‘Nation of makers’: Britain industrialised over a century earlier than history books claim

May 21, 2024

Many parts of Britain were even “deindustrialising” say researchers – as manufacturing drained from much of the nation to concentrate around coalfields. Instead, the 19th century saw an almost doubling of the service sector – a boom often thought to have begun closer to the 1950s. The research suggests that Britain’s service sector has been growing almost continuously for three hundred years. "Secondary sector" is manufacturing and production jobs, and "tertiary sector" is service sector work. "Secondary sector" is manufacturing and production jobs, and "tertiary sector" is service sector work.

Britain was well on its way to an industrialised economy under the reign of the Stuarts in the 17th century – over 100 years before textbooks mark the start of the Industrial Revolution – according to the most detailed occupational history of a nation ever created.

Built from more than 160 million records and spanning over three centuries, the University of Cambridge’s Economies Past website uses census data, parish registers, probate records and more to track changes to the British labour force from the Elizabethan era to the eve of World War One.

The research shows that 17th century Britain saw a steep decline in agricultural peasantry, and a surge in people who manufactured goods: from local artisans like blacksmiths, shoemakers and wheelwrights, to an explosion in networks of home-based weavers producing cloth for wholesale.   

Historians say the data suggests that Britain was emerging as the world’s first industrial powerhouse several generations before the mills and steam engines of the late 18th century – long credited as the birth of global industry and economic growth. 

“By cataloguing and mapping centuries of employment data, we can see that the story we tell ourselves about the history of Britain needs to be rewritten,” said Leigh Shaw-Taylor, project leader and Professor of Economic History at Cambridge’s Faulty of History.

“We have discovered a shift towards employment in the making of goods that suggests Britain was already industrialising over a century before the Industrial Revolution.”

In fact, by the early 1800s, when William Blake was writing of “dark satanic mills”, numbers involved in manufacturing had long been flatlining. Many parts of Britain were even “deindustrialising” say researchers – as manufacturing drained from much of the nation to concentrate around coalfields.    

Instead, the 19th century saw an almost doubling of the service sector – a boom often thought to have begun closer to the 1950s. These included sales clerks, domestic staff, professionals such as lawyers and teachers, as well as a huge increase in transport workers on the canals and railways.

By 1911, some 13% of all working men were in transport. The research suggests that Britain’s service sector has been growing almost continuously for three hundred years.

The www.economiespast.org site has compiled and summarised employment statistics at local levels across England and Wales, allowing users to track changes to the workforce.

The site, a collaboration between the University's Faculty of History and Department of Geography, also breaks down by sector and, after 1851, by gender as well as age – revealing the extent of child labour.

“The question of why the industrial age dawned in Britain is a much-debated one, with coal, technology and empire all major factors,” said Prof Shaw-Taylor.

“Our database shows that a groundswell of enterprise and productivity transformed the economy in the 17th century, laying the foundations for the world’s first industrial economy."

“Britain was already a nation of makers by the year 1700”

Prof Leigh Shaw-Taylor

“A hundred years has been spent studying the Industrial Revolution based on a misconception of what it entailed,” he said. 

‘Industry without machines’

As much of Europe remained predominately agricultural, the number of male agricultural workers in Britain fell by over a third (64% to 42%) from 1600-1740.

At the same time, from 1600-1700, the share of the male labour force involved in goods production rose by 50% to just under half of working men (28% to 42%).

"Secondary sector" is manufacturing and production jobs, and "tertiary sector" is service sector work.

"Secondary sector" is manufacturing and production jobs, and "tertiary sector" is service sector work.

According to Shaw-Taylor’s estimates, the share of the British labour force in an occupation involving manufacturing rather than agriculture was three times that of France by 1700.

“We can’t say for certain why this change occurred in Britain rather than elsewhere,” he said. “However, the English economy of the time was more liberal, with fewer tariffs and restrictions, unlike on the continent.”

Moving goods within many European countries was subject to tolls from land barons, so markets were often very local. In England there are few records of such levies after the medieval era.     

Shaw-Taylor argues that trade guilds also had more power in other nations. For example, textile production was prohibited in the countryside around the Dutch city of Leiden, and in Sweden no shops were permitted in rural areas until the 19th century.

Yet in the England of 1700, half of all manufacturing employment was in the countryside. “In addition to village artisans, there were networks of weavers in rural areas who would work for merchants that supplied wool and sold the finished articles,” said Shaw-Taylor. 

Industries of textiles, or metalworkers making nails and scythes, were shaped like “factories without machines spread out over hundreds of households” according to Shaw-Taylor – and increasingly produced goods for international markets.

In Gloucestershire, for example, expansions in textiles, footwear and metals saw the share of the male workforce in industry grew from a third (33%) to almost half (48%) over the 17th century.

While in Lancashire, the share of men in manufacturing work grew from 42% in 1660 to 61% in 1750, driven by a doubling of textile workers (from 15% to 30%). This all occurred prior to the Industrial Revolution.

Some networks evolved into workshops, and eventually the mills of Blake’s visions as industries migrated to the North of England, where coal was abundant and crops were harder to grow.    

This meant that by the mid-18th century – considered the start of the Industrial Revolution – much of England’s South and East had actually lost its long-established industries, and even returned to farm labour, according to the research.

For example, Norfolk was probably the 17th century’s most industrialised county, with 63% of adult men in industry by 1700. But this actually dropped to 39% during the 18th century, while the share of the male workforce in agriculture jumped from less than a third (28%) to over half (51%).

The source of this news is from University of Cambridge

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