Tuesday, 30 July 2019

How did the rural economy change between 1780 and 1850?

Between 1780 and 1850, economic change had far-reaching effects on British society. From being an overwhelmingly rural and agricultural society, Britain was transformed into a manufacturing and urban society. This chapter examines how and why this process occurred, its effects on rural and urban society and the ways in which working people responded to these changes.

In what ways did farming change between 1780 and 1850 and why? How ‘revolutionary’ was this? Change in farming took place far more slowly than in the dynamic manufacturing industries. Output increased by less than fifty per cent between 1700 and 1800 compared to nearly two hundred per cent in industry and commerce. However, the most significant advance was not in yield per acre but the amount of land under cultivation by about half. Total corn output rose from 15 million quarters in 1750 to 19 million by 1800 and 25 million in 1820. By 1800, the number of sheep reached 26 million and cattle num­bers stood at 4 million. There were, however, imports of grain and cattle from Europe. The achievement appears even more moderate when it is remembered that the major part of the increase in grain output was the result of the expansion of cultivated.
Changes in farming techniques.

Increased productivity in farming was the result of a combination of improved techniques of farming (many of which predated 1780), mechanisation (though its impact can be overstated) and the enclosure of large areas of land.

New crops
The most important change in agriculture lay in improved techniques of farming: the introduction of new crops, greater attention to soil fertility, and improved livestock breeding. The impact of new fodder crops was widely felt.[1] They had been introduced from the Low Countries in the mid-seventeenth century and were widespread by the 1750s. Their impact was of major importance. They allowed large waste areas to be brought into cultivation.[2] These included extensive areas of light soil on scarp land England that had previously been used only as sheep runs but also the areas, which had previously been left fallow. New rotations were introduced and spread throughout the eighteenth century. The most famous was the four courses of wheat, turnips, barley and clover introduced in Norfolk in the late-seventeenth century. A second consequence of the new crops was that they underlay the increase in livestock production in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries by providing winter-feed.

Improving soil fertility
A variety of other methods was used to improve fertility. The supply of manure remained of critical importance in maintaining the fertility of the soil. Until 1850, the main source of manure was animal dung hence the importance of new root crops and legumes which made it possible to keep more animals. Dung was also brought in from outside and farmers within reach relied heavily on ‘town muck’.[3] They also made use of industrial waste materials--coal ashes, soot, waste bark from tanneries, bones, pulverised slag from ironworks, and marl and lime. Guano, the dried droppings of seabirds, began to be imported in 1835 but quantities remained small until the 1840s. ‘Artificial’ fertilizers were introduced on a commercial scale in the 1840s.
Drainage was not a new problem in 1780. Some surface drainage was achieved by the ridges and furrows created during ploughing. The importance of effective under-drainage was not recognised until the mid-eighteenth century. Joseph Elkington had proposed the making of borings to enable water to pass through the impervious stratum to a porous one in 1764 and James Smith used shallow drains in the 1820s. However, it was not until the appearance of a tile-making machine invented by Thomas Scraggs and mole or drainage ploughs in the 1840s that the clay lands were brought into more productive farming.[4]

Improved livestock breeding
Livestock breeding improved considerably during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Robert Bakewell emerged as Britain’s foremost livestock expert by the 1770s but he extended the work of earlier breeders. His work was built on by the Culleys, the Collings and Jonas Webb. Bakewell’s pre-eminence rested with his improved longhorn cattle and the ‘New Leicester’ sheep. Though both his sheep and cattle had defects--his longhorns were wanting in milk and fertility and his sheep fattened too quickly--he did succeed in producing animals ready speedily for the market.

