Only seven or eight generations—a short span as human history goes—separate us from the start of the first industrial revolution. The first iron bridge in the world celebrated its bicentennial in 1979. It is natural that historians should turn their attention to the first phase of the first industrial society, from which we are all in various ways descended: early nineteenth-century Britain.

In spite of the preference of the ideologists of the period and of later historians for such terms as “improvement,” the transformation of Britain was revolutionary. How revolutionary it was is easy to underestimate, since political continuity was maintained under a flexible ruling class composed essentially of large landowners, and since by modern standards industrialization even by the middle of the nineteenth century was patchy, incomplete, and technologically rather archaic. The machines and buildings now being recovered and preserved are not only the subject of the discipline of “industrial archaeology”: they already look prehistoric.

Nevertheless, the new industrial society was based on the systematic reversal of the values by which human beings had previously lived in practically all societies of which we have record. Publick Benefits were produced by Private Vices, thought Mandeville, an untraditional thinker using traditional language. The hidden hand transformed Britain, it seemed, by means of antisocial behavior. Those who believed in an economy of unrestricted private pursuit of profit under the supremacy of the market were not immoral men; but their beliefs conflicted with most people’s idea of morality.

The strongest evidence for the revolutionary character of the new society comes not so much from the poor, who did not benefit to any extent from it until the middle of the century, as from the rich, who did, and very substantially. This is clearly demonstrated in David Roberts’s Paternalism in Early Victorian England, the first major study of the subject. There is no doubt that Britain was not, and could not work as, a paternalist society, i.e., a hierarchic and by definition unequal structure held together by the reciprocal bonds of authority and deference and by clearly defined rights and duties. But there is equally no doubt that the belief in such a society was widely held among the ruling classes as well as among the poor, even though it was increasingly unrealistic. As Roberts perceptively puts it:

The paternalist outlook was to the early nineteenth century what the free enterprise ideology was to the early twentieth century: a powerful ideology, widely held, important in politics, connected with vested interests, socially and economically useful, safely conventional, much esteemed, respectable, but in the face of disturbing challenges, defensive, inept, anachronistic.

Paternalism was certainly the over-whelmingly dominant ideology of Toryism, which was thus the exact opposite of the impassioned and resentful belief in competitive private enterprise, laissez faire, and the market which characterizes the British Conservative government today. Not Edmund Burke and Disraeli, but Richard Cobden and the popular French economist Frédéric Bastiat, author of The Harmonies of Political Economy, would be the appropriate patron saints of what passes for Toryism today. Nor, as Roberts makes clear, did the Whig grandees much like free enterprise, though their traditional commitment to keeping up with modern ideas (such as political economy) was apt to get in the way of their sense of noblesse oblige. Moreover, to a greater extent than is now commonly recognized, even businessmen and entrepreneurs drew back before the full ideological implications of their own principles of action.

Not only were there far more Anglicans (and therefore Tories) among the new bourgeoisie of industrialism than is usually admitted, but even the most capitalist-minded Protestant ethic was only incompletely identified with the pure cash-nexus. The journal of the Quaker foundry owner and philanthropist Barclay Fox, now published for the first time, is a useful reminder of this. Probably no group of dissenters (except perhaps the Unitarians) turned itself more completely into a collection of successful capitalists than the Quakers, not least by creating a national network of intermarrying families of bankers, mine-owners, shippers, merchants, textile, metal, and food manufacturers.

Though the Foxes of Falmouth in Cornwall are probably best known today for their Edwardian descendant for whom Frederick Rolfe, “Baron Corvo,” wrote his guide to the homosexual joys of Venice, they appear in young Barclay’s journal (1832-1844) as sober and high-minded business people, even if it is the diarist’s friendship with intellectuals like Sterling and Carlyle which has evidently inspired the editor. And indeed these records of a civilized, energetic, and much-traveling young man are full of his literary friends, culture, the attraction of young Quaker ladies, technology, and the discreet charm of a bourgeois family community. But Quakers as a group were, and still are, celebrated for a powerful sense of personal and public obligation beyond the call of business or even of class interest. That Nixon should have been brought up as one of them still seems amazing. Yet the Barclays, Lloyds, Gurneys, Rowntrees, Peases, and the rest who move through Barclay Fox’s pages were unquestionably also rational businessmen seeking to maximize profits.


