Skip to main content

About this book

The industrial revolution stands out as a key event not simply in British history, but in world history, ushering in as it did a new era of sustained economic prosperity. But what exactly was the 'industrial revolution'? And why did it occur in Britain when it did? Ever since the expression was coined in the nineteenth century, historians have been debating these questions, and there now exists a large and complex historiography concerned with English industrialisation. This short history of the British Industrial Revolution, aimed at undergraduates, sets out to answer these questions. It will synthesise the latest research on British industrialisation into an exciting and interesting account of the industrial revolution. Deploying clear argument, lively language, and a fresh set of organising themes, this short history revisits one of the most central events in British history in a novel and accessible way.

This is an ideal text for undergraduate students studying the Industrial Revolution or 19th Century Britain.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Introduction

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.
Emma Griffin

Chapter 2. Counting Growth: Measuring the Economy

During most of the second half of the twentieth century, the industrial revolution was regarded as a period of sustained economic growth, and many analyses of industrialisation have therefore been centred on attempts to count and measure the exact pace, extent and timing of this growth. The imperative to put some figures to the exact dimensions of change is self-evident. The problem, however, is that few systematic records for industrial production – or indeed for any other part of the economy – were kept, and growth rates must therefore be calculated from the most fragmentary of evidence.
Emma Griffin

Chapter 3. A Growing Population

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 process of change 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 Whilst entirely incorrect (population had probably grown by about 80 per cent over these 50 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.
Emma Griffin

Chapter 4. A Mobile Population

We noted in the previous chapter that population was increasing rapidly, particularly after 1750, largely as a consequence of falling marriage ages. But we also noted that whilst falling marriage ages were linked in some way to the process of industrialisation, historians as yet remain largely unable to agree on what these links may have been. The riddles, however, do not stop here. With a threefold increase in population between 1700 and 1850, we might reasonably expect most villages, towns and cities to swell to something like three times their original size. This though is far from what happened. Growth across the country was extremely uneven, with the population of the largest cities increasing an incredible thirtyfold – ten times the national average – whilst that of some provincial towns and villages either stagnated or actually declined. In other words, people were not simply increasing in number, but they were also moving from some parts of the country to others – a clear sign that new patterns of economic opportunity were being established throughout the land. In this chapter we shall complete our analysis of demographic trends in the period 1700–1870 by looking at population movement, and assessing what light the evidence from internal migration might shed upon the British industrial revolution.
Emma Griffin

Chapter 5. Worlds of Work

In the two previous chapters we looked at the history of population. First we noted the sustained increase in overall numbers, and identified changes in the practice of marriage – most notably more universal and younger marriage – as the key mechanism by which this growth was achieved. In the last chapter, though, we noted that many parts of Britain were not able to maintain their expanding population, and that sustained demographic growth was also accompanied by high levels of movement from some parts of the country to others. This chapter will look at the population once again, but consider the evidence from a new angle. Whilst looking at migration, it was suggested that population drift was caused by different employment opportunities, and in particular by the expansion of opportunities in some of the newly industrialising, coalfield districts. If this was indeed so, we should expect the employment profile of the country to gradually shift, reflecting the movement of labour out of farming and into urban, industrial employment instead.
Emma Griffin

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

For many Victorians rapid advances in technology, in particular the use of machines to perform work that had previously been done by hand, was one of 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. This emphasis on technology and machines has also continued throughout much of the twentieth century. In the late 1940s, for example, the economic historian T. S. Ashton spoke of a cadre of ‘Inventors, contrivers, industrialists, and entrepreneurs … from every social class and from all parts of the country’ busy at work fashioning the inventions that were to drive the industrial revolution. He continued: ‘It was not only gadgets, however, but innovations of various kinds – in agriculture, transport, manufacture, trade, and finance – that surged up with a suddenness for which it is difficult to find a parallel at any other time or place.’3 Whilst not everybody shared Ashton’s generally rather rosy account of the industrial revolution, his emphasis on the transformative role of new technologies continued to resonate throughout the second half of the twentieth century.
Emma Griffin

Chapter 7. Coal: The Key to the British Industrial Revolution?

Coal lay at the heart of Victorian accounts of their industrial revolution. Grimy northern cityscapes blighted by coal-dust and smog. The relentless motion of coal-driven machinery operated by soulless automatons. The railways puffing out their black smoke and travelling at speeds so fast they gave rise to fears about possible brain damage or even miscarriage in pregnancy. These and other images formed an intrinsic element of literary and artistic depictions of British industrialisation. At the same time, working with coal was regarded as a particularly dirty and unpleasant task. The employment of small boys as chimney sweeps and of women and children in deeply buried coal mines offended Victorian sensibilities and undermined contemporary ideas of Britain as a progressive and civilised nation. It is perhaps significant that these two trades lay at the heart of early and successful campaigns to place restrictions on the use of women and children in certain types of employment. Some modern historians have also suggested that coal was fundamental to the industrial revolution. Their research, however, has indicated that its significance in fact goes far deeper than the Victorian imagination allowed.
Emma Griffin

Chapter 8. Why Was Britain First? The Industrial Revolution in Global Context

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? 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 extends the discussion from Britain to Europe and Asia. In the first place, we shall look at the pattern 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 what prevented India and China from making a similar leap to full-blown industrialisation before the end of the nineteenth century.
Emma Griffin

Chapter 9. Winners and Losers: Living through the Industrial Revolution

Few topics in British history have attracted so much research as the industrial revolution. But much of this attention has stemmed less from an interest in cotton, coal and the spinning jenny and more from a desire to establish how this event altered the life experiences of ordinary people. Who were the winners and who were the losers of this momentous event? What benefits did industrialisation and mechanisation bring to the nameless men, women and children who worked in the factories and made it all happen? These are questions charged with political overtones, and they have polarised historians who have inevitably interpreted the disappearance of traditional society and the advent of capitalism in very different ways.
Emma Griffin
Additional information