BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.

18 September 2014
Accessibility help
Victorian Britain

BBC Homepage

Contact Us

Britain as Workshop of the World

By Christine MacLeod
Illustration of the interior of Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London
A representation of the Great Exhibition of 1851, held at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London 

The prosperity of the Victorian age was built at a time of rapid economic growth, powered by the Industrial Revolution. Fortunately for Britain, the process owed as much to evolution as revolution.

Workshop of the world

When Queen Victoria opened the Great Exhibition on 1 May 1851, her country was the world's leading industrial power, producing more than half its iron, coal and cotton cloth. The Crystal Palace itself was a triumph of pre-fabricated mass production in iron and glass. Its contents were intended to celebrate material progress and peaceful international competition.

They ranged from massive steam hammers and locomotives to the exquisite artistry of the handicraft trades - not to mention a host of ingenious gadgets and ornaments of domestic clutter. All the world displayed its wares, but most - by far - of the objects on show were British.

' ... most - by far - of the objects on show were British.'

This British dominance was both novel and brief. It was only half a century earlier that Britain had wrested European economic and political leadership from France, at a time when Europe itself lagged far behind Asia in manufacturing output. And by 1901 the world's industrial powerhouse was the USA, with Germany challenging Britain for second place. No country, even then, however, was as specialised as Britain in manufacturing. In 1901 under ten per cent of its labour force worked in agriculture and over 75 per cent of its wheat was imported (mostly from the USA and Russia).

Food and industrial raw materials, sourced from around the globe, were paid for by exports of manufactures and, increasingly, by services such as shipping, insurance and banking, and income from overseas investment. In addition, no other country was as urbanised as Britain. In 1851 half the population inhabited a town or city, by 1901 three-quarters did so.

It is interesting, however, that even in 1851 only a minority of workers was employed in 'modern' industry (engineering, chemicals and factory-based textiles). They were largely concentrated into a few regions in the English north and Midlands, South Wales and the central belt of Scotland - where industrialisation was evident by 1800. The majority of workers at this time were still involved in more traditional pursuits.

Published: 2004-11-02

About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy