Why didn’t the industrial revolution start in the West Country?

Why did the textiles industry first take off in Lancashire in the north west of England, and not in another part of Britain? We often ask why the industrial revolution started in Britain, and not China or the Netherlands. We often ask why it didn’t start earlier, or later. But less commonly asked is why the early part of the industrial revolution was led by one particular part of Britain and not another.

If you were looking at a map sometime before 1750, the region around Bristol — often known as the West Country — might have seemed a better candidate for an industrial revolution than Southern Lancashire, the region around Manchester and Liverpool. The West Country had a more established Atlantic port (Bristol), a lucrative wool and textiles trade (around the Cotswolds) and had reasonable access to coal fields (including in South Wales). So why was Manchester, not Bristol, the centre of the unprecedented industrial growth of the late eighteenth century?

***

The story of the industrial revolution in Lancashire goes something like this. Demand for textiles in Europe increased and British producers came to dominate the market, in part by copying methods from India. The industry began to use cotton, imported from North America, alongside traditional British wool. As the industry grew, technological breakthroughs raised productivity, while production began to happen in larger textile mills. These mills were water-powered at first, located in places with small, fast-flowing rivers. With the arrival of Watt’s steam engine in the late 1770s, the mills began to switch to coal instead of water, and there were plenty of nearby coalfields to provide the fuel.

Lancashire was the cradle of this revolution in the textiles industry. The small town of Manchester became the great Cottonopolis, the centre for trading cotton and intermediate materials. Liverpool grew from a minor port into a great maritime city, the place where cotton arrived from America and textiles left to export markets around the world. Many of the surrounding towns — Stockport, Bury, Bolton, Oldham — grew up as mill towns, employing thousands of people in the new industry, while others, like Wigan, provided the now vital coal. They were all connected, by water and later by railway, as the world’s first industrial region.

But what did Lancashire have that Somerset and Gloucestershire did not? The West Country had most of the same features that played a crucial role in the industrialisation of Lancashire. It had in Bristol a major international port, had been far more important than Liverpool for most of its history*. It had accumulated a certain amount of capital, both through the merchants of Bristol and the Cotswold wool trade. It had accessible supplies of coal and iron, from South Wales and the Forest of Dean. It had a number of mill towns which were thriving on water power by the early 18th century, like Stroud and Bradford-on-Avon. And most of it was connected together by the waters of the Severn and the Bristol Avon. So why did the West Country not industrialise to anything like the extent of Lancashire?

I have two broad ways of thinking about this question. One is a “Geography as Destiny” approach — the idea that it was mainly geographic factors that made the north west the inevitable first-mover. The other is a “People and Institutions” approach — the idea that the industrial revolution could have centred on Bristol, but that the people and the organisations there just did not make it happen. So what evidence can we gather to test these theories?

***

A good place to start is to look at how the West County and Lancashire fared in the decades before the industrial revolution. Their pre-industrial development was, in many ways, quite similar. Both regions had growing textiles industries, with home-based artisans and sometimes small, water-powered mills turning raw materials into finished goods. They had similar population densities**, and what evidence I can find on wages does not suggest dramatic differences between the two areas.

In some ways, the West Country had some seeming advantages as a potential textiles hub. It had Bristol, which had for centuries been the second largest and second richest mercantile city in England. Bristol had vital trade connections with the Americas and with southern Europe. It had also accumulated a cadre of wealthy merchants with the capital to invest in new ventures.

The West Country and the Cotswolds had by the year 1700 become the most successful centre of the wool industry, historically England’s most important industry. The need for fast-flowing water to power mills had helped the West Country to overtake East Anglia, its main traditional rival. Besides the obvious jump-start to its development as a textiles centre, this also ought to have given the West Country a certain amount of political influence. Wool was, after all, a famously influential interest group at Westminster.

But there were also some currents moving in the opposite direction. Bristol may have been the established west coast port, but Liverpool’s rise had already been underway for decades before the industrial revolution. Through a combination of factors — including a series of wars affecting shipping from Bristol, plus a greater ability to service the North American colonies with labour and materials — Liverpool gradually began to build new trading connections that might otherwise have been Bristol’s. And there was one other factor — Liverpool was quick to expand its city and its docks as its trade expanded, with a small elite of merchants controlling the port and able to make decisions quickly. As I’ll explain later, Bristol did not share Liverpool’s ability to grow rapidly.

