An eclectic mix of small manufacturers, shopkeepers, and service providers dominated the streetscape of towns across north-west England during early industrial revolution. Yet although these tradesmen and women constituted anything from 20-60% of the urban population, our view of the commercial world in this period tends to be dominated by narratives of particularly big and successful businesses, and those involved in new and large-scale modes of production. In places such as Manchester, Liverpool, Preston, Bolton, Salford, Blackburn, Warrington, and Wigan though, it was not great factories and mills that altered the urban and economic landscape—at least not before the 1820s—but rather the proliferation of small businesses.
As Maxine Berg has argued, the transformation of towns and regions in the early industrial revolution in Britain was achieved “on the backs of a myriad of smaller and medium-scale producers, and not on the spectacular, but isolated successes of small numbers of giant industrialists and financial elites.” Moreover, as historians of consumption—including Berg—have explained, it was not only producers that promoted growth during the long eighteenth century, but also consumers, who bought goods from an increasing army of retailers, many of whom also contributed to the supply chain, by being involved in the manufacture of the goods that they stocked.
The failure of shopkeepers and small-scale manufacturers to excite subsequent scholars more interested in those obvious motors of social and economic change—the working classes and the wealthier middle classes—has not gone unnoticed. Even so, it has been almost 40 years since Geoffrey Crossick first urged historians to examine the English lower middle class, around the same time as Neil McKendrick asked why fellow historians have been so eager to explore the Industrial Revolution, but not the consumer revolution, and in the process had ignored the bulk of people in trade. “Some discussion is required” he asserted, “of why attention has centred on the great industrialists and the supply side of the supply-demand equation, and why so little attention has been given to those hordes of little men who helped to boost the demand side and who succeeded in exciting new wants, in making available new goods, and in satisfying a new consumer market of unprecedented size and buying power.” (And, of course, we need to pay attention to the hordes of “little women” involved in this process too).
The lack of attention paid to tradesmen and women in the past can be explained, at least in part, by their tendency not to leave a particularly significant mark on the historical record. Sometimes the glimpses found in the archive are frustratingly brief. The portrait on the right, of Nathan Wood, pattern and heel maker, seated on his work bench is a good example. Here Wood has been drawn by his friend and neighbour, the saddler Thomas Barritt, sometime in the opening decade of the nineteenth century. We see Wood sitting proudly (if rather awkwardly, given Barritt’s limited drawing skills) in his workshop at the front of his house on Hanging Bridge in Manchester, facing the Collegiate Church, which is visible through the window.
Although the image is suggestive of industry, and possibly also of the sitter’s Anglican piety, it is limited in terms of what it tells us about Wood and his life. Was he successful in business? How did he view his position in the commercial and social world of early nineteenth-century Manchester, and how did others see him? Who else lived and worked with him? How did household and familial relations function? What was the rest of his house like, and how was living and working space organised? These things we do not know, for there seem to be few other surviving records of Wood’s life, save for his listing in trade directories over a 30-year period.
Perhaps it is not just the working classes, then, who need rescuing from what Edward Thompson described as the “enormous condescension of posterity.” Moreover, though those “in trade” can be seen to have had a significant impact on the social and economic developments of early industrial revolution England, it is also the “ordinariness” and the smaller-than-life adventures that such individuals experienced that make them important to historians, for in order to truly understand the past we need to know not just about the exceptional and the heroic, but also the everyday and the commonplace. As men and women of largely humble means and often limited ambitions, it is perhaps not hard to see why they have failed to capture historians’ attention. Yet without them, the urban landscape in Britain during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries would have been completely different—and the very transformations in economy and society that we associate with this period would have been profoundly affected as a result. This means that to fully understand the period, we also need to know not just about the Wedgwoods and the Boultons, but also to consider the experiences and the aspirations of individuals such Nathan Wood.
Featured image credit: “Iron and Coal” painting by William Bell Scott c. 1855–60. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.