ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL CHANGES IN ENGLAND IN THE 18TH AND 19TH CENTURIESCategory: 19th century
One of the most significant things about the industrial development of the eighteenth century was the requirement of extensive capital to carry on industrial undertakings on the larger scale which now became the rule. It is obvious that a factory could not be built without a huge amount of capital for the building, the expensive machinery, the supplies of materials, and wages. This capital was largely created in the industry itself by the unflagging activity of the new entrepreneurs who stinted themselves to the limit, worked like slaves, and lived like slave-masters. Some of the new industrialists married fortunes from the country, and still others received their start by advances from the London commercial houses, which, faced by heavier demands for goods than they could supply, advanced money to set up factories and shops. Those who pushed to the top were the sons of yeomen and small farmers, who were possessed of quick views, driving energy, and no small share of sagacity. Although sprung from the same social classes as the labourers, or only one step above them, the new capitalists soon became conscious of their superior position, and presently the gulf between them and their workers became wider than the gulf between men whose families had been apart for generations.
As compared with the entrepreneurs of earlier times, such as the clothiers of the domestic cloth industry in the preceding age, the new captains of industry had to possess vastly greater abilities. They had to be able to gather, organize, and discipline their labour forces, invent and build their machinery, understand the sources of their raw materials and the state of foreign and domestic markets, secure working capital, and, above all, they had to meet the competition of their rivals, and to save for the extension of their plants. They were “Iron Masters of Men”, often without any of the social graces which would have softened their harshness and impatience of restraint in the face of the task of building up Great Britain’s industrial supremacy. It must be remembered that if they were sagacious, they were also ruthless; if they were building the nations’s industrial supremacy, they were also heaping up fortunes for themselves; and in the long run it did not prove true that their own good and the good of all were identical. On that supposition, however, their apologists set up the doctrine of “laissez- faire”, that the state must not interfere with them in their business; and under the influence of that doctrine, Parliament proceeded to repeal all the old legislative protection of the workers.
As their co-workers in the new industrial development stood the working population, the new industrial proletariat. Drawn from parish workhouses, transplanted from the country, carried over the sea from the wilds of Ireland, they were collected in a particular place because their fingers or their muscles were needed in factory, furnace, or mine. At first the condition of the new factory hands was very much better than that of labourers in agriculture or in domestic industry. But as the development of large scale industry continued and the nation grew ever richer, the lot of the workers grew worse. They had no share in the vast accretion of wealth which they helped to create each year. The reason for this, one of the major tragedies of history, is to be found in the fact that, in their insistence upon elbowroom, the new captains of industry asserted their right to be free of all interference from the government, and succeeded in obtaining the repeal of all legislation designed to prevent excessive competition between workers for jobs. With such legislation thrown into the discard it was possible for the industrial entrepreneurs to recruit their labour force from among the wretchedly paid agricultural workers in boom times and then, when depression set in, to pit the former agricultural labourer with his low standards over against the older factory workers, and either force the older worker to reduce his standards to the levels of the worker from the country, or to lose his job.
In consequence, the workers competed with each other for work, the untrained workers with trained workers, the women with the men, and the children with both. Lower wages and longer hours for the adult workers compelled them to send their children into the factories to keep up the family income. In many cases, the children were found to be more desirable workers than the adults and were retained while the parents were laid off. In the worst days, the best insurance of a livelihood for the adult worker was to marry as young as possible and get a large family of children, who would support him with their labour when, before he was thirty, he was permanently laid off.
Sometime in the middle of the eighteenth century an unprecedental growth in population began to occur. Much of this phenomenal growth was concentrated in the towns and Manchester was a representative instance. Manchester was the principal site of what was rapidly coming to be thought of as the Industrial Revolution. The highest rate of growth was reached in the decade 1821-1831, when Manchester’s population increased by almost 45 per cent. The cotton industry dominated Manchester, and one estimate held that about 30 per cent of the town was directly engaged in the production of cottons.
Changes in colonial holdings and trade fed into a rapidly opening and expanding market economy, which fed back in turn into the system of foreign trade. Both of these were connected with changes in agriculture and with the increasing capitalization of a farming economy in which, for the first time in European history, the peasant had disappeared.
Yet the place in which the entire process broke loose into open visibility, the focus of revolutionary change, accelerated growth and ever increasing direct and subsidiary demand, as a world market for the mass production of goods for mass consumption was first brought into being, was one industry-cotton. And cotton meant Manchester.
Cotton also meant overseas trade, since in contrast to the older dominant textile industry of wool, the raw material could not be grown at home. It meant overseas trade as well, in the sense that at the next stage of the process it was inseparably connected with the African slave trade and the slave plantations of the West Indies; these plantations became for a while the chief suppliers of the raw material, and after 1790 it was the slave states of the American South, that became the major producers for Lancashire’s mills. They were important consumers as well, as were the other “underdeveloped” parts of the world. Indeed the market for a time seemed limitless-particularly since for part of the period England and virtual monopoly not only on the means of production but over trade in large of the world. Under such conditions, and with the additional circumstance that the new technologies in cotton were relatively inexpensive and thus did not require heavy outlay in original capital investment, the rates of profit were astronomical and were only equalled by the rates of growth in production. By the middle of the century billions of yards of cotton cloth were being produced each year.
The fate of the handloom weavers in the decades when power looms came inevitably to displace them, is one of the most famous, as well as one of the earliest, of technological horror stories. Before that, however, it was in spinning that the drama was to be observed. With the increased mechanization of the spinning process, the work of spinning was further rationalized by having the machines driven by mechanical rather than human power. The immense cotton spinning factories or mills of the late eighteenth century were something new in the world. After 1815 weaving was increasingly brought into factories as well, and within a short time cotton became the first industry in which production was wholly mechanized.
It was cotton that, along with agriculture, dominated the national economy. That domination was expressed in various other figures, one of them, for example, showing that by the 1830’s the cotton industry was producing nearly one half of all British exports.
The historical experience of industrialization is not to be separated from that of urbanization. The two tended to occur together and reinforce one another, the reciprocating effects of each upon the other being further intensified by the demographic escalation that continued throughout the period. The industrial discipline, the conditions of work, terms of employment, continual insecurity and continual competition are not to be segregated, in their effects as formative experiences, from the conditions of living in the new industrial towns, from the housing, sanitary provisions-or lack of them-institutions of relief or welfare-or lack of them-from all the new densities and stresses of existence in these unparallelled circumstances. The working men and women who came out at the other end of this process were the first to go through what we now understand as a world-historical experience. As a group they bore the marks of survivors; they bear those marks to this very day.
The new society which was coming into existence with the growth of industry was cut off from the stable basis of land and agriculture and was subject to every fluctuation of trade. From 1763 onward there was a series of financial crises which were new phenomena in European history. At first such crises were met with quiet starvation; but as the industrial population became larger and more self-conscious, they resulted in demands for political and economic changes in the state.