Abstract

In the mid-sixteenth century, England was a small country on the periphery of Europe with an economy less advanced than those of several of its continental neighbors. In 1851, the Great Exhibition both symbolized and displayed the technological and economic lead that Britain had then taken. A half-century later, however, there were only minor differences between the leading economies of Western Europe. To gain insight into both the long period during which Britain outpaced its neighbors and the decades when its lead evaporated, it is illuminating to focus on the energy supply. Energy is expended in all productive activities. The contrast between the limitations inherent to organic economies dependent on the annual round of plant photosynthesis for energy and the possibilities open to an economy able to make effective use of the vast quantity of energy available in coal measures is key both to the understanding of the lengthy period of Britain’s relative success and to its subsequent swift decline.

Britain lies on the periphery of Europe geographically and, in the mid-sixteenth century was, in many other respects, on the perimeter. London was its only large urban center, and the proportion of the population living in towns was among the smallest of any European country.1 The national population was far smaller than that of the leading continental countries—in 1550, roughly one-sixth the size of the French total, one-fifth of the German, and one-third of the Italian. The variety of products manufactured was limited, and the techniques employed were often less sophisticated than in the Low Countries and Italy.2 Three centuries later, the 1851 Great Exhibition both symbolized and displayed the extent of the country’s lead over its competitors. Yet, within a further half-century, the advantage had evaporated, and Britain was one of the leading group of economies rather than a clear leader. My intention in this article is to suggest an explanation for the transformation that occurred between the reigns of Elizabeth and Victoria, and why for so long parallel change did not take place across the Channel.

In one sense, the answer to the first of these two questions is obvious. Britain was the country in which an industrial revolution first took place. It had gradually acquired the capacity to achieve sustained economic growth. In the past, because of the nature of organic economies, the process of growth always involved changes that arrested, and often reversed, the growth process. Organic economies were intrinsically economies in which negative feedback prevailed.3 Rather than each step in the process of expansion making the next step harder to take, the industrial revolution brought changes in which the opposite was the case. It is therefore important to try to identify the changes that made positive feedback possible. As background to the discussion of this central issue, however, it is convenient first to describe certain features of English economic, social, and demographic history in the early modern period that contrasted markedly with continental experience.

This issue is addressed under four headings: population growth rates, urban and non-urban growth rates, urban growth and agricultural change, and energy supply. These topics provide a background for the discussion of why England was for so long disproportionately successful in engendering economic growth, and also for the identification of the circumstances that enabled continental Europe rapidly to draw abreast in the later nineteenth century.

Population Growth Rates in England and Continental Europe

During the three centuries covered in Table 1, the populations of France, Germany, Italy, and Spain all roughly doubled; the English population more than quintupled. The contrast was not confined to the conventional period of the industrial revolution. Both in the periods 1550–1750 and 1750–1850, England’s rate of growth was substantially higher than that of the continental countries. If the populations of the four continental countries are combined, their annual rate of growth in 1550–1750 was 0.10 percent and in 1750–1850 0.55 percent, while the comparable English rates were 0.32 and 1.05 percent.

Table 1

Population Growth in the Larger European Countries, 1550 to 1850

  population (millions
1550 1750 1850 
France 19.0 21.7 35.8 
Germany 14.0 17.0 34.4 
Italy 11.4 15.3 24.0 
Spain 7.4 8.9 15.0 
England 3.1 5.9 16.7 
  
  relative size (england=100) 
France 613 368 214 
Germany 452 288 206 
Italy 367 259 144 
Spain 239 151 90 
England 100 100 100 
  
  increase ratios (1850/1550) 
France 188 
Germany 246 
Italy 211 
Spain 203 
England 539 
  
  annual percentage growth rates 
1550/1750 1750/1850 1550/1850 
France 0.0007 0.0050 0.0021 
Germany 0.0010 0.0071 0.0030 
Italy 0.0015 0.0045 0.0025 
Spain 0.0009 0.0053 0.0023 
England 0.0032 0.0105 0.0056 
  population (millions
1550 1750 1850 
France 19.0 21.7 35.8 
Germany 14.0 17.0 34.4 
Italy 11.4 15.3 24.0 
Spain 7.4 8.9 15.0 
England 3.1 5.9 16.7 
  
  relative size (england=100) 
France 613 368 214 
Germany 452 288 206 
Italy 367 259 144 
Spain 239 151 90 
England 100 100 100 
  
  increase ratios (1850/1550) 
France 188 
Germany 246 
Italy 211 
Spain 203 
England 539 
  
  annual percentage growth rates 
1550/1750 1750/1850 1550/1850 
France 0.0007 0.0050 0.0021 
Germany 0.0010 0.0071 0.0030 
Italy 0.0015 0.0045 0.0025 
Spain 0.0009 0.0053 0.0023 
England 0.0032 0.0105 0.0056 

sources For England, E. Anthony Wrigley et al., English Population History from Family Reconstitution, 1580–1837 (New York, 1997), 614–615 (Table A9.1); for the other countries, Jan de Vries, European Urbanization, 1500–1800 (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), 36–37 (Table 3.6).

In a long-settled organic economy, a rise in numbers as rapid as that in early modern England was normally impossible, if only because increasing supplies of food and raw materials on a scale to match the population growth was not feasible. The population rise would have been brought to a halt relatively quickly by deepening poverty giving rise to higher mortality—the positive check. Living standards in England in the early nineteenth century after the fivefold population increase, however, compared favorably with living standards in the Elizabethan period. Establishing indisputably accurate information about real incomes, and more generally about living standards, in the past poses complex difficulties. The conclusions of different studies have varied substantially, but the balance of opinion suggests both that real incomes were higher in England than in other countries during the early modern period (with the exception of the Netherlands for much of that time) and that this difference persisted even when the population was rising by 10 percent or more in each decade from the 1790s onward. Between 1791 and 1841, the English population rose by 69 percent, from 7,845,676 to 13,254,056.4

Only in lands of recent settlement where large areas of fertile land remained unoccupied, as in North America, were rates of growth comparable to those in early modern England possible in organic economies. Figure 1 shows the relationship between real-wage trends and population growth rates in England between the mid-sixteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. It provides clear evidence that during this period, England ceased to be an organic economy.5

Fig. 1

Real-Wage Change and Population Growth Rates, 1561–1841 (Percentage Change per Annum)

Fig. 1

Real-Wage Change and Population Growth Rates, 1561–1841 (Percentage Change per Annum)

Measures of the real-wage level are an uncertain guide to living standards. There may be substantial differences between real-wage levels in a limited range of industries and the standard of living in the population as a whole. It is nonetheless improbable that the change from the pattern prevailing from the late sixteenth century until the early eighteenth century to that found thereafter is misleading. In the earlier period, the “classic” relationship to be expected in an organic economy is visible. If a population was increasing rapidly, like England’s during the later sixteenth century, the standard of living declined. If a population was stationary or in marginal decline, living standards improved. Figure 1 suggests that until the early eighteenth century, the economy could support population growth of c. 0.25 percent per annum without depressing living standards but that higher rates of increase entailed a fall in living standards. Thereafter, however, a strikingly different situation emerged. The population growth rate soared to almost 1.5 percent annually. On past expectations, such a trend would have caused a disastrous fall in living standards, but, rather than plunging, real wages rose modestly. The capacity of the economy to cope with exceptionally rapid population growth had been transformed.

Moreover, the exceptionally high rates of population growth in England in the early decades of the nineteenth century did not give rise to high mortality rates. The expectation of life at birth for the sexes combined in 1701–1740 was 35.3 years; in 1801–1840, it was 40.8 years.6 In both periods, mortality rates in continental Europe were normally higher, and the expectation of life therefore lower. For example, the expectation of life at birth in France in 1740–1789 averaged 27.4 years.7 During the same period in England, it averaged 37.2 years.8 Even as late as 1821–1881, life expectancy in Italy averaged 33 years, lower than in any fifty-year period in England from the 1540s onward.9

Urban and Non-Urban Population Growth in England and Wales and in Continental Europe

One exceptional and illuminating feature of the population rise that took place in England is evident in Table 2, which shows urban, non-urban, and overall population totals for England and Wales and for the continent in 1600, 1700, and 1800. Over the whole two-century period, the population of England and Wales grew by 109 percent, more than twice the comparable figure for the continent, 50 percent. Non-urban populations in England and Wales and on the continent were, however, growing at a broadly similar pace. The English figure (70 percent) is higher than the continental figure (49 percent), but the difference is relatively modest. Indeed, in the eighteenth century, the rates were almost identical. In contrast, the comparable percentages for urban growth were radically different—574 percent for England and Wales and 61 percent for continental Europe. In brief, the fact that the population was rising much faster in England than on the continent was almost exclusively due to the pace of urban growth.

