Monday, 17 April 2017

William Pitt: the early years 1783-1789

The years between 1760 and 1783 were ones of varied political success. Between 1760 and 1770, there was widespread instability as George III sought a minister acceptable to himself and Parliament. This was followed political stability until 1782 under the adminis­tration of Lord North. Plagued by the American crisis,[1] which turned into war after 1775, North survived until early 1782. Short-lived Whig administrations led first by Rockingham, Shelburne and by Fox and North led to a period of political instability that ended with the dismissal of the Fox-North coalition in December 1783. The events of 1783 and 1784 showed two things that the support of the king was essential if a government was to survive and that the ‘influence’ of the Crown was still considerable.[2]
George III

Lord North[3] resigned in March 1782. This led to a political and constitutional crisis not resolved until the general election a year later. Successive governments did not have the king’s support and had difficulties in forging reliable majorities in the Commons. Whig governments, led by Rockingham[4] and, after his death in July 1782 by Shelburne[5] worked with a monarch resentful at losing Lord North. Effective government proved difficult though ‘economical reform’[6] was pushed forward and a peace agreed with America. In early 1783, North formed a government with the Whigs now led by Charles James Fox.[7] George III had little choice but resentfully to accept the coalition. Faced with an East India Bill attacking the rights of the East India Company[8] and royal patronage, the King and William Pitt[9] managed its defeat in the House of Lords. Under sustained pressure--the king let it be known that those who voted for the bill would be regarded as ‘his enemies’--the coalition was defeated twice in two days and in mid-December 1783 was summarily dismissed.

William Pitt, 'the Younger'

Pitt formed the new government. The king’s intervention was controversial but he argued his actions were justifiable because of the conduct of the coalition politicians. He had considerable popular support and many people believed that a threat to the constitution had been averted. Yet a Whig hostess quipped, ‘it will be a mince pie administration’, over by the end of the Christmas festivities. In the Commons in late 1783, the Fox-North coalition had 231 votes in the House of Commons while Pitt could only muster 149. With independent support of 74 for Fox and 104 for Pitt, the opposition could rally 305 MPs. Pitt could only count on 253 and initially faced persistent defeats in the Commons. But Fox and North underestimated Pitt’s political skills. He had the support of the King who refused calls to dismiss his government. Pitt became increasingly confident, winning the votes of many independent members and majorities against him began to fall. Fox and North also under-estimated the support Pitt had outside Parliament. He had a reputation as a reformer and as an individual ‘above Party’. In March 1784, when the opposition’s majority had dwindled to one, George III dissolved parliament and called a general election. George III’s action in 1783-1784 was unconstitutional and he infringed the independence of Parliament to make decisions.

The 1784 election.

The general election was highly successful for Pitt. Coalition supporters were routed both in the larger constituencies, where popular support for Pitt was strong and in many of the smaller ones where he manipulated royal influence. Two things are, however, quite clear. Pitt now had the majority necessary for effective government and had restored the principle of a minister governing with the support of King and Commons. Also, despite the loss of party members and sympathetic inde­pendent MPs--the so-called ‘Fox’s Martyrs’--the Whigs had weathered the storm quite successfully. They had not been destroyed as a political force.

Charles James Fox

By the end of the 1780s, the term ‘Leader of the Opposition’ was coming into use. It applied to Charles James Fox in the Commons rather than Portland, the nominal leader of the Whigs, who sat in the Lords. Public perceptions of notions of government’ versus ‘opposition’ were heightened by the personal rivalry between Pitt and Fox and throughout the 1780s the opposition Whigs more or less maintained their voting strength.

By 1788, Pitt firmly controlled both Commons and Lords. One estimate of government support gave Pitt 280 MPs, 185 of whom owed their primary loyalty to the King, 50 or so who attached themselves to Pitt and just over 40 whose allegiance came through family or patronage to other ministers, principally those Scottish MPs controlled by Henry Dundas.[10] The opposition Whigs had about 155 MPs with independent members making up the remaining 122 MPs. Pitt extended his control over the Lords through George III’s readiness to create peers, something he had not done for other ministers. Almost half of the peers created while Pitt was Prime Minister were ennobled between 1784 and 1790.

