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The Story of the Industrial Age

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The coming of the industrial age changed the outward appearance of a large part of this country and the life of most of its people. At the end of the eighteenth century, when the factory system was in its infancy, the power of steam undiscovered and railways unknown, Britain was a land of agriculturists, traders, handicraftsmen and sailors. Our merchant adventurers had made us also a nation of Empire builders, bringing prosperity to cities like London, Bristol and Liverpool. Farming and commerce played an almost equal part in laying the foundations of our national prosperity.

The country gentleman, the owner of landed estates, whether noble or commoner, was the outstanding man of that age. The whole of England was closely dotted with castles, mansions, manor houses and halls, which were the real centres of influence. The rent of farming land was very high - far higher, comparatively, than to-day - and the cost of living for the country gentleman was small. His taxation was trivial, he raised on his estate most that his household needed, and the wages of his servants and farm hands were low.

The merchant, manufacturer and shipowner were fighting for place and power with the old country gentry, but their aim was not to destroy the gentry but to become part of them, which their wealth enabled large numbers to do. Cities had spread to a degree that alarmed conservative minds. London, for example, numbered a million people. Four places each contained between seventy and eighty thousand inhabitants. Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, centres of world commerce, Birmingham, with its myriad metal trades, and Manchester, with its new factories, represented the growing world of trade. But the real heart of life for most people was the country towns, with their historic old churches, spacious inns, their busy markets, their periodic fairs, and their fierce political struggles.

London, regarded by many as a national menace on account of its size, seems small indeed compared with the London of to-day. To the north-west, it extended to what was then known as the New Road, but is now named the Euston and Marylebone Roads North-eastwards, St. Luke's and Shoreditch gradually tapered off to the regions around Limehouse and the docks. The Vauxhall Bridge marked the south-west, and Kennington, Brixton and Bermondsey the southern limits. Rural residences of City men extended, it is true, far beyond these borders. There was an almost unbroken line of buildings to the pleasant village of Islington; the long Kent road to Greenwich had houses almost all the way, and the Portsmouth Road was well occupied as far as Clapham, then a favourite home of solid merchants, who would ride in to their business on horseback each morning. Many merchant families also lived to the north-west, and by the line of trees to the New Road end of the Tottenham Court Road were posts to which horsemen might fasten their nags.

The life in cities, and in London in particular, gave an impression of crowding and animation. The Thames, up to London Bridge, was a forest of masts of sailing ships. Long, narrow craft, rowed by licensed and uniformed watermen, dressed in long frock coats, plied for traffic. To travel by boat between London and Westminster was considered the most agreeable and was often the most rapid mode of transit.

For five or six miles outside the metropolis the main roads were crowded with horsemen, carriages and carts, stage coaches, whiskeys, wagons, buggies, green chairs, curricles, phaetons, sociables, landaus and landaulettes. Often the traffic was so thick that the carriages and carts formed one long line, moving along at walking pace. The streets of London and of other cities were far too narrow for the traffic that, with the changing times, crowded through them.

The farmer was, until the coming of the Great Peace of 1813, prosperous, for prices were high and he worked on ample margin. The poorly paid labourer could supplement his wages from two main sources, by grazing live stock on the abundant common lands and by working, on winter days, at the home industries that then flourished. Bedfordshire had its basket making, Suffolk wool combing, Canterbury silk weaving, Epworth sack cloth, and Beccles hemp The ancient common lands were already beginning, however, to be enclosed.

Those who would have us believe that the age before machinery was something better than life to-day allow their imaginations to run away with them. For most people, outside the aristocracy, professional and rich merchant classes, life was very hard. The rural labourer was in many parts still the "hind," the semi-serf. In town and country alike sanitation was primitive. In many towns half of the children of the poor died before they were two years old. Ignorance was the rule.

Then came the age of steam and of machinery. Arkwright's invention of a spinning machine in the latter part of the eighteenth century began the revolution, and Stephenson's development of the steam locomotive gave it its great impetus. Monster factories arose with almost mushroom - like growth, and Britain became in a few years as the world's workshop. This change was greatly facilitated by the period of national distress which swept over England after the close of the Napoleonic wars, when farming was ruined by the fall of prices, and the streets of every town heard the cries of armies of unemployed. As factories grew in number and workshops in size, the increase of population was encouraged, for children became to working men a source of profit and not of expenditure when their infancy was over. And so the Britain of ten millions grew rapidly to the land of nearly fifty millions in the twentieth century.

In describing these changes, a first place must be given to the effect on rural England. Big industry destroyed most of the home industries which had done so much to help the lives of the peasantry. The passing of political power from the country gentleman, first to the new middle classes in the towns, and then to the workers, gave us free trade, revised systems of taxation, and a vastly increased expenditure on education and social betterment.

