The Industrial Revolution was arguably the most sweeping change to hit mankind since the dawn of agriculture. It completely changed the way goods were made, sold, and distributed. It changed labor in radical new ways. But most importantly, the industrial revolution served to create a cycle of ingenuity that would drive the gears of history from the late eighteenth century onward. In the first part of A Beginner’s Guide to the Industrial Revolution, we will cover the conditions that were set in the eighteenth century to allow Britain to take the lead in new industry.
Before the Industrial Revolution could take place, other changes needed to precede it. The first series of changes constituted what was known as the Agricultural Revolution. Prior to the eighteenth century, the majority of agriculture in Great Britain and on continental Europe was done according to communal land. This land was open and not delineated by fences or other boundary markers. Rural farmers would generally rent strips of land from a wealthy landowner and then cooperatively farm a collection of these strips with other farmers. In addition, prior to the late eighteenth century there were tracts of large areas of land designated as public land. This land did not necessarily have to be farm fields, but could also include pasture lands, forests, and waterways. Villagers were able to use this public land for grazing animals, gathering wood, or other uses to necessitate survival. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, many areas of the European countryside were not linked with efficient roads or canals. This caused the village as a social and economic unit to become even stronger.
There were problems with this communal form of farming which eventually would contribute to its downfall. The first had to do with the driving force behind communal farming as the norm up until the eighteenth century. Villagers cooperatively worked the land because it meant better crop yields for them. If they could streamline their techniques, choices, and work, they could ensure that most members of the village had enough to eat even through tough times. However, working the land as a team led to a stifling of agricultural innovation. Villagers were not apt to support changing their methods on nothing but a hope that a new method might improve yields. Living in a fickle world of weather and disasters that could spell starvation, most European farmers were extremely resistant to try anything new in their fields. As a consequence, there was not much surplus crop to be had in these villages. They grew enough for the village, but rarely enough to sell. This meant that many towns and cities could not support a high population because there was simply not enough food being provided by the surrounding rural areas.
This all changed in the eighteenth century. Wealthy landowners living in Britain realized that they could get more out of the land and turn higher profits on surplus crops if they fenced off portions of land as their own. This came to be known as the Enclosure Movement. Although enclosure of public land had been happening in small steps since the twelfth century, it really didn’t take off on a large scale until the second half of the eighteenth century. By 1860, the majority of land in Britain had become enclosed with the help of a series of Enclosure Acts enacted by Parliament. Enclosure had some very important consequences that would help spur the industrial revolution into action in Britain.
The first important consequence of enclosure was that it allowed for agricultural innovation to proceed as it never had before in Europe. Wealthy landowners had enough money and resources to make the risk of trying new methods worthwhile. They tried new crop rotation systems for replenishing soil nutrients, grew different crops at different points in the year, mixed soils, and developed new mechanical means for improving agriculture. The easiest of the latter to remember is the seed drill devised by Jethro Tull. Just imagine Ian Anderson playing a seed drill instead of a flute on “Aqualung” and you’re all set. This drill allowed for more ordered cultivation of crops that would not have been possibly by simply sowing the seeds by hand. In this climate of innovation, competition to outclass rivals became the prevailing ethic over cooperation. Since the Industrial Revolution would be based upon competition, this was the perfect starting point.
A consequence of the innovations just discussed was not only increased profits for the landowners, but also a lot more surplus food in Britain. This food could be sold to the cities and turn a profit for the landowners. When you have more food in a civilization, you can support more people. The improved crop yields also improved the availability of more diverse foodstuffs. Prior to the agricultural revolution, most Europeans had subsisted primarily on bread made from grain. Now more nutritive crops like potatoes were beginning to take hold and become more widespread. With better diet and more to eat in general, Britain’s population could increase.
The final consequence of the Agricultural Revolution was a mass displacement of farmers. As lands they had formerly been able to access began to be fenced off, many farmers found that they could not support themselves the way they had for centuries. Farming no longer became a productive option for many, and so the most attractive option became moving into the towns to find work. As more workers left the rural areas in Britain and flocked to towns, a gigantic base of cheap labor was created. When you have already poor farmers who have just become poorer, you don’t need to pay them very much money in urban occupations. A lot of bodies who were willing to work for a pittance would be one of the gears that would allow the Industrial Revolution to flourish in Britain.
So ends the first part of A Beginner’s Guide to the Industrial Revolution. The next section will examine the roots of industry itself and how Britain was an ideal country for this fascinating change in economics to take place.