Industrial Revolution started in 17th century, historians suggest

Three centuries of job records show that work in agriculture plummeted during the reign of the Stuarts
Three centuries of job records show that work in agriculture plummeted during the reign of the Stuarts - SWNS

The Industrial Revolution may have started 100 years earlier than previously thought, University of Cambridge historians have found.

History books teach that the world was transformed by the mastery of machines and steam power in the 18th century, but the move to modernity may have begun much earlier.

A study of millions of employment records has revealed that Britain was already becoming an industrial economy in the 17th century, with a large portion of the population involved in manufacturing trades.

Three centuries of job records show that work in agriculture plummeted during the reign of the Stuarts, as labourers began making rather than growing goods in communities which became “factories without machines”.

It has also been revealed that the service economy, believed to be a feature of modern consumer nations, had been booming in Britain since 1800.

Professor of economic history Leigh Shaw-Taylor has led the university’s Economics Past project which has catalogued 160 million records spanning hundreds of years from the Elizabethan era to the First World War.

Prof Shaw-Taylor said: “By cataloguing and mapping centuries of employment data, we can see that the story we tell ourselves about the history of Britain needs to be rewritten.

“We have discovered a shift towards employment in the making of goods that suggests Britain was already industrialising over a century before the Industrial Revolution.”

“Our database shows that a groundswell of enterprise and productivity transformed the economy in the 17th century, laying the foundations for the world’s first industrial economy. Britain was already a nation of makers by the year 1700.”

Groundswell of enterprise

The project has studied parish registers, probate records and census data to pick out which jobs Britons were doing at a given time.

During the reign of Elizabeth I in 1600, adult males would typically be involved in agricultural labour.

But from this point, the number of men employed in agricultural labour began falling dramatically, and had reduced by a third from 64 per cent to fewer than half of the workforce by 1700.

At the same time, job records show a shift in employment to secondary industry or manufacturing jobs, including blacksmiths, carpenters, millers, tailors and wheelwrights.

In 1600, fewer than 30 per cent of the male workforce was involved in such trades, but 100 years later more than half of working men were involved in secondary economic roles, often in domestic textile production.

The study suggests that prior to the urbanisation which came with later industrial developments, when people moved to cities for work, communities of artisans were collectively making goods on a large scale in what Prof Shaw-Taylor has called “factories without machines”.

Employment records show that Norfolk, more recently considered a particularly rural county, was the most industrialised part of the country, with 63 per cent of adult men in industry by 1700.

This British trend of people making rather than growing would continue to the eve of the Industrial Revolution as commonly understood, often said to have begun around 1760, priming Britain for the transformative innovations of the factory system, machines and steam power.

This gave Britain an advantage globally as the first industrialised nation, but it may have been enjoying free-market advantages already which allowed it to industrialise.

Prof Shaw-Taylor said: “We can’t say for certain why this change occurred in Britain rather than elsewhere.

“However, the English economy of the time was more liberal, with fewer tariffs and restrictions, unlike on the continent.”

Data from the Economics Past project, led by professors Shaw-Taylor, Amy Erickson and Tony Wrigley, is available on a new website which presents the changing trends of employment in Britain.