Long-Term Change

In 1798 Thomas Malthus, an English clergyman, published an Essay on Population, which was to prove the most influential book ever written on the subject. He described what appeared to be the laws of population growth but his book’s importance transcended this apparently limited scientific task. Its impact on, for example, economic theory and biological science was to be just as important as the contribution it made to demographic studies. Here, though, such important consequences matter less than the book’s status as an indicator of a change in thinking about population. Roughly speaking, for two centuries or so European statesmen and economists had agreed that a rising population was a sign of prosperity. Kings should seek to increase the number of their subjects, it was thought, not merely because this would provide more tax-payers and soldiers but because a bigger population both quickened economic life and was an indication that it had done so. Obviously, larger numbers showed that the economy was providing a living for more people. This view was in its essentials endorsed by no less an authority than the great Adam Smith himself, whose Wealth of Nations, a book of huge influence, had agreed as recently as 1776 that an increase in population was a good rough test of economic prosperity.

Malthus doused this view with very cold water. Whatever the consequences for society as a whole might be judged to be, he concluded that a rising population sooner or later spelt disaster and suffering for most of its members, the poor. In a famous demonstration he argued that the produce of the earth had finite limits, set by the amount of land available to grow food. This in turn set a limit to population. Yet population always tended to grow in the short run. As it grew, it would press increasingly upon a narrowing margin of subsistence. When this margin was exhausted, famine must follow. The population would then fall until it could be maintained with the food available. This mechanism could only be kept from operating if men and women abstained from having children (and prudence, as they regarded the consequences, might help them by encouraging late marriage) or by such horrors as the natural checks imposed by disease or war.

Much more could be said about the complexity and refinement of this gloomy thesis. It aroused huge argument and counter-argument, and whether true or false, a theory attracting such attention must tell us much about the age. Somehow, the growth of population had begun to worry people so that even prose so unattractive as that of Malthus had great success. People had become aware of population growth as they had not been aware of it before and had done so just as it was to become faster than ever. In the nineteenth century, in spite of what Malthus had said, the numbers of some divisions of the human race went up with a rapidity and to levels hitherto inconceivable.

A long view is best for measuring such a change; there is nothing to be gained and much to be lost by worrying about precise dates and the overall trends run on well into the twentieth century. If we include Russia (whose population has until very recent times to be estimated from very poor statistics) then a European population of about 190 million in 1800 rose to about 420 million a century later. As the rest of the world seems to have grown rather more slowly, this represented a rise in Europe’s share of the total population of the world from about one-fifth to one-quarter; for a little while, her disadvantage in numbers by comparison with the great Asiatic centres of population was reduced (while she continued to enjoy her technical and psychological superiority). Moreover, at the same time, Europe was sustaining a huge emigration of her stocks. In the 1830s European emigration overseas first passed the figure of 100,000 a year; in 1913 it was over a million and a half. Taking an even longer view, perhaps 50 million people left Europe to go overseas between 1840 and 1930, most of them to the western hemisphere. All these people and their descendants ought to be added to the totals in order to grasp how much European population growth accelerated in these years.

This growth was not shared evenly within Europe and this made important differences to the standing of great powers. Their strength was usually reckoned in terms of military manpower and it was a crucial change that in 1871 Germany replaced France as the largest mass of population under one government west of Russia. Another way of looking at such changes would be to compare the respective shares of Europe’s population enjoyed by the major military powers at different dates. Between 1800 and 1900, for example, that of Russia grew from 21 to 24 per cent of the total, Germany’s from 13 to 14, while France’s fell from 15 to 10 per cent, and that of Austria slightly less, from 15 to 12. Few increases, though, were as dramatic as that of the United Kingdom, which rose from about 8 million when Malthus wrote, to 22 million by 1850 (it was to reach 36 million by 1914).

Yet population grew everywhere, though at different rates at different times. The poorest agrarian regions of eastern Europe, for example, experienced their highest growth rates only in the 1920s and 1930s. This is because the basic mechanism of population increase in this period, underlying change everywhere, was a fall in mortality. Never in history has there been so spectacular a fall in death rates as in the last hundred years, and it showed first in the advanced countries of Europe in the nineteenth century. Roughly speaking, before 1850 most European countries had birth rates which slightly exceeded death rates and both were about the same in all countries. They showed, that is to say, how little impact had been made by that date upon the fundamental determinants of human life in a still overwhelmingly rural society. After 1880 this changed rapidly. The death rate in advanced European countries fell pretty steadily, from about 35 per thousand inhabitants per year to about 28 by 1900; it would be about 18 fifty years later. Less advanced countries still maintained rates of 3 8 per thousand between 1850 and 1900, and 32 down to 1950. This produced a striking inequality between two Europes, in the richer of which, expectation of life was much higher. Since, in large measure, advanced European countries lay in the west, this was (leaving out Spain, a poor country with high mortality) a fresh intensification of older divisions between east and west, a new accentuation of the imaginary frontier from the Baltic to the Adriatic.

