Assess the Impact of the Cotton Industry on the British Economy 1770-1830

This essay achieved a low 2:1 in the first year of my undergraduate.

Assess the impact of the Cotton industry on the British economy 1770-1830

­­There are a range of viewpoints surrounding the industrial revolution, the relative importance of the cotton industry, and the effect the two had on the British economy in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The traditional view of the industrial revolution is that of ‘King Cotton,’ and explosive industrial and by extension economic growth. More recently what can be termed ‘Revisionist’ historians (as well as economists)[1] have put forward evidence that economic growth was in fact slow; that it was a mere acceleration of present growth. The cotton industry undoubtedly had an impact on the British economy, by virtue of many inter-related factors and arguably stemmed from the notable progressive technology through the period. As well as this, the rate of expansion of the industry, the increase in its wealth and its effect on population growth had an inevitable knock-on effect on the economy[2]. The overall impact of the cotton industry and its expansion on the British economy is widely regarded[3] as a substantial one, but most historians[4] tend also to stress the importance of other industries such as iron and agriculture, which is probably accurate; the cotton industry was the greatest single contributor to national economy -which is not to say that other industries were unimportant, just that cotton far outstripped their growth, as is shown by the cotton industry overtaking wool[5].

The inventions, innovations and general progressive technologies of the cotton industry must be regarded as important in its expansion and therefore its effect on the British economy. Hargreaves’ invention of the Spinning Jenny in the 1770s boosted the output of cotton products significantly[6], increasing the value of the industry as a whole within the economy through both domestic sales and exports. The other important inventions (Arkwright’s Water Frame and Crompton’s Mule) are perhaps more crucial when assessing the effect of the cotton industry on the British economy, due to the fact that they opened a new mass market and arguably diversified the industry respectively[7]. The fact that the cotton warp produced by the Water Frame was cheaper than its linen-based competitors to produce, and that it was effectively a brand new mass market meant that it was very attractive to consumers. Crompton’s Mule produced cotton comparable to silk, which meant that the luxury materials which were previously imported from India among others became more reliably[8] available on the domestic market, and this contributed significantly to a rise in demand, and a fall in costs. All of this further increased the amount of money involved in the industry, and had the overall effect of increasing its value, which had the accompanying effect of stimulating general economic growth.

The impact of inventions within the cotton industry was not however restricted to simply its direct effect. The fact that the cotton industry was seen by contemporaries as at the forefront of technological advancement attracted people into the industry, which allowed the industry to further expand. The large demand growing for the finer quality cotton produced by the Mules had the similar effect of drawing workers into the industry[9]. The combination of these effects is most famously exemplified by the development of Manchester: both in terms of population growth[10], and the expansion of the industry. In 1782, there were just two cotton mills in Manchester and by 1802, there were 52[11]. The shift of population into what increasingly became urban, industrial centres in turn meant that the industries (specifically that of cotton) were able to continue growing and progressing, which was of course reflected in the economy, by contrast to the economies of contemporary France and Ireland[12].

The expansion and growth of the cotton industry inevitably led to an increase in its value (from £500,000 in the early 1770s to more than £5,000,000 before 1800[13]), and this had effects both direct and indirect on the greater British economy. The direct effects included the increase in its contribution to the national product -from 0.5% before 1770 to 60% by the first decade of the nineteenth century[14]-, as well as a change to British exports (by the end of the Napoleonic Wars, around one half of all British exports were cotton products[15]). Apart from this, the increased value of the industry meant that there was greater scope for further expansion, due to the fact that it made additional funding available both for new mills and for technological research to improve production methods still more. As well as this, the affluence and capitalist nature of the cotton industry undoubtedly attracted people seeking to make money out of the new markets.