Table 2

Urban and Non-Urban Growth in England and Continental Europe, 1600–1800

  england and wales continental europe 
(population totals in millions
urban non-urban total urban non-urban total 
1600 0.34 4.06 4.4 7.7 62.0 69.7 
1700 0.86 4.54 5.4 8.0 62.3 70.3 
1800 2.29 6.91 9.2 12.4 92.1 104.5 
  
  populations as percentages of total 
urban non-urban total urban non-urban total 
1600 7.7 92.3 100.0 11.0 89.0 100.0 
1700 15.9 84.1 100.0 11.4 88.6 100.0 
1800 24.9 75.1 100.0 11.9 88.1 100.0 
  
  percentage change in population totals 
urban non-urban total urban non-urban total 
1600/1700 153 12 23 
1700/1800 166 52 70 55 48 49 
1600/1800 574 70 109 61 49 50 
  england and wales continental europe 
(population totals in millions
urban non-urban total urban non-urban total 
1600 0.34 4.06 4.4 7.7 62.0 69.7 
1700 0.86 4.54 5.4 8.0 62.3 70.3 
1800 2.29 6.91 9.2 12.4 92.1 104.5 
  
  populations as percentages of total 
urban non-urban total urban non-urban total 
1600 7.7 92.3 100.0 11.0 89.0 100.0 
1700 15.9 84.1 100.0 11.4 88.6 100.0 
1800 24.9 75.1 100.0 11.9 88.1 100.0 
  
  percentage change in population totals 
urban non-urban total urban non-urban total 
1600/1700 153 12 23 
1700/1800 166 52 70 55 48 49 
1600/1800 574 70 109 61 49 50 

notesUrban in this context means towns with 5,000 or more inhabitants. Europe consists of all the countries listed in Jan de Vries, European Urbanization, 1500–1800 (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), Table 3.6 (36–37), apart from England and Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and the Netherlands. The Netherlands was excluded because in the seventeenth century, the country experienced rapid urban growth, anticipating England’s later urban expansion.

source Jan de Vries, European Urbanization, 36–37 (Table 3.6), 64 (Table 4.9), 72 (Table 4.13), 269–278 (Appendix 1).

The sharp contrast between England and Wales and continental Europe is underlined if “net” urban growth in the two units is considered. The urban population total in continental Europe rose from 7.7 in 1600 to 12.4 million in 1800, but much of the increase was associated with the overall increase in population during the two centuries. Net urban growth measures the increase that results from a rise in the percentage of the population living in towns. For example, in 1600, 11 percent of the population of continental Europe was urban. If that percentage had remained unchanged during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the urban population in 1800 would have been 11.5 million (104.5 × 0.11). Because there was a slight rise in the urban percentage, the urban total in 1800 was 12.4 million. The net increase was therefore 0.9 million (12.4−11.5). A similar exercise for England and Wales shows that if the urban percentage had remained unchanged from 1600 to 1800, the urban total at the latter date would have been 0.71 million. Since the urban total in 1800 was 2.29 million, the net increase was 1.58 million, almost double the total for continental Europe, although the population of England and Wales in 1800 was less than 9 percent that of continental Europe.

The strong contrast between the pattern of urban growth in England and Wales and that on the continent brings into prominence two interrelated issues of fundamental importance regarding the genesis of the industrial revolution. First, in the absence of large-scale food imports, urban growth, such as took place in England in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, is possible only if there is a large increase in agricultural output and an unprecedented rise in the productivity of the agricultural labor force. In England, the number of men employed in agriculture increased by only 28 percent between the end of the sixteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century while the population more than doubled.10

Second, a major rise in the proportion of the population living in towns implies a substantial change in the occupational structure of the labor force. The increase in secondary and tertiary employment that took place could have occurred only if the structure of aggregate demand changed in parallel. Given the relative income elasticity of demand for primary, secondary, and tertiary products, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that average income levels were increasing, despite the probability that some groups within the population benefited far less than others.

Urban life produced other changes that fostered economic growth. As the urban proportion rose, the urban experience began to affect consumer attitudes and behavior far more widely. London underwent large-scale immigration both because of its rapid growth and the death rate in the metropolis, which was higher than the birth rate until the later decades of the eighteenth century. It also saw a large volume of what might be termed through-migration; men and women staying in London for months or years before departing with the consumer tastes that they had acquired there. The proportion of the national population living in London was c.11 percent in 1700, but perhaps a quarter of the population had spent time in the capital.11 The change in consumer preferences is reflected both in the rapid increase in village shops and the fact that they stocked not only the necessities of life but also increasingly its comforts and even its luxuries.12 De Vries, when defining the nature of the “industrious revolution” and stressing the importance of the demand side to the changes in train during the industrial revolution, quoted the views of contemporaries who were conscious of the attitudinal changes fostered by urban life. David Hume, for one, remarked, “it is a violent method and most cases impracticable, to oblige the laborer to toil in order to raise from the land more than what subsists himself and his family. Furnish him with manufactures and commodities and he will do it himself.”13 Smith emphasized the same point: “Our ancestors were idle for want of a sufficient encouragement to industry. It is better, says the proverb, to play for nothing, than to work for nothing. In mercantile and manufacturing towns, where the inferior ranks of the people are chiefly maintained by the employment of capital, they are in general industrious, sober, and thriving: as in many English, and most Dutch towns.”14

Urban life in early modern England, in short, undermined the values that Goldsmith lauded in his lengthy poem of bitter regret about the impact of capitalist agriculture on the traditional village community: “A time there was, ere England’s griefs began, / When every rood of ground maintained its man; /For him light labour spread her wholesome store, / Just gave what life required, but gave no more, / His blest companions, innocence and health; / And his best riches, ignorance of wealth.”15

One further aspect of urban growth in England demands attention—the contrasting fortunes of different types of town and how they varied over time. Table 3 traces changes in three urban settings—London, other towns with 5,000 or more inhabitants, and ten historic regional centers. In the seventeenth century, London completely dominated the urban scene. The national urban population in the seventeenth century increased by 515,000; London alone accounted for almost three-quarters of this total (375,000). The population of the capital rose by a slightly larger absolute total in the eighteenth century (385,000), but whereas in the previous century, its population—expressed as a percentage of the national total—more than doubled from 4.8 to 11.0 percent, in the eighteenth century, this percentage remained virtually unchanging at c. 11.0 percent.16

Table 3

Urban Population Estimates for England, London, and Other Towns with 5,000 or More Inhabitants

  population (in thousands
c.1520 c.1600 c.1700 c.1750 c.1800 
England 2,400 4,162 5,211 5,922 8,671 
London 55 200 575 675 960 
Other urban populations (5,000 or more inhabitants) 70 135 275 540 1,420 
Total urban 125 335 850 1,215 2,380 
  
Ten historic regional centers   74 106   143 
  
  urban populations as percentages of national total 
London 2.3 4.8 11.0 11.4 11.1 
Other urban 2.9 3.2 5.3 9.1 16.4 
Total urban 5.2 8.0 16.3 20.5 27.4 
  population (in thousands
c.1520 c.1600 c.1700 c.1750 c.1800 
England 2,400 4,162 5,211 5,922 8,671 
London 55 200 575 675 960 
Other urban populations (5,000 or more inhabitants) 70 135 275 540 1,420 
Total urban 125 335 850 1,215 2,380 
  
Ten historic regional centers   74 106   143 
  
  urban populations as percentages of national total 
London 2.3 4.8 11.0 11.4 11.1 
Other urban 2.9 3.2 5.3 9.1 16.4 
Total urban 5.2 8.0 16.3 20.5 27.4 

note The ten historic regional centers are Cambridge, Chester, Coventry, Exeter, Gloucester, Ipswich, Norwich, Oxford, Worcester, and York.

sources E. Anthony Wrigley, “Urban Growth and Agricultural Change: England and the Continent in the Early Modern Period,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, XV (1985), 686–687 (Table 1); idem (ed.), The Early English Censuses (New York, 2011), 224–225 (Table A2.6), 200–223 (Table A2.2).

The history of the ten historic regional centers is particularly striking. Circa 1600, they housed 22 percent of the total urban population, c. 1700 13 percent, and in c. 1800 only 6 percent. The continued rise in the national urban percentage in the eighteenth century was almost entirely due to exceptionally vigorous growth in industrial and commercial centers in the north and the midlands; the combined populations of Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Leeds, and Sheffield increased more than tenfold, from c. 33,000 to c. 345,000 during the century—a growth rate of c. 2.4 percent per annum.

