Here is a term paper on the ‘Economic and Social History of Britain’ especially written for school and college students.
Term Paper # 1. Economic Development of Britain:
Though appropriate for political history, is inconvenient for economic and social history. Thus within the period 1832-50 falls the crisis of 1837-42, which may reasonably be regarded as the watershed of British economic and social history between the 1780s and the 1880s. After 1832 a spell of full employment and low prices culminated in the boom of 1836.
The crash came in 1837, and then a run of bad harvests led to high agricultural prices which, interacting with trading and industrial depression and consequent unemployment, reduced the mass of the people to a degree of poverty never subsequently paralleled in Britain.
After 1842, while conditions in Ireland were far worse during the famine of 1845-49 than ever recorded before or known since in any part of the United Kingdom, in Britain the construction of railways and reviving trade enabled the economy to recover and embark on its most rapid phase of growth, despite a recurrence of depression in 1847-48.
To treat the years 1832-50 as a period, however, forgetting for the moment the fluctuations, does reveal the persistence of the main trends of the Industrial Revolution. The population of Britain rose from 16,000,000 to 21,000,000 between the censuses of 1831 and 1851.
It was the industrial areas whose numbers grew most quickly, particularly Lancashire, Durham, Lanarkshire, Glamorgan and Monmouth. An increased influx of Irish labourers, especially into Lancashire, was important in the 1840s. At the census of 1851, 734,000 Irishmen were in Britain, about half of whom had arrived during the previous decade.
Sheffield, centre of the cutlery industry, joined the list of cities with over 100,000 inhabitants. Glasgow continued to draw away from Edinburgh, the Lowlands from the Highlands, and the North of England from the South—except that, as always, London grew rapidly. By 1851 a third of the whole population lived in towns with more than 20,000 inhabitants.
Cotton, iron and coal remained the major fast-growing industries. The volume of raw cotton imported roughly tripled, as did the volume of iron production; coal production more than doubled. The case of iron was the most remarkable: its higher rate of growth was primarily due to the demands of the railways, mainly at home but to some extent abroad, especially in the United States. Exports increased seven times between 1830 and 1850. Scottish mines provided much of the increased production.
Mechanization, factories and the use of steam-power continued to spread, but chiefly still in the textile industry. Wool was in all these respects catching up with cotton. These were the years when handloom weaving virtually disappeared. More than half the production of cotton manufactures was exported, and cotton and wool together provided half of all British exports.
But, though so important to the British economy and so advanced technologically, they were not dominant in social life. As can be shown for these years from the more thorough censuses of 1841 and 1851, in terms of the number of persons employed other occupations were more or equally notable.
The textile industries had a labour force of 1 million, half of them female. Agriculture employed 2 millions, mostly male. Coal occupied 250,000, nearly all male. There were 1 million domestic servants, 500,000 persons involved in building, the same number of shopkeepers, 250,000 shoemakers and the same number making and selling beer.
In assessing the importance of the new industry in the life of Britain it must be remembered also that cotton and wool factories and coal and iron mines were localized, whereas breweries, farms and shops were to be found all over the country. The typical Englishman was coming to be a townsman, but he was not an industrial worker, still less a factory hand.
This period, however, boasts a great economic achievement and novelty, almost a second economic revolution, in the creation of the most important part of the railway system of Britain. Railways as now understood are reckoned to date from the Liverpool and Manchester line, built by George Stephenson and completed in 1830.
There existed previously considerable lengths of rails in Britain, mostly attached to some industrial concern, probably a coal-mine. But the Liverpool and Manchester was the first line which carried passengers and freight under statutory authority, solely by mechanical traction. By 1850 more than 6,000 miles of such railways had been opened in Britain.
This was an astonishing feat, which it is interesting to measure against the progress of motorway building in the twentieth century, especially since over half of these lines were built in the late forties. It was possible by the end of this period to travel by rail from London as far as Aberdeen or Holyhead or Plymouth. Although many more miles remained to be built, the essentials of the trunk system were in operation.
In general, of course, railways were the most important application of steam power, making it possible to carry more easily and cheaply, and many times more rapidly, unprecedented numbers of people and, in the long run, also of goods. But it was the building of railways rather than their working which stimulated the economy in these years.