Better machinery
Advances in stock, drainage, fertilizers and crops emphasised the need for improved farm tools and machinery. Before 1800, changes in implements, other than ploughs, proceeded slowly. Mass-produced tools originated in the 1780s and by the 1840s, Robert Ransome of Ipswich was producing as many as eighty-six different designs of ploughs to suit local needs. From 1786, Andrew Meikle’s threshing machine began to be adopted and horse-drawn reapers appeared in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

Mechanisation in farming was primarily a mid-nineteenth-century devel­opment. The threshing machine was first adopted in Scotland and by 1815 was common both there and in northeast England. However, it was not general in the south or in Wales until after 1850. Seed-drills were increasingly advertised in newspaper after 1820. Reapers and mowing machines did not appear until the 1850s and only became common after 1870. In 1850, most of British corn was still cut and threshed by hand. The unreliability of the early machines partly accounted for this. Far more important was the cost of labour. In the north, where labour costs were higher because of competition from non-agricultural employment, the early adoption of powered threshing was economic. It was more sluggish in the south where cheap labour was plentiful.[5] Some farmers kept the old methods to provide a major source of winter employment in order to prevent throwing their regular men on to the parish.[6]

The spread of new farming techniques altered the pattern of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century agriculture. Until the 1820s, arable prosperity shifted away from the heavy clay vales to the lighter chalk land, soils. Many were close enough to London to profit from the overall rise in grain prices after 1780. Change occurred more quickly on the lighter soils, more slowly on the heavy clay soils which suffered from a shorter growing season and a higher risk of harvest failure. Impor­tant though these changes were their impact would have been lessened after 1780, without the changes in the organisation of farming.

Enclosure did more than any other development to alter the face of the countryside.[7] By 1780, large areas of Britain had already been enclosed or had never known open field cultivation. It was important in improving the efficiency and flexibility of the open fields and in bringing into fuller use wastelands, marshes, heaths and hill grazing. Enclosure led villages to improve their road system, dig drainage channels, rebuild farmhouses, barns and byres and plant new hedgerows to provide windbreaks and shelter for stock.

Enclosure between 1750 and 1850 was largely as the result of parliamen­tary acts and fell into two phases. Thirty-eight per cent of all acts were concentrated between 1750 and 1780, with 630 acts in the 1770s. The second phase of activity occurred between 1790 and the mid-1830s, though 43 per cent of all acts were passed during the French wars. The first phase was concentrated on the heavier-soiled counties of Midland clay belts, the lighter clays of much of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. The second phase completed this process but included the lighter soils of East Anglia, Lincolnshire and the East Riding, marginal soils of the Pennine uplands and heaths of Surrey, Berkshire and Middlesex.

Many contemporaries were certain about increased productivity achieved in terms of both improved output and rent. Ten per cent increases in grain output occurred in Oxfordshire, Warwickshire and Northamptonshire when enclosed fields were compared with open ones and improvements of 25 per cent may well have been possible. For the landlord enclosure was a good investment. Rents were increased by 15 and 20 per cent but this was both a cause and a consequence of enclosure. From the 1770s until the end of the French wars, prices rose. This too helped landowners, who often relied on fixed rents for income, to enclose and renegotiate leases with tenants who benefited from rising prices.

There was a significant rise in prices from the 1750s to the inflationary prices during the French wars. This coincided with the growth of parliamentary enclosure. Rising wheat prices are attractive in explaining who large areas of commons and waste were enclosed after 1793 even though much of this was poor in quality and capable of only low yields. Relatively stable interest rates in the 1760s and 1770s coincided with the growth of enclosure while the higher rates during the American war of the late 1770s and early 1780s saw a significant decline. During the French wars, high interest rates and large numbers of enclosures coexisted. However, the level of prices was higher than the interest rates and in real terms, money was ‘cheaper’. Farmers could borrow money to enclose their land knowing that high wheat prices would enable them to repay their loans and still make a good profit.

After 1780, population growth increased the demand for agricultural prod­ucts. Price levels moved ahead more rapidly than in industry. These encouraged farmers to invest in change. British farming was highly capitalised by 1800. High-intensity arable farming was situated near the main centres of population in the band from Lancashire to London. Lower levels of investment occurred on the upland fringes where stockbreeding dominated. Rising population increased the supply of labour. In 1801, 3.3 million people or 36 per cent of the population of England and Wales were involved in agriculture, forestry and fishing. This represented an increase of about eight per cent since 1750 compared to the seventy per cent increase in total population. Although there were only slightly more people working in farming they were feeding more people. One person in 1750 fed 1.7 persons; by 1800, it was 2.5 people. The percentage of the total population employed in farming fell relative to other industries after 1800, but people employed continued to rise until 1850. Farming remained a labour-intensive industry with no dramatic breakthrough in mechanis­ation.

