The Rise and Fall of England: 7. The Industrial Surge

There was a great surge of productivity accompanied by increasing exchange activity in England in the latter part of the nineteenth. This productivity occurred in almost every field and was by no means confined to what is usually thought of as industrial. There were, for example, considerable increases in production of basic agricultural commodities. As one authority says, “Statistics of the output of grain are few and unreliable. It is, however, beyond doubt that annual production rose considerably in the second half of the century.” Not only was more land brought under cultivation but also there were considerable increases of production per acre, as much as one third in the yield of wheat between 1750 and 1880.1

There appears to have been a similar increase in the production cattle for market during roughly the same period. In 1750,a little under 71,000 hear were sold at the major market at Smithfield. In 1794 there were over 109,000 offered for sale. 2 It is generally held, too, that the average weight of cattle offered for sale had greatly increased. One writer says that the average weight of oxen offered at Smith­field had increased from 370 pounds in 1710 to 800 pounds in 1795.3

Sheep for sale at this market did not increase quite so dra­matically: from approximately 656,000 in 1750 to about 718,000 in 1794.4 But sheep were getting much heavier on the average than formerly, also.


The surge in manufacturing production was much more marked than in farming. The most dra­matic increase occurred in the making of cotton goods. Ashton says, "The number of pieces of broadcloth milled in Yorkshire rose from an average of 34,400 in 1731-40, to one of 229,400 in 1791­1800. Between the first and last decade of the century the annual output of printed cloths grew from 2.4 million to 25.9 million yards…."5 The woolens indus­try expanded much less rapidly. A vigorous pottery industry, how­ever, was developed in the latter part of the eighteenth century.

Mining and iron and steel manufactures developed at a rapid pace. "The output of pig-iron in Great Britain in 1788 was 68,000 tons. In 1796 it was, for England and Wales alone, 125,000 tons, and a few thousand tons must be add­ed for Scotland’s contribution. In 1806 the British total had swollen to 258,000 tons."6 As for coal, "There are no valid statistics of the production of coal, but the an­nual figures of exports from the great northern field may serve as a guide. For the decade 1701-10 they give an average of 183,000 Newcastle Chaldrons; for 1791­-1800 the figure is 758,000." Indica­tions are that production increase elsewhere was even greater.7

Shipping and Trade

Perhaps the best indicators of the great surge of production are the shipping and trade figures. The most reliable statistics exist for these undertakings also. The tonnage of boats leaving English ports in 1700 was 317,000 regis­tered tons; by 1751 it was 661,000 tons; it had reached 1,924,000 in 1800.8 In pounds sterling the val­ue of English exports in 1700 was about 71/2 millions; in 1750, 15 millions; in 1800, 42 millions. Imports had risen comparably, as might be expected.9 The export of cotton goods rose precipitately within a few years. The total val­ue of such goods was only about 360,000 pounds sterling in 1780. By 1800 it was more than five and a half millions. The import of cot­ton as raw material for manufac­turing shows a similar increase: in 1781 it was 5,300,000 pounds of cotton and by 1800 it had risen to 56 million pounds."

The Spirit of Innovation

The great surge of production and increase of trade was pre­ceded as well as accompanied by mechanical inventions, new prac­tices, new processes, reorganiza­tions of production, and improved transportation facilities. The spir­it of innovation, change, and in­vention seemed to be abroad in the land in the latter part of the eigh­teenth century. Samuel Johnson observed cryptically that "the age is running mad after innovation," that "all the business of the world is to be done in a new way; men are to be hanged in a new way; Tyburn itself is not safe from the fury of innovation."¹¹

The inventions which were most impressive in that day and are the best known to this day were the machines which were applied to textile manufacturing. Earliest inventive attention was given to speeding up spinning, for in the early eighteenth century it took about ten spinners to provide the yarn for one weaver. This dis­parity was increased by John Kay’s flying shuttle, patented in 1733, which enabled the weaver to work without the former assis­tance he needed. Lewis Paul de­veloped a device for roller spin­ning in 1738 which was supposed to aid in the task of spinning; but in the form that he contrived it, it was never much used. Much more effective was the spinning jenny devised by James Har­greaves in the 1760′s. It simply linked several spinning wheels to­gether so that a spinner could spin several threads rather than one with the same motion.

