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Stories about the lives we've made

module:The workshop of the world

Industrial growth in late nineteenth century Britain


These dramatic economic and industrial changes caused equally dramatic population changes in terms of growth and especially in population distribution. Wealth creation associated with industrial growth allowed the maintenance of a larger population while the concentration of new industries in certain areas saw widespread population movements.

The problems of economic expansion

Massive social changes such as these rarely occur without difficulties. These huge growths and shifts in population were accompanied by a wide range of problems as demands for housing, sewerage, water, food, labour and entertainment all expanded along with the uncontrolled expansion of the population. Britain was becoming a predominantly urbanised and industrial society with all the problems, as well as benefits that this entailed.

STORY: Muck and brass: The industrial town
SCENE: Disease in the industrial town
launch scene

The second industrial revolution

This examination of the second part of the nineteenth century has been dominated by the expansion of industries that had already become important in the previous half century - iron and steel, textiles, coal and shipbuilding. They were all crucial elements in the transformation of Britain into an urban, industrial society. However, it is important to note that other, newer industries were also developing.

This was also the age of the emergence of industrial chemistry and of electricity and the electrical industries, although these newer fields were yet to have their full social impact.

Britain and world industrialization

Britain, as the first great industrial country, was clearly ahead of other industrialising nations in this period. On the eve of World War I, Britain still led production in many key industries.

However other countries were closing the gap, while in many of the new industries, countries like Germany and America had already taken the lead. Some British industrialists and politicians began to worry about the threat of foreign producers on the export markets.

This concern with foreign competition and social Darwinist ideas - that the world inevitably saw a struggle between competitive countries and societies in which only the strongest would prevail - lay behind the emergence of the demand for protectionism and imperial free trade, associated in the pre-war years with Joseph Chamberlain. Britain needed to protect her own industries and expand the marketing possibilities of the British Empire if she were to survive as a great power.

The exporting industries: Growth and future decline

It was not just Britain’s pre-eminence that was threatened. Certain areas of the country had absorbed great influxes of people to fill newly-created jobs. These industrial areas employed large numbers in jobs that were heavily dependent on Britain’s ability to export their products.

If Britain lost its strong export position, it would leave many jobless. Indeed, in Britain between the wars, it was these very areas of late nineteenth century industrial growth that were to suffer from industrial recession and the loss of overseas markets. You can examine this in more detail in the module on the Interwar Years.

Resource Descriptions

Scene  Rich Media