Pitt may have won in 1784 but this did not mean that the following decade was without political tensions. Between 1784 and 1786, Pitt was defeated on four substantial issues, including defence, parliamentary reform and economic union with the United States and Ireland. His support came from those who believed in strong, stable government, and it was consequently looser and more heterogeneous. To these supporters improving administrative structures was more acceptable than legislative programmes particularly if it produced more efficient and cheaper government. Pitt was content to work within this system and never attempted to fashion popularity in any way independent to that of the king. His achievement was to reduce the temperature of political debate in the Commons, just as the opposition preserved the essentials of party identity under adverse con­ditions. Pitt was always willing to serve, just as Fox was always willing to oppose, and this, rather than any desire to be popular, was the key to his political career.

The Regency crisis 1788-1789

The most serious threat to Pitt was the Regency crisis of 1788-1789. When George III was stricken by an attack of apparent mad­ness[11] in late 1788 the Whigs were in a state of disarray. The Fox-Portland group had been associated with the reversionary interest[12] round George, Prince of Wales, for six years--an alliance of convenience. The Whigs saw the succession of the Prince as their route to office. The Prince was happy to use the Whigs to embarrass his father. This proved a two-edged sword for the Whigs. The application to Parliament for additional money to clear the Prince’s unpopular debts was necessary while the admission that he had married the Catholic Maria Fitzherbert secretly in 1785 alienated Portland and other aristocratic leaders.[13] These stresses within the Whigs surfaced in 1788 shortly before the king’s illness made clear the dependence of the Whigs on the Prince if they were to achieve power. Fox relied on the future king for power highlighting the hypocrisy of his attacks on Pitt who owed his position to the existing king.

Prince George, later Prince Regent and George IV (1820-1830)

Pitt and his supporters framed a Regency Bill closely limiting the power of the Regent. Unwisely, the Whigs delayed the passage of the bill arguing that the limitations placed on his powers, especially his right to make new peers was an unfair restriction on the power of the Crown. They argued unconvincingly in favour of the unlimited power of the Prince without the need for parliamentary approval. This played straight into Pitt’s hands, and he pointed to Fox’s reversal as the champion of parliamentary authority. Pitt’s majority held and he could push his bill through Parlia­ment. By mid-February, the bill was reaching its final stage in the Lords but the process was ended with the rapid recovery of the king. The opposition had been defeated. Pitt had preserved his ministry and won the thanks of the king and large sections of public opinion.

During the Regency crisis, the Whigs had made some important blunders, and disagreements between Fox and Portland threatened the cohesion of the party. Fox came across as opportunistic rather than principled and reluctant to control the younger Whigs like Rich­ard Sheridan[14] and Charles Grey[15]. Nevertheless, the Whigs entered the 1790 general election in reasonable shape thanks to the electoral management of William Adams. Between 1783 and 1790, the Whig coalition had consolidated into a party of 130-140 MPs.

