Industrial revolution or industrial evolution?
Observers in the ninteenth century had little doubt that major change was afoot in the economic sphere – in 1814 Patrick Colquhoun contemplated "the progress of manufactures in Great Britain" with "wonder and astonishment"1 and Thomas Carlyle noticed in 1826 how "wealth has more and more increased".2 But recent historical work has contended that economic growth was in fact slow during the period of what is traditionally regarded to be the "Industrial Revolution" – Crafts and Harley say that there was no ‘revolution’ between 1750 and 1850.3 There view is based on national accounts data that suggests output growth was slow in the period 1780 – 1830. But the usefulness of this data is open to attack, and furthermore a reliance on macroeconomic indicators hides other issues of crucial importance – there was in fact a huge change in the structure of demand and the structure of the economy in the nineteenth century. People’s patterns of work were changing, as were their experiences of work – new technology would eventually increase productivity, but needed time before it could make an impact. It is not erroneous to call this period – especially the growth of mineral-based industries in the second half of the nineteenth century - a ‘revolution’, but nor should we disregard the continuity with earlier times. This was a period of massive change, but some of it was the continuation of earlier trends.
It is first worth examining the basis of the macroeconomic data which Crafts has supplied us with and which did so much to call the ‘revolution’ thesis into question. Crafts’ data was based on occupational tables compiled by Lindert and Williamson – but before the 1831 census, the content of these tables is questionable. The margin of error for people employed in agriculture, commerce and manufacturing could be as high as 60%, whilst the data for some groups such as carpenters are "little more than guesses".4 By its nature, the service sector left virtually no quantitative data behind whatsoever – in many cases it is impossible to know even of the existence of economic activity in this sector. Barriers to entry were low in many service industries, as well as in proto-industrial activity – and the informal economy would leave no records whatsoever. All this combines to mean that Crafts was liable to underestimate the level of activity in the secondary and tertiary sectors. Another major weakness of Lindert and Williamson’s tables were that they were based on parish burial records – these only recorded the occupations of men at death. This is unfortunate precisely because it is during this period that child and female labour was becoming more prominent, especially in proto-industry – and yet female labour was often not even recorded in wage books. The mechanisation which accompanied the centralisation of production in factories often meant a change to increased usage of female labour – they were considered more docile than their male counterparts, but could easily operate the machines.5
There is also the issue of regional specialisation – the huge differences between separate areas make national aggregates even less relevant. One of the results of industrialisation is regional specialisation – regions developed a certain type of industrial activity based on their comparative advantage.6 Regions with poor soil conditions and a social structure which was moving away from tight feudalism were apt to develop proto-industry – but ones were commercial farming were implemented might even de-industrialise.7 Urbanisation provided a stable market for large quantities of foodstuffs, and in some areas traditional industry declined as it became clearer that regional capital would be better invested in agriculture. Only 40% of adult people worked the soil by 1800 as agricultural productivity was so high, but this doesn’t mean there was only a shift away from agricultural employment – this is one aspect of the process of industrialisation which looks less revolutionary.8 Industrial growth spurred agricultural development, but with the commercialisation of farming also came the death of the independence of the agricultural labourer. Increasingly cut off from the ‘moral economy’ and drawn into the national market economy, agricultural labourers were themselves affected by the process of industrialisation – working experiences seemed to be changing for many groups of people, which supports the 'revolution' thesis.
Regional specialisation can only occur when there is a national, integrated market economy. With the development of transport networks came vast new opportunities for transporting goods over increasing distances and better opportunities for gathering market data. Before national communications networks emerged – first a canal system, then a railway one which was well-established by the 1850s – industrial towns could only serve regional demand and the opportunity for division of labour was limited. Some towns, though, were able to become the national centre of a particular industry – as with the cutlery industry in Sheffield and the cotton industry in Manchester.9 Such industrial centres could serve either the export market or the domestic one – London especially provided a stable market for consumer goods. This centralisation of industry meant they could benefit from external economies of scale and positive externalities such as skilled labour, market information and transport networks. The emergence of industrial towns in the provinces which made use of mechanisation on a large scale to serve a domestic market would be an important feature of the British economy for as long as manufacturing was predominant – they may not have brought about a sudden surge in productivity, but they set the stage for the future and in many cases remained thriving industrial centres for decades. If we focus only on the continuity of macroeconomic indicators we miss the socio-economic changes that were taking place in the way the economy was structured: this is where we find our "Industrial Revolution".