The north west of England also developed a chemicals industry, after the discovery of salt in Cheshire. (The chemicals industry is still active today, unlike the textile mills). This helped supply dyes, an important part of the textiles supply chain, as well as aiding Liverpool’s early expansion as a port.

And then there is cotton. One of the defining features of the textiles industry in Lancashire was the switch from wool to cotton. The West Country may have at one point led the pre-industrial wool trade, but Manchester became a cotton city. It was cotton products from Bengal that saw an explosion in demand, and the supply of raw cotton could more easily be scaled up from the vast fields of North America.

But I’m not sure cotton is as important a factor in explaining Lancashire’s success as it seems. Liverpool was relatively late to dominate the cotton import market — initially most cotton entered the country via London — and there is no obvious reason why the West Country couldn’t have switched to cotton. And anyway, other early industrial cities like Leeds developed early textiles industries based mainly on wool. It feels more likely that missing out on the cotton trade was a symptom, not a cause, of the West Country’s missed opportunity to industrialise early.

Those are the main clues I can find from the pre-industrial period. By my reading, there is no definitive answer there. In fact, if you sat me down early in the eighteenth century and made me predict where the explosion of England’s textiles industry would begin, I think I’d still choose Bristol over Manchester and Liverpool.

***

However, there is one place that we can find big differences between Lancashire and the West Country: transport infrastructure. Liverpool and Manchester were right at the forefront of the transport breakthroughs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while the West Country came very late to the party.

Transport played a crucial role in the industrial revolution, because moving goods — especially heavy goods like coal and iron — was expensive. In 1760, around the time the industrial revolution began, transport over land was slow and dangerous. The railways would not arrive for another 70 years, and the roads were not suited to industrial cargoes.

Water was by far the best means of transporting things, and it underwent great improvements during the eighteenth century. Many natural rivers were made navigable to ships from around 1720 onwards, and Lancashire was part of this. The route from Liverpool to Manchester was made navigable in 1721, which later became a vital route for bringing cotton in and textiles out to the world. Later, in 1761, Manchester’s Bridgwater Canal was the first man-made canal, linking nearby coalfields to central Manchester. This set in chain the period of canal mania, which saw canals dug across many parts of the English landscape. There is a pattern here: Lancashire always seemed to be a first-mover on new transport infrastructure, a run it later continued when Liverpool-Manchester became the first commercial railway route in 1830.

The West Country, by contrast, was a late-mover in the age of inland waterways. Where it did build canals or make rivers navigable, it was generally well after the success of such ventures elsewhere. The river to Stroud, a thriving early textiles hub, was not made navigable until 1779, well after Lancashire’s industrial revolution had begun. Bradford-on-Avon, another textiles centre, did not connect with Bristol until 1810, despite being on the same major river. A much more ambitious canal, the Sharpness Ship Canal, opened in 1827 and allowed much larger ocean-going ships to reach Gloucester, but by then the age of rail was just around the corner. Meanwhile, Bristol’s Floating Harbour, which solved Bristol’s problem with the tides, did not open until 1807. In each case, the crucial infrastructure came long after the industrial opportunities had gone elsewhere.

But were these slow moves to improve transport links an accident of geography or a failure of the West Country’s institutions? Let’s look at a couple of examples to look for answers.

First, the Stroudwater Navigation, connecting the water-powered mills of Stroud to the River Severn. The Stroudwater is a natural river, and the first proposal to make it navigable was made around 1697 (well before the Liverpool-Manchester link). The plan was to carry coal in and textiles out, but it was opposed by the very mill owners it was intended to help. I’m not quite sure why they opposed it; I guess it was because they relied on the same water to drive their mills, and worried the navigation would alter the flow. Whatever their reasons, this certainly suggests some conservative traits in the local institutions. The plan was revived in 1728, during the main era of river navigations, but the Act of Parliament secured for the work did not allow for a viable project. Again, in part this was due to the opposition of some mill owners. A later attempt was made but proved too expensive — the terrain around Stroud is notably hilly — before the navigation was finally completed in 1779, aided by improved canal engineering methods. How different might Stroud look today had its mills gained access to the sea in the early 1700s?

