Industrial Revolution in Victorian England

May 15, 2016
A girl pulls a tub of coal
Colour illustration of a steam train on the Liverpool - Manchester railway, 1831

Rural life

It's all there in popular fiction. From Jane Austen in the 1810s, via Charles Dickens' pictures of mid century London life, to HG Wells' Time Machine in 1895, the world of literature moved from comedies of country manners to blistering portraits of urban poverty and, finally, time travel. Not bad for 80-odd years.

Although the Industrial Revolution had already begun, Britain in 1800 had changed little in centuries. It was a rural country, dominated by agriculture. For most, the world was restricted to their village - where their family had probably lived for generations - and the nearest market town, not surprising when the fastest thing on earth was a galloping horse, covering 100 miles a day at best. If you lived in Somerset, London was almost foreign, much as it had been in 1600. You wouldn't even have been using the same time - with the sun rising around ten minutes later than in London, Bristol clocks ran ten minutes behind.

Horizons were limited and life was slow.

Horizons were limited and life was slow. It was horsepower or nothing, and daylight and the seasons ruled the countryside. But all that was about to change. Although the steam engine was first invented in 1769 by James Watt, for decades his monopoly had prevented significant development and kept prices high. It was only in the nineteenth century that the real impact of steam would be fully felt.

And what an impact. Steam changed everything. It was faster, more powerful, and could work independently of natural power sources, such as water. Traction engines saw fields ploughed twenty times faster than before, and factories could be anywhere. They chose towns and cities. At a time of massive population expansion in Britain (from 9 million in 1801 to 36 million in 1911), cities were expanding even faster. Once islands in a sea of fields, needing the agricultural economy to sustain them, they forged ahead as farmworkers made redundant by steam migrated to the nearest town to find work. Manchester and Sheffield quadrupled between 1801 and 1851, Bradford and Glasgow grew eightfold. Cities were the masters now.

Railway mania

Although migration itself was not new, it had been difficult and correspondingly rare. The birth of the steam locomotive and the railway networks made it easier and more commonplace. In 1825 the Stockton and Darlington Railway opened, followed by the Liverpool and Manchester Railway five years later. The age of the railway had begun, reducing transport times, lowering transport costs, consuming raw materials and stimulating investment. The 1840s saw 'railway mania': by 1851 6, 800 miles of track had been laid. Soon it was possible to travel from London to Bristol in hours rather than days at speeds of around 60 mph.

But what did this actually mean? Reduced travel times inevitably shrank the country and widened horizons from local to national. The old days of local time (as in Bristol) jarred with railways that crossed the country and ran to a national timetable, and in 1845 the rail companies successfully lobbied Parliament to abolish it. The edges of Britain were joining up with the centres - the cities.

Source: www.bbc.co.uk
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