industrialisation in this period in order to determine whether Europe can be thought of as industrialising. The term de-industrialisation can be interpreted in multiple ways. Campbell, for example, understands it to mean the “relative decline of the share of total economic output attributable to the manufacturing sector” [20] . Following this interpretation, it is clear that Britain, for example, experienced de-industrialisation towards the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the early nineteenth centuries. For example, Lancashire’s cotton industry, Merseyside’s chemical production and Cheshire’s carpet weaving industry all experienced decline from the 1880s onwards [21] . Moreover, when analysing the growth of manufacturing exports over the latter half of the century, the evidence of de-industrialisation is plain to see. Between 1853 and 1873, for example, Britain’s manufacturing exports measured 3.3 per cent. This decreased to 1.6 per cent between 1873 and 1899 [22] . Although this counteracts the rapid industrialisation of the first half of the nineteenth century, it can also be interpreted as a levelling-out following vast increases in production throughout the century.

However, it is important to note that, although nations such as Britain experienced some decline towards the end of the century, other European nations flourished. It would be an oversimplification to take Britain’s example as representative of industry on the continent because counties, such as Russia, began to increase production. Thus, it is possible to argue that Britain’s de-industrialisation was caused by growing foreign competition where goods could be made cheaper. For instance, Britain was the world-leader in cotton cloth production for much of the nineteenth century, producing more than the rest of the world combined in 1850. However, other European nations began to increase cotton manufacturing [23] . As cotton became a low-value product with increasing supply, the available profit decreased, damaging British cotton manufacturing. For example, between 1880 and 1913, British cotton production increased by little over a third from 617,000 tons to 978,000 tons. In comparison, Russia’s production more than doubled, increasing from 94,000 in 1880 to 219,000 by 1913 [24] . Although this figure is overshadowed by Britain’s total, it is clear that Russia’s cotton industry was growing at a far more rapid rate than that of Britain. In light of this, it is possible to argue that, although de-industrialisation occurred, it was the result of natural competition and growing levels of industrialisation in East and Southern Europe. This must be taken as strong evidence of a Europe actively industrialising during the nineteenth century, although the rate of industrialisation varied greatly as shown in the statistics above.

Overall, although the nineteenth century is historically associated with rapid and concentrated industrialisation, it is possible to conclude that there were also great “variations in experience” [25] across Europe as the extent of industrialisation differed between nations, regions and even communities. Thus, it appears that industrialisation during the nineteenth century was a “regional phenomenon” [26] , with some regions developing into highly industrialised districts, while others failed to industrialise in any functional sense. After analysing economic data and production statistics, it is possible to argue that some nations, such as Britain, appeared to be industrialising rapidly. However, other countries, such as Spain were industrialising at a far more gradual pace. The same can be said following a consideration of proletarianisation, which highlights how some European nations were highly proletarian while others were still largely peasant-based. The concept of regionality further confirms that industrialisation, far from being widespread, created pockets of industry, while other areas were affected very little. Finally, a consideration of de-industrialisation highlights that, whilst nations such as Britain experienced decline, other nations in Europe were continuing or just beginning to industrialise, threatening Britain’s industrial mite and influence.

As a result, it is possible to argue that Europe was indeed industrialising during the nineteenth century, although not to the levels often thought. Rather, it seems the rate and effects of industrialisation varied greatly across Europe, with some countries outperforming others greatly. Even within nations, industrialisation was not widespread but concentrated in regions and districts scattered across otherwise agrarian nations. However, industrialisation must be thought of as an incremental process. When this is taken into consideration, it is impossible to claim that Europe had not at least begun the long process of industrialisation during the nineteenth century.

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