Birth of the consumer

Progress and Poverty
October 20, 1995

It is clear from his text that Martin Daunton would have us concentrate on supply rather than demand factors but let me at once focus on the consumer's perspective. The hardback is presumably designed to soak some libraries, but at £14.99 for the paperback the pages per pound quotient is high. John Rule's study of the same subject, published by Longman in two volumes in 1992 as The Vital Century: England's Developing Economy 1714-1815 and Albion's People: English Society 1714-1815, provided 637 pages at £22.98.

Clearly economies of scale are anticipated, but Daunton also reminds his readers frequently about the role of politics in determining patterns of production and consumption, not least by fiscal devices. The pricing of his book reflects in part the favourable tax and ownership situation of the two leading university presses.

Daunton's is a quality product retailing at a very competitive price, but possibly there will be some consumer resistance. It will be overlong for many readers, especially, one fears, students, and reflects the vastness of many recent Oxford books. It is very good but has an unremitting and wearying character. Daunton does not try to fix impressions by using quotations, as Paul Langford so skilfully does in his A Polite and Commercial People: England 17-1783 (1989), a more digestible form of OUP gigantism. Nor does Daunton offer the perspective of personal archival research as, for example, Rule does with his valuable use of material from Cornish vestry books.

He does offer, however, a good example of a much underrated genus: the textbook as a work of scholarship that offers new approaches. His book is definitely and definitively a work of insight. He is very good in discussing the evidence, for example the problems of industrial data. He skilfully integrates the perspectives of contemporary and modern economic theories with his account. There is much on Smith, Ricardo, Malthus and Marx and why they were right or wrong in analysing developments and predicting the future.

The interrelationships of regions and nation are sensibly discussed. Daunton puts great stress on integration: "Regionalism was not an alternative to a national economy and politics. Specialisation between regions was only possible because the economy had become more integrated as a result of improved systems of distribution, marketing, and banking which permitted regions to specialise and to exploit the benefits of comparative advantage." This approach leads Daunton to emphasise the role of improvements in transportation. He is also good on credit and the financial needs of the economy. Transportation and finance linked markets and suppliers. Daunton underlines the importance of the development of markets and of the London market. The specialisation stemming from market integration is seen as important in the rise in agricultural productivity. Daunton stresses the role of soil preparation and manuring in discussing agriculture and favours the "yeoman's agricultural revolution" rather than that of the landlords, a subject that is still controversial. Thanks to agricultural growth, it was possible "to feed the population without a subsistence crisis or a serious erosion of real wages".

Daunton emphasises coal and the importance of escaping from the constraints of an organic economy. His discussion of industries, both domestic and plant-based, is effective, although he devotes insufficient attention to demands for these products and the world of goods. He is sensible and interesting on Scottish developments, but underrates the strain on Scottish industry caused by the Union. Complementary and competitive Scottish industries, such as linen, benefited greatly, as did the west of Scotland, which could now trade freely with the West Indies and North America. Less competitive industries, such as fine woollens, collapsed. Ireland is largely excluded and there is surprisingly little on the empire.

Daunton is alive to the political dimensions of economic activity and critical of the notion of a British ancien regime: "The British political and social system was more fluid and flexible, providing opportunities for the 'middling sort' and encouraging commercial and industrial development." Legal practices that were favourable to the free utilisation of capital and a sociopolitical system that could accommodate the consequences of economic growth were important, although Daunton fails to offer an adequate comparative perspective. By European standards, the British Isles constituted a relatively uniform economic system, especially as links between the English and Scottish economies developed.

Technological innovation and a large percentage of the national income coming from nonagricultural activities were distinguishing features of the British economy. The active culture of print, especially newspapers and magazines, helped to disseminate fashions in a society in which fashion and social emulation played a growing role in creating a consumer market attuned to new developments. This was essentially the market of the "middling orders", concerned about social status and aspiration, who by 1725 had seen an appreciable increase in the scale of their material possessions, such as pottery and furniture. The enhanced purchasing power of the bulk of the population in the first half of the century also helped industrial developments. Yet over much of the British Isles industry was still far less important than agriculture as a source of wealth and employment at the end of the century. If poverty and communication costs and problems restricted markets, a lack of capital and the limited pool of skilled labour were also significant constraints. Psychological rigidities were also important: technological possibilities were not grasped in many sectors.

Industrialisation was a highly regional process. Contemporaries were aware of the pace of change in those regions. However, as Daunton discusses, technological transformation was selective and change often slow, firm size was small and organisation personal, most labour markets local and factories rare. Ayrshire, though an important coalmining county, was typical at the end of the century in having most of its manufacturing carried on in small hand, horse and water-powered units. Similarly, most of the tasks in the important linen industry were performed by hand.

For rapid industrial growth, the essentials were capital, transport, markets and coal. Coal, a readily transportable and controllable fuel, was useful even in the preparatory stages of the traditional manufacturing methods, such as soap-boiling, let alone with factories. Wood, with its greater bulk for calorific value and less readily controllable heat, was a poor basis for many industrial processes, as well as for the development of large new industrial populations, with attendant demand for bricks, pottery and all the other fuel-consuming ancillaries of towns. The output of coal rose from about 3 million tons in 1700 to 15 million in 1800.

Coal had to be mined and transported and both these requirements acted as spurs for innovation and activity, particularly the construct-ion of canals, and of railways along which, initially, horse-drawn wagons moved large quantities of coal as part of the process of integration that Daunton discusses so well. Without transport, coal was of scant value, but coal with transport could serve as the basis for the creation of buoyant mixed industrial regions with large pools of labour and demand, and specialist services. The population of Bradford climbed from 16,012 in 1810 to 103,778 in 1850 as the city became the global centre of worsted production. Factory horsepower in the town rose 718 per cent in 1810-30. Mechanisation brought profit, larger factories and a wave of immigrants. Innovation was continual. The mechanisation of yarn spinning was followed in 1826, despite riots by workers, by that of worsted weaving. By 1850 the work once done by thousands of handloom weavers, working in the countryside, was now performed by 17,642 automatic looms contained in factories and massproducing women's dress fabrics.

If industrial development led to a new geography of Britain, so also did trade: proximity to the Atlantic became most important. Inland towns that lacked good communication links were particularly poorly placed to benefit from the growth in foreign trade and some stagnated badly, for example Athlone and Hereford. Even inland river ports, such as Gloucester, could not compete with sea ports. The improvement in the road system extended London's influence while the canals strengthened links between Lancashire, Yorkshire and the West Midlands.

The pattern of improved communications and better commercial facilities was not restricted to England. In Ireland there were relatively few new markets in the first half of the century, but in the second half 200 market centres were granted patents so that little of Ireland was more than 20 kilometres from a market area. Hitherto remote areas, such as much of West Mayo, were, for the first time, provided with markets and roads.

As Daunton stresses, economic change was not divorced from widespread, often serious poverty. His account is particularly good in its ability to locate the social and political contexts of economic shifts. Possibly he should have made more of politics, but his book is already long and full of riches.

To return to the consumer. Daunton's book is an important work of scholarship, full of insight and interest and excellent value for money. It is probably too long and dry, however, for many readers, especially students, and they may well find Rule's study more acceptable. It is a healthy sign that there is such an excellent choice.

Jeremy Black is professor of history and director of the Research Foundation, University of Durham.

Progress and Poverty: An Economic and Social History of Britain 1700-1850

Author - Martin Daunton
ISBN - 0 19 822282 3 and 822281 5
Publisher - Open University Press
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 620

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