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



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This survey of Labor History during the classic period of the industrial revolution remains a solid and accessible introduction to the subject. Since it was published in a series, Themes in British Social History, it is narrowly focused on the traditional subjects of labor history. There is very little here on factory legislation or religion, for example. Also, because it was written in 1986, the book was not able to include the large volume of research on gender published after more recently. Despite these shortcomings, the book remains a good introduction to traditional labor history. Part I contains an excellent discussion of the standard of living question. He not only provides a statistical evidence for wages and levels of consumption but also discuses housing and the broader environmental conditions in which the common people lived and worked. Writing at a time when the optimistic interpretation on living standards for the period was in the ascendant, his book helped to reopen the debate with a thoughtful and cogent argument for a more pessimistic conclusion. In Part II, he deals with the form of wages, labor intensity, work discipline and health. In Part III, he discusses topics such as community, the family, sentiment and sex, popular recreation and education. This part includes a section on women in which he explains that overall the industrial revolution did not increase the participation rate of women in waged labor. His discussion of community and work explains that workers were not a monolithic class with uniform characteristics. Instead, he deals separately with factory workers, skilled artisans, unskilled laborers and servants. The fourth and final section is about the response of workers to industrialization. He discusses trade unionism before 1825, the Luddites, the rise of the craft unions from the mid 1830s, the miners, Chartism and various popular riots and disturbances. Unlike the most famous left-wing historians who wrote about class-consciousness, E. J. Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson, both of whom declared that an overall working-class consciousness developed in England during the early 19th century, Rule’s position is more nuanced. While he accepts Thompson’s argument that there existed a “moral economy,” which the workers attempted to preserve and restore through organization and other forms of collective action, Rule argues that there were very important differences between the skilled workers, such as artisans and mechanics, and unskilled workers. He concludes that there was no unified class consciousness among the working class by 1832 and that that there was no likelihood of a working-class revolution after the mid-1830s: “Indeed, no historian seriously suggests that following the events of 1829-1834, there issued a permanent, broad-based and continuous class consciousness.” Rule, whose political sympathies are clearly with the Labor Movement, has given us a survey of the working-classes from 1750 to 1850, not in the socialist tradition of Hobsbawm and Thompson, but in the tradition of the Hammonds, with the added value that Rules argument has been strengthened by of more than a half-century of historical research since their pioneering work.
Smith, Woodruff, Consumption and the Making of Respectability, 1600-1800, New York and London: Routledge, 2002. Pp. x, 339.

This is a good introduction to the burgeoning literature on the connection between consumption and the origin of the industrial revolution in northwestern Europe. Today we are painfully aware that the consumption of consumer goods, rather than just necessities, drives the economy. However, if we look at the early modern European economy, we see a world where there was relatively little economic surplus after satisfying the basic needs of the population. In order to explain the industrial revolution, economic historians have emphasized advances in the production of goods, which increased income and subsequently increased the consumption of goods. Smith boldly proclaims in this study what few of the many studies on consumption only implied: that the increased consumption of goods between 1600 and 1800 was the primary reason for the economic growth that resulted in the industrial revolution. His book aims to provide an overall theoretical framework for this claimn. Unlike economic historians, who can tie their history to a well-developed framework of economic growth theory, there is no comparable set of social theories that describe social and cultural motivation upon which most social historians can agree. Smith does point us to social theories about the consumption of luxury and status goods, but in the end his evidence is chiefly based upon the large body secondary works on the ‘consumer revolution.’ Most of his primary sources are such writers from the period as Defoe, Franklin, Pepys and many others. He also uses a number of Dutch and French sources. This makes this study particularly useful, since the increase in consumption was not just an English but a northwestern European phenomenon. Moreover, many of the new consumption goods that he discusses were internationally traded goods.