A chronology of change
Between 1750 and 1790, there was a gradual but consistent increase in all food prices paralleled by gradual but accelerating enclosure. Wheat increasingly became the staple grain food--89 per cent of Londoners were on a wheat diet by 1764. Potatoes were increasing important helping to explain demographic growth in Ireland and parts of Scotland. Homegrown food supplies were sufficient until the 1770s but after that, substantial imports were necessary. Corn prices began to rise faster than other prices and faster than wages. This stimulated further agricultural change.

Years of shortage, amounting between 1795 and 1800, in 1808 and 1812 to ‘famine’, became more frequent. Local shortages and food riots were often caused by failure to distrib­ute supplies effectively. Increased demand was met largely by increased productivity. Grain output rose at the same rate as population: 14 per cent between 1793 and 1815. This was achieved by extending of the land under cultivation and the use of new crops and new breeds of livestock. The major problem facing farmers in this period was labour costs. The extent to which enclosure and new techniques required more labour is debatable but in some areas labour shortages pushed up costs further. Many farmers were forced to rely on casual workers. Yet, this did not lead to widespread mechanisation. Between 1790 and 1815, British agriculture increased its productivity by only 0.2 per cent per year. This compares adversely with the 0.3 per cent per year achieved between 1816 and 1846, a period regarded as one of ‘depression’.

Prices fell dramatically after 1814 and thousands were demobilised or released from war industries. The severity of distress was greatest on the clay land arable farms and least in dairy and stock-rearing districts or in areas like Kent where hops and fruit were important crops. Depression was closely linked to the flexibility of the land under cultivation. Farmers sought legislative support in the form of protection or reductions in taxes. The Corn Law of 1815 was the result. However, by the 1830s many farmers were adjusting their costs to lower prices or moving across to mixed farming. The social cost of ‘depression’ was most severe in areas with falling agricultural wages. Tariffs did little to protect arable farmers and provoked a violent reaction that the Anti-Corn Law League built on the 1830s and 1840s.

By the mid-1830s, British farming had got through its ‘depression’. The introduction of inexpensive drainage techniques liberated the clay lands from high production costs. Farming generally became more ‘scientific’, producing higher output at lower cost. From the mid-1840s until the 1870s, agricultural production rose at 0.5 per cent per year. There was a more intensive application of the techniques of mixed farming on the light soils of southern and eastern England and on the Lothian area of southeast Scotland. There was some shift on the clay soils, especially those in the north and west of England, to beef and dairy production. Railways reduced transport costs--cheap food had become both an economic and a political necessity. British farming was more productive in 1850 than it had been in 1780.[8]

The end of the French wars in 1815 saw up to a quarter of a million men demobilised. They had to be absorbed back into the labour force at a time when both farming and industry faced depression. This caused considerable distress in rural England where there was a surplus of workers. Farmers needed to reduce their costs (at a time of falling wheat prices) to repay loans they had taken out during the war when prices were higher. Rural wages fell.

Agricultural labourers were rarely at the centre of protest in the eighteenth century but this situation changed after 1780. Why did this change occur and why were the protests of farm workers largely confined to southern and eastern England? The agricultural revolution, especially enclosure, upset traditional rural society. There was a decline in hiring farm servants and ‘living in’ disappeared. Labourers were paid by the day or week and were employed for short periods for harvesting, hedging, ditching and threshing.[9] There was little guarantee of work. The social and financial gulf between farmer and labourer widened.

There was growing rural poverty in southern England. In 1795, Berkshire magistrates introduced a system of relief to supplement the wages of labourers. Similar schemes were introduced across southern England. This was known as the ‘Speenhamland system’.[10] The name gave the schemes a sense of uniformity that in practice they did not possess. Its attempt to redress low wages became part of the framework of labourers’ lives instead of a safety net in hard times. The system encouraged low pay and did not fully make up the difference between high prices and low wages. Wartime farming transformed much of southern and east­ern England into a region dominated by wheat production. Boom con­ditions ended abruptly in 1815, grain prices slumped while rents, fixed during wartime inflation, did not. Farmers were faced with falling profits and sought to reduce costs by cutting wages, quite possible in a labour market saturated by the demobilisation of the armed forces, or by introducing economies that technological innovations like the threshing machine offered.

