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Britain as Workshop of the World

By Christine MacLeod
Industrial evolution

Illustration of machinery for a crushing mill
Machinery for Victorian crushing mill ©
Since Arnold Toynbee coined the phrase 'Industrial Revolution' in 1882, most economic historians have emphasised the rapidity of British industrialisation during the period 1780-1830. Currently, however, many argue that industrialisation took centuries, rather than decades, and comprised a complex web of changes.

Its roots stretched back into the 17th century, or even earlier. Of particular significance were the establishment of new, long-distance trading links and technological and organisational changes in both agriculture and industry.

'... spinning wheels whirled, looms rattled, hammers thumped and needles flew ...'

Even in 1700, however, it was not obvious that Britain would lead the way. Its technology had long lagged behind that of continental Europe, and its manufacturers consequently had problems expanding into European markets - woollen cloth comprised the only significant export. In response, Britons had turned westwards to exploit the untapped resources of the New World through settlement and trade, and downwards, mining coal to develop a new source of energy to power their industry.

They had also tolerated the immigration of European artisans, including many Protestant refugees, who introduced their superior skills and manufacturing techniques. By 1700, however, the flow was starting to change direction. Foreign manufacturers were poaching British workmen, and Britons were acquiring a reputation for inventiveness!

Deep sea diver
Victorian deep-sea diving dress, invented in Britain ©
Britain was unusual in its relatively small agricultural sector. By 1800 perhaps as few as three out of five workers were full-time farmers, when across the Channel four out of five was the more common ratio. The remainder worked full- or part-time in manufacturing or services.

Manufacturing was to be found everywhere, from the capital cities of London and Edinburgh to provincial ports such as Glasgow and Bristol and expanding villages such as Birmingham and Manchester. In innumerable rural cottages spinning wheels whirled, looms rattled, hammers thumped and needles flew to produce textiles, metalware, haberdashery, stockings and leather goods, destined for increasingly distant markets in Britain and abroad.

Only from the last quarter of the 18th century was textile production centralised in factories (first spinning, later weaving). These were mostly small, rural and water-powered, and their workers, mostly young and female, numbered tens, not hundreds. Coal-burning steam engines gradually liberated the mechanised textile industry from scarce and remote riverside sites, and by the 1830s production was largely based in urban centres, near the coalfields of Lancashire and Yorkshire, where labour was also cheaper.

Published: 2004-11-02



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