The rise of technology and industry

Liza Picard considers how the development of technology and industry affected all areas of 19th-century life and work.

Photographs showing the construction of the London Underground's Central Line

Photograph showing the construction of the London Underground's Central Line

Construction of the London Underground, 1898.

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During Queen Victoria’s reign the lives of her middle-class subjects were transformed. For those workers who could take advantage of the new openings for skilled labour, the future was bright. For those at the bottom of the pile, life was even worse than before.

Changes to everyday life

By the 1860s, iron cooking ranges had arrived in most middle-class kitchens. They were a huge improvement on the old open fires, since they had built-in ovens and tanks for heating water. In the bathroom, water could be heated by gas powered ‘geysers’, which were terrifying to the user but a blessing to the maid who no longer had to carry bath water up the stairs.

In the City, the old coffee houses were replaced by modern offices, using the new telegraph system to trade world wide. Women were taken on as ‘typewriters’ and telephonists (the telephone was invented in 1877).

All about the Telephone and Phonograph

All about the Telephone and Phonograph

Illustration of Queen Victoria trying out the newly invented telephone from All about the Telephone & Phonograph, 1878.

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In 1834 Fox Talbot invented ‘sun pictures’ as photographs were called at first. They became a popular craze. ‘Cartes de visite’, mounted portrait photographs about the size of a modern credit card and used as visiting cards, were sold everywhere. Portraits of the Queen and her husband and children were popular. For the first time her subjects could see what their Queen looked like – and were probably disappointed, because unlike her official portrait painters the camera did not lie. By the end of the century, a ‘pocket Kodak’ cost just over a pound.

The international pre-eminence of London was confirmed when in 1883 Greenwich Mean Time was adopted world wide.

After the triumph of Mr. Jennings’s lavatories, at the Great Exhibition, public toilets known as ‘halting stations’ began to make a coy appearance in the streets. By 1852 there was one for men in Fleet Street, and one for women in the Strand, but they were slow to spread. The design of lavatories caused much head-shaking, until Thomas Crapper developed his new improved model: ’a certain flush with every pull’.

The textile industry

The textile industry was at the centre of Britain’s industrial expansion in the Victorian period. Technological advances meant that cottons, wools, silks and dyestuffs could be produced at unprecedented rates, and the results were exported around the Empire.
The advertisement above from 1880 shows the range of fabrics that were available for clothing. Cottons and wools could be woven in many weights, from the hard-wearing corduroys of the working man, to fine gauze of the fashionable lady: and, for the first time, ordinary clothes could be washed – an immense advance.

Cotton needs a humid atmosphere, to keep the fibres pliable enough to twist into thread. The cotton industry settled in rainy Manchester for that reason, but the weaving and spinning sheds were still full of dust and fibres, which irritated and damaged the lungs of the operatives. The factories were tightly packed with moving machinery, without guards. There were moving belts everywhere which could catch a woman’s hair and scalp her. A worker who leant over to adjust a spindle risked losing a finger or a hand, or worse. Children were employed to clear faults, and accumulated dust, from underneath the machines. They often lost concentration, or fell asleep, with terrible results. The appalling clatter of a weaving or spinning shed led to occupational deafness, that was taken for granted.

Cotton spinning and weaving had been mechanised since the 1790s, using water power. By 1870 steam power was general. If the power-driven shafts and belts were to be economically used, factory workers had to comply with ‘factory discipline’ imposed by the overseers. Gradually the old one-to-one relationship between piece-work weaver and ‘putter-out’ gave way to impersonal contracts of mass employment.

Leeds and Halifax remained the centres for worsted and woollen spinning and weaving. (Worsted is a cloth with a smooth surface, resistant to wear, used for men’s suitings. Woollen cloth has a softer ‘handle’. It is used for women’s fashions.)

Macclesfield became the new silk-weaving centre. Spitalfields in London still produced elaborately designed, beautiful, silk fabrics, but the market for them was shrinking. The chemical industry on Merseyside developed synthetic dyes which produced brighter colours than the old vegetable dyes. Magenta, a harsh purple, was a Victorian favourite.

