‘It was the development of the railways that enabled Britain to experience an economic boom in the middle years of the 19th century.’ Assess the validity of this view. (25)

Introduction

  • In the middle years of the 19th century the railway industry experienced a boom known as ‘Railway Mania’
  • This helped facilitate industrialisation during this period.
  • However there were a number of other factors which contributed towards this including the iron and coal industry; international trade and government policy; agriculture and relative stability.
  • Ultimately, it was the iron and coal industry which enabled Britain to experience an economic boom in the middle years of the 19th century.

On the one hand, the railways were important in facilitating the economic boom…

Railway Mania

  • In 1832 there were less than 1000 miles of track but by 1846 there was more than 5000.
  • The opening of the Liverpool to Manchester line in 1830 enabled the flow of labour to increase in the northern industrial cities, especially following the passage of the 1844 Railway Act which legislated for a third class carriage on every train.
  • Commodities such as milk could be transported overnight in a fresh condition. This improved the quality of the urban diet, resulting in a more productive workforce.
  • Therefore, the railways did impact upon the economic boom as they increased the efficiency of the transport of goods and made domestic markets more accessible.

The Institute of Civil Engineers

  • The Institute of Civil Engineers was set up in 1818 and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who helped to design the Birmingham to London line in 1837 was a member.
  • This helped to professionalise engineering and therefore attract investment for projects which would help facilitate industrialisation.
  • It gave rise to well-respected engineers such as Brunel and Stephenson, who designed the Rocket (an acclaimed locomotive which travelled on the Liverpool to Manchester line).
  • It helped to establish the Great Western Railway (Brunel was the chief engineer) which linked London and Birmingham.
  • The rise of key engineers helped to spark ambition in establishing Britain’s infrastructure which facilitated other industries.

However there were  other factors which also contributed towards this boom…

Iron and Coal

  • By 1830, coal output had reached 30 million tonnes and iron output had doubled since 1815.
  • This helped to facilitate railway development as iron was needed to build the tracks.
  • The development of Nielson’s hot air blast furnace in 1828 meant that iron could be produced more efficiently.
  • Coal was also used to power the steam engines as well as the cast iron power looms which were increasingly used in factories. This ensured that the textile industry and cotton exports continued to boom.
  • Iron and Coal was a very significant factor in the economic boom as it facilitated other industries and the improved techniques massively increased efficiency.

International Trade and Government Policy

  • Peel’s Reduction of Custom’s Duties in his Free Trade budget of 1842 was a clear indication that the government was looking to increase international trade.
  • This was further exemplified at the Great Exhibition of 1851.
  • More countries were attracted to trade with Britain, most crucially from outside the Empire. This increased revenue.
  • This was facilitated by the introduction of the steam ship in 1838 which reduced travel time.
  • This facilitated an economic boom as it meant that an increasing number of ships were passing through British ports.

Agriculture

  • There were significant scientific discoveries in the agricultural industry during this period.
  • The discovery of elements in soil meant that the quantity and quality of the crop turnover increased.
  • The Drainage Act enabled farmers to secure loans to protect their crops in a bad winter. Farmers also benefitted from an improving train network. This enabled their crops to reach a wider market.
  • However, it was only farmers who truly benefitted from this and the extent to which is caused a ‘economic boom’ is very limited.

Relative stability

  • Britain benefitted from a period of political instability among its main economic competitors,
  • France had revolted again in 1830, Germany was experiencing deep divisions and America was on the brink of civil war.
  • In Britain, the Reform Act was passed in 1832 which helped to increase stability.
  • Britain was able to capitalise on this as the economic development of other nations was hindered.
  • It is an important contextual factor but not the most important in facilitating an economic boom.

Conclusion

  • Overall, the railway, while important, was not the most important factor in enabling Britain to experience an economic boom during the middle years of the 19th century.
  • The most important factor was the development of iron and coal as this supplied a number of other industries, increasingly shipping, which were able to boom at this time.
  • The contextual factors were important as they allowed Britain to sustain this growth into the later half of the century.
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