« Previous | Main | Next »

The Industrial Revolution (and the In Our Time Puppy)

Post categories:

Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 13:08, Friday, 24 December 2010

Melvyn Bragg and his puppy Marcel.

I don't think I've ever done this before. I'm lying in bed at a quarter past five in the morning, dictating the newsletter before I've done the programme. This is because we are doing a live programme, pausing for an hour or so and then recording a programme. After which mince pies with the In Our Time team. After which diving into the West End to take one of my daughters for a Christmas lunch. Then a meeting. Back to Poland Street to clear up the week's work and more mince pies, and jingling through the snow to Euston and into the deep North.

So there wouldn't be time for me to do it afterwards and it would be unfair to Ingrid to ask her to bang this out on Christmas Eve. Hence the prologue form. It has possibilities. What are they going to say? My view of the Industrial Revolution is hero-based. Men like my father who left school at the age of about fourteen but were full of invention and intelligence, thwarted in the established system, turned their hands to invention and exploring the mechanical world.

Out of the cottages and small coalitions in the northern counties and parts of Scotland came a revolution which eventually rippled round the world. Aircraft hangar factories in China are based on factory systems established in Derbyshire. We live still in an age wrought by coal, iron, steel and the almost inexplicable surge in intelligent design by a few northern men. Yet again, a small cluster making a seismic difference.

There's something about the North that I'd like to write about one day. It's not a nation, of course. And it is part of England. But whenever you go there it's such a separate place. Not only the landscape - the Lake District, the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales, the expanses of Northumbria. And not only accents and the dialects obdurate still and still spoken well. Perhaps it's the Norse infusion. Perhaps it's because it has taken such a battering over the last thousand years, being laid waste by William the Conqueror and, in its own terms, laid into on and off ever since.

Melvyn Bragg's puppy Marcel.

It's been a place from which rebellions have come and a place where individuality of religion, for instance, has persisted most strongly. And then there's this great Industrial Revolution. I wonder what they're going to say? In the briefings and the extracts that I've read, there is a tendency to play down the contribution of individuals. There is talk of how the colonial possessions of Britain gave it a flying start. Of how the slave trade brought in goods which plumped the economy and the Indian textile industry fed, and was fed by, Britain in protectionist and unfair ways. There is talk about mercantile nexus. On it goes. With some historians it's a bit of a fight to foreground individuals. All is flow. Perhaps I'm being unfair. One of the pleasures of this programme is to have your own ideas and find them expertly proved to be wrong when you hit the air at 9:02.

Looking at the bleak midwinter outside my bedroom window, it's difficult to believe that the days are lengthening. Hilly Hampstead has been Dickensian. Over the weekend, trying to post Christmas cards, I had to go from one postbox to another as the Post Office had sealed up the main boxes for ergonomic reasons (I hope that's how they spelled it; it was to do with health and safety). The pavements had become slides, like the great slide in A Christmas Carol. And kids whizzed down them while we, their elders, tiptoed tentatively, looking for a post box with an open mouth. Hampstead Heath was wonderfully child-full. Sledges galore and snowball fights wherever you looked. One young American girl was expertly making a pile of snowballs and instructing a young boy, who was rather nervous, I thought, and was probably her brother, but the thing was to have "a stockpile of snowballs".

One great lack this year has been no sighting of a Salvation Army band. It never fails to turn up in Hampstead High Street. But either the weather put it off (which I doubt) or I didn't turn up when they happened to be there. It's a big miss. There was a brass band on the concourse of Leeds Station a week or so ago, so perhaps that will have to do. But it's not the same as the Salvation Army band. Perhaps they were playing to the passengers lining up outside St Pancras Station. Interestingly, it was the Salvation Army who turned up with tea and biscuits as they have done in the East End of London for more than a century now.

So, out of bed, back to the notes, off to work and a Merry Christmas to everybody. I hope you don't mind if for my New Year newsletter I enclose a link to a couple of photographs. If anything sensational does happen after the programmes, then I'll try to persuade Ingrid into a postscript. Otherwise a Happy New Year.

PS: Well, that first programme certainly went in a direction we had not anticipated. By "we" I mean the producer, Tom Morris, and myself. We wanted to go steadily through coal, steam, canals, iron ... Instead I think what happened was that we hit the crunch of what is going on in historical interpretation today. On the one hand, there seems to be the cutting down of the value and importance of individual contributions.

On the other, the building up of a form of knowledge which masses various strands together and considers the interconnections between these masses to be, in themselves, instigators of particular change. It's a question of balance and we got rather overheated, I think; in the context of a live programme where opinions are strongly held, disagreements sometimes come out rather heatedly. But it's worth disagreeing about. Clearly there is more to come and as I dictate this I'm trying to get ready for programme 2 - the consequences and the legacy. But I think that's it for 2010. Back to the dogs and I'll be back on January 6th.

Melvyn Bragg is presenter of In Our Time


  • Comment number 1.

    In the end, ALL advance comes from individuals. Advances in design come from people who have a broad background but generally also a good deal of technical background. But without one mind gathering a block of different ideas together, all the drivers in the world, empire, money etc can do nothing.

    So I agree Melvyn. There would be no industrial revolution without the individuals. The knock on of that is - if the politicians continue to insist on downgrading and lying about education we are doomed to decline. They can't of course, bear the idea of an educated public, chiefly because so few of them have ever done a days useful work in their lives. Most have never really met any working people.

  • Comment number 2.

    What a exciting topic on the only bit of history I remember from school. Our good history teacher suggested Zola's 'Germinal, though he said our parents might not approve. Great book and program. Both have stimulated thoughts on Our Time. Thanks Melvyn and Mr Hurd.

  • Comment number 3.

    To my mind, you could do a whole series on The Industrial Revolution. You only seem to have scraped the surface in this first part. Water (for transport and power); coal (of course the transition from charcoal was vital); wool and then cotton and silk (as supplied by the colonies) have been covered. But, like you Melvyn, I think it's the people that make it an exciting tale and remove some of the historical 'dryness'.

  • Comment number 4.

    Bill Harvey says (as presumably would Melvyn Bragg) "ALL advance comes from individuals[:] without one mind gathering a block of different ideas together, all the drivers in the world, empire, money etc can do nothing." This claim is specious: there are always and everywhere individuals with brilliant ideas, but unless those ideas arise in a context where they can be realized and reproduced, they disappear. Q.v. the inventor(s) of the Antikythera Mechanism, and specifically WRT steam, Hero of Alexandria. Similarly, it is no accident that "hero-based" (to use Bragg's term) economic ideologies arise in relatively rich societies which have previously invested in such context: the libertarian objective is to internalize/privatize benefits arising from prior social investment, and to externalize/socialize costs to and harms generated by private enterprise.

  • Comment number 5.

    Individuals do make a difference, a big difference, in history (consider St. Paul as one example). That certainly does not gainsay cultural and environment influences. I do think one factor encouraging the industrial revolution -- particularly in comparison to France -- was the decentralized nature of English society. That created an environment that could and did foster innovation and commerce.

  • Comment number 6.

    Having just finished listening to your most excellent radio program on the Industrial Revolution, which started in Great britain, I was struck by one thought:
    Whenever humanbeings finds new ways to innovate, or "modernize", it seems that the morals, the spitirutal values (if you will) always lag so far behind.
    This is still the case today: We can clone animals 9 (including humans); we can mixbreed animals; we can produce Frankcanstein crops, perhaps shortly we will be able to extend life itself, but where are the debates, the assessment of the morality thereof, the spiritual dimension.
    This may seem like a silly question, but was it right to wage wars over trade? Was it right to use child labour in the factories? Was it even right to promote the industrial revolution (where human beings tended to become cogs in a machine, often such poor cogs that they ended up in workhomes)?

  • Comment number 7.

    This was the best programme for a long time. The raised voices meant that ideas were fighting to be heard. The boring synthesis became lively - the individuals, the inventions lived and worked in a context. If anything, the British political culture should have had more focus. Coal - yes, spinning jenny - yes, but the tax, the position of entrepreneurs, were the big topics. And was the big invention not the factory?

  • Comment number 8.

    I found the industrial revolution programme fascinating not least for the glimpse it gave of the active disputes that still exist around history. I encourage you to let the historians disagree with each other (and with you!) more - it's a good demonstration for the public of the contingent nature of history and of science.

