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The Industrial Revolution

Radical changes took place in the English countryside in the late 18th century: the narrow-­strip system of farming which had prevailed since Saxon times ended when a series of Enclosure Acts empowered wealthier landowners to seize land and divide it into enclosed fields. This explains the patchwork quality of much of Britain’s countryside. Arable farming became more efficient and profitable, but for the evicted tenants it was a disaster. The dispossessed farmers left their homes to look for work in the towns, which soon became impossibly overcrowded.

Steam power

The first steam engine was devised by an Englishman at the end of the 17th century but it was the Scottish inventor James Watt (1736–1819) who modified the design in the 1770s and made steam an efficient source of energy, which would power trains and ships as well as factory machinery. Steam pumps allowed speculators to drain deep coal mines, which vastly increased coal production. Abraham Darby’s method of smelting iron with coke instead of charcoal hugely increased the production of iron which was used for machinery, railways and shipping. In 1779, the world’s first cast-iron bridge was built in Coalbrookdale, Shropshire, and can still be seen today. Textiles had long been a vital part of Britain’s economy and James Hargreaves’ invention of the Spinning Jenny in the 1770s opened the way to mass production. As in agriculture, mechanisation destroyed the livelihood of many.

England's canals and railways

Goods and materials needed improved transportation to reach a market, and the 18th century saw massive outlay on canal building. By 1830 all the main industrial areas were linked by waterways, although most of these would fall into disuse when the new railways proved faster and more efficient (today, cleared out and cleaned up, they provide thousands of miles of leisure boating, with more miles of canal in Birmingham than there are in Venice). New roads were built, too. By the early 19th century, men such as Thomas Telford and John Macadam, who gave us the road surface called “tarmac”, had created a road network totalling some 125,000 miles (200,000km).

Above all, this was the age of the railways, when iron and steam combined to change the face of the country, and were romanticised in such paintings as Rain, Steam and Speed by J.M.W. Turner. Cornishman Richard Trevithick built the first steam locomotive, and The Stockton and Darlington Line was the first railway line to open, in 1825, with George Stephenson’s Locomotion. Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who designed the elegant Clifton Suspension Bridge across the Avon Gorge, laid down the Great Western Railway.

Read more about England

Read more about the cultural features of England in Insight Guides: England

Insight Guides: England

Insight Guide England is a comprehensive full-colour guide to the culture, history and people of this varied and exciting country. Our inspirational Best Of England section illustrates the country's...

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