Paper money of England and Wales

Edited by Catherine Eagleton and Artemis Manolopoulou

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The Industrial Revolution and the changing
face of Britain

Page three

Changes in social and living conditions

The industrial and economic developments of the Industrial Revolution brought significant social changes. Industrialization resulted in an increase in population and the phenomenon of urbanization, as a growing number of people moved to urban centres in search of employment. Some individuals became very wealthy, but some lived in horrible conditions. A class of prosperous industrialists, ship owners and merchants dominated, accumulating great wealth, but at the same time the working classes had to live with minimum comforts in overcrowded environments. Children were sent to work in factories, where they were exploited and ill-treated; women experienced substantial changes in their lifestyle as they took jobs in domestic service and the textile industries, leaving the agricultural workforce and spending less time in the family home. This period also saw the creation of a middle class that enjoyed the benefits of the new prosperity. People started spending their free time entertaining themselves in theatres, concert halls and sports facilities or enjoying the countryside in long promenades.

Most important, however, 19th-century Britain experienced political unrest as the industrialization and urbanization of the country created a need for social and political change. There were increasing demands for improved social welfare, education, labour rights, political rights and equality, as well as for the abolition of the slave trade and changes in the electoral system. As a result, the slave trade was abolished in 1807 and the Great Reform Act was passed by Parliament in 1832. After this Reform Act, manufacturing cities such as Birmingham and Manchester could be represented in Parliament for the first time, thereby substantially changing the character of parliamentary politics.


The Industrial Revolution brought fundamental changes in the British way of life. Scientific innovations and technological improvements contributed to the advancement of agriculture, industry, shipping and trade and to the expansion of the economy. With the increase of capital and the need for credit, banking developed not only in London but also in the countryside. Industrialists, shipbuilders, merchants and other private manufacturers established provincial banks and issued paper money in the form of bills of exchange and notes, primarily in order to provide payment for labour and for the purchase of raw materials.

The exhibition The Industrial Revolution and the Changing Face of Britain offered an insight into the creation of country banking and a testimony to the economic development of the rural regions of Britain in the 19th century. As this essay has sought to indicate, the iconography of the banknotes of the time, so well represented in the British Museum’s collection, shows a narrative of agricultural, industrial and maritime prosperity alongside an architectural boom – a positive, and indeed somewhat idealized, picture of wellbeing and progress.