Such charitable and public-spirited sentiments as they had were not, of course, very effective. Even the “landed interest” rested on capitalism. Nobility in Britain (as Norman Gash reminds us in Aristocracy and the People) had money at its roots as much as—indeed more than—birth. The younger Pitt had already argued that anyone with £20,000 a year should be given a peerage if he so wished. The grandest nobles, like the oil sheiks of today, tended to derive their millions from the monopoly ownership of resources whose cash value was determined by capitalism—farm land, urban real estate, coal mines, etc. As an eminent Tory historian recognized long ago—

In the first half of the nineteenth century there was only one road which a major statesman could travel, the road that led by Political Economy to Free Trade.

Even those rich people who saw themselves as defending the traditional hierarchy did not hesitate to follow the only valid imperative of wealth, the logic of the bottom line. As David Roberts shows, the Duke of Richmond, a paragon of paternalism, paid his laborers less than a subsistence wage, and an even lower rate if he disapproved of their behavior. Indeed, his lordly power enabled him to pay less than the going rate in other parts of his own county of Sussex. It was the inability to conceive of interference with the mechanism of private trade that made the Tory government of Sir Robert Peel sentence some hundreds of thousands of Irishmen to starvation in the Great Famine, an episode over which Norman Gash skates rather lightly in his book.

The practical effects of a belief in traditional values were therefore economically negligible. The reason why “both the role of private philanthropy and the cumulative effect of government policy tend to be undervalued,” to the regret of conservative historians like Norman Gash, is that they did not amount to much. So far as the poor were concerned, the few studies of the actual effect of local philanthropy show that it rarely produced more than occasional soup kitchens in times of spectacular hardship, and almost certainly much less than mutual aid among the poor and the credit extended by small shopkeepers who depended on their custom. As for government policy, its major effect in this period was to abolish the paternalist protections of the pre-industrial state (such as the Elizabethan labor legislation and the fixing of wages by magistrates) and to introduce a uniquely ruthless and penal Poor Law. Nothing in the social legislation of governments—much of it in any case optional rather than obligatory—can counterbalance these losses.

But ideologically traditionalism was not negligible. Through romantic poets, prophets, and clericalist intellectuals it provided a genuine, if negative and intellectually incoherent, critique of the orthodoxies of the “steam intellect society.” This was not without its effect on men like John Stuart Mill or, for that matter, more revolutionary critics. Engels learned more from Carlyle than has often been remembered, and William Morris was to derive more than he himself liked from Pugin. It was Disraeli, in his phase of what Marx called “feudal socialism,” who described England as a country of “two nations”—the rich and the poor.

However, in politics the heritage of the past against which, and under the wing of which, the new capitalist economy developed was of major significance. Here, as Roberts explains, the pattern of authority and deference continued. It provided Britain in this period with a political corps of aristocrats and second-generation gentlemen-bourgeois who could be guaranteed to pursue a capitalist policy while maintaining political and social continuity and stability. After the temporary shock of the militant and class-conscious mass mobilizations of Chartism, prosperity even encouraged established northern manufacturers to develop the neo-paternalism of what recent research has called the “factory politics” of industrial England between 1850 and 1890. During this phase many workers, identifying with Liberal or Tory masters in a sort of factory community (which did not exclude a narrow trade unionism), fought the symbolic battle of parties instead of that of classes. It is perhaps the main weakness of Roberts’s illuminating book that he neglects the rise of this neo-paternalist fashion after the 1840s.

Militantly class-conscious ideologues like Cobden might regret the failure of the new bourgeoisie to resist the temptations of aristocracy. Engels might note, with regret and contempt, that the bourgeoisie, unlike the feudal nobility, seemed reluctant to take over the public function of a ruling class. Middle-class businessmen no longer needed to, and incidentally they gained substantial advantages from keeping out of the firing-line. Popular radicalism until the end of the century continued to see “aristocratic privilege” and not capital as its major political enemy, and thus allowed the Liberal Party to emerge as the “people’s party” after the unrest of 1812-1848 had subsided. Only in the twentieth century did class rather than party become the dividing line in British politics.


To this extent the title of Norman Gash’s history of Britain between 1815 and 1865, Aristocracy and the People, is not unrealistic. The Second Reform Act of 1867 is the real divide in the British politics of the nineteenth century, even though aristocrats still usually outnumbered middle-class ministers in British cabinets until the 1890s. Nevertheless the author—the ranking expert on the politics of the 1830s and 1840s—is well aware that, in the words of Guizot which he quotes, the aristocracy “while preserving its social rank…is today servant but not master.” The master it served was the economy of liberal capitalism.