Urban Growth and Agricultural Change

In the absence of large-scale imports of food, a population rise on the scale taking place in England between the mid-sixteenth and early nineteenth centuries can happen only if there is a parallel increase in domestic agricultural output. The population more than quintupled between 1550 and 1850, and until the last quarter-century, it continued to obtain almost all of its food from local produce, apart from tropical products such as sugar. The implied rise in output was therefore notable, and the rise in the productivity of the agricultural labor force was even more remarkable given that the number of men working on the land increased only moderately. In a long-settled country with an organic economy, it was normal to find the reverse. Increases in agricultural output could be secured only by a greater than proportionate increase in the agricultural labor force, for reasons made plain by the classical economists.

In organic economies, an increase in the proportion of the population living in towns was possible only if agricultural productivity was rising. Simply put, if, on average, every four families in the countryside were producing enough food to feed five families, a fifth of the population could be town dwellers. Expressing matters in this fashion, of course, fails to do justice to the complexity of the constraints upon urban growth imposed by agricultural productivity, but it points to an issue of central importance regarding urban growth in the past. Bairoch’s analysis of this issue provides an instructive background to the reasons for the divergent experience of England and continental Europe in the early modern period. It is also suggestive in relation to wider issues concerning England’s escape from the normal constraints upon growth in organic economies.

Making use of a range of factors similar to those that von Thünen had employed in his pioneering examination of this issue, Bairoch concluded that where, as in continental Europe c.1800, the average yield of wheat was 8 quintals per hectare (c.12 bushels per acre), “the maximum proportion of the population that could live in towns (with a criterion of 5,000 inhabitants for a town) was of the order of between 13 and 15 percent.”17 Elsewhere Bairoch estimated cereal yield on the continent throughout the early modern period as 700–800 kg per hectare, a level similar to his estimate c. 1800.18 His analysis of the limits to urban growth throws light upon the notably constant level of urbanization in continental Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (11–12 percent), and it is also suggestive in relation to the changes that enabled England to develop very differently.

An increase in output per acre, though frequently feasible in an organic economy, was at some point achievable only at the cost of a decline in output per head. This held true no less where agricultural practice was sophisticated than where it was primitive. For example, agricultural practices in Flanders were advanced in the early modern period. It was a knowledge of innovations already widespread in Flanders that prompted the introduction of turnips and clovers and the reduction of the fallow in England. However, “the progress of Flemish agriculture rested primarily upon the high input of labor per unit of land. In most areas, the intensification of arable production went along with a splitting up of peasant holdings and declining labor productivity.”19 Hence, it is not surprising that the urban percentage in Belgium declined during the eighteenth century from 23.9 to 18.9 percent.20 The large increase in agricultural output in early modern England occurred without the usual penalty because the output per head of the agricultural workforce rose markedly.

Precise estimates of agricultural output and output per head are not possible until the later nineteenth century, but the existence of a substantial rise in both variables between 1601 and 1801 is not in doubt. The English population more than doubled in this period, but net imports in 1801 have been estimated as comprising only 5 percent of total consumption.21 If the average food consumption per head did not change between 1600 and 1800, the scale of the population increase would suggest that output had more than doubled during the period. Gross yields per acre of cereals doubled and net yields more than doubled, since seed retention per acre changed only slightly. Furthermore, the proportion of arable land fallowed each year fell substantially, and other forms of agricultural production also expanded.22 Crafts’ estimates suggest that in 1801, the two largest industries were wool and leather, as measured by value added.23 Both industries expanded substantially during the eighteenth century while remaining largely dependent on local raw material.24

Overton’s cautious review of the evidence relating to agricultural output is consistent with the conclusion that agricultural output more than doubled during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Overton made three estimates of English agricultural output based on three different methods. Two of the three suggest that output more than doubled between 1600 and 1800. Although they covered only the eighteenth century, the fact that they record increases of 91 and 72 percent lends strong support to the view that production more than doubled during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.25 Similarly, Clay’s estimates for the increase during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries suggest that “it would be a reasonable guess that total agricultural production had risen by something more than two and a half times.”26

There is less uncertainty about the size of the agricultural labor force. In 1601, the population was 4.16 million; in 1801, it was 8.67 million. For simplicity, assume that at both dates, the sex ratio was even in the working age groups, and that the potential labor force consisted of all males aged twenty to sixty-four and half of those aged fifteen to nineteen. A slightly higher proportion of men were in these age groups in 1601 than in 1801. At the earlier date, the percentage of men in the working-age groups is 52.4 and at the later date 49.8. Thus, the comparative totals are 1,090,000 and 2,157,000.27 The recent extensive research on the occupational structure of England in the centuries before the census may give rise to minor changes in the current estimates, but it is unlikely to alter the picture significantly. Current estimates suggest that 62.9 percent of the male labor force was employed in agriculture in 1601 and 38.2 percent in 1801, implying that the male labor force at these two dates totaled 686,000 and 824,000, respectively—an increase of 20 percent over a period during which the population increased by 108 percent (a parallel calculation for 1701 produced a total of 606,000).28 Assuming that agricultural output c. 1800 was two-and-a-half times larger than in c. 1600, the average output per head of men working on the land would appear to have doubled. However, given that living standards were lower in 1600 than in 1800, this estimate of the productivity rise understates the gain in output per head, which probably more than doubled. In a long-settled land in which the population had doubled, an increase of this magnitude in an organic economy was exceptional, perhaps without precedent.

The changes associated with the increase in agricultural labor productivity were many, though the positive feedback between them makes their relative importance difficult to quantify. They include the gradual disappearance of “peasant” agriculture and its replacement by a market-orientated system of landowners, tenant farmers, and agricultural laborers; an increasing specialization of each region on the crops or livestock to which it was best suited, thus enabling rising outputs, incomes, and profits; the disposal of as much as a quarter of farmed acreage to private ownership after the dissolution of the monasteries29; a higher average level of mechanical energy available to individual farm workers because of an increase in the number and strength of horses; improvements in agricultural tools and machinery, such as lighter iron plows, which one man (rather than a man and a boy) could control with less horsepower; improvements to the sickle and its eventual replacement by the scythe; convertible husbandry and the introduction of such crops as turnips and clover; and the positive feedback between expanding demand from the urban sector and the income that individual farmers could gain from increasing their output.30 This list could be further extended. For example, the records of the Buller family estate in eighteenth-century Cornwall show that employment levels were as high in winter as in other seasons because the fertility of the soil could be improved by spreading, lime, marl, sand, and manure.31

The key point in this context is simple. By the end of the seventeenth century, more than half the workforce was employed in secondary and tertiary activities; agriculture accounted for only c. 44 percent of the workforce. Given the relative elasticities of demand for primary, secondary, and tertiary products, this division of employment and of aggregate demand suggests a relatively high average real income, beginning long before the traditional dating of the industrial revolution. It is evidence of the lengthy transition to sustained growth during two-and-a-half centuries, all the more notable in view of the scale of national population growth at the time.

England was not, of course, a closed economy. Overseas trade expanded substantially during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, rising faster than home demand. It is difficult, however, to call into question the conclusion that home demand was the principal reason for the rise in the proportion of the labor force engaged in secondary and tertiary occupations.

If agricultural productivity in England had remained at its mid-Tudor level—the same level that prevailed in most of continental Europe until the early nineteenth century—urban growth would probably have remained at the same level as that found in countries such as France and Germany in the early modern period. The transformation in labor productivity in agriculture was a sine qua non for the surge in England’s urban growth and, given the association between urban growth and rising real incomes, it also contributed to the heightened domestic demand for all types of industrial products and services.

An earlier exercise that showed the potential importance of the increase in the urban proportion and the related decline in the proportion of the labor force engaged in agriculture is Mathias’ collation of the earnings estimates for different social groups that Gregory King (1688), Joseph Massie (1760), and Patrick Colquhoun (1803) compiled.32 This groundwork makes it possible to calculate for each of the three investigations the average earnings both of those engaged in agriculture (farmers and farm laborers) and of all other groups combined. The potential importance of the decline in the percentage of those engaged in agriculture is demonstrated by a calculation of the overall average earnings when 55 percent of the labor force worked in agriculture and 45 percent in other activities, as well as when the split was 40/60. The relative size of the farmers and the farm-laborers in the agricultural sector and the relative size of the groups in the non-agricultural sector were held constant, though their absolute sizes changed because of the assumed decline of the agricultural sector. Each of the three sources indicated similar changes to overall average earnings arising from the decrease in the proportion of the population in the agricultural sector: King a 16.6 percent rise, Massie a 15.7 percent rise, and Colquhoun a 22.8 percent rise.33

The combination of rapid urban growth, a striking rise in the productivity of the agricultural labor force, a major increase in the proportion of the workforce employed in secondary and tertiary activities, and changing consumer preferences meant that the English economy at the end of the eighteenth century was greatly changed from its character in Elizabethan times. In parallel with this gradual transformation, also with origins in the mid-sixteenth century, was a development that was ultimately of even greater importance, energy supply.