Another step in accelerating spinning was Richard Arkwright’s water frame, a machine that was operated by water power, patented in 1768. In the 1780′s, Samuel Crompton developed the mule, a contrivance that could spin a great number of threads at once that would be of very high quality. The speeding up of weaving now be­came most important. The Rev­erend Edmund Cartwright de­signed an effective power loom in12 most of these inventions were rather quickly adopted and thus began the transformation of textile manufacturing.

Improved Farm Practices

These were probably among the most famous inventions of the eighteenth century, but they were by no means the only important innovations for increased produc­tivity. Almost every area of pro­ductivity was enhanced by chang­es in processes or practices. Cer­tainly, a great deal of ingenuity went into improving farming practices and propagating them. Jethro Tull was one of the early leaders in farm improvements. He published a book in 1731 in which he advocated intensive farm­ing. "He recommended deep hoe­ing and ploughing, and a system of continuous rotation of crops, thanks to which the land could bear, without exhaustion, a suc­cession of varied harvests, and the wasteful practice of fallows could be suppressed or reduced. He ex­plained the importance of winter food for the cattle and showed to what account could be turned nu­tritious roots such as turnips and beets."¹3

At about the same time, Lord Townshend showed on his estates how wasteland could be reclaimed by drainage, manure, and the planting of grasses. Robert Bake-well was the most notable inno­vator in developing new breeds of cattle and sheep. "He began his work in 1745, scouring the neigh­borhood for the breeding animals which came nearest to his ideals, and later breeding in and in from his own stock only, selecting the best and selling the less good rams and bulls to other breeders." So successful was he that "visitors came from far and wide, Russian princes and German grand dukes included, to see his farm and stock, and pick up all the informa­tion with regard to his methods that he could be induced to im­part."¹4 Horses began increasing­ly to be substituted for oxen to pull plows in the course of the eighteenth century. Along with this change, there was increasing use of iron in the making of plows.

New or improved techniques and inventions appeared in many fields. Thomas Newcomen invented a steam pump in 1709, and James Watt constructed an effective steam engine in the 1760′s. This latter was used mainly for pump­ing water out of mines at first, but by the nineteenth century its use to turn machinery was being ex­ploited. The overshot water wheel replaced the undershot wheel. Coke was effectively used to make iron by Abraham Darby. Henry Cort patented processes for rolling and puddling iron in the 1780′s. In textiles the use of chlorine and other chemicals greatly accelerated the bleaching process.

Better Transportation

One of the developments which greatly facilitated the productive surge was that of improved trans­portation facilities. In the latter part of the eighteenth century there was much building of im­proved roads in England, and the era of canal building got under­way. These were aided both by new processes and engineering feats which were the marvel of the day. At the beginning of the eighteenth century roads in Eng­land were probably in no better shape than they had been five hun­dred years before. "Apart from London, there was not a single town which had permanent busi­ness connections with the rest of the country." About the middle of the century, turnpikes began to be authorized on a large scale. "Between 1760 and 1774 Parlia­ment passed no fewer than four hundred and fifty-two Acts in con­nection with the construction and upkeep of roads." The most ef­fective turnpike builder in the century was John Metcalf, a blind man. He developed a process for making a firm surface over bogs, and repaired and built many good roads.¹5 These pikes did link Eng­land fairly well by the beginning of the nineteenth century; but it was by the efforts of Telford and Macadam after 1810 that superior roads were built.

The first of the great canals was the Worsley canal built for the Duke of Bridgewater by James Brindley. He undertook the building of it in 1759 and com­pleted it in 1761. A few years later the great Mersey canal was begun. Work on many others soon followed suit: the Grand Trunk, the Bolton, the Bury, and the Kendal.¹6 The peak of canal build­ing was reached between about 1795 and 1815. "Between 1793 and 1805 the Grand Junction canal linked London with Warwickshire, with a side line to Oxford. The Leeds and Liverpool canal was be­ing pushed up 600 feet to cross the Pennines by locks and so, via the old Aire and Calder navigation, linked up with the Humber. Birmingham was connected with the Severn."¹7 So it was that England’s great cities became canal ports.

