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Industrial revolution

Industrial Revolution

"...those who laboured were the vast bulk of the population, the diligence with which they performed their tasks and the share which they retained of the product of their work were them main determinants of the wealth and incomes of the fortunate few"

This quote from John Hatcher’s article on pre-nineteenth century Britain summarises the capitalistic and industrialised nature of the what was deemed to be the working class. This essay will examine industrialisation, modernisation and capitalist development in Britain around the time of the industrial revolution. I will also briefly talk about different aspects of the revolution and apply them to specific key areas like the factory; the railway industry and the purpose built townships/cities.

Industrialisation by Wrigley is said to "occur in a given country when real incomes per head begin to rise steadily and without apparent limit." Productivity also increases and the significance of industry as the backbone of the economy becomes apparent.

Rostow claims that when an economy is being industrialised it "takes off" into "self-sustained growth" . This definition is in line with Wrigley’s, however there are several key aspects to industrialisation which are apparent everywhere, some may not be as significant as others, but all play a role in the process of industrialisation.

Technological change; new inventions, new ways of doing things

Work increasingly done by machine - this way it is quicker, cheaper, more reliable than using human hands.

Supplementing/replacing of manpower with energy sources - coal, oil, steam, coke have all been used. These energy sources are far more efficient than manpower.

Freeing labourer from feudal ties - as more industry is put in place, more people are required to work in the factories. Peasants can go and work in a factory and be supplied with a house.

Creation of a free market for labour - now that more people are looking for work and better living conditions and money in the big cities, the economic laws of supply and demand can take effect on labour.

Comprehensive enterprises - factories became part of the landscape and communities are built to house the workers of the factories.

The Entrepreneur - these were people with a vision of profit. They were the factory owners whom without, Britain wouldn’t have even gone through her revolution.

Capitalist development can be defined as the process of instilling a post-mercantilistic culture on society’s entrepreneurs.

"The accumulation of the means of production (materials, land and tools) as property into a few hands; this accumulated property is called "capital" and the property-owners of these means of production are called "capitalists"."

Hooker as you can see defines capitalist development as acquiring, developing then selling goods. Labour is paid for through money, not product. A money standard is introduced, barter is no longer a way of payment. We also have the division of labour, it is specialised so it becomes cheaper, and the overall value of the worker becomes less.

Along with these two underlying principles of capitalist development (Labour paid with money not product and specialisation in labour) we also have the ‘Enlightenment’ definition of capitalist development, which essentially is about individualism. "...that individuals should be free to pursue their own interests, and that, in a democratic sense, individuals pursuing their own interests will guarantee the interests of society as a whole."

Marx on the other hand has said that the fundamental purpose and meaning of human life is productive labour. This definition is in line with his writings on this topic.

Another underlying principle is that you have the development of a consumer culture with labourers being paid in money and using that money to buy other goods and services because they can’t make them themselves as they are specialised workers.

Weber like Marx recognised the importance of waged labour, but placed no-where near the amount of significance on it as Marx did. Weber focused his definition on market exchange, "the accumulation of wealth through deferred gratification, and the separation of economic and social relations."

Modernisation, perhaps the broadest term of the three I am defining right now, can be applied to politics, religion, economics, science, but in this essay it must be applied to the industrial revolution. It is seen as being the progress made from a purely agricultural nation, using ancient tools, and peasants subjected to a feudal system of working. This progress eventuates into a thriving industry populated by landscape invading factories, railway lines littering the country and people in every town and city, just increasing everywhere at an exponential rate. Technological inventions replacing menial jobs that previously were done by hand. But most of all, a new way of thinking. A completely new way of doing things, the feudal system that had been in place for 400 years was now no longer and perceptions had to change. From this definition, one might conclude that modernisation happened within a space of a few weeks/months/years/decades. In this paragraph I am talking about m!

odernisation in the context of Britain in the Industrial Revolution, this, it is generally agreed started in the 1780’s. . . it’s duration? Sociologists even today are still trying to ascertain the true extent and duration of this era of modernisation that has so boldly hit us.

We also see modernisation as having more direct contact between government and people, through mass education and a feeling of nationalism.

Disease was seen as something to be fought by science, not accepted through religion.

I will now give a brief synopsis of the Industrial Revolution, so as to make my coming arguments more relevant and easier to understand.

The industrial revolution can be seen as the process of change from an agrarian, handicraft economy to one dominated by industry and machine manufacture, generally accepted by sociologists to have started in the 1780’s.

Encyclopedia Britannica gives three main spheres to the Industrial Revolution, technological, socioeconomic and cultural. Technological changes include the use of new energy sources, motor power, factories, mechanism, manufacturing, building and engineering.

Socioeconomic aspects include the increase in incomes of the general population. Proper housing for factory workers, and purpose built villages with all required facilities. The concept of free education, people being upskilled, the abandonment of a feudal system.

Various cultural changes include, new ways of living therefore thinking, leisure time became apparent, a commodity culture was developing, roles in society were becoming more defined.

