A History of Inland Transport and Communication in England/Chapter 17

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[ 186 ]



Contemporaneously with the canal period in England came an industrial revolution which was to place this country—hitherto distinctly backward in the development of its industries—at the head of manufacturing nations, but was, also, to show that, however great the advantages conferred by canals, as compared both with rivers and with roads, even canals were inadequate to meet the full and ever-expanding requirements of trade and transport.

The main causes of this industrial revolution were—the application of a number of inventions and improved processes to leading industries; the incalculable advantages derived from steam power; the immense increase in the supplies of cotton, coal, minerals and other raw materials; the greater wealth of the nation, allowing of much more capital being available for industrial enterprises; and the improvement, not alone in inland communication, but in ship-building and the art of navigation, foreign markets being thus reached more readily at a time when the general political and economic conditions were especially favourable to the commercial expansion abroad which followed on our industrial expansion at home.

Woollen manufactures, originally established here with the help of workers introduced from Flanders in the time of Edward III., had had a long pre-eminence, obtaining a vested interest which led to the advent of a new rival, in the form of cotton manufacturers, receiving, at first, very scanty encouragement. Woollens had made such progress that, even before the Restoration, a market was (as Dowell tells us) opened for our goods, not only in Spain, France, Italy and Germany, but also in Russia and Baltic and other ports, while they were carried by way of Archangel into Persia, and also made a market for themselves in Turkey. [ 187 ]A great part of England was turned into sheep farms for the production of wool, and by 1700 the value of woollen goods exported had risen to £3,000,000.

At this time the import of raw cotton was only about 1¼ million lbs.[1] To such an extent had the woollen, and, also, the linen, industries been placed under the "protection" of the governing powers that until 1721 it was a penal offence in England to weave or sell calico—that is, a fabric consisting entirely of cotton; and down to 1774 anyone who made or sold a fabric having more than half its threads of cotton was liable to prosecution. Not until 1783 was the prohibition of British-made calicoes removed and the production in this country of all-cotton goods allowed by legislators who had been unduly solicitous of the welfare of British industry. When, in 1776, Adam Smith published his great work on "The Wealth of Nations," he certainly did state that Christopher Columbus had brought back from the New World some bales of cotton, and had shown them at the court of Spain; but he did not think it necessary to mention that a cotton industry had been started here, and was likely to contribute to the wealth of the United Kingdom.

The imports of raw cotton slowly increased to 2,000,000 in 1720, and to 3,000,000 lbs. in 1751. In 1764, the year in which Hargreaves introduced the spinning jenny, they were still not higher than 4,000,000 lbs. But the successive inventions, during the course of about three decades, alike of Hargreaves, Arkwright, Crompton, Cartwright and others gave such an impetus to the industry that by 1800 the importation of raw cotton (greatly facilitated by the further invention, in 1793, of Eli Whitney's appliance for separating cotton from the cotton seed) had risen to 52,000,000 lbs., while the value of all kinds of cotton products exported increased between 1765 and 1800 from £800,000 to £5,800,000.

This rapid progress would not, however, have been possible but for the facilities for obtaining cheap power afforded by the condensing steam-engine of James Watt, who had taken out a patent for his invention in 1769, though it was not till 1776 that he built and sold his first engine, on which he further improved in 1781. Steam-power, of far greater force [ 188 ]and utility, and capable of being produced anywhere, thus took the place of the water-power, only available alongside streams, on which, as we have seen, the earlier success of the woollen industry, especially as carried on among the hills of Yorkshire, had been established. It was by water-power that the spinning machine so recently introduced by Sir Richard Arkwright was operated until James Watt had shown that steam could be used to better advantage. Then the setting up at Papplewick, Nottinghamshire, in 1785, of a steam-engine for the operation of cotton machinery marked, also, the decline of domestic manufactures and the advent of that factory system which was to bring about a complete transformation in the industrial conditions of the United Kingdom.

Yet just as the improvements in cotton production would have been incomplete without the steam-engine, so, also, would the invention even of the steam-engine have been of little service but for an abundant supply of coal, and but, also, for the possession of a ready and economical means of moving the coal from the localities where it was to be found to those where it was wanted for the purposes of the "steam age" that was about to open.

The greater demand for fuel and the increased facilities for supplying it led to the greater development of various inland coal-fields, in addition to those already long in operation in the Newcastle district, and having there the advantages of river and sea as an aid to distribution. The need, also, of coal for the operation of the steam-engine in the countless number of new industries or new works that followed on James Watt's improvements had an important influence on fixing the location of fresh industrial centres.

Coal-mining, again, was powerfully accelerated in the same period by the iron industry, which itself was undergoing developments no less remarkable than those attending the expansion of the cotton industries, and having no less a bearing on the problem of efficient inland transport.

Down to the year 1740 the smelting of iron-ores—an industry carried on here from very early days in our history—was done entirely with wood charcoal. For this reason the early seat of the iron industry was in the forests that, as already told, once covered so large an area in Sussex, Kent [ 189 ]and Surrey, and afforded what may, at one time, have appeared to be a practically limitless supply of fuel.