Entrepreneurship Increased Production

Inventions, processes, methods, and technical know-how might well have gone for naught had it not been for the development of entrepreneurship during this age. Entrepreneurs emerged to link together capital, labor, and raw materials and organize them for effective productive purposes. A good example of the new type of farmer entrepreneur was Coke of Holkham. He introduced new implements and methods, encour­aged his tenants by granting long leases, and by careful husbandry increased the value of his estate tenfold during his lifetime.¹8 Such attention to estates became quite the fashion in the eighteenth century. "George III had a model farm and welcomed the title of `Farmer George.’ Of Sir Robert Walpole, England’s first ‘prime minister,’ it was said that ‘he opened the letters of his farm steward’ before state correspon­dence…. When Fox visited the Louvre, his mind was filled with the thought ‘whether the weather was favourable to his turnips.’ "¹9

But entrepreneurship reached its epitome with the manufacturers. These were the men who not only brought together capital, labor, and materials but also made the great innovation which we know as the factory system. The power needed to turn the ever larger machines could not be conveniently provided in the homes; hence, workers, machines, power, and materials were concentrated in factories. (Of course, on a small scale such concentrations had long existed in such activities as mill­ing.) Among the most famous of such men — themselves sometimes inventors or introducers of new processes — were Josiah Wedge-wood, Mathew Boulton, Richard Arkwright, Jedediah Strutt, Sam­uel Oldknow, Robert Dale Owen, Thomas Walker, and Robert Peel.²º These men and others like them gave great impetus to the industrial surge.

No Real Revolution

The changes and developments discussed above are ordinarily described as the Industrial Revo­lution. They have been generally so-called since a book by Arnold Toynbee was published under that title in 1884. H. L. Beales notes some rather strong objections to the phrase, "The Industrial Revo­lution." He says, "The changes which are described as revolu­tionary rose spontaneously from ordinary economic practice, and they were constructive in that they gave an increasing power of satisfying wants. It is impossible, too, to find a beginning or an ending of these developments. The inventions on which rested the enlargement of industrial enter­prise established themselves only slowly…. The extended probings of scholars… seem to show that there never was an indus­trial revolution at all."²¹¹ None­theless, he and most others have continued to use the phrase.

Though the present writer has no illusions that his preferences will have any effect, he prefers a much less loaded phrase, such as the "Industrial Surge" to describe the early developments, and refers to the old usage only for identi­fying what is being discussed in conventional terms. That there was a considerable surge of pro­ductivity there can be no doubt. That this surge got under way in England before it did in other lands is a matter of universal agreement. That the innovations and organization which promoted it spread from there and continue to enliven production wherever they are employed should be clear also.

Lessons for Today

Much attention has been fo­cused upon the early years of this industrial surge in England. In view of the great concern at the present time with economic growth it would be understand­able if a great deal more interest were shown than is. Certainly, anyone wishing to industrialize might expect to find instruction in what happened during these years. Economic historians, and others, have given considerable attention to describing and at­tempting to account for the surge.

The usual approach is to ac­count for industrialization by a complex of conditions which set the stage for it. Before going in­to these, however, it will be well to discount one explanation that is sometimes given. Namely, some have attributed the rise of pro­ductivity in England to the im­petus provided by the wars Eng­land participated in, more spe­cifically, to those of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era. If that were the case, it would still not be clear why Eng­land preceded other countries, because they were engaged in war­fare also and some of them had similar pressing needs.

But the evidence does not even point in this direction. The most dramatic spurt in productive ac­tivity occurred during the 1780′s, after peace had been made with the United States and other coun­tries. Ashton says, "After 1782 almost every statistical series of production shows a sharp upward turn. More than half the growth in the shipments of coal and the mining of copper, more than three-quarters of the increase of broadcloths, four-fifths of that of printed cloth, and nine-tenths of the exports of cotton goods were concentrated in the last eighteen years of the century."22 It is true that the impetus continued after war broke out in 1793, but it was already well underway. Neither evidence nor logic supports the notion that the development can be attributed to war.

Some writers propose, too, that increased demand accounts for greater output. When rightly un­derstood, this claim is both true and irrelevant. It is of the same order of explanation as that which would explain the sleep-inducing quality of the sleeping pill by its soporific character. Or, the de­mand theory amounts to claiming that increased productivity is caused by increased productivity. When we keep clearly before us the realization that money is a medium of exchange, that effective demand arises from goods and services (not from money), it is not difficult to understand that the demand theory really explains nothing.

Many Contributing Factors

Such fallacies aside, however, the explanation in terms of sev­eral conditions has merit. The following is an example of such an explanation, one that is along the lines of the background which has already been dealt with in this work in earlier chapters:

Many circumstances thus combined to create a condition favorable for mechanical improvements. The incom­ing of independent-minded and skilled artisans from the Continent; the escape, especially in the north, from the monopolistic restrictions of cor­porations and gilds; the social fer­ments tending to dissolve the tradi­tions opposed to change; the rise of rationalism and experimental and ap­plied sciences…. 23

He would add to these also the teaching of evangelical Protes­tants and the opportunity for profitable application of machin­ery.

Ashton adds to the above such factors as lower interest rates, the role of entrepreneurs, the part played by dissenters, the stimulation and impetus given by various societies, and so on.24 And the list of the particular condi­tions which set the stage for in­dustrialization in England could probably be extended.

The present writer shares with these and other historians the conviction that the industrial surge arose out of the particular conditions that existed in England plus the efforts of men. Yet he feels that an enumeration of cir­cumstances which could be ex­tended almost indefinitely does not satisfy. It does not satisfy because it does not pin down what im­pelled the development, because it does not distinguish between what was essential and what merely adventitious, and because it does not provide that instruction which we would have from history. In the final analysis, it does not sat­isfy because there is a way of dealing with all the essential con­ditions by reducing them under a single heading.

"Economy" the Key

Economy is the key to the in­dustrial surge. Men were impelled to the adoption of new procedures and the making of inventions by the desire for economy, and it was economy in operation that enabled them to increase production so rapidly. Evidence for this and ex­amples to show it in operation need to be examined, but before doing this a profound theoretical objection to it needs to be dealt with.

Economy would not appear to be an appropriate heading for an historical explanation. Economy can be considered a constant, while history deals with change. In its basic meaning, men are bent by nature toward economy. The root meaning of economy is the thrifty use of resources. More broadly, to be economical is to employ as little as possible of the resources of production — land, labor, and capital — to achieve the largest amount of goods and services. It would seem likely that men have ever been inclined to do this.

No doubt, each individual is inclined to behave economically in the employment of his re­sources. He is inclined to put forth as little effort as possible, to use his capital sparingly, and to employ as small amount of ma­terials as possible to effect the greater increase in his income. As such, this penchant might be expected to be a constant through­out history. But what is econom­ical for an individual is not, under certain circumstances, economical for people generally. That is, it is possible for an individual to be quite thrifty with his resources and increase his income without increasing the general store of goods. Stealing is the obvious ex­ample. But all use of force to effect an increase of somebody or other’s goods is of a similar character. The most common such use of force is government inter­vention in the economy.

Special Privilege

When government intervention is general in a land, it is fre­quently economical for individuals who benefit from it not to increase the general supply of goods and services. An individual who has a monopoly can actually increase his income by decreasing the goods offered at a particular time. The price of services can be enhanced by keeping newcomers from of­fering theirs. The mercantilism which was rife in Europe in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries affords numerous ex­amples of the economy for individ­uals of possessing special priv­ileges. So does the feudalism which preceded it. Whole ages have been dominated by the efforts of men to get and keep special privileges from government for themselves. It is this that makes the practice of Economy the sub­ject matter of history and appro­priate for historical explanation.

If men cannot use force to in­crease their incomes, they must increase the supply of goods and services in order to do so. By a kind of common consent this is what men have agreed to call economy. Since the latter part of the eighteenth century there have existed elaborate explanations of how in the absence of force when an individual increases his own income he is at the same time behaving in a way economically beneficial to society.

Away from Privilege

The productive surge came in England when a sufficient portion of the people turned their atten­tion away from getting special privileges to finding ways to save resources and increase production. Even the spurt of productive ac­tivity which came in the 1780′s illustrates the point. After 1782, British merchants no longer had special privileges on continental America. There was not only a spurt in shipbuilding in England, since they could no longer use the American colonies as a source, but also reinvestment of funds in such undertakings as domestic manufacturing which had for­merly been employed in the main­tenance of markets for which British merchants had exclusive privileges.

But Englishmen had been turn­ing toward economy and away from special privileges for a con­siderable period before the 1780′s. For more than 150 years the as­sault on privilege had been going on, in mounting fervor from the 1640′s, and it was to continue on into the nineteenth century. In­deed, the battle between Economy and Privilege was a long and bit­ter one. Every step of the way, the attempt to practice economy was contested. Kings tried to cling to their monopoly-granting powers. Then Parliament took to granting monopolies when the power had been wrested from the king. Rural enclosures by which the land could be economically em­ployed were only accomplished by the grudging consent of Parlia­ment and over the emotional pro­tests of poets. New processes en­countered tremendous resistance from those accustomed to the old. Workers sometimes rioted against the introduction of new machines.

Yet, skirmish by skirmish, Economy won the day in England. It won as special privileges were removed and restrictions which obstructed economy lost the force of law. It won as men witnessed the superiority of new techniques and machines. It won as enlighten­ment as to its public benefits gained sway over superstitions of the past.

