Britain industrialised over a century earlier than history books claim


Britain was well on its way to an industrialised economy under the reign of the Stuarts in the 17th century – over 100 years before textbooks mark the start of the Industrial Revolution – according to the most detailed occupational history of a state ever created.

Men engaged in many trades and professions. Coloured etching. Source: Wellcome Collection

Images: details from a coloured etching, Wellcome Collection. 

Built from more than 160 million records and spanning over three centuries, the University of Cambridge’s Economies Past website uses census data, parish registers, probate records and more to track changes to the British labour force from the Elizabethan era to the eve of World War One.

The site, a collaboration between the University's Faculty of History and Department of Geography, has compiled and summarised employment statistics at local levels across England and Wales, allowing users to track changes to the workforce. It also breaks down by sector and, after 1851, by gender as well as age – revealing the extent of child labour.

Professor Leigh Shaw-Taylor
Project leader and Professor of Economic History at Cambridge’s Faculty of History
By cataloguing and mapping centuries of employment data, we can see that the story we tell ourselves about the history of Britain needs to be rewritten.”