The three counties in question thus attained to a high degree of industrial importance and prosperity at a time when Lancashire and Yorkshire were still regarded by dwellers in the south as inhabited by a scarcely civilised people. Lord Seymour, who was made by Henry VIII. Lord High Admiral of England, and ended his life on the scaffold in 1549, was the owner of iron-works in Sussex. The cannon and shot which Drake, Hawkins and Frobisher took with them on their ships were supplied by these southern foundries. Of the position of the industry in 1653, when there were 42 forges and 27 furnaces in the Weald of Sussex, the author of "Glimpses of our Ancestors in Sussex" says: "Sussex was then the Wales and the Warwickshire of England. Foreign countries sought eagerly for its cannon, its culverines and falconets.... Its richly decorated fire-backs and fantastic andirons were the pride of lordly mansions. London sent here for the railings that went round its great cathedral; Sussex ploughshares, speeds and other agricultural implements and hardware were sent all over the kingdom."

Fears, however, had already been excited in Henry VIII.'s day that the continued destruction of forests, in order to supply the iron-works with fuel, would lead to a timber famine; and in Queen Elizabeth's reign such a prospect, foreshadowing a shortage of timber for shipbuilding purposes at the very time when a conflict with Spain was regarded as inevitable, was looked upon as involving a possible national disaster. A subsidiary complaint against the industry was that the traffic to and from the iron-works injured the roads. Legislation was therefore passed prohibiting, under severe penalties, any increase in the number of iron-works in the three counties mentioned, except on land already occupied or able to furnish of itself a sufficient supply of timber. Exportation of iron was also prohibited, and it was even considered good policy to import iron, rather than to make it, and so preserve the still available timber for other purposes.

By the early part of the eighteenth century the iron industry, after exhausting the timber supplies of Sussex, had disappeared from that county; but it flourished in Shropshire, where it found both fuel and iron-stone in the Forest [ 190 ]of Dean, while the Severn provided water-power and inland navigation. The industry was also carried on in Staffordshire; and here, in the reign of James I., some important experiments were made in the direction of using coal instead of wood in the manufacture of iron; but this idea was not fully developed until Abraham Darby had shown, in 1735, how coke, in combination with a powerful blast, could be substituted for wood. What is regarded as the real turning-point in the iron industry followed in 1760, when Dr Roebuck built, at the Carron works, his new type of blast furnace, in which coke was to be used.

An impetus was thus given to the industry, and an impetus it certainly needed, inasmuch as the production of iron in the United Kingdom had sunk in 1740 to 17,350 tons. Then, in 1783, Henry Cort, of Gosport, patented his process for converting pig-iron into malleable iron through the operation of "puddling" in a common air-furnace consuming coal, and in 1784 he patented a further process for turning malleable iron into bars by means of rollers instead of forge hammers.

These further inventions were of much service; but the greatest advance of all followed on the application of steam to iron-making, as one of the many results of James Watt's achievements. Steam enabled the manufacturers to get a far more powerful blast in the new furnaces, at a consumption of about one-third less of coal, than had been possible in the process of smelting carried on with the help of water-power. The use, also, of coal instead of timber for fuel, and of steam-power in place of water-power, made the iron-masters independent both of the forests and of the rivers of southern England, and led to the further expansion of the iron industry being transferred to such districts as Staffordshire, the north-east coast, Scotland and South Wales, where the now all-important coal could be obtained no less readily than the iron-ore.

So the migration of some of the greatest of our national industries from south to north, begun by the streams on Yorkshire hills, was completed by the steam-engine of James Watt.

The effect on the iron industry itself of the improvements in manufacture was prodigious. The 17,350 tons of iron which were alone produced in 1740 came from 59 furnaces, [ 191 ]using charcoal only. In 1788 the number of furnaces had increased to 85, and the output to 68,300 tons, of which 55,200 tons had been produced by coke, and only 13,100 tons by charcoal. In 1796, when the charcoal process had been almost entirely given up, the number of furnaces was 121 (in England and Wales 104; in Scotland 17), and the production was 124,879 tons. In this same year Pitt proposed to put a tax on coal, and the following year he sought to impose one on pig-iron; but a taxing of raw material was not to be tolerated, and he had to abandon each project.

Adding to these details corresponding figures for other years in the Canal Era, we get the following table:—

Iron Furnaces and Production in England,
Wales and Scotland.
Year. Number of furnaces. Production (tons).
1740 059 017,350
1788 085 068,300
1796 121 124,879
1802 168 170,000
1806 227 250,000
1820 260 400,000
1825 374 581,367

This great increase in the output of iron meant, also, a considerable expansion in the engineering trades of the country in general, in the hardware trades of Birmingham, in the cutlery trade of Sheffield, and in many other trades besides. It led to the opening up of new centres of activity and industry in addition to a greater aggregation of workers in centres already established; while the combined effect on the coal industry itself of all these developments is well shown by the following figures, giving the output of coal in the United Kingdom, for the years mentioned, as estimated by the Commissioners of 1871:—

