Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

Listen to author Emma Griffin discussing the British Industrial Revolution on BBC Radio 4's In Our Time: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00wr9r7

Why was the British industrial revolution such a pivotal event in world history?

This succinct introduction explains what the Industrial Revolution was, when exactly it occurred and why it happened in Britain first. Providing a clear and compelling synthesis of the latest research on industrialization, and illustrated with newspaper articles, photographs and graphs, the book is aimed at students without any prior knowledge.

Griffin assesses the best known explanations for the industrial revolution, and argues that industrialization is to be understood chiefly as the switch to a new source of fuel (coal) coupled with the emergence of new technologies. Situating British industrialisation in a global context, she evaluates what benefits, if any, the world's first industrial revolution brought to the ordinary men and women whose labour made it happen.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction

Abstract
In 2008, the Guardian newspaper ran a series of articles about a problem they labelled the ‘Global Food Crisis’. The fourth of these featured Zhang Xiuwen, a Chinese worker who in the 1990s abandoned a life of farming in Yunnan province to become a tennis coach in Beijing. For Xiuwen, the contrast between these two lives was epitomised above all by the vastly improved diet that followed his migration to the city. As a child in the 1970s, Xiuwen and his family had subsisted on a largely vegetarian diet; we ‘children looked forward to spring festival,’ he recalled, ‘partly because it was fun, but also because it was a chance to eat meat.’ And not only was eating meat something of a rarity, having too little to eat altogether was something that Xiuwen knew only too well: ‘In my childhood I sometimes went hungry. During July and August, just before harvest, we usually did not have enough to eat.’ How different this was to his life in Beijing: beef, chicken, pork and fish are a part of his and his family’s daily diet the year round; ‘in the past we couldn’t imagine [meals] like this … now we can eat meat every day if we want. It has become part of our lives.’1
Emma Griffin

Chapter 3. A Growing Population

Abstract
When nineteenth-century commentators sought to summarise the many social and economic changes that appeared to be occurring around them, they pointed to cities, factories, new machines and increased wealth — all seemed to be integral to the transformation they were witnessing. Population, by contrast, was given rather less attention. Early censuses (the first was recorded in 1801) clearly indicated that population, just like the economy, was growing; nonetheless, it remained possible for one commentator to declare in 1822 that he was ‘quite convinced that the population, upon the whole, has not increased in England one single soul since I was born [1763]’.2 While entirely incorrect (population had probably grown by about 90 per cent over these 60 years), it is striking that the claim that recent economic advance had occurred without a corresponding growth in the population was at least plausible in the nineteenth century.3 In the twentieth century, however, historians placed a very different emphasis on the relationship between demographic and economic change in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain. Not only did they argue that population grew considerably during this period, they also maintained that this growth was a key element of Britain’s transition from a pre-industrial to an industrialised society. In this chapter we shall explore the history of population more fully. We shall outline the magnitude and mechanisms of growth; we shall assess the methods historians have used to measure growth; and we shall evaluate the explanations they have provided for it. We shall also consider what possible relationships might exist between population growth on the one hand and the process of industrialisation on the other.
Emma Griffin

Chapter 6. The ‘Mechanical Age’: Technology, Innovation and Industrialisation

Abstract
For many Victorians, rapid advances in technology, in particular the use of machines to perform work that had previously been done by hand, were the most striking developments of the age. The mechanisation of the cotton industry, the invention of the steam engine and a myriad other contrivances and innovations in many branches of industry were taken as emblematic of nineteenth-century economic progress.
Emma Griffin

Chapter 8. Why Was Britain First? The Global Context for Industrialisation

Abstract
It is a commonplace of any history textbook that the world’s first industrial revolution took place in Britain. Yet this simple assertion leads quickly to the more complex question: why? What was unique about Britain? What qualities — political, economic, cultural, geographical or ecological — did Britain possess that predisposed it towards early industrialisation? Or, to put the question another way: what was missing in other countries so that their industrialisation was either delayed until the second half of the nineteenth century or, indeed, had failed to occur by the century’s end at all? Considering alternative pathways to industrialisation is of course interesting in its own right, but it is also invaluable to any discussion of British industrialisation. Understanding the course of economic development in other parts of the world helps us to isolate which features of the British economy were critical to industrialisation, and which merely occurred at around the same time. The following chapter provides a global context for the economic transition that occurred in Britain in the nineteenth century. In the first place we shall look at the course of economic growth in Europe and consider when and why some of Britain’s neighbours underwent the transformation to industrial society. Then we shall look beyond Europe and ask why a number of highly developed Asian nations failed to make a similar leap to full-blown industrialisation before the end of the nineteenth century.
Emma Griffin
Additional information