Story of England - S. B. Harding

Industrial and Social Changes


Ancient method of spinning; the inventions of Hargreaves, Arkwright, and Crompton; Dr. Cartwright invents the power loom; water power at first used; Watt invents the steam engine; improvements in iron making.

Change from the "domestic system" to the "factory system" of manufacturing; changes in means of transportation—"macadamized" roads and canals.

Changes in dress and in ways of living; rise of the "Methodists"; labors of John and Charles Wesley, and of Whitefield; results of these changes.

While Great Britain was winning Canada and India, and losing the Thirteen Colonies, important changes were taking place at home in ways of manufacturing and in modes of living.

From the early days of civilization, to the end of the Middle Ages, there had been little change in the tools used by such workers as the spinner, weaver, the farmer and carpenter. Now there came a series of inventions which greatly increased the product of man's labor, and changed his whole manner of living.

The first important changes came in spinning and weaving. The art of spinning fibers into thread, and weaving this into cloth, was one of the oldest of human arts. But, for thousands of years, it had changed very little. The wool or cotton was placed on a "distaff," held under the left arm, while the fibers were drawn out and twisted into thread with a "spindle," twirled by the right had. This was the method used in ancient Greece and Egypt, as shown by, their monuments. This was still the method generally used in modern Europe, almost down to the eighteenth century. Then the "spinning-wheel"—first run by hand, and later by foot—began to come into use, and increased the speed of spinning. But, at best, the spinning wheel could only spin two threads at a time, and its work was far from rapid.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Hand Spinning Wheel

All this was changed, in the second half of the eighteenth century. First, an ignorant but ingenious man, named James Hargreaves, invented a machine which he called a "spinning jenny." This drove eight spindles, and (in later forms) even eighty spindles, at the same time. This invention alone caused an enormous increase in the amount of thread spun; but the changes did not stop here. Soon a man named Richard Arkwright invented another sort of spinning machine, which he called a "water-frame," because it was run by water-power and not by hand power. Then Samuel Crompton had the happy thought to combine the best features of the "jenny" and the "water-frame," into a machine which he called "the mule," because of its mixed character.

When these improvements were fully completed, it became possible for a single person—even a little child—to attend to a number of machines, and to spin as high as twelve thousand threads at a time. In this way, far more thread was manufactured than the old hand looms could weave into cloth.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Spinning Jenny

If you examine a piece of cloth, you will see that it is made up of two sets of threads, crossing each other at right angles. The treads running lengthwise are called the "warp," and those running crosswise are called the "weft." In the old hand loom the shuttle, which carries the weft, was thrown back and forth across the warp by hand. Two men were necessary to operate the loom, one throwing the shuttle from one side, and the other throwing it back. The first improvement in the method of weaving was made in 1738, when a "flying shuttle" was invented which returned of itself to the weaver, without the help of a second person. As the new improvements in spinning began to come into effect, and the amount of thread spun increased so enormously, men began to feel that further changes in weaving were necessary. A clergyman, named Dr. Cartwright, showed what these might be.

"Why does not someone," he asked one day, of some gentlemen with whom he was talking, "invent a loom which can be run by water or steam-power?"

"It can't be done," they all replied, very positively.

"I am sure that it can  be done," replied Dr. Cartwright; and he set to work to prove it.

He had never invented anything, and he had never seen a loom in operation. But, in three years' time, he produced a power loom which really wove cloth, in a rude and clumsy fashion. By later inventions, he greatly improved this first effort, so that it became the father of all great cloth-weaving looms of later times. With the power loom, weavers became able to keep up with the spinners, and cloth became much cheaper and more plentiful than it had ever been before.

At first, the looms were run by water power, which had been used for ages to run flour and grist mills. But water power in the streams changed with the seasons; moreover, it was not to be had at all places. Fortunately, it was not long before the steam engine was invented, to aid not only the spinning and weaving, but the countless other operations of modern life to which machinery was soon applied.

For nearly two thousand years men had known of the expansive power of steam; but it was not until the beginning of the eighteenth century that this force was made practically useful, in the form of a steam pump for pumping water out of mines. The illustration on page 300 shows the form of this crude engine. The steam entered a "cylinder" under the "piston-head," and thus raised the cross-beam. The top of the cylinder was open, and when the steam under the piston-head was sufficiently condensed by cooling, the pressure of the air above forced back the piston, and all was ready for another stroke. The troubles with this early steam engine were chiefly these: it was very slow and weak in its action; it wasted a great amount of steam, and so used up much fuel; and it could only work in one direction.

