Why Did the Industrial Revolution Take Place in Britain?


This is a classic traditional question in economic history – one that can show up on history graduate student prelims. If there was going to be an Industrial Revolution somewhere in the 1700s or 1800s, it was not obvious it would occur in England. The United Kingdom was not the only country in the world with high levels of education, good agriculture and a high level of manufacturing technology. France was not that far behind Britain in 1750. The early centers of economic growth in 1350-1500 were the Low Countries and Renaissance Italy. The German microstates were renowned for high levels of education, sophisticated manufacture, complex and extensive trade networks, fine architecture and excellence in literature, music and philosophy. Spain got fantastically wealthy between 1500 and 1650 due to the massive amounts of silver it was receiving from the New World. Japan had levels of literacy comparable to those of Western Europe. When Japan did decide to industrialize, it rapidly became the richest nation in Asia.

That said, England was the nation that won the lottery and became the richest nation in the world.

You would think that figuring out why England became rich while the other nations struggled would be a difficult question to answer.

It turns out that it is a remarkably easy question to answer.

There are 6,354,417 different answers to the question of why England industrialized while the rest of the world languished.

Most of those 6,354,417 answers are right.

Finding a new answer to the question of why the Industrial Revolution took place in Britain is like being the 6,354,417th tackler to dive on to the pile after the runner is already down. And surprisingly, the 6,354,417th answer to the question can often be even more interesting than was the 1st, the 2nd, the 3rd, or the 10th.

Why is it so easy to answer the question “Why Did the Industrial Revolution Take Place in Britain?” Because one beneficent change in a country tends to bring forth more beneficent changes. These positive reforms reinforce each other. A causes B which loops back to cause A which loops back to cause B. The feedback loops never stop.  Better ports produce more trade. More trade produces the wealth that can finance better ports. These feedback cycles operate with almost every pro-growth reform you can think of.

There are a couple of flagrantly wrong answers you need to avoid. England did not lead the world in education. Much of Europe had higher rates of school attendance and literacy than did Britain. Britain lagged in university attendance until well into the twentieth century.

Some people have claimed that the Protestant Work Ethnic motivated Anglo-Saxons to achieve. The fact that the Renaissance occurred in Catholic Italy does not play well with that logic.

Here is a list of many of the answers that can legitimately be considered to be “right answers”. This list is neither complete nor exhaustive. It either contains answers that are famous, answers that are standard or answers that are highly entertaining but probably okay. My bias is towards the entertaining. Everything below comes from the literature … generally from multiple sources.

1. Naval Power Combined with Piracy. The dominant economic powers in the world before England became the Number One Nation were Spain and the Netherlands. Spain was dependent on getting silver from the New World in order to pay for its extravagant lifestyle and extravagant military spending. Control the seas and capture all the boats with silver and the Spanish get screwed. Spain, recognizing this possibility, tried to conquer Britain with the Spanish Armada. The Spanish Armada came to grief due to a freak storm at sea.

England in the 1500’s did not have the money to raise much of a navy. But it did have the money to commission pirates. British pirates had a field day raiding galleons on the Spanish Main and delivering a portion of their proceeds to the English authorities.

The Netherlands was also dependent on maritime trade. Their most lucrative product was sugar, grown in their colonies in Indonesia and Brazil. Less spectacular but just as important was controlling the trade between Eastern and Western Europe – Western Europe being dependent on Prussia, Poland and, later on, Russia for grain. That grain travelled by water. The British instigated war with the Netherlands, took ports away from the Dutch and claimed them for themselves. They also sank a lot of Dutch shipping. Being the only nation with secure naval trade was lucrative. Getting the lion’s share of the profits from the world’s best colonies was not bad for business either.

2. Not having land wars fought on its home territory. From the Middle Ages through the nineteenth century, Germany had higher levels of education and engineering skill than did the British. In some fields such as automotive engineering, the German advantage persists to this day. Germany was never able to turn this human capital advantage into lasting economic advantage.

One of Germany’s problems was that it was centrally located. Central location meant it was surrounded by military rivals: Sweden to the North, France to the West, Poland to the East and Austria to the South, all of whom had ambitions on German territory. There were also distant rivals such as the Spanish Habsburgs or the Pope, who were willing to enlist proxies in and around Germany. Invasions were constant. The volatile geopolitical picture kept the Germans from being able to consolidate into a single nation state. Germany remained divided in multiple micro-principalities, many as small as single cities. Trade was stymied by endless customs barriers. Worse, economic activity was disrupted by constant warfare. Soldiers loot. Germany was looted often.

In this regard, it is no accident that the richest nations in Europe and Asia were England and Japan respectively. Separated by water from their rivals, they never had to worry about land invasion. Not being ravaged by foreign armies is good. England had the strongest navy in the world precisely because it could afford to put minimal resources into its army.

