Annotated selected bibliography for historical interpretations of the industrial revolution in britain



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The volume demonstrates that the word ‘commerce’ in the period had a much broader meaning than it does today. During the 18th century it came to stand for economic relations as a whole. Culture as used here does not mean works of art, music or literature but the “system of symbols embodying the shared or contested values of society.” One of the chief innovations of he period was the redefinition of commercial values as promoters of the common good in a society whose social order had been defined by religious, aristocratic and customary values. Finally, many of the authors represented here saw a direct connection between the growth of commercial values and the development of freedom, or as Adam Smith called his ideal commercial society, “a natural system of liberty.” While most of the writers excerpted here wrote in English and French, the discussion about the nature and value of the growth of commercial culture took place in a European wide framework. Among the important subjects debated during the period were commerce and the spread of liberty; see, for example, Pieter de la Court; free trade and mercantilism, see Josiah Child; self-interest and the public good, see Bernard Mandeville, David Hume and Daniel Defoe; the debate about luxury, see David Hume and Jean Jacques Rousseau; and the influence of the growth of commerce on traditional social distinctions, see John Millar. This well edited and handsomely produced volume, available in an inexpensive edition from the Liberty Fund, is an excellent introduction to the intellectual history of capitalist economic thought in Europe before Adam Smith.
Crafts, N.F.R. British Economic Growth during the Industrial Revolution, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985. Pp. 193, 48 tbls.

This important quantitative study of British economic growth during the Industrial Revolution summarizes an important reinterpretation of the rate of British economic growth during the classic period of industrialization from 1760 to 1830. This book summarizes, in a fairly accessible form, Craft’s argument, published previously in more than a dozen specialized articles in scholarly journals, that the long held view that the British Industrial Revolution was characterized by a “take-off” and a subsequent and sustainable rate of economic growth during the period. His work was a direct challenge to the classic 1962 study, by W.A. Cole and Phyllis Deane, British Economic Growth, which had provided a statistical foundation for the traditional view that the British Industrial Revolution witnessed a dramatic and sustained acceleration of economic growth, which brought a fundamental break with an earlier traditional society characterized by low economic growth. Crafts based his work on the same statistical data as Dean and Cole but uses sophisticated statistical and theoretical economic techniques to come up with quite different conclusions. He argues that the macro-economic effects of the Industrial Revolution were limited before the 1830s and only became substantial after the 1830s, when many inventions of the earlier period, such as the railroads for example, became widely felt. Secondly, he argues that although the standard of living rose during the industrial revolution, the improvement was not as widely felt because of relatively modest economic growth. Third, he argues that technological innovation and productivity growth did not produce as much productivity as the amount of capital employed as has been argued. Moreover, technological innovation was largely limited to a few key industries. While technical innovations played a large role in the cotton, iron and machinery industries, and were fundamental to a large increase of exports, these dynamic industries were a small part of the economy and did not play a major role in accelerating economic growth in the economy as a whole. Thus, Crafts argues that a few dynamic industries, which saw dramatic technological innovation, were islands of rapid industrialization in a relatively slow growing British economy before 1830. By contrast, Crafts argues that there was relatively little innovation or increased productivity in the larger and more traditional parts of manufacturing and commerce during the period. As a result, according to Crafts, the economic growth that did take place during the period was more the result of increased capital accumulation and an increase of productivity in agriculture. Crafts places British industrial growth in a European comparative framework. He argues that Britain’s success in foreign trade was based rather narrowly upon a few key industries before 1830 and that its high standard of living had been built up relatively slowly over a longer period and in many areas in which technological change and productivity growth had been relatively modest. Craft’s work is heavily empirical. His conclusions rely upon aggregating data for the entire economy and upon such theoretical constructs such as “total factor productivity.” Nonetheless, his work, as well as the econometric economic history of many others, produced a major challenge to the traditional explanation of the Industrial Revolution as a radical transformation of a traditional economy into a modern industrial one that took place especially between ca. 1760 and 1830. Crafts later restated his position showing even lower growth for the classic period of British industrialization, see N.F.R. Crafts and C.K. Harley, “Output Growth and the British Industrial Revolution: A Restatement,” Economic History Review 45 (1992): 703-30.
Daunton, M. J., Progress and Poverty: An Economic and Social History of Britain, 1700-1850, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pp. xv, 620. 1 figs. 58 tbls.

