Beyond the industrial revolution

(James Symonds)

History tells us that Britain was the first industrial nation. For more than 150 years, the cluster of technological innovations that occurred in Britain between the mid 18th and mid 19th centuries has been hailed as evidence of an 'Industrial Revolution'.

The impact of this early phase of industrialisation was far-reaching. By the mid 19th century, British mass-produced goods had helped to create a modern consumer society; a society starkly divided between the 'haves' and 'have-nots', and yet one that succeeded, with the support of an expansionist imperial state, in dominating world markets for much of the Victorian era.

The intensification of manufacturing affected individuals and family life in fundamental ways. A rapidly rising population, buoyed up by an increase in the fertility rate and a tendency to marry earlier in life, became concentrated in the emerging manufacturing towns. Improvements in the organisation and efficiency of agriculture meant that a large number of women and children were released from agricultural tasks to take their place at the loom or workbench.

More men came to rely upon selling their labour to employers, rather than relying upon the products of their own household. New types of workplace also emerged. Production in the factory was centralised and regulated by time keeping and work-discipline. By the 1830s, industrialisation had created the industrial worker, and had formed working class consciousness.

The British nation revelled in its new status as the 'workshop of the world'. However, the world that had been created, of towering mills and smoke-stacks, of canals, railways, and densely packed back-to-back housing, would have been unimaginable just two generations earlier.

Manchester, the 'archetype city' of the Industrial Revolution, experienced phenomenal growth over the course of the 19th century. Its population of 89,000 in 1801 rose by 411,000, to more than half a million inhabitants in 1891. This pattern of demographic growth linked to industrial specialisation was mirrored elsewhere, as towns grew in size and number.

The greatest increases in urban population occurred in the North and the Midlands. Manchester and Liverpool overtook Bristol and Norwich as the second and third largest towns in England. Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield experienced similar levels of growth. Between 1750 and 1800, the total number of manufacturing towns in England and Wales increased from 104 to 188.

As any school text will tell you, this was primarily an age of invention and rapid material progress. Textbook accounts of the Industrial Revolution invariably parade a pantheon of heroic inventors - James Watt, inventor of the steam engine, Abraham Darby, the first iron master to use coke for smelting iron, and Richard Arkwright, inventor of the water-powered frame for spinning cotton, to name but a few.

Taken together, the cumulative homespun ingenuity of these men would seem to explain the rapidity and extent of the 18th century British technological take-off. But should we really believe that British know-how suddenly prevailed over European rivals in the late 18th century, and that the fires of a thousand factories lit up the night sky like a starburst?

Such grand narratives frequently obscure the sequence of events they are struggling to explain. For example, James Watt did not miraculously invent the steam engine in 1769, after watching steam rising from the spout of a kettle. Watt's innovation, the addition of a separate steam condenser and a double-acting cylinder, came to him as he attempted to repair a model of Thomas Newcomen's steam engine. Newcomen's steam engine had been invented almost 60 years before, and was in widespread use as a mechanism for pumping water out of mines.

The conflation of events around the development of the steam engine allowed Watt to be singled out, by virtue of the subsequent development of steam power and railway engines, for inclusion in the popular account of 'Our Island Story'. It also airbrushed out the fact that Newcomen's engine owed a great deal to an engine that had been designed (but not built) by the Frenchman Denis Papin in 1680. Papin had in turn benefited from the ideas of a 17th century Dutch scientist, Christiaan Huygens.

Technological change in Britain came slowly. In many cases, the roots of British industry extended back at least 300 years prior to the mid 18th century Industrial Revolution. It was, for example, no accident that factory-made ceramics came to be produced in Stoke-on-Trent. Pottery had been made in Stoke from at least the 14th century, and the town had established itself as one of the leading pottery industries in England by the end of the 17th century.

The historian Maxine Berg has shown that the most significant changes brought about by industrialisation concerned the organisation of work and the division of skilled labour. Centralised working in factories was one highly visible facet of this process. However, this aspect of work was over-shadowed by the growth of extended networks of out-workers in many regions of Britain. The 'little mesters' that made cutlery in Sheffield offer a well-known example of highly skilled semi-autonomous craftsmen.