Central to the idea of a consumer revolution between 1600 and 1800 is the notion that increased prosperity was producing a new elite, such as merchants, manufacturers, traders, professionals and prosperous farmers. He does not call this a middle class, since this is a 19th century formulation inappropriate for the earlier period, but these social groups did have surplus income to spend on luxuries. Smith does not agree with those who have argued that their increased consumption was largely a matter of imitating the life styles and consumption of the aristocracy. Instead, he argues that they created new cultural contexts in which the motivation for the consumption of luxury goods was the conferring of respectability upon the consumer. This new elite did not just rely on the assertion of power and status and conspicuous consumption to drive home their power, but sought to become respected and respectable through endowing their pursuit of profit with moral value and demonstrating their status with respectable forms of consumption. The author, who has also written about international trade, discusses the consumption of such new luxury goods as tea, coffee, sugar, spices, tobacco, cotton textiles, and ceramics. His chapters explain how the consumption of particular kinds of goods were endowed with characteristics that promoted gentility, luxury, rational masculinity, domestic femininity, and above all respectability. Central to Smith’s argument is his claim that the consumption of goods must be seen in specific social contexts. The consumption of these goods did not just take place in the home, but also in public places such as coffee houses, theaters, shops, churches and city squares. The consumption of these luxuries gave their consumers an opportunity to forge a new identity for themselves, which not only distinguished them from the vast majority of the public below them, but from the old elite above them who still governed their societies. While Smith does not succeed in providing a new theoretical framework for the patterns of consumption he describes, this is an informative and interesting introduction to the research on the consumer revolution as an important component in an explanation for the origin of the industrial revolution.
Tilly, Louise A. and Joan W. Scott, Women, Work and Family, London: Routledge, 1987. Pp. vii, 274.

Originally published in 1978, this is one of the seminal works on the role of women during the transition from a pre-industrial to a modern economy. Tilly and Scott were trained as social historians and have made major contributions to both women’s and social history. This is a comparative study of the work experience of women in England and France from the early 18th century to the 1960s. Its main focus is on paid work rather than the many unpaid tasks performed by women for their families. The study relies heavily upon the statistics and methods of demography and historical sociology. The book is clearly written, free of jargon and provides many interesting life stories to enliven the social science data. It is also relatively short so that it makes an excellent and accessible introduction for students on the topic. Although this is a survey of a large subject over a long period and two countries, and thus relies heavily upon many specialized local studies, the book also draws upon their own archival research in both France and England. Their identification of three major phases in the relationship between women, work and family has been widely adopted by later scholars of the subject.

According to Tilly and Scott, the first and preindustrial period, between 1700 and the late 18th century, was characterized by a family economy. The family was essentially a cooperative economic unit within which women combined tasks of economic production with domestic activity within the household. The authors emphasize that the work performed by women during this period was essential to the survival of families and that almost all women in society did economically productive work. The second period—the period of industrialization—is characterized as the family wage economy. During this period many areas of economic production were removed from the household and this created serious problems for women who sought to combine domestic tasks with economically productive employment. The authors show that during the early phase of industrialization, the work of women, especially in the textile industry, was essential to the success of the nascent factory system. They note, however, that it was especially young and unmarried women who worked in these factories. Relatively few women, whether single or married, found work in the metal, mining, machinery and other expanding industries. Instead, industrialization relegated paid women’s work to the margins of most of modern industry in sweatshops and to a dramatic expansion of domestic service. The final phase, from the late 19th century to the mid 20th century, is characterized as the family consumer society. During this period, women were drawn into the service economy, specialized dealing with children, education and health care, and managed the family’s consumption.

The overall conclusion of this pioneering study is that most women’s employment did not benefit them directly during the period of the industrial revolution. Instead, it diminished their opportunities for productive and paid employment. Families adopted to the new wage economy by sending their children, including the girls, out for paid employment while the male head of household sought to obtain a ‘family wage’ and most married women earned whatever was possible in supplementary work inside or near the home. They suggest that, despite the suffering that the industrial revolution inflicted upon the lives of many women and children, both women and men were able to pursue family strategies that permitted a remarkable continuity in family life. At the same time, industrialization helped create ideals of domesticity, laws that controlled the working lives of women, new patterns of fertility and work, and the rise of the male demand for a "family wage.” It was these basic factors that combined to construct the classic gender roles of 19th century industrial society and which retain a powerful influence in our own time. Tilly and Scott’s framework has been amplified, developed and made much more nuanced by a great deal of subsequent research but this early framework on women, work and family remains highly influential in more recent interpretations and remains an excellent introduction to this topic.


Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class, London; Victor Gollancz, 1963). Pp. 848.