Their construction raised problems similar to those of canal-building, but on a far greater scale. They required Acts of Parliament to authorize them. Large amounts of land had to be bought. By the standards of the day, the capital needed was enormous. The figure for paid-up railway capital and loans in 1850 was £ 235,000,000, equivalent to almost half the annual national income and greater than Britain’s total foreign investment.
In the ‘thirties railways had been financed mainly by local capital, but in the ‘forties the Stock Exchange mobilized investment nationally, its first large involvement in the internal economic development of the country. A huge labour force was also necessary for railway-building. In the late ‘forties an average of about 200,000 men was so employed.
Between two and three million tons of iron must have gone into them, more than the total annual production of 1850 and four times that of 1830. The great entrepreneurs like the engineers George Stephenson and his son Robert, I. K. Brunel and Joseph Locke, the contractor Thomas Brassey and the company promoter George Hudson worked on a scale hitherto unknown, and abroad as well as in Britain: Brassey had railway contracts in 15 foreign countries.
Fortunes were made—and, in Hudson’s case, lost by over- confidence and fraud. Dickens’ description, quoted at the head of this Part, conveys the force of the impact of railway-building on the landscape and on people’s minds. Here was an aspect of the Industrial Revolution which directly affected the whole country.
In the 1830s, it would seem, the British Industrial Revolution was slowing down. Industrial production was still rising rapidly, but the prices of industrial products were falling to the extent that profits were low and national income per capita was no longer growing so fast. Overseas and domestic markets were incapable of taking the full potential output of British industry. Britain’s is the only Industrial Revolution to have taken place in a country without railways.
Their coming-providing employment, increasing demand for coal and iron, and offering investment opportunities which raised the level of capital formation to the 10 per cent of national income postulated by many economists, studying other national industrial revolutions, as necessary for industrial ‘takeoff’—gave a boost to the economy, which the operation of the new railway system repeated. Whereas in every other country railway-building was assisted by State grants of money or land, in Britain private investors supplied the entire capital required.
Railways were a British invention, no doubt because Britain had unique experience in the mining and use of coal. It was a sign of future trends that in 1850, while no other European country had yet built nearly as many miles of track, there were already more in the United States.
For British agriculture this was a decisive period, the time when it manifestly ceased to be able to supply the needs of the country for food and when it was first exposed to serious competition from abroad. Down to 1837 imports of grain were negligible in good years.
In the next few years, with bad harvests, larger quantities were brought in than ever before, and by the late ‘forties, after the Repeal of the Corn Law, heavy imports were made even in good years. But, although the situation of agricultural labourers remained lamentable, the industry, far from succumbing, began to advance with unusual rapidity. The reasons for this, and the significance of these developments.
Term Paper # 2. Social Conditions of Britain:
Not only in economic, but also in social, history are the years 1837-42 a watershed. Conditions for the mass of the British people were worse than ever since and in certain respects than ever before. This helps to account for the fact that the whole period between the passage of the First Reform Act and the death of Peel is unique for the strength and profusion of its popular movements of protest.
It is also the time when ‘the social question’ or ‘the Condition of England question’ came to the fore, and when the first great pioneering attempts were made to improve matters, both by legislation and voluntary effort. The later ‘forties saw considerable advance.
Down to 1842, as between 1780 and 1830, the average wage-earner’s position cannot have improved much and may have worsened. The contrast with what followed is considerable, but there is no great contrast with what went before.
However, the following factors rendered the period before 1842, and especially the crisis of 1837-42, particularly unhappy, or made it seem or feel even worse than it was:
First, the crisis was unusually prolonged; it was the most severe depression since the Industrial Revolution had begun; and food prices were relatively higher than at any time since 1819.
Secondly, the industrial and urban labour force, exposed to the full effects of fluctuations in prices and employment, was larger than ever before.
Thirdly, during these years it at length became impossible for a handloom weaver, however many hours he worked, supposing he could get work, to earn a living wage. The fate of these weavers has now been fully studied. Many of them evidently found other employment. Some of them were certainly unreasonably conservative in their determination to continue in the trade they had learned and to train their children in it.
