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Making Sense of the Industrial Revolution

Author(s):King, Steven
Timmins, Geoffrey
Reviewer(s):Honeyman, Katrina

Published by EH.NET (September 2001)

Steven King and Geoffrey Timmins. Making Sense of the Industrial

Revolution. English Economy and Society, 1700-1850 Manchester: Manchester

University Press 2001. xiii+402 pp. ?17.99. ISBN 0 7190 5021 9 (hb), 07190

5022 7 (pb).

Reviewed for EH.NET and H-BUSINESS by Dr. Katrina Honeyman, School of History,

University of Leeds, UK.

The idea that socio-economic change was more pronounced in the 150 years after

1700 than in any preceding or succeeding era of equivalent length is

periodically challenged, but not in this book whose authors appear entirely

convinced of the existence of the industrial revolution. Steven King and

Geoffrey Timmins might, at first sight, be judged unlikely bedfellows, yet

their partnership, founded on a complementarity of knowledge and expertise,

works surprisingly well. King, prolific investigator of ‘micro demography’

and Timmins, a historian of the industries of the north of England, have

created a refreshing perspective on an industrialising world. Taking the ‘long

view’ and drawing on evidence of a widely felt contemporary sense of change,

they conclude that the period from the early eighteenth century to the middle

of the nineteenth century was one of discontinuity. In some ways, therefore,

this work contributes to the ‘rehabilitation’ of the industrial revolution

initiated by Maxine Berg and Pat Hudson several years ago.

The book is structured in three parts, each of which is informed by innovative

thinking – both their own and that of other historians – in the field. The

first section juxtaposes contemporaries’ perception of what was happening

around them and historians’ interpretation of the same events and experiences

and explains why various historiographies of several ‘industrial revolutions’

co-exist. The regional dimension of economic expansion is considered in some

detail both as a means of engaging with important recent work and to provide

a context through which to understand the purpose of the substantive chapters

that follow.

There appears to be slightly less novelty of approach in the second part of

the book which suggests approaching the huge area of historical enquiry that

is subsumed within the notion of industrial revolution within the context of

economic infrastructure. The conventionality is only superficial, however, and

although the broad themes in this section are familiar, the authors suggest

creative ways in which readers might engage with well-worn issues and sources.

The overall approach, however, is neither dogmatic not overly directive. The

discussion on change in technology and the organisation of production

emphasises the range and variety of innovation and its regional distribution.

The following chapter on finance bravely takes the reader through a balance

sheet and suggests conclusions that can be drawn from it. Some old favourites,

in unfamiliar guises, are revisited. The agricultural revolution is

repackaged, quite effectively, as ‘the feeding of the industrial revolution';

and supply and demand becomes ‘sellers and buyers.’

In the third section there seems to be more repackaging, but in fact the

revisionism is more profound. It is here, in the last part of the book, that

the authors’ individual research interests and findings play a key role. An

ambitious attempt to explain complex demographic issues, for example, exposes

the reader to a more sophisticated exploration of the significant consequences

of population growth and mobility such as the challenge to family and

household survival and relations between the generations. Through such

discussion, the reader is prepared for a chapter which revises prevailing

views on the impact of the industrial revolution on the form and function of

English families and households, emphasising the variation within and between

regions, and concluding that the family could mediate the impact of change in

the socio-economic sphere as well as simply react to it; and another which

explores the changing economic structure of the household through an

examination of budgets, diets, wages, family incomes and household

expenditure. In effect this is a refined recasting of the standard of living

debate, identifying individuals and groups as gainers and losers, and pointing

out the unexceptionable yet rarely illustrated fact that the well-being of

any person or family would vary over time both because of life course changes

and as a result of fluctuation in economic activity and occupational

opportunity. The authors usefully emphasise the importance of understanding

cycles of accumulation and dissipation experienced by the often or sometimes


Although the extent of the unknowns make convincing conclusions difficult,

King and Timmins rightly point out that the question of how people make ends

meet is essential to our understanding of what the industrial revolution meant

to those that lived it. The final substantive chapter provides a comprehensive

treatment of the built environment, which further conveys the contemporary

sense of disjuncture and discontinuity, this time through the growing scale,

changing appearance and increasing proximity of housing, factories and other

edifices. The analysis of a contemporary diary, providing further evidence of

a widely felt experience of change, provides the focus of the concluding


The authors make no claims for completeness, indeed are transparent about the

gaps, yet this book is impressively comprehensive in scale, scope and

analytical range. The work is explicitly aimed at a student readership, yet

even old hands will be informed. Its key strengths are: firstly the way in

which primary source material is integrated in the text and with which

students are encouraged to engage; secondly its emphasis on the region which

permeates the text; and thirdly – though this is slightly over-done – its

commitment to understanding how contemporaries perceived and understood the

changes going on around them. King and Timmins show that there is plenty of

life in the industrial revolution as a subject for investigation, debate and

edification. The industrial revolution is clearly responding well to treatment

but is not yet out of rehab.

Dr. Honeyman is a leading business historian, having published a series of

books and articles on topics like business elites, the Leeds clothing industry

and women workers. Her latest project is a historiography of the Industrial


Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century