One of the most compelling images of this period of change is the factory. The factory entailed mechanised production in a centralised location – a departure from proto-industry such as putting out. Where it was adopted, the factory necessarily required a revolution in work patterns and attitudes to work. The reason so much proto-industrial activity was un-quantifiable is because of its informal character – it did not entail rigid labour discipline. Putter out merchants often considered their workers to be lazy – but in reality cotton production was only one part of the economic activity of outworkers. Before the advent of the factory they were still able to participate in the ‘moral economy’ – perhaps spending some of their time chopping wood, or tending to a small patch of arable land. As the commercialisation of agriculture was eroding the property rights of labourers, the factory was providing an alternative: proletarianization. Although factories initially caused large problems of discipline, there seems to be evidence that a change in attitudes to work and timekeeping were changing: eventually people began to rebel within the system rather than outside of it: the campaign for a ten hour working day in the 1850s being an example.10 Although this was arguably a revolution in working habits, it was by no means universal – the point of proto-industrial capital was its flexibility, and merchants would not necessarily want to tie it down in fixed assets. When growth in the manufacturing sector took off – it was 4.1% per annum between 1831 and 1841 – growth in the handicrafts sector was still 2.4% per annum.11 The balance of the economy was shifting, but the ‘traditional’ sector was still important.
We would be foolish to discount this ‘traditional’ sector which consisted of small units of production. Their flexibility and degree of specialisation meant that productivity increases were possible within this sector – smaller units of production are close to their market and can respond to changes in demand quicker. Increased urbanisation brought the middling sort close to their social betters, who they might well try to ape through similar patterns of consumption. The productivity increases possible in smaller units of production were limited, but it is important to appreciate the inter-connection between them and the ‘modern’ sector. Vertical integration between the two was possible and both modes of production often coexisted in the same industry. The emergence of the factory was drawn out in some regions due to systems of land tenure, obstructionism by local property-owners or other legal and institutional factors. In this instance economic rationality is not the only thing that must be considered, and the process of change was more evolutionary. Yet once it was completed, a revolution in work practices had taken place – it is again important to stress the long-term changes that the restructuring entailed. The factory may have emerged sporadically, but it was eventually established as the dominant mode of manufacturing that carried on into the 20th century.
A prerequisite to this centralisation of production was the harnessing of large quantities of mechanical energy through the steam engine – and this required large quantities of coal. In 1700, British coal output was 3 million tons – in 1850 it was 30.4 million tons.12 The coal output of the entire of the rest of Europe by 1850 was only 3 million tons.13 A million tons of coal is capable of providing as much energy as a million acres of forest – at the end of the reign of George III the British economy was consuming 15 million acres of forest’s worth of energy more than it had done in the time of Elizabeth I. This constituted a revolution not only in the structural basis of energy provision, but also in the capacity of the economy to grow. An organic economy is necessarily limited by the amount of energy which can be gathered from the land – coal, though subject to decreasing marginal returns due to the cost of winning it at greater depths, can be mined continuously and inject a much larger degree of energy into the economy. Coal had been used since Tudor times in simple industrial processes to heat liquids, but the true transition away from an organic economy came when industry became a major consumer of coal – this occurred in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Mechanisation might take time to be adopted across all industries because in some it was more rational to continue using water power, but eventually it would become highly pervasive. This was only possible because the coal industry was able to provide a much greater quantity of coal without rising marginal costs. Output per man in the coal pits didn’t increase at all between Tudor and Edwardian times and the process of extracting it was still very primitive, but the coal industry spurred a huge amount of development elsewhere. The steam engine had been developed to pump water out of Cornish mines and the railway system was encouraged to grow because of pressures to transport coal.
In the period 1851 – 60, 43.2% of gross domestic capital formation was in mineral-based industries: this was 3.9% of GNP. When compared to the period 1761 – 70, where the percentage of gross domestic capital formation was only 10.2% and 0.6% of GNP, it is clear that a major revolution in the structure of the economy is taking place.14 It is roughly after 1850 that national real incomes begin to rise steadily, but this is likely to be the result of change earlier in the century. Restructuring of the economy is not likely to lead to immediate productivity gains – labour has to be trained, capital has to be purchased and new attitudes need to be fostered. The large degree of capital formation taking place in the mineral-based industries by 1860 – triple that of the period 1801 – 10 – indicates that the transition period is drawing to a close. It is clear that by this point the mineral-based industries are seen as a safe investment if so much capital is being ploughed into them – they were no longer anomalies in a "sea of tradition", but instead were attracting much more investment than ‘traditional’ economic activity. This new mineral-based economy also managed to overturn the assumptions of the classical economists such as Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo. They correctly recognised the negative feedback mechanism which related population to food supply in the British economy – increased population would necessarily immiserate the people as food prices rose.15 In the nineteenth century, this link was broken – population rapidly increased without an attendant fall in real incomes, which were in fact rising steadily after 1850. The economy had switched to a system of positive feedback, were agricultural productivity spurred the development of industry and towns. Towns could now grow because food supplies were more easily obtainable, as was coal for heating – and the construction industry became more productive because bricks could be heated more cheaply.
