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Timeless Values: The British Industrial Revolution, 1750-1830

July 1, 2021

The Northwood Idea is vibrant and adaptive in a world of change, and its fundamental principles are timeless. Under any circumstances, personal freedom and individual responsibility are essential for a free society. So it is illustrative to examine some of the most compelling expressions of The Northwood Idea that great thinkers have contributed through the years. We call them Timeless Values.

This essay, “The British Industrial Revolution,” was written by Dr. Timothy Nash, Director of The McNair Center for the Advancement of Free Enterprise and Entrepreneurship at Northwood University. Nash is the holder of the David E. Fry Endowed Chair in Free Market Economics at Northwood University. He is also an adjunct scholar with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland. Nash has co-authored four books including When We Are Free (with foreword by Dr. Milton Friedman) and In Defense of Capitalism (co-authored with Dr. Richard M. Ebeling, and Dr. Keith A. Pretty).

In this essay, Nash argues that rather than something to look back upon with regret, the Industrial Revolution that began in Great Britain should be highly regarded as a period of positive change for society. While it certainly led to greater production and higher profits for manufacturers, it also led to higher general living standards for workers, as well as longer and healthier lives for people around the world, and its effects still reverberate today.

Dr. Timothy Nash, Director of The McNair Center for the Advancement of Free Enterprise and Entrepreneurship

Dr. Timothy Nash, Director of The McNair Center for the Advancement of Free Enterprise and Entrepreneurship

One of the most misunderstood and misrepresented periods in the history of mankind was that of the industrial revolution in England from 1750 to 1830. Contemporary scholars saw the rapid expansion of industrial manufacturing in the period as revolutionary. Much of industry was taken out of the home and the workshop. Handwork was being replaced by machinery. The factory system managed by skilled organizers was changing the face of British production.

These changes were the result of centuries of long, gradual development. They were evolutionary rather than sudden and revolutionary. What actually happened between 1750-1830 was a speeding up in the rate of change itself. The term “Industrial Revolution” had caught on so quickly that by the time its evolutionary nature had been accepted, changing the term was impossible.

It is alleged by critics that during this period people went through pain and drudgery previously never thought possible. Could the implementation of machines have caused the horrors so frequently echoed through the centuries in the annals of English history? Or could it be that the truth is contrary to that of the typical history text?

The communist philosopher, historian and financier, Frederich Engels, best summarizes the anticapitalist position with his opening account in The Condition of the Working Classes in England [1] in 1844:

The history of the proletariat in England begins with the invention of the steam engine and of machinery for working cotton. Before their introduction, the workers vegetated throughout a passably comfortable existence, leading a righteous and peaceful life in all piety and probity; and their material condition was far better than that of their successors. They did not need to over work; they did no more than they chose to do, and yet earned what they needed. They had leisure for helpful work in garden or field … Their children grew up in fresh country air, and, if they could help their parents at work, it was occasionally; while of eight or 12 hours work for them there was no question. They had their children the whole day at home, and brought them up in obedience and the fear of God … The young people grew up in idyllic simplicity and intimacy with their playmates until they married …

Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises takes a position contrary to that of Frederich Engels. In his treatise on economics, Human Action [2], Mises contends that the masses of people were better off during and after the Industrial Revolution than before:

The outstanding fact about the Industrial Revolution is that it opened an age of mass production for the needs of the masses. The wage-earners are no longer people toiling merely for other people’s well being. They themselves are the main consumers of the products the factories turn out … The very principle of capitalist entrepreneurship is to provide for the common man. In his capacity as consumer the common man is the sovereign whose buying or abstention from buying decides the fate of entrepreneurial activities.

It is the purpose of this essay to examine the key aspects of the Industrial Revolution so that the reader may come to well-informed conclusions about this controversial period.

Vital Statistics

The following chart examines the population of England and Wales between 1700 and 1831:

Population of England and Wales

  • 1700 5,475,000

  • 1710 5,240,000

  • 1750 6,467,000

  • 1801 8,892,000

  • 1831 16,000,000

Source: M.C. Buer [3]

The increase in population actually began in the early 1700s. Prior to this period the population of England and Wales had fallen or stayed constant for centuries. This period saw tremendous increases in agricultural efficiency caused by the implementation of machines in farming. It should also be pointed out that a large portion of the population increase was a result of immigration; the migration of people from neighboring countries incapable of feeding themselves due to lack of machines and agricultural productivity. One might say that people voted for the factory system with their feet!

During the period of industrialization, the English death rate declined, from 35 per thousand in 1750 to 20 per thousand in 1815.

The most interesting of the vital statistics during this period are those concerning the death rate of children before the age of five. The following chart depicts a situation far different from that painted by Engels:

Percent of Children Dying Before the Age of Five.

1730-49 74.5

1750-69 63.0

1770-89 51.5

1790-1809 41.3

1810-29 31.8

Source: M.C. Buer [4]

These figures are based on the population statistics of the machine-intensive city of London. It should be pointed out that the figure of 74.5% was the constant one for centuries prior to mechanized industry in London.

