Sense of the Industrial Revolution: English Economy and Society 1700-1850
King, Steven & Geoffrey Timmins
Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 2001.
£17.99, 413 pages, 0719050227.
Université de Rouen
Making Sense of the Industrial Revolution deals with the multiple
facets of the Industrial Revolution and its numerous impacts on British
society over a period of 150 years. The methods used are interesting,
sometimes original, and the work abounds with precious information
that cannot easily be found in other books.
Steven King and Geoffrey Timmins begin their study with the contemporary
perceptions of the Industrial Revolution. The point of view of contemporaries
is always interesting because they leave testimonies concerning history
in the making, noticing changes for the better or for the worse, without
the hindsight that may warp the historians' vision. Of course, as
the authors point out, contemporary accounts also have to be taken
with a pinch of salt since they are not necessarily objective. King
and Timmins have noted that contemporary diarists were struck by the
growth of the population, rural depopulation, the concomitant urbanisation
of the country and the changing role of towns. They were also aware
of the industrialization of the country. Several contemporary foreign
visitors such as Léon Faucher, who was not German as the authors
claim, but French (11), or British commentators corroborate the comments
Patrick Colquhoun made in 1814: "It is impossible to contemplate
the progress of manufactures in Great Britain within the last thirty
years without wonder and astonishment" (11).
The analysis of the technological changes that the Industrial Revolution
brought about is both rich and convincing. The pages on hand technology
are particularly useful as people tend to forget that mechanisation
was a slow process. King and Timmins explain that powered machinery
was not always as efficient, rapid or satisfactory as hand technology.
The spinning jenny is a case in point. Powered machinery was also
very expensive to install, which is why colliery owners, for instance,
were often reluctant to buy Watt engines. Besides, accidents such
as boiler explosions were frequent.
The authors do not neglect the impact of changes in working techniques
and conditions on the workers' health and morals, and they show the
diverging opinions of contemporaries on that subject. The passage
on child labour, however, is too short and the statistics given require
some explanations, as they are surprising, to say the least: "Thus,
taking England and Wales as a whole, figures extracted by Hugh Cunningham
show that only 2 per cent of boys and 1.4 per cent of girls were recorded
by census enumerators as having occupations" (95). Two questions
arise: what age groups do they refer to? Were census figures reliable?
The chapter on the financial aspect of the Industrial Revolution may
not be the easiest to read partly because it is strewn with figures,
as numerous examples are given. The study of a 1787 balance sheet,
however, plunges the reader into the financial preoccupations of an
eighteenth-century firm. The links between fixed capital and working
capital are finely analysed and the authors show the evolution of
the financial system during the period under scrutiny. This analysis
leads to a less technical aspect of the economic life of the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuriesthe relations between sellers and buyers.
Marketing and advertising became indispensable techniques, which men
like Wedgwood realised as early as the 1770s. Advertising the patronage
of royalty and the nobility along with the use of show rooms and of
newspaper advertisements became essential tools in commerce. As regards
indirect selling, the period witnessed not only an increase in the
number of merchants, but also a specialisation of their activities.
When working on the Industrial Revolution students tend to forget
agriculture, but a chapter on this subject shows that it played an
important role in the British economy of the period. The improvements
in farming thanks to the use of rotation, new fertilisers and seeds
and plants of better quality are documented. Part of the chapter is
devoted to the social fabric of rural England in which the authors
study the question of the parliamentary enclosure process as well
as its outcomes. Any student of the period knows that the population
started to grow dramatically in the second half of the eighteenth
century, but, instead of contenting themselves with giving estimates,
King and Timmins choose to explain the techniques used by specialists
such as Wrigley and Schofield to estimate the population at a time
when official figures were non-existent or inaccurate. They go on
to analyse the causes of that spectacular risein particular
a lower age at first marriage associated with greater marital fertility
and a fall in infant mortality.
Chapter 8 endeavours to show that the Industrial Revolution had a
profound effect on the form and function of English families and households,
but it lacks clarity, a defect perceptible in the conclusion to this
part: "The 'truth' is probably that the Industrial Revolution
and all the social and cultural changes associated with it probably
had a subtle and contradictory impact on the meaning of terms such
as 'family', 'coherence' and 'functionality' at local, regional and
national level. Such conclusions are frustrating. . ." (271).
The following chapter, however, is clearer. It aims to show the financial
impact of the Industrial Revolution on households that coped more
or less successfully with the changes it brought about. According
to the authors, the population could be divided into three categories:
the gainers, among whom there were factory workers; the losers, in
particular, handloom weavers, agricultural labourers and people engaged
in casual trades, so many men and women for whom poor law relief was
vital. The third category, which included about 60% of the labouring
population, was made up of people whose situation was both unstable
The last chapter of the book is devoted to an aspect of the Industrial
Revolution which is still visible in some placesthe 'built environment.'
The authors insist on the fact that a large number of houses were
built in the first half of the nineteenth century, although this was
not sufficient. Engravings and photographs show the kind of house
that was built at the time, especially those where space was provided
either in the cellar or on the top floor for weaving. Dwellings for
the working class had to be cheap, hence the spread of jerry-building
and the numerous back-to-backs which did not demand much land and
which required fewer building materials than classical houses. References
to Chadwick's Report illustrate the appalling sanitary conditions
of working-class districts. Middle-class housing is also studied with
the development of squares and, later on, with the emergence of middle-class
suburbs some distance beyond the built-up area.
Making Sense of the Industrial Revolution is without doubt a remarkable
work which provides the reader with original information. Besides,
it takes stock of the most recent research. However, students with
scant knowledge of the period may have some difficulty making their
way through the book not only because of the many details they will
come acrossa point that should satisfy fully-fledged historiansbut
also because some passages are not absolutely necessary such as the
pages on historiography or because they lack clarity, a defect that
can be seen in the analysis of "regionality" (37-38). Occasionally,
the phrasing itself is surprising: 'The picture, then, is a complicated
one. However, we can complicate it more. . . "
(234). Should not the aim of a book with a title like "Making
Sense of" be to make history as clear as possible, especially
when dealing with complex matters? In spite of these minor defects,
students willing to make an effort will have a comprehensive vision
of the Industrial Revolution, devoid of misleading simplification.