To what extent can the period in Britain between 1780 and 1914 be termed correctly as an industrial revolution?
“The industrial revolution is precisely the expansion of undeveloped forces, the sudden growth and blossoming of seeds which had for years lain hidden or asleep.”
Paul Mantoux’s quote regarding the industrial revolution is used to describe the range of different phenomena that constituted this watershed moment in British, European and world history. This is because the industrial revolution cannot be pigeon‑holed. It was not a government policy and none of what occurred politically, socially, culturally or economically in Britain between 1780 and 1914 came from design but rather was the result of a historical accident of a sequence of key factors all occurring during the same timeframe. The period represented a transition from early modern history to modernity, with many of the social and economic ills that arrest much of the contemporary world today first acted out in the newly industrialised areas of the UK in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The industrial revolution affected the entire structure of British society, from the monarchy to the previously numerically dominant peasant classes, from agricultural workers to merchants. There is no doubt that a momentous shift had taken place: the far‑reaching legacy of the changes that occurred during the period 1780 and 1914 culminated in the Great War where the casualty figures soared into the millions as opposed to the thousands who were, for instance, killed in the Battle of Culloden, testimony in itself to the enormous changes in machinery and industry that was witnessed during this revolutionary time. Yet to describe it as a ‘revolution’ invites further analysis.
Although the transformation was wholesale it would be incorrect to think of Britain in 1780 as being an underdeveloped nation. As is always the case when taking a chronological look at history, it becomes apparent that the period immediately leading up to 1780 was a crucial time in laying the foundations for the sweeping changes which were about to take place. By this point in history England had the fastest growing empire of any of the traditional European powers, was in possession of the largest navy in the world (essential in terms of acquiring and maintaining an empire in the eighteenth century) and was home to a true metropolis with regards to the capital city. “The dominance of London was fully established, and this had helped to create that integration and rationalisation of the cultural, political and economic life of the nation which was to bring significant benefits in the eighteenth century.”
In many ways, Britain during this time was a country that had already shed its medieval skin. The huge shift in the number of people who had to work to survive proves the truth in the assumption that England had ceased to be a society based along the middle ages notion of landed aristocracy and its inherently unpopular feudal system. Thus, English history bore witness to the birth of the modern proletariat; “not here meant in the special sense of the creation of the factory labour force, but as a broad description of the protracted process by which working for wages, characteristic of perhaps a quarter of England’s population during the reign of Henry VIII, became the condition of more than 80 per cent by the mid nineteenth century.”
In certain areas of Britain the social, political, cultural and economic changes that this period of history bequeathed constitute a complete, grass roots revolution whereby the look of certain places in 1914 bore no resemblance to their appearance in 1780. While the early modern period that preceded the industrial revolution saw the growth of London and trade, the period of the later 1700’s saw the north of England experience something of a re‑birth, as a direct result of the industrial revolution. Previously, many areas of the North were little more than buffer towns; populations constructed to keep out any potential Scottish invasion from the north but offering little to the growth of the English economy. But the industrial revolution altered the entire relationship between North and South, re‑instigating a sense of purpose in the people north of Birmingham. “Many once great centres were on their way to the pleasant obscurity of county rather than national fame: York, Exeter, Chester, Worcester, Salisbury.”
First and foremost, the industrial revolution, exacerbated by the increase in production of cotton in the North‑West after the 1770’s and the invention of Arkwright’s water‑frame, swelled the physical constitution of the population and began a permanent migration away from the countryside to the towns as a result of industry gradually usurping agriculture as the lifeblood of the nation. Liverpool, for example, was seventh in the list of European capital cities by 1850 with Manchester ninth. This had the overall effect of creating urban centres of concentrated wealth with large sectors of the new proletariat class.
Yet it would be incorrect to view this creation of new centres of populace as tantamount to a re‑distribution of political power. The political system in Britain ensured that power remained in the hands of the privileged, traditional sectors of society which were still predominantly based in or around London and the South‑East. Until the Great Reform Act (1832) rotten boroughs and anachronistic political modelling resulted in the great northern cities such as Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester having only a fraction of the electoral power that their numbers suggested.
But even after 1832 there was no political revolution in England in spite of the continued, and in some areas accelerated, growth of industry and population. Marx and Engels had written their communist manifesto in the 1840’s predicting that the enormous sociological changes that England in particular was experiencing would lead to the birth of Europe’s first truly socialist nation. But there were very few recorded incidents of social unrest as a result of the industrial revolution and examples such as Peterloo (1819) were isolated and meagre in comparison to the widespread class revolutions that the continent witnessed in 1848. “The true explanation is quite simple: wealth. Class conflict was deferred to the twentieth century when international markets and industrial wealth in the North began to contract and working‑class standards of living levelled off or actually fell.”
It was not only the physical make‑up of England that was shifting as a result of the changes seen since 1780 but also the period saw the birth of an entire sub‑nation within the British Isles, namely the people of the industrial heartland of South Wales. Quite simply, without the undoubted industrial revolution, areas such as the Rhondda and Ebbw valleys would remain largely unpopulated today. Rates of urban and social growth in South Wales during the nineteenth century are truly astounding with consequences that the region has yet to come to terms with today.