Daunton described his goals for this book as follows: “the starting point of my survey is the performance of the economy, but the aim has been to integrate social and political history into the analysis in a way which will, I hope, make the more technical writings of economic historians accessible to a wider audience, while at the same time adopting a critical stance to the underlying assumptions of some of the recent work of economic historians.” In other words, Daunton’s purpose was to humanize Britain’s economic history again after several decades of work by the new economic historians who concentrated on statistics, economic theory and macro-economic growth analysis but left out much of the human drama. While this is not a short and easy book, it is a substantial one-volume survey that is readable, comprehensive and provides a balanced account of the economic history of the period and integrates it with social and political history. The book is organized into five sections: agriculture and rural society; industry and urban society; integrating the economy; poverty, prosperity and population; and public policy and the state. In terms of the origins of economic growth in Britain, Daunton supports the now stamdard view that the industrial revolution was a long and evolutionary process that began in Britain’s advanced organic economy but required a switch to a mineral economy, chiefly coal and iron, to escape from the Malthusian trap of a growing population being limited by increased costs of natural resources. The heart of his explanation for Britain’s economic growth lies in part three, ‘integrating the economy.’ For Daunton, it was the ‘middling sort,’ such as local and regional merchants, bankers, entrepreneurs, skilled craftsmen and workers who lowered transaction and production costs through regional and local specialization—Adam Smith’s famous division of labor—that made economic growth possible. Daunton sees growth as fundamentally a product of domestic demand rather than being a result of export led expansion. He also argues that the role of the state, and its relatively enlightened public policy, was crucial to the sustainability of Britain’s economic growth. As his title suggests, progress did not mean prosperity for everyone in Britain by 1850. His discussion of the standard of living controversy argues that broad improvements in the standard of living did not take place until the second half of the nineteenth century. He explains that despite the social unrest of the Chartist period, Britain remained politically and socially stable because of economic growth and political and social reform. The upper classes were flexible enough to undertake a slow process of political reform that not only saw the adoption of free trade in an economy, which was for a time “the workshop of the world,” but also agreed to the beginning of factory acts, government support for public improvements in living conditions, and the toleration for workers’ organizations and trade unions. The book includes useful lists of further reading after each chapter as well as some maps and statistical tables. It is an excellent overview of the subject for serious students.
Davis, Ralph. The Industrial Revolution and British Overseas Trade, Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1979. P. 135. 64 tbls.

The critical issue treated here is: did overseas trade play a crucial role in the origin of the industrial revolution during this period, as some have argued, or was growing domestic demand sufficient, as other have maintained? Ralph Davis’ main scholarly interest was in the history of the English shipping industry and in quantifying Britain’s foreign trade from the 17th to the early 19th centuries. While his empirical research has provided a great deal of statistical data on the volume and structure of Britain’s foreign trade, the debate on the role of international trade in the origin of the industrial revolution remains unsettled. His two path-breaking articles on England’s foreign trade during the late 17th century to the 1770s were published in 1954 and 1962 in the Economic History Review. These were followed by a major monograph, The Rise of the English Shipping Industry in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, and a more general study, The Rise of the Atlantic Economies. In 1973. His work has helped to place the role of Britain’s foreign trade in the development of its industrial revolution in an international perspective. The Industrial Revolution and British Overseas Trade continues his analysis to the 1850s. It has been difficult to analyze Britain’s foreign trade between 1660 and the mid-19th century because the custom duty records upon which this research is based used “official” rather than real values for imports and exports. This study’s major contribution is that Davis has recalculated the “official” values into real values for the period 1784 to 1856, allowing the author to produce a more realistic estimate of the contribution of foreign trade to Britain’s national income for the period. His work results in the following overall conclusions: “Overseas trade did much to strengthen British economic life during the 18th century, and in doing so it helped to create the base without which the industrial ‘take-off’ might not have proceeded so fast or gone so far. Moreover, once home demand ceased to be sufficient to maintain the momentum of growth of the most advanced industries, around 1800, overseas trade did begin to play an absolutely vital direct part in their further expansion.” Davis especially points to the textile industries for having “provided the driving force behind the Industrial Revolution,” as well as the increase in agricultural productivity that initially sustained the surge in population growth.


Deane, Phyllis and W. A. Cole, British Economic growth, 1688-1959: Trends and Structure , 2nd ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967. Pp. x, 350. 92 tbls. 7 figs.

