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

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Gerard M Koot

History Department

University of Massachusetts Dartmouth
Allen, Robert C., The British Industrial Revolution in a Global Perspective, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. viii, 331.

Allen’s book is an excellent example of the persuasiveness of the new economic history. It is solidly rooted in statistical data and uses sophisticated methods of economic analysis but its analysis is presented in plain English. He argues that the first industrial revolution occurred in northwestern Europe because its high wages during the early modern period encouraged technological innovation. Although high wages were initially a consequence of the demographic disaster of the Black Death, they were reinforced during the early modern period by the economic success of the region around the North Sea, first, in European trade and manufacturing, especially in wresting the textile industry from the Italians, and then in world trade. According to Allen, the first industrial revolution took place in Britain instead of the Low Countries primarily because of Britain’s abundant and cheap coal resources, combined with the central government’s ability to use mercantilist policies and naval power to reap the greatest benefits from an expanding European and world trade. Once it had taken the lead from the Dutch, and defeated the French, Britain used its comparative advantage to consolidate its dominant position through free trade until the late Victorian period when its technological innovations spread to its competitors. While he agrees that the political, cultural and scientific context of British industrialization was important to its primacy, his approach does not claim, as many interpretations have, that British, and later European and American, industrialization was a consequences of their supposed cultural and political superiority. Instead, he offers an economic explanation, which argues that the abundance of labor at low wages in Asia meant that there was little incentive to translate scientific discoveries into modern technologies that might have led to early industrialization in Asia.

Ashton, T. S. The Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Pp. xiv, 139.

Ashton belongs to the first generation of professional economic historians writing in Britain who came to prominence after World War I. He along with J. H. Clapham, were the most important writers who challenged the dominant pessimistic interpretation, which argued that the standard of living of the working class deteriorated during the classic period of industrialization. Using new categories of documents, neoclassical economic theory, and some quantitative analysis, Ashton suggested that perhaps the material condition of the people during the industrial revolution had not been as bleak as had been argued. Ashton’s short book, The Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830, was first published in 1948 and was reissued in 1997, with an introduction by Pat Hudson. This brief and very readable account has been used by generations of students as their introduction to the study of the industrial revolution. It remains worth reading. In Accordance with most other interpretations of the British industrial revolution published before the 1980s, Ashton placed its origin and the most dramatic period of British industrialization firmly in the period ca. 1780-1850. He argued eloquently that the standard of living had improved for the common people during the first half of the 19th century and that it was industrialization that had offered the workers an opportunity for independence through the coming of democracy and the organization of trade unions. Ashton was a professional economic historian but he was also interested in the use of economic history in contemporary political debates and played an important role in the conservative counter attack on the welfare state on both sides of the Atlantic after World War II. His heroes were the entrepreneurs, especially the Non-Conformists in the North of England, who reinvested their profits in their businesses and thus built a more prosperous Britain.

Auerbach, Jeffrey A. The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. PP. viii, 279.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London’s Hyde Park has long symbolized the success and maturity of the world’s first industrial revolution. The 1850s ushered in the mid-Victorian era of English prosperity and economic pre-eminence. The exhibition was the first of many such international industrial exhibitions, which sought to highlight national and imperial economic, social and political achievements. Auerbach’s study is authoritative, readable and contains many excellent illustrations, many in color, including paintings, drawings, photographs and cartoons, which are useful for teaching. While Prince Albert has often been assigned a prominent role in the origin and promotion of the Exhibition, Auerbach argues that the roots of the Exhibition should be traced to an effort to stimulate the economy, which had not fully recovered from the economic problems of the 1840s. By attracting exhibits from other countries, it was also hoped that the Exhibition would serve as a means to promote better design for British products. Although there was originally some apathy and even opposition to the project, the Exhibition turned out to be a huge success. After several decades of widespread cultural criticism of the social consequences of British industrialization, the Exhibition came to symbolize to many, both at home and abroad, that British industrialization was ushering in a new age of progress. The ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations,’ as it was called, contained 100,000 exhibits from all over the world in the spectacular iron and steel Crystal Palace designed by Joseph Paxton. More than one-fifth of the English population, including many from the ‘respectable’ working classes, attended the Exhibition using Britain’s new railroad network. The Exhibition not only featured the latest machinery and consumer products but prominently displaced goods from the British Empire. While this helped domesticate the British Empire for its citizens, it also was a proclamation of the success of Britain’s championing of international free trade. As Auerbach’s title suggests, the Exhibition was indeed “a nation on display.”

