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The Social Change

The French philosopher Voltaire wrote about capitalism and religious tolerance in his book on English society, Letters on the English (1733), noting why England at that time was more prosperous in comparison to the country’s less religiously tolerant European neighbours. “Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan [Muslim], and the Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts. There the Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist, and the Churchman depends on the Quaker’s word. If one religion only were allowed in England, the Government would very possibly become arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut one another’s throats; but as there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace.”[209]

Britain’s population grew 280% 1550–1820, while the rest of Western Europe grew 50–80%. Seventy percent of European urbanisation happened in Britain 1750–1800. By 1800, only the Netherlands was more urbanised than Britain. This was only possible because coal, coke, imported cotton, brick and slate had replaced wood, charcoal, flax, peat and thatch. The latter compete with land grown to feed people while mined materials do not. Yet more land would be freed when chemical fertilisers replaced manure and horse’s work was mechanised. A workhorse needs 3 to 5 acres (1.21 to 2.02 ha) for fodder while even early steam engines produced four times more mechanical energy.

In 1700, 5/6 of coal mined worldwide was in Britain, while the Netherlands had none; so despite having Europe’s best transport, most urbanised, well paid, literate people and lowest taxes, it failed to industrialise. In the 18th century, it was the only European country whose cities and population shrank. Without coal, Britain would have run out of suitable river sites for mills by the 1830s.[210] Based on science and experimentation from the continent, the steam engine was developed specifically for pumping water out of mines, many of which in Britain had been mined to below the water table. Although extremely inefficient they were economical because they used unsaleable coal.[211] Iron rails were developed to transport coal, which was a major economic sector in Britain.

Economic historian Robert Allen has argued that high wages, cheap capital and very cheap energy in Britain made it the ideal place for the industrial revolution to occur.[212] These factors made it vastly more profitable to invest in research and development, and to put technology to use in Britain than other societies.[212] However, two 2018 studies in The Economic History Review showed that wages were not particularly high in the British spinning sector or the construction sector, casting doubt on Allen’s explanation.[213][214]