Other factors besides lower mortality helped. Earlier marriage and a rising birth rate had showed themselves in the first phase of expansion, as economic opportunity increased, but now they mattered much more, since from the nineteenth century onwards, the children of earlier marriages were much more likely to survive, thanks to greater humanitarian concern, cheaper food, medical and engineering progress and better public health provision. Of these, medical science and the provision of medical services were the last to influence population trends. Doctors only came to grips with the great killing diseases from about 1870 onwards. These were the child-killers: diphtheria, scarlet fever, whooping-cough, typhoid. Infant mortality was thus dramatically reduced and expectation of life at birth greatly increased. But earlier than this, social reformers and engineers had already done much to reduce the incidence of these and other diseases (though not their fatality) by building better drains and devising better cleaning arrangements for the growing cities. Cholera was eliminated in industrial countries by 1900, though it had devastated London and Paris in the 1830s and 1840s. No western European country had a major plague outbreak after 1899. As such changes affected more and more countries, their general tendency was everywhere to raise the average age of death with, in the long run, dramatic results. By the second quarter of the twentieth century, men and women in North America, the United Kingdom, Scandinavia and industrial Europe could expect to live two or three times as long as their medieval ancestors. Immense consequences flowed from this.

Just as accelerated population increase first announced itself in those countries which were economically the most advanced, so did the slowing down of growth which was the next discernible demographic trend. This was produced by a declining number of births, though it was for a long time masked because the fall in the death rate was even faster. In every society this showed itself first among the better-off; to this day, it remains a good rough working rule that fecundity varies inversely with income (celebrated exceptions among wealthy American political dynasties notwithstanding). In some societies (and in western rather than eastern Europe) this was because marriage tended to be put off longer so that women were married for less of their fertile lives; in some it was because couples chose to have fewer children - and could now do so with confidence, thanks to effective contraceptive techniques. Possibly there had been some knowledge of such techniques in some European countries; it is at least certain that the nineteenth century brought improvements in them (some made possible by scientific and technical advance in manufacturing the necessary devices) and propaganda which spread knowledge of them. Once more, a social change touches upon a huge ramification of influences, because it is difficult not to connect such spreading knowledge with, for example, greater literacy, and with rising expectations. Although people were beginning to be wealthier than their ancestors, they were all the time adjusting their notion of what was a tolerable life - and therefore a tolerable size of family. Whether they followed the calculation by putting off the date of marriage (as French and Irish peasants did) or by adopting contraceptive techniques (as the English and French middle classes seem to have done) was shaped by other cultural factors.

Changes in the ways men and women died and lived in their families transformed the structures of society. On the one hand, the western countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had absolutely more young people about and, for a time, also had them about in a greater proportion than ever before. It is difficult not to attribute much of the expansiveness, buoyancy and vigour of nineteenth-century Europe to this. On the other hand, advanced societies gradually found a higher proportion of their members surviving into old age than ever before. This increasingly strained the social mechanisms which had in earlier centuries maintained the old and those incapable of work; the problem grew worse as competition for industrial employment became more intense. By 1914, in almost every European or North American country much thought had been given to ways of confronting the problems of poverty and dependence, however great the differences in scale and success of efforts to cope with them.

Such trends would not begin to show in eastern Europe until after 1918, when their general pattern was already well established in the advanced western countries. Death rates long continued to fall more sharply than did the birth rate, even in advanced countries, so that down to the present the population of Europe and the European world has continued to rise. It is one of the most important themes in the history of the era, linked to almost every other. Its material consequences can be seen in unprecedented urbanization and the rise of huge consumer markets for manufacturing industry. The social consequences range from strife and unrest to changing institutions to grapple with them. There were international repercussions as statesmen took into account population figures in deciding what risks they could (and which they had to) take, or as people became more and more alarmed about the consequences of overcrowding. Worries in the nineteenth-century United Kingdom over the prospect of too many poor and unemployed led to the encouragement of emigration, which, in its turn, shaped people’s thinking and feelings about empire. Later, the Germans discouraged emigration because they feared the loss of military potential, while the French and Belgians pioneered the award of children’s allowances for the same reason.


Some of these measures suggest, correctly, that the gloomy prophecies of Malthus tended to be forgotten as the years went by and the disasters he feared did not take place. The nineteenth century still brought demographic calamities to Europe; Ireland and Russia had spectacular famines and near-famine conditions occurred in many other places. But such disasters grew rarer. As famine and dearth were eliminated from advanced countries, this in turn helped to make disease demographically less damaging. Meanwhile Europe north of the Balkans enjoyed two long periods of virtually undisturbed peace from 1815 to 1848 and from 1871 to 1914; war, another of Malthus’s checks, also seemed to be less of a scourge. Finally, his diagnosis actually seemed to be disproved when a rise in population was accompanied by higher standards of living - as rises in the average age of death seemed to show. Pessimists could only reply (reasonably) that Malthus had not been answered; all that had happened was that there had turned out to be much more food available than had been feared. It did not follow that supplies were limitless.

