The process of industrialization
'Coalbrookedale by Night', Philipp Jacob de Loutherbourg (1801)
Go here to listen to the discussion on the Industrial Revolution on Melvyn Bragg's 'In Our Time' programme on Radio 4. The debate gets quite heated (Melvyn thumps the table at one point!), which shows how contentious and contested the subject is.
Industrialization and modernization
‘Modernization’ is the commonly used term for a series of transformations which communities undergo on their way from ‘backwardness’ to ‘modernity’. (See Norman Davies, Europe: A History (Oxford, 1996, p. 764). Its starting point is an agrarian, peasant- based society and its destination is the urbanized, industrialized society where most people earn their livings in urban-based employment. The Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century is the most profound change in human history since the invention of agriculture in what is known as the 'neolithic revolution'.
Not all historians believe that there was an ‘Industrial Revolution' - a term coined by Sir Arnold Toynbee in lectures published posthumously in 1884. They point out that (for example) in the 1840s over 75 per cent of manufacturing in Britain, the first industrial nation, remained in unmodernized industries and that most of the population still worked on the land. However, over all, industrialization should be seen as one of the great changes of history, and for a variety of complex reasons, Britain led the way. The census of 1851 revealed that the majority of British people were no longer living in rural areas. This had never happened before in human history.
In 1700 the economy of Europe was largely pre-industrial and such industry as existed was located in the countryside. Taxation documents from the late 17th century show that across north-western Europe between a sixth and a third of all men living in the countryside were primarily employed in non-agricultural jobs such as textile manufacture. These were both independent artisans producing for local markets and dependent employees whose work might reach international markets.
In 1700 the largest item in British exports (70% of total value) was wool and this had been the case since the Middle Ages. Production was household production. Weavers were usually men, working at looms in their homes, though most of them would not have owned their looms. At least four women and children, and perhaps as many as ten would be employed to prepare and spin enough flax or wool to keep a single loom at work. The advantage of cottage industry, or the domestic system, was that it was cheap and flexible, not bound by guild regulations. In major cloth producing areas such as Picardy or the English West Country, entrepreneurs bought raw wool or flax to be prepared and spun into yarn. They then gave the yarn to specialist weavers and bought back cloth which was then taken for finishing and finally for marketing. Urban specialists would dye the cloth and tailor it but most of the fabric was made in the countryside.
Alongside the capitalist entrepreneurs there were also master weavers who controlled their own production. These could be found in Leiden, Lille and Yorkshire. The heart of Leiden’s cloth industry was the Lakenhal. Clothmakers brought their work there to be inspected and a lead seal was fixed to the bales as a hallmark of quality. These seals have been found all over the world where Dutch goods were traded and where the Dutch were colonizers– Indonesia, South Africa and South America.
Pre-industrial Europe also produced minerals in large quantities. The Weals of Kent produced iron-ore though production was being overtaken by iron-ore from Liège and Sweden. Swedish iron ore was imported to Hull and reached the rest of England through the great river system of the Humber basin. Coal was mined in Fife, lead in the Mendips.
The demographic revolution
Industrialization coincided with a demographic revolution brought about more by a falling death rate than a rising birth rate caused by an improvement in the supply of food from 1740. The last great European famine took place in 1816-17, caused by an eruption in Indonesia that produced a mini ‘nuclear winter’. Later subsistence crises – even the devastating potato famine of 1846-7 - were either less severe or were confined to agriculturally backward regions.
The Agricultural Revolution
In western Europe the pressure of numbers meant that land had to be reclaimed and that all farmed land had to be made to produce food more efficiently. The way out of what the agricultural writer Arthur Young called the ‘thralldom of regular fallows’ was to cultivate new crops such as maize in southern France and the Danubian principalities, or potatoes on the North European Plain from Ireland to Russia. Another solution was crop rotation in which artificial grasses like clover rotated with cereals and rapidly restored nitrogen to the soil, while turnips both improved the soil and provided winter feed for animals.
Reform of agriculture was significant for two reasons: it prevented famine; and it enabled a higher proportion of people to leave the land.