The real inventor of the modern steam engine was James Watt, a maker of mathematical and astronomical instruments. While repairing a model of one of these early steam pumps, he noticed its waste of steam, and set to work to remedy it. It would take too long to describe all of the changes which he made. It is enough to say that his first changes made the steam engine quick-working, powerful, and saving of fuel; but it was still useful only for pumping. His later inventions, however, enabled it to turn a wheel, and so adapted it to all kinds of work. In 1785, the steam engine was first applied to running spinning machinery, and its use spread rapidly. By the end of the eighteenth century, there were as many steam engines in use in England as there were water and wind mills.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Early Steam Engine for Pumping

But engines and machinery are largely made of iron, and, until the latter part of the eighteenth century, iron was scarce and costly. So all these inventions would have been of little use if it had not been for improvements in the manufacture of iron and steel.

For ages iron ore had been "smelted"—that is, melted and freed of its impurities—by mixing it with burning charcoal. But the forests of England, from which the charcoal was made, were decreasing rapidly, and it was clear that little increase could be made in the amount of iron produced, as long as charcoal was used as the fuel. It was found, however, that the smelting could be done just as well, and much cheaper, by using coke, made from ordinary coal; and the supply of coal was abundant. At the same time, the bellows, which fanned the fire and made it burn with sufficient heat, were replaced by other inventions which gave a stronger and steadier draft; and improvements were also made in the tools for hammering out the iron for wrought iron, and in casting it. Furthermore, Watt's improved engines benefited mining, by making it easier and cheaper to pump out water, and so to operate deep mines. From year to year these improvements have gone steadily on, and the result is that the supply of this necessary metal has constantly become more plentiful and cheap, as the increased use of machinery has created new demands for it.

Important changes were also made in the conditions under which manufacturing was done. Formerly, manufacturing was carried on under the "domestic system"—that is, each workman (a weaver, or the like), set up his own tools, in his own house, and used materials which he himself paid for; then when his goods were made he sold them to the dealers, and received the price for them himself. He was his own employer, and supplied his own capital; he worked when he pleased, and how he pleased; and his wife and children assisted him. Ordinarily, too, he had a garden, or little farm, which he cultivated; and so he was not dependent for his living entirely on his manufacturing.

The new inventions caused the "factory system" to take the place of the "domestic system." Machines in large numbers were now brought together under the roof of one "factory," in order to take advantage of the steam or water power; and these were the property of an "employer" who hired people for "wages" to run them. The employer supplied the materials, and received the manufactured good, which he sold as he pleased. The work people had to move to the crowded towns, where usually the factories were situated, and so they could no longer have their gardens. In these ways, the working people became more dependent on their employers, and the problems of "labor" and "lack of employment" first began to arise. The fact that women, and little children often only six years old, were hired for a great deal of the work, and that they were forced to labor long hours, in dark, close, and unhealthy rooms, gave rise to additional problems, which by and by demanded solution.

With these changes in manufacturing, there came also changes in the means of transportation.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Stage Coach

Down to the eighteenth century, the means of travel and transportation remained just about what they were in the most ancient days—except that the roads were often worse than they had been under the Roman Empire. Half of the year, the only means of travel was on horseback, because of the mud-holes with which the roads were filled. Heavy articles—such as grain, coal, iron, and the like—could scarcely be carried from place to place; and often scarcity, or famine, might prevail in one district, while another district had more than enough, but could still not get its produce to the market. About the year 1640, stage coaches came into use in England, but often it took three weeks for one of these to go from London to Edinburgh.

In the last half of the eighteenth century, improvement began through the "turnpike" roads, which were kept in repair with the money collected as "tolls" from those who used them. Better methods of road-making were introduced by skilled engineers. The most noted of these was a Scotchman, named MacAdam, whose name is still remembered in our "macadamized" roads. These roads made possible the use of carriages all the year round, while new "fast mail coaches" were established to run between the chief parts of England, in what then seemed like an incredibly short time. Canals were also built, which greatly cheapened the cost of carrying such bulky goods as coal and iron. It was not until the next century that the steam railroad and the steamboat were introduced; but already changes were being produced by these improvements, which were only a little less important than those which the railroad brought.

