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



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Mokyr, Joel, The Enlightened Economy: An Economic History of Britain 1700-1850, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. Pp. x, 564. 16 tbls.

Although the phrase ‘industrial revolution’ does not appear in its title, this is a major new study of the British industrial revolution by one of the best-known economic historians writing on the subject today. It is a large and very well written volume that exhibits an impressive command of the extensive scholarship on the subject. The book includes an extensive bibliography. Although Mokyr agrees with the increasingly popular view among historians that the transformation of Britain’s economy, which has been traditionally called an industrial revolution, took place over at least a century and a half, he nonetheless points to the classic period of the industrial revolution between ca 1770 to 1830 as crucial to the larger transformation of the economy. Mokyr’s earlier publications were especially concerned with the role that technology plays in economic growth. The overall thesis of this volume is “that the industrial revolution…placed technology as the main engine of economic change” and that this was driven by “the changing set of beliefs that we associate with the Enlightenment.” The use of the word Enlightenment in the title, and its frequent use throughout the book, does not mean that Enlightenment ideas caused the industrial revolution as such. Instead, what he means is that Britain’s culture and institutions were open to Enlightenment ideas in science, economics, politics and social organization and the British were able to use these to alter their political, social and economic institutions to take advantage of technological and business innovations.

For Mokyr, the sustainable growth of economic productivity during the period are not just be a result of unusual scientific and technological breakthroughs, but their very origin, and their ability to increase productivity, must take place in a receptive and broader social context. Thus, Mokyr does not give us a strictly economic or technological explanation for the origin of Britain’s industrial revolution, but a broadly cultural one. The book contains extensive discussions of the social basis of knowledge production and distribution as well as explaining the major and many minor technological innovations. This is, however, far more than a technological history of the British economy. It includes an extensive discussion on British political and social institutions and how these provided incentives for economic development. There are also chapters on the contributions of agriculture and Britain’s openness to international trade to economic development. Mokyr does not only focus on the supply and demand of goods but also has several important chapters on the often-neglected areas of the service industries. In addition there are chapters on Britain’s demographic transformation and on the increasingly important topics of gender and family structure in economic development. His discussion of income inequality and living standards constitute a balanced treatment of this contentious topic. In short, this is a comprehensive and impressive treatment of Britain’s economic transformation that remains revolutionary in a world-historical perspective even though it took place over a long period of one hundred and fifty years.
Morgan, Kenneth, The Birth of Industrial Britain: Social Change, 1750-1850, Harlow, UK: Pearson Longman, 2004. Pp. vi, 171.

This is a volume in the well-regarded “Seminar Studies in History” series. The purpose of these is to provide a scholarly but relatively brief introduction to the state of knowledge on an important subject written by an expert in the field. The volumes include suggestions for further reading and a selection of primary documents. The focus of this volume is on the social changes brought about by the industrial revolution. There are chapters on work and leisure, living and health standards, religion and society, popular education, the old and new poor law, popular protest, and crime, justice and punishment. The documents are well chosen and provide a handy collection of primary sources for teaching. Morgan concludes that by the early nineteenth century factories were prominent in the Midlands, north of England and lowland Scotland but relatively uncommon in other industrializing parts of the country. At the same time, the period also saw major changes in cottage and handicraft industries in other parts of the country. On the standard of living question, Morgan concludes that “a fair case could be made for a deterioration in the environmental and epidemiological context of most people’s lives during early industrialization…but there is no evidence of wholesale deterioration in wages for the entire working population in the first half of the nineteenth century.” He argues that increased population, social and geographical mobility, combined with periodic agricultural and industrial slumps, brought increased insecurity for most workers. At the same time, the New Poor Law saw a decreased expenditure on poor relief and stricter regulations made public assistance more difficult to obtain. Despite the social unrest of the early nineteenth century, he argues that there was never a serious threat of a radical revolution. He notes that it was during the early Victorian period, despite the fact that workers were excluded from the franchise, that the state began to lay the foundation of a system of state regulation of industry and public improvements which, combined with the growth of labor unions and economic growth, began to improve the living and working conditions of the people.


Morgan, Kenneth, The Birth of Industrial Britain: Economic Change 1750-1850, London and New York: Longman, 1999. Pp. vi, 147.