The reform of agriculture involved enclosure, both of the common land and of open strips. From the end of the eighteenth century the enclosure movement spread from England to the Netherlands, Denmark, France and Germany. This came with a high social cost, involving the destruction of communal and collective traditions as small farmers were degraded into an agricultural proletariat.
The Industrial Revolution
Between 1750 and 1914 Europe experienced three major waves of industrialization.
One peaked in the period between the 1780s and the 1820s;The process of the first wave of industrialization began in Britain for a set of complex geographical, economic, cultural and political reasons. It was centred upon relatively simple and cheap innovations in two leading sectors, iron-making and cotton textiles. This pioneer industrial revolution defined the requirements for its successors:
A second crest appeared in the decades between 1840 and 1870;
A third was in the last two decades before the First World War.
1. that new sources of power should be applied to productionChronologically, the first step was the introduction for industrial purposes of the steam-engine. Steam engines were invented by Thomas Savery (1698) and Thomas Newcomen (1705) (whose engine is depicted left), and were rapidly adopted first for pumping water out of mines and then for winding. By 1733 there were 51 in existence, over 40 of them in Britain. By 1800 c. 500 engines designed by James Watt were in use in Britain, adapted not only to pumping and winding but also to driving machinery. In 1784 a Boulton and Watt steam engine (right) was first employed to drive the plant of a cotton mill.
2. that manufacturing should increasingly be organized in large-scale units or factories
3. that there should be structural change in the economy as the share in the national wealth contributed by agriculture dropped back and that derived from industry and trade moved into the lead.
Important innovations were made in metallurgy. In 1709 Abraham Darby I smelted iron from coke. In 1760 steam power was first employed to provide the blast for a coke furnace, but it was not until Henry Cort’s ‘puddling and rolling’ process was patented in 1784 that production was simplified and impurities were eliminated. All this revolutionized the geography of iron production. Furnaces were no longer found in scattered woodlands but they were concentrated on or near coalfields served by canals and navigable rivers.
This was accompanied by a textile revolution as by 1800 cotton had replaced wool as the major export. This transformation was made possible by a series of inventions: 1733 Kay’s flying shuttle which doubled the weaver’s output; 1768 Hargreaves’ spinning jenny which enabled a single operator to work up to 1,000 spindles; 1769 Arkwright’s water frame which spun yarn by water rather than manual power; 1779 Crompton’s ‘mule’ which worked several hundred spindles and within a few years had been adapted to steam power. Cartwright’s power loom of 1787 helped weaving to keep up with the spinning process.
This shifted textile production from the home to factories – a trend first seen in the silk industry with the Lombe brothers’ mill in Derby. In 1771 Arkwright’s spinning factory employed 300 people at Cromford; by 1781 it employed 900. Manufacturing towns such as Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds grew rapidly.
The British experience was spontaneous, individualistic, open-market and gradual and institutions above the level of the private firm played little part. Since banks were asked to provide little in the way of (fixed) capital for plant or buildings, they readily accepted the lower risk, and arms length strategy of providing (working) capital for the purchase of materials or payment of wages. Modest requirements in capital and technology in early industrial Britain permitted many small ventures to enter the market. These were often family firms and they created a tradition of atomistic competition and a suspicion of large-scale corporate enterprise that was long-lasting. Between 1750 and 1870 British governments had little incentive to do much about this. Arguably the seeds of later British decline were sown during the Industrial Revolution.
Parts of continental Europe began to emulate the British example quite early. France, though beset by an antiquated and fiscally inept state administration, possessed economic capabilities in the private sector which even in 1780 were not far behind Britain. Her output of coal, ships, and cottons was less than Britain’s, but she turned out more woollens, silks and pig-iron. However, the upheavals of revolution and war cost France some thirty years of industrial growth, decimated French European trade and left the economy stranded in a European market dominated throughout the 1810s and 1820s by British manufactured exports. But skills and structures remained and even during the war there was notable regional development in the north and east.
Between 1780 and 1820 Saxony, Silesia, Rhineland-Westphalia were able to exploit opportunities opened by the first generation of factory technology. The Prussian appetite for weaponry promoted an interest in the new metal processes. In other parts of Germany Bonaparte’s expansionism and his Continental System allowed the growth of regional specialisms in textile production. But these areas too suffered from British industrial supremacy after 1815.
