Incredibly far reaching changes in the 19th century

By 1800 the Scientific, Agricultural, Industrial, Communications, Transport and Financial Revolutions, referred to earlier, had set the scene for real change but, it had not yet happened to any great degree. More people were living an urban existence, but most peoples’ day to day lives were still substantially similar to those of their forbears – mechanisation had had not had a great impact on the majority. This would change by 1900.

Steam Power

In the 18th century turnpikes and canals had been developed but the source of power was still horses.

By 1800 steam power was a practical reality. It transformed production of textiles, metalwork and other manufactures as well as coal mining and other raw materials.

By 1820 the steam engine was also useable as a source of power for ships and railway locomotives. The Stockton and Darlington railway opened in 1825 but the first proper passenger railway was from Liverpool to Manchester which opened in 1830. During the 1840s, 50s and 60s there was a huge boom in railways as most large towns in Britain were connected. Then in the later 19th century many branch lines were built connecting smaller towns and villages to the network.

Bath Spa Station was built in 1840 for Brunel’s Great Western Railway and Green Park Station was opened in 1870 as the terminus of Midland Railway’s Mangotsfield and Bath Branch Line.

It is perhaps difficult for us, with so many transport choices available, to understand the impact of the railways on the country.

Railway travel was less than half the cost of travel by stage coach and it was faster too. So, not only could almost everyone afford it – even if it was in third class – but urban populations had cheaper and fresher food, whilst transporting raw materials and finished goods was also transformed by the same economic and speed advantages. The development of seaside holidays, football, the postal service, national brands, standard timekeeping, commuting, newspapers, politics and many more were directly or indirectly impacted.

The saving, therefore, by the new mode of transport, as compared with the old, is about sixty per cent, of the latter: or, in other words, about seventy per cent, more than the total sum at present expended.[1]

Steam power also started to transform the way work was done on farms with thousands of traction and ploughing engines from the 1870s and the widespread use of milking machines from the 1880s.

As on land steam also had an effect at sea. Brunel’s SS Great Western was operating from 1837 taking about 15 days to cross the Atlantic compared with about two months for a sailing vessel. It took longer for steam to win for trade purposes. On ocean going runs, ship-owners chose wooden and later iron sailing ships rather than steamships. Wind power was free, coal was not and a steamship might need to refuel many times on a long trip, which was expensive and took up valuable time. Once the steam turbine was invented by Sir Charles Parsons in 1884 however, their power and efficiency allowed for far larger ships with greater range and thus maritime trade was also transformed.

So, the scale of Britain’s industrial expansion during the 19th century was enormous and unprecedented and Britain was the world’s largest producer of most goods and services.

Free Trade

early advert for pears soap
Early advert for Pears soap

Because British goods were produced so efficiently and cheaply that they could often undersell comparable, locally manufactured goods in almost any other market. Thus British businessmen were increasingly drawn to ‘free trade‘ as a means of accelerating the growth of British industries.

In this way the ideas of mercantilism were overtaken by those of free trade and, from the 1840s, business lobbied Parliament for the lowering or repeal of import and export duties on manufactured goods. British governments removed most tariffs, but mostly on items in which Britain had a comparative advantage. In addition new laws such as the Weights and Measures Act 1824, following years of lobbying, meant that a truly bewildering variety of local systems of measurement which had existed for centuries was replaced by the imperial system, with a standardised definition of the yard, pound and gallon.[2] Something that seems like a small change but, in reality, was quite substantial as standardisation helps all processes.

This ‘boom’ also led to a growing middle class demand for food, consumer goods and services in the UK and changes in the way people shopped with the introduction of standardised products and new retailing ideas such as the department store.

Shopping is so normal now that it is difficult to imagine what it used to be like.

Until the first department store opened its doors, people went shopping for manufactured goods when they needed or wanted something in particular.

Upon entering a shop, the shopkeeper attended the customer and asked what was wanted. Goods were in locked cupboards and the customer could not just wander around to have a look at the choices, but had to wait until the shopkeeper displayed the goods on the counter. Quite often these were only prototypes or display examples and not ready made products to take away. Thus, the customer had to explain in detail what was required and then the goods were custom made according to these wishes.

Before the customer could leave the shop negotiations and bartering over the price and delivery date occurred. Because goods were often produced to the specific requirements of the customer, fixed prices were unusual. Returning or exchanging goods was also impossible for this reason. Standardised products offered in standardised stores changed shopping forever.

Because of standardised products and regional or national retailers it became possible for marketing and advertising to thrive too. Prior to this it had been very local announcements. Standardisation allowed for brands and advertising agencies started in London including John Haddon & Co. (1814), G. Street & Co. (1830), C. Mitchell & Co. (1837) and Mather & Crowther (1850).[3]

It took time though as many British manufacturers felt that advertising was ‘beneath them’ – though not all, Heal & Co. being a prime example of an early advertiser. The results of what happened in the USA changed their perceptions as they began to realize that standardised goods could be differentiated in the consumers mind by a ‘brand’ which used a name, packaging, colours, and symbols to create attributes, values, character, expectations and reputation.


