Britain as Workshop of the World

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

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.

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.

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.

Overseas trade

Illustration showing uniforms of the British Navy, 1897
Uniforms of the British Navy, 1897
Closely related to this expansion of manufacturing, overseas trade grew in importance. During the 18th century the proportion of industrial output exported rose from a quarter to a third, and multiplied eight times in value. Textiles still predominated, but cotton replaced wool and export cargoes became much more varied.

The biggest change was in their destination - America became Britain's biggest market. Scarcely interrupted by the War of Independence (1776-83), in 1800 nearly 60 per cent of Britain's exports crossed the Atlantic (a proportion that declined as the USA industrialised and British trade and empire turned eastward). The other major cargo was human - British merchants were responsible for shipping over three million slaves (half the total), from Africa, to the slave plantations of the Caribbean and southern USA, before the trade's abolition by Parliament in 1807.

' Tea-swilling, cotton-clad Britons could scarcely complain of the import duties they had to pay ...'

Driving this Atlantic trade was British demand for plantation produce - industrial raw materials, such as cotton and dyestuffs, and exotic groceries, in particular sugar. Sweet-toothed Britons consumed 20 pounds of sugar per head by 1800 - five times as much as a century before - and most of it in their tea, another exotic import, from Asia.

Underpinning the trade was Europe's largest and most expensive navy, keeping the sea lanes open, suppressing pirates and, in frequent wars, stripping the French of their Caribbean colonies. The Royal Navy was, by far, Britain's biggest enterprise and investment, uniquely responsible for the huge rise in government spending during the 18th century. Tea-swilling, cotton-clad Britons could scarcely complain of the import duties they had to pay to help maintain it!

Sugar was, however, more than a morale-booster for British workers. It contributed important calories to a diet which domestic agriculture was struggling to supply. In 1800 imports of staple foods, such as grain, butter and meat, were still small in comparison with a century later, but vital nonetheless. Ireland was Britain's biggest single supplier.

This is not to underestimate the achievement of British farmers in largely feeding the fast-growing population. During the 18th century they brought 50 per cent more land under cultivation and increased yields per hectare by the application of new techniques that allowed more animals to be raised and thereby improved the fertility of the soil.

At the same time, less labour per hectare was required, owing to the increasing size of farms and the resultant economies of scale. In industrial regions redundant workers were snapped up, elsewhere they languished, rarely employed outside harvest time.

New technology

Illustration of  George Stephenson
George Stephenson, inventor of the 'Rocket'
Already in the 16th century agriculture's demand for more land was putting pressure on Britain's depleted woodlands. The rising price of wood as an industrial fuel made coal, with which Britain was plentifully supplied, an increasingly attractive option.

Londoners had long been burning coal at home - a large coastal fleet shipped it down from the mines of Tyneside. Extending its use into industry, however, necessitated the containment of harmful fumes that contaminated the raw materials.

The salt, sugar and soap industries found their technical solutions quickly. In the 17th century glass makers, maltsters and non-ferrous metal refiners modified their equipment to burn coal, but iron makers suffered repeated disappointment. Only in 1709 did Abraham Darby, of Coalbrookdale, succeed in smelting pig iron for casting by first decarburising the coal to produce coke.

' It was also the expanding mining sector that prompted the invention of the steam engine ...'

But further processing was required to produce iron for the larger wrought-iron industry. This finally became economical as the price of coal fell significantly against that of charcoal after 1750. Henry Cort's puddling and rolling process (patented 1783-4) allowed both the complete replacement of charcoal and massive economies of scale - cheap iron, made with coal, turned Britain from a net importer into the world's major exporter.

It was also the expanding mining sector that prompted the invention of the steam engine and the development of new forms of transport. As Cornwall's tin miners and Tyneside's coal miners dug deeper, the biggest problem they faced was flooding. Experimental drainage devices proliferated, including Thomas Savery's steam-powered 'miner's friend' in the 1690s.

But it was the 'atmospheric engine', invented around 1710 by Thomas Newcomen, a Devon blacksmith, that pumped most effectively. Sixty years later, James Watt significantly improved the Newcomen engine's fuel efficiency by adding the separate condenser, and adapted it to rotative motion to drive textile machinery. Heat energy from coal had thus been made available as mechanical energy to supplement horse, water and wind power.

Railways gather steam

Stephenson's 'Rocket'
Stephenson's locomotive, the 'Rocket'
The need to transport coal cheaply stimulated the development of the canal system. The Duke of Bridgewater showed the way in 1759, when he commissioned James Brindley to construct a canal into Manchester from the entrance to his coal mines.

Already the rival railway network was in embryo form on the coalfields. Wagonways were used above and below ground where open wagons powered by human, horse, or gravity, moved the coal along wooden rails. It was but a short step to steam-powered locomotives moving coal along iron rails and no coincidence that George Stephenson began his career in the mines of Tyneside.

'... the Industrial Revolution ... left few lives and few institutions unaltered.'

Industrialisation was such a wide-ranging phenomenon, involving every aspect of the economy and society, that there will always be scope for debate about its timing and speed, causes and consequences. The roots of change ran deep into the past, but from the final quarter of the 18th century industrialisation gathered pace.

At first slow and patchy in its progress, by the time Victoria came to the throne in 1837, the Industrial Revolution had left few lives and few institutions unaltered.

Published on BBC History: 2004-11-02
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