The Industrial Revolution in Great Britain

The Great Britain was the first country to undergo industrial revolution which according to Musson and Robinson (1969) is the “transformation of a predominantly rural, agricultural and handicraft society into a predominantly urban, industrial and mechanized society” (60). Indeed the modern world owes a lot to British pioneers of the 18th and 19th century like Abraham Darby, Richard Arkwright, John Wilkinson, Samuel Crompton, Thomas Newcomen and James Watt among others.

However, even though the British did a lot in the industrial revolution, they too owed a lot as well in different fields to Frenchmen, Germans and Dutchmen because scientific development and technology is never a one way traffic.

During the time of industrial revolution, the Great Britain had the most growing monopoly in the ocean trade and this triggered a renewed interest in scientific discovery coupled with the financial security offered by the national banks, caught Britain already ripe for changes that were bound to happen. Nonetheless, the industrial revolution took place in Great Britain because as Knowles (2005) noted:

she had a ready command of capital, a scarcity of hands, large and expanding markets, a free population, political security, a training in large scale business for over-seas markets, ease to access to those markets through her geographical position and her shipping, while her iron and coal fields provided her with the most valuable raw material and motive power for machinery and for iron smelting. (15)

The expanding and wealthier population of the 18th century demanded quality goods and this saw replacement of wood by coal and introduction of steam engines for draining water and also for raising coal from the mines.

The use of steam for power was the most vital development of the industrial revolution and the improved engine developed by James Watt in 1769 marked the peak of this development. The revolution of Britain especially in areas of agriculture, mining industries and railroad contributed greatly towards changing the livelihoods of the people and their living standards as well.

The previously manual labour and the draft-animal-based economy was transformed to machine-based manufacturing and goods that used to be produced in homes and in small workshops started to be manufactured in the factories (Stearns 180).

The agricultural farm workers were forced to leave villages for urban cities to compete for fewer jobs. The advancement in technology resulted to reduced mortality rates and this led to sharp rise in the rural population because sources of food became available but at the same time small farms disappeared due to enclosure laws that required all farmers to fence their fields and this forced many farmers to sell their small plots to large landholders (Knowles 16).

The number of people who lived in the villages before industrial revolution was about three quarters but after the industrial revolution, more than half of the population migrated to urban centers and cities especially in the mid-19th century.

The introduction of new factories most of which were built in cities forced rural-urban migration because many people were rendered jobless since clothing, furniture and tools could now be produced in the factories (Temin 72). The shift from agriculture to industrial cities caused stresses on household women who used to earn income from spinning and now could no longer spin because factories took away their sources of income.

However, the industrial revolution introduced child labour especially in textile mills and in mines and this made the lives of many children miserable because rather than learn trade; they were paid menial wages (Thomson 11). The agricultural workforce was forced to move into cities where centers of production were located especially the steam-based factories that undercut the traditional cottage industries because the output per worker was increased tremendously by the new technology.

Many people who relied on hunting and gathering were forced to change to multifaceted communities that depended on domestication of animals and on agriculture due to mechanized farming though herding was greatly affected due to application of machinery in agricultural farming and this led to loss of habitat for animals. The shift from agricultural society to industrial societies also resulted to permanent settlements and consequent urban civilizations (Mokyr 143).

Nevertheless, there were a number of technological inventions that were undertaken in Britain during the industrial revolution such as development of ‘flying shuttle’ weaving device 1733 which was invented by John Kay and this partly mechanized the weaving process.

There was also the invention of ‘Rocket’ railway train by George Stephenson, the thought by Abraham Darby to use coal over charcoal as a means to create fuel and the renovation of production of steel by Henry Bessemer. There were many other innovations especially in the textile industry in which a water frame Richard Arkwright developed for spinning cotton and a Spinning Jenny by James Hargreaves as well as the spinning mule by Samuel Crompton (Crouzet 145).

These advancements in the use of specialized machines in the textile industry increased the output of goods because a single spinner could roll volumes of yarn that previous workers could not. Besides all this, the most spectacular feature of the industrial revolution in Britain was the development of power-driven machinery in the textile industry which occurred between 1750 and 1800 and this marked the beginning of the modern age factory (Feinstein 630). The advancement in the use of coal which eliminated the need for charcoal which was more expensive and less effective by Abraham Darby to produce iron from iron core was a milestone in the iron production because the speed of production of the raw iron to other metals was made easy.