This is a volume in the well-regarded “Seminar studies in History” series. The purpose of which is to provide a scholarly but relatively brief introduction to the state of knowledge on an important subject written by an expert in the field. The volumes include suggestions for further reading and a selection of primary documents. The focus of this volume is on the economics of the classic period of the British industrial revolution. The major topics covered are population growth; agriculture; domestic industry and proto-industrialization; factory production and the textile industries; coal and iron; entrepreneurs, capital, and business enterprises; foreign trade; and internal transport. Instead of favoring a particular factor as the key to the origin of the British industrial revolution, he stresses that British industrialization was built on an advanced organic pre-industrial economy with a productive agriculture, which experienced an increase of population through earlier marriages and greater fertility. Demographic growth provided for greater labor mobility, which allowed for the expansion of both factory and handicraft industries. The transition from an organic economy to a mineral fueled economy gave Britain an advantage over its rivals, such as the Low Countries and France, especially during the period of war and revolution between 1780 and 1815. Morgan does not see the state as having played a significant role in promoting economic growth other than in its military defense of the country, the provision of a stable functioning government and a framework in which entrepreneurs could develop their businesses. The country’s infrastructure, such as the turnpikes, canals and railways, were built with private money within the context of Parliamentary right of way regulation. He also does not assign a leading role to British exports as a major cause of the industrial revolution. Despite the fact that economic growth rates were modest for most of this period, and that only some regions of the country experienced rapid economic growth and fundamental physical changes during the period, Morgan argues that the cumulative effects of economic growth during the period were sufficiently large and original to be labeled a revolution. The book contains suggestions for further reading and an excellent section of documents useful for teaching.


O'Brien, Patrick and Roland Quinault, eds., The Industrial Revolution and British Society, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. Pp. ix, 295.

This volume of essays was published to honor the career of Max Hartwell, whose 1971 study, The Industrial Revolution and Economic Growth, helped reinvigorate the study of Britain’s industrial revolution by focusing on the economics of growth rather than emphasizing its social consequences or the development of particular industries and their organization. Ironically, a good deal of the economic history of the industrial revolution written between 1970 and 1990 came to the conclusion that Britain’s overall economic growth rates during the classic period of industrialization were relatively low. This led many to argue that we should abandon the very idea of a British industrial revolution for this period. Hartwell, however, was also a social historian and he continued to argue that the industrial revolution had an enormous impact on British society during the period. The topics of these essays support this view and can serve as a good introduction to its broad social context. In addition to excellent historiographical essays by Patrick K. O’Brien and Gary Hawke on interpretations of the industrial revolution, there are chapters on women in the workforce, the role of religion in the preservation of political stability, on sex and desire during the period, the political preconditions for the industrial revolution, the industrial revolution and parliamentary reform, technological and organizational change in industry, and the impact of industrialization on the more economically marginal regions of Britain. During the last twenty years, it is these broader social topics, plus the subjects of gender, consumption, and a renewed interest in why the first industrial revolution was British, which have seen the most interest and research.


Ormrod, David, The Rise of Commercial Empires: England and the Netherlands in the Age of Mercantilism, 1650-1770, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. xvii, 400. 15 figs. 33 tbls. 11 ills.

Orrmond argues that the British industrial revolution should no longer be regarded as the critical moment in European economic history. Instead, he suggests that the great divergence, as historians have called Europe’s emergence as the world’s most dynamic economy between c. 1600 and 1850, took place not in one country or all of Europe, but in the region around the North Sea. Within this region, it was the Dutch Republic, which was the most dynamic, enjoyed the highest standard of living, and dominated the European and international trade system for most of the 17th century. As de Vries and de Woude (see below) have shown, it was the first modern economy. While the Dutch retained their high standard of living, the British caught up with the Dutch standard of living, took over Dutch leadership in international trade during the early 18th century, and then went on to create the first industrial economy based not on organic but on the mineral resources of coal and iron by the early 19th century. The latter was Britain’s real innovation but, according to Ormrod, England, especially the southeast of England, laid the economic foundation for this during the early modern period by an ‘apprenticeship,’ as a prominent economic historian, Charles Wilson, argued a generation earlier. For Ormrod, international trade was a key factor in the origin of the industrial revolution and it was Britain’s success in trade that made possible the British industrial revolution. His book seeks to explain in considerable detail that Britain’s success in international trade was not won by peaceful competition alone but through mercantilist practices and coercion.