As has already been stated, there was considerable population growth, both across Britain and more particularly in areas where the cotton industry was prevalent. The best example of this is in Lancashire: in 1801, the population of Lancashire was 673,486 and by 1830, it was around 1,336,854, most of which was concentrated in new industrial towns. The impact of the cotton industry specifically can be demonstrated by the higher than national average population growth (close to 15%) in Lancashire (over 20% per decade in the period)[16]. It was not only the areas in which the cotton industry became established which were affected however: there were areas of significant growth which did not have cotton mills. The most notable of these were Liverpool, Bristol and Glasgow, which grew into major commercial ports due to the increase in cotton imports needed to supply the new and rapid growth[17]. While this concentration of population was undoubtedly a result of the centralisation of the industry, it is probable that this movement of people also contributed to a certain extent. As more people moved into urban industrial areas, there was a larger potential labour force, and so the industry was able to expand faster, which in turn nurtured the embryonic working class.

The cotton industry had other perhaps further-reaching effects on the wider British economy. The fact that the growth of the cotton industry arguably heralded the beginnings of a proletarian working class meant that it was significant for the development of the British economy[18]. The main contributing factor to the creation of the working class was also an important phase in the development of the British economy: due to the fact that it was more economical to build bigger mills and factories, it became increasingly advantageous to centralise the industry[19]. It is important to stress however that the working class was not simply restricted to the cotton industry; it played a part in the development of industry in general although the former as the largest growing industry arguably contributed most to its creation though. As well as this, the growth of the cotton industry also served to stimulate development in other indirect but connected industries, such as transport, banking and commerce[20], which clearly shows the breadth of the impact that the industry had on the British economy.

The impact of the cotton industry must however be qualified. Different historians have varying views on the level of qualification however. Cipolla argues that the cotton industry on its own was not revolutionary, and that it was only in conjunction with the developments in other industries that there was such an impact on the economy, and that no single industry was more important than any of the others[21]. This is effectively stating that the impact of each individual industry was limited. It is true that the iron and coal industries, and the developments therein had significant effects on the British economy, and that the cotton industry was not solely responsible for the economic growth experienced by Britain as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Indeed Pawson argues that the expansion of the cotton industry in this period was due to the prior century and a half of development, and that 1770-1830 was merely a period of acceleration of growth, rather than it being completely unprecedented[22]. Whether or not it was unprecedented, it is certainly true that the ‘acceleration’ of this period had a profound effect on the British economy, and the impact of the cotton industry is undeniable.

Despite these counter arguments, it is fair to say that the impact the cotton industry had on the British economy was significant. The expansion of the industry, both in terms of output and its diversity served to enrich both the industry and as a result the economy. This drew more people into the industry which in turn contributed to the its rate of expansion, and meant that its development was somewhat self-sufficient. This autarchic nature only served to increase the profits of the industry, which meant that its contribution to the development both of other (ancillary) industries and the larger economy can be considered the most important in this period[23]. The general population growth which was resultant of the rise of the cotton industry had perhaps the broadest effect on the British economy, because the extra population did not invariably end up in cotton industry. Attracted to areas of greater affluence, the population would have been involved in other supporting industries as well as the cotton industry. This would seem to confirm that the effect of the cotton industry on the economy was not only significant of itself, but also fairly wide-ranging.

Word count (including title): 1,930

 

[1] Such as Williamson, Harley, and Crafts, see F.W. Botham and E.H. Hunt, ‘Wages in Britain during the industrial revolution,’ The Economic History Review, 40 (1987), p.380.

[2] E.J. Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire: An Economic History of Britain since 1750, p.51.

[3] Although not exclusively: see M. Koyama, ‘The Price of Time and Labour Supply: From The Black Death to The Industrious Revolution,’ Discussion Papers in Economic and Social History, 78 (2009), p.3.

[4] See T.S. Ashton, The Industrial Revolution 1760-1830, pp.58-60 or C.M. CIpolla (ed.) The Fontana Economic History of Europe Volume 4, part 1: The Emergence of Industrial Societies, p.162.

[5] T.S. Ashton, The Industrial Revolution 1760-1830, p. 75

[6] C.M. Cipolla (ed.), The Fontana Economic History of Europe Volume 4, Part 1: The Emergence of Industrial Societies, p.176.

[7] T.S. Ashton The Industrial Revolution 1760-1830, pp.72-3.

[8] E.J. Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire: An Economic History of Britain since 1750, p.41

[9] T.S Ashton, The Industrial Revolution 1760-1830, p.74.