"It is scarcely half a century," says a writer of this time, "since the inhabitants of the distant counties were regarded as almost as different from those of the capital as the natives of the Cape of Good Hope. Their manners, as well as their speech, were entirely provincial; and their dress no more resembled that of London than the Turkish or Chinese. A journey into the country was then considered almost as great an undertaking as a voyage to the Indies. The old family coach was sure to be stowed with all sorts of luggage and provisions; and, perhaps, in the course of the journey a whole village, together with their teams, might be called on to aid in digging the heavy carriage out of the clay. But now the improvements in traveling have opened a new communication between the capital and the most distant parts of the kingdom. The manners, fashions, and amusements of the capital now make their way to the remotest corners of the land. French cooks are employed, the same wines are drunk, the same gaming practiced, the same hours kept, and the same course of life pursued, in the country as in town. Every male and female wishes to think and speak, to eat and drink, and dress and live after the manner of people of quality of London."

One result of the introduction of machinery was to increase the wealth, and hence the importance, of the tradesmen and manufacturers. The old aristocratic organization of society, which regarded certain persons as better than others merely because of their better birth, began to give way, and a democratic influence began to be felt. The working classes profited, in the end, not merely in better clothes and better food and better lodging, but in better education and more political rights. But these changes came only gradually, and mostly after the eighteenth century had passed.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Scene in a Farmhouse Kitchen

Simpler modes of dress and of life, however, came before the century was out. Gentlemen began to leave off wearing the sword, and the powdered wigs which once they all wore. Cocked hats went out of fashion, and pantaloons too the place of knee-breeches. Umbrellas were introduced. From about 1750, pianos began to appear in the houses of the wealthy. The better classes of tradesmen ceased to live over their stores, and the apprentices were no longer lodged with their masters. Men's dress generally became less showy than it had been. Women's costumes became more brilliantly colored and finer, as a result of the new calicoes and other dress goods, which could now be easily and cheaply obtained. In general, the last twenty years of the eighteenth century and the first twenty years of the nineteenth saw greater changes in dress and manners than for two centuries before.

Deeper than any change in dress and manners was a change in religion, which came in the middle and latter part of this century. This was due to the rise of the "Methodists" (as they were called), first within the established Church of England, and then as a separate church denomination. Unlike most of the other changes related in this chapter, the rise of the Methodists had little connection with the rise of manufactures. It began at the University of Oxford, and was a reaction against the lifeless preaching and worldly lives of so many of the English clergy, who thought more of horses, hounds, and hunting than they did of their religious duties.

The chief leaders in this movement were two brothers—John and Charles Wesley—and their friend, George Whitefield. They preached to the common people, in the mining and manufacturing towns, and in the great cities, urging them to forsake evil ways and reform their lives. At times, crowds of twenty thousand persons gathered in the open air, to hear them. So earnest were the preachers, and so vividly did they picture the terrors of the hereafter, that men, women, and children would be seized with fits of trembling and shouting, and fall down in convulsions.

John Wesley was the head of the movement. Charles Wesley was its poet, and wrote many hymns for it. Whitefield was even a greater preacher than the Wesleys. During thirty-four years, he preached on average ten times a week. Twelve times he went on preaching trips through Scotland, three times through Ireland, and seven times he visited America. The results of his labors in the American colonies were almost as notable as in the British Isles.

In England, the Methodist movement was strongly opposed by the clergy and upper classes, and also at times by mobs of the common people. But in the end it won a great success. When John Wesley died, in 1791, his followers numbered 100,000. His influence, too, had aroused the established church to greater earnestness and more spiritual religion. And all classes, as a result of these labors, came to have more sympathy for the oppressed, which showed itself in movements to improve the condition of prisoners in jails, and to stop the trade in slaves.

The inventions spoken of in this chapter were all first worked out in Great Britain, and the changes which they produced are often spoken of as the "Industrial Revolution." It was important that it should be accompanied by the great moral and religious revolution described above. The immediate effect of the Industrial Revolution was very greatly to increase the wealth and power of England. Her cheap machine-made goods enabled England to undersell other countries. She soon became the first manufacturing country, as she was already the first country in the amount of her commerce. Her population also increased rapidly. In 1700, England had only 5,000,000 inhabitants; in 1760, there were 6,000,000; in 1800, the number had risen to 9,000,000.

It was chiefly the wealth and power which Great Britain gained from her newly arisen manufactures which prevented her feeling the loss of her American colonies; and it was from this source that she gained the strength which enabled her to resist Napoleon Bonaparte, and finally bring about his overthrow.


  1. Find out what you can of James Hargreaves; of James Watt.
  2. Imagine yourself a boy or a girl in the days when spinning and weaving machinery was being introduced, and describe the changes.
  3. Which did most for England, statesmen like Walpole and Pitt, or inventors like Hargreaves and Watt, or reformers like Wyclif and the Wesleys? Give your reasons.
  4. Find out what you can of John Wesley and his work.