3. Land Clearance and the Agricultural Revolution. England had the most productive agriculture in Europe. Some of this came from agricultural innovation such as developing better plows. A lot of this came from simply putting more land into production than did other people. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, creating land was like creating money. The easiest way to create land was to drain swamps. The champions of swamp drainage were the Dutch. Their wealth in the 1600’s owed a great deal to the systematic drainage of lowlands. (This was the primary function of windmills.)  However, the English were no slouches about draining fens themselves. The English also consolidated land. Somewhat nastily, the rising bourgeoisie took common land that was not being used for market purposes, privatized it and put it to use for market purposes. The cottagers suffered. The capitalists got rich. Yields went up.

4. Worker Health and Worker Productivity.  Nowadays, we take for granted the fact that workers who show up for work will actually be strong enough and healthy enough to be able to do work. In preindustrial societies, this was not always a valid assumption. Widespread poverty, poor quality medical care and insecure food supplies, produced a labor force with many individuals who were frail and sick. Hunger and starvation were common among the poor. Crops would fail routinely every three or four years. The plot of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables hinges on the hero, Jean Valjean, having to steal a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children. This was not an uncommon circumstance. Even at the turn of the twentieth century, Sydney and Beatrice Webb were arguing for the necessity of a minimum wage to raise the productivity of the British workforce by insuring they would be well fed and healthy.

Better British agriculture and a more robust British food supply led to stronger healthier workers. Medical studies comparing English and French convicts, English and French soldiers or English and French workers, found that the English were substantially taller and healthier than were their French counterparts. Taller and healthier would have meant stronger and more productive. English mortality statistics were far more favorable than were those of the continent.

It has been suggested that the English Poor Laws contributed to this good health. The larger per capita food supplies of Britain compared to the rest of Europe would have produced lower levels of hunger on their own. The presence of a welfare system, even if it was rudimentary, would have insured that the most vulnerable population would have been at least partially protected from famine-based sickness.

5. Social equality. Britain was by no means an egalitarian society. However, landholdings were far more equitably distributed in Britain than they were in Southern or Eastern Europe. Equality helped growth in several ways. Farmers in Southern Italy or in Spain with barely enough land to survive lacked the financial resources to make any investments at all. English yeoman farmers had middle incomes. This gave them the ability to pay for draining land, purchasing better equipment, or diversifying into a manufacturing trade for the winter seasons.

Social equality also stimulated consumer markets. Yeoman farmers could purchase consumption goods from shopkeepers or at fairs. This meant that if an entrepreneur wanted to invest in a business that would sell goods to this middle class, there would be a market that could make that business viable. Tradesmen in unequal societies like Portugal could always try to sell goods to the aristocracy. British tradesmen had just as many aristocrats to sell to as did Portuguese tradesman, plus they had access to a vast middle class market. The financial prospects of British entrepreneurs were substantially more secure.

A broader social and economic base also made it hard for small cabals of aristocrats to try to dominate the economy with monopolies. The French kings often restricted all sorts of lines of trade to noblemen who would pay the king for the right to have a monopoly. Once their business was insured by royal fiat, there was limited motivation to provide efficient goods or services.

The Spanish aristocracy was notorious for protecting its own interests from market pressure. Spanish commerce was severely restricted by royal limits on the merchants of Seville and Barcelona – limits imposed to insure that wealthy landowners would continue to be politically dominant in Madrid. Those same landowning interests in the nineteenth century forestalled the need to invest in new agricultural technology or improvements by restricting the importation of foreign grain into Spain. The multiple civil wars that Spain suffered through in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries consisted of a manufacturing and commercial class on one side trying to modernize Spain, and a rural landholding class on the other side trying to limit reform, limit the power of urban interests and insure the continued political dominance of the aristocracy, of the Church and of the military. The long series of civil wars in Spain destroyed vast amounts of Spanish wealth, discouraged both foreign and domestic investment, and made Spain even poorer than its former colonies Argentina and Venezuela.

The flatter social pyramid in Britain restricted the ability of rural landowners to interfere with the business of urban investors in Manchester or Liverpool. The more common pattern in Britain was for British aristocrats to invest in Manchester or Liverpool industrial activities, lending not only their money but their name and prestige. Social equality led to a smoother working relationship between middle and upper class interests in industrial matters, facilitating the rise of modern manufacture.

6. Britain’s superior endowments of coal and iron ore facilitating the rise of a steel industry. Technically, both Brazil and Germany have mineral deposits of equal or better quality. Brazil lacked the education and the middle class necessary to develop those deposits. But geologically, Brazilian coal and iron assets were formidable. Germany DID have the education and middle class capable of developing mineral deposits. It became a major military and manufacturing rival to Britain. These countries aside, Britain’s mineral endowments put it at a vast advantage over most of the other nations in the world.

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I have listed six causes of British economic growth in the early modern period. To provide a full explanation of the Industrial Revolution, I would have to include the remaining 6,354,411 factors that were not discussed here. Nearly all of those made a difference.

Economic growth has many causes.

Economic growth accumulates.

Raising a nation from poverty to wealth is a team enterprise with many, many, actors cooperating.

There is a lot of poverty out there in the world. Getting rid of that poverty in the present day often entails learning about how poverty was gotten rid of in the past. The growth stories of the earlier days are not always simple. But the growth stories are still good to know.