England’s growth before 1750 was especially centered in the southern and eastern part of the country, especially London and the home counties, all of which were dependent upon the markets of the Low Countries and Europe. Early in the 17th century, English-Dutch competition involved localized issues. It was not until the war with Spain ended in 1647-48 that competition between England and the Republic became central. Cromwell’s Navigation Act of 1650 marked the beginning of England’s effort to free it from Amsterdam’s control of international trade. Subsequent legislation prohibited the indirect supply of Baltic goods to England and, according to Ormrod, from 1670 Amsterdam was no longer an entrepôt for Baltic goods for England. The Navigation Acts placed a greater emphasis on the colonial trade and the Anglo-Dutch naval wars saw the theater of naval operations extended to the West Indies and New Netherland. After the Dutch loss of its colonies in Brazil and the taking of New Amsterdam, Dutch trade across the Atlantic, while still important, was reduced as Dutch merchants found themselves increasingly dependent on British commercial networks.

The Dutch trade in Asia had always been more important than its Atlantic trade but British mercantilist legislation, rather than simply economic competition, reduced Dutch access to the growing wealth of the Atlantic world. Ormrod concluded: “The Europeanization of America and its incorporation into the world economy marks one of the great discontinuities in global history, and it was England’s role to complete what the older colonial powers had had initiated.” Ormrod emphasizes that the purpose of Britain’s three 17th century naval wars with the Dutch was not just to achieve dominance in trade but to shift the processing and re-export of international trade goods from Amsterdam to London, for this produced a much greater and a more fundamental expansion of manufacturing, employment and finance. When William of Orange successfully invaded England in 1689, his purpose was not just to win the English crown for himsel fand his wife, Mary, but also to use English resources in his wars with France. One of the ironic consequences of this was that the English created a financial system based upon the Dutch model and that a great deal of capital moved to London after 1694. Ormrod’s book tells the story of English-Dutch trade competition in great detail but he never loses sight of his larger argument that it was power that helped plenty come to England: ““It was the mercantilist state which decisively shifted the balance of power and influence towards London, through the creation of a national entrepôt within an imperial trading network.”


Perkin, Harold, The Origins of Modern English Society 1780-1880, 2nd ed., London: Routledge and New York, 2002. Pp. iv, 465.

When Perkin’s book was first published in 1969, it was an ambitious attempt to provide a non-Marxist social history of Britain. By the 1960s social history no longer meant an “evocative study of how people lived and worked and how they felt.” Instead, social historians had borrowed the tools of the social scientists to create a rigorous and often statistical account of social structure. Their greatest success at the time was in historical demography. Perkin, and other social historians, however, had much greater ambitions than providing quantitative studies on social history topics. They hoped to provide a general explanation of the evolution of society. There were basically two models for this. One model was derived from Karl Marx and centered on class conflict, which was especially defined by how a social class was related to the means of production. The other approach, rooted in the ideas of Max Weber, was to study, the complexity of social or economic relations within a particular context. The latter approach led to studies that described relatively formal social systems for a particular time and place and used largely static social analysis. Perkins attempted to combine these different methods and to reconcile them. His approach was essentially social evolutionary. He described particular pattern of social relations, with each pattern evolving out of its predecessor. Within each pattern he tried to describe an ideal set of social relations. Unlike Marx, he was not a social determinist but he did try to demonstrate that English history should be understood primarily as an evolution of society.

He argued that Britain’s industrial revolution was made possible by the existence of the usual necessary economic conditions, such as capital, technology, initiative, and social values, resources such as coal and iron, and a unique social structure. The essential character of this social structure was that it combined aristocratic hierarchy with a “classlessness” that allowed a great deal of social mobility between the upper order and the “middling sort.” The common people within pre-industrial society, who were relatively well-fed and prosperous, accepted this hierarchy. The middle groups were able to pursue economic initiatives and their antagonism to the aristocracy was partly sublimated through religious dissent. The entire system was rooted in the principles of patronage and secure private property rights. According to Perkin, the industrial revolution was triggered by population growth, consumer demand and trade. He argued that the industrial revolution saw the birth of a “new class society,” in which each of the three major classes sought to create their own ideal identity: the aristocratic ideal—a survival from the past, the entrepreneurial ideal—the capitalist values of the new bourgeoisie, and the working-class ideal--security and community. He describes these ideals as “the spontaneous response of large social groups to the release of long and suppressed yearnings which had been latent in the old society.” Instead of the class warfare predicted by Marx, Perkin argued that by the 1880 an accommodation was reached between the classes and their ideals because the middle class was successful in imposing its values, chiefly a moral conception of work, upon society through the projecting of its “traditional Puritanism” into education, public affairs, and the creation of a meritocracy. While conflict between the three major classes and their ideals continued, the classes were able to negotiate these conflicts peacefully and this created a “viable class society” by about 1880. Thus, for Perkin, the class equilibrium of pre-industrial society was disrupted by the industrial revolution and, after a period of considerable turmoil, a new stable equilibrium emerged.

