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Submarine Torpedo Boat, Garret, 1879. Science and Society Picture Library

Submarine Torpedo Boat, Garret, 1879. Science and Society Picture Library

'The British Beehive', etching by George Cruikshank, England, 1867. Museum no. 9779.6

'The British Beehive', etching by George Cruikshank, England, 1867. Museum no. 9779.6


The scale of Britain's industrial expansion during the 19th century was enormous and unprecedented. Fuelled by a rapid increase in international trade and a growing middle-class demand for consumer goods, Britain led the world in the development of rail networks and steamships. Its imports and exports increased concomitantly, supported by the class system and a renewed puritan work ethic.

On the sea, Britain dominated the industrialised world both in tonnage and distance: the British India Steam Navigation Co., established in 1856, became the largest shipping line in the world, eventually connecting India to South East Asia, the Far East, the Persian Gulf, Britain, East Africa and Australasia. Surprisingly, Britain lagged behind France, the United States, and Germany for self-propelled vehicles: most British cars were manufactured from German parts. The Victorian era remains the height of Britain's technological achievement.

Industry, power & steam

The emergence of Britain in the Victorian period as the world's most powerful trading nation was the direct result of the process of industrialisation that had transformed the country since the latter part of the 18th century. This economic and social revolution had been driven by many elements, but the most significant by far was the widespread application of steam technology.

By 1800 brilliant engineers and entrepreneurs such as Matthew Boulton had made steam power a practical reality. It radically improved Britain's core industries, namely the production of textiles, metalwork and other manufactured goods, and the mining of coal and other raw materials. By 1820 the potential of the steam engine as a viable source of power for ships and railway locomotives had been realised.

Although the first decades of the nineteenth century were marked by wars, financial crises and social unrest, Britain's industrial base continued to grow, fuelled by the rapid expansion of international trade. Between 1809 and 1839 imports nearly doubled, from £28.7 million to £52 million, while over the same period exports tripled, from £25.4 million to £76 million. Ten years later these figures were £79.4 million and £124.5 million respectively.

The expanding Empire partly explains this great pattern of growth, but Britain's export success was genuinely global. In both 1850 and 1900 the major export markets were Asia, Europe and, increasingly, the United States. When Victoria came to the throne, Britain's status as an industrial power was unchallenged and the pattern of expansion established since the end of the 18th century was set to continue.

Inextricably linked to the process of industrialisation was the increasingly stratified structure of British society, made in any case more rigid by the application of the work ethic, a reflection of a revived Protestant philosophy that had been largely dormant in the pre-Victorian period. Classification was the order of the day in a society whose values were linked to a well-defined moral code, fortified by concepts such as 'improvement' and 'self-help'.

The Victorians saw British society as a pyramid, with royalty, the aristocracy, the Church, the arts and the professions on top, supported by industry, and with the workhouse at the bottom, was very familiar. Inherent within this vision, and enshrined in society was the idea that the rungs of the social ladder could be climbed only by hard work and integrity, an idea that was constantly explored by painters and writers. By this process the concept of industry achieved its own morality, with the word consciously achieving the dual meaning of hard work and industrialisation.

A frequently used metaphor for the industrial process was the beehive, and many Victorian buildings featured bees, symbols both of hard work and the acceptance of the social order, in their decoration. George Cruikshank's well-known 1840 print, The British Bee Hive, underlines this and at the same time throws a spotlight on British society's classified view of itself.

A parallel vision of British society was supplied by the census of 1851. Of a working population of about 15.75 million, nearly two million were employed on the land, and over one million worked in domestic service. Other major areas of employment were all aspects of the textile trade, the building trades, mining and manufacturing. When analysed in depth, the census, and those that followed, offered many insights into the changing nature of society, not least the great increase in the number of civil servants and those in other service industries (although the censuses do create some problems of definition).

Such surveys also chart the major phenomenon of the Victorian period, the rise of the bourgeoisie, or the middle-class consumer society that was the driving force behind industrial expansion. In very simple terms, industry created wealth and the ability to spread that wealth through the various strata of society, both in terms of expenditure and buying power, and as investment. The growth of investments and savings was significant. In 1861 the Post Office Savings Bank was opened and between 1840 and 1900 savings bank deposits rose from £23.5 million to £191 million. Over the same period earnings from foreign investments rose from £7.1 million to £105 million.

As primary wealth-creators, the major producer industries of the Victorian period were agriculture, textiles, coal, iron and steel, and engineering. These industries were also the major employers, the major export earners and, in the latter part of the century, the major targets for the newly emerging trades unions. In 1889 trades unions had 679,000 members, the majority of whom were in the primary industries. By 1900 there were over two million union members in Britain. However, just as important was the diversification of industry in this period, along with the ever-increasing range of imported products.