Energy Supply

The constraints that the classical economists had in mind when dismissing the possibility of sustained growth were associated with the fact that virtually all the food, fodder, and raw materials produced in an economy was derived from the land. Supplies of capital and labor could be expanded in response to market opportunity, but the supply of land was fixed. Prolonged growth necessarily involved increasing pressure on a resource that could at best be expanded only marginally. It resulted in declining returns both to capital and labor and a cessation of further growth. As output rose, negative feedback between the factors of production was unavoidable.

This problem can be re-expressed more generally. All forms of material production and all forms of transport involve the expenditure of energy. In organic economies, energy supply depended almost exclusively upon plant photosynthesis. Although the quantity of energy reaching the surface of the earth each year is huge, plant photosynthesis captures only a tiny fraction of this bounty. Estimates of this fraction vary substantially but usually lie within the range 0.1 and 1.0 percent of the inflow of energy in sunlight.34 Plant growth can provide both heat energy from burning wood and mechanical energy in the form of food and fodder to support the exertions of both men and draught animals, but the maximum quantity of energy obtainable from plant photosynthesis set limits to the degree by which production could be expanded. For example, in early modern England, to produce a ton of bar iron using charcoal as the source of the heat energy expended in smelting the ore and in its subsequent processing required the consumption of approximately 30 tons of dry wood.35 An acre of woodland normally produced 1 to 2 tons of dry wood a year on a sustained basis. If woodland had covered 30,000 square miles of Britain’s surface area, it would have sufficed to produce only about 1 million tons of bar iron each year. Since only 6 to 7 percent of England was wooded in the early sixteenth century, and the Scottish percentage was even lower, the amount of fuel wood available locally was necessarily very limited; and timber was also needed for a wide range of other productive activities apart from smelting metal ores.36

Because the supply of land could not be expanded, its use was always contested. Sir Thomas More expressed the problem neatly, “Your sheep that were wont to be so meek and tame and so small eaters, now, as I hear say, be become so great devourers and so wild, that they eat up and swallow down the very men themselves.”37 A flourishing market for wool caused more land to be devoted to sheep pasture, thereby reducing the area available for other agricultural production.

Trees being a crop like any other, any shortage posed grave difficulties, especially if fuel wood ran short. Kjaergaard has described how woodland in Denmark shrank in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries causing changes that produced “a headlong course towards an ecological catastrophe.”38 Shortage of wood meant that manure, cattle fodder, and straw had to be used for fuel, thereby reducing soil fertility. Problems became so acute on the island of Fanø that the inhabitants “gave up heating completely and lit fires only to cook food.”39 In the early sixteenth century, England faced the same predicament. In a deposition made in 1526, James Roberts, an aged husbandman, said of an area near Burnley, Lancashire, that neither he nor any of his neighbors had “any nede in tyme past to get Colis for there fuell by Reason they hadde plenty of woode from the forests and turves at theyre liberty which now be decayed and Restrayned from theym.”40 Hatcher quotes numerous complaints about wood shortages in England, Wales, and Scotland. Typical was a remark of Richard Carew that “timber hath in Cornwall, as in other places, taken an universalle downfall.”41 England, however, was fortunate in having coalfields in the north and center of the country, and, in many areas, the coal measures outcropped to the surface. Indeed, the country was doubly fortunate in that the low cost of water transport per ton-mile enabled many places at a distance from a coal mine to secure coal relatively cheaply. The price of coal when moved overland by packhorse or by horse and cart doubled within 5 to 15 miles of the pithead, but by 1600, sea transport had enabled London to replace fuel wood by coal almost universally, even though it was 350 miles or so from Tyneside to the Thames.

The combined beneficial impact of rising agricultural productivity and increasing use of coal rather than wood to supply heat can be illustrated by considering the urban footprint on the countryside in 1600 and 1800. Assumption A in Table 4 shows the area of land needed to supply the urban population with food and fuel in 1600 and 1800 if grain yields were at the level prevailing c. 1600 and if fuel wood continued to be used for domestic heating and cooking. Assumption B shows the area in 1800 required to supply urban food needs when grain yields had benefited from advances in agricultural practice during the intervening period, and on the assumption that coal had completely replaced wood to heat houses and cook meals. On these assumptions, the urban footprint was only two-thirds larger in 1800 than in 1600, whereas the urban population grew almost sevenfold, from 0.34 to 2.29 million (Table 2). The size of the urban footprint in 1800 under Assumption A leaves no room for doubt that urban growth would have been halted by supply problems long before 1800, perhaps as early as the mid-seventeenth century. Overton estimated that the total arable acreage in England and Wales c. 1800 was 11.5 million, or 18,000 square miles.42 Under Assumption A in Table 4, the urban footprint needed to satisfy the grain needs of the urban population in 1800 would have meant reserving two-thirds of the grain harvest for urban consumption at a time when the urban population was only a quarter of the national total.

Table 4

The Change in the Size of the Urban Footprint, 1600–1800 (Square Miles)

  assumption a assumption b saving (ab
1600 1800 1800 
Grain 1,675 11,900 4,200 7,700 
Fuel 840 6,000 6,000 
Total 2,515 17,900 4,200 13,700 
  assumption a assumption b saving (ab
1600 1800 1800 
Grain 1,675 11,900 4,200 7,700 
Fuel 840 6,000 6,000 
Total 2,515 17,900 4,200 13,700 

note Fuel: The assumption underlying the totals is that when fuel wood provided domestic heating, the average town dweller consumed 1.3 ton of firewood each year. Grain: The average town dweller in 1600 is assumed to have consumed 20 bushels of grain each year. The average gross yield of grain per acre in 1600 was 12 bushels and the net yield 9 bushels (3 bushels for seed); 30 percent of the arable acreage was fallowed each year. Hence, the average quantity of grain per acre available for consumption was 6.3 bushels (9 × 0.7=6.3). In 1800, the gross yield is assumed to have doubled to 24 bushels, the deduction for seed to have remained unchanged, and the proportion of arable land fallowed to have been 16 percent, resulting in a net output per acre of 17.6 bushels (21 × 0.84=17.6).

source For a more complete description of the assumptions in the note, see E. Anthony Wrigley, The Path to Sustained Growth: England’s Transition from an Organic Economy to an Industrial Revolution (New York, 2016), 51–53, 60–61.

The increasing use of coal rather than wood as the main fuel source in England transformed the consumption of heat energy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In many respects, it paralleled the benefits that the use of peat as a source of heat energy had brought to the Netherlands. Industries such as brewing, brickmaking, sugar refining, and salt and soap manufacturing prospered and expanded in both countries. Occasionally, coal and peat competed with each other. Amsterdam’s sugar refineries in the seventeenth centuries preferred to use coal as a fuel, but the city fathers either forbade its use or allowed it only in the winter months because of the smoke and stench that it emitted. Eventually, however, when the refiners threatened to close down their operations, the burgemeesters gave unrestricted permission for the use of coal.43

Because the use of coal, unlike fuel wood, made no claim on land use, it could produce positive feedback as its consumption rose. In Wilson’s words, “More coal meant a bigger London, more breweries, more soap and sugar boilers, more salt pans. And a bigger London and more industries meant a bigger demand for coal.”44 The availability of coal made it possible to rebuild the parts of London devastated by the Great Fire of 1666 in brick. Again, glass manufacture requires large quantities of heat energy. The abundant coal supply made glass windows a commonplace in many English houses. Struck by the absence of window glass in French villages and towns during his travels, Young indirectly drew attention to one of the advantages provided by the low cost of heating by coal when he wrote: “Pass an extraordinary spectacle for English eyes of many houses too good to be called cottages, without any glass windows.”45

In general, coal could be substituted for wood as a source of heat energy without great difficulty, especially when the coal flame and the object to be heated were separated by a sheet of metal, like boiling water in a kettle. However, where there was direct contact between the flame and the heated object, the resulting chemical interaction might cause problems that did not arise with the use of wood. In most cases, such problems were fairly quickly overcome by experiment. In one key industry, however, the switch from wood to coal was long-delayed. Britain continued to import iron from Scandinavia and Russia until the later eighteenth century because many decades of trial and error were needed to master the problem of using coal rather than wood in iron manufacture.

