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18 September 2014
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Britain as Workshop of the World

By Christine MacLeod
Population trebles

Image of a power loom weaving in Lancashire, 1835
Power loom weaving, Lancashire, 1835 ©
The most visible sign of economic growth was the steady increase in Britain's population. Since the Romans it had fluctuated between two and six million, but from 1750 it grew exponentially, nearly trebling in a century to reach 21 million by 1851. This increased to 37 million by 1901.

Simultaneously, if at first very slowly, the country was getting richer. During the 18th century much of this wealth was channelled into fighting expensive wars, mostly against the French. Victoria's reign, however, saw a marked improvement in the standard of living of working people. More people were living longer, and enjoying more comfortable lives.

' Furnaces and forges blackened buildings, industrial chemicals and sewage killed off rivers ...'

Since the 1820s British writers and politicians had talked of living in a 'machine age'. They did so with excitement and pride, but also with a high degree of anxiety. The material prosperity stemming from uncontrolled industrial and urban development came at a high environmental and social cost, causing urban squalor, despoiled landscapes, dislocated communities and jeopardised livelihoods.

Furnaces and forges blackened buildings, industrial chemicals and sewage killed off rivers, and roads and railways cut through fields and ancient monuments. People either migrated far from friends and family (millions of them overseas), submitted to the factory's unaccustomed routine and irksome discipline, or suffered the de-skilling of their trade. Not even the skilled élite of the working class was immune from the insecurity of unemployment, illness and old age.

In the late 18th century, many thousands of women throughout rural Britain saw their spinning wheels become redundant and their jobs disappear into the factories. A generation later, hand-weavers fought a long, impoverishing battle against the power loom. Under-employed agricultural labourers in south-east England scraped a bare living, subsidised by poor relief.

Catastrophically, in 1845-51 a million of Victoria's Irish subjects died (and another million emigrated), when blight repeatedly destroyed the potato crop and, largely through a misplaced faith in the free market, insufficient aid was provided. Industrialisation offered neither universal nor immediate gains.

Published: 2004-11-02



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