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Lady Victoria CollieryThe Industrial Revolution

‘The state of society now leads so much to great accumulations of humanity that we cannot wonder if it ferment and reek like a compost dunghill. Nature intended that population should be diffused over the soil in proportion to its extent. We have accumulated in huge cities and smothering manufacturies the numbers which should be spread over the face of a country and what wonder that they should be corrupted? We have turned healthful and pleasant brooks into morasses and pestiferous lakes.’
Sir Walter Scott’s Journal on the Industrial Revolution

Within one life time the Industrial Revolution transformed Scotland completely. In 1750, Scotland was a rural, agricultural economy which was suddenly propelled into the modern, capitalist world through scientific and technological breakthrough. The Industrial Revolution was based upon the efficient exploitation of nature’s raw materials and labour as new scientific theories developed by the Enlightenment thinkers were quickly transformed into practical, money-making applications.

The Chemical Revolution
Joseph Black (1728-99), the son of a Bordeaux wine merchant and Professor of Chemistry at both Glasgow and Edinburgh, made one of the most significant breakthroughs in the history of chemistry. In 1756 he published a thesis which postulated that air contained another gas, which he called ‘Fixed Air’, and which extinguished candles when isolated. Black had discovered Carbon Dioxide, one of the building blocks of commercial chemistry. His experiments demonstrated to the scientific community that identifying the constituent elements of any substance was the first step towards actually producing a pure form of that substance, that people could create these gasses for themselves. Other scientists followed in his footsteps and soon a whole array of gases had been identified, including Oxygen, Hydrogen, Nitrogen and Chlorine. The elements of the Earth were being revealed and they formed the basic chemistry which sparked the Industrial Revolution.

The Commercial Revolution
Rapidly the knowledge of the chemical revolution was adapted to commercial use. Black and his fellow professor, William Cullen, went on to develop an alkali using the newly discovered element, Chlorine, which made the process of linen bleaching far more efficient.
Weaving linen had been an old industry which had employed mostly men working on handlooms. However, with the greater efficiency brought through the use of chemicals, Scottish linen became more competitive and grew to form the backbone of a commercial revolution. Further transformations in the industry came through a series of English inventions which the Scots were quick to adopt: Hargreave’s Spinning Jenny, Arkwright’s Waterframe and Crompton’s Mule all accelerated the weaving process and improved competitiveness. It was boom time for the few who held the capital.

New Lanark
England’s financial entrepreneurs found the cheaper labour in Scotland attractive and many moved north to make their fortunes. One such man was Richard Arkwright (1732-92), a hairdresser by trade, whose waterframe made cotton spinning such a profitable business. In 1784 he went into partnership with David Dale (1739-1806), a Scots weaver who had made his money trading linen. Arkwright, however, lost the patent to his marvellous machines in 1785 and the partnership was dissolved, with Dale continuing the business using the machines patent-free. Dale needed a plentiful water supply to power his business and in 1786 he found it at New Lanark, near the Falls of Clyde. Water was taken from the river by tunnel and canal to drive the massive water wheels which, in turn, powered the spinning machines. The machines and the people composed a brand new form of labour organisation: the factory.

The Factory System
The factory system used labour in a new systematic fashion. The most common workers were often women and children, who had to work long hours, often through the night, for very low wages. Traditional workers like the handloom weavers couldn’t compete with such high output and were quickly put out of business. It was ruthless Joseph Blackcapitalism but it was profitable. Within a few years six mills were operating at New Lanark.

Everything relied on the exploitation of natural resources, and where water power was sufficient factories sprang up. The wealth accumulated further when a new raw material called cotton was imported from India or from the slave plantations of Britain’s American colonies. Cotton could be worked into finer material than the flax which made linen, and these products were shipped to markets in Europe or back across the Atlantic as Scotland’s trade networks expanded beyond the traditional markets in the Low Countries and France.

 

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