The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Industrial Revolution of the 18th — 19th Centuries and Its Consequences

Category: 18th century

By the mid’dle of the 18th century England becamje ripe for a turnover in industry known as the Industrial Revolution. Colonial warfare and expansion meant an accumulation of tremendous wealth in the country. For example, the profits of only the East India company immediately after the Seven Years War were 21 million pounds. Britain’s monopoly position in international trade led to the accumulation of capital in the City of London. The Bank of England had become a banker’s bank, providing support for people wanting to lend or borrow money for business purposes. Private banks were started even in small towns. Manufacturers were now in an advantageous position. They had capital or the means to borrow it. The capital thus gained went to finance inventions. It was also used to build machines, foundries, roads, canals, etc.

The enclosure movement in the 18th century which was the gist of the agricultural revolution created an abundant labour supply. Thousands of peasants became landless and ruined and were forced to migrate to the growing towns where they were consumed by the growing industry. As Karl Marx pointed out the expropriation of the peasantry from the soil was thus effected. The transformation in agriculture also meant an increase of the profits of the landlords. A big part of their profits went into industry, either through banks or directly through the stock market. Thus the agricultural revolution in England contributed to the financing of the Industrial Revolution.

The expansion of international trade, the growth of the home market made it imperative to revolutionize industry on a new basis. The manufactories of the previous centuries could no longer satisfy the new demands. Large-scale machine production became an urgent necessity and the factory was to become the main new economic unit of production. Everything which the economists say is necessary for ‘take off was present: scientific and technical ‘know-how’, capital, an increasing amount of suitable labour, an expanding home and world market.

In industrial life, the changes first affected textiles, but presently they spread to mining, power development communications, and other fields. Before the Industrial Revolution began, the domestic system prevailed in textile making, with many families securing thread from nearby villages and weaving it into cloth on a piecework basis. At first, cotton cloth was imported from India; then the English mixed cotton and wool threads to produce a new type of cloth. A series of remarkable textile inventions, however, soon caused England to become a world leader in producing cotton goods.

The first of these major inventions in textiles was John Kay’s flying shuttle, perfected in 1733 and widely adopted in cotton by the 1760s. It enabled the weaver to produce both more and broader cloth, thus increasing still further the imbalance between the spinning and weaving sectors of the trade. Consequently, the next inventions were in spinning: James Hargreaves’s ‘spinning jenny’ could spin many threads at once — at first it had eight, later 120 spindles; Richard Arkwright’s waterframe (patented in 1769), to produce stronger cotton yarn suitable for warp (hitherto linen had been used); and Samuel Crompton’s mule (1779), which combined the jenny and the waterframe. His machine could now turn out very good thread both fine and strong. In 1785 Cartwright invented a power loom that made weaving a speedy operation. By 1820 there were 14,000 power looms in Britain, and by 1833—100,000. Yet it was not the new technology alone, but the new industrial system which it implied, that was revolutionary.

The new machines required power to drive them, and so could not be housed in the homes of the people but only in what contemporaries called ‘manufactories’. Water provided the motive power, and the early cotton factories or mills of the 1770s and 1780s were therefore located in remote areas of the Pennines, in Lancashire and Yorkshire where there was a plentiful supply of swift-flowing water. The new industry was initially based in country factories.

However, soon the situation changed. In 1769 James Watt, a laboratory assistant from Scotland, developed a new type of steam engine which improved greatly the old Newcomen engine. At first the steam engine was used only for stationary work, but later on it was modified by George Stephenson to drive locomotives. In 1825 the first railway was built, the Stockton — Darlington line.

The steam engine perfected was immediately applied to driving textile machinery. Cotton spinners were thus freed from their dependence on water power, and further development of factories thence took place in urban areas where labour was more plentiful and coal supplies not far away. The basic elements in the pattern of modern British industrialism had begun to emerge: steam-powered machine production in urban factories. Manchester, which more than any other city was the symbol of the new industrial age, accurately reflected these changes. In 1773, with a population of 27,000, Manchester had not a single spinning mill; by 1802 the population was 95,000 and there were fifty-two cotton mills.

The social consequences of the Industrial Revolution were dramatic and far-reaching. The expanding factories and industrial centres attracted the newlyformed class of industrial workers, or ‘operatives’ as they were called. The owners of the factories, or capitalists were assuming political and economic importance. English society was breaking up into two basic classes — the proletarians and the capitalists.

The Industrial Revolution brought about the absolute and relative impoverishment of the proletariat. Tremendous profits were gained by the capitalists by ruthless exploitation of the toilers who lived and worked in nightmarish conditions. F. Engels on the basis of his personal observations and a multitude of official documents made a profound analysis of the life and strife of the English working class in his famous Condition of the Working Class in England. The book was written in 1845 but it remains to this very day a vivid proof of the heavy toil paid by the people as a result of the Industrial Revolution and capitalist exploitation.

The employers’ desire for cheap obedient labour led to some of the worst practices of the Industrial Revolution such as the employment of children. In the first years of factory production two-thirds of the adult male workers were replaced by women and children. Children were flogged.

The Industrial Revolution was gaining strength all the time. But with it the situation of the workers became worse. For example, the’,average age of death among operatives at the beginning of the nineteenth century was nineteen!

Hand-workers were losing their jobs to the new mechanics and machines. It was quite natural that the operatives at this stage of their development could not realize the nature of their hardships. They attributed them to the machines. Thus a movement emerged in the latter half of the eighteenth century which was associated with the destruction of the hateful machines. The weavers of Manchester, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire gathered in great numbers and began to destroy the looms. The movement known as Luddism (after the name of a certain apprentice (General) Ned Lud) began in 1779 in Nottingham and Sheffield. It spread quickly all throughout the industrial centres of England involving not only handloom weavers, but colliers and other workers. The movement reached its peak in the years between 1811 and 1816.

In the history of the working class the Yorkshire Luddites especially have a legendary place. The midnight drillings, raids for arms, and the plotting in local inns were recounted in many a story later. Careful planning and a high degree of organization were apparent in the Luddites’ nightly forays. The attacking party was divided into armed guards and smashers, the latter carrying heavy sledgehammers called ‘Enochs’. The rebels, who formed themselves together in secret groups, sent out public letters stating their demands. (They signed these with the name Ned Lud.)

The extent of the movement may be judged by the fact that during the summer of 1812 the government stationed more than 12,000 troops in the disturbed districts. The English government took severe measures against the Luddites: many of the leaders were executed, the others received long prison sentences or were deported for semi-slave labour to the colonies. Eventually the movement was crushed. However, it was never forgotten: the seed of protest found later expression in the Chartist movement.

The age of the Industrial Revolution saw the origins of working-class organizations when the operatives began to form united groups to defend their economic rights. Such groups and societies emerged initially among operatives involved in wool processing, later they were formed among spinners and workers of other trades. These were the first organizations of the emerging working-class which later in the nineteenth century formed the basis of the trade union movement in the country.

In 1760 George III (1760 — 1820) became king of England. His reign is associated with serious developments in England which were closely connected with the loss of the American colonies and the impact of the French bourgeois revolution of 1789.

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