In 1989, Perkin followed this work with a study of English society after 1880, The Rise of Professional Society. In this volume he argues that the meritocracy of professionals--such as doctors, lawyers, accountants, managers, engineers, public officials and even leaders of the working-classes—who had already emerged as a distinct group in the Victorian middle class—came to dominate British society during the second half of the 20th century. When Perkin published his original study in 1969, the most popular notions of class were those derived from Marx. Classes were essentially defined in economic terms. Since then historians, have largely abandoned Marxist notions of class as the driving forces of history. Perkin’s ambitious effort to use his model of classes, which are especially rooted in shared ideals and explain social evolution in a relatively simple scheme of three classes during the period of British industrialization, are now also out of fashion. Perkin’s own notion of the dominance of a professional class in late 20th century Britain suggests that the whole idea of different classes ought to be abandoned. Indeed, professional historians today rarely talk about a classic three-class structure of society. Instead, they emphasize the complex identities of various groups within society forged by many different factors. Nonetheless, Perkin’s books remain worth reading since much of popular culture, and most school textbooks, still often employ the older notions of class rooted in Marxist analysis or Weberian notions of class defined by power and status.


Porter, Andrew, The Oxford History of the British Empire, Vol. III: The Nineteenth Century, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Pp. xxii, 774.

This is the third of a five volume multi-author work on the history of the British Empire. This substantial volume contains thirty useful essays by major historians on such topics as the expansion of the Empire, the economics of empire, British migration to and within the empire, trade policy, the development of imperial governance institutions, imperial wars, imperial culture and religion, and essays on particular regions and colonies. One of the chief developments chronicled in this volume is the division of the Empire into two broad categories. One was the empire of white settlement, such as Canada, Australia, and New Zeeland, in which the white settlers achieved virtual self-rule through institutions broadly similar to those in Britain. The other was a ‘dependent’ empire in which British officials ruled the local population through authoritarian institutions backed by military power. In highly developed societies, such as India, the British gradually recruited a large local civil service to make effective rule possible, while other methods of indirect rule were often employed in less developed areas.

The volume demonstrates that the complexity and huge size of the British Empire in the 19th century makes it very difficult to assess what benefits Britain received from its empire. During the mid-Victorian period Britain had the largest industrial economy, controlled the largest share of world trade, dominated international finance and enjoyed the highest standard of living. The contribution of the Empire to its economic success remains highly debatable. There is no doubt that Britain’s international trade and finance made a sizable contribution to Britain’s economic success but Britain’s most important trading partner was the United States. The white settler colonies constituted another large percentage of Britain’s international trade but it can not be argued that these societies were exploited except in the sense that the settlers took away the land and resources formerly controlled by the native peoples (see Tomlinson). Included here are several essays on India, which by the late 19th century had become a major international trade partner for Britain. Other British imperial holdings in Asia were of far less economic importance, while Britain’s African empire, with the exception of South Africa late in the century, were of little economic consequence during the period. While the British Caribbean colonies offered very little of economic value by the mid-Victorian period, Britain’s trade with Latin America increased during the period and some historians have labeled British trade with these and other relatively weak independent states ‘informal empire’ or ‘free trade imperialism’ (see Lynn and Knight).

The Empire also involved very considerable costs, especially for the armed forces and the many wars imperial expansion required. In an interesting final essay, Avner attempts to assess the costs and benefits of empire for the period 1870-1914. He estimates that during this period the empire contributed about 5 to 6% to Britain’s national income. However, he notes that the most important benefit to British consumers was cheap grain and other commodities from the settlement colonies. While Britain made very large capital investments abroad during the 19th century, rather little of this investment was made in the dependent empire. These essays suggest that, while the economic benefits of Britain’s empire in the 19th century were modest, perhaps the greatest economic contribution of the Empire during the 19th century was the export of English speaking people and the integration of the world economy. The volume contains a useful chronology and each chapter includes a selected list of further reading on its topic.


Rule, John, The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England, 1750-1850, London: Longman, 1986. Pp. x, 408. 6 tbls.
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