Britain's economy in the 19th century

In 1883, the historian Arnold Toynbee suggested that in the years between 1750 and 1839 there was an Agricultural and Industrial Revolution in Britain. Many historians now challenge this idea and they put the turning point much earlier, and suggest that change was much more gradual than Toynbee said.

Nevertheless, the years after 1750 were a time of great change. The developments in industry were linked with the growth of the British Empire.

Economic developments of the 19th century

George Stephenson's locomotive, "Rocket"
George Stephenson's locomotive, "Rocket"

Developments during this time altered the nature of life, not just in Britain, but all over the world.

There were huge population changes:

  • The population grew 260 per cent in the years between 1750 and 1900.
  • In 1750, about 15 per cent of the population lived in towns, but by 1900 it was 85 per cent. By 1900, London had 4.5 million people, and Glasgow had 760,000.

In industry – although historians now question the idea of an Industrial Revolution – the period 1750‒1914 definitely saw industrial growth:

  • some historians have called this period 'the Factory Age' that traditionally started with Richard Arkwright's cotton mill at Cromford in 1771
  • in the century 1815‒1914 textile production increased 15-fold, coal production increased 20-fold, and iron production increased 30-fold

Transport and communications improved:

  • Thomas Telford built roads and canals in the early 1800s. George Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel oversaw the 'Railway Mania' of the 19th century.