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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter LIV. - The Great Change and some of its Causes


IN 1860 and years thereafter there were thousands and tens of thousands still living in the West Riding of Yorkshire and in Lancashire whose fathers and mothers belonged to the end of the old industrial period, when wool and cotton were wheel-spun round household fires and the yarn woven on hand- looms. The spinning jenny and other inventions caused manufacturing mills to be put up on rivers and becks, but the change was gradual until the steam engine and the power loom crushed out the old handicraft trades, and led to the Luddite riots, which were exceedingly foolish, and withal very natural. The ignorant rioters were kicking against the prick of fateful progress, but they were in their futile way fighting for that individual freedom which they feared, with reason, would be lost under the new mechanical dispensation. Trade-unionism cannot be said to have restored individual freedom; it has merely counteracted the power of capital by a power of combination adverse to individual freedom. Socialism of the present day kind would put an end to individual freedom altogether.

Canals and roads first facilitated transports, and facilitated means of transport, made the almost intact mineral wealth of the country more available and profitable. Then came railways and steamers to complete the transformation. If we say the great change began to make itself somewhat freely felt in 1780, we can add with confidence that it conquered before 1860. It inevitably involved a corresponding revolution in political and municipal affairs. Mining districts attracted large populations. New towns started into existence, small old towns grew into big cities, and, on the contrary, cities and towns of historical renown in purely rural regions fell into decadence. The radically altered relations of town and country, in respect to both population and wealth, necessitated large constitutional and municipal reforms, and made the maintenance of the Corn Laws in war time form untenable, before the Irish potato famine gave Sir Robert Peel an accidental excuse for sweeping them away. Later experience has shown that the Cobden-Bright dream of free trade all round was nothing better than a gross delusion, and that it would have been wise to have retained a small corn duty as a weapon of defence against foreign countries which shut out British Trade by tariff walls, and also as a means for consolidating the British Empire by giving a little preference to the produce of colonies and dependencies.

The new start given to British industry and commerce at the end of the eighteenth century, by improved machinery and ever-increasing facilities of transport, would have received a terrible back-set had Napoleon managed to ferry over the Channel the army of invasion he had gathered at Boulogne. His conquering ambition was thwarted by the British fleet, which, besides protecting the coasts of our tight little islands, maintained throughout the long Titanic struggle the sovereignty of the sea. The Berlin Decree, by which Napoleon intended to shut British trade out of the European Continent, although detrimental, was never so effective as he wanted it to be. How could it when he had not enough of naval power to shut even all the French ports against British trade, and when running his insufficient blockades became a sporting and profit- able profession to daring smugglers ? French hold in India was lost. The seizure of Egypt and Syria could not be made good, and the mastery of the Mediterranean was not his. With all the oceans and seas of the world in general free, British commerce found new outlets while the war was still going on and its issue still doubtful. Out of the hard struggle by land and sea our country emerged with enhanced reputation, enlarged possessions, and a heavy burden of debt. That burden of debt had its full compensation in the escape from invasion and the other advantages already referred to. The escape from invasion secured the undisturbed progress of industries, while on the Continent industries were ravaged, except so far as they administered to war purposes. Confidence and credit were for a time almost destroyed and it required a long period after peace came to repair damages, and to learn from us, whose industrial progress had not been disturbed, how to utilise material resources, and to adopt new means for changed conditions of production and commerce. No doubt the depression which always follows inflated war prices was, with bad harvests, severely felt by a large section of our people for ten years or more after Waterloo, which depression was further accentuated by the trying way in which the collective steam-power dispensation was crushing out the old handicraft individualism. But all the time trade was expanding and wealth was almost magically accumulating in the hands of those who were in a position to take advantage of the chances opened to them by the new industrial reform, or who possessed properties or shops in growing towns. So when the time came for making railways, and for covering the seas with steamers, there was plenty of money available for these undertakings. It was long ere other countries could overtake the start before them which, owing to these causes, and the reliable, steady, and forecasting character of our people, British industry had gained on them. The Manchester school of political economists were right enough in agitating for the abolition of the war time Corn Laws, but time has proved their dream of world-wide free trade a grim delusion, and that a rigid adherence to free imports had its drawbacks when it obstructed British Empire consolidation and gave tariff fenced States an undue advantage in our unfenced markets.


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