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Digital Subscriptions > History Revealed > March 2016 > Forging a New World

Forging a New World

With sparks flying and smoke billowing, modern Britain was forged in the furnace of the Industrial Revolution, writes Nige Tassell…

Unlike a war that’s neatly book-ended by declaration and armistice, there’s no exact start date for the Industrial Revolution. Nor is there a commonly agreed point at which it subsided. Spanning from roughly 1760 until around 1840, it began in and was predominantly located in Britain. The extraordinary upheaval of the era not only affected every aspect of life, but also reshaped the nation. As the historian Emma Griffin explains in her book Liberty’s Dawn: a People’s History of the Industrial Revolution 2013, “No matter how much we dispute the fine detail, it is clear that something momentous happened in Britain between the end of the 18th century and the middle of the 19th. ‘Revolution’ is an unavoidable and apt description of these events.”

CHAOTIC COTTONOPOLIS Britain’s cotton centre, Manchester, quadrupled in size in just a few decades. As such, the city grew haphazardly and social problems were rife…

The Revolution can be defined in many different ways, but – broadly speaking – it was the widespread conversion of Britain from a rural society into an urban one, when large swathes of the population left agricultural jobs for mechanised work in the noisy factories of the burgeoning industrial cities. The green and pleasant land was swapped for the dark, satanic mills.

Somewhat conversely, it was the increased mechanisation in agriculture, seen in earlier innovations such as Jethro Tull’s seed drill 1701, that had forced the migration to the cities and freed up a workforce for the Industrial Revolution.

Though the national focus moved towards heavy industry, agriculture didn’t suffer too badly. The improved harvesting techniques and hardware of the period – such as Scottish inventor Andrew Meikle’s threshing machine 1786 – led to increased productivity and thus increased profit.

While agriculture was evolving, so too was the nature of Britain’s other industries. The textile industry most conspicuously encapsulated these rapid changes. During the first half of the 18th century, the manufacture of textiles was either undertaken in small workshops or in the home – hence the phrase ‘cottage industry’.

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The March 2016 issue of History Revealed.