This definition I must say is merely a set of characteristics that have been identified as having major roles in the industrial revolution. My following arguments are intended to use these characteristics as a base.

I will concentrate on three different aspects of the industrial revolution; these are the factory, the railway and the city/town.

In 1718 work began on a concept that would change the entire world, forever, and it is still changing it. It was the factory, finished in 1722, the Derby Silk Mill. It was 6 stories high, employed 300 men and powered by a water wheel. This factory was a completely new way of making things. It used machinery that previously was the work of men, and it used power via a water wheel.

Either way this beast that littered the landscape symbolised a new order, it symbolised modernity, and money. According to Briggs (1979) people feared them, they were not only identified with novelty but tyranny also. Briggs claims that machines were treated with fear not welcome. Fear seems a bit strong a concept to use when describing something like a factory. People; naturally would have had cause for concern, because they were not educated in what a factory does. One cannot assume the people associated the factories with tyranny, one can assume though that people would have been concerned. Something so huge and unfamiliar and expelling smoke...

The railway system that came into place absolutely boomed. Britain was the absolute prime place to install such a system. The flatness of the land and the distances between major cities plus the different industries around the country made railways ideal. The railway was very much a capitalist’s game. Once introduced, demand was very high and manufacturers could not keep up with the demand, some were years in arrears (orders-wise). Is it possible to say that Britain’s entire economy all these years was being held back because of a lack of an efficient transport system? By the 1850’s longer distances were being tried, and loads were getting much heavier. There seemed to be vast more development on the locomotives than on the actual freight and passenger carriages.

Simmons argues that the unprecedented demand for these locomotives was for novelty’s sake, not because of the surging economy. Simmons does argue that there is a surging economy but it is not because of the train system. By looking at the demand figures it would be possible to see that the railway was definitely a huge contributor to the state of the economy. It was now possible for raw materials to be transported in huge quantities. From the 1840’s, the British government started to get heavily involved in the industry, with inspections and the like.

Transport between centres of trade also increased trade exponentially. Centres of trade popped up everywhere, including London obviously, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Sussex, Birmingham plus many others that were actually factory communities.

Gauldie (1974) claims that the worst living conditions at the time were in the rural industrial areas. Basically where once the area was rural, but because it is near an energy source it has now become home to a factory. The quality of living conditions depended on availability of labour. If labour was extremely scarce then very favourable living conditions would be offered, but if work was scarce however then workers would live in just about anything. What must be remembered is that the aim of an industrial community is to make a profit.

" was much confused with profit-making and idealism with business sense."

It is extremely obvious to an outside observer this was the age of the capitalist. The villages that are built to complement the factories were usually named after the manufacturer. A sense of corporate social responsibility was also there, but whether or not it was realised that corporate social responsibility leads to astronomical profits in the long run we don’t know if that was the theory behind it then or whether it was pure humanitarian kindness.

The villages were built usually in rows of about 18, two levels, hence 36 units. In the luxury units there would be a kitchen, lounge, storage, 2-3 bedrooms, outside facilities and piped water. In the standard units a lounge, kitchen and 1 bedroom would suffice for a family of 3-4.

This definitely is a step ‘up’ from traditional rural living. There is no land to look after, there are neighbours to chat to, and everything you need is conveniently located near your unit. This is modernity at it’s best. As above, it is obvious this is the age of the capitalist, these units that were built were extremely shoddily made, could easily catch fire, sometimes collapse and were very cheaply made to serve the purpose of just ‘storing’ the workers. It was not thought by many to actually build a real community.

In this essay, I have spent time giving various definitions of the terms modernisation, industrialisation and capitalist development, paying special attention to the era of Britain’s industrial revolution. I then gave a brief overview of the main aspects of the industrial revolution paying specific attention to the key aspects that would be in my arguments that followed.

My arguments concerned matters of the factory as something new and worrying, not fearful or symbolising tyranny. The railway and it’s huge significance in acting as a long-awaited catalyst to the British economy, and the purpose built towns with their allusion to a slum yet seen as modern, but so obviously existing in the era of capitalism.



Briggs, A. (1979) Iron Bridge to Crystal Palace. London. Thames & Hudson

Encyclopedia Britannica (1999) ‘Industrialization and Modernization’. Encyclopedia Britannica. 1999 Edition.

Gauldie. E (1974) Cruel Habitations: a History of Working-Class Housing, 1780-1918, London, Allen & Unwin.

Hatcher, J (1998) ‘Labour, leisure and economic thought before the nineteenth century’. Past & Present n160 p64(52)

Hooker. R (1996) Capitalism (Capitalist Development) [online]. Washington: Washington State University. Available from: [Accessed 9 April 2000]

Rosenband. L (1999) ‘Social Capital in the Early Industrial Revolution’. The Journal of Interdisciplinary History Wntr 1999 v29 i3 p435(2).

Simmons. J (1991) The Victorian Railway, London, Croom Helm

Stearns. P (2000) Modernisation in Western Society [online]. CM?: CM University. Available from: [Accessed 10 April 2000]

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