The Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830

The Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830

The Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830

The Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830


The Industrial Revolution has sometimes been regarded as a catastrophe which desecrated the English landscape and brought social opporession and appalling physical hardship to the workers. In this book, however, it is presented as an important and beneficial mark of progress. In spite of destructive wars and a rapid growth of population, the material living standards of most of the British people improved, and the technical innovations not only brought economic rewards but also provoked greater intellectual ingenuity. Innovation is therefore seen by Ashton not just as an economic course but as a social and cultural process influenced by factors such as war and peace and the framework of law and institutions. Lucidly argued and authoritative, this bookplaces the phenomenon of the Industrial Revolution in a stimulating perpsective. A new Preface by Professor Pat Hudson outlines the results of recent research precipitated by Ashton's themes: the true causes of population growth in the eighteenth century, the nature of the supply of capital, and the new approaches to labour studies amongst others. This Preface places The Industrial Revolution in its contemporary context, and a new thoroughly updated bibliography means that fifty years on, Ashton's work can continue to be of value to modern readers.


In the short span of years between the accession of George III and that of his son, William IV, the face of England changed. Areas that for centuries had been cultivated as open fields, or had lain untended as common pasture, were hedged or fenced; hamlets grew into populous towns; and chimney stacks rose to dwarf the ancient spires. Highroads were made--straighter, stronger, and wider than those evil communications that had corrupted the good manners of travellers in the days of Defoe. The North and Irish Seas, and the navigable reaches of the Mersey, Ouse, Trent, Severn, Thames, Forth, and Clyde were joined together by threads of still water. In the North the first iron rails were laid down for the new locomotives, and steam packets began to ply on the estuaries and the narrow seas.

Parallel changes took place in the structure of society. The number of people increased vastly, and the proportion of children and young probably rose. The growth of new communities shifted the balance of population from the South and East to the North and Midlands; enterprising Scots headed a procession the end of which is not yet in sight; and a flood of unskilled, but vigorous, Irish poured in, not without effect on the health and ways of life of Englishmen. Men and women born and bred in the countryside came to live crowded together, earning their bread, no longer as families or groups of neighbours, but as units in the labour force of factories; work grew to be more specialized; new forms of skill were developed, and some old forms lost. Labour became more mobile, and higher standards of comfort were offered to those able and willing to move to centres of opportunity.

At the same time fresh sources of raw material were exploited, new markets were opened, and new methods of trade devised. Capital increased in volume and fluidity; the currency was set on a gold base; a banking system came into being. Many old privileges and monopolies were swept away, and legislative impediments to enterprise removed. The State came to play a less active, the individual and the voluntary association a more active, part in affairs. Ideas of innovation and progress undermined traditional sanctions: men began to look forward, rather than backward, and their thoughts as to the nature and purpose of social life were transformed.

Whether or not such a series of changes should be spoken of as 'The Industrial Revolution' might be debated at length. The changes were not merely 'industrial', but also social and intellectual. The word 'revolution' implies a suddenness of change that is not, in fact, characteristic of economic processes. The system of human relationships that is sometimes called capitalism had its origins long before 1760, and attained its full development long after 1830: there is a danger of overlooking the essential fact of continuity. But the phrase 'Industrial Revolution' has been used by a long line of historians and has become so firmly embedded in common speech that it would be pedantic to offer a substitute.

The outstanding feature of the social history of the period-- the thing that above all others distinguishes the age from its predecessors--is the rapid growth of population. Careful estimates, based on figures of burials and christenings, put the number of people in England and Wales at about five and a half millions in 1700, and six and a half millions in 1750: when the first census was taken in 1801 it was a round nine millions, and by 1831 had reached fourteen millions. In the second half of the eighteenth century population had thus increased by 40 per cent, and in the first three decades of the nineteenth century by more than 50 per cent. For Great Britain . . .

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