England at Work

AT the head of the opposition to the Revolution after 1792—at the head of the resistance to Napoleon when his other enemies were collapsing in unwilling alliance or ruinous defeat—stood the government and the people, the expanding industries and commerce, the Navy and its Nelson, the mind and will, of England. Not at once, nor all together; at the outset of the conflagration the leaders and formative voices were uncertain and divided, frightened or inspired; the poets and philosophers responded with enthusiasm to the early idealism of the Revolution, the ardor and courage of its armies; but soon they were chastened by the angry eloquence of Burke and the news of massacre and terror in utopia; and as the liberators became conquerors, subjecting half of Europe to the ambitions of France, England saw, as hinging on the result of the conflict, that balance of Continental Powers upon which the little island had for centuries depended for its security and freedom.

Slowly the nation came together. Despite the surrender of its allies, the obstruction of its trade, the bankruptcy of firms and financiers, the exhaustion of its toilers, the daily temptation to accept the terms of that brilliant and terrible Corsican bestriding the Continent and threatening to cross the Channel with half a million undefeated warriors—despite this greatest challenge to England since 1066, the King and Parliament stood firm, the nobles and merchants paid heavy taxes, the man with only a body to give suffered impressment into the Army or Navy, the incomparable seamen of England passed from mutinies to victories; and the beloved “spot of earth” emerged from the destitution and near-starvation of 1810–11 to build, within half a century, the most powerful and civilizing empire since the fall of Rome.

We must stand aside for a while from the drama and conflict to consider the resources of soil and labor, science and letters and art, mind and creed and character that made possible this victory, this transformation.


Geography had something to do with it. The climate was not ideal: the warm air brought by the Gulf Stream’s North Atlantic current fought an unremitting war with Arctic winds, and the conflict deposited frequent mists and rains upon Ireland, Scotland, and England, making the soil fertile, the parks green, the trees majestic, the streets wet; so that a nasty wit mourned that though the sun never sets upon the British Commonwealth it never rises on England. Napoleon too succumbed to that hyperbole; “You have no sun in England,” he told his British physician Dr. Arnott, who corrected him, “Oh yes we do; … in July and August the sun shines warmly in England.”1 The mists of their habitat may have clouded the poetry of Blake and enveloped Turner, and may have shared in fortifying the character and institutions of the English people. Their island made them insular, but it protected them against the shifting winds of doctrine, the fads of art, the manias of revolution, and the massacres of war that so often raged across the Continent. They stood steady on their foot of earth.

If their island was small, the seas that stormed or caressed its shores called them to far-reaching adventures; a thousand liquid roads invited men who could pitch and roll and always stand erect. A hundred distant lands were waiting, with products and markets, to help transform England from agriculture to industry, commerce, and worldwide finance. Innumerable quirks of shoreline offered inlets to oceans seeking peace, and safe harbors to vessels from all the world. In the island itself there were a dozen navigable rivers, and a hundred canals leading to one or another of those streams. No Englishman was more than seventy-five miles from waters that would take him to the sea.

Britain rose to the geographic challenge by making and bearing the Industrial Revolution.*She built merchant ships of a size never before known, some of them huge “East-Indiamen” for half-a-year voyages to India and China. She loved the sea possessively as an extension of England, and fought to the verge of exhaustion for control of that altera patria against the Spanish, then the Dutch, now the French. She cut new paths through the water to and around continents, to the resources and markets of Africa, India, the Far East, Australia, the South Pacific, and the two Americas, alien or revolted, but eager for trade. Only the Northwest Passage defied these insatiably seeking Britons, and sent them home shivering but unbowed.

Those merchant fleets, however, and the roving Navy that protected them, had to be built with mostly imported lumber; those colonies and customers had to be requited for their raw materials, their silver and gold, their spices, victuals, and exotic fruits, with the products of British industry; that flourishing commerce had to be cargoed and financed by the Industrial Revolution. Gradually England, especially middle and northern, and Scotland, especially southern, reorganized their economic life by drawing more and more of their population from the fields and villages into towns and factories, and from the slow crafts of home or guild into confined collections of disciplined men, women, and children, tending and paced by machinery, and producing manufactured goods for the world.

Enclosures helped the transition. As far back as the twelfth century, clever Englishmen had reckoned that they could use land more profitably in large tracts than in small. They bought up individual farms and the “commons”—those common fields and woods where peasants had traditionally grazed their cattle and cut their fuel; they worked their extended properties with hired “hands” under an overseer. In the fifteenth century they decided that they could glean more profit by raising livestock, or, still better, pasturing sheep, than by plowing the earth; for now they needed fewer human beings, and found ready markets for carcasses and wool in chilly, meat-loving Britain, and abroad. More and more peasant proprietors sold or lost their farms and drifted to the towns; the sturdy yeomanry slowly disappeared, taking with it some strength and pride from the English character. By 1800 there were 15 million souls in Britain, and 19 million sheep; the sheep, said a wit, are devouring the men. To this day, traveling in the middle and northern counties of England, one is struck by the scarcity of farms and tillage, and the number of green and fenced enclosures where the only visible inhabitants are sheep idly transforming grass into wool, and rewarding with their end products a grateful soil.