Barringer, Tim, Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005. Pp. 392, 33 color pls. 133 b. & w. ills.

If you consult the chief standard surveys of nineteenth century British Art, you will find relatively few paintings that display working class labor, especially industrial labor. Depictions of labor by the common people are more prominent in the graphic art of the period. In this lavishly illustrated volume, Barringer seeks to develop “a critical iconography of the working man.” His study focuses on the period 1851-1878. He sees this period of Victorian prosperity, dubbed the “age of equipoise’ by earlier historians, as an “historical period of balance--perhaps better thought of as a hostile stalemate--between broader historical forces: the traditional privileges of men and the mounting demands of women; labor and capital; industry and agriculture; handmade and machine made manufacturing; city and country; provinces and metropolis; and imperial centre and colonial periphery.” This study only treats male labor and concentrates on images of physical labor in industry, the city and the countryside. Unlike Francis D. Klingender, the pioneer in the study of the art of the industrial revolution in Britain, who came to the subject with a Marxist inspired vision of class, Barringer’s view of class is much more complex and nuanced. He approaches his subject through five case studies rather than as a comprehensive survey. These include a study of Ford Madox Brown’s famous painting, Work, which articulates the prevailing hierarchy of male physical labor. In his chapter, “Harvest field in the Railway Age,” Barringer treats the work of George Vicat Cole and John Linnell in order to discuss the middle and upper class nostalgic views of rural labor in a period of the rapid expansion of machine production. In his third chapter he treats the art of James Sharples, an interesting skilled artisan who was also an important artist. In his fourth chapter, he discusses the career of Godfrey Sykes. The latter was trained and taught at the important Sheffield School of Art. The School’s purpose was both to reform design and to rescue the artisan. This is especially evident in his classical treatment of Sheffield trades in the frieze of the Mechanics Institute. In his final chapter, Barringer develops his concept of a “colonial Gothic art,” which combined the Victorian love of the Gothic with an admiration of Indian craft skills, both of which shared an “anti-industrial…anti-imperial polemic …whose essence was a re-interpretation of the meaning and value of labour.” Barringer argues that this emphasis upon the reassertion of the moral value of work, a theme popularized by Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin in literature, can best be appreciated in the artists and images of work in the period.

Berg, Maxine, Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth Century Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Pp. xvii, 373, 33 figs. 4 maps.

During the last two decades there has been a growing interest in studying the role of consumer demand, expressed as a consumer revolution, as one of the key underlying causes of the industrial revolution. Berg begins her influential study of a consumer revolution in Britain with a discussion of how the idea of luxury, which had long been seen as morally suspect in Christian thought, began to be redefined in the 18th century as goods that brought convenience, enjoyment and even economic well-being for society. As the Scottish philosopher David Hume explained, “if we consult history, we shall find, that in most nations foreign trade has preceded any refinement in home manufactures, and given birth to domestic luxury…Thus men become acquainted with the pleasures of luxury, and the profits of commerce; and their delicacy and industry being once awakened, carry them on to further improvements in every branch of domestic as well as foreign trade.” Berg argues that Britain was especially successful in responding to the new commodity trade with Asia. First, Britain imported Asian luxuries. Then it created its own designs for Asian goods and had these made in Asia for the British and European market. Finally, it manufactured new luxury goods at home. However, instead of just imitating Asian luxury goods, Britain created its own versions, invented new ones, and used new materials. Other Europeans also manufactured the new luxury goods but it was the British who dominated the luxury trade by the early 19th century. We still recognize some of the famous products: Wedgwood and Dalton ceramics, Boulton candlesticks and cutlery, Paisley silks, and Chippendale furniture. Add to these the new colonial groceries of tobacco, coffee, cocoa, tea, sugar and spices. All these, according to Berg, and a myriad of other household goods, none of them necessities, underpinned the 18th century industrial revolution in Britain. By the late 18th century, Britain was the richest nation in Europe with the largest middle class that could afford such luxuries. Moreover, Britain had reared up in America a consumer society with a white population that had an even higher standard of living than in Britain with an insatiable demand for British ‘luxury’ goods. American independence did nothing to dim this demand. Britain’s defeat of Napoleonic France expanded demand for its goods on the Continent and in its growing formal and informal Empire. These goods were not the fabulous luxuries of Oriental or European royal aristocratic courts, but middle class luxuries that signaled the arrival of a consumer society that fueled the first industrial revolution and made Britain the ‘workshop of the world.’ Berg’s book contains many excellent illustrations and a discussion of how these new luxuries were made that helps us visualize the British revolution.