Less well known are the Black Country women, often the wives or widows of chain-makers and miners, who hand-forged chains in tiny sheds attached to their homes in Cradley Heath, or the girl nail-makers of Bromsgrove and Dudley. In many other places both urban and rural, scores of women were engaged in 'sweated labour', working long hours for a meagre wage, making lace, hosiery, shoes, and other items of light clothing in their own homes; a practice which continued well into the 20th century.

So we are faced with the dilemma of at least two different versions of the story of early industrial Britain. On the one hand, popular history clings to the notion that industrialisation was sudden, dramatic, and homegrown. This version of history - history as one might wish it to be, rather than how it actually was - promotes a small number of heroic men, and their part in the development of coal mining, steam-power, textiles, iron and steel.

It also uses the narrative device of a sudden rupture to describe how change occurred. In the words of Arnold Toynbee, who introduced the term 'Industrial Revolution' to historians in 1884, the old order of medieval regulation was 'suddenly broken in pieces by the mighty blows of the steam engine and the power loom'.

On the other hand, there is a more gradualist scholarly viewpoint emerging that sees change as being slower, punctuated by various false starts, and altogether less inevitable. In this version of history change is contingent upon earlier forms of work, and is shaped by enduring traditions and customary practices. Less emphasis is placed upon the impact of heavy industry and factories, and more is given to the organisation of work, and in particular to the extension of systems of out-working and 'sweated' labour. Despite the
popular perception of the Industrial Revolution as an age of Dickensian mills and workers immersed in misery, as late as 1850 less than 12 per cent of the British workforce was employed in factories.

Is it possible to gain a fresh perspective on the process of industrialisation through the use of archaeological techniques? One would hope so - not least because British industrial archaeologists have been studying the Industrial Revolution for almost 50 years.

Although initially the haunt of extra-mural classes and amateur enthusiasts, since the 1970s the work of professional archaeologists has broadened the scope of industrial archaeology tremendously. Industrial archaeology is now widely viewed as a conservation-driven discipline, dealing with the statutory protection and management of industrial buildings and landscapes. A great deal of effort has been expended over the years in the survey and excavation of industrial monuments.

However, despite all of this, industrial archaeology has failed to make any serious impact on the writing of economic and social histories of the period. We are therefore faced with the inescapable question, what use is industrial archaeology to the broader understanding of history?

Notwithstanding the suspicion that has traditionally been shown by some historians towards non-literary sources, the evidence provided by industrial archaeology has been overlooked for two main reasons. First, industrial archaeologists have often been content with a simple functional description of the buildings and landscapes that they study. Fieldwork reports can make dry reading, and tend to be technocentric in approach. Even today, few reports look beyond the machines, or the structures that housed the machines, to catch sight of the workers, or for that matter the wider social context of production.

Second, many industrial archaeologists seem content to tacitly go along with the popular view of the Industrial Revolution, at least in terms of the sites that they choose to study. Historically, this no doubt largely came down to the availability of funding. In the late 1960s and 70s the heritage industry encouraged industrial archaeologists to investigate iconic sites where landmark events were known, or believed, to have occurred. The investigation and consolidation of Abraham Darby's coke-fired blast furnace at
Coalbrookdale, now the jewel in the crown of the Ironbridge World Heritage Site, may be cited as an early example of this trend.

Historical links to great engineers or industrialists have also influenced the selection of industrial sites for statutory protection. Hence, the associative or symbolic value of a bridge built by Brunel or Telford has always held sway in terms of listing over more commonplace, but arguably more representative industrial structures.

Industrial archaeologists should, of course, not be content with just gathering data, creating taxonomies of buildings, and managing the preservation of industrial monuments. Rather, we should attempt to increase understanding of the lives of the individuals that experienced this era of industrialisation.

First and foremost, we need to place people at the centre of the stories that we tell about the industrial past; and we need to place more effort into the imaginative interpretation of the material remains that we recover. Rather than digging to confirm 'history', or to 'fill in the gaps' of the history of technology, it is possible to generate new understandings of human experience from the places and things that people used in order to make their way through their lives and their work.

One way that we can attempt to enter into the lost social world of the industrial workplace is to regard industrial structures as multi-layered places, that are at the same time both real and imagined. In a purely practical sense the plan, style, and materials used in the construction of an industrial building can tell us a great deal about the organisation of production and working practices. However, buildings can also be interpreted at a metaphorical level, as the physical embodiment of an ideology.

