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Industrial Revolution Key Debates

Read our analysis of some key questions that often come up about the Industrial Revolution.

Why did the Industrial Revolution begin in Britain?

Great Britain was the first country in Europe to undergo mass industrialisation and there were several factors that enabled the process to occur sooner there compared to elsewhere. The Industrial Revolution was necessarily preceded by an agrarian revolution in the 1700s, when the Enclosure Movement greatly improved the efficiency of farming by enabling four year crop rotations and larger-scale production. This led to a surplus in both food and labour because fewer farmers were required to produce crops and the population increased. Once agriculture ceased to occupy the entire workforce, labourers were free to move to other occupations and urbanised areas began to grow. The food surplus also increased wealth, leading to a greater demand for manufactured goods. Britain was ideally placed to meet this demand because natural resources were plentiful; rivers, iron and coal were abundant and the latter was often situated in coastal areas so it could be transported easily by ship.

The industrial revolution required entrepreneurs to invest capital and inventors to design the innovations that would fuel mass production. Victorian Britain was a fertile environment for both, since the intellectual community was uncensored and largely free from church interference and the empire provided many opportunities to amass wealth. In addition, the government allowed a liberal economic system, with protection to pursue capitalist interests through a robust financial and banking sector and the protection of entrepreneurism through patents and other legislation.

Should the industrial developments that took place between 1700 and 1900 be called a ‘revolution’?

The definition of a revolution is fluid but there are certain connotations of the term that cannot be easily applied to the growth of industrial production in Britain. A ‘revolution’ often implies sudden and violent change and although there were periods of accelerated technological development, the Industrial Revolution happened gradually; one innovation led to new working methods and the need for other solutions. For example, the ability to fuel production through coal rather than charcoal led to increased production of goods and therefore a need for better transport links in order to sell them. This then caused the development of canals and railways, which had social as well as economic consequences. Although historians disagree about the exact time span of industrialisation, few would argue that it was sudden.

However, many other features do imply that ‘revolution’ is a fitting term to apply to the changes. All aspects of British life were affected as the decline of agriculture and the growth of industry causing a shift in demographics; the population became increasingly urban and working practices were entirely transformed. Machines replaced much skilled labour and industries like textiles were taken out of the home and into the factory. As a result of this, the social fabric of Britain was profoundly altered as the landowning elite declined and the middle and working classes began to develop. Significant political change also resulted, as the franchise was altered and parliamentary acts were passed to reflect this change. Once industrialisation was underway, it could not be reversed and therefore its impact was significant enough for it to be seen as ‘revolutionary’.

What was the social impact of the Industrial Revolution?

The Industrial Revolution had a profound effect on everyday life and transformed the social hierarchy. The population of Britain doubled every fifty years in this era, rising from approximately six million in 1700 to over thirty million by 1901. The majority of these additional people lived in rapidly developed cities that expanded suddenly to meet the demand for an urban workforce that could labour in the new factories. A huge range of social problems resulted from this, with diseases like typhoid, cholera and tuberculosis becoming rife amongst the working class poor as a result of cramped living conditions, poor sanitation and a contaminated water supply. Work inside the new industrial centres was also dangerous and poorly regulated, despite increasing amounts of legislation to address this. Many lost limbs or were killed by dangerous machinery and coal miners faced a constant threat of explosions, gas leaks or cave-ins. Life expectancy was low amongst the working classes and there was no minimum wage to ensure fair treatment. In fact, children were prized by industrialists for their nimble hands and the cheap labour they represented, often earning only 10-20% of what a man would be paid.

In general, the Industrial Revolution helped to solidify different gender roles, creating the separate spheres for men and women that would dominate during the Victorian era and beyond. Rather than husbands and wives dividing agricultural labour between them, men increasingly became the main breadwinner whilst women stayed at home to care for the family. Class divisions had also shifted with the emergence of an industrial middle class and the rural peasantry declining at the expense of the urban working class. However, divisions between rich and poor remained, perhaps becoming even more entrenched and it would be mistaken to believe that child labour, long hours and difficult working conditions had not been features of the lives of the poor prior to the eighteenth century.

How successful were efforts to improve the harsh working conditions of the Industrial Revolution?

Since making provisions for the welfare of their workers could prove costly and because it was not required by law, many industrialists demanded long hours from their workers in very harsh conditions. Twelve hour days were common, increasingly the likelihood of accidents, and the heat of mills and factories was often stifling, with much exposure to the moving parts of dangerous machinery. The working classes had limited means to demand improvements because men without significant amounts of property were not enfranchised until 1918 and it was therefore not politically expedient for the government to pursue improvements before this point. In fact, trade unions were banned between 1799 and 1824, restricting the voices of the working poor even further. After this point, they developed rapidly and some afforded protection to the workforce; for example, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers ensured that members received generous unemployment benefits in return for a nominal weekly fee. Efforts to form consolidated trade unions failed to take off though, limiting the political power that these groups could wield.

However, there were some factory owners who took an interest in the welfare of their employees and these reformers did apply some successful pressure on MPs and fellow industrialists. For example, the Scottish cotton mill owner Robert Owen built a village for his workers at his own expense, complete with access to medical services and education. There were also five Factory Acts between 1819 and 1850 that introduced restrictions on the numbers of hours that women and children could work and set lower age limits for younger employees. However, children could still legally work ten and a half hour days by 1850 and there was little provision to protect the rights of male adult workers; the average life expectancy of a working class man in the mid-nineteenth century was just twenty-two years old.