In fact, there was occurring another of those few great historical changes which have truly transformed the basic conditions of human life. It can reasonably be called a food-producing revolution. Its beginnings have already been traced. In the eighteenth century European agriculture was already capable of obtaining about two and a half times the yield on its seed normal in the Middle Ages. Now even greater agricultural improvement was at hand. Yields would go up to still more spectacular levels. From about 1800, it has been calculated, Europe’s agricultural productivity grew at a rate of about 1 per cent a year, dwarfing all previous advance. More important still, as time passed European industry and commerce would make it possible to tap huge larders in other parts of the world. Both of these changes were aspects of a single process, the accelerating investment in productive capacity which made Europe and North America by 1870 clearly the greatest concentration of wealth on the face of the globe. Agriculture was fundamental to it. People have spoken of an ‘agricultural revolution’ and provided this is not thought of as implying rapid change, it is an acceptable term; nothing much less strong will describe the huge surge in world output achieved between 1750 and 1870 (and, later, even surpassed). But it was a process of great complexity, drawing on many different sources and linked to the other sectors of the economy in indispensable ways. It was only one aspect of a worldwide economic change which involved in the end not merely continental Europe, but the Americas and Australasia as well.

Once these important qualifications have been stated, it is possible to particularize. By 1750 England had the best agriculture the world. The most advanced techniques were practised and the integration of agriculture with a commercial market economy had gone furthest in England, whose lead was to be maintained for another century or so. European farmers went there to observe methods, buy stock and machinery and seek advice. Meanwhile, the English farmer, benefiting from peace at home (that there were no large-scale and continuous military operations on British soil after 1650 was of literally incalculable benefit to the economy) and a rising population to buy his produce, generated profits which provided capital for further improvement. His willingness to invest them in this way was, in the short run, an optimistic response to the likely commercial prospects but also says something deeper about the nature of English society. The benefits of better farming went in England to individuals who owned their own land or held it securely as leaseholding tenants on terms shaped by market realities. English agriculture was part of a capitalist market economy in which land was even by the eighteenth century treated almost as a commodity like any other. Restraints on its use familiar in European countries had disappeared faster and faster ever since Henry VIII’s sequestration of ecclesiastical property. After 1750, the last great stage of this came with the spate of Enclosure Acts at the turn of the century (significantly coincident with high prices for grain), which mobilized for private profit the English peasant’s traditional rights to pasture, fuel or other economic benefits. One of the most striking contrasts between English and European agriculture in the early nineteenth century was that the traditional peasant all but disappeared in England. England had wage labourers and smallholders, but the huge European rural populations of individuals with some, if minuscule, legal rights linking them to the soil through communal usages and a mass of tiny holdings, did not exist.

Inside the framework provided by prosperity and English social institutions, technical progress was continuous. For a long time, much of this was hit-and-miss. Early breeders of better animals succeeded not because of a knowledge of chemistry, which was in its infancy, or of genetics, which did not exist, but because they backed hunches within long-established practice. Even so, the results were remarkable. The appearance of the livestock inhabiting the landscape changed; the scraggy medieval sheep whose backs resembled, in section, the Gothic arches of the monasteries which bred them, gave way to the fat, square, contented-looking animals familiar today. ‘Symmetry, well-covered’ was an eighteenth-century farmer’s toast. The appearance of farms changed as draining and hedging progressed and big, open medieval fields with their narrow strips, each cultivated by a different peasant, gave way to enclosed fields worked in rotation and made a huge patchwork of the English countryside. In some of these fields machinery was at work even by 1750. Much thought was given to its use and improvement in the eighteenth century, but it does not seem that it really made much of a contribution to output until after 1800, when more and more large fields became available, and it became more productive in relation to cost. It was not long before steam engines were driving threshers; with their appearance in English fields, the way was open which would lead eventually to an almost complete replacement of muscular by machine power on the twentieth-century farm.

Such improvements and changes spread, mutatis mutandis and with a lag in time, to continental Europe. Except by comparison with earlier centuries of quasi-immobility, progress was not always rapid. In Calabria or Andalusia, it might be imperceptible over a century. Nevertheless, rural Europe changed, and the changes came by many routes. The struggle against the inelasticities of food supply was in the end successful, but it was the outcome of hundreds of particular victories over fixed crop rotations, outdated fiscal arrangements, poor standards of tillage and husbandry, and sheer ignorance. The gains were better stock, more effective control of plant blight and animal disease, the introduction of altogether new species, and much else. Change on so comprehensive a basis often had to work against the social and political grain, too. The French formally abolished serfdom in 1789; this probably did not mean much, for there were few serfs in France at that date. The abolition of the ‘feudal system’ in the same year was a much more important matter. What was meant by this vague term was the destruction of a mass of traditional and legal usages and rights which stood in the way of the exploitation of land by individuals as an investment like any other. Almost at once, many of the peasants who had thought they wanted this discovered that they did not altogether like it in practice; they discriminated. They were happy to abolish the customary dues paid to the lord of the manor, but did not welcome the loss of customary rights to common land. The whole change was made still more confusing and difficult to measure by the fact that there took place at the same time a big redistribution of property. Much land previously belonging to the Church was sold within a few years to private individuals. The consequent increase in the number of people owning land outright and growth in the average size of properties should, on the English analogy, have led to a period of great agricultural advance for France, but it did not. There was very slow progress and little consolidation of properties on the English pattern.

