The Industrial Revolution


The Industrial Revolution, which began three hundred years ago, was a period of unprecedented technological,  economic and social change that completely transformed British culture from a largely rural, static society with limited production and division of labour into the world's first modern industrial society.

Throughout 2009 the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust will be celebrating 300 years of the Industrial Revolution with various events and activities.

This exhibition uses records held by the Parliamentary Archives to explore and illustrate technological developments during the Industrial Revolution.

Fuelling the Industrial Revolution...

In 1709 Abraham Darby I developed a method of producing high-grade iron in a blast furnace fuelled by coke rather than charcoal, which was a major step forward in the production of iron as a raw material. Further developments in iron making during the 18th century - most notably new techniques of potting and stamping and Henry Cort's puddling process - and the resulting decrease in cost of iron and steel made possible many of the major changes in manufacturing, production and transportation that played such a central role in the Industrial Revolution.


Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/3/245/9

Signatures from 'The humble Petition of the Gentlemen and others Proprietors and Possessors of Iron-Mines Woodlands Forges Furnaces & other Iron Works and those concerned in carrying on the Iron Trade in the County Palatine of Lancaster whose Names are subscribed...'

This was one of several petitions sent to the House of Lords in opposition to the Iron Bill then passing through Parliament, which received Royal Assent in 1750 as An Act to encourage the Importation of Pig and Bar Iron from His Majesty's Colonies in America; and to prevent the Erection of any Mill or other Engine for flitting or rolling of Iron, or any Plateing Forge to work with a Tilt Hammer, or any Furnace for making Steel in any of the said Colonies. This Act was designed to restrict manufacturing activities in North America and thus to encourage manufacture to take place in Great Britain.

By 1779 the production of iron had become less expensive and it was used to build the world's first cast-iron arch bridge, built to connect the industrial town of Broseley with the smaller mining town of Madeley near Coalbrookdale in Shropshire. The area - now known as Ironbridge Gorge - is a World Heritage Site and contains ten award-winning museums.

'The Iron Bridge' by William Williams. © The Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust

Steaming ahead: Technological innovation

Not for nothing has the steam engine been described as 'the driving force' behind the Industrial Revolution; during the period steam power came to replace muscle and water power as the principal source of power for use in industry. The first steam engine had been invented as early as 1698, by the English engineer Thomas Savory, and was developed and improved in the early 18th century by Thomas Newcomen. However, these engines were not very efficient and were only used in mines. It was not until James Watt and his partner Matthew Boulton developed a vastly improved version by 1778 that the steam engine could be put to a wider variety of uses.

Public Act, 15 George III, c. 61, 1775. An Act for vesting in James Watt, Engineer, his Executors, Administrators and Assigns, the sole Use and Property of certain Steam Engines, commonly called Fire Engines, of his Invention, described in the said Act, throughout His Majesty's Dominions, for a limited time.


Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1775/15G3n83

Steam engines did not become practicable for use in transport until the early 1800s, when Richard Trevithick and Oliver Evans developed ones that used high-pressure steam and were therefore much more powerful than previous designs. These were also much smaller and more compact , which made possible the development of steam locomotives and steamboats.

Though the first steam locomotive was invented by Richard Trevithick in 1804, it was the civil and mechanical engineer George Stephenson (known as the 'Father of Railways') who played the greatest part in the development of steam locomotives and the first railways. He constructed his first locomotive in 1814 and was instrumental in the building of the world's first public steam locomotive hauled railway, the Stockton and Darlington Railway, that was authorised by Act of Parliament in 1821 and opened to the public in 1825.


Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PB/3/plan29

Extract from Plan of the intended Railway or Tramroad from Stockton by Darlington to the Collieries near West Auckland with several intended Branches of Railway or Tramroad in the County of Durham.

Below: George Stephenson's estimate of expense of the Black Boy Branch, 1827, and his letter mentioning it (dated 18th September 1827). Railway plans, sections and associated material such as estimates of expense all had to be deposited in Parliament by virtue of private bill standing orders.


Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PB/3/plan61a

The work of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859), a British engineer, formed another fundamental part of the Industrial Revolution. His designs included the famous Great Western Railway, many bridges and tunnels and several significant steamships, and revolutionised transport and engineering.


Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PB/5/1/1

Opposed Private Bill Committee Evidence, 1835, volume 1.

As chief engineer for the project, Brunel gave evidence in front of the Opposed Private Bill Committee during its proceedings on the Great Western Railway Bill.

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