Entrepreneurial expertise generated enormous wealth from the manufacture or importation of products as diverse as biscuits, guano, pianos and ostrich feathers. The importance of agriculture was directly linked to the rapid growth in population. Food production was always a labour-intensive industry, but traditional skills and technologies were increasingly replaced by industrial processes. Fertilisers based on guano were first used in 1835 and the first combine harvester was developed in the United States in 1836. Clay drainage pipes were used from 1843, but before that date, in 1839, an engineer called Howden demonstrated to the Lincolnshire Agricultural Society a portable steam engine designed for farm use. He went on to make 12 such engines, but far more significant was the portable steam engine displayed at the Liverpool Royal Show in 1841 by Ransome's of Ipswich, the machine that really brought mechanisation to the farm.

By the end of the century one of the many manufacturers of portable steam engines had alone produced over 33,000 machines. In 1842 Ransome's developed a self-propelled version, which paved the way for the thousands of traction and ploughing engines that revolutionised agriculture in Britain from the 1870s. Other important benchmarks were the reaping machine in 1851 and the widespread use of milking machines from the 1880s.

Despite the extensive improvements brought about by technology, and the huge increases in the amount of land under cultivation, peaking in 1872 at 9.6 million acres, Britain could never produce enough to feed its expanding population. Initially, imports were limited by the Corn Laws, which remained in place in one form or another until 1869. From that date onwards the growth was dramatic. Imports of wheat from the United States, for example, increased over 32 fold between 1865 and 1900, and over the same period the price dropped by a half. Food imports, encouraged in any case by free-trade philosophies, had a direct effect upon the agricultural industry and between 1870 and 1900 the number of farm labourers also dropped by half.

The spread of industrialisation and the expanding economy in Britain dramatically increased the demand for coal. In the second half of the century, new pits were opened in every British coalfield, but notably in South Wales, aided by the new technology that facilitated deep mining and coal extraction. Between 1860 and 1900 the number of miners increased from 307,000 to 820,000 and over the same period annual coal production soared from 80 million tons to over 225 million tons. A quarter of this was exported, making coal responsible for a tenth of all exports from Britain.

Another important industry was textiles, but in this case the growth was not so dramatic, with an increase from 259,000 employees in 1835 to 523,000 in 1901. In addition, over 300,000 women were employed as seamstresses and dressmakers. Over the same period cotton production increased fivefold but the percentage exported was ten times greater. Cotton spinning and printing was the major part of the industry, but large numbers of both men and women were employed to work with wool, linen and flax, silk and lace, and as workers for the hosiery, glove-making and straw-plait trades.

More significant in historical terms was the steel industry, which Britain dominated throughout the latter part of the century. The birth of the industry was in the new technology: Bessemer's converter of 1856 and Siemen's open-hearth process of 1869 both used hot gases to produce the steel, a technique that initially required low-phosphorus ores, while the Thomas-Gilchrist process of 1879 used phosphoric ores. Annual steel production in Britain grew from 300,000 tons in 1870 to 5 million tons in 1900 and by the end of the century nearly 1million tons were being exported. Much of this came from Barrow, a huge steel-making centre established from 1865 to exploit the low-phosphorus haematite ores from the Lakeland region.

In 1900 Britain produced 9 million tons of iron, and steel production did not outstrip iron until 1918. Steel was used increasingly for railways, in engineering, for tool-making, for armaments, in buildings and for ship-building. The construction of the Forth Bridge, completed in 1890 as one of the wonders of the world because of its pioneering cantilever construction, was made possible through the use of 50,000 tons of steel, as was the rapid growth in ship construction.

In 1900 ships totalling 739,000 tons were built and registered in Britain, and the shipyards on the Clyde, the Tyne, the Mersey and in Barrow and Belfast dominated the world. The same year, 1900, the total tonnage of ships registered in Britain was over 11.5 million. Fifty years earlier, British yards had pioneered the use of iron in shipbuilding.

Cast iron continued as a staple product for British industry throughout the 19th century, with extensive uses in engineering, architecture and the domestic sphere. There was also a thriving export business for all kinds of cast-iron products, from cooking pots to entire buildings. Scottish foundries in particular specialised in architectural cast iron and sold their products all around the British Empire. For example, Scottish-made iron buildings still survive in India and elsewhere, while ornamental fountains are still to be seen in the West Indies.

Paul Atterbury

Paul Atterbury is a specialist in 19th- and 20th-century art and design, with an interest in the history of technology. He was the curator of the Pugin: A Gothic Passion (V&A, 1994) and co-curator of Inventing New Britain: The Victorian Vision (V&A, 2001). Publications include Victorians at Home and Abroad (V&A Publications, 2001).

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