Industrial revolution in Britain

This video says about itself:

The devastating enclosures of the English commons forced peasants into the labor market and the factories of the industrial revolution. This video explains how and why.

From weekly Socialist Worker in Britain:

Tue 26 Jun 2012

Britain’s Industrial Revolution: the birth of a new power

Owen Miller debunks the myth of a unique British genius for invention and innovation

During this summer of royal and sporting spectacles, we seem to be surrounded by the warmed up leftovers of Britain’s patriotic myths.

We’re constantly reminded of our “British values” of fair play, our uniquely majestic-yet-down-to-earth monarch and the pastoral idyll of the English countryside. Then there’s the peculiar inventiveness of the British people that brought the world the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution took off in Britain in the second half of the 18th century. It was one of the most significant events in human history. It transformed the way people live their lives, putting it on a scale with the development of agriculture or of complex urban societies.

But why did it develop in Britain rather than anywhere else? Establishment intellectuals like Melvyn Bragg point to the “scientific culture” of 18th century Britain with its dogged pursuit of technological progress.

They cite inventor-entrepreneurs like Richard Arkwright and James Watt as evidence of a peculiarly British culture. They seek to explain the Industrial Revolution largely through a form of “British exceptionalism”, emphasising “great men” and the “culture” that produces them.

However, socialists look primarily to material rather than cultural causes. This means focusing on our interactions with the natural environment, relations between different societies, and above all, the relations between classes within societies.

From this standpoint, the dramatic shock of the Industrial Revolution is part of much broader historical processes. It is also the child of new capitalist social relations that had burst on the scene with revolutionary movements in 16th and 17th century Europe.


The Industrial Revolution emerged from long processes of technological innovation and interaction across the Eurasian land mass.

Remember that a thousand years ago East Asia was responsible for much technological innovation. Gunpowder, paper and the compass were all inventions crucial to early modern Europe—and they all originally came from China.

Still, at the time of the Industrial Revolution itself, Europe—and Britain in particular—continued to practice “innovation by imitation”.

One well-known example is that of printed calico, a type of cotton cloth much prized in Europe that originated in the Indian city of Calicut (Kozhikode).

In order to protect the English wool industry its import was banned in 1700. But an entire industry then grew up in Britain to print imported plain calico cloth in imitation of the original Indian product.

Many experts argue that neither Britain nor Europe had an economic advantage over areas such as the Indian region of Gujarat until the Industrial Revolution. They were just as commercialised and productive and sometimes benefited from better technologies.

None of this explains why the Industrial Revolution took off in Britain rather than in China or France. For this we have to turn to a number of other factors.

One of the most important was environmental—the availability of cheap, accessible coal in Britain. Coal was first used to provide fuel for heat-intensive industries such as potteries or furnaces.

Later it was used to provide steam power for the new factories. Britain was almost unique in having easy access to large reserves of coal, a far more efficient source of power than wood or charcoal.


A second key factor was Britain’s geopolitical position as an island situated off the coast of the European continent. This favoured the development of British naval power and offered a degree of protection from continental warfare.

Naval power was crucial in allowing Britain to seize the trade routes and colonies that would help fund the Industrial Revolution and provide raw materials.

Like other European nations, Britain was able to extract vast quantities of wealth from the New World and particularly from the slave trade and plantations.

But unlike feudal competitors like Spain or Portugal, capitalist merchants ran Britain. This made it more efficient at extracting wealth. It also meant that wealth could be used to fund the development of industrial capitalism.

In the 18th century, British ships transported some 1.6 million Africans to the British Caribbean alone to work and die as slaves. Britain also made extensive use of mercantilist trade policies to protect its new industries against foreign imports with high tariffs or outright bans.

But Marxists argue that there is more to the Industrial Revolution than all this. By the time of the Industrial Revolution social relations based on wage labour were already well established and Britain was essentially a capitalist country.

The emergence of capitalism was by no means a gradual or smooth process that could be attributed to the “entrepreneurial spirit” of the British.

It was a long period of economic and political change, punctuated by violent upheavals such as the English Revolution in the 17th century. In the early 18th century, Britain was the European country where capitalist social relations had become most firmly embedded.


Two features of capitalism are key in understanding the Industrial Revolution in Britain. The first was the new capitalist class that had fought over the previous centuries to assert its dominance over British society.

The second was the drive of the capitalist system to accumulate capital through the relentless competition between capitalists.

The combination of this assertive ruling class and the drive to accumulate helped accelerate technological innovation that had been going on for thousands of years.

These factors provided the material basis for the growth of a “scientific culture” and the emergence of “inventive geniuses” like Watt.

Pre-capitalist ruling classes had been driven to raise armies to expand their territories or increase their own private consumption. But there were always limits to this sort of expansion.

The capitalist class on the other hand, driven by competition, seeks to expand endlessly. In so doing it is constantly in search of new, more productive ways to combine human labour and technology.

One of the “heroes” of the Industrial Revolution is Richard Arkwright. He is a classic example of a capitalist who helped to drive innovation by applying new technologies in his cotton mills.

He did this not for the sake of science or innovation itself. He did so in order to out-compete his rivals and expand his business.

In 1769 he patented a spinning machine that could be used to produce cheap cotton cloth. He was able to quickly expand his business to multiple factories and hundreds of workers. This heralded the beginning of the age of factory production.