It made sense to substitute coal for wood, however, only where coal was the cheaper source of heat energy. Because the price of coal rose steeply with distance from a mine, and forest cover was much less depleted in most of the continent than in England, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England enjoyed benefits from coal use that were mostly not attainable elsewhere in Europe. However, given that transport costs were much lower by water than by land, coastal areas on the continent were sometimes an exception to this generalization. It was this fact that enabled Denmark to avoid potential ecological disaster. Its coastline was approximately the same distance from Tyneside as London. As Kjaergaard remarked, “Thanks to coal and iron, the energy and raw materials crisis was overcome, and the sword of Damocles hanging over Denmark and the whole of Europe was removed.”46

The Steam Engine

In discussing the significance of coal in making possible an escape from the constraints on growth inherent to organic economies, it is vital to note that it was for a long time solely a source of heat energy. As long as this was the case, only a partial and incomplete escape was possible, since there was no parallel increase in mechanical energy supply. Until the early nineteenth century, for example, the transport sector remained, as it had always been, dependent on horses and oxen with minor assistance from human muscle. This limited the speed of passenger and goods traffic over roads and canals as well as the size and weight of any load carried by cart, carriage, or canal barge. Industrial machinery was also often driven by muscle power, although wind and water power were alternatives that could, in suitable locartions, supply power sufficient to support a factory, such as Samuel Greg’s Quarry Bank cotton mill built in 1784 at Styal in Cheshire on the river Bollin.

The discovery that coal could provide mechanical energy as well as heat energy was the indirect consequence of the search for a solution to a problem that arose as the scale of Britain’s coal production increased during the seventeenth century. It was then possible to mine coal only close to the surface. At greater depths, the mines could not be drained. As Flinn noted, “Probably the greatest proportion of water taken from coal-mines at the beginning of the eighteenth century was drawn to the surface by horse-power.”47 Employing horses to provide the energy needed to evacuate water severely limited the depth to which coal could be dug. Flinn added, “At depths of between ninety and 150 feet the influx of water almost invariably created problems insoluble by the technology of the day, so that when seams of lesser depths were exhausted mining must cease.—There was a future for mining in Britain only if some more efficient drainage techniques became available.”48

Britain faced the same difficulty with coal mines that the Netherlands experienced with peat as deposits of peat were depleted in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Exhaustion was not a distant prospect. However, the solution came in the form of a series of inventions that meant that burning coal could ultimately supply mechanical energy as readily as heat energy. The Newcomen engine solved the problem of deeper pit drainage, the first major step in a succession of advances in converting heat into mechanical energy, which reached a symbolic high point with the railway steam engine.

Thomas Newcomen, aware of Otto von Guericke’s earlier experiments illustrating the power that the creation of a vacuum could release, designed an engine in which steam in a cylinder, condensed by the injection of cold water, created a vacuum that could provide enough energy to drive a piston. The Newcomen engine was able to pump water to the surface from a much greater depth than was possible using horses. Newcomen engines, however, used large quantities of coal to produce a modest amount of power. Early Newcomen engines needed about 45 lbs of coal to generate one horse-power hour. A ton of coal therefore produced only about 50 horse-power hours. Since the coal was expensive to transport, Newcomen engines were largely confined to mine drainage. The first was installed in 1712, at a coal mine in Dudley. However, the efficiency of steam engines increased markedly during the following century. By the 1770s, John Smeaton was able to construct engines that used only 17.6 lbs of coal, more than doubling the efficiency of the early Newcomen engines. Later in this decade, Watt engines halved this figure to 8.8 lbs per horse-power hour; by the 1830s, Cornish engines were averaging 3.5 lbs per horse-power hour. Cornish engines were thirteen times more efficient than the early Newcomen engines.49

Steam engines gained a far greater importance when James Watt’s sun and planet gearing in the 1780s meant that piston thrust could be converted into rotary motion, facilitating a far wider use of steam engines as a source of mechanical power. The stage was set for the energy derived from burning coal to become the prime source of energy across the board. The distinction between heat and mechanical energy, which had been of such significance previously, ceased to have much relevance when considering energy supply in general.

The transformation in the availability of mechanical energy brought about by the steam engine was well captured by Émile Levasseur, writing in the 1880s. He noted that the French ministry of mines estimated that the work provided by a one horse-power steam engine was equivalent to that produced by twenty-one laborers. On this reckoning, “In 1840 industry and commerce had at their disposal 1,185,000 labourers whose work cost only the price of coal—true slaves, the most sober, docile, and tireless that can be imagined; and further, that in 1885–7 their number had risen to approximately 98 million; two-and-a-half slaves for each French person.”50

Among the myriad changes that followed from the invention of the steam engine, one was of exceptional importance. Even in the early nineteenth century, the energy source employed in land transport was the same as in Tudor England, the muscles of horses and men. The Rainhill railways trials in October 1829 marked the start of a new era in land transport. The directors of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway offered a prize of £500 to the designer of the winning locomotive in a competition between steam engines that were not to exceed 6 tons in weight and that had to pull a load at least three times that weight at no less than 10 miles an hour. Robert Stephenson’s Rocket won the competition traveling at a speed of more than 30 miles an hour. A year later, the company opened the Liverpool and Manchester line, the first to be constructed with the express purpose of carrying passengers as well as freight, and with the provision that haulage on the track was to be exclusively by locomotives. Their initiative was quickly followed. Twenty years later, at the time of the 1851 Great Exhibition, Britain had more than 6,000 miles of track, substantially reducing both the cost and the duration of travel. Newspapers could achieve national same-day circulation. Milk and other perishables could be brought fresh to large towns from a much greater distance than was possible when using a horse and cart. Furthermore, the railway clock meant that midday was reached at the same moment in Cornwall as in Norfolk.

The stagecoach had greatly expanded the volume of passenger travel by road. The numbers traveling by stagecoach rose fifteenfold in the half-century preceding the 1830s, and journey times halved. But this achievement was dwarfed by the railway and steam locomotion. Individual stagecoach journeys numbered c. 10 million a year in the early 1830s, but as early as 1845, passenger-rail journeys already reached 30 million and 336 million by 1870.51

The Continental Transformation

The construction of a railway network gave rise to great changes in the economy of Britain and to the lives of its inhabitants, but it was of even greater significance on the continent. For the two centuries during which coal production and consumption increased steadily and rapidly in Britain, roughly doubling in each half-century, coal remained little used as an energy source on the continent. It was an attractive alternative to wood as a source of heat energy only if cheaper in supplying a given quantity of heat. The price of coal rose steeply with distance from the mine. This fact, combined with the comparative abundance of forest cover in much of continental Europe, meant that firewood remained the dominant source of heat energy on the continent until the nineteenth century.52 Only when efficient steam engines became available did the situation begin to change. Change accelerated sharply after the construction of the first rail networks. The railway steam engine transformed inland transport, offering both greatly reduced movement costs and a major improvement in journey times. Coal became widely available at a reasonable cost. As long as the mechanical energy used in land transport was exclusively provided by animal muscle throughout most of the continent, little coal was mined. The railway instituted a new era in this regard. In the Ruhr, for example, transporting coal by horse and wagon cost c. 40 pfennig per ton-km in the 1840s, which implied that the price of a ton of coal doubled within 15 km of the pithead. This cost dropped to c.14 pfennig per ton-km when the first railways were constructed, declining further to about 2 pfennig in later decades.53 Throughout much of continental Europe, coal became sufficiently cheap to make it the predominant source of heat and mechanical energy. Britain and continental Europe no longer differed in this regard.

The importance of creating rail networks was quickly recognized throughout continental Europe. Table 5 illustrates the speed with which rail networks were constructed on the continent. At the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851, only twenty years after the Rainhill trials, Britain possessed the most railway mileage, although even at that date, the combined length of tracks in Belgium, France, and Germany, perhaps the three most advanced continental countries, slightly exceeded the British figure. Forty years later, both France and Germany had a greater length of track than Britain; in 1911, the German total was almost twice the British figure. A comparison of this type has limited relevance, since both France and Germany were larger in area and population than Britain, but in this aspect of economic development, as in many others, the clear lead that Britain enjoyed in the mid-century had disappeared or was rapidly eroding.

Table 5

National Rail Networks (km)

  belgium france germany britain 
1851 870 3,248 6,143 10,090 
1871 3,119 15,632 21,471 21,558 
1891 4,517 33,878 43,424 27,902 
1911 4,679 40,635 61,938 32,223 
  belgium france germany britain 
1851 870 3,248 6,143 10,090 
1871 3,119 15,632 21,471 21,558 
1891 4,517 33,878 43,424 27,902 
1911 4,679 40,635 61,938 32,223 

source Brian R. Mitchell, British Historical Statistics (New York, 1988), 609–616 (Table G1).

