England being the first nation to industrialize on a large scale owed to it being the first to ramp its agricultural productivity. By the end of the 17th century, England was ahead of continental Europe, with only 60% of its workforce producing food. The proportion steadily declined to 36% by the beginning of the 19th century, 22% mid-century, to less than 10% when the 20th century dawned. This improvement came from experimenting with new crops and crop rotations.
Probably the most important agricultural innovation came in the 19th century with convertible husbandry: alternating field crops with pastures, which were frequently sown with fodder crops. The dual advantage was restoring soil fertility through better crop rotations, and carrying more livestock, thus producing more dairy, meat, produce, wool, and manure fertilizer. There was also the selective breeding of livestock to gain desired traits.
A prerequisite to these innovations was consolidation and enclosure of fields. Under the traditional system of open fields, it was often excruciatingly difficult to get agreement about new crops or rotations. Likewise, livestock grazing in common herds made selective breeding problematic.
Enclosure by private agreement had been ongoing since the late Middle Ages. It picked up pace in the late 1600s, into the 1760s. By that time, over half of England’s arable land had been enclosed. Since then, Parliament passed laws to finish the property partitioning. There was considerable opposition to this, particularly from cottagers and squatters without open field holdings of their own. With enclosure, the prospect was lost of grazing a beast or 2 on the common pasture. Hence, those with the least lost out.
Enclosed farms of 40–120 hectares replaced nucleated agricultural villages surrounded by open fields. Along with enclosure came consolidation. By 1850 over 30% of cultivated acreage were farms larger than 120 hectares. Only 22% of the land went to farms smaller than 40 hectares. Even so, there were twice as many people on these small properties.
Small farms were family owned and occupied, worked by the residents. In contrast, the larger lands were capitalistic tenant farmers, who rented the land and hired landless agricultural laborers.
Apportioned agriculture increased the demand for labor. Not until the last half of the 19th century did the absolute number of agricultural workers begin to decline. The reason was the introduction of farm machinery: steam plows, threshers, and harvesters.
In the meantime, improving productivity enabled feeding a burgeoning population. England exported food from 1660 to 1760, until population growth outpaced agricultural productivity.
England was also ahead of continental Europe in having a relatively prosperous rural population. Hence, there was a ready market for manufactured goods, ranging from agricultural implements to clothing and housewares.
By the end of the 17th century, only the Netherlands exceeded British foreign trade per capita. London had already developed into a sophisticated commercial and financial center and was beginning to rival Amsterdam.
Already by the 16th century, London was a locus of growth for the English economy. This owed to the ancient imperial Romans, who selected the city’s site. The network of roads that the Romans built still served London area transport in the 16th century, and in later centuries. By around 1700, London surpassed Paris as the largest city in Europe.
Commercialization depended upon financial support. England’s efficiency there was stunted by governmental centralization.
The origins of England’s banking system are obscure. After the Restoration of 1660, when a unified monarchy of England, Scotland, and Ireland was restored, a number of goldsmiths in London began acting as bankers: issuing deposit receipts that circulated as banknotes. Creditworthy entrepreneurs got loans.
The Bank of England, founded in 1694, forced private bankers to stop issuing banknotes, as the bank was granted a legal monopoly. But private bankers still accepted deposits, drafts, and discounted bills of exchange.
The Bank of England established no branches. Its large-denomination banknotes did not circulate outside the capitol. Areas outside London were without formal banking facilities. In the provinces, wealthy merchants, brokers, and attorneys performed some elementary banking functions.
The Royal Mint’s practices were inane. Its gold coins were too big for paying wages or retail trading, and it minted a scant number of silver and copper coins.
The dearth of small change prompted private enterprise to step in. Merchants, industrialists, and even publicans issued scripts and tokens that acted as currency.
Thus arose country banks: any bank not in London. Their growth was especially explosive during the 2nd half of the 18th century. By 1810 there were 800 country banks.
The growing industrial economy depended upon moving copious quantities of bulky goods: grains, timber, coal, and ores. The cost and dependability of delivery directly affected economic growth.
Britain owed much of its enviable position at the onset of industrialization to being an island nation, close to others with which trade was convenient. The watery buffer that kept it away from continental warfare, except when it chose to participate, also provided a means for inexpensive transportation.
Internally, the many navigable rivers and streams of the British Isles lessened the need for overland transport. This, and the relatively compact land mass, put England at an advantage compared to most of the European continent.
For all that, Britain busied itself with improving transport facilities. From 1660–1749, Parliament passed hundreds of private acts for river and harbor improvement.
In the 1750s came the canal age. Artificial waterways were created to connect navigable rivers with each other, or to more readily get mining ores to their markets. By 1820, all the major production centers and markets were linked, as well as ready access to foreign trading ports.
Traditionally, road maintenance responsibility belonged to the parishes, using the forced labor of local inhabitants. Road conditions were generally deplorable.
Beginning in the 1690s, Parliament created, by private acts, turnpike trusts, to build and maintain toll roads. The greatest spurt of turnpike construction was during the 1750s and 1760s. Road mileage peaked in 1836, by which time railways had begun to diminish the commercial importance of roads and canals.
The first railways in Britain were built at coal mines. Railed coal carts were pulled by horses until the early 19th century, when stationary steam engines became employed to pull carts via cables. By the time the locomotive steam engine arrived – the earliest in 1801 – Britain already had several hundred kilometers of railways.