Free trade struck a fatal blow at the old forms of farming. It no longer pays, in most parts, to grow wheat, and British wool finds it hard to compete with Australian. It is difficult, too, to realize that a hundred years ago there were 26,000,000 sheep in England and Wales, and that 24,000 would be shown on sale at Boston Fair alone. Before the age of machinery arrived, two-fifths of our cultivated land was under tillage, which employs much labour. To-day, nearly two-thirds of our farming land is under pasture, which employs little.

An equally fatal blow was struck at the old way of the country gentleman. He put up a gallant fight for life, but the county family that did not discover fresh sources of wealth besides its agricultural land has disappeared, killed by death duties, high taxation and heavy rates.

The next great change has been the rapid development of cities and towns. London, which has grown most of all, has absorbed hundreds of pleasant villages, transforming about three hundred square miles of market gardens, farms and country homes into suburbs. The houses of London stretch to-day from Croydon and West Wickham in the south to Hendon and Waltham Cross in the north. Eastwards they extend to Erith, Romford and Dart- ford, and westwards to Hounslow and Hampton. London covers an area of twenty-one miles from north to south by twenty-four miles from east to west. The same change is seen, in a greater or less degree, in every industrial centre. London has grown eightfold. Some other places have grown fifty-fold.

The new Britain that has arisen has gravitated towards central points which give special facilities for the cheap delivery of raw material and the easy distribution of manufactured goods, or districts where the people have special skill. The iron and steel trades naturally developed within close reach of the main sources of coal supply. The shipbuilding industry was transferred, when iron ships replaced wooden, from the Thames to the north of England and the Clyde. Manchester had for centuries been famous for its cottons, in old days made from wool. When it was found that cottons could be made from the cotton plant and that the raw material could be secured through the neighbouring port of Liverpool, a start was made with the Lancashire textile trade, which has for many years been one of Britain's greatest industries. Here various factors came to work, the traditional skill of the people, their inventive genius, the special suitability of the damp climate of Lancashire and, finally, convenient geographical situation.

The whole country has not been affected in the same way. Some towns that were big centres in the old days have declined, Boston, for example. Large stretches of country, particularly in the south-west of England, have been outwardly scarcely touched. There is much of beautiful Britain still left unspoiled. And even in the centres where life has been most changed, the balance is to the good. Despite the shortcomings of our industrial system, the average worker of to-day lives in a way infinitely better and fuller than ever before.

The development of electric power and the growth of manufactures where operative skill counts for more than the cost of raw material are now bringing another change, the industrial development of the south of England. The one-time rural villages between London and Reading are one after the other being urbanised by big industries. Eastwards, the same process is continuing to Gravesend. The development of the coal mining industry in East Kent is causing the greatest change of all there, and is transforming a large part of the Garden of England into a region of collieries and factories.

Modern industry spells ugliness and the destruction of beauty. That was taken for many years as a commonplace necessity. The hard-headed modern manufacturer would repeat with complacency the motto, "Muck spells money." Factories were usually built with no thought to anything but utility. The rows of workmen's dwellings were always plain, ugly and comfortless. Some of the most beautiful parts of England were turned into dreary and repulsive wastes. Large stretches of County Durham, the Black Country, the mining villages of South Wales and the Potteries are outstanding examples of the damage that the coming of industry did.

But in recent years there has been a growing change for the better. The rapid development of electric power which is now proceeding promises to rob industry of much of its grime, and to permit great manufacturing towns to be cleanly, wholesome and fresh.

Along with the improvement that is coming from the use of electricity we find a growing desire by communities and individuals to better matters. Manufacturers are more and more studying to make the outward aspect of their new buildings attractive as well as the interiors practical. The long rows of workers' houses are giving place to garden villages and towns. There could be no greater contrast than between the old-time colliery and the beautifully laid-out colliery mines and houses of Ashington, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

One of the last stages of industrialism, the replacement of horse traffic and to some extent of railway traffic by the motor car, is already having very widespread effects. Just as the railways had to cut long straight tracks in every direction, so the country is being forced to build great new motor avenues along all the main lines of traffic, making them as nearly level as can be, cutting through hills, bridging ravines, laying embankments over slight dips.

The coming of the railway took life away from the village, turned the village inn into a drinking shop and nothing more, and drove the enterprising villager to the life and brightness of the town. Now we see rural life restored. The new roads and the cheap motor car have made traffic between town and country easy. The radio puts the man on the remotest Yorkshire moor in as close touch with the moving life of the moment as is his brother in the heart of the city, and the telephone has largely abolished distance so far as conversation is concerned. We are witnessing already the beginning of the resettlement of rural England.

For the moment it is proceeding simultaneously with the growth of the towns, but with the growing decline in the increase of population, which is one of the marked features of our age, we may well, before many years, see the increase of the cities stopped while a revival of rural Britain goes triumphantly on.

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