Railway construction is a particularly good example of the way in which the continental countries could participate as readily as Britain in the new opportunities to transform both material production and transport. But parallel changes in other sectors of the economy also illustrate how the revolution in the cost and availability of heat and mechanical energy on the continent after the construction of rail networks removed the constraints that had for more than two centuries given rise to a widening gap in growth rates between the island and the continent. For example, Table 6 records pig-iron production in the same four countries covered in Table 5. In the eighteenth century, England imported pig iron from heavily forested countries, notably Sweden and Russia, since it took several decades of experiment before coal could be substituted for charcoal in iron smelting. From the 1720s to the 1750s, output averaged only 25,000 to 30,000 tons a year, before rising gradually to 70,000 tons in the 1780s and accelerating thereafter, averaging 210,000 tons in 1800–1804 and 380,000 tons in 1810–1814.54

Table 6

Pig-Iron Production (Thousands of Metric Tons)

  belgium france germany britain combined total 
1830–4 95 244 127 699 1,164 
1850–4 201 561 282 2,716 3,761 
1880–4 699 1,918 2,892 8,295 13,805 
1910–13 2,171 4,664 14,829 9,792 31,456 
  
  share of combined total 
1830–4 8.1 21.0 10.9 60.0 100.0 
1850–4 5.4 14.9 7.5 72.2 100.0 
1880–4 5.1 13.9 21.0 60.1 100.0 
1910–13 6.9 14.8 47.1 31.1 100.0 
  
  production relative to britain (britain=100)   
1830–4 13.6 35.0 18.2 100.0   
1850–4 7.4 20.7 10.4 100.0   
1880–4 8.4 23.1 34.9 100.0   
1910–13 22.2 47.6 151.4 100.0   
  belgium france germany britain combined total 
1830–4 95 244 127 699 1,164 
1850–4 201 561 282 2,716 3,761 
1880–4 699 1,918 2,892 8,295 13,805 
1910–13 2,171 4,664 14,829 9,792 31,456 
  
  share of combined total 
1830–4 8.1 21.0 10.9 60.0 100.0 
1850–4 5.4 14.9 7.5 72.2 100.0 
1880–4 5.1 13.9 21.0 60.1 100.0 
1910–13 6.9 14.8 47.1 31.1 100.0 
  
  production relative to britain (britain=100)   
1830–4 13.6 35.0 18.2 100.0   
1850–4 7.4 20.7 10.4 100.0   
1880–4 8.4 23.1 34.9 100.0   
1910–13 22.2 47.6 151.4 100.0   

source Brian R. Mitchell, British Historical Statistics (New York, 1988), 412–419 (Table E8).

The table shows that as a result of discovering how to replace wood with coal as the heat source for smelting, British production in the 1830s was substantially larger than the combined total for Belgium, France, and Germany. The differential increased until mid-century and remained wide in the early 1880s. Thereafter, the dramatic upturn in German iron production transformed the picture. German iron production increased more than fivefold between 1880–1884 and 1910–1913, whereas British production rose by less than a fifth. By the early twentieth century, German production was more than 50 percent greater than that of Britain. The expansion of Belgian and French production did not match the German level, but whereas in 1880–1884, the combined output of these two countries was only 32 percent of the British total, thirty years later it had risen to 70 percent.

Since it was the use of coal as an energy source that transformed production possibilities, it is of interest to consider coal-production data for the same four countries from the period when burning coal began to provide both heat and mechanical energy on an unprecedented scale. Table 7 reveals a pattern of change similar to that in pig-iron production. Britain continued to mine more coal than any of the other three countries throughout the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and its lead increased in the 1830s and 1840s. The situation changed radically, however, in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the 1830s, German production was modest in scale, but German coal reserves were exceptionally large, and steam drainage made the concealed fields accessible. German output, which had become far larger than that of either Belgium or France, approached British levels by the early twentieth century. The Belgian coalfields had been developed earlier than elsewhere in Europe, producing more than either France or Germany in the early 1830s, but the seams were thin and difficult to work, restricting output per head. As a result, in the last thirty years of the period covered in the table, Belgium’s production rose more slowly than not only French or German production but also British production.

Table 7

Coal Production (Thousands of Metric Tons)

  belgium france germany britain combined total 
1830–4 2,389 2,026 1,920 32,500 38,835 
1850–4 6,794 5,318 7,908 69,500 89,520 
1880–4 17,512 20,218 60,306 158,940 256,976 
1910–13 24,751 39,892 216,350 275,392 556,385 
  
  share of combined total 
1830–4 6.2 5.2 4.9 83.7 100 
1850–4 7.6 5.9 8.8 77.6 100 
1880–4 6.8 7.9 23.5 61.9 100 
1910–13 4.4 7.2 38.9 49.5 100 
  
  production relative to britain (britain=100)   
1830–4 7.3 6.2 5.9 100   
1850–4 9.8 7.7 11.4 100   
1880–4 11.0 12.7 37.9 100   
1910–13 9.0 14.5 78.6 100   
  belgium france germany britain combined total 
1830–4 2,389 2,026 1,920 32,500 38,835 
1850–4 6,794 5,318 7,908 69,500 89,520 
1880–4 17,512 20,218 60,306 158,940 256,976 
1910–13 24,751 39,892 216,350 275,392 556,385 
  
  share of combined total 
1830–4 6.2 5.2 4.9 83.7 100 
1850–4 7.6 5.9 8.8 77.6 100 
1880–4 6.8 7.9 23.5 61.9 100 
1910–13 4.4 7.2 38.9 49.5 100 
  
  production relative to britain (britain=100)   
1830–4 7.3 6.2 5.9 100   
1850–4 9.8 7.7 11.4 100   
1880–4 11.0 12.7 37.9 100   
1910–13 9.0 14.5 78.6 100   

source Brian R. Mitchell, British Historical Statistics (New York, 1988), 381–391 (Table E2).

General Reflections

The Great Exhibition of 1851 may be taken as symbolizing the final escape from the constraints common to all organic economies, a development conventionally termed the industrial revolution. By the middle decades of the nineteenth century, sustained growth was possible. Output could expand without encountering the problems that cramped growth in organic economies. The heat derived from burning coal could be used to supply both heat and mechanical energy. The coal mines gave access to the products of plant photosynthesis accumulated over many millions of years, a vast stock of potential energy that allowed production to increase in a manner not possible when the energy used in production processes had to be drawn from the limited annual flow of energy made available by plant photosynthesis. When England began to suffer from the combination of a rising population and a declining forest cover in the early sixteenth century, the switch to the new fuel source proved widely possible. The consumption of heat energy derived from burning coal rose steadily and rapidly, far outstripping the quantity supplied from burning fuel wood in earlier centuries.

The changes that freed the productive activity from the constraints affecting all organic economies are usually termed the industrial revolution. Notwithstanding the length of time that this viewpoint has prevailed, it is well to recognize its inadequacy. Its use has tended to encourage the assumption that the industrial revolution occurred within a century or less, ending in the 1830s or 1840s, and that rising industrial production was the key feature of the process.55 The divergence of England from the European norm, however, began at a much earlier date. The combination of striking advances in the productivity of the agricultural labor force and rapid urban growth, which was accompanied by notable changes in occupational structure, started in the sixteenth century. Less than half the workforce was employed in agriculture by the end of the seventeenth century, providing clear evidence of a novel situation in a country that remained self-sufficient in temperate foodstuffs. Already at this date, the contrast with continental Europe, with the exception of the Netherlands, was stark.

Table 8 shows how coal came to dominate the overall picture of energy consumption in England and Wales over the quarter-millennium from 1600 to 1850. Coal’s share of overall consumption rose from less than one-fifth to more than nine-tenths of the total during this period. Per capita consumption of coal roughly doubled every half-century. In the final half-century, coal had become the predominant source both of heat and mechanical energy.