[10] See E. Pawson, The Early Industrial Revolution: Britain in the Eighteenth Century, p.33.

[11] T.S. Ashton, The Industrial Revolution 1760-1830, p.74.

[12] E. Pawson, The Early Industrial Revolution: Britain in the Eighteenth Century, p.39.

[13] C.M. Cipolla (ed.), The Fontana Economic History of Europe Volume 4, Part 1: The Emergence of Industrial Societies, pp.176-7.

[14] C.M. Cipolla (ed.), The Fontana Economic History of Europe Volume 4, Part 1: The Emergence of Industrial Societies, pp.171-7, see also E.J. Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire: An Economic History of Britain since 1750, p.51.

[15] E.J. Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire: An Economic History of Britain since 1750, p.51

[16] J. Watts, The Facts of the Cotton Famine, p.34

[17] E.J. Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire: An Economic History of Britain since 1750, p.41

[18] C.M. Cipolla (ed.), The Fontana Economic History of Europe Volume 4, Part 1: The Emergence of Industrial Societies, p.186.

[19] E.J. Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire: An Economic History of Britain since 1750, p.67

[20] C.M. Cipolla (ed.), The Fontana Economic History of Europe Volume 4, Part 1: The  Emergence of Industrial Societies, p.186

[21] See C.M. Cipolla (ed.), The Fontana Economic History of Europe Volume 4, Part 1: The Emergence of Industrial Societies, p.162

[22] E. Pawson, The Early Industrial Revolution: Britain in the Eighteenth Century, pp.102-3

[23] See E.J. Hobsbawm, Industry and Empire: An Economic History of Britain since 1750, p.51

Bibliography

Ashton, T.S., The Industrial Revolution 1760-1830 (London, New York & Toronto, 1948)

Botham, F.W., and Hunt, E.H.,  ‘Wages in Britain during the industrial revolution,’ The Economic History Review, 40 (1987), pp.380-99

Chapman, S.D., The Cotton Industry in the Industrial Revolution (Basingstoke, 1987)

Chapman, S.J., The Lancashire Cotton Industry: A Study in Economic Development (Manchester, 1904)

Cipolla, C.M. (ed.), The Fontana Economic History of Europe Volume 3: The Industrial Revolution (Glasgow, 1973)

Cipolla, C.M. (ed.), The Fontana Economic History of Europe Volume 4, Part 1: The Emergence of Industrial Societies (London & Glasgow, 1973)

Crafts, N., ‘Productivity Growth in the Industrial Revolution: A New Growth Accounting Perspective,’ The Journal of Economic History, 64 (2004), pp.521-35

Harley, C.K., ‘Cotton Textile Prices and the Industrial Revolution,’ The Economic History Review, 51 (1998), pp.49-83

Hobsbawm, E.J., Industry and Empire: An Economic History of Britain since 1750 (London, 1968)

Hudson, P., The Industrial Revolution (London, 1992)

Jones, E.L. and Mingay, G.E. (eds.), Land, Labour and Population in the Industrial Revolution (London, 1967)

Koyama, M., ‘The Price of Time and Labour Supply: From The Black Death to The Industrious Revolution,’ Discussion Papers in Economic and Social History, 78 (2009), pp.1-45

Pawson, E., The Early Industrial Revolution: Britain in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1979)

Watts, J., The Facts of the Cotton Famine (London, 1866)

Feedback:

62%

All the following feedback is rated on the following scale: Outstanding-Excellent-Good-Competent-Pass-Fail.

Breadth of Reading: Good

Critical approach to historiography: Competent

Focus on question: Good

Organization of the material: Good-Competent

Depth of understanding and insight: Good-Competent

Use of examples: Good

Introduction and Conclusion: Good-Competent

Factual accuracy: Good

Comprehensiveness of coverage: Good

Fluent and correct English: Good

Accurate spelling/proof reading: Good

Sources cited correctly: Competent

General Comments and Advice: Good discussion, referring to your reading and some comments thereon. It started a bit stilted but once you got going it was well written and flowed well. Footnoting style needs sorting, but overall a good essay.

 

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