The more obvious triumphs of that economy are now made visible by the discovery of how much of the early achievements of the industrial revolution have been preserved and how much of it was visually documented at the time—including from the 1840s by photography. To this discovery of the visual sources for the history of British industrialism Asa Briggs’s Iron Bridge to Crystal Palace, a by-product of the bicentennial of the first iron bridge, adds little except a good many splendid pictures. This book raises the question what use the historian can and should make of such iconographic sources. Here, as so often, they are used mainly as illustrations or in the manner of a family photo album or scrapbook. In this respect the book is a step back from F.D. Klingender’s Art and the Industrial Revolution (1947),* which used pictures to support a historical argument. Asa Briggs, whose Victorian Cities and Victorian People should be on the bookshelves of anyone concerned with the period, provides a relatively unambitious text.

Of the books under review only Gash’s is sufficiently comprehensive to attempt a general view on the effects of early industrialism on British society. Unfortunately this excellent historian suffers under two handicaps. In the first place his own interests, which are predominantly in political history—as would be expected in the biographer of Peel—are narrow and fail to encompass economic, social, or for that matter cultural developments adequately. (There is no reference to Keats or Tennyson, Turner or Pugin.) Secondly—as is also to be expected in a “New History of England” series whose volumes are written by authors united by a distrust of radicalism, whether in manifestations of popular feeling or in their interpretation—his book is vitiated by excessive and unconvincing apologetics.

It will not do to ascribe the material hardships and social tensions of the period to the post-Napoleonic slump (which was over by the early 1820s), to “overpopulation” (the rate of demographic growth was not spectacular by twentieth-century standards), and to “the increasing urbanization of British society,” which he appears to regard as somehow unconnected with industrialization. That these problems “presented themselves simultaneously” with the industrial revolution was, he argues, “an accident of history” which made life tough for the Britons of the period as well as for historical apologists, such as Gash himself, who regret that “it has also distorted our retrospective view of the industrial revolution.” It will not do, because it is realistic to start with the assumption that all these things formed part of a syndrome of social change, as indeed contemporaries did, and, as suggested, Gash has not succeeded in showing that they did not.

It is equally unconvincing for Gash to put forward the simple, unsupported proposition that, but for industrialization, things would have been even worse. Living standards certainly improved markedly between 1845 and 1865, the last twenty years with which he deals, and for this generally accepted development, the great mid-Victorian expansion of industrial capitalism can properly be made responsible. Yet Gash is too good a historian to make excessive claims for the standard of living of the mass of Englishmen before the middle 1840s. Indeed for the largest single body among them, the agricultural laborers, he accepts that improvement is invisible, a fact also confirmed by Roberts’s study of paternalist Sussex. The crucial question about this early period is precisely why, as the economist Sir John Hicks has observed, the real wages of workers lagged so notably behind the growth in output and productivity. It is not whether the undoubted and bitter hardships of the decades before 1845 have been exaggerated.

Yet bias aside, this is a very good conventional history within its limits. But they are narrow limits. Gash’s is the kind of history that asks few questions, not only because it fails to address the subject that must be central to any study of the period, namely the nature of its economic transformation, but also because it seems insufficiently aware of the sheer peculiarity of England’s history. Here, after all, we have discontinuity insisting that it is continuity, revolution taken over and domesticated by aristocracy, a bourgeois society administered by earls, a uniquely strong and class-conscious but modest and subaltern working class, a democracy which until recently has been quite undemocratic, a pacemaker and model for global bourgeois society, but an inimitable model. History of Gash’s kind entirely lacks the introspection which is the strength (and weakness) of Americans writing about their own history, and which at present makes the historians of Wales so exciting. Foreigners, the socially critical, even nationalists in search of their nation do not take British history for granted. Conventional historians of a conservative bent tend to do so. They may, like Gash, survey and summarize a vast and complex field in masterly fashion, and modify accepted interpretations of accepted questions. But they see no reason for surprise. Their mission is to rear-range in decent order the furniture of the house of Britain’s past that has been disturbed by those who have tried to look under it.

This is a pity. All the books under review throw some light on the extraordinary phenomenon of the first industrial society emerging, with apparently surprising ease—though at the cost of very great human suffering—from its past; on the remarkable interweaving of adaptation and revolution, old and new. None of them, except perhaps Roberts’s, can be regarded as a direct contribution to that reconsideration of Britain in the era of Polanyi’s “great transformation” which we, looking back on the period after almost a century and a half of further experience of the development of capitalist society, can see as both possible and necessary. The task is relevant not only for Britons but for all who live in the world whose birth, for a brief historical period, was identified with a medium-sized offshore island of northwestern Europe.

This Issue

April 3, 1980