“The Rhondda demonstrates, albeit to an extreme degree, the nature of the new urban expansion. It was a society of migrants, often far removed from their geographical roots: in 1911, only 58 per cent of the Rhondda’s people had been born in Glamorgan. The rest of Wales supplied 19 per cent, England 7 per cent. A sixth of the population was drawn from ‘elsewhere’, from Ireland and Scotland, but also from Spain, Italy and other lands. The community was disproportionately young and male. Between 1880 and 1914, males generally comprised at least 55 per cent of the population.”
South Wales thus became a frontier nation, completely dependent upon coal for subsistence; it would not exist as we know it today were it not for industrialisation. The example of the new nationality which was borne out of the South Wales coalfields was symptomatic of the broader diffusion of ethnicity that the industrial revolution bequeathed to modern Britain. The influx to British cities of huge numbers of Irish after the potato blight of the 1840’s changed forever the local political, cultural and economic landscape. Along with a large influx of Jews, mostly displaced from Eastern Europe, the immigrants to British cities transformed the fate of the nation; most were willing to perform the worst jobs which enabled grater numbers of the local population to move up the complex industrialised social spectrum. London, in particular, became, during the nineteenth century, a haven for traders, merchants and, increasingly, knowledge with the first university college of London established in 1826. “It was a progressive, enquiring energy which animated all of these concerns. It has been termed the energy of empire since the vast power and resourcefulness of nineteenth century London, at the centre of the imperial world, had somehow managed to infiltrate all aspects of its life.”
Indeed, it can be argued that the all‑encompassing Empire of the latter part of Queen Victoria’s reign could not have occurred without the impetus of the inexorable industrial revolution beforehand. The invention of steam alone necessitated a rail work and domestic infrastructure capable of supporting an empire and, of course, economic imperialism was used much more frequently by the British invaders of India and Africa, as opposed to the militaristic imperialism which characterised the German acquisition of territory after the Franco‑Prussian War (1870‑1).
Therefore, politically, socially and culturally, Britain was moving forward with great haste without instigating anything remotely close to a revolution in spite of the huge changes already described. Only in terms of economics can this historical period really be seen as fundamentally altering the composition and character of the country, with industrialisation creating the world’s first truly capitalist society. “This was the period when Britain enjoyed to the full the economic benefits of having become ‘the workshop of the world.’ Her total exports in 1850 were worth £71 000 000, in 1870 they were worth nearly £200 000 000. Her imports trebled in those years from £100 000 000 to £300 000 000… whichever way it is looked at, the total wealth of the country was growing fast, and it was more widely distributed throughout the community than before.” The measure of the level of industrialisation ought to be gauged in social and political as well as economic terms. Yet, as contemporary Latin American analysts are discovering, facts and figures pertaining to these phenomena are notoriously difficult to calculate. Economically, however, it is apparent for all to see that the growth of Britain between 1780 and 1914 can only be explained in revolutionary language, as a direct result of an unprecedented industrial revolution.
There is no doubt that the period 1780‑1914 was the key timeframe in terms of the British experience of the industrial revolution. The difficulty for historians is the phraseology: revolution implies one key date, a dramatic event and a sudden shift of national focus discernible after that occasion. In comparison to France, for example, British history at this time appears anything but revolutionary – the French experienced three revolutions by the time that the Third Republic was declared passed with the defeat of Napoleon III. Evolution, as opposed to revolution, would therefore be a more accurate term to describe the myriad of changes that beset British society and political life during this period.
And where there did occur a revolution, it took place in factories across the country, in coal fields and the birth of trade unions rather than in the execution or dissolution of monarchy and tradition. Much of the greater social, cultural and political changes that occurred after 1918 were as a result of the groundwork cemented during the period 1780‑1914, none greater than the formation of a society based upon class, itself a direct legacy of the industrialisation of the nation, as E.P. Thompson concludes in his own inimitable dissection of the social consequences of the industrial revolution.
“This collective class consciousness was indeed the great spiritual gain of the Industrial Revolution, against which the disruption of an older and in many ways more humanly comprehensible way of life must be set…the slow, piecemeal accretions of capital accumulation had meant that the preliminaries to the Industrial Revolution stretched backwards for hundreds of years. From Tudor times onwards this artisan culture had grown more complex with each phase of technical and social change.”
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P. Clark & P. Slack, English Towns in Transition, 1500‑1700 (Oxford University Press; Oxford, London & New York, 1976)
P. Jenkins, A History of Modern Wales, 1536‑1990 (Longman; London & New York, 1992)
P. Mantoux, The Industrial Revolution in the Eighteenth Century (Metheun; London, 1961)
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F. Musgrove, The North of England: a History from Roman Times to the Present (Basil Blackwell; Oxford, 1990)
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E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Penguin; London, 1991)
E.A. Wrigley, People, Cities and Wealth (Basil Blackwell; Oxford, 1987)