This suggests, rightly, that generalizations about the pace and uniformity of what was happening should be cautious and qualified. For all the enthusiasm Germans were showing for travelling exhibitions of agricultural machinery in the 1840s, theirs was a huge country and one of those (France was the other) of which a great economic historian commented that ‘broadly speaking, no general and thorough-going improvement can be registered in peasant life before the railway age’. Yet the dismantling of medieval institutions standing in the way of agricultural improvement did go on steadily before that and prepared the way for it. It was accelerated in some places by the arrival during the Napoleonic period of French armies of occupation, which introduced French law, and after this by other forces, so that by 1850 peasants tied to the soil and obligatory labour had disappeared from most of Europe. This did not mean, of course, that attitudes from the ancien regime did not linger after its institutions had disappeared. Prussian, Magyar and Polish landlords seem, for good and ill, to have maintained much of their more or less patriarchal authority in the manor even after its legal supports had vanished, and did so as late as 1914. This was important in assuring a continuity of conservative aristocratic values in a much more intense and concentrated way in these areas than in western Europe. The Junker often accepted the implications of the market in planning his own estate management, but not in his relations with his tenants.

The longest resistance to change in traditional legal forms in agriculture came in Russia. There, serfdom itself persisted until abolished in 1861. This act did not at once bring Russian agriculture entirely under the operation of individualist and market economy principles, but with it an era of European history had closed. From the Urals to Corunna there no longer survived in law any substantial working of land on the basis of serfdom, nor were peasants any longer bound to landlords whom they could not leave. It was the end of a system which had been passed from antiquity to western Christendom in the era of the barbarian invasions and had been the basis of European civilization for centuries. After 1861, Europe’s rural proletariat everywhere worked for wages or keep; the pattern which had begun to spread in England and France with the fourteenth-century agricultural crisis had become universal.

Formally, the medieval usage of bond labour lasted longest in some of the American countries forming part of the European world. Obligatory labour in its most unqualified form, slavery, was legal in some of the United States until the end of a great civil war in 1865, when its abolition (though promulgated by the victorious government two years before) became effective throughout the whole republic. The war which had made this possible had been in some measure a distraction from the already rapid development of the country, now to be resumed and to become of vital significance to Europe. Even before the war, cotton-growing, the very agricultural operation which had been the centre of debates over slavery, had already shown how the New World might supplement European agriculture on such a scale as to become almost indispensable. After the war the way was open for the supply to Europe not merely of products such as cotton, which she could not easily grow, but also of food.

The United States - and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the Argentine and Uruguay - were soon to show they could offer food at much cheaper prices than Europe herself. Two things made this possible. One was the immense extent of these new lands, now added to Europe’s own resources. The American plains, the huge stretches of pasture in the South American pampas and the temperate regions of Australasia provided vast areas for the growing of grain and the raising of livestock. The second was a revolution in transport which made them exploitable for the first time. Steam-driven railways and ships came into service in increasing numbers from the 1860s. These quickly brought down transport costs and did so all the faster as lower prices bred growing demand. Thus further profits were generated to be put into more capital investment on the ranges and prairies of the New World. On a smaller scale the same phenomenon was at work inside Europe, too. From the 1870s the eastern European and German farmers began to see that they had a competitor in Russian grain, able to reach the growing cities much more cheaply once railways were built in Poland and western Russia and steamships could bring it from Black Sea ports. By 1900 the context in which European farmers worked, whether they knew it or not, was the whole world; the price of Chilean guano or New Zealand lamb could already settle what went on in their local markets.

Even in such a sketch the story of agricultural expansion bursts its banks; after first creating civilization and then setting a limit to its advance for thousands of years, agriculture suddenly became its propellant; within a century or so it suddenly demonstrated that it could feed many more people than ever before. The demand of the growing cities, the coming of railways, the availability of capital, all point to its inseparable interconnection with other sides of a growing transoceanic economy between 1750 and 1870. For all its chronological primacy and its huge importance as a generator of investment capital, the story of agriculture in this period should only for convenience be separated from that of overall growth registered in the most obvious and spectacular way by the appearance of a whole new society, one based on large-scale industrialization.

This is another colossal subject. It is not even easy to see just how big it is. It produced the most striking change in European history since the barbarian invasions, but it has been seen as even more important, as the biggest change in human history since the coming of agriculture, iron or the wheel. Within a fairly short time - a century and a half or so - societies of peasants and craftsmen turned into societies of machine-tenders and bookkeepers. Ironically, it ended the ancient primacy of agriculture from which it had sprung. It was one of the major facts turning human experience back from the differentiation produced by millennia of cultural evolution to common experiences, which would tend once more towards cultural convergence.

Even to define it is by no means easy, although the processes which lie at its heart are obvious around us. One is the replacement of human or animal labour by machines driven by power from other, increasingly mineral, sources. Another is the organization of production in much larger units. Another is the increasing specialization of manufacturing. But all these things have implications and ramifications which quickly take us far beyond them. Although it embodied countless conscious decisions by countless entrepreneurs and customers, industrialization also looks like a blind force sweeping across social life with transforming power, one of the ‘senseless agencies’ a philosopher once detected as half the story of revolutionary change. Industrialization implied new sorts of towns, needed new schools and new forms of higher learning, and, very quickly, new patterns of daily existence and living together.