[1] The American crisis. The relationship between the thirteen American colonies and Britain was of growing concern in the years after 1763. Neither the king nor successive governments understood the depth of feeling in the colonies. The result was war in 1775 and the declaration of American independence the following year. Britain was defeated by a combination of political and military mismanagement and French support for the colonists. The Treaty of Versailles 1783 recognised American independence though George III never got over it.
[2] The ‘influence’ of the Crown was the patronage at the disposal of the Crown to support the King’s government
[3] Frederick, Lord North (1732-1792) was prime minister between 1770 and 1782. An able domestic politician, his mishandling of the American crisis and conduct of the war led to his downfall. He was secretary of state for colonial affairs in the Fox-North coalition, April-December 1783
[4] Charles, Marquess of Rockingham (1730-1782) was prime minister of Whig governments in 1765-1766 and from March 1782 until his death in July.
[5] William, Earl of Shelburne (1737-1805) was a minister in the 1760s, Home Secretary under Rockingham in 1782 and succeeded him as prime minister.
[6] Charles James Fox (1749-1806) entered parliament in 1768 but apart from two short periods in office (Foreign Secretary in the Fox-North coalition in 1783 and briefly in the Ministry of All the Talents in 1806) he remained in opposition. He opposed the government’s American policy in the 1770s, welcomed the French Revolution and opposed the war with revolutionary France. During the 1790s, he emerged as the champion of English liberties in the face of Pitt’s repressive measures
[7] William Pitt (1759-1806) ‘the Younger’ was the son of William Pitt ‘the Elder’ (1708-78), prime minister between 1766 and 1768. Pitt entered parliament in 1781, was Chancellor of the Exchequer 1782-3 and prime minister 1783-1801 and 1804-6. He is Britain’s youngest ever prime minister.
[8] ‘Economical reform’ was a late eighteenth century movement aiming to reduce the patronage (in the form of sinecures and placemen) at the disposal of the government in parliament. Sinecures were well-paid jobs where a person was paid for doing little or nothing. Placemen owed their jobs to the government or crown. In both cases, they were expected to support the government of the day.
[9] The East India Company had a monopoly, and therefore considerable power in India. Until 1773, it ruled large tracts of India as a private company. The Whigs wanted to see its power brought under the supervision of parliament and Fox and North tried and failed to do so in their India Bill in 1783. Pitt took a less drastic approach and in 1785 his India Act set up a Board of Control in London to determine Britain’s policy to India. The Company was allowed to continue ruling its conquered territories as well as conducting commercial operations.
[10] Henry Dundas (1742-1813) was a close political ally of Pitt. He was treasurer of the Navy 1783-91, home secretary 1791-4 and minister for war and colonies 1794-1801. He was unsuccessfully impeached for corruption in 1806
[11] Apparent madness. The symptoms of the 1788-9 attacks indicated madness to contemporary doctors. Recent research suggests that porphyria, a condition caused by blood deficiencies was the cause. The symptoms of madness and porphyria are similar.
[12] Reversionary interest was the name given to politicians who clustered about the Prince of Wales in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries
[13] A secret marriage with the Catholic Maria Fitzherbert. The Royal Marriages Act 1772 made it illegal for a member of the royal family to marry without the permission of the monarch. The Act of Succession 1701 forbade marriage to a Roman Catholic
[14] Richard Sheridan, Irish playwright and friend of Fox and the Prince of Wales
[15] Charles Grey was a future Whig prime minister between 1830 and 1834

What was the nature and extent of change?

The view that the industrial revolution represented a dramatic watershed between an old and a new world has recently been questioned by historians. Growth was considerably slower and longer than previously believed. Few historians would go as far as Jonathan Clark, “England was not revolutionized; and it was not revolutionized by industry”. Recent research suggests the following:
  • Change in the economy was two-dimensional. There were dynamic industries like cotton and iron where change occurred relatively quickly and that may be called ‘revolutionary’. In other industries, change took place far more slowly.
  • Between 1750 and 1850, the British economy experienced rapid, and by international standards, pronounced structural change. The proportion of the labour force employed in industry (extractive, manufacturing and service) increased while the proportion employed in farming fell.
  • Much employment in industry continued to be small-scale, handicraft activities producing for local markets. These trades were largely unaffected by mechanisation and experienced little or no increase in output per worker. Increased productivity was achieved by employing more labour.
  • The experience of cotton textiles, though dynamic and of high profile was not typical and there was no general triumph of steam power or the factory system in the early nineteenth century. Nor was economic growth raised spectacularly by a few inventions. The overall pace of economic growth was modest. There was no great leap forward for the economy as a whole, despite the experiences of specific industries.
  •  By 1850, Britain was ‘the workshop of the world’. Productivity in a few industries did enable Britain to sell around half of all world trade in manufacture. This, however, needs to be seen in the context of the characteristics of industrialisation. The ‘industrial revolution’ involved getting more workers into the industrial and manufacturing sectors rather than achieving higher output once they were there. The cotton and iron industries existed with other industries characterised by low productivity, low pay and low levels of exports.

