Slowing Down and Falling Behind: Industrial Retardation in Britain after 1870

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By the end of the nineteenth century many people in Britain had become aware that their country had gradually slipped from the position of unrivalled economic supremacy which it had enjoyed for over a hundred years. The most obvious sign of difficult times occurred in the Great Depression of the mid-1880s, after more than a decade of steeply falling prices had caused both a sharp decline in incomes from arable farming and reduced profits for many manufacturers. The collapse of arable farming in the face of growing supplies of cheap imports hit both farmers and landowners very hard, and this sector of agriculture never recovered its former prosperity. But for the rest of the economy the fall in prices was only a temporary and, in many respects, a secondary problem. Indeed, for the majority of wage-earners it was actually very beneficial, since falling prices increased the purchasing power of their meagre earnings.

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Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries coal played a vital role in Britain’s performance as an industrial nation. Until the advent of cheap oil and natural gas after the Second World War, it was an unrivalled fuel for domestic heating, industrial machinery, sea and land transport, and the production of gas and electricity. And the availability of huge, seemingly limitless and easily accessible, coal reserves, meant that coal-mining became a critical element in Britain’s nineteenth-century supremacy, both as a manufacturer and (through the export of coal to feed the world’s new shipping and railway systems) as the dominating nation in the international economy.
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