The Industrial Revolution


WHY did the Industrial Revolution come to England first? Because England had won great wars on the Continent while keeping its own soil free from war’s devastation; because it had secured command of the seas and had thereby acquired colonies that provided raw materials and needed manufactured goods; because its armies, fleets, and growing population offered an expanding market for industrial products; because the guilds could not meet these widening demands; because the profits of far-flung commerce accumulated capital seeking new avenues of investment; because England allowed its nobles—and their fortunes—to engage in commerce and industry; because the progressive displacement of tillage by pasturage drove peasants from the fields to the towns, where they added to the labor force available for factories; because science in England was directed by men of a practical bent, while on the Continent it was predominantly devoted to abstract research; and because England had a constitutional government sensitive to business interests, and vaguely aware that priority in the Industrial Revolution would make England for over a century the political leader of the Western world.

British command of the seas had begun with the defeat of the Spanish Armada; it had been extended by victories over Holland in the Anglo-Dutch wars, and over France in the War of the Spanish Succession; and the Seven Years’ War had made oceanic commerce almost a British monopoly. An invincible navy made the English Channel a protective moat for “this fortress built by Nature … against infection and the hand of war.”1 The English economy was not only spared the ravages of soldiery, it was nourished and stimulated by the needs of British and allied armies on the Continent; hence the special expansion of the textile and metallurgical industries, and the call for machines to accelerate, and for factories to multiply, production.

Command of the seas facilitated the conquest of colonies. Canada and the richest parts of India fell to England as fruit of the Seven Years’ War. Voyages like those of Captain Cook (1768-76) secured for the British Empire islands strategically useful in war and trade. Rodney’s victory over de Grasse (1782) confirmed British dominion over Jamaica, Barbados, and the Bahamas. New Zealand was acquired in 1787, Australia in 1788. Colonial and other overseas trade gave British industry a foreign market unrivaled in the eighteenth century. Commerce with the English settlements in North America employed 1,078 vessels and 29,000 seamen.2 London, Bristol, Liverpool, and Glasgow flourished as chief ports for this Atlantic trade. The colonies took manufactured articles and sent back food, tobacco, spices, tea, silk, cotton, raw materials, gold, silver, and precious stones. Parliament restricted with high tariffs the import of foreign manufactures, and discouraged the development of colonial or Irish industries competitive with those of Britain. No internal tolls (such as those that hampered domestic trade in France) impeded the movement of goods through England, Scotland, and Wales; these lands constituted the largest free-trade area in Western Europe. The upper and middle classes enjoyed the highest prosperity, and a purchasing power that was an added stimulus to industrial production.

The guilds were not competent to meet the demands of expanding markets at home and abroad. They had been instituted chiefly to supply the needs of a municipality and its environs; they were shackled by old regulations that discouraged invention, competition, and enterprise; they were not equipped to procure raw materials from distant sources, or to acquire capital for enlarged production, or to calculate, obtain, or fill orders from abroad. Gradually the guild master was replaced by “projectors” (entrepreneurs) who knew how to raise money, to anticipate or create demand, to secure raw materials, and to organize machines and men to produce for markets in every quarter of the globe.

The money was provided by the profits of commerce or finance, by the spoils of war and privateers, by the mining or import of gold or silver, by the great fortunes made in the slave trade or the colonies. Englishmen went out poor, some came back rich. As early as 1744 there were fifteen men who, returning from the West Indies, had money enough to buy election to Parliament;3 and by 1780 the “nabobs” who had acquired riches in India were a power in the House of Commons. Much of this exotic pelf was available for investment. And whereas in France the nobles were forbidden, in England they were permitted, to engage in commerce or industry; and wealth rooted in land grew through investment in business enterprise; so the Duke of Bridgewater risked his patrimony in mining coal. Thousands of Britons were depositing their savings in banks, which lent at low rates of interest. Moneylenders were everywhere. Bankers had discovered that the easiest way to make money is to handle other people’s money. There were twenty banks in London in 1750, fifty in 1770, seventy in 1800.4 Burke reckoned twelve banks outside of London in 1750; in 1793 there were four hundred.5 Paper money added to the fertilizing pollen; in 1750 it was two per cent of the currency; in 1800 it was ten per cent.6Hoarded money ventured into investment as commerce and industry announced their rising dividends.

The multiplying shops and factories needed men. The natural supply of labor was augmented by the rising number of rural families that could no longer make a living on the farm. The flourishing wool industry demanded wool; more and more land was withdrawn from tillage and given to pasturage; sheep replaced men; Goldsmith’s Auburn was not the only deserted village in Britain. Between 1702 and 1760 there had been 246 acts of Parliament authorizing the removal of four hundred acres from planting; between 1760 and 1810 there were 2,438 such acts, affecting nearly five million acres.7 As agricultural machinery improved, small holdings became undesirable, because they could not use or pay for the new machines; thousands of farmers sold their land and became hired hands on large-scale farms or in rural mills or in the towns. The large farms, with better methods, organization, and machines, produced more per acre than the farms of the past, but they almost wiped out the yeomen, or peasant proprietors, who had been the economic, military, and moral backbone of England. Meanwhile immigration from Ireland and the Continent added to the men, women, and children who competed for jobs in the factories.

Science played only a modest part in the economic transformation of eighteenth-century England. The researches of Stephen Hales on gases, of Joseph Black on heat and steam, helped Watt to improve the steam engine. The Royal Society of London was composed mostly of practical men, who favored studies that promised industrial application. The British Parliament too had a mind for material considerations; though it was dominated by landowners, several of these took a hand in commerce or industry, and most of the members were amenable to the pleas and gifts of businessmen for relaxing the restrictions that earlier governments had laid upon the economy. The advocates of free enterprise and free trade—and of wages and prices left free to rise or fall with the laws of supply and demand—won the support of several parliamentary leaders, and the legal barriers to the spread of commerce and manufactures were slowly broken down. All the conditions prerequisite to English priority in the Industrial Revolution were fulfilled.

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