Inventions and mechanisation

Between 1760 and 1800, there was a significant increase in the number of patents giving exclusive rights to inventors, what the historian T.S. Ashton called “a wave of gadgets swept over Britain”. Between 1700 and 1760, 379 patents were awarded. In the 1760s, there were 205, the 1770s, 294, the 1780s, 477 and the 1790s, 647. These figures have to be used with care.
  • Certain key technical developments pre-dated 1760. Coke smelting was developed by Abraham Darby in Shropshire in 1709 but it was not until the 1750s that it was widely used. Thomas Newcomen’s steam-atmospheric engine was invented between 1709 and 1712 but its cost and inefficiency meant that it too was not widely used until mid-century. James Kay developed the ‘flying shuttle’ in 1733. This increased the productivity of weavers but it was thirty years before advances were made in spinning.
  • Registering patents was expensive and some inventions were not patented as a result. Samuel Crompton, for example, did not register his spinning mule. From the 1760s, there was a growing awareness of the importance of obtaining patents and the danger of failing to do so. This may account for some of the increase.
  • Many of the patents covered processes and products that were of little economic importance, including medical and consumer goods as well as industrial technologies. Some patents represented technological breakthroughs while others improved existing technologies.

Despite these reservations, there were important groupings of technological advances after 1760.
In the textile industries, there were advances in spinning thread (James Hargreaves’ ‘jenny’ 1764, Richard Arkwright’s water frame 1769 and Samuel Crompton’s ‘mule’ 1779), weaving (Edmund Cartwright’s power loom 1785) and finishing (mechanised printing by Thomas Bell in 1783). James Kay’s ‘flying shuttle’ had speeded up the process of weaving producing a bottleneck caused by the shortage of hand-spun thread. The mechanisation of spinning after 1764 reversed this situation. The new jennies allowed one worker to spin at least eight and eventually eighty times the amount of thread previously produced by a single spinner. Improvements by Arkwright and especially Crompton further increased productivity. The problem was now weaving. The power loom did not initially resolve the problem and the decades between 1780 and 1810 were ones of considerable prosperity for handloom weavers.

Although the introduction of new machines for textile production, especially cotton occurred over a short timescale, their widespread use was delayed until the 1820s. There were three main reasons for this. First, the new technologies were costly and often unreliable. Modifications were necessary before their full economic benefits were realised. It was not until the early 1820s that the power loom was improved and the self-acting mule was introduced. Secondly, there was worker resistance to the introduction of the new technologies and some employers continued to use handworkers because they were cheaper than new machines. This was particularly evident in the Yorkshire woollen industry that lagged behind cotton in applying new technology. Finally, the original spinning jennies were small enough to be used in the home but Arkwright’s water frame was too large for domestic use and needed purpose-built spinning mills. These early factories used waterpower though increasingly steam engines were used. By 1800, a quarter of all cotton yarn was spun by steam. It was not until after 1815 that factories combined powered spinning and weaving. By 1850, some factories employed large numbers of workers, but many remained small. In Lancashire in the 1840s, the average firm employed 260 people and a quarter employed fewer than a 100. The mechanisation of the textile industry was a process in technological innovation and modification rather than an immediate revolutionary process.

This was even more the case in the iron industry. In 1700, charcoal was used to smelt iron. It was increasingly expensive and Britain relied on European imports. Although Abraham Darby perfected coke smelting in 1709 it was fifty years before coke-smelted iron posed a major threat to charcoal. It was not until demand for iron rose rapidly after 1750 that coke became the fuel for smelting. The stimulus for expansion in iron making came from the wars with France and the American colonies in the 1750s and 1770s and especially between 1793 and 1815. This led technological change. Henry Cort’s puddling and rolling process of 1782 was of comparable importance to Darby’s earlier discovery. The new technologies led to a four-fold growth of pig iron between 1788 and 1806, a significant reduction in costs and virtually put an end to expensive foreign imports. The ‘hot-blast’ of 1828 further reduced costs. Rising demand for iron stimulated developments in the coal industry. Here the major technological developments were led by the need to mine coal from deeper pits. Pumping engines, first Newcomen’s and then Watt’s helped in this process. Sir Humphrey Davy’s safety lamp helped improve safety underground from inflammable methane gas (or ‘firedamp’). Increases in productivity were, however, largely the consequence of employing more miners.