1700 2,612,000
1750 4,773,828
1770 6,205,400
1790 7,618,728
1795 10,080,300

[ 192 ]The rapid expansion in the last half of the eighteenth century of the various industries here mentioned, and of many others besides, led to a corresponding growth in the industrial towns; and this, in turn, meant an increase in the wants of the community, and the opening up of new and even huge markets for agricultural produce. Such produce, also, was now obtainable in greater quantity owing to the fact that more land was being brought under cultivation. In 1685 it had been estimated that there were in England about 18,000,000 acres of fen, forest and moorland. Of this total 3,000,000 acres had been brought under cultivation before 1727. But from that time many enclosure Acts were passed, no fewer than 138 becoming law between 1789 and 1792; and, though it by no means follows that all the land so enclosed was actually cultivated, the greater opportunities opening out to agriculture when more and more workers were being collected into factories and manufacturing districts, and becoming more and more dependent on others for food supplies which, under the old conditions of life and industry, people grew for themselves, were beyond all question, while agricultural production was itself advanced by the supply of those better and cheaper aids to husbandry which followed on the improvements in iron manufacture.

To meet the enormously increased demands for the transport alike of raw materials, of manufactured articles and of domestic supplies in the period of industrial revolution which thus began to develop about the middle of the eighteenth century, something more was wanted than rivers, offering uncertain navigation, and only available in particular districts, and highways deplorably bad in spite of Turnpike Acts and much wasteful expenditure, another half-century having still to elapse before Telford showed the country how roads should be made, and McAdam told how they should be mended.

In these circumstances, and during the period here in question, it was canals that were mainly looked to as a means of supplying the transport requirements then growing at so prodigious a rate. Invention and production had already far surpassed the means of efficient distribution. England was on the eve of the greatest industrial expansion of any country in Europe; but she was starting thereon with probably the worst means of inland transport of any country in [ 193 ]Europe. Canals appeared to be the one thing needed; and every fresh canal constructed was heralded with joy because it foreshadowed, among other things, better trade, more employment, higher wages, cheaper fuel and provisions, and less of the isolation from which many a land-locked community was suffering.

Some of the accounts given by Phillips, in his "General History of Inland Navigation," of the opening of various canals afford interesting evidence of the satisfaction with which the populace greeted the new waterways. I give a few examples:—

"1798.—The Herefordshire and Gloucestershire canal from Gloucester to Ledbury is completed; the opening of this navigation took place on the 30th of March, when several of the proprietors and gentlemen of the committee embarked ... in the first vessel freighted with merchandise consigned to Ledbury, which was followed by three others laden with coal. They passed through the tunnel at Oxenhall, which is 2192 yards in length, in the space of 52 minutes.... Both ends of the tunnel, as well as the banks of the canal, were lined with spectators, who hailed the boats with reiterated acclamations. It is supposed that upwards of 2000 persons were present on their arrival at Ledbury.... The advantages which must result from this inland navigation to Ledbury and the adjoining country are incalculable. In the article of coal the inhabitants of this district will reap an important benefit by the immediate reduction in price of at least 10s. per ton. Coals of the first quality are now delivered at the wharf, close to Ledbury, at 13s. 6d., whereas the former price was 24s. per ton."

"1799.—The new canal from Sowerby-bridge to Rochdale was lately opened for business. The Travis yacht first crossed the head level, decorated with the Union flag, emblematical of the junction of the ports of Hull and Liverpool, with colours flying, music playing, attended by the Saville yacht, and thousands of spectators; a display of flags on the warehouses, and sound of cannon, announced to the rejoicing neighbourhood the joyful tidings, which in the evening were realised by the arrival of several vessels, laden with corn and timber."

"1800.—The Peak Forest canal ... was opened on the [ 194 ]1st of May. The completion of this bold and difficult undertaking, through numerous hills and valleys, precipices and declivities, is an object of general admiration."

Yet in these same records—published in 1803—and among his accounts of the crowds, the flags, the music and the cannon that had then so recently welcomed the opening of still more canals, Phillips tells of an innovation destined eventually to supplant the canal system by reason of advantages which he himself seems to have recognised, though he naturally did not then anticipate all that was to follow. The said innovation is thus recorded by him under date "1802":—

"The locks, canal and basin, from which the Surrey iron rail-way now in agitation, is to commence at Wandsworth, have been lately opened and the water admitted from the Thames. The first barge entered the lock amidst a vast number of spectators, who rejoiced at the completion of this part of the important and useful work. The ground is laid out for the rail-way, with some few intervals, all the way to Croydon; and the undertakers are ready to lay down the iron; it is expected to be ready by midsummer.

"N.B. The iron rail-ways are of great advantage to the country in general, and are made at an expense of about 300l. per mile. The advantage they give for the conveyance of goods by carts and waggons, seems even to surpass, in some instances, those of boat carriage by canals."

So we come to the story of the railway, which had, however, been undergoing development, from very primitive conditions, for a considerable period even prior to this notable event on the banks of the Thames in 1802.

  1. The imports of raw cotton into the United Kingdom in 1910 were 17,614,860 cwts., or nearly 1973 million lbs., valued at £71,716,808.