The roots which made such a change possible go back far beyond the early modern age. Capital for investment had been accumulated slowly over many centuries of agricultural and commercial innovation. Knowledge had been built up, too. Canals were to provide the first network of communication for bulk transport once industrialization got under way, and from the eighteenth century they began to be built as never before in Europe (in China, of course, the story was different). Yet even Charlemagne’s men had known how to build them. Even the most startling technical innovations had roots deep in the past. The men of the ‘Industrial Revolution’ (as a Frenchman of the early nineteenth century named the great upheaval of his era) stood on the shoulders of innumerable craftsmen and artificers of pre-industrial times who had slowly built up skills and experience for the future. Fourteenth-century Rhinelanders, for example, learnt to make cast iron; by 1600 the gradual spread of blast furnaces had begun to remove the limits hitherto set to the use of iron by its high cost and in the eighteenth century came the inventions making it possible to use coal instead of wood as fuel for some processes. Cheap iron, even in what were by later standards small quantities, led to experiment with new ways of using it; further changes would then follow. New demand meant that areas where ore was easily to be found became important. When new techniques of smelting permitted the use of mineral rather than vegetable fuel, the location of supplies of coal and iron began to fashion the later industrial geography of Europe and North America. In the northern hemisphere lies much of the discovered coal supply of the world, in a great belt running from the basin of the Don, through Silesia, the Ruhr, Lorraine, the north of England and Wales, to Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Better metal and richer fuel made their decisive contribution to early industrialization with the invention of a new source of energy, the steam-engine. Again, the roots are very deep. That the power of steam could be used to produce movement was known in Hellenistic Alexandria. Even if (as some believe) there existed the technology to develop this knowledge, contemporary economic life did not make it worthwhile to strain to do so. The eighteenth century brought a series of refinements to the technology so important that they can be considered as fundamental changes, and did so when there was money to invest in them. The result was a source of power rapidly recognized as of revolutionary importance. The new steam-engines were not only the product of coal and iron, they also consumed them, directly both as fuel and as materials used in their own construction. Indirectly they stimulated production by making possible other processes which led to increased demand for them. The most obvious and spectacular was railway-building. It required huge quantities of first iron and then steel for rails and rolling-stock. But it also made possible the movement of goods at much lower cost. What the new trains moved might well again be coal, or ore, thus allowing these materials to be used cheaply far from where they were easily found and dug. New industrial areas grew up near to the lines, and the railway could carry away goods from them to distant markets.

The railway was not the only change steam made to transport and communications. The first steamship went to sea in 1809. By 1870, though there were still many sailing-ships and navies were still building battleships with a full spread of sail, regular ocean sailings by ‘steamers’ were commonplace. The economic effect was dramatic. Oceanic transport’s real cost in 1900 was a seventh of what it had been a hundred years earlier. The shrinking of costs, of time spent in transit, and of space, which steamships and railways produced, overturned conventional ideas of the possible. Since the domestication of the horse and the invention of the wheel, people and goods had been conveyed at speeds which certainly varied according to the local roads available, but probably only within limits of no more than one and five miles per hour over any considerable distance. Faster travel was possible on water and this had perhaps increased somewhat over the millennia in which ships underwent quite considerable modification. But all such slow improvement was dwarfed when in a man’s lifetime he could witness the difference between travel on horseback and in a train capable of forty or even fifty miles an hour for long periods.

We have now lost one of the most pleasant of industrial sights, the long, streaming plume of steam from the funnel of a locomotive at speed, hanging for a few seconds behind it against a green landscape before disappearing. It greatly struck those who first saw it and so, less agreeably, did other visual aspects of the industrial transformation. One of the most terrifying was the black industrial town, dominated by a factory with smoking chimneys, as the pre-industrial town had been by the spire of church or cathedral. So dramatic and novel was the factory, indeed, that it has often gone unremarked that it was an unusual expression of the early stages of industrialization, not a typical one. Even in the middle of the nineteenth century most English industrial workers worked in manufacturing enterprises employing fewer than fifty. For a long time great agglomerations of labour were to be found only in textiles; the huge Lancashire cotton mills, which first gave that area a visual and urban character distinct from earlier manufacturing towns, were startling because they were unique. Yet by 1850 it was apparent that in more and more manufacturing processes the trend was towards the centralization under one roof, made attractive by economies of transport, specialization of function, the use of more powerful machinery and the imposition of effective work discipline.

In the middle of the nineteenth century the changes of which these were the most striking had only created a mature industrial society in one country: Great Britain. Long and unconscious preparation lay behind this. Domestic peace and less rapacious government than on the continent had bred confidence for investment. Agriculture had provided its new surpluses first in England. Mineral supplies were easily available to exploit the new technological apparatus resulting from two or three generations of remarkable invention. An expanding overseas commerce generated further profits for investment and the basic machinery of finance and banking was already in being before industrialization needed to call on it. Society seemed to have readied itself psychologically for change; observers detected an exceptional sensitivity to pecuniary and commercial opportunity in eighteenth-century England. Finally, an increasing population was beginning to offer both labour and a rising demand for manufactured goods. All these forces flowed together and the result was unprecedented and continuing industrial growth, first apparent as something totally new and irreversible in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. By 1870 Germany, France, Switzerland, Belgium and the United States had joined Great Britain in showing the capacity for self-sustained economic growth but she was still first among them both in the scale of her industrial plant and in her historic primacy. The inhabitants of ‘the workshop of the world’, as the British liked to think of themselves, were fond of running over the figures which showed how wealth and power had followed upon industrialization. In 1850 the United Kingdom owned half the world’s ocean-going ships and contained half the world’s railway track. On those railways trains ran with a precision and regularity and even a speed not much improved upon for a hundred years after. They were regulated by ‘timetables’ which were the first examples of their kind (and occasioned the first use of the word) and their operation relied on the electric telegraph. They were ridden in by men and women who had a few years before only ridden in stage-coaches or carters’ wagons. In 1851, a year when a great international exhibition at London advertised her new supremacy, Great Britain smelted two and a half million tons of iron. It does not sound much, but it was five times as much as the United States of America and ten times as much as Germany. At that moment, British steam-engines could produce more than 1.2 million horsepower, more than half that of all Europe together.

