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The Industrial Revolution Begins in Britain

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Industrial Revolution Begins in Britain

The Industrial Revolution began in Britain for two main reasons; one was its geographical makeup and the other was its society.

Geography

The island of Great Britain was crisscrossed by a network of canals and rivers; therefore, it was relatively cheap and easy to transport goods. The climate was temperate enough for travel and outdoor work year-round, except in the very coldest weeks of winter, and there were no major geographical obstacles to transportation, such as mountain ranges or vast deserts. Britain also had vast resources of coal, which was a main element of industry until late in the twentieth century.

Due to its geographical isolation from the European continent, Britain was largely unaffected by the Napoleonic Wars that consumed Europe from the end of the eighteenth century to 1815. Although Britain sent troops to the continent and British troops played a major role in Napoleon’s defeat on the battlefield, France did not invade Britain, and its government and economy were not shaken up by the wars.

Society

From the Glorious Revolution in 1689 to the beginning of World War I in 1914, Britain was a very stable society. The constitutional monarchy functioned well, the banking system was prosperous, and the population was thrifty. Men and women who owned their own small businesses—taverns, stores, mills, or farms—tended to invest their profits back into the business. In addition, men who owned small businesses could vote; this connected the interests of industry to those of government.

Changes in Farming

The British agricultural industry adopted Dutch methods of crop rotation, fertilization, and diversification. The term crop rotation refers to planting a field with a different crop each year—for example, wheat the first year, rye the second, and potatoes the third. Each crop drew different nutrients and minerals from the soil; therefore, rotating the crops allowed the soil to replenish its own resources. Diversification worked well for the same reason. Planting a variety of crops made the best possible use of the soil. It also cut down on poor harvests; if the wheat crop failed, for example, the potato crop might still thrive.

In 1701, Jethro Tull perfected a seed drill that could be harnessed to a horse. As the horse walked down the field, the drill sowed the seeds neatly and uniformly. Previously, the farmer had had to do his own sowing by walking down his rows and casting handfuls of seeds as he walked. The seed drill sped up the process and made it more efficient. Food production increased 300 percent over the course of the eighteenth century in Britain. Many people credit Tull’s seed drill and other pioneering agricultural ideas with a major part in this change.

Probably because of the increase in food production, the British population would double between 1780 and 1851.

Because innovations in farming made large-scale farms more economically profitable than small ones, landowners began the process of enclosure—fencing in large tracts of privately owned land. Traditionally, the British had always permitted subsistence farming on any open fields, regardless of who owned the land. This made it possible for villagers to raise crops and feed their families. With the changes in agricultural methods, however, landowners joined in the enclosure movement, thus consolidating their fields for large-scale farming. Enclosure forced many villagers to move to the cities looking for work for wages. This large-scale urban migration, of course, provided the factories with a steady supply of workers. In this way, agriculture played its own major role in the overall manufacturing economy.

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