Industrial Britain

See also: European history

In the 18th century, the United Kingdom was the core of the British Empire, and saw the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, which came to change the face of the planet, and the way of life of most people on Earth, more than any historical period before.

Though many British mines, industries and railways were closed down in the second half of the 20th century, many of the structures and artefacts remain to bear witness of these glorious years.


Britain and Ireland historical travel topics:
CeltsMedievalEarly modernIndustrial BritainBritish Empire

The Industrial Revolution was not a single event, but a lengthy process across centuries. Though technology and economy had developed since ancient times, some innovations and reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries caused rapid changes; such as mechanized textile-making, steam power, large-scale metalworking, and deregulation of commerce.

England contained many industrial clusters; while London became a world-leading commercial centre, the West Midlands was a centre of the textile industry, and Northwest England pioneered rail transport and shipbuilding.

Wales was the main coal mining and metalworking district, and the cradle of the British labour movement. Welsh nationalism rose in the 1920s, and today, Wales defines itself as a country on its own.

Scotland provided raw materials such as wood and wool. The Calvinist church had a preference for literacy, which contributed to the Scottish Enlightment in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some famous Scottish talents were James Watt (who did not invent the steam engine, but improved it to be widely useful), economist Adam Smith who promoted free markets, and John McAdam, who named a new method for road building. Today, North Sea oil dominates the Scottish economy, and has made Scotland Europe's third largest oil producer after Russia and Norway.

Ireland, which was part of the United Kingdom until the 1910s, was struck by mass famine during the 1840s, causing mass emigration and a population decline; as of the 2020s Ireland is one of few countries in the world with a smaller population than 200 years ago. Though Ireland itself remained a farmland with less industries and infrastructure than Great Britain, Irish migrant workers have contributed to the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom, as well as in the United States and Australia. Many Irish became navvies, who built the British canals and railways, and the construction sector in the UK still has a large proportion of Irishmen. The "Irish question", namely what to do with Ireland and whether to grant it "home-rule" and to which degree was at the forefront of British domestic politics in one way or another for most of the 19th century. Many events during this era have left a deep mark on the national psyche of Ireland and have been enshrined in song, murals or other forms of collective memory.

Northern Ireland contained the shipyards of Belfast. Shipbuilding used to be an important industry for Britain, with the British navy and merchant fleet ruling the seas from the 16th century until World War II.



The economic structures of the Industrial Revolution changed over time, and the causes and effects are not apparent. Until the 19th century, the British Empire relied on a mercantilist system, where export and import were limited, tolls were high, and overseas dominions were crucial for providing raw materials for the industry. The First Empire included the North American colonies; some of them breaking away in the 1770s, founding the United States of America.

Plantations in the Americas used slaves from West Africa shipped overseas in the transatlantic slave trade; one of the largest forced migrations in world history. The role of slavery in the Industrial Revolution has been debated; while the plantation economy contributed to Britain's wealth and provided raw materials for industry (in particular cotton), the British Empire was among the forces which ended international slave trade. The Royal Navy began to enforce its prohibition from 1807, while slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833. The supply of cotton and other materials was disrupted by the American Civil War; Britain however remained neutral.

In contrast to its mercantilist beginnings, the later British Empire became one of the first and most vehement advocates of "free trade" often being opposed in the goal by rising powers such as Germany or the USA. In the mid-19th century, commerce became more international, a trend which has continued until present day. The Second British Empire primarily held land in Africa, Canada, Australia and Oceania, as well as the British Raj in South Asia. Queen Victoria ruled the British Empire from 1837 to 1901. Though her role was mostly ceremonial, her reign is today known as the Victorian era, and many places around the world bear her name, as diverse as Africa's largest lake, a state in Australia, and the capital of Hong Kong.

World War I demanded unforeseen amounts of military equipment, difficult for the industries to provide. The Shell Crisis of 1915 led to the creation of the Ministry of Munitions, to increase arms production. Still, total industrial output fell during the war. As the United Kingdom was one of the victorious Allies in World War I, it would gain colonies from the defeated Central Powers in Asia, Africa and the Pacific, reaching its greatest extent in 1921. While the 1920s were a time of peace and prosperity, many industrial sectors failed to revitalize, and industries and their workers were hit hard by the Great Depression beginning in 1929. The nation went through a much broader industrial mobilization for World War II, and even though the German bombings damaged many facilities, and submarine raids held back imports, industrial production in the UK became a key factor for the Allied victory. Both wars depleted workplaces of male workers, leading to a record number of women on paid jobs, and political and economic empowerment of British women. The franchise was extended to women between the wars and finally granted to all people over 21 on equal grounds in 1928 - later than in the U.S., Germany or even some of Britain's former colonies but earlier than in France, where universal adult suffrage was only granted in 1946.