The new ruling class had already begun pushing unwanted peasants from the land. Now it squeezed them into the new mills and factories, creating the working class—the class that could challenge capitalism’s rapacious growth.

There is nothing particularly inventive about Britain or its people. Like the rest of humankind people who inhabit the British Isles can be lazy, stupid, stubbornly resistant to change and completely lacking in inspiration.

Yet throughout human history, social, political and environmental conditions have created moments when huge transformations like the Industrial Revolution can take place. These transformations were often focused initially in one geographical location that enjoyed particular advantages.

These were moments when slowly accumulated changes were swiftly transformed into fundamental reconfigurations of the way we live.

Unfortunately we are still living in the world of capitalist exploitation that gave birth to the Industrial Revolution. If Britain gave a gift to the world it is certainly a double-edged one.

Industrial Revolution timeline

1619 British land first African slaves in colony of Virginia

1649 English revolution beheads King Charles I freeing merchants to develop capitalism

1709 Abraham Darby uses coke to smelt iron ore, replacing use of charcoal

1758 First threshing machine produced

1760-1820 Agricultural enclosures. Common rights lost as big farmers drive millions of poor people off the land

1765 James Hargreaves invents the Spinning Jenny, automating cloth weaving

1772 Bridgewater Canal completed, transports coal to Manchester and Liverpool. Starts mass building of transport canals

1775 James Watt builds first efficient steam engine

1779 First steam powered mills

1801 Robert Trevithick demonstrates a steam locomotive

1811-15 Luddite riots. Workers break machines in a protest at attacks on living standards and working conditions

1821 Michael Faraday demonstrates electro-magnetic rotation, the principle of the electric motor

1830 The Liverpool and Manchester Railway begins first regular commercial rail service

29 thoughts on “Industrial revolution in Britain

  1. Pingback: Olympics, William Blake, suffragettes, punk, Bahrain | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Pingback: England’s Luddites remembered | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  3. Pingback: British moles in history | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  4. Pingback: Arctic Ocean acid problems | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  5. Pingback: British allotments’ history | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  6. Pingback: British Chartism, 19th century and now | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  7. Pingback: Peterloo massacre in England remembered | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  8. Pingback: New book on 19th century London strike | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  9. Pingback: Sir Walter Scott’s first historical novel, two hundred years ago | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  10. Pingback: Painter JMW Turner, new film | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  11. Pingback: British countryside history | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  12. The British capitalist class was very confident indeed in the first decades of the 19th century, when Britain was becoming the “workshop of the world”, was mistress of the Seas, and had recently conquered the French Empire of Napoleon Bonaparte. It’s bourgeoisie was puffed up with pride. In those years, and for the rest of the 19th century and beyond, radicals and socialists quoted, reprinted, and recited these splendid lines from John Keats’ poem, “Isabella.” Keats pours righteous scorn on the pretensions and pride of a bourgeoisie which lives by mean and inhuman exploitation.

    With her two brothers, this fair Lady dwelt,

    Enriched from ancestral merchandise,

    And for them many a weary hand did swelt

    In torched mines and noisy factories,

    And many once proud-quiver’d loins did melt

    In blood from stinging whip;—with hollow eyes

    Many all day in dazzling river stood,

    To take the rich-ored driftings of the flood.

    For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,

    And went all naked to the hungry shark;

    For them his ears gush’d blood; for them in death

    The seal on the cold ice with piteous bark

    Lay full of darts; for them alone did seethe

    A thousand men in troubles wide and dark:

    Half-ignorant, they turn’d an easy wheel,

    That set sharp racks at work, to pinch and peel.

    Why were they proud? Because their marble founts

    Gush’d with more pride than do a wretch’s tears?—

    Why were they proud? Because fair orange-mounts

    Were of more soft ascent than lazar stairs?—

    Why were they proud? Because red-lin’d accounts

    Were richer than the songs of Grecian years?—

    Why were they proud? again we ask aloud,

    Why in the name of Glory were they proud?


  13. Pingback: Chartism and agriculture in English history | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  14. Pingback: Captain Swing protests in 19th century Britain | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  15. Pingback: New Zealand workers’ history | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  16. Pingback: UK: dishonesty in election of favourite painting? | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  17. Pingback: Einstein’s General Relativity theory, 1915-2015 | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  18. Pingback: J.M.W. Turner art exhibition in Canada | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  19. Pingback: Imperialist Cecil Rhodes, anti-imperialist Oliver Tambo statues in England | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  20. Pingback: British moles in history | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  21. Pingback: British Conservatives waste taxpayers’ money on canal to nowhere | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  22. Pingback: Poet Attila the Stockbroker on 1917 Russian revolution | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  23. Pingback: American art historian Linda Nochlin, RIP | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  24. Pingback: British Conservatives attack homeless people for royal wedding | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  25. Pingback: English painter Annie Swynnerton exhibition | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  26. Pingback: Peppered moths and evolution, new study | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  27. Pingback: French painter Eugène Delacroix, New York exhibition | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  28. Pingback: Britain, from King Charles I to Boris Johnson | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  29. Pingback: Peterloo film by Mike Leigh, review, interview | Dear Kitty. Some blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.