When Josiah Wedgwood built a new pottery factory at Etruria in Staffordshire in 1769, the factory was organised to allow a spatial flow of production. Raw materials were off-loaded from the adjoining Grand Trunk Canal, and travelled through the factory from process to process in a semi-circle, until they arrived back at the canal for shipment. On a practical level, Wedgwood's assembly-line approach allowed him to divide production tasks among his workforce, and to control the flow and pace of work. However, Wedgwood's factory may also be read as a metaphor for society that reflects his paternalistic capitalist view of the world.

In contrast, the production of cutlery and edge-tools in late 18th century Sheffield was not undertaken in integrated factories, but by numerous small scale forges, attached to individual homes. The craft based nature of this industry, which relied upon quasi-autonomous cutlers and grinders to complete 'put-out' work, is reflected in the often humble physical form of the buildings that were used.

The 'open' nature of industrial society in Sheffield, and the reluctance on the part of cutlers and grinders to engage in corporate forms of production, showed a remarkable persistence. The first integrated steel and cutlery factory in Sheffield, William Greaves's Sheaf Works, was erected in 1823, but property speculators continued to erect cheaply built tenement factories in the town throughout the 19th century. Independent cutlers and grinders leased individual rooms, and even workbenches, within these factories.

A recent analysis of the layout of a three-storey grinding workshop on Cambridge Street in Sheffield has shown that although the building on first sight appears to have been an integrated factory, in reality, each workshop had a separate entrance, and must have worked independently from the others, with the only access being from outside.

Industrialisation was a far from homogenous process. It varied tremendously between regions, and through time, but was always contingent upon pre-existing craft skills, and highly localised social practices. Individuals, families, and skilled craft workers vied for status in the workplace. Workers jealously guarded their skills to maintain their position and enhance their bargaining power in the labour market.

Prior to 1860, the skill of the forgeman was vitally important in the production of bar iron from blast furnaces. Experience and dexterity were transmitted between close kin, and this gave rise to 'dynastic' families of ironworkers. In some cases father and son teams were 'head-hunted' by an ironmaster to kick-start a new forge in a different region. Much more archaeological research is needed, however, on the mechanisms by which skills and technical knowledge were transmitted in the workplace.

Recent work in Sheffield by Roderick MacKenzie has shown that metallography can play a crucial part in the interpretation of metal artefacts, and can shed light on the treatment of raw materials, production methods, and the technical skills of individual craftsman. Two late 18th century steel knives, for example, were recovered by excavation from the wheel-pit of a former water-powered cutlery workshop at Riverside Exchange in Sheffield. Metallurgical analysis revealed that the first knife, which bore the mark of an established cutler, had been forged from seven layers of steel to make a
reasonable quality 'shear steel' blade. The microstructure of the second knife revealed that it had been forged from several pieces of steel of varying carbon composition, most likely re-cycled scrap. This knife bore the mark of an apprentice.

Another interesting subject is whether the archaeology of industrial sites can detect resistance to the mechanisation of the workplace, and the imposition of capitalist ideology. Everyday resistance can take many forms. It can occasionally lead to strikes, or riots, but is more often limited on a day-to-day basis to foot-dragging, non-compliance, petty theft, and vandalism, and rarely leaves any archaeological traces.

An example of how customary practices survived in the face of pressure to modernise has been revealed by Marilyn Palmer and Peter Neaverson, in their study of 19th century handloom weaver's cottages in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire. Domestic handloom weaving survived for at least 40 years after the introduction of the power loom into these counties, suggesting that this group of artisans cherished their independence, and were actively resisting employment in a mechanised mill weaving shop.

A rare example of everyday covert resistance has been recovered by Mary Beaudry and Steve Mrozowski, in their excavations at the Boott Mill, in Lowell, Massachusetts. In Lowell, the textile company established boarding houses for their workforce, and workers were expected to adhere to a strict moral code. However, when the excavators found liquor and wine bottles stowed beneath floorboards in privies, it was clear that some boarders had violated the company's sobriety rules. Similar transgressions must have occurred within British factories, and await the attention of industrial
archaeologists here.