Shopping for Britain: Maxine Berg Looks at the Commercial Battle to Dominate Europe That Ran Alongside the Wars with France, and the Product Revolution That Gave Britain the Edge in This Field

By Berg, Maxine | History Today, July 2005 | Go to article overview

Shopping for Britain: Maxine Berg Looks at the Commercial Battle to Dominate Europe That Ran Alongside the Wars with France, and the Product Revolution That Gave Britain the Edge in This Field


Berg, Maxine, History Today


The collapse of MG Rover in April brought us face to face once again with job losses in our manufacturing regions, with widespread regret over the loss of another British product. Chinese buyers made sure to buy the company's intellectual property rights while they spurned the prospect of taking over the firm. Other classic British brand products have also taken Chinese routes to manufacture: Wedgwood, once proud of its ascendancy in the later eighteenth century over imported Chinese porcelain, in 2003 announced the transfer of production for its ware from Staffordshire to China.

MG sports cars, like Wedgwood china used to mean quality, class and Britishness. Their loss prompts us to ask how key products claimed brand recognition connected with national identities, and thereby acquired ascendancy in global markets. Today the great clash over production and consumer markets is between China and the West. At the inception of the Industrial Revolution it was between Britain and France.

The great superpowers of the eighteenth century, Britain and France, fought the long series of Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars not just by means of military strategy and Great Power politics, but also on the level of industry, products and markets. The development of branded British products challenged French luxury goods and spread consumer culture as they captivated, then seized, global markets.

In 1791 Birmingham, now counting the MG Rover losses, was the scene of the notorious anti-French Birmingham Riots. Small producers and workers were incensed with the town's large manufacturers, many of whom were Dissenters and sympathizers with the French Revolution. The unrest in France had caused manufacturers to cut jobs and wages as they faced setbacks in trade. The disaffected, especially those in the buckle trades, blamed their troubles not just on the Revolution, but on French fashions, in this case the new fashion for laced shoes. They joined their local causes to wider national patriotic and loyalist movements, Church-and-King rioters and anti-Jacobin clubs. The second anniversary of the French Revolution, July 14th, 1791, saw a mob shouting anti-French slogans and singing British patriotic songs after looting and torching Meeting Houses and the homes of leading radical Dissenters and manufacturers in and around the town. The home of Joseph Priestley, scientist, Dissenting minister and radical advocate of the principles of the French Revolution, was one of those targetted. That night, from a garden half-a-mile away, the Priestleys watched in clear moonlight as furniture was thrown from the windows of their house, scientific instruments broken and books and manuscripts burned. Driven from his home, Priestley, a member of Britain's leading informal scientific association, the Lunar Society, soon left for America. The Lunar Society stopped meeting, and a counter-revolutionary ethos suppressed republican and Enlightenment values.

Priestley combined his sympathies for French radicalism with a very British lifestyle. The possessions and their values that he later listed for compensation before the Warwickshire assizes give us an insight into just what a man of letters, a religious dissenter, a man of the middling classes living just outside one of Britain's leading industrial towns, owned and lived with as the eighteenth century drew to its close. Priestley valued the losses of his household goods at the substantial sum of 1,307.8s [pounds sterling]. They included large quantities of mahogany and japanned (varnished to imitate lacquer) furniture, cotton window-curtains, carpets, pier-and-swing looking-glasses, tea urns and other tea equipment, large amounts of chinaware, silver-plated table, dessert- and tea-spoons, patent candlesticks, plated buckles, and cut glass, as well as smaller ornaments.

Prominent among these furnishings was a range of quality consumer goods created and made fashionable over the course of the eighteenth century. …

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