Published online by Cambridge University Press: 15 April 2021
The period c.1750 to 1914 is associated with nothing less than the transition from a rural, primarily agrarian and traditional society, to a modern, primarily industrial and urban existence. Debate continues to flow as to how quickly and with what consequences, for good or ill, this process took place. When, where and how deeply, did new patterns take root? What sort of changes were there in the essential dimensions of local lives, work, housing, political participation, local and central government, transport and mobility, education and literacy, economic and cultural influences, religious behaviour and the physical surroundings in which people lived? Every local historian will be part of such debates because no place, urban or rural, industrial or agrarian, was untouched by these transformations. The imprint of the ‘long nineteenth century’ is pervasive, within its own timeframe, and also in influencing how we picture and interpret the before and after of preceding periods and localities today.
CONTEXTS AND THEMES
Patterns of economic change
To assess the impact of economic change the local historian will need to look at the interactions between local circumstances and wider factors, which together produced the particular local experience. Some primary general factors to consider will be technological change, available raw materials, sources of capital, markets and means of transport. These largely economic determinants lie at the root of many local experiences; where all are present sustained expansion, and radically different physical environments, institutions, and social structures and relationships, are likely to emerge. However, where an experience of proto-industrialization or industrialization is based upon a single product or resource, then local transformations may be less sustained. For example, lace-making in Buckinghamshire, a successful cottage industry in the earlier part of the period, subsequently fell victim to mechanization of lace production based in Nottingham and to Buckinghamshire's own lack of suitable power sources. Or, as we shall see from the pit villages of the Deerness Valley in County Durham, entirely new settlements could spring up around an exploitable but finite mineral resource, only to dwindle or change completely within a few generations. Finally, we should not forget the places that never experienced industrialization directly, but whose fortunes were nevertheless determined by it, undergoing stagnation or an absolute decline in size and prosperity.