Berg, Maxine, The Age of Manufactures: Industry, Work and Innovation in Britain, 1700-1820, 2nd ed., London and New York: Routledge, 1994. Pp. xiii, 337. 17pls, 18 figs, 19tbls.

During the last third of the 20th century, the ‘new economic history,’ which uses sophisticated tools of economic and statistical analysis, challenged many of the long held assumptions about the nature of the industrial revolution. Its conclusions created a new orthodoxy among economic historians, which emphasizes that aggregate British economic growth was moderate during the classical period of industrialization and that many sectors and regions remained fairly traditional before 1850 (these views are especially associated with the work of N.F.R. Crafts, see below). After an extensive review of the new economic history’s work on British industrialization, Berg concurs that the industrial revolution in Britain was a much longer process than traditional interpretations had suggested. Although she also agrees that aggregate rates of growth and technological change have indeed been slower than according in the classical interpretation, and what were called the new ‘factories’ were confined to particular regions and industries during this period, she insists that the overall result nonetheless remained revolutionary. Not only, she argues, did the dynamic regions and industries experience their own dramatic transformation in technology, the physical environment, the scale of enterprises, the social roles of owners and workers, demographic behavior and the place of the family and child and female labor, which were so widely noted by contemporaries, but these revolutionary changes encouraged new social and intellectual attitudes, patterns of trade, roles for the state, forms of politics, notions of class, and changes of social relations that eventually transformed more traditional industries and regions. Unlike most economic historians, however, who assume that the classical model of industrialization of steam driven large factories was a necessary stage through which manufacturing eventually had to pass toward a higher standard of living, her explanation is much less deterministic. Instead of relying primarily upon the economists’ growth models and stage theories, “which have narrowed our account of historical processes to aggregate and macroeconomic analysis,” Berg emphasizes the complex relationships between social history, economic history and the history of technology to offer us an account of the “age of manufactures” which sees an intricate web of improvement and decline, large and small scale production, and machine and hand processes that created the new and revolutionary market society. She is especially good at explaining how many new products were actually made in relatively small shops during the 18th century but were nonetheless technologically innovative and expanded the scale and productivity of manufacturing. Berg’s work fully integrates scholarship on women and children in her work and she insists that one of the most revolutionary and controversial aspects of early industrialization was its extensive use of female and child labor in a way that had a profound effect upon both the economy and society. Finally, by emphasizing the importance of the international economy in Britain’s economic transformation, as well as Britain’s world wide political and military power, Berg places the British industrial revolution in a broad European and world-wide context of international trade and empire.
Binfield, Kevin, Writings of the Luddites, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. Pp. viii, 279.

The term ‘Luddism,’ often defined as opposition to technological progress, originated in England to describe a movement popularly associated with machine breaking between 1811-17. In fact, Luddism was often a peaceful movement, which sought political and economic solutions to the economic problems of artisans and skilled workers during a period of considerable social dislocation toward the end and immediately after the Napoleonic wars. The movement was especially vigorous in the Midlands, Yorkshire and the Northwest. It was never a national movement. Instead, each particular region had distinct economic problems for which redress was sought. In the Midlands, for example, the Luddites objected to the use of larger stocking manufacturing frames (manually-powered machines) provided by capitalist entrepreneurs than were allowed a 1663 statute regulating the trade. Luddism took its name from King Lud or General Lud, a mythical popular figure who protected the rights of workers analogous to the idea of Robin Hood. The latter, however, was an outlawed gentleman who escaped to the forest hoping for the return of the crusader, Richard I, while Lud was a worker and representative of a trade. Binfield’s book is a useful introduction to primary documents on Luddism and consists of edited and annotated Luddite documents from each of the main areas where Luddism was active. The documents consist of letters, petitions, economic arguments, and political explanations concerning the distressed situation of artisans caused by new machinery and production methods and pleas of how to improve the condition of the workers through the enforcement of existing laws, negotiated wages between employers and worker organization. Many of these documents bear the signatures of real workers and were designed to negotiate improved conditions for the workers. One of the most common demands, for example, was that existing apprenticeship laws be enforced in the skilled trades. What made Luddism famous, however, was the fact that failing peaceful methods of redress, some Luddites were willing to use violence against machinery and factories to achieve their demands. Binfield’s collection also contains many threatening letters, popular songs, posters and calls for violence against machines and methods of production that violated both regulatory statutes and the customs of particular trades. Binfield does not attempt to provide a tight definition of the movement or provide a unified theoretical framework. Instead, these documents give voice to a wide selection of workers who responded to specific local social and economic grievances in a variety of peaceful and sometimes threatening and more violent actions while often using the name King Ludd to represent the moral authority of their trade in their efforts to improve the conditions of their trade.

