World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


Allen, Robert C. The British Industrial Revolution in Global Historical Perspective. 344 pp. Cambridge University Press, 2009. $ 26.00 (paperback).


[T]here was only one route to the twentieth century - and it traversed northern Britain. (p. 275)

     The above quote ends this excellent study of the first industrial revolution. It is a bold claim, but the author is justified in making it. Few subjects have generated as much research and scholarship as the British industrial revolution. Even before the term was coined, this topic had been taken up by optimists and pessimists and had been studied by scholars from a number of different countries. Perhaps the most often asked, and most important, questions are Why Britain? and Why then? These are the two central questions that Robert C. Allen seeks to answer in this book.

     In order to answer these two linked questions Allen not only looks at Britain and the pre-conditions of industrialization; he also explores the concurrent situations of a handful of other regions. The most important comparisons are with China, the Netherlands (including Belgium), and France, but he is not limited to these regions and also uses data from India, Italy, Austria, and a number of other places when relevant. His careful use of quantitative data and his skill and making it accessible to the statistically challenged is one of the biggest strengths of the text.

     Allen also examines a number of the most well-known existing explanations of the time and the place, and in some cases turns the conventional wisdom in its head. One of the biggest compliments I can pay to this book is that this long-time student of this subject came away from it changed and convinced that earlier conclusions that I had accepted were incorrect and now were corrected. Of course this new understanding will be challenged and hopefully as scholarship continues to grow on this subject our understanding of it will continue to grow in accuracy and complexity.

     Key to his study is explaining the technological breakthroughs that drove the explosion of productivity that put the British economy on a revolutionary path of sustained growth. These inventions broke the Malthusian trap and the limitations of a land-based economy and society. His explanation is in two parts: an analysis of the growth of the early modern economy (1500-1750) and an explanation of how the three key macro-inventions of the eighteenth century (the steam engine, the spinning jenny, and the coke blast furnace) increased the use of coal and capital relative to labor. The high-wage economy of Britain (beginning in London but spreading throughout urban Britain after 1650) and the availability of cheap energy were the drivers of these developments. The saving of inputs that were scarce and an increasing use of abundant, affordable inputs is at the center of Allen's argument.

     One of the most fascinating and convincing parts of this book is Allen's exploration of the British agricultural revolution and his argument that reverses common notions about the direction of the chain of causation. The established model argues that enclosure created large farms that increased output and required less labor, which led to the growth of cities and large pool of cheap labor, which then drove economic growth. Allen reverses this and very convincingly and strongly supports the idea that it was cities that drove changes in the countryside and not the opposite. The movement of people from country to city was mostly due to the city's pull, not the countryside's push. This began in London, where the expansion of the Metropolis increased demand and pulled up wages, but which also gradually spread to other cities in Britain (first the commercial port cities, then later the new manufacturing centers).

     The impressive use of quantitative date, and the comprehensive study of various contributing factors, cannot be explored in any detail in a book review, but they bolster his argument and convince this reader. The only thing this reviewer would change is the use of E.A. Wrigley's distinction between an "organic" economy and the "mineral fuel" economy. As anyone who has studied organic chemistry could explain, coal is about as "organic" as it comes. Certainly the mining of metallic ores isn't organic, but it also isn't a fuel. A more useful distinction might be an economy which relies on sequestered carbon for fuel as opposed to one that relies on carbon buried deep in the earth that has been largely removed from the biosphere and the carbon cycle (i.e. fossil fuels). Wrigley's distinction is problematic, but it does nothing to diminish the argument as both Wrigley and Allen clearly define what they mean by it.

     If one was interested in learning the origin of the first industrial revolution a better text than this would be hard to find. It is directed at college students and academic scholars, but it contains essential information for anyone who teaches this subject. This book only adds to the quality contributions that Robert C. Allen as made to this study (his Enclosure and the Yeoman: The Agricultural Development of the South Midlands, 1450-1850 is also an excellent source), and it should be required reading for students of the British industrial revolution.

Matthew Osborn is an Associate Professor of History and Environmental Studies at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont. His research interests include the history of industrialization in Britain and British and European environmental history.


Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2012 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use