Industrial Britain

See also: European history

In the 18th century, the United Kingdom was the core of the British Empire, and saw the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, which came to change the face of the planet, and the way of life of most people on Earth, more than any historical period before.

Though many British mines, industries and railways were closed down in the late 20th century, many of the structures and artefacts remain to bear witness of these glorious years.


Still more majestic shalt thou rise,
More dreadful, from each foreign stroke,
As the loud blast that tears the skies,
Serves but to root thy native oak.
Rule, Britannia! by James Thomson

The Industrial Revolution was not a single event, but a lengthy process across centuries. Though technology and economy had developed since ancient times, some innovations and reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries caused rapid changes; such as mechanized textile-making, steam power, large-scale metalworking, and deregulation of commerce.

England contained many industrial clusters; while London became a world-leading commercial centre, the West Midlands was a centre of the textile industry, and Northwest England pioneered rail transport and shipbuilding.

Wales was the main coal mining and metalworking district, and the cradle of the British labour movement. Welsh nationalism rose in the 1920s, and today, Wales defines itself as a country on its own.

Scotland provided raw materials such as wood and wool. A strong tradition of education led to the Scottish Enlightment in the 18th and 19th centuries, which produced talents such as James Watt (who did not invent the steam engine, but improved it to be widely useful), economist Adam Smith who promoted free markets, and John McAdam, who named a new method for road building. Today, North Sea oil dominates the Scottish economy.

Ireland, which was part of the United Kingdom until the 1910s, was struck by mass famine during the 1840s. Though Ireland itself remained a farmland with less industries and infrastructure than Great Britain, Irish migrant workers have contributed to the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom, as well as in the United States and Australia. Many of them became navvies, who built the British canals and railways. The "Irish question", namely what to do with Ireland and whether to grant it "home-rule" and to which degree was at the forefront of British domestic politics in one way or another for most of the 19th century. Many events during this era have left a deep mark on the national psyche of Ireland and have been enshrined in song, murals or other forms of collective memory.

Northern Ireland contained the shipyards of Belfast. Shipbuilding used to be an important industry for Britain, with the British navy and merchant fleet ruling the seas from the 16th century until World War II.

Queen Victoria I ruled the British Empire from 1837 to 1901. Though her role was mostly ceremonial, her reign is today known as the Victorian era, and many places around the world bear her name, as diverse as Africa's largest lake, a state in Australia, and the capital of Hong Kong.

British industries were mobilized for World War II, and contributed to the Allied victory. During the Cold War, many traditional industries such as textile and metalworking were replaced by new sectors, such as North Sea oil, and financial services. The biggest changes occurred during the government of Conservative Margaret Thatcher, who governed Britain from 1979 to 1990 and cut subsidies for most of the heavy industries, while focusing on establishing London as a major financial centre. Her legacy is controversial to this day, and her policies are downright loathed in areas of Northern England that used to be mining country, as well as in oil-rich Scotland, so tread with caution when mentioning her name. However, other parts of English society - particularly conservatives in the South of the country - idolize her and deem her policies to have been long overdue reforms that ensured the economic viability of the UK.



See also

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