We must not exaggerate; throughout this period (except for the nearstarvation crisis brought on in 1811 by Napoleon’s Continental Blockade) English agriculture, increasingly capitalistic and mechanized, succeeded in feeding England without foreign aid.2 So confident were the growers that they persuaded Parliament to pass “Corn Laws” checking, by severe tariff duties, the import of competing grain. (“Corn” then meant any grain; in England it usually denoted wheat; in Scotland, oats.) Even so, by 1790, the townward migration of displaced peasants, aided by impoverished immigrants from Scotland and Ireland, provided the labor force that made industrialization possible.

Industry was still mostly in homes and craft shops, but most of it was locally determined and consumed; it was not organized for wholesale production that could supply diverse markets spreading across frontiers. The home or shop worker was at the mercy of the middlemen who sold him material and bought his product; his payment was determined by supply and demand and the hungriest of his competitors; usually his wife and children had to work with him, from dawn to dark,3 to keep the wolf from the door. Some more efficient way had to be found to finance and organize industry if it was to meet the needs of multiplying townsfolk, or fill the holds of merchantmen seeking foreign goods or gold.

Inspired by Adam Smith but forgetful of his cautions, English industry was geared to private enterprise, spurred by the profit motive, and largely free from governmental regulation. It obtained capital from its own unspent earnings, from prosperous merchants, from landlords gathering agricultural revenues and urban rents, and from bankers who knew how to make money breed by hugging it, and who lent money at lower rates of interest than their French compeers. So individuals and associations provided funds for entrepreneurs who proposed to unite the products of farm and field with the service of machines and the labor and skills of men, women, and children on a larger scale and to greater gains than England had ever known. The providers of capital kept watch on its use, and gave its name to the economic system that was about to transform the Western world.

It was a risky game. An investment might be ruined by bad management, price or market fluctuations, style changes, overproduction for underpaid consumers, or some new invention cornered by a competitor. The fear of loss sharpened the greed of gain. The cost of labor had to be kept minimal; rewards must be offered for inventions; machines must as far as possible replace men. Iron must be mined or imported to make machines, ironclads, bridges, guns. Coal (luckily abundant in England) must be mined to fuel smelters, purify ores, and toughen iron into steel. As many machines as possible must be tied to one strong source of power; that source might be wind, or water, or animals walking a treadmill or turning a screw; but the best power plant would be a steam engine like those that James Watt had set up in Matthew Boulton’s plant near Birmingham (1774). Given enough capital and careful organization, any number of machines could be operated by one or a few engines; and to each machine could be attached a man, or a woman, or a child, who would tend it from twelve to fourteen hours a day for a subsistence wage. The factory system took form.

Soon a thousand smokestacks belched their fumes over rising industrial centers—Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Glasgow, Edinburgh. In the Britain of 1750 there had been two cities with fifty thousand inhabitants; in 1801 there were eight; in 1851 there would be twenty-nine. Roads were paved to ease the transit of materials, fuels, and products to factories, markets, and ports. Stagecoaches were built to withstand eight passengers and ten miles an hour.4 About 1808 Thomas Telford, about 1811 John McAdam (both Scottish engineers) devised new road surfaces essentially like the macadamized highways of today. In 1801 George Trevithick built the first steam locomotive to draw a passenger car on rails. In 1813 George Stephenson built a better one; in 1825 he opened the first regular steam railway service—between Stockton and Darlington. In 1801 a small steamboat began to operate on a Scottish canal; in 1807 the Boulton and Watt factory constructed a passenger steamboat on a model offered by Robert Fulton, who ran hisClermont from New York to Albany in August of that year. Meanwhile London, Harwich, Newcastle, Bristol, Liverpool, Glasgow were developing ports and facilities for ocean commerce; and Nelson, at Abukir and Trafalgar, was winning for England the command of the sea.

In 1801 the government took the first scientific census of Great Britain (England, Wales, and Scotland), to the dismay of citizens who resented the invasion of privacy as a prelude to regimentation.5 The recorded total showed 10,942,646 souls (the United States then had some 6,000,000). By 1811 this had grown to 12,552,144.6 Probably the rise reflected an increase in the food supply, an improvement in medical service, and a consequent decline in infantile and senile mortality. London had grown to 1,009,546 inhabitants in 1811, but the largest and most significant expansion had been in the industrial north and west. In 1811 the number of British families engaged in farming or herding was recorded as 895,998; in trade or manufactures, 1,128,049; 519,168 in other occupations.7 The government had depressed agriculture by sanctioning enclosures; it had encouraged industry by favoring free enterprise and a protective tariff, and by forbidding labor unions to agitate for better wages (1800). It had favored commerce by improving roads and canals, and by building an invincible British Navy. Merchants, manufacturers, and financiers had acquired great wealth, and some had earned or bought seats in Parliament.

The economic picture of Britain in 1800 showed, at the top, an aristocracy still, but decreasingly, masters of the economy through ownership of the land; cooperating with them was a Parliament overwhelmingly noble or genteel; swelling below and around them was a ruthless and enterprising bourgeoisie of merchants and manufacturers displaying their new riches and bad manners, and clamoring for more political power; below these the professions, from the most learned physician to the most courageous or virulent journalist; below them all a peasantry progressively dispossessed and dependent upon relief, and sunless miners stripping or gutting the earth, and “navvies” engaged in movable gangs to level roads and dig canals, and a labor pool of hungry, disorganized, demoralized factory workers writing their tragedy in polluted skies.

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