But for much of the period there was just not enough alternative employment. The rate at which in the cotton industry power looms were being installed, an average of 10,000 a year, was much the same as the rate at which handlooms went out of operation; but it was mostly women and children who were employed to mind the former, while many men had worked the latter, and one person could mind more than one power-loom.
The handloom weavers were the group most involved in radical and revolutionary agitation in this period, and the group which then and subsequently has furnished the best example for those who were and are inclined to stress the sufferings occasioned by the Industrial Revolution.
Another trade, framework-knitting in the hosiery industry, with about 50,000 frames mostly in the Midlands, was in somewhat the same state. Although power-knitting did not arrive until the late ‘forties, there was a surplus of knitters, and wages were terribly low.
Fourthly, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, the ‘New Poor Law’, made the situation of the poor worse.
Fifthly, it is likely that this was the period when social provision in the new towns was at its lowest point.
In terms of the number of people to each room, the average housing of the industrial towns was probably less crowded than older housing. But houses were more concentrated, and in some parts of towns overcrowding was growing. Statistics of mortality show that urban conditions were in general worse than rural, and deteriorating. Expectation of life at birth for ‘gentlefolk’ was 55 years in Bath, 35 in Liverpool; for labourers 38 in Rutland, 15 in Liverpool.
Death-rates in towns were rising, especially as typhus and tuberculosis were becoming commoner. The death-rate for England and Wales as a whole in the 1840s averaged between 22 and 23 per thousand, which was rather higher than earlier in the century.
The provision of amenities, from churches and parks to sewers and water-closets, was not keeping pace with the growth of the towns. Further, this problem became more than proportionately greater in towns over a certain size; and, the larger the town, the worse it was for those who lived in the centre, far from open spaces and without cheap public transport to take them there.
Given this situation, it is difficult to have patience with the writers who insist on discussing living standards largely on the basis of a comparison between average wage-rates in 1800 and those in 1850, and so gloss over social factors, the difference made by the railway boom, variations by locality and trade, and the enormous fluctuations of the period.
Again, those who question the concept of ‘the Hungry Forties’, which was indeed invented in the early twentieth century during the debate on Tariff reform, are pedantic when they insist that it is wrong to describe as ‘hungry’ a decade in part of which a great improvement was registered. For several years around 1840 conditions were exceptionally bad, as they were again in 1847-48; and the term is justified a thousand times over if Irish experience is taken into account.
On the other hand, it remains fair to stress, as with reference to the earlier years of the Industrial Revolution, that all the hardship was not directly caused by industrialization, and furthermore that agricultural conditions were in their own way as horrifying as industrial.
The state of the poor was not worse in nineteenth-century Britain than in many other parts of the world. What seemed so appalling was that such enormous economic advance should improve conditions so little, if at all; more especially that earlier gains should be retrenched; and that it was possible for principals in that advance, the industrial workers, living in its creations, the great new towns, to suffer such squalor and misery.
It is a relief to turn to the more hopeful side of the story. During these years, especially in the ‘forties, people became much more aware of the situation in industrial areas and more concerned to improve it. Cholera, a disease endemic in Asia and likely to become epidemic elsewhere if living conditions are filthy, came to England in 1832.
It killed over 16,000, but it caused the establishment of a temporary Central Board of Health and some local boards. The Secretary of the Manchester Board, Dr. Kay, produced a report, which for the first time described the actual condition of a great urban population. There followed reports of Royal Commissions appointed by Parliament on conditions in textile factories (1833), handloom weaving (1838-41) and mines (1842), and Edwin Chadwick’s Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Poor (1842).
Among the forces behind these documents was the mass movement of protest in the Yorkshire woolen districts against the evils of the factory system, which from 1830 demanded a ten hours’ day for all the workers involved: a notable development from merely negative riots against the introduction of machinery.
Certain public figures took up these questions, most prominently Lord Ashley (after 1851 Earl of Shaftesbury), theologically a rigid Evangelical, who was active in promoting enquiries into social conditions, in introducing legislation to mitigate the situation they revealed and in running an almost inconceivably wide range of private charitable organizations.