Canny, Nicholas, ed. The Oxford History of the British Empire, Vol. I: The Origins of Empire: British Overseas Enterprise to the Close of the Seventeenth Century, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Pp. x, 533.

This is the first volume of a five volume multi-author work on the history of the British Empire. This volume contains twenty-one useful essays by major historians of the Empire on such topics as its origin, politics, economics, war, and particular regions. Nicholas Canny argues that the origins of the British Empire should be seen in the private interests of English merchants rather than the state, which only became involved in trying to control and direct colonial policy in the second half of the 17th century. While John Appleby’s contribution argues that English merchant involvement in overseas expansion was a result of the disruption of trade networks in Europe, Canny emphasizes the role of militant Protestantism’s efforts to expand English power in light of Catholic Spain’s imperial expansion. Canny also emphasizes that, just as the English had planted colonies in Ireland to pacify the country, the Irish plantations served as a model for colonization in America and were designed to bring civilization to the wilderness and useful products to Europe. During the second half of the 17th century, as Michael Braddick shows, the English state began to see the colonies as a source of revenue, military resources, and profit for merchants and manufacturers. Thus, the state set out to aid English merchants in their efforts to compete with the Dutch, who dominated international trade and finance during the period. Nuala Zahedieh provides a useful outline of the development of English transoceanic commerce during the period and notes that by 1700 England’s overseas trade already constituted 20% of total overseas commerce and had grown rapidly in the second half of the 17th century. She concludes that English “colonial expansion, was not a sufficient condition for economic development, as demonstrated in Spain and Portugal, but it was certainly an important positive stimulus, as recognized by contemporaries.” Other essays in the volume treat such subjects as the English emphasis on the importance of establishing their rights over land and resources rather than over native peoples, the role of the emerging Empire in the context of European Continental power politics, English relations with the native peoples, the development of slavery in making the American colonies profitable, and the contemporary literature of empire. Although there is an excellent chapter by P. Marshall on the English in Asia, during this period the Empire was primarily an Atlantic phenomenon during this period. The volume contains a useful chronology and each chapter includes a selected list of further reading on its topic.

Cohen, Deborah, Household Goods: The British and their Possessions, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006. Pp. viii, 296, 152 ills.

During the last several decades, there has been a growing interest in the history of household consumption as a crucial force in British industrialization. This interesting study of British consumer culture during the period 1830 to 1930 focuses on what she calls the peculiar British ‘infatuation’ with the decoration and material content of their homes. She begins by explaining that the puritanical religious enthusiasm of the middle classes during the late 18th and early 19th centuries gave way during the 1840s to assigning a moral value to personal possessions and associating beauty with godliness. The acquisition and display of tasteful household goods was now not only a pleasure but also a moral and even religious imperative. She chronicles how the ideal of the home as a place of virtue gradually was replaced by the notion of an artistic home filled with well chosen goods and decorated with carpets, wallpaper and artful objects. She explains how new magazines and popular fashion writers kept the middle classes informed on changing fashions in household goods and decoration. She argues that for the Victorian consumer, the home became a stage for self-expression. In an interesting argument, she puts forth the notion that decorating the home was a preparation for later and more public forms of middle class female self-expression. Unlike many previous treatments of Victorian material culture, she does not focus on luxury and handcrafted goods but emphasizes the democratization of consumer goods made possible by the mass production of the industrial revolution. She also explains the development of new department stores, tasteful shopping arcades and streets in which consumers could acquire mass produced but prestigious household goods. The book has many excellent illustrations, which allow the reader to visualize the household goods and the enticements to purchase them during the period.

Clark, Henry C. ed. Commerce, Culture, & Liberty: Readings on Capitalism Before Adam Smith, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003. Pp. xxiii, 680.

This is an anthology of 17th and 18th century writings on political economy and culture before the subject’s classic formulation in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in 1776. During this period, writers on economics combined their analysis with moral and political considerations. They did not think of their subject as a science but as a branch of moral and political philosophy. Among the topics discussed are “the nature of exchange relations and their effects on a traditional and hierarchical social order, the role of commerce in fostering civility and sociability, the effects of commerce on the fabric of community life, the dangers to moral virtue posed by increasing prosperity, the impact of commerce on sex roles and the condition of women, and the complex interplay between commerce and civil or political liberty.”

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