London, the Vanguard of an Economic Revolution

For the first several centuries of Britain’s existence, much of the world used London as a bridgehead for invasion. But after the Industrial Revolution, when the British Empire reached the height of its power, London instead became a bridgehead for England to invade much of the world.

Weekly Graphic

|April 13, 2018


(click to enlarge)

The city had grown only more powerful since it became England’s capital. The majority of British wealth and power became concentrated in southern England and, to a lesser extent, the Midlands, Britain’s most fertile areas. The Greater London area was by far the richest and most populous simply because it was a trade hub for the country and, by extension, the rest of the world. By 1700, the city’s population had grown to approximately 500,000 people. (The next largest city in Britain, Bristol, had about 30,000 people, and the northern cities were poor and sparsely populated, much how they always had been.)

But as Great Britain became the British Empire, London took on even more importance. In some ways, London was the British Empire. And its rise can be attributed to two main developments. The first was the Glorious Revolution in 1688 – the last successful invasion of Great Britain by a foreign power. The installation of William III the following year brought political stability the likes of which England had never seen. This stability enabled Great Britain to consolidate control over the British Isles. In 1707, Scotland and the Kingdom of England (comprising England and Wales, which the English conquered in 1284) were joined into the Kingdom of Great Britain, and in 1801, fearing Irish collaboration with France, Ireland was brought into the new political entity: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. With the establishment of English control over the whole of the British Isles, one of the great weaknesses of Great Britain had at last been overcome, and the stage was set for Great Britain to project power rather than to defend against it. Crucially, this meant London no longer had to fear the consequences of foreign conquest. More so than any other time in British history, it was secure.

But the far more consequential development was incidental. Great Britain went from existing on the edge of human civilization to being perfectly placed between the Old World and the New – and London, being Great Britain’s main port, reaped the lion’s share of the benefits. It was buffered by water from threats arising in mainland Europe, and it was the launching pad for forays into the unknown. It was thus able to invest its newfound wealth heavily into the development of the best navy in the world, which not only made its island fortress even harder to assail but also gave the U.K. an immense advantage in the global competition for imperial power.

As all this was happening, an industrial revolution was taking place inside Great Britain. Advances in agricultural technology enabled people around the world to live longer. The resultant population boom raised demand for virtually all goods. The consequences were many. At first, English farmers who worked in cottage industries could not keep up with demand, so huge factories were created to keep pace. Farmers in southeast Britain began to leave their homes for the cities – at first, mainly London – to seek better paying jobs. By 1801, London had a population of 960,000. By 1911, it had a population of 7 million. In short, London was at the vanguard of this economic revolution.