Productivity may not have increased massively in the period that is traditionally considered the "Industrial Revolution", but the economy of 1900 was hugely different in structure from that of 1700. By focusing on quantitative measures we ignore a massive switch in the economic and social structure, as well as cultural attitudes. Mechanisation, which drove centralised production, was made possible by technical innovation and a huge rise in coal output. Product and process innovation may not provide instant productivity gains that can be measured – the current computer revolution is an example. But if we want to understand the British economy in this period we have to look at aggregate structural change, especially when they provided the basis of the economy for so long afterwards. The Industrial Revolution was the culmination of a process that had been going on for a long time, but which was made fundamentally possible by the eventual total switch from an organic economy – the dichotomy with Holland, which had a highly advanced organic economy but failed to industrialise early, is stark. The emergence of a national, integrated market which brought more and more economic activity into its sphere provided the precursor for modern consumer society. Real wages could rise even as population did. The Industrial Revolution is not an event that we can pin down to any particular few decades; rather it is a name which can usefully be applied to a process that took several centuries: but that the result is starkly different from what came before can scarcely be denied. Change was often regional in character and gradual in speed, but the Revolution was more than the sum of its measurable parts.
The role of quantitative data is to inform us of broad trends and provide inspiration. It should not be relied on absolutely – if Thomas Carlyle believed himself to be in the "Age of Machinery" in 1829, an examination of his social and economic environment is necessary to find out why.16 Proletarianisation – which accompanied industrialisation – brought about a huge shift in working practices and the unprecedented agitation of the Chartists and Luddites shows for sure that change was afoot. The factory system was eventually accepted as the dominant mode of production by both the workers and industrialists, but the process took time – and there was friction associated with this change. By looking at qualitative factors such as people’s attitudes to the change, how businesses developed their products and processes, and how the structure of demand changed we find the real essence of the Industrial Revolution – not by merely examining tables of figures.
1. P. Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Wealth, Power and Resources of the British Empire (London, 1814, 2nd ed., 1815, p.68)
2. T. Carlyle, 'Signs of the Times', 1829, quoted in A.H.R. Ball, Selections from Carlyle (Cambridge, 1929), p. 107
3. N.F.R Crafts and C.K. Harley, 'Output, growth and the British industrial revolution: a restatement', Economic History Review, 1992
4. M. Berg and P. Jackson, 'Rehabilitating the Industrial Revolution', Economic History Review, 1992
5. M. Daunton, Progress and Poverty (1995), ch. 7
6. M. Berg and P. Jackson, op. cit.
7. M. Berg, The Age of Manufactures (1994), pp. 106 - 07
8. E.A. Wrigley, Continuity, Chance and Change: the character of the industrial revolution in England (1988), p. 16
9. M. Daunton, op. cit., pp. 140 - 41
10. Ibid., ch. 7
11. Ibid.p. 135
12. Ibid.p. 219
13. E. A. Wrigley, op. cit., p. 54
14. Ibid., p. 107
15. Thomas Malthus, Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) ; David Ricardo, Principles of Political Economy (1817)
16. T. Carlyle, op. cit.
M. Daunton, Progress and Poverty (1995)
D. Cannadine, 'The Present and the Past in the British Industrial Revolution', Past and Present, 1984
M. Berg and P. Jackson, 'Rehabilitating the Industrial Revolution', Economic History Review, 1992
M. Berg, The Age of Manufactures (1994)
E.A. Wrigley, Continuity, Chance and Change: the character of the industrial revolution in England (1988)
N.F.R Crafts and C.K. Harley, 'Output, growth and the British industrial revolution: a restatement', Economic History Review, 1992
P. Hudon, The Industrial Revolution (1992)
J. Hoppit, 'Counting the industrial revolution', Economic History Review, 1990