Britain witnessed a transformation of industry and economy between the 1780s and the 1850s. This phase is called the ‘First Industrial Revolution’.
Britain was the first country to experience modern industrialization. Following are the key reasons for this development:
- Political stability since seventeenth century meant that the United Kingdom had common laws, a single currency and a market that was not fragmented by local authorities levying taxes.
- By the end of the seventeenth century, money was the most preferred medium of exchange. A large section of people received wages in the form of money; giving good amount of disposable income to people.
- Bigger landlords had bought up small farms near their own properties and enclosed the village common lands, creating very large estates and increasing food production. This forced landless farmers to move to cities in search of jobs.
Towns, Trade and Finance
From the eighteenth century, many towns in Europe were growing in area and population. Between 1750 and 1800, population of 19 European cities had become double. Out of these 19 cities, 11 were in Britain, and London was the largest town among them.
London had also become globally significant. By the eighteenth century, the centre of global trade had shifted from the Mediterranean ports of Italy and France to the Atlantic ports of Holland and Britain. In due course of time, London had replaced Amsterdam as the principal source of loans for international trade. London also became the centre of a triangular trade network among England, Africa and the West Indies. The companies trading in America and Asia also had their offices in London.
England had a good network of rivers, and an indented coastline with sheltered bays. All the navigable sections of English rivers flow into the sea. So, cargo on river vessels was easily transferred to coastal ships, called coasters. By 1800, at least 100,000 sailors worked on the coasters.
Presence of Banks: The Bank of England was founded in 1694, and it had become the centre of the country’s financial system. By 1784, there were more than a hundred provincial banks in England. By the 1820s, there were more than 600 banks in the provinces. There were over 100 banks in London alone. These banks met the financial requirements to establish and maintain big industrial enterprises.
The industrialization that took place in Britain between 1780s and 1850s is partly attributed to the factors discussed above. These can be summarized as follows:
- Many poor people from the villages were available to work in towns.
- Presence of many banks to provide loan to set up large industries.
- A good transport network.
Additionally, there were two new factors which are as follows:
- A range of technological changes that dramatically increased production level.
- Construction of railways
Coal and Iron
England was naturally endowed with plenty of coal, iron ore, lead, copper and tin. Until the eighteenth century, there was a scarcity of usable iron because charcoal was being used for smelting of iron ore. Charcoal had its limitations. It was too fragile for long distance transport. Its impurities produced poor quality iron. Moreover, charcoal could not generate high temperatures.
This problem was solved by the Darbys of Shropshire. The first Abraham Darby (1677-1717) invented the blast furnace. A blast furnace uses coke which can generate high temperatures. The melted iron obtained from blast furnace permitted finer and larger castings than before.
The second Darby (1711-68) developed wrought iron from pig iron. Wrought iron is less brittle. Henry Cort (1740-1823) designed the pudding furnace and rolling mill. Molten iron can be rid of impurities in a pudding furnace. Rolling mill used steam power to roll purified iron bars. The third Darby (1750-91) built the first iron bridge in the world, in Coalbrookdale, in 1779.
Britain possessed excellent coking coal and high grade iron ore in the same basins or even in the same seams. These basins were also close to ports. Proximity of the coalfields to the ports, helped in increasing ship-building, and shipping trade.
The output of the British iron industry quadrupled between 1800 and 1830. Its product was the cheapest in Europe. By 1848, Britain was producing more iron than the rest of the world put together.