Table 8

Annual Energy Consumption per Head in England and Wales (Megajoules)

  human draught animals firewood wind water coal total 
1600–9 4,161 4,647 4.729 85 152 3,153 16,925 
1700–9 4,789 5,744 3,939 238 173 14,719 29,602 
1800–9 4,233 3,471 1,877 1,282 111 41,373 52,347 
1850–9 3,564 2,633 118 1,280 89 88,779 96,462 
  
  totals above expressed as percentages of the overall total 
1600–9 24.6 27.5 27.9 0.5 0.9 18.6 100.0 
1700–9 16.2 19.4 13.3 0.8 0.6 49.7 100.0 
1800–9 8.1 6.6 3.6 2.4 0.2 79.0 100.0 
1850–9 3.7 2.7 0.1 1.3 0.1 92.0 100.0 
  human draught animals firewood wind water coal total 
1600–9 4,161 4,647 4.729 85 152 3,153 16,925 
1700–9 4,789 5,744 3,939 238 173 14,719 29,602 
1800–9 4,233 3,471 1,877 1,282 111 41,373 52,347 
1850–9 3,564 2,633 118 1,280 89 88,779 96,462 
  
  totals above expressed as percentages of the overall total 
1600–9 24.6 27.5 27.9 0.5 0.9 18.6 100.0 
1700–9 16.2 19.4 13.3 0.8 0.6 49.7 100.0 
1800–9 8.1 6.6 3.6 2.4 0.2 79.0 100.0 
1850–9 3.7 2.7 0.1 1.3 0.1 92.0 100.0 

sources Paul Warde, Energy Consumption in England and Wales, 1560–2000 (Rome, 2007), 115–122 (App.1, Tab.1); E. Anthony Wrigley et al., English Population History from Family Reconstitution, 1580–1837 (New York, 1997), 614–615 (Table A9.1).

Following the construction of railway networks, Belgium, France, and Germany were quick to take advantage of new opportunities. But countries without coal often took longer to enjoy the benefits of the energy revolution. For example, only in the final decades of the nineteenth century did a comparable transformation begin in Italy. Table 9 compares the pattern of energy consumption per person in Italy during the 1860s with that in England and Wales three centuries earlier. Even in the 1860s, Italy, handicapped by the lack of local coal measures, was consuming less coal per head than England and Wales in the 1560s but balanced this deficit by a larger consumption of firewood. Wind and water power contributed little to the supply of mechanical energy in either country. The greater relative importance of pastoral agriculture no doubt accounts for the greater availability of mechanical energy supplied by draught animals in England and Wales. Overall, however, energy consumption was similar in the two countries, and the relative importance of the different energy sources did not differ greatly.

Table 9

Energy Consumption per Head in England and Wales, 1561–1570, and in Italy, 1861–1870 (Megajoules)

  human draught animals firewood wind water fossil fuel total 
annual consumption per head (megajoules
Italy 1861–70 3,831 3,058 8,894 46 127 1,206 17,162 
England and Wales 1561–70 4,373 6,210 6,324 59 162 2,039 19,167 
  
  percentage share 
Italy 1861–70 22.3 17.8 51.8 0.27 0.74 7.0 100.0 
England and Wales 1561–70 22.8 32.4 33.0 0.31 0.85 10.6 100.0 
  human draught animals firewood wind water fossil fuel total 
annual consumption per head (megajoules
Italy 1861–70 3,831 3,058 8,894 46 127 1,206 17,162 
England and Wales 1561–70 4,373 6,210 6,324 59 162 2,039 19,167 
  
  percentage share 
Italy 1861–70 22.3 17.8 51.8 0.27 0.74 7.0 100.0 
England and Wales 1561–70 22.8 32.4 33.0 0.31 0.85 10.6 100.0 

sources Paolo Malanima, Energy Consumption in Italy in the 19th and 20th Centuries (Rome, 2006), 96–101 (Appendix 1, Tables 2 and 3); Paul Warde, Energy Consumption in England and Wales, 1560–2000 (Rome, 2007), 115–122 (App. 1, Table 1).

This essay is what Munia Postan would have called a ballon d’essai. If the arguments made by the classical economists about the necessary limits to growth implicit in dependencc upon the products of the land, whether on the farm or in the forest, are an accurate analysis of the operation of negative feedback in organic economies, then achieving an industrial revolution was contingent upon escaping from this situation. All forms of material production and all types of transport involve the expenditure of energy. In organic economies, both heat and mechanical energy were derived almost exclusively from plant photosynthesis. Heat energy came from burning wood. The prime source of mechanical energy was human and animal muscle. The relationship between energy consumed and work performed varied widely between different energy categories and over time, but the overwhelming dependence on the product of the land secured by the annual round of plant photosynthesis is clear.

Ironically, escape from the constraints of an organic economy was also dependent on plant photosynthesis, but over a geological age rather than a single year. England avoided the problems and dangers of limited and declining forest cover, which had loomed in the early sixteenth century, by mining more and more coal. Over the next two centuries, coal became the principal source of heat energy, and from the early decades of the eighteenth century, it also gradually became the principal source of mechanical energy, as the increasing efficiency of the steam engine made it the preferred source of power across a widening spectrum of industrial activities. For a long time, continental Europe did not follow suit because coal was rarely cheaper than wood as a source of heat. The situation changed, however, with the invention of the steam engine and the creation of rail networks, which markedly reduced transport costs. Coal eventually became cheaper than fuel wood throughout much of the continent. The distinctive advantages from which England had benefited for three centuries ceased to exist. By the first decade of the twentieth century, the new energy regime had transformed, or was in the process of transforming, economies across the face of Europe.

Viewed in this fashion, the escape from the constraints of an organic economy might preferably be described as the energy revolution rather than the industrial revolution, thus focusing on the developments that resulted in positive rather than negative feedback between the leading production factors. Proceeding in this fashion means neglecting a wide range of topics that normally receive attention—major advances in scientific knowledge; a legal system that enabled entrepreneurs assessing risk to have confidence in the enforcement of contracts; the acceptance of Bernard Mandeville’s assertion about human motivation, regarding the single-minded pursuit of self-interest as a source of benefit to society as a whole; and many others. In a lengthier discussion, it would certainly be appropriate to consider these aspects of the changes taking place.

If the focus of attention is on the escape from the constraints that affected all organic economies, the change in the scale of energy consumption gains center stage. It suggests a different chronology. In England, the rise in the consumption of coal as a source of heat and later mechanical energy was continuous, growing at roughly the same speed from the mid-sixteenth century to the mid-nineteenth century. This period also witnessed a striking increase in the energy obtained through the cultivation of the land, traditionally the prime source of energy for almost all purposes. Although any attempt to assign precise start and completion dates to this energy revolution would be artificial, the starting point would be in the mid-sixteenth century, when coal first began to replace wood as London’s main fuel source, and a symbolic end date might be 1851, when the Great Exhibition displayed many of the devices that had transformed productive capacity and which depended on coal for their energy.

Describing the transformation of productive capacity that took place as “the industrial revolution” has been the dominant convention for more than a century. It may continue to be widely employed. I hope, however, that this essay has clarified one related issue. Without access to a new and far larger energy source, the transformation that took place would have been impossible. It was a necessary condition to permit escape from the constraints of an organic economy.

In 1817, Ricardo offered an apt description of the world of the classical economists, dominated by negative feedback:

Whilst the land yields abundantly, wages may temporarily rise, and the producers may consume more than their accustomed proportion; but the stimulus which will thus be given to population, will speedily reduce the labourers to their usual consumption. But when poor lands are taken into cultivation, or when more capital and labour are expended on the old land, with a less return of produce, the effect must be permanent. A greater proportion of that part of the produce which remains to be divided, after paying rent, between the owners of stock and the labourers will be apportioned to the latter. Each man may, and probably will, have a less absolute quantity; but as more labourers are employed in proportion to the whole produce retained by the farmer, the value of a greater proportion of the whole produce will be absorbed by wages, and consequently the value of a smaller proportion will be devoted to profits. This will necessarily be rendered permanent by the laws of nature, which have limited the productive powers of the land [my italics].56

Half a century later, in 1865, Jevons summarized the character of the new world that had supplanted the one that Ricardo had described:

Coal in truth stands not beside, but entirely above all other commodities. It is the material source of the energy of this country—the universal aid—the factor in everything we do. With coal almost any feat is possible or easy: without it we are thrown back on the laborious poverty of early times.57

Notes

1 

In 1550, only Switzerland, Austria-Bohemia, and Poland had lower urban percentages than England and Wales. See Jan de Vries, European Urbanization 1500–1800 (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), 39 (Table 3.7).

2 

As Christopher Clay, Economic Expansion and Social Change: England 1500–1700. II. Industry, Trade, and Government (New York, 1984), noted, “All or most of the sail-cloth and canvas used in the country was imported, so were the hard-wearing linen-cotton fabrics known as fustians, all the paper, the window glass, the brass, steel, certain types of iron needed for special purposes and large quantities of wide range of goods made from these metals, including knives, saws, wire, pins, needles and hollow ware” (6).

