Sunday, 12 February 2017

An ‘Industrial Revolution’

Between 1750 and 1850 the British economy experienced a very rapid and, by international standards, pronounced growth in manufacturing. The proportion of the labour force employed in industry, whether in the manufacturing or service sectors increased, and the proportion employed in farming fell. The textile, iron and coal industries underwent dramatic change as new technologies and new markets stimulated growth on an unprecedented scale. This traditional view of an 'industrial revolution' provides only part of the picture. The experience of cotton textiles was not typical of manufacturing industries. There was no general triumph of steam power or the factory system by 1850. Growth was modest. There was no great leap forward for the economy as a whole, despite the experience of cotton production. Change took place on a far broader canvas. There was growth of a far less dynamic nature in a whole range of traditional industries. Most employment in manufacturing industries remained small-scale, handicraft activities producing for local and regional markets. These trades were hardly affected by new technology. It was the wider use and division of labour that allowed output to grow. Economic transition was the result of the combination of old and new processes. Steam power did not replace waterpower at a stroke. Work organisation was varied and factories coexisted with domestic production, artisan workshops and large-scale mining and metal producing industries. Change varied across industries and regions. Lancashire may have seen vigorous industrial development but in Norfolk and Suffolk, the woollen textile industry declined in the face of competition from the more advanced and mechanised production of Yorkshire.
The industrial landscape changed under the impact of the 'industrial revolution'. Industrialisation in the eighteenth century occurred largely in the countryside and rural industry was domestic often in conjunction with farming. This industry was capable of mass production and of supplying regional, national and international markets. The move of some industries to factories did not lead to the emergence of the modern industrial landscape. Waterpower did not create smoke or dirt. Only when coal and steam were used directly did towns become blackened and their air and water polluted. Steam power led to larger concentrations of industries, often near canals or navigable rivers, and of the labourers needed to work in them. The move from the rural cottage industry to the urban factory is over-exaggerated. As late as 1851, the majority of people employed in Britain worked in the unmechanised sectors of the economy.
The market, local, regional, national or international, was at the heart of the economy in the 1780s. The transport of bulky good, and a reduction in the cost of carriage, was made easier by the development of the canal network in the second half of the eighteenth century and by railways after 1830. Coastal and river transport became increasingly important but Britain remained predominantly a horse-drawn society until the late nineteenth century. The last half of the eighteenth century saw growing demands for consumer goods. London, for example, used over three million tons of coal each year and thousands of cattle, sheep and fowl were driven to the London food markets from Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The experience of London was paralleled in the growing cities of the Midlands and the North. Population growth stimulated home demand for cloth, leather for shoes, bricks, pottery, iron pots and pans. Growing consumption influenced, and was in turn influenced by, trade and economic growth.

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