The 1816 riots

Industrial workers, townsmen, cottagers and agricultural labour­ers were linked together in 1816 in ways not repeated in 1822 or 1830. There were three main types of protest. There were incidents in some market towns, a continuation of the tradition of food riots and collective action by textile workers. Agricultural labourers took little part in these. On the loam and clay lands of Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk, there were protests over the use of the mole plough and threshing machines and demands for a subsistence wage. The third series of disturbances was in the Fens, centred on Littleport and Ely. The diversity of rioters--one in three arrested was not an agricultural labourer and one in seven had some land--reflected the impact of enclosure and drainage and the particular effect of depression. The authorities at local level had limited resources at their dis­posal to stop riots spreading and, especially in the Fens, there were too few gentry to act collectively. Magistrates made concessions to stop the protest but the dramatic breakdown of law and order could not be tolerated by central government. Sidmouth ordered the military to be sent to Norfolk and Suffolk, not just in the Fens. Magistrates who had made concessions were overruled and harsh sentences were passed. Five rioters were executed and this, as much as anything, ensured that rioting spread no further.

Disturbances in 1822

Protest occurred in three areas in Norfolk in late February and early March 1822. All three involved the destruction of threshing machines and in contrast to 1816, these attacks were not simply symbolic, drawing atten­tion to the plight of the labourer, but were a campaign to sweep the machines away. Local magistrates acted quickly to prevent widespread disturbances and the use of the military drove the rioters underground.

The Swing riots of 1830

The problem of pauperism was worst in south of a line from Norfolk to Gloucestershire. In these so-called ‘Swing’ counties, enclosure had taken place on a grand scale. In the 1820s, high poor rates led to increasing attempts to cut relief. Between 1815 and 1820, Poor Law spending was 12/10d per head; by 1830, it was 9/9d. Reductions were made by stopping people asking for relief. This created a hatred of the Poor Law but it is noticeable that between 1824 and 1830, rural crime rates increased by 30 per cent--mainly poaching and food thefts. Pauperism, desperation and discontent were almost universal in agricultural areas.

The Swing riots[11] lasted from August until well into December 1830 and took several forms. In some areas, there were demands for higher wages; in others, tithes were the issue; Poor Law officials and workhouses were attacked but the destruction of threshing machines was most widespread. The major difference between protests in 1816 and 1822 and those in 1830 was their scale. Although the ‘Swing’ riots are normally associated with southern and eastern England with over 3,000 incidents, workers across the North responded to the political and social unrest in 1830 and over 50 incidents of actions against farmers, whether threatening letters, machine-breaking or arson occurred in northern England between 1830 and 1834. Why was there such a widespread mobilisation of agricultural labourers in 1830? The aims of the rioters were remarkably similar throughout the ‘Swing’ counties. Men demanded a minimum wage, the end of rural unemployment and tithe and rent reductions. Farmers supported the labourers in the two latter demands.

The leaders of the riots were often craftsmen and the led were predominantly labourers, often paupers on poor relief. Rioters were usually young men, many of them married. Their concern was for a living wage. The riots began slowly and initially machine breakers were given lenient sentences. This was interpreted by many labourers as tacit approval of their actions and led to protests gathering momentum. Revolution in France in July gave rural protest a more threatening dimen­sion than in either 1816 or 1822. The Whig government made suppressing the disturbances its first priority on achieving power in mid-November. Concerted local action, especially by the gentry of Wiltshire and Hampshire, the use of troops and unwillingness of Lord Melbourne, the Home Secretary, to tolerate weakness or compromise on the part of local magistrates gradually restored order.
After Swing

Swing did not destroy the willingness of agricultural labourers across the country to protest. There was widespread, if unsuccessful, rural action against the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1835, rural trade unionism in the south-east and at Tolpuddle and protests in the form of arson. Labourers were experts in slacking in undetectable ways. More seriously, they could steal their employers’ corn, fruit and game despite the severity of sentence if caught; transportation to Australia was widely used. Sheep and horse stealing were capital offences until 1831 and arson remained so until 1837. Poaching was endemic in rural areas. Stacks could be fired, farm buildings lit, fences pulled down, animals maimed and drainage channels breached though the systematic nature of these actions died down after the 1840s. Rural protest after 1790 can be explained by the failure to understand the nature of change by both labourers and their employers. Change imperfectly understood aroused fear. This was made worse by ‘want’ and ‘distress’ and under- or unemployment.

