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The Path to Sustained Growth: England’s Transition from an Organic Economy to an Industrial Revolution

Author(s):Wrigley, E. A.
Reviewer(s):Jones, Eric

Published by EH.Net (June 2016)

E. A. Wrigley, The Path to Sustained Growth: England’s Transition from an Organic Economy to an Industrial Revolution.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.  xi + 219 pp. $30 (paperback),  ISBN: 978-1-316-50428-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Eric Jones, La Trobe University.

The surviving watermills of England are elaborately kitted out with levers, gears and a canny use of gravity.  They are neatly designed to save labor, like Dutch windmills or the tools of Tokugawa Japan.  It has always seemed surprising that societies able to advance so far in technique could not go further, but their sources of energy were too limited.  The central thesis of Tony Wrigley’s tightly argued, supremely well documented and mostly cautious book is that theirs were organic societies, waiting, so to speak, like the whole world to be liberated by steam power.

At the heart of the volume is a cluster of seventeenth and eighteenth century developments that must in retrospect seem preparatory.  During the former century transport was already being improved.  Rising productivity in agriculture meant more food and farm-produced industrial inputs and had the additional effect of releasing land for other purposes.  These purposes would have had to include growing more fuelwood except that substituting coal for wood as a source of heat energy (earlier than for mechanical power) was simultaneously land-saving.  Meanwhile labor was released to move to London, long a sink of population whose death rate exceeded its birth rate.  English marital practice, Hajnal-style, aided and abetted by the Old Poor Law, made fertility responsive to economic fluctuations.  Growth potential was therefore not swamped by an unremitting rise in population.  There were positive effects on consumer demand; Wrigley is much taken by Jan de Vries’s industrious revolution.  These changes were linked in various and sometimes obscure ways but are set out here in an ably clarifying fashion.  Into the preternaturally responsive mix came the adoption of steam as motive power.  It came fast, making England the Workshop of the World.  To Wrigley’s eyes, the industrial revolution was complete by 1851 but — the uptake of steam being so readily imitated — the country’s primacy did not last.

I shall shortly sum up my admiration for the volume.  Before doing so, however, it is a reviewer’s task to raise doubts and hesitations.  They fall into two parts.  One refers to the degree of life still left in England’s “organic economy” in the first half of the nineteenth century; this is downplayed by relentless insistence on the limitations of organic economies and their dependence on plant photosynthesis.  The inorganic world based on fossil fuels was bound to win in the end (though perhaps not the ultimate end, as Wrigley admits in a coda about environmental costs) but understanding the economy before steam finally took over does require detailed acknowledgement that older methods long continued.  Not only did they continue but some were improved – the “sailing ship syndrome.”  Historically this matters because declining sectors are still sectors, as it were.  Moreover an insistence on the defects of organic economies is easily overdone, for example by quoting the Danish historian, Thorkild Kjaergaard, in saying that coal and iron saved the Europe of 1800 from “ecological disaster.”  Kjaergaard himself lays heavy (though comparably over-emphatic) stress on the role of clover.

My other concern is about what might be seen as an excessively technocratic approach, the price, maybe, for clarity.  Automatic responses to changing relative factor prices — inert inducement mechanisms, the Achilles’ heel of the economist — are not in the forefront of the analysis but even so the technical advances are made to emerge somewhat automatically.  There is no real agency; culture and ideas scarcely figure.  Inventors and entrepreneurs may have been few but they were not automata.  Wrigley does not aim to delve into such matters and one might receive the impression that really he does not deign to do so.  He is certainly too astute to explain each advance as “caused” by its predecessor, indeed he tackles the interactive problem head on.  Yet there is no exploration beyond the (genuinely intriguing) knock-on effect of many a change, no analysis of the type of society that could respond so creatively to its practical opportunities and little more than similarly mechanistic explanations (enlightening though they are in themselves) of the failure of England’s continental rivals to do so.  If an economy shifts to a new, far cheaper, source of energy it must beat the costlier prior system, ceteris paribus; at the abstract level, what more is there to say?  Once steam power reigned, the effects seem obvious, but they did not arrive ex nihilo.  Without showing precisely why English society at a particular period was the first to adopt the crucial inorganic changes, one might almost entertain the teasing notion that the shift was virtually a truism.

This book digests Tony Wrigley’s lifetime work, advances it and ties it together: population history, urban history, interpreting the classical economists, and above all his insistence that the greatest propulsion of all was the move to coal as a source not merely of heat energy but of mechanical energy.  The author is not of the wordiness is next to godliness school, which is inherently meritorious, but the work can read a little like an accountancy manual, especially when picking its way through the complexities of occupational structure.  Its value lies in cramming in an enormous mass of numerical data, much of it recently compiled, and working without fuss through complicated arguments to eliminate seeming alternatives to its own interpretations.  Wrigley’s take on the emergence of the industrial revolution (more precisely the sustained growth of the title) is notably coherent and genuinely important.  This is no everyday monograph but as indispensable an addition as one can find to the literature on economic history’s chief watershed.

Eric Jones, Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University, and former Professorial Fellow, Melbourne Business School, is the author of Locating the Industrial Revolution: Inducement and Response (World Scientific, 2010), The Fabric of Society and How It Creates Wealth (Arley Hall Press, 2013) [with Charles Foster], and Cultures Merging: A Historical and Economic Critique of Culture (Princeton, 2016, paperback).

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Subject(s):Economic Development, Growth, and Aggregate Productivity
Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):18th Century
19th Century