The story begins with the black rock which lay beneath the earth – coal, the black diamond which powered the industrial revolution.
Coal was the spark for what we call the industrial revolution. This was a time when farming and living off the land gave way to making things. It was a time when people dug coal, laid railways and built the ships that powered an empire and made the small island of Britain the greatest industrial nation on earth.
As well as being a fuel to heat homes, coal fed industry and provided the power to run steam engines. The steam engine was a product of the coal mines. It was initially used to pump water out of the mines so shafts could be sunk deeper and deeper.
The development of steam power allowed Britain to be top dog on the world stage. As coal production hit new heights in the early part of the 19th Century, another industry was growing alongside it – cotton.
Once steam power was introduced, the production of cotton took off. Mills in the North West of England no longer needed to rely on inconsistent water power to make the machines go and cotton mills were built on a huge scale in towns and cities.
Cotton put Britain at the centre of world trade. Raw cotton was shipped in West Indies, the USA, India, Africa and the far east to be turned into cloth and exported worldwide.
It wasn’t just mines and mills which were changing Britain, a transport revolution was also underway.
The vast amount of raw materials and finished goods which were produced by the industrial revolution, needed to be moved around quickly and cheaply. Northern engineering genius came up with the solution – the railway.
Before railways, everything moved at the speed of a horse. Like the steam engine, the railway was initially developed to meet a mining need, the need to move coal from the mine to where it was needed.
One of the first giants of the railway was George Stephenson who was born in Wylam, Northumberland. In 1830, only a few dozen railways existed in Britain. By 1851, 6,800 miles of track had been laid and George Stephenson was at the forefront of this railway mania. Distances shrunk and horizons suddenly widened. No innovation captured the public’s imagination as much as the railway. Trains were wonders of the modern age and they didn’t just move goods, they moved people as well. This led onto the birth of the modern holiday and seaside resorts in particular started to thrive.
The spread of the railway created a demand for iron and steel and another great industry of the industrial revolution was born.
By 1870, Britain was producing half of the world’s iron and steel. The centre for this industry was Sheffield which benefited from nearby iron ore and coal reserves.
Steel was the primary ingredient for railways and ship building. Ships were immensely important to the country’s economy. Britain’s great industrial strength depended on empire and sea power and by 1900, Britain was building more ships than any country in the world. The movement of goods by sea gave wealth and status to major port cities like Liverpool.
The boom years of the 19th Century also brought wealth to the Newcastle as a major exporter of coal from the nearby collieries in Northumberland and Durham. The Tyne also became known as a major ship building centre, employing thousands of highly skilled men who, like coal miners, passed on their skills and knowledge to future generations through apprenticeship schemes.