Second, let’s consider the port of Bristol itself. Bristol had been for centuries England’s second port after London, but it had a tidal problem. It is seven miles inland from the sea, down the treacherous River Avon; this was an advantage in earlier times as it gave protection from pirates. It has the second highest tidal range in the world, so ships could only enter and unload when the tide was high. Liverpool, by contrast, is a deep water port that was better suited to a rapidly globalising world. Bristol was the incumbent whose natural advantages had now turned to disadvantages.

This poses a question: why didn’t Bristol improve its port facilities? Well, it did eventually — it built the ingenious Floating Harbour, which kept the water level constant in Bristol’s docks, fixing part of the tidal problem. But it took until 1807 to complete, and it was expensive to build, which meant high harbour fees. By then, Liverpool was already in the ascendancy. Bristol’s challenges were probably not helped by its harbour being run by the Society of Merchant Venturers (which counts Edward Colston among its most famous members), which had been granted a monopoly by royal charter in 1552. While it appears to have done a reasonable job running the operations of the harbour, it was very much a pre-industrial institution, more like a guild than a learned society.

Another question: why didn’t Bristol shift its port further downstream? The modern port of Bristol, one of the UK’s largest today, is at Avonmouth, with deep water and direct access from the sea, around 7 miles from Bristol. Why did it take until 1877 to open a dock at Avonmouth? Well, a merchant called Joshua Franklyn did build a downstream dock as early as 1712, at Sea Mills some 5 miles downstream from Bristol. The venture failed, primarily because it was too difficult and dangerous to transport goods overland the final few miles in to Bristol. It turns out that, before the railways and effective law enforcement, a treacherous, tidal river was preferable to a short journey overland.

It is hard to untangle the geographic constraints from the institutional barriers in these examples. The West Country clearly had some geographic disadvantages in improving its water transport routes. But might they have been surmountable with more ambitious institutions, or more ingenious individuals? Perhaps if Brunel, or some other genius, had been in Bristol in the eighteenth century he might have found a workable solution? Perhaps if the railways had come a century earlier, Avonmouth might have been the major port of the industrial revolution?

***

The answer to my question, then, is at once straightforward and complicated. Having transport connections between mills, coal mines and the sea was a prerequisite of industrialisation, and the West Country did not build these connections; Lancashire did. Part of the reason was no doubt due to geography, the hillier landscape and smaller rivers harder for engineers to work with. But there is also a story of institutional conservatism here, of an incumbent with long-established patterns of wealth that was overtaken by a more nimble new entrant. Bristol’s eventual industrial surge, led by Brunel, the industrial revolution’s most famous figure, came much later, once the city realised it had been left behind. But the wool towns like Stroud, Bradford-on-Avon and Malmesbury never grew at all, and remain small, handsome towns today. Perhaps they preferred it that way.

Technical notes

* Bristol was the largest port outside London for much of the pre-industrial period, and it was comfortably England’s second city as late as 1750. Liverpool, by contrast, was only a small port before the eighteenth century. This fantastic Medieval and Tudor Ships database has records for only 265 voyages from Liverpool from 1400 to 1580. For Bristol, it has 2,431 records, almost ten times as many. With both ports being on the west coast, they were well placed to benefit from expanding trade with the Americas, but Bristol was clearly the dominant port right up to the start of the industrial revolution.

**In 1761, on the eve of the industrial revolution, Gloucestershire and Somerset (including Bristol) had around 450,000 people, compared to 300,000 in Lancashire. This is broadly in proportion to their respective land areas. Source here

***I updated this piece slightly on 25th April following feedback on Twitter from Pseudoerasmus, who showed that Gloucestershire and Wiltshire’s textiles industries had begun to slow down from around 1720 onwards, earlier than I had originally thought (around 1760).

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Andrew Sissons

Andrew Sissons

I write for Nesta’s All You Can Heat by day, and am writing the What Would Make Life Better? series by night. With occasional economic history thrown in too!