Another approach to the problem might be regarded as a variation of the ‘ancient constitution’ theory, but it was religious and aesthetic rather than political in tone, strongly coloured by the twin revivals of medievalism and Catholicism. Before the Reformation, it was held, the ordinary people of Britain lived contented in a Christian community whose ideals were spiritual not materialist and which cared for the souls of individuals rather than treated them as cogs in a money-making machine.
The medieval situation should be restored. In 1836 Augustus Welby Pugin published Contrasts. The author is best known in the history of architecture, as the designer of all the detail of the new Houses of Parliament, the passionate advocate of the virtues and beauties of Gothic art and the pro-pounder of the view that moral standards can and should control aesthetic.
Contrasts had an enormous impact on taste, but it also contained the germ of Christian Socialism. It depicted ‘Noble Edifices of the Middle Ages and the corresponding Buildings of the Present Day’. The medieval city is dominated by spires, the modern by chimneys.
Now factories and warehouses, a gas-works, Nonconformist chapels, a Socialist Hall of Science, a new jail, a lunatic asylum (but not yet a railway station) have replaced Catholic churches and abbeys. Water ran free and pure from the Gothic fountain; now it is dirty and costs money. The cruel modern workhouse is contrasted with the benevolent medieval hospital for the poor.
Under these various influences many writers turned to revealing the black side of the new society and campaigning for its improvement. Disraeli’s Sybil (1845) is especially interesting as the work of an active politician and a future Prime Minister, dealing sympathetically with Chartists, exposing evils of the factory system, stressing the gulf between rich and poor, and drawing the contrast between the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century.
Thomas Carlyle’s tracts, particularly Chartism (1839) and Past and Present (1843), were similarly inspired, though they show an unusual readiness for State action to remedy matters, accompanied by an equally unusual distaste for representative government. Mrs. Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) described from personal knowledge the state of Manchester.
Especially Parliament’s, to deal with social problems at some length. Here it is convenient to mention some of the lesser, mostly private, efforts. One of the most important of these was the London City Mission, founded in 1835, with which Ashley soon became connected.
The Labourers’ Friend Society of 1842, later renamed the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes, dealt with housing. Another was the movement to support what were called without euphemism Ragged Schools. From this decade dates the first society for the preservation of footpaths, in Sidmouth.
Some industrial towns, like Preston, Derby, Birkenhead and Manchester, acquired public parks, largely by the gift of enlightened and wealthy individuals. It became lawful for municipalities to levy rates to erect baths and wash-houses (1845), museums (1845) and public libraries (1850). John Owens, who died in 1846, left a fortune to found a University in Manchester. Whether moved by religion or not, philanthropists were showing a deeper appreciation of the needs of urban societies.
Social life was much changed also by the coming of the railways. They made it possible to travel at speeds several times greater than previously. The improvement was of a different order from the modest acceleration of stage coaches in the previous century. In 1841 a rapid coach from London to Exeter took 18 hours. In 1845 the rail express took 6.5.
The coach fare with tips was nearly £ 4. The first-class railway fare was £ 2 10s. Far more passengers could be carried by trains than by coaches: in 1835 the Leeds and Selby Railway carried 3,500 a week, as against 400 by the displaced coaches. In these decades, contrary to expectation, it was the passenger traffic which made money, not the goods traffic.
The coaches were being driven off the roads, and the roads and the coaching-inns were soon neglected. Railways made it easier for the better-off to live some distance from their place of work, a practice which of course accentuated class-distinctions. But they also made possible excursions for the less well-off.
To anticipate, in 1851 nearly 6,000,000 visits were made to the Great Exhibition by inhabitants of the United Kingdom, most of whom must have travelled to London by train and many of whom would not have been able to travel there at all but for the railways. In 1840, partly as a result of railway-building, the penny post was established.
The number of letters carried by the Post Office more than quadrupled between 1839 and 1849. As well as much-improved communication, the railways brought standardization. For example, it proved impossible to maintain local times, which had hitherto varied by a quarter-of-an-hour or more from one part of the country to another.