By 1870 a change had already started to appear in relative positions. Great Britain was still in most ways in the lead, but less decisively, and was not long to remain there. She still had more steam horsepower than any other European country, but the United States (which had already had more in 1850) was ahead of her and Germany was coming up fast. In the 1850s both Germany and France had made the important transition already made in Great Britain from smelting most of their iron by charcoal to smelting with mineral fuels. British superiority in manufacturing iron was still there and her pig-iron output had gone on rising, but now it was only three and a half times that of the United States and four times that of Germany. These were still huge superiorities, none the less, and the age of British industrial dominance had not yet closed.

The industrial countries of which Great Britain was the first were puny creatures in comparison with what they were to become. Among them only Great Britain and Belgium had a large majority of their populations living in urban districts in the middle of the nineteenth century. The census of 1851 showed that agriculture was still the biggest single employer of labour among British industries (rivalled only by domestic service). But in these countries the growing numbers engaged in manufacturing industries, the rise of new concentrations of economic wealth and a new scale of urbanization all made very visible the process of change which was going forward.

Change came to the life of whole regions as workers poured into them; mills were built and chimneys shot up, transforming even the physical appearance of such places as the West Riding of Yorkshire, the Ruhr and Silesia, as new towns multiplied. They grew at a spectacular rate in the nineteenth century, particularly in its second half, when the appearance of big centres that would be the nuclei of what a later age would call ‘conurbations’ was especially marked. For the first time, some European cities ceased to depend on rural immigration for their growth. There are difficulties in reckoning indices of urbanization, largely because in different countries urban areas were defined in different ways, but this does not obscure the main lines of what was happening. In 1800 London, Paris and Berlin had, respectively, about 900,000, 600,000 and 170,000 inhabitants. In 1900 the corresponding figures were about 4.7 million, 3.6 million and 2.7 million. In that year, too, Glasgow, Moscow, St Petersburg and Vienna also had more than a million inhabitants each. These were the giants; just behind them were sixteen more European cities with over 500,000, a figure only passed by London and Paris in 1800. These great cities and the smaller ones, which were still immeasurably bigger than the old ones they overshadowed, were still attracting immigrants in large numbers from the countryside, notably in Great Britain and Germany. This reflected the tendency for urbanization to be marked in the relatively few countries where industrialization first made headway, because it was the wealth and employment generated by industry which to begin with drew workers to them. Of the twenty-three cities of more than a half-million inhabitants in 1900, thirteen were in four countries: the United Kingdom (6), Germany (3), France (3) and Belgium (1).

Opinion about cities has undergone many changes. As the eighteenth century ended, something like a sentimental discovery of rural life was in full swing. This coincided with the first phase of industrialization and the nineteenth century opened with the tide of aesthetic and moral comment on the turn against a city life which was indeed about to reveal a new and often unpleasant face. That urbanization was seen as an unwelcome, even unhealthy change by many people was a tribute to the revolutionary force of what was going on. Conservatives distrusted and feared cities. Long after European governments had demonstrated the ease with which they could control urban unrest, the cities were regarded suspiciously as likely nests of revolution. This is hardly surprising; conditions in many of the new metropolitan centres were often harsh and terrible for the poor. The East End of London could present appalling evidence of poverty, filth, disease and deprivation to anyone who chose to penetrate its slums. A young German businessman, Friedrich Engels, wrote in 1844 one of the most influential books of the century, The Condition of the English Working-Class, to expose the appalling conditions in which lived the poor of Manchester, but many other English writers were drawn to similar themes. In France the phenomenon of the ‘dangerous classes’ (as the Parisian poor were called) preoccupied governments for the first half of the century, and misery fired a succession of revolutionary outbreaks between 1789 and 1871. Clearly, it was not unreasonable to fear that the growing cities could breed resentment and hatred of society’s rulers and beneficiaries, and that this was a potentially revolutionary force.