E. P. Thompson’s study of the English working class between c. 1780 to 1832 remains the most important product of the influential British School of Marxist history. However, to label the book Marxist in order to dismiss it would be a serious error, since it is the most important example of a large, passionate, romantic and literary tradition of New Left history that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s, which itself hast its root in the earlier work of the Hammonds, the Webbs and R.H. Tawney. Thompson’s explicit aim to recast this tradition in a Marxist framework in order to provide the British working class with a revolutionary tradition. His central argument is that the experience of the industrial revolution, combined with the example and English consequences of the French revolution, led to insurrectionary movements among the British working classes. According to Thompson, England’s government, led by an unreformed landed and bourgeois elite, staged a counter-revolution, which brutally repressed the insurrectionists in order to forestall a revolution in England. For Thompson, it was this repression that created a revolutionary working-class consciousness among England’s common people by 1832 (the date of the first Parliamentary Reform Bill). The problem with his thesis is that the subsequent history of the working-class in Britain, including during social unrest of the Chartist 1830s and 1840s, or the turbulent 1960s, has never been revolutionary. Despite his over-enthusiastic thesis, this is a very valuable work of social history because of its detailed narratives of the various insurrectionary movements during the period, as well as his broader picture of the lives and experience of the common people during the period. This is a substantial work of 848 pages in its first edition and over 900 in its second 1968 edition. Thompson is a master of an immense number and variety of literary sources. His method is to use working-class voices to tell their stories whenever possible and to quote the most outrageous middle and upper class voices, which sought to control the workers and to repress their efforts to improve their living conditions through organization, a great deal of rhetoric and sometimes revolutionary actions. This is the real value of the book.



In Part I, he explains the tradition of liberty, or ‘the rights of free-born Englishmen,’ as it existed in England during the 1780s. In Part II, he discusses the working lives of workers, including field laborers, artisans, and domestic industrial workers. He emphasizes that the goal of the English working classes was to maintain their traditional, regulated and “moral economy” in the face of the growing competition from new technology and new forms of capitalist business organization. He describes in great and sympathetic detail their leisure and personal relations, their rituals of communality, the role of religion, and their standard of living. In Part III, he explains how the political repression in England that followed the French Revolution, and during the more than two decades of war with France, led to the curbing of the liberties of the English people. He describes in great detail the many insurrectionary movements of the period between 1790 and 1820, such insurrectionary movements as the Black Lamp, the Cato Street Conspiracy, and many others. His extensive study of Luddism is especially valuable. He places the massacre at Peterloo in this broad revolutionary context and provides a fascinating discussion of the radical culture that produced revolutionaries but also the peaceful utopian socialism of Owenism. Thompson’s work helped revive the debate on the standard of living controversy during the 1960s by shifting its focus from the efforts of economic historians, who attempted to demonstrate statistically that the wages of workers in the new industrial order had improved during the period, to the issue of the quality of life of the workers, which Thompson argued, seriously deterioration during the period and was further aggravated by political repression and the new discipline of machinery and the factory. Secondly, Thompson rejected the argument of many earlier Labour historians that the workers suffered passively under the new regime of laissez faire. Instead, he argued persuasively that there were indeed working class revolutionaries who sought to overthrow the government during the period. Thirdly, Thompson revived an important debate about the role of religion in British popular culture. One of the most valuable sections of the book is his use of the insights of sociology and social psychology to argue that Methodism sought to create a docile working class for the new industrial order. Whether one agrees with his overall thesis that a revolutionary working-class consciousness was created by 1832 or not, one can not deny that he has given a voice to the common people during a period of profound industrial and political change. As Thompson explained, he set out “to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ handloom-weaver, and even the deluded follower of Joanne Southcott [a millenarian Primitive Methodist], from the enormous condescension of posterity.”
Trinder, Barry, The Making of the Industrial Landscape, London: J. M. Dent, 1982. Pp. xii, 276. 71 ills.

This is an excellent introduction to the subject of the impact of industrialization upon the industrial landscape. Trinder points out that during the late 18th century, tourists, artists and writers “marveled at the discipline and order of Richard Arkwright’s mills at Cromford or Josiah Wedgewood’s pottery at Etruria, and were fascinated and awestruck by the terrifying dramatic sights of Coalbrookdale.” He notes that it was not until the 1830s and 1840s that industry came to be regarded with disgust, “as something unworthy of the attention of cultivated people, as awareness spread of the squalor of working class districts in large industrial towns, and of the degrading conditions in which women and children were forced to work in mills and mines.” Most of the drama, squalor and even most of the early factories and factory communities (but not Cromford) have now been erased from the landscape or made into interesting and sanitized historical monuments. Through a lively text with many contemporary quotations and illustrations, Trinder has brought the 18th and 19th century English landscapes of industrialization back to life. He approaches his subject not by region or place, but provides a chronological treatment divided into five periods: the early 18th century landscape of “busy-ness,” or what we might call proto-industry; the landscape of economic growth between 1750-1790; the heroic age, 1790 to 1810; the age of the engineer, 1810-1850; and the palaces of industry, 1850-1890. He describes the busy early 18th century English landscape of mostly domestic and small-scale industry and notes that travelers from across the North Sea would not have found this landscape of early industry unusual. It was not until the classic period of the industrial revolution during the late and early nineteenth century that factories, railways, and large iron works brought a new industrial landscape. This larger scale also brought much more and visible pollution. As a visitor noted about the hills above Swansea’s copper works there was not “a blade of grass, a green bush, nor any form of vegetation” but only “volumes of smoke, thick and pestilential.” Trinder especially uses Manchester to demonstrate the congestion, pollution, and squalor brought by urban factories and working class housing before order was restored by sanitation and urban reformers later in the century. The age of the engineer brought fantastic engineering achievements, such as iron and then steel bridges, railway viaducts, the Great Exhibition of 1851, urban parks, and the fantastic palaces of industry and impressive civic buildings during the second half of the 19th century. Trinder includes an excellent bibliography for further reading and an interesting list of descriptive literature from the period.