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    Instrumental change it would seem, is either the consequence of accident or innovative thinking born of opportunity, and frequently such thinking has been accelerated in times of war and crisis. Sometimes the prevailing conditions and climate of thought under less extreme circumstances may be propitious enough not only to tolerate but even to encourage extraordinary innovation and experiment, as with the Lunar Society in Britain. The growth of (Rosicrucian) Freemasonry clearly had a significant influence on the way new thinking was cultivated and shared here. Factories may have embodied a reinvention of diverse organised labour practices as old as the pyramids, but in less enlightened times despite the Enlightenment proper, such ideas may not have been as fully developed as we might like to have seen. Those dark Satanic mills were all too real and far from being the romantic hallucination of a deluded poet, our precious environment is still being tortured and torn - nothing to celebrate or take pride in there. But why? Our instrumental thinking in its haste simply did not resonate with the visionary clarity of Blake. Indeed, we have only recently been disabused of those naive Hollywood stereotypes that portrayed Egyptians as abject slaves, whereas now it appears they were highly valued skilled workers who were both well-fed and properly looked after. There is a long record of communal and collective enterprise, but its history is replete with the paradoxes and ironic reversals of spiritual and cultural diversity, so we are wise to take the longer, wider view. However, as they say in America, if you really want to know the truth "follow the money." That awesome global steel industry that grew from the humble beginnings of the Coalbrookvale coke smelters and all those astonishing engineering achievements that followed, was originally underwritten by the cruel profits of slavery, and this money was said to have come from Bristol. The story was told in an excellent documentary series aired on UK television several years ago. I should like to hear Professor Pat Hudson's and your other guests' learned thoughts and perspicuous lucubrations on this painfully contextual issue.

  • Comment number 11.

    Melvin, if you have read the current thread on the BBC MBs you will find that you have come in for a lot of stick. I hope in the second program, if you have the same guests that you can ask the more strident before hand to let others talk and to enter the spirit of the debate rather that just pushing her own point of view. The causes of and conditions for the IR are clearly multi-factorial, but the general principles involved in a step change in science and technology, engineering innovation may have enough factors in common for the conditions to be reproduced currently to help us out of our planetary predicaments various.

    When Henry Ford left Cadillac it was partly because their dream was to be a purveyor of luxury to the elite, whereas Henry's dream was to produce a tool that every worker could afford, I raise this because Ford was self funded through sales revenue, he was not bank dependent, a factor I think in the 18th and 19th centuris, many pioneers were of independent means, at least at the point of innovation; studies of inventors have shown that many of the best had the knack of being synthesizers of a wide range of ideas around at the time, and I think anyone who argues that without out the great starts matters would have happened so quickly, or in other places are simply following a political aganda, which has distorted their ability to be more objective.

  • Comment number 12.

    It takes something important to elicit logging on to Comment on Christmas morning. The final statement (in italics) from Melvyn Bragg on his blog, posted yesterday 24th December, did just that. Rather than some anodyne comment about the contentiousness of academic debate, just acknowledge Melyvn that there are people out there (perhaps even women), who may know alot more than you!

    Like many others who reacted to this programme I want to hear the full debate, I want to understand the complexities of this important subject and not have it reduced to a simplitic and outmoded view. That this crudly inflicted on both his guests and his radio audience is surely not in keeping with the ethos of this programme nor the BBC which is about open and equitable debate.

    Like many commentors I'd like to hear more from Pat Hudson and les of Melvyn Bragg, some come on BBC get her back on.

  • Comment number 13.

    Overstrand, tune in next week for part two! Not a return match, sadly, but fresh blood for the debate! I'm looking forward to it.

    Steve Bowbrick, editor, Radio 4 blog

  • Comment number 14.

    While I learned a bit less about the Industrial Revolution than I had expected to, I was provoked into a great deal of reflection on the intersection of history, political science and debate. Even though I was hiking along with my dogs through recent heavy snow on a mountain just south of the DMZ in Korea at -18c, I became totally oblivious to the hike. Listening to Mr. Bragg cross swords with the lady historian provoked all kinds of thoughts regarding individualism versus Marxian doctrine, the patterns of discovery in historical research and the challenges of being a combatant or a peacemaker in a round table discussion. It was great stuff. Of the eight or so hours of BBC pod casts that I listen to every week, In Our Times remains my hands down favorite.

  • Comment number 15.

    There is nothing whatsoever to be proud of degeneration, which is exactly what the Industrial Revolution initiated and propagated. The English did it out of a necessity (The mother of all invention) living in ‘Eng’ land. It is the same reason they endeavored and conquered the rest of a more cultured world. It does not prove any superiority, only cunning and dishonesty. No wonder to them Henry Ford is a hero, in reality he was no more than the devil incarnate, who turned man into machine. It is the reason most of the west still behaves so mechanical with their pigeon-hole systems and tinsel technology, with only analytical and logical mind, rather than feeling and intuition, both products of Mother-Nature a far superior and subtler system. The techno culture in their limited intelligence considers it progress, while those who really can see know it is nothing but degeneration.


More from this blog...


These are some of the popular topics this blog covers.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.