Heavy industry: coal

The landed gentry made huge fortunes from coal discovered under their land. Coal-fired steam engines powered the booming economy, whether in factories or on the rail network. Conditions in coal mines were dire. Women and children were employed to pull the wagons of coal from the coal face to the shaft foot, because they were smaller, and cheaper, than a properly trained horse. Underground workings got very hot, so they often worked more or less naked. Sir Humphrey Davy’s safety lamp, invented in 1815, enabled deeper levels to be exploited, but it was adopted very slowly. Various methods of ventilating mines were invented, but none was widely adopted until 1849 when compressed air first became possible.
In 1860, the employment of children under 12 was prohibited.

Between 1850 and 1880 the number of miners rose from an estimated 200,000 to 500,000, and their output rose from 30 million tons in 1836 to 44 million in 1880.

'Collier's Explosion in Staffordshire' from A Collection of Songs

'Collier's Explosion in Staffordshire' from A Collection of Songs

Broadside reporting a colliery explosion in Staffordshire that resulted in deaths and injuries.

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Ship building

Ship building still continued in London. Brunel’s innovative Great Eastern, made of iron, driven by propeller and powered by steam, was launched in Blackwall in 1858. But by the end of the century ship building and other heavy engineering had mostly moved to the north-east of England, the south of Wales and the Clyde in Scotland, where supplies of coal and iron were nearer.

Localised trades

Sheffield was the centre for cutlery, Leicester and Nottingham for hosiery, Northampton for shoes, Birmingham for metalworking and small arms. Norwich had a small niche in exporting flat-packed kits of corrugated iron to the Empire, supplying the market for churches (known as ‘tin tabernacles’), millionaires’ mansions in South Africa and summer residences in Darjeeling.

But many industries remained in London. Clerkenwell, long famous for precision watch making and scientific instruments, fizzed with new inventions. The finer components of small arms were made there, leaving mass production to Birmingham. Hiram Maxim developed his machine gun there, Marconi his electric telegraph, and Ferranti his dynamos. By 1901 almost half the 50,000 electrical apparatus makers of England and Wales worked in London. London factories supplied the endless market for that necessary status symbol, a piano.


A series of Acts from 1819 onwards imposed on factory owners the duty to look after the health and safety of their workers. From 1850 mines were regularly inspected. By 1850, women, children and young people could work ‘only’ ten hours in a day, and ‘only’ between six am and six pm, so night work was now forbidden in factories, and from 1860, boys under 12 could not be employed in coal-mines. In 1850 mines were regularly inspected for compliance with lighting and ventilation regulations. But legislation does not always bring about reform. Conditions in coal-mines particularly, remained life-threatening until the next century.

The Truck Act of 1831 was a long-delayed attempt to outlaw the practice of paying workers, not with money, but with goods, or tokens exchangeable only at shops nominated by – and often owned by – the employer (‘truck’). Despite the Act, the practice was difficult to eradicate until the Mint put more low-value coinage into circulation.

Trade unions

For centuries, ‘combinations’ of working men had been viewed with suspicion, and were punishable by the criminal law. Gradually the climate of opinion changed.
In 1834 the Tolpuddle Martyrs – farm labourers who had sworn an oath of loyalty to their labourers’ union – were sentenced to transportation to Australia. This outraged public opinion. They were pardoned two years later, and came home again; but their case had focused attention on the plight of unionised workers. The first effective Union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, was formed in 1851. The movement gathered strength, and other skilled workers formed unions. Peaceful picketing was allowed from 1859, and regular Trades Union Congresses began in 1868. Another strike caught public sympathy in 1888, when the ‘match girls’ of east London protested against the dangerous conditions of their work, and their pitiful level of pay. Their victory encouraged other unskilled workers to join in corporate action.

‘The workshop of the world’

The Great Exhibition of 1851 caught England at the summit of its manufacturing boom. Innovative minds, sufficient capital, and skilful (often exploited) workforces all contributed to this success. The vast British Empire provided a captive market. But perhaps the Empire contained the germs of its own decline. The prosperity of its component parts encouraged aspirations to a separate identity, which led to its gradual dismembering in the next century. Meanwhile the United States of America was rapidly outstripping England in technology.
  • Liza Picard
  • Liza Picard researches and writes about the history of London. She spent many years working in the office of the Solicitor of the Inland Revenue and lived in Gray’s Inn and Hackney, before retiring to live in Oxford.

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