This pioneering statistical analysis of British economic growth provided a basic set of quantitative data for the economic history of the subject. While many particulars in the book were widely questioned from the date of its first publication in 1962, its broad overall conclusions were not successfully challenged until the 1970s and 1980s by a new generation of economic historians, such as N. F. R. Crafts (see above). The book remains an important historiographical document in the writings on the British Industrial Revolution. Already during the 1920s, J. H. Clapham, the greatest early 20th century British economic historian, had called for placing the history of the industrial revolution on a solid quantitative basis. Most of the writing on the subject before Clapham had been literary in form and had sought to promote various social and political agendas. Some sought to expose the social and economic problems of the working classes during the industrial revolution in order to promote schemes of state intervention in order to improve the condition of the working classes. Others focused on the role of the entrepreneur and the free market in explaining the origin of the industrial revolution in the belief that the continuation of free market policies offered the most effective solution to raising the standard of living of the entire population (Clapham belonged to this latter persuasion). From the end of World War II through the 1970s many economic historians came to believe that the use of economic theory and statistical analysis made them neutral social scientists who offered objective explanations of economic history. Despite their claims of objectivity, the more quantitative and theoretically informed economic history of the post-World War II period was also heavily influenced by contemporary concerns. Chief among these was the breakup of the colonial empires and a Cold War interest in promoting economic growth in the underdeveloped world. Thus, how and why national incomes grow became a prime concern.

Dean and Cole’s statistical account of British economic growth demonstrated that an increased rate of growth in a developing economy could lead to a “take-off” into sustained economic growth. The concept of an economic “takeoff” was brought into the historiography of the industrial revolution in 1954 by W.W. Rostow, and later popularized in his The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (1960). Dean and Cole’s book offers statistical data and analyzes long tern trends and structural changes in the British national economy. After briefly discussing the main variables—population, the value of money, wages, and the international balance of payments—the authors go on to set out the quantitative date in a series of substantial statistical studies on such topics as the relation between industrialization and population change, the growth of occupations, industries and incomes, long term trends in national income and its composition, and changes in capital accumulation. Their key conclusions on national economic growth were that there was a long and slow build up of economic growth before the 1740s, of about 0.3% per annum, a modest increase in growth to 0.9% from 1745 to 1760, which was at first offset by rapid population growth, but quickened to 1.8% in the 1780s and outstripped population growth, producing sustained growth, which accelerated to growth of about 5% per annum from the 1820s to 1850. These conclusion provided quantitative support for the earlier and classical view that the industrial revolution should be chiefly association with the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Phyllis Deane subsequently published a popular introductory survey, The First Industrial Revolution (1962), which was a widely used textbook on the subject in universities into the early 1980s.
Findlay, Ronald and Kevin O’Rourke, Power and Plenty: Trade, War and the World Economy in the Second Millennium, Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007. Pp.vii, 619. 37 tbls.

In this ambitious survey of the world economy during the last millennium, Findlay and O’Rourke have set out to place contemporary globalization in a broad historical context of uneven economic development. Many historians have seen the first industrial revolution as the source of the “great divergence” between Western Europe and the rest of the world. This study argues that the industrial revolution “can only be understood as the outcome of a historical process with multiple causes stretching well back into the medieval period, and in which international movements of commodities, warriors, microbes, and technologies all played a leading role. Purely domestic accounts of the ‘Rise of the West,’ emphasizing Western institutions, cultural attributes, or endowments, are hopelessly inadequate, since they ignore the vast web of interrelationships between Europe and the rest of the world that had been spun for many centuries, and was crucially important for the breakthrough to modern economic growth.” While Marxists have argued that Western Europe’s economic success was primarily due to its use of power and exploitation, the authors argue that they view “inventiveness and an incentives…as being the heart of growth” but this does not imply that European overseas expansion should be written off as irrelevant. “Plunder may not have directly fueled the industrial revolution, but mercantilism and imperialism were an important part of a global context within which it originated, expanding markets and ensuring the supply of raw materials. Violence thus undoubtedly mattered in shaping the environment in which the conventional economic forces of supply and demand operated.”

Central to their study is their view that interregional trade was the key to economic growth. Their analysis consists of describing the geopolitics of Eurasia’s and North Africa’s major regions and their interactions, which gradually brought the rest of the world into a world economy. These regions are Western Europe (the Catholic area before the Reformation), Eastern Europe (Orthodox Christian), North Africa and South-west Asia (Islamic heartland), Central or inner Asia, South-east Asia, and East Asia. One of their key contributions is their constant reminder that economic geography and resource endowments were key factors in regional economic success. The authors point out that at the beginning of the millennium the pivotal region of the world was the Islamic world, for it was in contact with the rich areas of the east as well as the relatively less developed western European region. The central event during this period was the Pax Mongolica, which knitted together most of the Eurasian landmass under the Mongol Empire, stimulating trade from Japan to the Atlantic. This also allowed the spread of the plague, the Black Death, in the 14th century, which, despite its devastating immediate effects, helped create a “microbian common market” in Eurasia, which in turn allowed the expansion of population, output and prices around the world, but especially in Western Europe and Southeast Asia.