Belgium was the other economy to achieve a sufficient combination of new technology, large-scale production and structural transformation. The centres were Ghent (cotton), Verviers (wool), Liège and Charleroi (metals).
The second Wave: railways
The second wave of industrialization began in the decades after 1840. By this period new entrants needed railways, engineering works and steel mills. Above all they needed railways (Britain was the only major economy to industrialize without them), the central innovation of the second industrial wave and their influence was huge.
For the British experience see other post.
The great period of the railway upswing was 1840-70. Before this, France remained backward in comparison with Britain. By 1836 although Britain had 2,000 miles of railways, France, in a much larger area had only 150 miles. But on 25 August 1837 Queen Marie Amélie opened the country’s first railway, from Paris west to the old court suburb of St Germain-en-Laye. In 1842 a national network was approved by the Chamber of Deputies, prompting railway fever on the Bourse. On 14 June 1846 to celebrate the inauguration of the Chemins de Fer du Nord, James de Rothschild took 1,700 male guests from Paris to lunch in Lille and dinner in Brussels. But between 1840 and 1848 the number of steam engines in operation in France doubled from 2,592 to 5,212 (Philip Mansel, Paris Between Empires, 885). British capital was eager to invest and by 1847 half the capital invested in French railways was British.
The costs of industrialization
The Industrial Revolution created new centres of production and saw the dramatic expansion of some urban communities: Manchester and Preston (cotton textiles), Bradford (woollens) and new European industrialized regions: northern France, Alsace, the Rhineland, Saxony. At the top of the social pyramid were the industrialists, described admiringly in Dickens’s Bleak House and disparaged in his Hard Times. The workers they employed were revealingly described as ‘hands’.
The lives of the ‘hands’ differed in three different respects from those of the pre-industrial workers:
1. their lives were dominated by the rhythm of the machine for twelve to fourteen hours a dayContemporaries like Alexis de Toqueville and Friedrich Engels noted their living and working conditions with horror. See here for Engels' famous description of Manchester. In Britain legislation lessened the working hours of women and children in textile factories (Factory Acts, 1833, 1844) and forbade women and children to go down the mines (Mines Act, 1842). But it was against the prevailing ideology to legislate for the conditions of adult males who were assumed to have entered a free contract of labour.
2. they were dependent solely on wages for their living
3. they lived in a separate world from their employers.
Compared with agricultural workers, factory workers were well paid. Any debate on their standard of living has to take account of the nebulous ‘quality of life’ but it is difficult to draw up a balance sheet of the lives of farm hands and factory hands. A rural slum might have been less of a health hazard than an urban slum but low rural wages often meant miserable lives, particularly in times of agricultural depression. On the other hand, the mass British migration from the countryside to the towns does not really tell us how much choice the workers had in their employment. The overall verdict has to be that, all over Europe, the period 1780-1850 was a bad time in which to be poor.
The limits of industrialization
Industrialization was a long drawn-out process and was also a regionalized one. Urban Lancashire bore little resemblance to rural Spain.
‘In the course of the nineteenth century to distinct economic zones emerged: and advanced, predominantly modernized zone in the North and West, and a backward, industrializing, but largely unmodernized zone in the South and East’. Norman Davis, Europe, 765.But this was only truly perceptible at the end of the nineteenth century. Britain’s industrial growth before 1830 was less than 2% pa. The nineteenth-century growth in net national product was from 0.5% pa in 1830-50 to 2.4% in 1850-70 and 3.1% in 1870-1900. The majority of British still lived in rural areas and Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’ are unlikely to have been factories as he never saw any!
The private firm itself was characteristically small. The largest class of cotton mill in late 18th century Britain boasted a fixed capital of no more than £10,000. Its finances were provided by the informal source of family, congregational, local or partnership funds.
Traditional sectors composed of agriculture and non-factory craft manufactures survived in all European economies down to 1914. France remained a country of market-town economies and widespread rural industry until late in the century.