The Transformation of England

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Read 17/12/2015-21/12/2015

Rating: 4 stars

Read for The Reader’s Room Winter Scavenger Hunt Challenge

This is a collection of essays previously published in journals, conference proceedings and studies of economic history around the world. They are interesting explorations of what made the Industrial Revolution uniquely English, whether it’s fair to compare English activity with that on the European mainland, and how incipient globalisation impacted on knowledge exchange and technological development.

I had to read The First Industrial Nation during my first degree, so I knew how engagingly Mathias writes on his subject and many of the themes were familiar to me. It was a bit like reading a collection of short stories by an author better known for novels. I particularly enjoyed his exploration of how closely entwined scientific discovery and technological advance actually were, and what the relationship was between science and industry prior to the institutionalisation of science in the 19th century. Also of interest, and seeming fresh even 36 years after publication, was the exploration of wage rates for the working classes and the pernicious assumption on the part of the holders of wealth that keeping people poor would increase their productivity. As Mathias points out, this goes against empirically tested theories of supply, demand and pricing. At the root of the assumption, which extended to the belief that higher wages would increase indolence and encourage antisocial behaviours (enjoying the same leisure activities that the holders of wealth wanted for themselves), was a need on the part of the wealthy to control the workers whose exploitation brought them wealth. Same old, same old. The final essay is an attempt to put a new spin on Samuel Johnson, who had connections all over the place, and could be interpreted as having an interest in economics. At a pinch. Mathias gives it a go, anyway!

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