During the Cold War decades, real wages increased tremendously, causing many traditional industries such as textiles, mining and metalworking to fail against overseas competition, being replaced over time by new sectors, such as North Sea oil, financial services and information technology. The biggest changes occurred during the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, who governed Britain from 1979 to 1990 and privatised many government-owned enterprises and cut subsidies for the privately owned, while focusing on establishing London as a major financial centre. Many post-industrial areas have never recovered economically. Thatcher's legacy is controversial to this day: she and her policies are downright loathed in areas of northern England and Wales that used to be mining country, as well as in oil-rich Scotland, so tread with caution when mentioning her name. However, other parts of English society - particularly conservatives in the south of the country - idolise her and deem her policies to have been long overdue reforms that ensured the economic viability of the UK.


Map of Industrial Britain

In or near London

  • 1 Science Museum (South Kensington, London).
  • 2 London Canal Museum, 12/13 New Wharf Rd, N1 9RT (London), +44 20 7713-0836. Tu-Su 10AM-4:30PM. Exhibits explaining the history of London's canals. Housed in a former ice warehouse on Regent's Canal. £4, £2 children. London Canal Museum (Q6670203) on Wikidata London Canal Museum on Wikipedia
  • 3 Bluebell Railway (East Grinstead). A restored steam railway that chuffs its way through the Sussex countryside. It takes its name from the carpets of blue flowers found in local woodland every spring.
  • 4 Farnborough Air Sciences Trust Museum (FAST), Trenchard House, 85 Farnborough Road, GU14 6TF (Farnborough, Hampshire), +44 1252 375050. Sa Su bank holiday M 10AM-4PM. The birthplace of British aviation, Farnborough was used for research and development of balloon technology as early as the 1880s. After the first powered flight in Britain in 1908, the town became heavily involved in the aerospace industry, and saw many landmark moments throughout the 20th century. The FAST Museum charts this history, and you can also visit other sites and monuments connected to the industry around town. Free.

West England & Wales



  • 10 Severn Valley Railway (Kidderminster, Worcestershire). The Severn Valley Railway runs for 16 miles through Worcestershire and Shropshire in western England.
  • 11 Ironbridge. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this bridge was built in 1781, as the first of its kind.
  • 12 Black Country Living Museum, 2 Tipton Rd (Dudley). A 26-acre mostly outdoor recreation of the local area during the last 100 years. It includes its own internal bus service, coal mine, funfair, canal port, rebuilt houses from the period and more traditional museum displays. You can easily spend a whole day living in the past. Also narrow boat trips into the caverns under Dudley's Castle Hill. £17.50 adults; £8.75 kids. Black Country Living Museum (Q880185) on Wikidata Black Country Living Museum on Wikipedia
  • 13 Jaguar Castle Bromwich Assembly, Chester Road, Castle Vale, +44 24 7620-5716, . The north of Birmingham hosts Jaguar's Castle Bromwich Assembly plant, which makes most Jaguar's models, and especially the high-end ones. Factory visits are available, and have to be pre-booked by specifically contacting the Visitors Centre by phone or email.
  • 14 Cadbury World, Linden Rd, Bournville B30 2LU (train to Bournville), +44 845 450 3599. Opening times vary widely but tend to be daily 10AM-4PM in the spring, summer and autumn. Huge chocolate factory south of the city centre. Tour includes the history of chocolate and the Cadbury company, plus a brief look at some of the factory floor. Some free chocolate, plus relatively cheap mis-shapes in the shop. Adults £13.90, concessions £10.50, children £10.10; combined train and entry tickets available.
  • 15 Derby Silk Mill (Lombe's Mill). Built in 1717 and 1721 by George Sorocold was Britain's first mill for the Lombe brothers. Lombe Mill was notable for being the first thrown silk mill and possibly being the first mechanised factory in the world. Museum of Making (Q839047) on Wikidata Derby Silk Mill on Wikipedia
  • 16 Cromford. The first water-powered cotton spinning mill developed by Richard Arkwright in 1771. The wider Derwent Valley Mills area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