It was also reasonable to predicate that the city made for ideological subversion. It was the great destroyer of traditional patterns of behaviour in nineteenth-century Europe and a crucible of new social forms and ideas, a huge and anonymous thicket in which men and women easily escaped the scrutiny of priest, squire and neighbours, which had been the regulator of rural communities. In it (and this was especially true as literacy slowly spread downwards) new ideas were brought to bear upon long-unchallenged assumptions. Upper-class nineteenth-century Europeans were particularly struck by the seeming tendency of city life to atheism and infidelity, and one of the usual responses was to build more churches. More was at stake, it was felt, than religious truth and sound doctrine (about which the upper classes themselves had long comfortably tolerated disagreement). Religion was the great sustainer of morals and the support of the established social order. A revolutionary writer, Karl Marx, sneered that religion was ‘the opium of the people’; the possessing classes would hardly have put it in the same terms, but they acknowledged the importance of religion as social cement. One result was a long-continued series of attempts, in both Catholic and Protestant countries, to find a way of recapturing the towns for Christianity. The effort was misconceived in so far as it presumed that the Churches had ever had any footing in the urban areas which had long since swamped the traditional parish structures and religious institutions of the old towns and villages at their hearts. But it had a variety of expressions, from the building of new churches in industrial suburbs to the creation of missions combining evangelism and social service, which taught churchmen the facts of modern city life. By the end of the century the religious-minded were at least well aware of the challenge they faced, even if their predecessors had not been. One great English evangelist used in the title of one of his books words precisely calculated to emphasize the parallel with missionary work in pagan lands overseas: Darkest England. His answer was to found a quite new instrument of religious propaganda, designed to appeal specifically to a new kind of population and to combat specifically the ills of urban society, the Salvation Army.

Here once more the revolution brought by industrialization has an impact far beyond material life. It is an immensely complicated problem to distinguish how modern civilization, the first, so far as we know, which does not have some formal structure of religious belief at its heart, came into being. Perhaps we cannot separate the role of the city in breaking down traditional religious observance from, say, that of science and philosophy in corrupting the belief of the educated. Yet a new future was visible already in the European industrial population of 1870, much of it literate, alienated from traditional authority, secular-minded and beginning to be conscious of itself as an entity. This was a different basis for civilization from anything yet seen.

This is to anticipate, but legitimately, for it suggests once again how rapid and deep was the impact of industrialization on every side of life. Even the rhythm of life changed. For the whole of earlier history, the economic behaviour of most of mankind had been regulated fundamentally by the rhythms of nature. In an agricultural or pastoral economy they imposed a pattern on the year which dictated both the kind of work which had to be undertaken and the kind which could be. Operating within the framework set by the seasons were the subordinate divisions of light and darkness, fair weather and foul. Tenants lived in great intimacy with their tools, their animals and the fields in which they won their bread. Even the relatively few town dwellers lived, in large measure, lives shaped by the forces of nature; in Great Britain and France a bad harvest could still blight the whole economy well after 1850. Yet by then many people were already living lives whose rhythms were dictated by quite different pacemakers. Above all they were set by the means of production and their demands - by the need to keep machines economically employed, by the cheapness or dearness of investment capital, by the availability of labour. The symbol of this was the factory whose machinery set a pattern of work in which accurate time-keeping was essential. Men began to think in a quite new way about time as a consequence of their industrial work.

As well as imposing new rhythms, industrialism also related the labourer to work in new ways. It is difficult, but important, to avoid sentimentalizing the past in assessing this. At first sight the disenchantment of the factory workers with their monotonous routine, with its exclusion of personal involvement and its background of the sense of working for another’s profit, justifies the rhetoric it has inspired, whether in the form of regret for a craftsman’s world that has vanished or analysis of what has been identified as the alienation of the worker from the product. But the life of the medieval peasant was monotonous, too, and much of it was spent working for another’s profit. Nor is an iron routine necessarily less painful because it is set by sunset and sunrise instead of an employer, or more agreeably varied by drought and tempest than by commercial slump and boom. Yet the new disciplines involved a revolutionary transformation of the ways many men and women won their livelihood, however we may evaluate the results by comparison with what had gone before.

A clear example can be found in what soon became notorious as one of the persistent evils of early industrialism, its abuse of child labour. A generation of Englishmen, morally braced by the abolition of slavery and by the exaltation that accompanied it, was also one intensely aware of the importance of religious training - and therefore of anything which might stand between it and the young - and one disposed to be sentimental about children in a way earlier generations had not been. All this helped to create an awareness of this problem (first, in the United Kingdom), which perhaps distracted attention from the fact that the brutal exploitation of children in factories was only one part of a total transformation of patterns of employment. About the use of children’s labour in itself there was nothing new. Children had for centuries provided swineherds, birdscarers, gleaners, maids-of-all-work, crossing-sweepers, prostitutes and casual drudges in Europe (and still do in most non-European societies). The terrible picture of the lot of unprotected children in Hugo’s great novel Les Miserables (1862) is a picture of their life in a pre-industrial society. The difference made by industrialism was that their exploitation was regularized and given a quite new harshness by the institutional forms of the factory. Whereas the work of children in an agricultural society had perforce been clearly differentiated from that of adults by their inferior strength, there existed in the tending of machines a whole range of activity in which children’s labour competed directly with that of adults. In a labour market normally oversupplied, this meant that there were irresistible pressures upon the parent to send the child into the factory to earn a contribution to the family income as soon as possible, sometimes at the age of five or six. The consequences were not only often terrible for the victims, but also revolutionary in that the relation of child to society and the structure of the family were blighted. This was one of the ‘senseless agencies’ of history at its most dreadful.

The problems created by such forces were too pressing to remain without attention and a start was soon made in taming the most obvious evils of industrialism. By 1850, the law of England had already begun to intervene to protect, for example, women and children in mines and factories; in all the millennia of the history of agriculturally based economies, it had still been impossible by that date to eradicate slavery even in the Atlantic world. Given the unprecedented scale and speed of social transformation, early industrial Europe should not be blamed without qualification for not acting more quickly to remedy ills whose outlines could only dimly be grasped. Even in the early stage of English industrialism, when, perhaps, the social cost was most heavy, it was difficult to cast off the belief that the liberation of the economy from legal interference was essential to the enormous generation of new wealth which was going on.

