During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Britain experienced change in all aspects of life, as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Scientific advances and technological innovations brought growth in agricultural and industrial production, economic expansion and changes in living conditions, while at the same time there was a new sense of national identity and civic pride. The most dramatic changes were witnessed in rural areas, where the provincial landscape often became urban and industrialized following advances in agriculture, industry and shipping. Wealth accumulated in the regions and there was soon a need for country banking.
These themes were explored in the temporary exhibition The Industrial Revolution and the Changing Face of Britain at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in 2008–9, and are summarized in this essay. The exhibition displayed examples from the British Museum’s extensive collection of English and Welsh provincial banknotes to offer insights into the regional developments during this period. Visitors, given the chance to examine paper money closely, were able to see how the vignettes on banknotes could offer a narrative of the change and development of four key themes: agriculture, industry, shipping and maritime trade.
Agriculture had dominated the British economy for centuries. During the 18th century, after a long period of enclosures, new farming systems created an agricultural revolution that produced larger quantities of crops to feed the increasing population. In early 19th-century Britain, land was of great political and economic significance: the aristocracy and gentry owned much of the countryside, and their tenants farmed and reared livestock. New tools, fertilizers and harvesting techniques were introduced, resulting in increased productivity and agricultural prosperity. Indeed, despite the phenomenon of urbanization and industrialization, agriculture remained a principal provider of employment in the provinces, both supporting and being supported by industry. Geographical specialization of products was established, with south-eastern England specializing in grain, for example, and Scotland or Leicestershire in breeding cattle and sheep. Paper money such as that from Yorkshire or Herefordshire illustrates the importance of farming through idealized images of agricultural bliss.
By the mid-18th century, population growth and increasing foreign trade created a greater demand for manufactured goods. Mass production was achieved by replacing water and animal power with steam power, and by the invention of new machinery and technology. Among other innovations, the introduction of steam power was a catalyst for the Industrial Revolution. James Watt’s improvements to the steam engine, and his collaboration with Matthew Boulton on the creation of the rotative engine, were crucial for industrial production: machinery could now function much faster, with rotary movements and without human power. Coal became a key factor in the success of industrialization; it was used to produce the steam power on which industry depended. Improvements in mining technology ensured that more coal could be extracted to power the factories and run railway trains and steamships. Britain’s cotton and metalworking industries became internationally important, but the manufacture of glass, soap and earthenware also flourished.
The early mechanization of the textile industry and the applications of new technologies, including Richard Arkwright’s water frame for the cotton spinning wheel, revolutionized production in the textile mills. More efficient ways of weaving cotton helped Manchester become the most important British centre of the cotton industry (often called ‘Cottonopolis’) and the world’s first industrial city. Paper money issued in Lancashire shows the importance of the textile industry in the county.
Like Manchester, Dewsbury grew substantially during the 19th century. It became an important centre of the ‘shoddy’ industry: that is, the recycling of old woollen products for the creation of blankets and other woollen goods of inferior quality. A banknote issued in Dewsbury bears an image of a local cotton recycling factory.
The metal industry developed into one of the most profitable in the country from the late 18th century onwards. Exported wares increased the flow of capital into the British economy, and the iron, copper and steel industries played an important role in changes to the country’s infrastructure and in the expansion of transportation networks. By the late 18th century, the west Midlands had become one of Britain’s major industrial centres and the area became known as the ‘Black Country’ because of its landscape of foundries and furnaces. Birmingham saw its metalworking industry flourish: brass fittings, buttons, guns, nails and pins were some of the most important goods that were mass-produced.