Britain industrialised over a century earlier than first thought, new research suggests

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The Industrial Revolution began in Britain under the reign of the Stuarts in the 17th century – more than 100 years earlier than history books credit – new research suggests.

According to the University of Cambridge’s Economies Past website, which contains the most detailed occupational history of a nation ever created, Britain saw a steep decline in agricultural peasantry and a surge in people who manufactured goods in the 1600s.

Researchers say the findings show that Britain was industrialising long before the mills and steam engines of the late 18th century – which have been long credited as the birth of global industry and economic growth – with a surge in local artisans like blacksmiths, shoemakers and wheelwrights, alongside a burgeoning network of home-based weavers producing cloth for wholesale.

Intriguingly, records show that manufacturing numbers had started to flatline by the early 1800s, when William Blake was writing of “dark satanic mills”. In fact, it seems many parts of Britain were even “deindustrialising”, according to researchers.

Then, in the 19th century, Britain witnessed its service sector almost double – a boom often thought to have begun closer to the 1950s. These included sales clerks, domestic staff, professionals such as lawyers and teachers, as well as a huge increase in transport workers on the canals and railways.

Prof Leigh Shaw-Taylor, the economic historian who led the project, said: “A hundred years has been spent studying the Industrial Revolution based on a misconception of what it entailed.

“By cataloguing and mapping centuries of employment data, we can see that the story we tell ourselves about the history of Britain needs to be rewritten.

“We have discovered a shift towards employment in the making of goods that suggests Britain was already industrialising over a century before the Industrial Revolution.”

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