The Industrial Revolution


Technological Innovation


Whilst innovators were not the sole factor in triggering the industrial revolution, they are mostly associated with textiles, and the North of England. The shuttle doubled weaving output, but it still lagged behind yarn production until steam power was applied by Cartwright in 1784. Roebuck was the first to produce cheap dilute acid for bleaching and Tennant’s powder was easier to transport and healthier.

The Industrial Revolution

Different authors quote different dates, but somewhere between 1760 and 1830, as a result of a number of factors such as the availability of capital, technical innovation, cheap coal and a strong entrepreneurial spirit, British industry and hence the economy took off into sustained growth. Referred to as the First Industrial Revolution, it ushered in Industrial Capitalism and a dramatic change in the way most people worked and lived.

Change disrupted traditional patterns. New more efficient ways of producing food and several good harvests lead to a drop in mortality, particularly in infants, resulting in a trebling of Great Britain’s population (over 5 million in 1695 to over 16 million in 1831). Between 1760 and 1820 many rural villages were subject to enclosure, which was a more effective way to use the land, and as farming became mechanised, so less labour was needed anyway. Hence a large number of rural workers were obliged to migrate to the newly growing towns in search of work.

Change was difficult. Rising population, labour surplus, less need for skills, wage suppression and cyclical economic recessions made for a bumpy ride. Factories and mills had a totally different rhythm to the traditional ebb and flow of the agricultural seasons. Long hours and discipline were needed to keep up the pace of production. There was hardship in the towns and anger and resentment, spilling over into violence, were not unknown.

Change was uneven. The domestic textile system remained alongside the factories. Weaving was the last discipline to leave. Small water-driven mills for spinning, scribbling (carding), scouring and fulling appeared in the smaller Pennine valleys like the Holme Valley, either built or adapted from corn mills and clothiers’ houses, with dams, goits and water-wheels. Some clothiers had dye houses nearby and most villages had tenterfields and workshops for cloth finishing/dressing.

Some weavers worked together in hand loom weaving shops (three storied houses with full-width windows). When factories came in, many owners employed both power in-house weavers and hand loom workers still at home. Some factories had hand looms which could be hired. Hence the hand loom weavers in the rural valleys of the West Riding were relatively protected from the new urban pressures.

Power at the turn of century was mostly provided by water because it was cheaper to run than the first steam engines. Water was not predictable however, and mills needed reservoirs to buffer dry summer spells. Economic steam power became available after 1850, heralding a major factory building period down in the main valleys, close to canals and railways and access to coal.

By 1850 there was little pure water power left. Boilers heated the mills and factories as well as turning the shafts, ropes and pulleys. The engine man or ‘tenter’, who kept the boiler clean and running smoothly, was the kingpin of the mill. The carding engine, originally two hand cards, became the largest machine in the factory, up to 75 feet long with as many as 80 rotating rollers, covered in card clothing.

Traditional rural social structures all but disappeared. The demands of the free market, the fear of worker violence (Luddites) and even fear of revolution (French Revolution 1789-99), the weakening of aristocratic control and the depopulation of the countryside ruptured the trust and social interaction associated with traditional paternalism. The nobility distanced themselves.

The money came from private individuals, landlords and groups of men, including clothiers and landowners, each subscribing a small amount of money. Bank loans were taken out. But, it could be a white knuckle ride. Some, at the same time as helping to dismantle aristocratic paternalism, acquired a country seat with a bought title and sent their heirs to public school. They promoted other industries such as railways, built mansions and contributed to the building of chapels, schools and model housing. Others faced adversity, living beyond their means and victims of tariffs, struggling with fraud, mortgages or family borrowing, as they failed to keep current with new forms of cloth and raw materials, machines and cycles of trade. As most factories became family concerns, sons could lose what their fathers had built. Mills and factories constantly changed hands. ‘Clogs to clogs in three generations’.

This new Victorian middle class of entrepreneurs thought of themselves as more industrious, respectable and had little concept of pre-industrial life. They valued hours worked and not amount produced. There was no pay if you didn’t work and this included holidays as well as absenteeism. In addition, many of the innovators and bosses came from dissenting religious groups, often from Scotland or of Scottish descent. Thus there was an evangelical morality which influenced the drive for efficiency and discipline.


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