Uglow, Jenny, The Lunar Men: Five friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. Pp. xx, 588. 15 ills.

This is the story of a group of amateur scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs in the English Midlands who met from the 1760s to the 1790s to discuss natural science, philosophy, and technology. Known as the Lunar Society, they met on the evenings of a full moon to exchange ideas and experiments. Historians have credited this remarkable group of individuals, as well as other similar and lesser-known voluntary and local groups, as being one of the chief sources of technological and entrepreneurial innovation during the British industrial revolution. Jenny Uglow, who has written biographies of the novelists Henry Fielding, George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell, has constructed this popularly acclaimed study of the Lunar Society as a collective biography. The American title of the book emphasizes the central five personalities in its title, while the English versions’ subtitle is The Friends who Made the Future. Among the leaders of Lunar Society were Mathew Boulton and James Watt, partners in the famous Soho works in Birmingham, which produced ornamental metal work as well as steam engines; Josiah Wedgewood, the founder of the Wedgewood pottery factories at Etruria in Staffordshire and canal entrepreneur; Erasmus Darwin, a well-known physician, inventor and theorist of evolution who later became the grandfather of Charles Darwin; and Joseph Priestly of Birmingham, a chemist, philosopher and discoverer of oxygen who was also a well-known political radical. All five were outsiders to England’s aristocratic establishment. They were religious non-conformists from relatively humble backgrounds and lived in provincial but industrially dynamic cities and towns. They shared a common interest in science and challenged the intellectual, political, and social orthodoxies of the period. They were joined in their meetings by such other important figures as James Keir, a chemist; John Whithurst, a clockmaker; the physicians William Small and William Withering; and two proponents of Rousseau’s philosophy, Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Thomas Day. At their monthly meetings they not only shared ideas about science, technology, politics, and philosophy but also applied their findings in efforts to solve practical problems, including joint ventures in canal building and factory production.

Individually and collectively, they were responsible for such innovations as steel fusion plating, hard paper mache, innovative textile production at Northampton that became the inspiration of Richard Arkwright’s factory at Cromford, and industrial chemical experiments that served as the foundation of England’s innovative pottery industry. New products required new marketing techniques. Both Wedgewood and Boulton developed innovative marketing schemes, such as showrooms for their wares and networks of agents to sell and promote their products in both Britain and abroad. Almost all the Lunar Society members invested in the new canal industry. Boulton, Watt and Wedgewood were particularly important in the founding of the Joint Stock Company that developed the Grand Junction Canal, linking London to the Midlands and Northern canal systems. In an age when specialization was not yet fully developed in science and technology, the amateurs of the Lunar Society contributed many inventions outside their main area of expertise. Darwin, for example invented a new kind of canal lift while Watt developed surveying levels and telemeter instruments. The Lunar Society’s members were important participants in debates about the American Revolution, Parliamentary reform in England, and the important questions being raised about free trade and protection during the period. Ten members of the Lunar Society members were named Fellows of the Royal Society. By the early 19th century, Lunar Society members had become part of a new establishment that they helped create--an entrepreneurial and intellectually curious middle class, which would play a leading role in creating the new industrial England of the 19th century. Uglow’s work is based upon extensive secondary and sources and upon original research at the Birmingham City Archives and the collections at the University of Keele. The book consists of forty chapters on particular innovations, which together make for an impressive, very well written, and exiting story of scientific, technological, philosophical and political innovation combined with entrepreneurial action that was central to Britain’s industrial revolution. The book includes many illustrations and contains extensive documentation for further reading. Histories of science and technology rarely win popular acclaim but this volume won several book of the year awards and was widely reviewed in the popular press.

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