Historians have emphasised the importance of the steam engine to the industrial revolution though this has been played down by recent writers. Wind and water remained important as sources of mechanical energy. Windmills were used for grinding corn, land-drainage and some industrial processes. Waterpower was far more important and remained so until the mid-nineteenth century. Before 1800, most textile mills were water powered and in 1830, 2,230 mills used waterpower as against 3,000 using steam. Metalwork, mining, papermaking and pottery continued to use waterpower. The development of steam power in the eighteenth century was gradual. Newcomen developed his engine in 1712. It was largely used for pumping water out of mines and though costly and inefficient was in widespread use by 1760. Watt trebled the efficiency of the Newcomen engine by adding a separate condenser in the mid 1760s. This made steam engine far more cost-effective but they could still only be used for tasks involving vertical motion. The breakthrough came in 1782 with the development of ‘sun and planet’ gearing that enabled steam engines to generate rotary motion and power the new technologies in textiles. By 1800, about a fifth of all mechanical energy in Britain was produced by steam engines. Steam power was a highly versatile form of energy and its impact on British industry was profound. It allowed industry to move into towns often on or near to coalfields where it could be supplied by canals. Though older means of generating energy remained important, the application of steam power to mining, iron-making, the railways and especially the booming cotton industry meant that by 1850 it was the dominant form of energy.

How important was technical advance to the industrial revolution? Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations published in 1776 seemed unaware that he was living in a period of technical change and mechanisation. For him, economic growth was achieved through the organisational principle of division of labour rather than the application of new technologies. Others followed Smith in assigning less importance to technical change that historians subsequently did. The effect of technological change was neither immediate nor widespread until after 1800. Cotton and iron set the pace of change but other industries, like glass and paper-making, shipbuilding and food-processing were also undergoing organisational and technological change. Change varied across industries and regions. Steam power did not replace waterpower at a stroke. Work organisation and the uses of newer technologies varied and in 1850 factories coexisted with domestic production, artisan workshops and large-scale mining and metal-producing organisations. Both revolutionary technologies and traditional techniques remained important to Britain’s economic development.

Geographical diversity and urbanisation

The pace of economic change and its geographical distribution after 1780 was uneven. Dynamic growth took place in specialised economic regions. Cotton was based in south Lancashire and parts of the joining counties of Derbyshire and Cheshire. Wool was dominant in the West Riding of Yorkshire. Iron dominated the economies of Shropshire and South Wales. Staffordshire was internationally renowned for its pottery. Birmingham and Warwickshire specialised in metal-working. Tyneside was more diverse with interests in coal, glass, iron and salt. London with its huge population and sophisticated manufacturing and service sectors – docks, warehouses, engineering, shipbuilding, silk weaving, luxury trades, the machinery of government and the law, publishing and printing, financial centre and entertainment – was an economic region in its own right. De-industrialisation was also region in character. After 1780, the West Country and East Anglia textile industries declined. The iron industry disappeared from the Weald in Kent. The Cumberland coalfield disappeared.

Regional growth or decline depended on a range of factors. Growth depended largely on access to waterpower as an energy source or as a means of processing, easy access to coal and other raw materials, and an ample labour force. In 1780, regions and their industries retained their rural character in varying degrees. Increasingly, however, industrial growth took on an urban character and the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw the rapid expansion of towns that specialised in various industries. Around each of these urban centres clustered smaller towns and industrial villages whose artisan outworkers specialised in particular tasks. Walsall in the Black Country, for example, specialised in buckle-making; Coventry in ribbon production, tobacco boxes at Willenhall. The concentration of specialised commercial and manufacturing industries, especially skilled labour, in and around towns was a major advantage for entrepreneurs and businessmen. They were helped by the expanding communication network of roads and canal and after 1830, railways that provided cheap supplies of raw materials and fuel as well as helping distribute finished products.