This crisis set the stage for the launching of the Iberian voyages of ‘discovery’ of the New World and the initial exploitation of its resources with the labor of African slaves under the command of Western Europeans. This was followed by a long struggle for hegemony in the emerging world economy between the Dutch Republic, Great Britain and France, while, at the other end of the world, the Russian Czarist and Chinese Manchu Qing empires struggled for hegemony in central and far eastern Asia. At this point the authors interrupt their narrative to take a closer look at the fundamental breakthrough of the industrial revolution in Britain and Western Europe. They argue that the industrial revolution “set in motion economic forces that determined the future course of international trade, down to our own day.” It produced a “Great Divergence” in income levels between regions as the new technologies spread unevenly across the globe and created a “Great Specialization” between “an industrial core and a primary-producing periphery. This resulted in the protection of agriculture in the core and the protection of manufacturing in the periphery and “finally a gradual unwinding of these trends as the industrial revolution spread to encompass an ever increasing proportion of the globe.” The authors explain that this process was not a smooth evolution but “was profoundly marked by the political consequences of three major world wars, the French and Napoleonic wars that ended the age of mercantilism, World War I and World War II.” According to the authors, war, the ultimate exercise of power, which was vastly expanded by the industrial revolution, has had and continues to have a vast impact on the evolution of the world economy. The authors have successfully synthesized a vast body of economic and historical literature to produce an impressive economic history of the world economy that places the study of the European industrial revolution in a world historical context. Its extensive bibliography is an excellent guide to the contemporary debates on the history of globalization and the origin and consequences of the industrial revolution.


Floud, Roderick and Donald McCloskey, eds. The Economic History of Britain Since 1700, Vol. 1, Industrialisation, 1700-1860, 3rd ed. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004). Pp. xix, 377. 33 figs. 74 tbls.

The third edition of this important survey of industrialization in Britain takes account of recent scholarship and is considerably different from the first (1981) and second (1994) editions. Its sixteen chapters, written by recognized authorities in the field, offer a sophisticated survey of contemporary interpretations of major topics on the subject. This edition reflects the current overall consensus that early British industrialization proceeded relatively slowly between 1700 and 1860, without a dramatic industrial revolution in a relatively short period between 1780 and 1830 as depicted in many earlier treatments. Although the rate of economic growth quickened in the early 19th century, and the cumulative effects of industrialization became especially obvious in certain sectors of the economy from the 1830’s, the relatively modest rates of economic growth during the period as a whole meant that industrialization left the bulk of the population with only modest gains in their standard of living by about 1850. Advances in knowledge and technological innovation over this long period remain fundamental to an explanation of cumulative economic growth within the context of a relatively open social system, political stability, an effective government, and access to natural resources. While factories and large-scale business organizations were developed in this period, most British businesses remained relatively small and a good deal of production was still done in small workshops. Changes in family structure and gender roles were important in some industries but overall these social changes were far less dramatic than has been argued in earlier historiography. In an excellent opening chapter, “Accounting for the Industrial Revolution,” Joel Mokyr provides a useful summary on the rate of growth debate. Other chapters included are “Industrial Organization and Structure,” Pat Hudson; British population, E. A. Wrigley; agriculture, Robert Allen; technology, Kristine Bruland; “Money, finance and capital Markets,” Stephen Quinn; “Trade: discovery, mercantilism and technology,” Knick Hartley; government and the economy, Ron Harris; “Household economy,” Jane Humphries; living standards, Hans-Joachim Vost; transport, Simon Ville; education, David Mitch; consumption, Maxine Berg; Scotland, T. M. Devine; extractive industries, Roger Burt; and “The industrial revolution in a global perspective,” Stanley Engerman and Patrick K. O’Brien. The volume includes an excellent set of statistical tables and suggestions for further reading.


Freeman, Michael, Railways and the Victorian Imagination, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1999. Pp. vii, 264. 279 ills.

For the Victorians, the railway symbolized the great divide between old and new. Between 1830 and 1850, the railway mania created a dense railway network in Britain and brought the experience of the industrial revolution to almost everyone in the country. Much of the published railway history is institutional, narrowly economic, technical or of the ‘trainspotting’ variety. Freeman, a geographer by training, has given us a well-written and beautifully illustrated volume that places the history of the railway in Britain in a broad cultural context. Given his training in geography, he is especially good in his descriptions and choice of illustrations of the new spaces and visual world created by the railway, such as its palatial railway stations and hotels. Britain’s new ailways drew straight lines through the countryside, which seemed to defy the natural landscape. It also brought marvels of engineering. The steam locomotive became a symbol of the new power of industry. Its cuttings and tunnels revealed fossils and a geological world that prepared the Victorians for the science of evolution that undermined the doctrine of creation.

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