London, Hub of the Industrial Revolution: A Revisionary History, 1775-1825 *
London, Hub of the Industrial Revolution: A Revisionary History, 1775-1825, By David Barnett. London: I. B. Tauris, 1998; distributed in the U.S. by St. Martin's Press. Pp. xi+276; tables, notes/references, bibliography, index. $59.50.
In the third chapter of this book, David Barnett poses five sets of questions about the role of London in the Industrial Revolution. First, just how important was the city as a contributor to manufacturing, compared to Manchester, Birmingham, and elsewhere? Did it rely disproportionately on particular industries and types of goods, such as luxuries? Were firms small or large, and was London at the forefront of technology--in the use of steam power, for example? Second, how important was the construction boom in the rapidly expanding conurbation, both as an industry itself and in providing spillovers? Third, can a consumer revolution be identified in the composition of output, the expansion of the wholesaling, retailing, and distributive trades, and did London habits show the way for the rest of the country? Fourth, how important was the service economy, and how did it interact with the rest of the economy? And finally, how important was commerce more generally?
In his effort to address these questions and to fill a perceived vacuum by placing London as a key agent of industrialization, the main instrument David Barnett deploys is the London Fire Office records in the Guildhall Library. These provide representative information on the value of buildings, machinery, and inventories. Because the data are attached to specific addresses, they also enable Barnett to study geographical location as a question both of place and of density. Such a source of information is invaluable, but, as the author observes, "comparatively little use has been made of the fire insurance records by economic and business historians; certainly, they have not been used in any systematic or comprehensive way" (p. 8). Consequently, even if it served no other purpose this book is commendable [End Page 357] for pointing to the potential for the fire records to be used more extensively, intensively, and systematically. Indeed, it would be worthwhile for the records to be placed on an electronic database. More knowledge will flood from them than from other records that have been squeezed dry.
The answers that Barnett provides to the questions he poses hold few surprises. It is more important, as the book's subtitle suggests, that the questions have been asked. The subsections of the various chapters and the list of tables reveal how wide was the range of business activity--food, drink and tobacco, paper, printing and publishing, textiles, furniture, leather and leather goods, clothing, metal goods, timber trades, coach building, chemicals, clock and watchmaking, and so on. In a rapidly growing and diversified economy, with some overall shift to larger firms, the geographical spread of activities was not as concentrated as might be expected. While many trades were to be found in locations that favored their products or processes, such locations also included most other businesses, and all trades were to be found scattered throughout the city. Barnett's analysis is primarily descriptive, embedding material from the records within other sources as appropriate. Some attention is paid to employment, and a separate, if short, chapter is devoted to the rare London businesswoman. Steam power is shown to have been more important to the London economy than previously suggested. There is, however, only passing reference to London as a financial center, let alone as seat of government.
Having established the importance and historical novelty of the city--in its diversity, density, and dynamism--as a hub of the Industrial Revolution, Barnett speculates in his concluding chapter that it provided a precedent for later capital cities. In this respect, both for its own object of study and for comparative purposes, the book is a disappointment. Although we do gain an impression of a city teeming with life, change, and growth, there is precious little engagement with theory or controversy. Reference to the Industrial Revolution serves as a convenient peg for organizing descriptive material from the fire records, but otherwise we learn little of the city's underlying tensions and its broader national and international role. Nonetheless, through Barnett's admirable exploitation of the insurance records a first step has been made, a step that others may follow in refining or challenging the received historiography both of Britain's Industrial Revolution and the evolution of its capital city.
Prof. Fine teaches in the department of economics, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.
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