Academics are at war over new evidence suggesting high pay didn’t spark the rush for labour-saving devices
It has been more than 200 years since the start of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. For a century historians and economists have been fixated on one question: why did it start in there?
One popular thesis, presented by Robert Allen in his book The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective, suggested that Britain’s success was due to relative prices and market potential. In other words, from 1650–1800, London had higher wages relative to other European cities – and this high-wage economy, together with cheap energy, led to labour-saving mechanisation.
Academics subscribing to this theory have used the wages of building craftsmen and labourers to quantify living standards. They argue that those wages show industrialisation led Britain to move from being a low-productivity economy to a high-productivity one.