[1] Fodder crops were used to feed animals in the winter.[2] Large areas of England consisted of wasteland. This land had previously not been cultivated because it would have been unprofitable to do so. The new crops ended this practice. They had the same effect on leaving land fallow for a year to restore its fertility.[3] ‘Town muck’, the product of the swelling urban population, was either given to farmers willing to take it away or sold by people who collected urban sewage: a further example of recycling waste products.[4] Britain’s soils can be divided into three broad types: sandy, chalk and clay. In the late eighteenth century, sandy soil was the easiest to cultivate because it was generally fertile and porous. Chalk soils were less fertile than sandy soils. Clay soil was very fertile but suffered from major drainage problems.[5] Winter employment was often provided by farmers for their regular workforce especially in southern England. This helped keep the parish poor rate at a lower level but also reflected the widespread belief that farmers had a paternal responsibility for their ‘men’. The same responsibility, however, was not applied to casual workers and there was chronic under-employment in rural England especially after 1815.[6] In 1851, James Caird, in his study of British farming, divided the country into high and low wage areas. In northern and parts of central England, where industrialisation was widespread, farm labourers’ wages were high. In southern England, where there was no alternative and attractive employment available supply exceeded demand and wages were significantly lower.[7] Enclosure was achieved either by agreement between the local landowners or, increasingly, by getting Parliament to pass an enclosure act.[8] Historians disagree about the impact of enclosure on rural labour. Some argue that farmers who had enclosed their land needed fewer workers. Others suggest that during and immediately after enclosure more workers were needed. In the longer term, the combination of enclosure and mechanisation led to a reduction in the agricultural workforce.[9] It had been customary for farm workers to be hired for a year receiving food, clothes, board and a small annual wage in return for work, only living out when they wished to marry.[10] The Speenhamland system was named after the village of Speen, near Newbury where the Berkshire magistrates met in May 1795.[11] The Swing riots were called after their assumed leader, Captain Swing. There is no evidence that the riots were coordinated in this way.

Monday, 22 July 2019

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 revolutionised; and it was not revolutionised by industry’. Recent research suggests that 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’. Certain key technical developments pre-dated 1760. Coke smelting was developed by Abraham Darby in Shropshire in 1708-1709 but it was not until the 1750s that it was widely used. Thomas Newcomen’s steam-atmospheric engine was developed 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 increasing 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 instance, did not register his spinning mule. 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. Although figures should be used with care, between 1700 and 1760, 379 patents were awarded. In the 1760s, there were 205, the 1770s, 294, the 1780s, 477 and the 1790s, 647 with growing awareness of obtaining patents and the danger of failing to do so.

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 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. The new technologies were costly and often unreliable and 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. There was also 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 of technological evolution rather than an immediate revolutionary process.

This was even more the case in the iron industry. In 1700, charcoal was used to smelt iron but it was expensive and Britain increasingly 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 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 improved safety underground from inflammable methane gas (or ‘firedamp’) though mining remained a dangerous occupation. Increases in productivity were, however, largely the consequence of employing more miners.

Contemporaries 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 more cost-effective but they could still only be used for tasks involving pumping or 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 largely 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 also an economic region. De-industrialisation was also regional in character. After 1780, the West Country and East Anglia textile industries declined. The iron industry disappeared from the Weald in Kent and the Cumberland coalfield declined.

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 instance, 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 instance, 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. There is the problem of what precisely the ‘industrial revolution’ was. In addition, its national nature has been questioned. How far was there a British industrial revolution or was economic change essentially local or regional? There is also 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.