In the early 18th Century, Britain was about to make an evolutionary leap that would lay the foundations of a modern economy, transforming a largely agricultural nation into an industrial superpower. This was a febrile time in history for forward thinkers, for modernisers. New ideas would take root that would remodel the nation’s economy. Society and culture were towed towards modernity.
The Industrial Revolution witnessed the irreversible drive towards industrialisation. New technologies allowed for increased production. The economy grew. The hegemony of the city was sired as workers left the countryside, drawn to the new citadels of economic power. Ironically, this came at a time when farming was itself developing new methods that would form the vanguard of the Agricultural Revolution. Farming became more efficient as enclosure laws forced peasant farmers off the land, and land ownership became the preserve of the wealthy.
Glasgow , Birmingham , Manchester and London received farm workers and put them to work in factories. Mining towns in the North-East, the Midlands, Cornwall and Lanarkshire were created to meet the demand for coal – the fossil fuel of choice. The country’s population soared and the foundations for a free market society were laid. The Industrial Revolution was a seismic shift towards rationalising the economy alongside newfound technologies liked the spinning jenny and the steam engine. A dependence on iron ore and coal necessitated the development of the nation’s infrastructure. Rivers were deepened. Canals were constructed, of which the Sankey canal was the first, opening in 1757 to service Liverpool ’s chemical industry – it was responsible for the growth of towns like St Helens . The horse drawn cart was no longer suitable and was replaced by a steam-powered rail service.
On 27th September 1825 , the first passenger steam train service opened for business between Stockton-on-Tees and Darlington , Lancashire . It was a brief trip, just 26 miles. But the railway, using George Stephenson ’s steam locomotive, was a culmination of decades of innovation. Another Wylam man, Timothy Hackworth , played a key role in the Stockton and Darlington railway. A former foreman at Wylam Colliery, Hackworth had worked with William Hedley in the construction of Puffing Billy in 1813, a steam engine which considered Watt’s findings and put them to work hauling coal at walking pace. On a modest sum of Ł150, Hackworth perfected Stephenson’s locomotive, and was entrusted with it and the track’s maintenance. It was hugely influential. Thousands of miles of rail track were laid down in the decades that followed. Regular passenger services were still some way off; but the collieries which powered the growing economy relied on them to shift tonnes of coal across the country.
Steam power had a number of forefathers. Greenock born James Watt applied his mind to the inefficiencies of Thomas Newcomen ’s steam engine. The Newcomen engine was developed in the tin mines of Devon . But it was soon used as a pump in mines all over the country. Watt adapted it, making it more efficient, and bringing steam power not only to the mines, but into factories, siring an age when solutions to manufacturing’s problems were found in engineering. Watt, with his business partner Matthew Boulton by his side, became a huge commercial success – his endeavours meant that steam power was no longer dependent on a constant water supply. Others would join him on the rush to the patent office. The rivalry was fierce. Colliery managers were possessed by the desire to haul coal, and the industry had no shortage of engineers with grand ideas.
Stephenson was himself a child of the pit, born on 9th June 1781 in Wylam, Northumberland . It was a tough upbringing, familiar to many mining families. Stephenson’s CV was nothing extraordinary. Employed in a number of different mining roles, Stephenson found himself in the right environment to indulge his passion for engineering. William Hedley, manager at Wylam Colliery, saw the potential in rail travel, and pioneered the use of rails. Rail travel was an art in need of refining. In the East Midlands, William Chapman’s take on steam powered travel involved an engine which hauled itself along by cable. Interesting, but not efficient. One of the facets of this period of the industrial revolution was the level of eccentricity that presented itself in many of the machines.
Fever for the railway accompanied the nation’s burgeoning workload. Five years after Stockton and Darlington, the Liverpool and Manchester Rail Company’s opened links between the two cities. The corn merchants, pit owners and textiles manufacturers of England’s hardworking north now enjoyed nationwide distribution. The railways made every industry national. Britain’s economic outlook was trained on the principal of free trade. Parliamentary sovereignty opened policy making to the pressure from business leaders and the wealthy. This newfound appetite for free trade was not always to the benefit of all of Britain’s industry’s; the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 created hardship in the countryside. Britain now imported corn to feed its population (the definition of corn included wheat and other grain). If the Industrial Revolution created schism between agricultural and industrial Britain, then it can still be felt to this day; the workers never returned to the fields, and rural Britain has always argued that it is underrepresented by government policy.
Cities were not immune to the side effects of industrialisation. Their buildings and their denizens grew fatigued. There were a number of horrific accidents. Housing for workers was cramped and lacked sanitation. While developments to infrastructure followed industry, it took a while before the benefits were felt by all. The cities fast became overcrowded. Birmingham and Glasgow nursed cholera outbreaks. In an age when labour became a unit, a quantitative resource, the worker naturally had concerns. Trade union politics grew more important in the industrial era, but a more crude and radical movement trained the workers’ hammer on the textiles industry in England. The Luddites saw the power loom and the increased mechanisation of their trade as a threat to their jobs. Progress was the enemy. Machines were destroyed. Cotton mills were ruined. But even they too ceded to the white light of invention. The Industrial Revolution was relentless.
Not that every development was to the detriment of the worker’s welfare. On the banks of the River Clyde , a stone’s throw from Lanark , lies the UNESCO World Heritage site of New Lanark . Founded by David Dale in 1786, it was at the heart of Scotland’s cotton industry, providing homes and jobs for mill workers. New Lanark, the product of philanthropist, became a beacon of modernity, balancing workers’ welfare with commercial success. Coming in the first wave of the Industrial Revolution, there can be few projects more ahead of their time than this.
This was a good time to be in textiles.Technological advances arrived one after another. In 1733, John Kay made weaving faster with his flying shuttle. While the Lancashire man became a target for Luddites who attacked his home, the art of spinning and weaving was being perfected. In 1768, Richard Arkwright ’s spinning frame became the first powered textiles machine. Using water to maintain continuous production, his invention blazed a trail for textile mills, like New Lanark and those in Manchester and Birmingham. The 12th July, 1770, saw the patent for James Hargreaves spinning jenny. Nine years later, Samuel Crompton improved upon Hargreaves’ work and devised the spinning mule. By the time Edmund Cartwright invented the power loom for his Doncaster factory in 1785 – the first to use a steam engine – the textiles industry had moved into factories and mills, and had embraced modern industrialism. It set the example for other industries.
As iron and steel making became more refined, so to did mechanical tools. Advancements in one industry would bolster another’s progress; the railway’s example would soon be floated on the water as power steamers conquered the waves. Communication was the next industry to endorse progress. In 1843, Alexander Bain patented the first fax machine. The first trans-Atlantic telegram in 1866 followed the zeitgeist of globalisation.
There was no single factor that was responsible for the Industrial revolution. A number of dynamics were at work: a number of innovations and societal and cultural shifts propelled the economy forward. Nor was it restricted to Britain; America and Europe saw their share of inventions. It was no overnight sensation. Making the transition from a rural mercantile economy to one of manufacturing and heavy industry at the forefront of the world’s economy, took Britain over 100 years. But as the 19th Century came to an end, this sustained period of innovation had reshaped everybody’s lives into the working week, and delivered a new era of economic growth. And with iron, steel and steam power the British Empire was entering an economic boom.
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