3 

Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations described the nature of organic economies. Almost all the food, raw materials, and energy produced in an organic economy was derived from the land. The other two factors involved in all production were capital and labor. The supply of both capital and labor could be expanded in response to increased demand but the supply of land was fixed. The growth process put increasing pressure on a limited resource thereby bringing decreasing returns to both capital and labor, which had to halt and often reverse growth. The nature of organic economies is described more fully in Wrigley, The Path to Sustained Growth: England’s Transition from an Organic Economy to an Industrial Revolution (New York, 2016), 7–10.

4 

Wrigley, The Early English Censuses (New York, 2011), 224–225 (Table A2.6).

5 

Idem, Path to Sustained Growth, 7–18, a discussion of the limitations to growth inherent in all organic economies.

6 

Idem et al., English Population History from Family Reconstitution, 1580–1837 (New York, 1997), 614–615 (Table A9.1).

7 

Yves Blayo, “La mortalité en France de1740 à 1829,” Population, XXX (1975), 141 (Tables 15 and 16).

8 

Wrigley et al., English Population History, 614–615.

9 

Paolo Malanima, L’economia italiana: Dalla crescita medivale alla crescita contemporanea (Bologna, 2002), 54 (Table 2.5).

10 

See below p. 22.

11 

Richard Gough (ed. David Hey), History of Myddle (London, 1983), 19. The frequency and normality of movement from villages to London is reflected in Gough’s notes describing the activities of the village’s inhabitants. In his introduction, Hey remarked, “He [Gough] frequently mentions London in passing as if it were commonplace that his neigbours should have been there. Men and women from all sections of his community went to the capital in search of fortune or excitement or to escape from trouble at home.” Myddle was 160 miles from the metropolis.

12 

Clay, Economic Expansion and Social Change: England 1500–1700. I. People, Land, and Towns (New York, 1984), noted that by the end of the seventeenth century, “Grocers are recorded in thirty-five out of East Anglia’s forty-seven towns and in as many as seventy-seven villages, so that no one in the region can have lived very far from a retail shop” (177–188).

13 

De Vries, The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy: 1650 to the Present (New York, 1997), 66–67.

14 

Adam Smith (ed. Edwin Cannan), An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (London, 1904; orig. pub. 1776), I, 356–357.

15 

Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village, a Poem (London, 1770).

16 

Estimates of London’s population involve substantial uncertainty since the metropolis was expanding in area and its boundary limits changed. If “London” is regarded as all of Middlesex and Surrey Counties, its population in the eighteenth century rose from 647,000 to 1,133,000, or by 75 percent, slightly faster than the rise in the core of London (67 percent). See Wrigley, Early English Censuses, 104–105 (Table 4.1).

17 

Johann H. von Thünen (ed. Peter Hall; trans. Carla M. Watenberg), The Isolated State (Oxford, 1966); Paul Bairoch, “Urban Growth between 1800 and 1910,” in Ad van der Woude, Akira Hayami, and de Vries (eds.), Urbanization in History, a Process of Dynamic Interaction (New York, 1990), 146.

18 

Bairoch, Cities and Economic Development: From the Dawn of History to the Present (London, 1988), 133.

19 

Guy Dejongh and Erik Thoen, “Arable Productivity in Flanders and the Former Territory of Belgium in a Long-Term Perspective (from the Middle Ages to the End of the Ancien Régime),” in Bas J. P. van Bavel and Thoen (eds.), Land Productivity and Agro-Systems in the North Sea Area (Middle Ages–20th Century) (Turnhout, 1999), 57.

20 

De Vries, European Urbanization, 39 (Table 3.7).

21 

Wrigley et al., English Population History, 614–615; Mark Overton, Agricultural Revolution in England: The Transformation of the Agrarian Economy 1500–1850 (New York, 1996), 75 (Table 3.5).

22 

Wrigley, “The Transition to an Advanced Organic Economy: Half a Millennium of English Agriculture,” Economic History Review, LIX (2006), 435–480. See also note to Table 4.

23 

Nicholas Crafts, British Economic Growth during the Industrial Revolution (New York, 1985), 22 (Table 2.3).

24 

Leslie Clarkson, “The Manufacture of Leather,” in Gordon E. Mingay (ed.), The Agrarian History of England and Wales. VI. 1750–1850 (New York, 1989), 466; B.A. Holderness, “Prices, Productivity and Output,” in ibid., 174.

25 

Overton, Agricultural Revolution, 86 (Table 3.11).

26 

Clay, Economic Expansion, I, 138.

27 

Wrigley et al., English Population History, 614–615.

28 

Sebastian Keibek, “The Male Occupational Structure of England and Wales, 1600–1850,” unpub. Ph.D. diss. (University of Cambridge, 2017). I am grateful to Keibek for permission to quote these agricultural employment percentages. His doctoral thesis contains authoritative estimates of occupational change in England and in England and Wales that substantially advance and extend current knowledge.

29 

In discussing this point and describing the areas acquired by the state following the dissolution of the monasteries, Clay, Economic Expansion, II, suggests, “If estates granted away to courtiers and royal servants in the mid sixteenth century are also included, perhaps 25 per cent of the land of England had passed from royal into private hands by 1642” (263).

30 

For the full range of improvements that led to higher labor productivity, see Overton, Agricultural Revolution, 121–128.

31 

Norman J. G. Pounds, “Barton Farming in Eighteenth-Century Cornwall,” Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall, VII (1973), 55–75.

32 

Peter Mathias, “The Social Structure in the Eighteenth Century: A Calculation by Joseph Massie,” Economic History Review, X (1957), 30–45.

33 

Wrigley, Path to Sustained Growth, 77 (Table 5.3).

34 

See, for example, David Pimentel, “Energy Flow in the Food System,” in idem and Carl W. Hall (eds.), Food and Energy Resources (London, 1984), 2; Astrid Kander, Malanima, and Paul Warde, Power to the People: Energy in Europe over the Last Five Centuries (Princeton, 2013), 39.

35 

Wrigley, Energy and the English Industrial Revolution (New York, 2010), 16.

36 

Warde, “Fear of Wood Shortage and the Reality of Woodland in Europe, c.1450–1850,” History Workshop Journal, LXII (2006), 34.

37 

Thomas More, Utopia and a Dialogue of Comfort (London, 1951; orig. pub. 1516), 26.

38 

Thorkild Kjaergaard, The Danish Revolution 1500–1800: An Ecohistorical Interpretation (New York, 1994), 33.

39 

Ibid., 96.

40 

John U. Nef, The Rise of the British Coal Industry (Abington, 1972; orig. pub. 1932), I, 159.

41 

John Hatcher, The British Coal Industry. I. Before 1700: Toward the Age of Coal (New York, 1993), 50.

42 

Overton, Agricultural Revolution, 76 (Table 3.6).

43 

De Vries and van der Woude, The First Modern Economy: Success, Failure, and Perseverance of the Dutch Economy, 1500–1815 (New York, 1997), 329.

44 

Charles Wilson, England’s Apprenticeship 1603–1763 (London, 1965), 85.

45 

Arthur Young, Travels in France and Italy during the Years 1787, 1788, and 1789 (London, n.d.), 22.

46 

Ibid., 128.

47 

Michael W. Flinn, The History of the British Coal Industry. II. 1700–1830: The Industrial Revolution (New York, 1984), 113.

48 

Ibid., 114.

49 

Robert Allen, The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective (New York, 2009), provides an excellent description of the development of the steam engine from an initial period of low efficiency to the mid-nineteenth century, when it became the universal workhorse of industry and transport (156–181).

50 

Émile Levasseur, La population française (Paris, 1892), III, 74.

51 

Phillip S. Bagwell, The Transport Revolution from 1770 (London, 1974), 43.

52 

Warde, “Fear of Wood Shortage,” estimated that about one-third of France, the German-speaking lands, Bohemia, and Poland was forested at the end of the sixteenth century but only 6 to 7 percent of England and 4 percent of both Scotland and the Netherlands (34).

53 

Wrigley, Industrial Growth and Population Change (New York, 1961), 47.

54 

Brian R. Mitchell, British Historical Statistics (New York, 1988), 280 (Table V.2).

55 

Crafts, British Economic Growth, for example, in a wide-ranging review of the problems surrounding the term industrial revolution, noted, “It is customary to refer to an ‘Industrial Revolution’ taking place in Britain between, say, the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries.… If interpreted very literally, then the phrase ‘Industrial Revolution’ can undoubtedly be extremely misleading” (6).

56 

David Ricardo, On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, in Pierro Sraffa, with the collaboration of Maurice H. Dobb (ed.), The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo (New York, 1951), I, 125–126.

57 

William Stanley Jevons, The Coal Question: An Inquiry concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal Mines (New York, 1965; orig. pub. 1865), 2.