An Economic History of Modern Britain: The Early Railway Age, 1820-1850

An Economic History of Modern Britain: The Early Railway Age, 1820-1850

An Economic History of Modern Britain: The Early Railway Age, 1820-1850

An Economic History of Modern Britain: The Early Railway Age, 1820-1850

Excerpt

British economic evolution during the last hundred years is, in some ways, so familiar that this instalment of a history on a fairly large scale perhaps requires an apology. Firstly, then, it has never been handled on the scale selected. Cunningham Growth of English Industry and Commerce covers the whole period since the American War of Independence in less than three hundred pages, and the treatment becomes episodical just about where this book begins. The late Professor Lilian Knowles ' Industrial and Commercial Revolutions in Great Britain during the Nineteenth Century, which appeared after I had begun to write, no doubt says many things which I also have said. So does Professor C. R. Fay Life and Labour in the Nineteenth Century, not to mention other short and good modern economic histories. But none of them has the scale or the plan here adopted. I did not return to either Knowles or Fay when giving my opinions their final dressing; so if those opinions fit with theirs, the chance that we have all been helping to build up truth is increased.

Secondly, stories assumed to be familiar are apt to become good nesting places for legend. Until very recently, historians' accounts of the dominant event of the nineteenth century, the great and rapid growth of population, were nearly all semi- legendary; sometimes they still are. Statisticians had always known the approximate truth; but historians had too often followed a familiar literary tradition. Again, the legend that everything was getting worse for the working man, down to some unspecified date between the drafting of the People's Charter and the Great Exhibition, dies hard. The fact that, after the price fall of 1820-1, the purchasing power of wages in general--not, of course, of everyone's wages--was definitely greater than it had been just before the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, fits so ill with the tradition that it is very seldom mentioned, the work of statisticians on wages and prices being constantly ignored by social historians. It is symbolic of the divorce of much social and economic history from figures that, in a recent inquiry into the fortunes of one group of trades, the tradition of decline appears in the text, some corrective wage figures in an appendix, and the correlation nowhere.

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