True, it is almost impossible to find economic theorists and publicists of the early industrial period who advocated absolute non-interference with the economy. Yet there was a broad, sustaining current which favoured the view that much good would result if the market economy was left to operate without the help or hindrance of politicians and civil servants. One force working this way was the teaching often summed up in a phrase made famous by a group of Frenchmen: laissez-faire. Broadly speaking, economists after Adam Smith had said with growing consensus that the production of wealth would be accelerated, and therefore the general wellbeing would increase, if the use of economic resources followed the ‘natural’ demands of the market. Another reinforcing trend was individualism, embodied in both the assumption that individuals knew their own business best and the increasing organization of society around the rights and interests of individuals.

These were the sources of the long-enduring association between industrialism and liberalism; they were deplored by conservatives who regretted a hierarchical, agricultural order of mutual obligations and duties, settled ideas and religious values. Yet liberals who welcomed the new age were by no means taking their stand on a simply negative and selfish base. The creed of ‘Manchester’, as it was called because of the symbolic importance of that city in English industrial and commercial development, was for its leaders much more than a matter of mere self-enrichment. A great political battle which for years preoccupied Englishmen in the early nineteenth century made this clear. Its focus was a campaign for the repeal of what were called the ‘Corn Laws’, a tariff system originally imposed to provide protection for the British farmer from imports of cheaper foreign grain. The ‘repealers’, whose ideological and political leader was a none-too-successful businessman, Richard Cobden, argued that much was at stake. To begin with, retention of the duties on grain demonstrated the grip upon the legislative machinery of the agricultural interest, the traditional ruling class, who ought not to be allowed a monopoly of power. Opposed to it were the dynamic forces of the future which sought to liberate the national economy from such distortions in the interest of particular groups. Back came the reply of the anti-repealers: the manufacturers were themselves a particular interest, who only wanted cheap food imports in order to be able to pay lower wages; if they wanted to help the poor, what about improving the conditions under which they employed women and children in factories? There, the inhumanity of the production process showed a callous disregard for the obligations of privilege which would never have been tolerated in rural England. To this, the repealers responded that cheap food would mean cheaper goods for export. And in this, for someone like Cobden, much more than profit was involved. A worldwide expansion of free trade, untrammelled by the interference of mercantilist governments, would lead to international progress both material and spiritual, he thought; trade brought peoples together, exchanged and multiplied the blessings of civilization and increased the power in each country of its progressive forces. On one occasion Cobden even committed himself to the view that free trade was the expression of the divine will (though even this was not to go as far as the British consul at Canton, who had proclaimed that ‘Jesus Christ is Free Trade, and Free Trade is Jesus Christ’).

There was much more to the free trade issue in Great Britain (of which the Corn Law debate was the focus) than a brief summary can do justice to. The more it is expounded, the more it becomes clear that industrialism involved creative, positive ideologies, which implied intellectual, social and political challenge to the past. This is why it should not be the subject of simple moral judgements, though both conservatives and liberals thought it could be at the time. The same man might resist legislation to protect the workman against long hours while proving himself a model employer, actively supporting educational and political reform and fighting the corruption of public interest by privileged birth. His opponent might struggle to protect children working in factories and act as a model squire, a benevolent patriarch to his tenants, while bitterly resisting the extension of the franchise to those not members of the established Church or any reduction of the political influence of landlords. It was all very muddled. In the specific issue of the Corn Laws the outcome was paradoxical, too, for a conservative Prime Minister was in the end convinced by the arguments of the repealers. When he had the opportunity to do so without too obvious an inconsistency he persuaded parliament to make the change in 1846. His party contained men who never forgave him and this great climax of Sir Robert Peel’s political career, for which he was to be revered by his liberal opponents once he was safely out of the way, came shortly before he was dismissed from power by his own followers.

Only in England was the issue fought out so explicitly and to so clear-cut a conclusion. In other countries, paradoxically, the protectionists soon turned out to have the best of it. Only in the middle of the century, a period of expansion and prosperity, especially for the British economy, did free trade ideas get much support outside the United Kingdom, whose prosperity was regarded by believers as evidence of the correctness of their views and even mollified their opponents; free trade became a British political dogma, untouchable until well into the twentieth century. The prestige of British economic leadership helped to give it a brief popularity elsewhere, too. The prosperity of the era in fact owed as much to other influences as to this ideological triumph, but the belief added to the optimism of economic liberals. Their creed was the culmination of the progressive view of human potential, whose roots lay in Enlightenment ideas.

The solid grounds for this optimism can nowadays be too easily overlooked. In assessing the impact of industrialism we labour under the handicap of not having before us the squalor of the past it left behind. For all the poverty and the slums (and the very worst was over by then), the people who lived in the great cities of 1900 consumed more and lived longer than their ancestors. This did not, of course, mean they were either tolerably off, by later standards, or contented. But they were often, and probably for the most part, materially better off than their predecessors or most of their contemporaries in the non-European world. Amazing as it may seem, they were part of the privileged minority of mankind. Their lengthening lives were the best evidence of it.

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