Economic change and population growth led to the rapid expansion of urban centres. Towns, especially those in the forefront of manufacturing innovation, attracted rural workers hoping for better wages. They saw towns as places free from the paternalism of the rural environment and flocked there in their thousands. For some migration brought wealth and security. For the majority life in towns was little different, and in environmental terms probably worse, from life in the country. They had exchanged rural slums for urban ones and exploitation by the landowner for exploitation by the factory master. Between 1780 and 1811, the urban component of England’s population rose from a quarter to a third. This process continued throughout the century and by 1850, the rural-urban split was about even. The number of towns in England and Wales with 2,500 inhabitants increased from 104 in 1750 to 188 by 1800 and to over 220 by 1851. England was the most urbanised country in the world and the rate of urban growth had not peaked. London, with its one million inhabitants in 1801, was the largest city in Europe. The dramatic growth of the northern and Midland industrial towns after 1770 was caused largely by migration because of industry’s voracious demand for labour. Regions where population growth was not accompanied by industrialisation or where deindustrialisation took place found their local economies under considerable pressure. Surplus labour led to falling wages and growing problems of poverty.

Economic growth and rates of development

What was ‘economic growth’ in the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries and what were its major characteristics? The main indicator of long-term growth is the income the country receives from goods and services or gross domestic product (GDP). During the eighteenth century, GDP grew slightly from just under one per cent per year to just over it. Between 1800 and 1850, growth remained at over two per cent per year. Growth in GDP depends on three things: an increase in labour, an increase in capital investment and an increase in productivity. Growing population accounted for the increase in labour after 1780. Labour grew at around one per cent per year between 1780 and 1800 and 1.4 per cent for the next fifty years. Increased capital investment is also evident after 1780. Between 1780 and 1800, capital investment rose by 1.2 per cent per year. This rose slightly to 1.4 per cent between 1800 and 1830 and, largely because of investment in railways rose to 2.0 per cent between 1830 and 1850. Increasing productivity is more difficult to estimate.

The debate about economic growth and rates of development is largely statistical. Historians face major problems in trying to work out precisely what rates of development were in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Statistical information is far from reliable. This has led to major discrepancies in modern estimates. For example, the production of coal in the late eighteenth century is estimated to have grown annually at 0.64 per cent or alternatively at 1.13 per cent, twice that speed. The statistics also show only part of the picture and it is very difficult to extrapolate from specific data on specific industries to the economy as a whole. Total figures also blur the important differences between the experience of different industries and regions. It was not until the development of the railways after 1830 that the notion of a British economy, as opposed to localised economies had real meaning.


Historians face significant problems in examining the industrial revolution. First, there is the problem of what precisely the ‘industrial revolution’ was. Secondly, its national nature has been questioned. How far was there a British industrial revolution or was economic change essentially local or regional? Thirdly, there is the question of timing. When did the revolution begin? When did it end? Finally, historians increasingly recognise the diversity of economic experiences and the existence of both change and continuity of experience in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century? The ‘industrial revolution’ is increasingly seen as a metaphor for the changes that took place in the British economy between 1780 and 1850. While it would be perverse to refrain from using a term ‘hallowed by usage’, it is important to recognise that change occurred slowly in most industries and rapidly in a handful.

Contemporaries were aware that they were living through a period of change. Robert Southey wrote in 1807, ‘no kingdom ever experienced so great a change in so short a course of years’. Population growth, economic and social change, technological advances, changes in the organisation of work, the dynamism of cotton and iron as well as urbanisation were bunched in the last twenty years of the eighteenth century and the first thirty years of the nineteenth. This was revolutionary change. However, change was itself a process that extended across the eighteenth century. The revolution in the economy did not begin in 1780 nor was it entirely completed by 1850.