There should be no doubt that the inventions, processes, meth­ods, and organizations which led to the industrial surge were eco­nomical. The horse saved labor, for the same workman could plow a great deal more land with the fast-stepping horse than with the plodding ox. New breeds of cattle turned feed to greater amounts of flesh and less to bone. The over­shot water wheel could provide the same amount of power with much less water used. One man could produce six times as much thread by turning the spinning jenny as he could formerly with the spin­ning wheel. The canals saved an immense amount of time in ship­ments of heavy goods. The steam pump made it possible to utilize mines much more fully and com­pletely. The list could be extended but the point has surely been made.

Knowledge Is Power

That Englishmen were increas­ingly aware of and concerned with economy can be shown in many ways. Thrift was much ad­vanced by banks and savings as­sociations. Inventions were pro­moted by various societies. Daniel Defoe explored the rudiments of economy in his fictional Robinson Crusoe. Jethro Tull had focused attention on rural economy by his writings. Adam Smith made a definitive case for economy in The Wealth of Nations.

And, the conditions which set the stage for the industrial surge were conditions which permitted economy. The limitations of gov­ernment which preceded and accompanied it freed the energies of the English people to behave economically. The security of lib­erty and property enabled men to behave economically as individuals and made it necessary for them to behave economically in a way to benefit society if they would prosper. The moral base which directed the energies of men to constructive purposes inculcated a sense of stewardship which would have men be thrifty and industrious. The very thrust of men to employ reason in more and more areas was a thrust to economy of thought.

In short, as men established conditions which made individual economy socially beneficial, they directed their energies toward achieving Economy. This was a product both of the struggle of certain elements for political pow­er, which resulted in the limita­tion of power, and increasing knowledge born of new ways of learning.

The industrial surge continued into the nineteenth century. The great productivity provided the material base for the greatness and leadership of England. It is now in order to make an account of England at the height of her leadership role in Western Civili­zation, in the course of which it will also be possible to indicate the more specific benefits to Eng­lishmen of productivity.     

The next article of this series will describe the Pax Britannica.



1 T. S. Ashton, An Economic History of England: The 18th Century (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1955), p. 51.

2Ibid., p. 245.

3 Paul Mantoux, The Industrial Revo­lution in the Eighteenth Century (London: Jonathan Cape,1961, rev. ed.),p.161.

4 Ashton, op. cit., p. 245.

5 Ibid., p. 124.

6 J. Steven Watson, The Reign of George III (London: Oxford University Press, 1960), p. 505.

7 Ashton, op. cit., p. 124.

8 Mantoux, op. cit., p. 100.

9 Ibid., p. 102.

¹º Ibid., p. 252.

¹¹ Quoted in T. S. Ashton, The Indus­trial Revolution (New York: Oxford Uni­versity Press, 1964), p. 10.

12 Michael W. Flinn, An Economic and Social History of Britain (London: Macmillan, 1961), pp. 163-65.

¹3 Mantoux, op. cit., p. 158.

¹4 Gilbert Slater, The Growth of Mod­ern England (London: Constable, 1939, 2nd ed.), pp. 190-10.

15 Mantoux, op. cit., pp. 108-17.

16 Ibid., pp. 124-25.

17 Watson, op. cit., pp. 518-19.

¹8 Mantoux, op. cit., pp. 160-61.  

20 Witt Bowden, Industrial Society in Eighteenth Century (New York: Barnes and 4th ed.), p. 140.

¹9 E. Lipson, The Growth of English England towards the End, of the Eight-Society (London: A. and C. Black, 1959, Noble, 1965, 2nd ed.), pp. 137-38.

2¹ H. L. Beaks, The Industrial Revolu­tion (London: Frank Cass, 1958), p. 28.



Mass Production

The outstanding fact about the Industrial Revolution is that it opened an age of mass production for the needs of the masses. The wage earners are no longer people toiling merely for other people’s well-being. They themselves are the main consumers of the products the factories turn out. Big business depends upon mass consumption. There is, in present-day America, not a single branch of big business that would not cater to the needs of the masses. The very principle of capitalist entrepreneurship is to provide for the common man. In his capacity as consumer the common man is the sovereign whose buying or abstention from buying decides the fate of entrepreneurial activities. There is in the market economy no other means of acquiring and pre­serving wealth than by supplying the masses in the best and cheapest way with all the goods they ask for.