In 1800 the rich paid to send their children to school or hired private tutors. Middle-class children went to small boarding schools. There were cheap local schools for the poor in some parishes, but the working classes often had little education and one-third of children never attended school at all and rarely received more than three years of education. Families usually couldn’t afford to send children to school more than this, both because of the fees charged by the school and because of the productivity missed by not having their assistance at home. Most of working class children’s learning came from Sunday school or from parents and family. There were two universities in England – Oxford and Cambridge.

But the Scientific, Agricultural, Industrial, Communications, Transport and Financial Revolutions created a need for a more literate and numerate workforce. This was strongly resisted by some though not by the Church of England which, in 1811, founded ‘The National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church’. Outside the Church of England ‘The British and Foreign School Society for the Education of the Labouring and Manufacturing Classes of Society of Every Religious Persuasion’ was formed in 1814. These two ran education for most people for the next 50 years.

The Royal Commission on the state of popular education in England, chaired by the Duke of Newcastle, was appointed in 1858 and reported in 1861. Its brief had been:

'To inquire into the state of public education in England and to consider and report what measures, if any, are required for the extension of sound and cheap elementary instruction to all classes of the people.'

It was not, however, until the Elementary Education Act 1870 introduced education for all children aged 5-13 and established school boards. The Elementary Education Act 1880 made school attendance compulsory and that of 1891 made elementary education free. The Board of Education Act 1899 created a new government department to oversee education.


The ‘middling sort’ had become the middle classes by the middle of the 19th century and the working class had begun to unionize, and both had started to recognize and realize the power that their increasingly important economic role gave them.

The Reform Act 1832 removed most ‘rotten boroughs’ controlled by a patron and small electorate beholden to him, and increased the MPs returned by larger cities as well as enfranchising more voters. However less than 15% of men could vote and no women and there was no secret ballot. It was still woefully inadequate and the Reform Act 1867 was passed. This enfranchised more city constituencies and absolute numbers of men but did little else. Secret ballots were allowed from 1872 and the third Reform Act 1884 enfranchised even more men. It would not be until the Equal Franchise Act 1928 that all men and women were equally enfranchised.

The Numbers

In 1800 the population was 9 million. By 1850 it was 18 million and by 1900 32.5 million this despite substantial emigration from the UK (between 1851 and 1913 it was c.10 million[4]). In 1841, 22% of workers were in agriculture and fishing. In 1901 this had fallen to 9%. In 1841, 36% of the working population worked in manufacturing and in 1901 this was 38%. Those working in the service industries rose from 33% to 40% over this time with about half of them in domestic service. Basic literacy was about 60% in 1800 but close to 100% by 1900.

The Impact of a Century of Change

The impact on society of all the changes noted was enormous during the period. It is impossible to say that any society is all one thing or another, but the mix of values moved substantially:


  • Inheritance
  • Patronage
  • Property
  • Rank
  • Religion


  • Achievement
  • Education
  • Efficiency
  • Improvement
  • Self reliance

Some 19th century changes

  • 1801
Joseph Jacquard – loom      
1821 Charles Babbage – difference engine      
1831 Michael Faraday – electromagnetics      
1843 Ada Lovelace – computer program Charles Goodyear – vulcanize rubber    
1846 Elias Howe – sewing machine      
1852 Elisha Graves Otis – elevator      
1855 Henry Bessemer – steel furnace      
1859 Nathan Ames – escalator Charles Darwin – evolution    
1860 Daniel Hess – vacuum cleaner Linus Yale – lock    
1862 Louis Pasteur – pasteurisation      
1866 Alfred Nobel – dynamite      
1867 Henri Nestlé – baby formula Christopher Sholes – typewriter    
1872 Elijah McCoy – lubrication system      
1876 Charles Brush – arc lighting Nikolaus Otto – internal combustion engine Carl von Linde – refrigerator Alexander Graham Bell – telephone
1877 Seth Wheeler – toilet paper      
1881 Louis Latimer – carbon filament William Stanley – transformer John Dunlop – pneumatic tyre Nikola Tesla – alternating current
1889 Karl Benz – car      
1890 Herman Hollerith – punched card Marcellus Berry – travellers cheques    
1895 Gugliemo Marconi – telegraph      
1897 Felix Hoffmann – aspirin      
1899 William Middlebrook – paper clip      


[1] Railway Economy: A Treatise on the New Art of Transport, Its Management, Prospects and Relations by Dionysius Lardner (1850) page 181

[2] See Old Weights And Measures, Jim Andre (2008) or British Weights And Measures As Described In The Laws Of England From Anglo-Saxon Times by Colonel Sir C. M. Watson K.C.M.G., C.B., M.A. (1910)

[3] Advertising Age, History: 19th Century, September 15, 2003

[4] Emigration and Internal Migration in England and Wales 1861-1900 by Dudley Baines (2003)

Related Images:

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.