The Industrial Revolution
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17 February 2003
4:14AM EST

The Industrial Revolution  

Causes of the Industrial Revolution

All across England, the recent turn of the century has gone largely unnoticed. The vast majority of the country's population lives in the countryside, completely isolated or in small communities like Bedlington. The principal trades are growing grain or raising sheep for wool, both of which require a lot of manual labour. Farming tools are common, but machines are not; animals are raised, but not used extensively for cultivating the land. Life in the countryside depends on nature in many ways: good weather in the summer means a good crop, just as a long winter can mean hunger and discomfort. People rise with the sun and go to bed when it gets dark.

The Cottage Industry

At the dawn of the eighteenth century, farming was the primary livelihood in England, with at least 75% of the population making its living off the land. (Kreis) This meant that many English families had very little to do during the winter months except sit around and make careful use of the food and other supplies that they stored up during the rest of the year. If the harvest had been smaller than usual or if any other unexpected losses had come about, the winter could be a very long, cold, and hungry one. The cottage industry was developed to take advantage of the farmers' free time and use it to produce quality textiles for a reasonable price.

To begin the process, a cloth merchant from the city needed enough money to travel into the countryside and purchase a load of wool from a sheep farm. He would then distribute the raw materials among several farming households to be made into cloth (Cottage Industry). The preparation of the wool was a task in which the whole family took part. Women and girls first washed the wool to remove the dirt and natural oils and then dyed it as desired. They also carded the wool, which meant combing it between two pads of nails until the fibres were all pointed in the same direction. Next, the wool was spun into thread using a spinning wheel and wound onto a bobbin (this was often the job of an unmarried daughter; hence, the word "spinster" is still used today to describe an unmarried woman). The actual weaving of the thread into cloth was done using a loom operated by hand and foot; it was physically demanding work, and was therefore the man's job (The Textile Industry). The task of transforming raw wool into cloth could be done entirely by one household, or split between two or more (ie. spinning in one home, weaving in another). The merchant would return at regular intervals over the season to pick up the finished cloth, which he then brought back to the city to sell or export, and to drop of a new load of wool to be processed.

The cottage industry proved to be profitable for the urban merchants, since they could sell the finished cloth for far more than they paid the famers to make it. The cottage industry helped to prepare the country for the Industrial Revolution by boosting the English economy through the increase of trade that occured as the country became well-known overseas for its high-quality and low-cost exports. Previously, tradesmen had done all the manufacturing themselves, so the idea of subcontracting was new and appealing. The cottage industry was also a good source of auxiliary funds for the rural people. However, many farming families came to depend on the enterprise; thus, when industrialization and the Agricultural Revolution reduced the need for farm workers, many were forced to leave their homes and move to the city.


Although serfdom in England had disappeared by the end of the seventeenth century, most farms were established on "common land" which local farmers typically leased from a wealthy proprietor who owned large areas of land in a district. There were, however, rules which prevented a landlord from expelling a tenant without a reasonable cause, and so farms could be passed down through a peasant family for generations. Traditionally, the land was divided into long narrow strips which grew smaller as the land was split into more parts for each succeeding generation. When new methods of agriculture began to be developed, it became clear that they would be more efficient with larger plots of land. Enclosure is defined as "the process of inclosing (with fences, ditches, hedges, or other barriers) land formerly subject to common rights" (Inclosure). This meant that the land that peasants had been cultivating on their own was returned to the control of the landowners and redistributed. Scavenging on someone else's land became illegal, and small farmers (who had no political influence and were generally given the poorer plots) often lost access to wood and water (Enclosure Acts). Although the process was not standardized until the General Enclosure Act of 1801 (Inclosure), many private acts had been passed since the 1750's and enclosure had been common for well over a century before. The urbanization of the English population was largely fueled by dispossessed peasants who moved to the city in the hopes of finding new work (Kreis).

Why was Britain First?

Why was Britain the first country to industrialize? This change, which occurred between 1750 and 1830, happened because conditions were perfect in Britain for the Industrial Revolution. Having used wood for heat instead of coal, Britain was left with large deposits of coal remaining to fuel the new ideas. Any raw supplies Britain itself did not have could be provided by its many colonies. These colonies also provided captive markets for the abundance of new goods provided by the industrial revolution (Gernhard). The product was cotton. Cotton was a simple, cheap, and easily made product that everyone could use. So, between 1796 and 1830 cotton production tripled (Haberman 48). The new production was easily transported, because there remained an old commercial fleet (Gernhard).

The Product and Market were the simple requirements, and many countries had them. What set Britain apart from the others, however, were three unique social elements: education, "modern" work attitudes, and a "modern" government. Great Britain had a larger educated workforce to run the machines and create manuals. The Enlightenment not only meant a larger educated population but also more modern views on work. The population in Great Britain was ready to move out of the country and to the city to work. Britain also had the large middle class and flexible mercantile class necessary. English society, unlike many others, was not opposed to "new money," and as such was eager to accept the new wealthy and their new ideas (Industrial Revolution: The Industrial Revolution in Great Britain). Lastly, Britain's government, a long-time constitutional monarchy, was just right for the situation. The government was flexible enough to support the new system and to a certain degree accepted Adam Smith's capitalistic "invisible hand." The Dutch were the forerunners financially, but with the establishment of the Bank of England in 1694, their supremacy was challenged (Industrial Revolution: The Industrial Revolution in Great Britain). The government and the bank provided incredible backing to new ideas, which soon turned into new wealth (Haberman 49).

Many of these elements were achieved because of the insularity of England. This meant that the industrial development was rarely interrupted by war (Gernhard). This combination of necessary elements led to the early mechanization of Britain. Between 1838 and 1850 Britain's rail lines went from 540 to 6621 track kilometers; rail lines were considered the best way to monitor a country's industrialization (Haberman 49). The elements needed or preferred for the Industrial Revolution can be summarized as follows:

  • modern work attitudes
  • education
  • a product
  • transportation for the product
  • large market
  • "modern" government
  • money

Financial Situations

What were the financial situations necessary to support the Industrial Revolution?

  • A new banking system

    In Britain, expansion had led to new "private banking," a new money economy, and trading organizations such as the Hanseatic League. Modern credit facilities also appeared, such as the state bank, the bourse, the promissory note, and other new media of exchange. This created economic stimulus which in turn gave the people more money to spend (Commercial Revolution).

  • A stable environment

    The steady economic systems present under the new national monarchies created a reliable atmosphere for the new Revolution. The most notable of these governments were in Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, and England (Commercial Revolution).

  • A large amount of capital for investment

    From the New World had come gold and silver, which in less than a century more than doubled European prices and stimulated economic activity, which in turn gave the wealthy more money to spend on new ideas (Commercial Revolution).

  • Capitalism

    The capitalism of Adam Smith, or the "invisible hand," was another important new economic system and gave the people a desire to further the industrialization and gain money. The competition created a boom in economic expansion (Commercial Revolution).

Continue by reading about the many Innovations Achieved During the Industrial Revolution >>>