North of England

  • 17 Sheffield Industrial Museums, Kelham Island Museum, Alma Street, S3 8RY (Sheffield), +44 114 272 2106, . Learn about the industrial history of the "steel city" at three different industrial museums across the city. Kelham Island Museum is located in the oldest industrial district of the city and showcases a collection of enormous working machines. Nearby Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet takes visitors back to an 18th-century steelworks, while the Shepherd Wheel Workshop is a small cutlery workshop whose waterwheel and machinery are still working.
  • 18 National Railway Museum, Leeman Road, YO26 4XJ (York), +44 870 421 4001, . Daily 10AM-6PM. The largest railway museum in the world, responsible for the conservation and interpretation of the British national collection of historically significant railway vehicles and other artefacts. Contains an unrivalled collection of locomotives, rolling stock, railway equipment, documents and records. Free.
  • 19 Wilberforce House, 23-25 High St, Kingston upon Hull, +44 1482 300300, . M-Sa 10AM-5PM, Su 1:30-4:30PM. Birthplace and residence of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), MP for Hull and slavery abolitionist, whose anti-slavery bill was finally passed in 1807 after his tireless campaigning. The house has been a museum in his memory since 1903. Free. Wilberforce House (Q8000088) on Wikidata Wilberforce House on Wikipedia
  • 20 National Coal Mining Museum for England, New Road, Wakefield WF4 4RH, +44 1924 848806. Daily 10AM–5PM. Few nowadays will ever go underground in a working coal mine, so this museum (the former Caphouse Colliery) is an essential experience of this great but departed industry. Free. National Coal Mining Museum for England (Q12062380) on Wikidata National Coal Mining Museum for England on Wikipedia
  • 21 Saltaire. A mill town near Bradford.
  • 22 Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI), Liverpool Road, M3 4FP (Manchester), +44 161 832-2244. Daily 10AM-5PM. This is a great museum for those interested in our (global) industrial heritage: sited at one end of the world's first passenger railway line. The working cotton weaving machines are particularly worth experiencing. Catch one of their regular demonstrations of their operation. There is also the opportunity to explore the city's former sewers (now fully cleaned!) to get an idea of the living (and dying) conditions of Manchester's cotton workers. Most impressive of all is the huge collection of working engines in the Power Hall, powered by steam, gas, water, you name it. Across the road is the Air and Space Hall, containing real examples of Britain's aeronautical history. Free, except for temporary exhibits (prices vary).
  • 23 Anderton Boat Lift, Lift Lane, Anderton, Northwich, CW9 6FW (Northwich, Cheshire), +44 1606 786777, . Sa Su 9:30AM–4PM. Built in 1875 to lift cargo boats 50 ft (15.24 metres) between the Weaver Navigation and the Trent and Mersey Canal. Today, you can make the same journey on board the Edwin Clark boat, as well as visit an exhibition about the lift. Free.
  • 24 Quarry Bank, Styal, SK9 4LA (Wilmslow, Cheshire), +44 1625 527468, . Daily 10:30AM-5PM. Samuel Greg's wonderfully-preserved cotton mill was a harsh and dangerous workplace for men, women and children. The mill machinery is magnificent, and there are plenty of working demos, but the focus is on people's daily lives - both those of the wealthy Greg family and of their employees living in Styal village. £19/£9.50 adult/child.
  • 25 Pier Head Waterfront (Liverpool). A UNESCO World Heritage Site, home to the 'three graces' of Liverpool: the Royal Liver Building, the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building. Also in situ is the Albert Dock, the historic heart of Liverpool's mighty docks whose trade once served the whole Empire.


  • 27 New Lanark. A UNESCO World Heritage Site. A mill town, largely developed in the 19th century. Known for the work of Robert Owen, who improved living conditions for mill workers. Many of the historic mill and tenement buildings have now been restored. It include a visitor centre and accommodation.
  • 28 Forth Railway Bridge (South Queensferry). Built between 1882-89 across the Firth of Forth, this iconic cantilever rail bridge was the first major steel construction in Britain. In 2015 the bridge was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
  • 29 The Titan Clydebank. Closed in the winter. A Category A listed structure, this is a huge shipbuilding crane from 1907, now restored with tours and a visitors' center. Ships built at Clydebank were once common all over the world, and this is a monument to Glasgow's industrial past.

Northern Ireland

  • 30 Titanic Belfast, 1 Olympic Way, Queens Road, Titanic Quarter Belfast BT3 9EP, +44 28 9076 6386. Daily 10AM-5PM year-round, extended hours in high season. Belfast takes a bizarre pride in being the birthplace of the RMS Titanic. Many hundreds of other ships were built here, including the majestic ocean liners which plied the mighty seas long before the advent of mass-market air travel. The former boat yards of Belfast have been redeveloped into a residential and commercial neighbourhood. One can now take a boat tour around the area that the ship was built (check sailing times on their website). £17.50. Titanic Belfast (Q924254) on Wikidata Titanic Belfast on Wikipedia

Isle of Man

  • 31 Laxey Wheel, Off Mines Road, IM4 7NL (Laxey). A large working water wheel operational during the summer months that was built to pump water from the mineshafts nearby. It is said to be the largest still-operational waterwheel of its kind. £5 adults, £2.50 children. Laxey Wheel (Q2046863) on Wikidata Laxey Wheel on Wikipedia



See also

This travel topic about Industrial Britain is a usable article. It touches on all the major areas of the topic. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page.
Life in Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution