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Victorian industry


The foundations of Victorian prosperity were laid down during the eighteenth century, when scientific curiosity was married to agricultural and commercial wealth to produce technological innovations. Coal and iron, wool and cotton were raw materials to which this technology was applied.

By the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign the employment of steam-powered machinery had begun to transform industrial productivity and Britain became the leading producer of industrial goods, and chief developer of new resources and fresh markets overseas. 

Full steam ahead 

Coal, and the steam-power that it could generate, was the basis of Victorian industry. Between 1830 and 1870 the output of British mines rose from 17 million tons per annum to 121.3 million tons. Much of the power that was unleashed from this coal went into the manufacture of iron. Growth in the textile industries was less significant in terms of economic structures, but still immensely impressive when measured by value: textile exports, of cotton and woollen goods, grew from £30 million in 1830 to £120 million in 1870.

The heroes of the age were the mechanical inventors, men such as James Nasmyth, who in 1842 developed a steam-hammer ‘capable of cracking the top of an egg in a wine glass at one blow, and of shaking the parish at the next’, and Joseph Whitworth who produced a machine capable of measuring one two-millionth of an inch. Ingenuity was richly rewarded – in 1856, when Henry Bessemer started up his own firm to exploit his invention of a new process for manufacturing steel, he made 100 per cent profit every month for 14 years!

The railway age

The foundations of the ‘transport revolution’ had been laid in the 1700s, with the development of the canal system and the introduction of turnpike roads. However, the reign of Victoria saw astonishing developments in transport both by land and sea, as well as the tentative beginnings of air transport.

The railway engine – built of iron, fuelled by coal, powered by steam – revolutionised the industrial economy, transformed the lives of the population, and irrevocably linked the town and the countryside. The first public railway, between Stockton and Darlington, was opened in 1825; by 1850, some 7,000 miles of line had been laid across the country by gangs of navigators or ‘navvies’, and by the end of century that mileage had been tripled again. Great fortunes were made in the proces by the contractors such as George Hudson and Thomas Brassey; rather less came the way of the engineers, such as the Stephensons, father and son, and Brunel, who built the Great Western Railway. 

The King’s Cross to York line opened in 1850 and in the 1860s the east coast line to Scotland was completed. Small lines were grouped into district systems, forerunners of the later ‘big four’ regional companies – London, Midland and Scottish; London and North Eastern; Southern; and Great Western. At first, rail travel was quite an ordeal – early carriages were open to the skies and roofs were not made compulsory on third-class carriages until 1846. Seats were wooden boards, there were no toilets and long journeys frequently took all day, or more. Grand stations appeared in the cities, commuting became a daily reality for many city workers and, in 1863, Londoners experienced the capital’s first underground line; the smoke-filled ‘cut and cover’ Metropolitan.

Bricks and iron

Besides railways, Victorians built roads, bridges, docks and lighthouses; they dug tunnels, sewers and drains. They made iron steamships, turbines and torpedoes, bicycles, steam buses and trams. Machinery fascinated everyone. Polished, improved and exhibited, most notably at the Great Exhibition in 1851, it promised fulfilment for the age. Modern Londoners have reason to thank engineer Joseph Bazalgette, who embanked the Thames to prevent flooding and laid the capital’s brick sewers and water pipes to solve a chronic sanitation problem. Looking to the Middle Ages for inspiration, leading Victorian architects revived the medieval ‘Gothic’ style in buildings such as Pugin and Barry’s new Houses of Parliament in Westminster, Burges’ Cardiff Castle restoration and Butterfield’s Keble College, Oxford. 

A man of iron

Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1803-59) was the greatest of all Victorian engineers. Ruthlessly practical, his ambitious projects included 1,000 miles of railway, the Box tunnel, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, London’s Paddington Station and three historic ships – the Great Western, the Great Britain and the Great Eastern – milestones in an epic journey of engineering progress, which brought wealth to the shipbuilding communities, worldwide supremacy for the British merchant marine, and unlimited opportunities for exporters of British goods. 

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