The impact of early nineteenth century technological development was felt profoundly over the subsequent half-century. During this latter period, the effects of the earlier breakthroughs now affected the lives of more people in Britain than ever before. The industrial capacity and workforce grew and costs were cut, until Britain could aspire to become the ‘workshop of the world’, producing for the world market and not merely the domestic one.
This massive industrial growth transformed the society that had produced it. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the majority of Britain’s population still lived in the countryside. Industry took place in islands within an essentially rural society. Industrial growth now sucked in the surplus population from other regions. By the middle of the century, perhaps half the population lived in the countryside, but by the end this was only a third.
Britain had now become an industrial and urban society, and henceforth, the world of the countryside was to be that of a declining minority. As R. Shannon has commented:
The Crisis of Imperialism, 1865-1915, Paladin 1974, 11
In 1851, the success of the Great Exhibition generated extraordinary interest in the world of industry, reinforcing the suitability of 1850 as the approximate start of a new phase. Fears about the impact of industrial change now began to give way to growing confidence.
This module examines some of the changes that took place during the later nineteenth century. It seeks to quantify the scale of the changes that were occurring, reflecting the historian’s need to quantify.