Henry Cort in 1784 made a significant advancement when he invented the new technique of rolling iron to different desired shapes for building heavy machinery because it was cheap and abundant and due to its strength and durability it was well suited for making heavy machinery and due to this, iron became the commonly used metal for machinery. Iron was also used in the development of railroad and this significantly improved the transportation of goods and people (Crouzet 145).

The use of spinning wheel and the hand loom lead to increased productivity of the manufactured cotton goods and this made the cotton industry the dominant industry in Britain especially in the early decades of 19th century.

The steam engine was perhaps the other most significant machine technology to have been made during the industrial revolution period in Britain. James Watt another Scottish mechanical engineer made one of the remarkable improvements to steam engine when he made a stronger engine that could be used both in the mines and also in the industries. This development in the steam power enabled the development of effective semi-automated factories in the previously indescribable places where waterpower was not accessible.

There was also the application coke in the iron industry which was applied in all stages of iron smelting which replaced charcoal. The industrial revolution brought about many changes not only in the economy but also in the political system and also in the education system as well. Even though Britain became a constitutional monarchy long before the introduction of industrial revolution, it was only small population that was enfranchised in the electoral system but the vast majority remained disenfranchised.

The growth of the industries resulted to a more forcible middle class and as a result the electoral system was forced to balance the power structure in the society (Stearns 185). It is reported that before the start of industrial revolution, it was only 6% of the male population was entitled to vote and this only represented the aristocrats who owned large tracks of land in the countryside (Crouzet 145).

But with the increase in the number of middle class factory owners, the new found economic punch prompted for changes in the electoral system and this saw introduction of a Reform Bill in 1832 that enfranchised the number of the voters to 20% of the male population.

The electoral districts were also redistributed to represent the large population in the major cities but before this the electoral districts were only in the countryside where there were aristocrats (Temin 68).

There was also the introduction of liberalism by les philosphes in 18th century and this meant a birth for new era in the politics of Britain which continued through to the industrial revolution and the big parties became the Conservative for old Tory and the Liberal for Whig parties. Even though the industrial revolution led to the shift of the vast majority from the rural areas into the urban centers in search of jobs, the social structure of the society in terms of economy changed drastically.

Many people were left poor especially the farmers after the introduction of the enclosure laws and this resulted to bankruptcy and unemployment of many farmers because machines made the small weavers redundant. Many people were forced to work long hours and in return made less money and this rendered the lives of many miserable. The women and children were forced to work because they were in dire need of money and many factory managers preferred them to men because they could easily control them and pay them less and besides were expected to work and help their families earn income. With the advancement in technology, the manual labour force was done away with and this meant that the children could now go to school rather than being misused as cheap labour in the industries.

The many innovations and inventions contributed towards the modern outlook of the life and the futuristic way of thinking of the people of Britain and the self-improvement in the workplace. The industrial revolution however caused the Britain’s citizens to move away from the past and instead focus on improving their way of living. We can thus convincingly say that industrial revolution in Britain was truly revolutionary.

The benefits of industrial revolution are the ones which have shaped the whole world to what it is today because without it, the world would still be in the pre-colonial era in which much of the work was manual-based and as a result the productivity was also very low.


Crouzet, François. Capital formation in the Industrial Revolution. London: Taylor & Francis, 1972.

Feinstein, Charles. Pessimism Perpetuated: Real Wages and the Standard of Living in Britain during and after the Industrial Revolution. The Journal ofEconomic History, 58.3 (1998): 625-658.

Knowles, L.C.A. The Industrial and Commercial Revolutions in Great Britain During the Nineteenth Century. Taylor & Francis, 2005.

Mokyr, Joel. The Economics of the Industrial Revolution. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1985.

Musson, Albert and Robinson, Eric. Science and technology in the Industrial Revolution. Manchester: Manchester University Press ND, 1969.

Stearns, Peter. The Industrial Revolution in World History. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1993.

Temin, Peter. Two Views of the British Industrial Revolution. The Journal of Economic History. 57.1 (1997): 63-82.

Thomson, Sir George. “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.” The New Industrial Revolution. Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, Inc.., Jan. 1957. Web. 20 Sept. 2009.