Engels and other anticapitalists also failed to consider a 1697 report for the Board of Trade by John Locke on the problem of poverty and poor relief. Locke determined that a healthy and hardworking husband and wife could support no more than two children. He went on to recommend that children above the age of three should be schooled on how to earn a living spinning or knitting, so they could be fed in exchange for their labor. Locke pointed out that what the children could have at home with their parents was seldom more than bread and water.

Child Labor

Children were employed in factories, frequently with their parents’ blessing, and in other cases at the mandate of the state. English law in many instances compelled the factory owners to accept orphaned children as apprentices whether either party was willing or not. Today, the thought of young children working in even modern factories warrants concern. One can only imagine the inferior conditions that existed back then. However, as the before-mentioned statistics bear out, the child was now earning additional family income that afforded all of them the opportunity to survive. This opportunity was not available to most children prior to factories and machines. It is obvious that life in England was not as rosy before mechanization as Engels makes it out to be. It is even more obvious that machines improved the standard of living, especially for children.

The factory system actually created labor and wage competition between factory and farm. Before this period the farm laborer had to accept lower wages because of the shortage of alternatives open to him. This competition caused wages to rise while improving the British standard of living. The farm owners were not happy with these new conditions. This position is substantiated by the research of Percy Greaves. [5]

The landed gentry soon became jealous of the successful businessman whose higher wages were drawing workers away from the farms. The envious aristocrats investigated factory conditions and passed laws supposedly for the welfare of working adults and children. Actually, they used Parliament for their own benefit. They restricted factories and maintained high tariffs to protect their lordly monopoly privilege of supplying high priced food for city workers. They did everything they could to hinder the nouveau riche from supplying jobs and goods to the masses who had formerly existed solely on the mercy of the hereditary landlord.

Mass production

At this point one must inquire as to who the intended consumer was of all the factory production. The factories were producing such things as inexpensive cotton, inexpensive soap, and inexpensive shoes. The focal point of the factory production was not production for the wealthy but for the masses. The common person, the poor person, could now for the first time afford to buy cloth and even machine-made clothing, shoes, medicine, and soap. The list seems endless. Mass production allowed for these items to be produced on a large scale thus bringing the per unit price within the reach of millions. The forces behind English mass production were:

  1. Laissez Faire: The social and economic climates were changing for the better during this period. John Locke and Adam Smith argued convincingly that social and economic individualism and self-interest would drive the economy in a more prosperous direction than that of government planning. This period saw the end of many damaging laws that taxed building, import trade, and technology.

  2. Technology: Inventions like the steam engine facilitated tremendous increases in productivity throughout the British economy. The manufacturing of textiles, shoes, iron, boring machines, and the building of roads, canals, and the mining of coal, all were dramatically improved by this invention of young James Watt. Eventually the steam engine would be used to produce colossal inventions such as the steam-powered locomotive and the steamboat which permanently changed the face of transportation for the better.

  3. Accumulation of Capital: The mass production of inexpensive goods increased savings. The end result was that interest rates fell and investing in capital increased immensely. Young and old were able to purchase stock in upstart companies whose profits were being plowed back into the company to ensure future production.

  4. Resources: Coal, iron ore, and lumber were discovered in abundant supply in England at this time. Simultaneously, a highly skilled workforce, largely attributable to voluntary immigration, was developing.

  5. Market Expansion: The English market expanded due to increasing domestic consumption and a rise in foreign trade. The growth in consumption can be attributed to an increasing demand for inexpensive factory-produced goods. The improvements made in transportation greatly enhanced the ability of the British merchants to get their products to the markets at a lower cost, and thus, a lower price.

Something New, Something Threatening

It is this author’s belief that much of the challenge to the Industrial Revolution arose from the uncertainty of change. Machines were something new, something confusing and threatening to many. They caused job displacement and the end of many uncompetitive ways of production.

A number of the early factories were dark and dirty. This can be attributed to not only a lack of capital but also to government laws like the window tax which taxed factory owners based on the number of windows in their plants. Simply stated, the more windows you installed in your factory, the higher your tax bill. Owners begrudgingly opted for fewer windows. (Note: In the absence of the tax, windows and natural lighting would have been cheaper and safer than candles.) As productivity improved, capital accumulation led to improvements in technology, better working conditions, higher wages, a steadily increasing standard of living and more jobs than in any previous period of British history.


The British Industrial Revolution brought greater production for the masses, higher general living standards, longer and healthier lives. Like even the best of anything, it also brought its critics. It is the conviction of this author, however, that evidence, common sense, and the advantage of 20/20 hindsight have all combined with great force to commend this historic occurrence as a great boon to mankind. The Industrial Revolution is something to be proud of, not ashamed of.


  1. Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1958), p. 1.

  2. Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, 3rd rev. ed. (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1966), p. 621.

  3. M.C. Buer, Health, Wealth, and Population in the Early Days of the Industrial Revolution (New York: Howard Fertig, Inc., 1968) p. 24.

  4. Ibid, p. 30.

  5. Percy Greaves, Freedom: For Our Children’s Sake,” Christian Economics, December 28, 1954, p. 3.

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