Britain was perhaps never the "workshop of the world," but her industrial dominance was such in the middle of the nineteenth century that the phrase is legitimate. She produced perhaps two thirds of the world's coal, perhaps half its iron, five sevenths of its small supply of steel, about half of such cotton cloth as was produced on a commercial scale, and forty per cent (in value) of its hardware. On the other hand even in 1840 Britain possessed only about one third of the world's steam power and produced probably something less than one third of the world's total manufactures. The chief rival state, even then, was the USA — or rather the northern states of the USA — with France, the German Confederation and Belgium. [112]


The British middle-class citizen who surveyed the scene in the early 1870s might well have thought that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds. Nothing very serious was supposed to go wrong with the British economy. But it did. Just as phase one of industrialization stumbled into self-made depression and crisis, so phase two bred its own difficulties. The years between 1873 and 1896 are known to economic historians, who have discussed them more eagerly than any other phase of nineteenth-century business conjecture, as the "Great Depression." The name is misleading. So far as the working people are concerned, it cannot compare with the cataclysms of the 1830s and 1840s, or the 1920s and 1930s. But if "depression" indicates a pervasive — and for the generation since 1850 a new — state of mind of uneasiness and gloom about the prospects of the British economy, the word is accurate. [105]


Hobsbawm, Eric. Industry and Empire: The Birth of the Industrial Revolution. rev. ed. New York: New Press, 1999.

Last updated: 22 March 2001