EFFECTS OF COAL-BASED AIR POLLUTION ON MORTALITY RATES: New evidence from nineteenth century Britain

Samuel Griffiths (1873) The Black Country in the 1870s. In Griffiths’ Guide to the iron trade of Great Britain.

Industrialised cities in mid-nineteenth century Britain probably suffered from similar levels of air pollution as urban centres in China and India do today. What’s more, the damage to health caused by the burning of coal was very high, reducing life expectancy by more than 5% in the most polluted cities like Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham. It was also responsible for a significant proportion of the higher mortality rates in British cities compared with rural parts of the country.

 These are among the findings of new research by Brian Beach (College of William & Mary) and Walker Hanlon (NYU Stern School of Business), which is published in the Economic Journal. Their study shows the potential value of history for providing insights into the long-run consequences of air pollution.

From Beijing to Delhi and Mexico City to Jakarta, cities across the world struggle with high levels of air pollution. To what extent does severe air pollution affect health and broader economic development for these cities? While future academics will almost surely debate this question, assessing the long-run consequences of air pollution for modern cities will not be possible for decades.

But severe air pollution is not a new phenomenon; Britain’s industrial cities of the nineteenth century, for example, also faced very high levels of air pollution. Because of this, researchers argue that history has the potential to provide valuable insights into the long-run consequences of air pollution.

One challenge in studying historical air pollution is that direct pollution measures are largely unavailable before the mid-twentieth century. This study shows how historical pollution levels in England and Wales can be inferred by combining data on the industrial composition of employment in local areas in 1851 with information on the amount of coal used per worker in each industry.

This makes it possible to estimate the amount of coal used in over 581 districts covering all of England and Wales. Because coal was by far the most important pollutant in Britain in the nineteenth century (as well as much of the twentieth century), this provides a way of approximating local industrial pollution emission levels.

The results are consistent with what historical sources suggest: the researchers find high levels of coal use in a broad swath of towns stretching from Lancashire and the West Riding down into Staffordshire, as well as in the areas around Newcastle, Cardiff and Birmingham.

By comparing measures of local coal-based pollution to mortality data, the study shows that air pollution was a major contributor to mortality in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century. In the most polluted locations – places like Manchester, Sheffield and Birmingham – the results show that air pollution resulting from industrial coal use reduced life expectancy by more than 5%.

One potential concern is that locations with more industrial coal use could have had higher mortality rates for other reasons. For example, people living in these industrial areas could have been poorer, infectious disease may have been more common or jobs may have been more dangerous.

The researchers deal with this concern by looking at how coal use in some parts of the country affected mortality in other areas that were, given the predominant wind direction, typically downwind. They show that locations which were just downwind of major coal-using areas had higher mortality rates than otherwise similar locations which were just upwind of these areas.

These results help to explain why cities in the nineteenth century were much less healthy than more rural areas – the so-called urban mortality penalty. Most existing work argues that the high mortality rates observed in British cities in the nineteenth century were due to the impact of infectious diseases, bad water and unclean food.

The new results show that in fact about one third of the higher mortality rate in cities in the nineteenth century was due to exposure to high levels of air pollution due to the burning of coal by industry.

In addition to assessing the effects of coal use on mortality, the researchers use these effects to back out very rough estimates of historical particulate pollution levels. Their estimates indicate that by the mid-nineteenth century, industrialised cities in Britain were probably as polluted as industrial cities in places like China and India are today.

These findings shed new light on the impact of air pollution in nineteenth century Britain and lay the groundwork for further research analysing the long-run effects of air pollution in cities.


To contact the authors:  Brian Beach (bbbeach@wm.edu); Walker Hanlon (whanlon@stern.nyu.edu)

Engineering the industrial revolution (1770-1850)

by Gillian Cookson (University of Leeds)

The Age of Machinery: Engineering the Industrial Revolution, 1770-1850, is published in February by Boydell Press for the Economic History Society’s series ‘People, Markets, Goods’.

SAVE 25% when you order direct from the publisher. Discount applies to print and eBook editions. Click the link, add to basket and enter offer code BB500 in the box at the checkout. Alternatively call Boydell’s distributor, Wiley, on 01243 843 291 and quote the same code. Offer ends on the 19th of March. Any queries please email marketing@boydell.co.uk

9781783272761_4Early machine-makers have always seemed tantalisingly out of reach. This was a localised, workshop-based trade whose products, methods, markets, skill-sets and industrial structure remained ill-defined. Yet out of it, somehow, was created the machinery – especially textile machines and steam engines – fundamental to industrial change in the eighteenth century. There are questions of great significance still unanswered: How could a high-tech mechanical engineering industry emerged from the rudimentary resources of a few localities in northern England? What can be known of the backgrounds and careers of these pioneering mechanical engineers? How did they develop skills, knowledge and system to achieve their ends?

As a research topic this was clearly a winner. But what is the historian to do when faced with such a dearth of substantial sources? Here is the explanation of why the subject has not hitherto been addressed. Evidence of early engineering was seriously lacking, business records almost entirely absent. It turned out, though, that the industry was hiding in plain sight. We’d been looking in the wrong places.

An early breakthrough came in the Hattersley of Keighley papers. Enough of Richard Hattersley’s early accounts and day books have survived, the first from 1793, to demonstrate a thriving pre-factory industry with Hattersley at its hub. He engaged a wider community in specialist component manufacture, using sub-contracting and various other flexible working practices as circumstances demanded. Hattersley’s company did not itself build machinery at that time, but he fed those who did with precision components, vital in making workable machines. The earliest production systems rested on networking, and can be most neatly described as a dispersed factory[1].

It wasn’t that archives had gone missing (though one or two are known to have been lost); but that businesses were so small scale that by and large they never generated any great weight of documentation. It was community-based sources – directories, muster rolls, parish registers, rate books, the West Riding deeds registry, and a painstaking assemblage of all kinds of stray references – that came to the rescue. While this may not exactly be a novel approach to industrial history, it turned out to be the only realistic way into exploring these small, workshop-based ventures in close-knit communities. Remarkably, too, it shone a light on aspects of the industry which business records alone could not have achieved. Community sources bring forward more than an account of business itself, for they set the actors upon their stage, placing engineers within their own environment. In particular, parish register searches, intended as no more than a confirmation of identities and movements, ultimately exposed remarkable connections. As short biographies were constructed, intermarriages and relationships were revealed which seem to explain career changes and migration (often from south to west Yorkshire, or Scotland to Lancashire) which otherwise had seemed random. So this context, which proved so influential, was not confined to engineering itself, but embraced surrounding cultures that were social and familial as much as industrial and technical. Through this information, we can infer some of the motives and concerns which impacted upon business decision-making.

All this, then, is central to The Age of Machinery. For a fully rounded account, other contexts needed unpacking: Which were the seminal machines, in terms of using new materials and parts that demanded different kinds of skills? Where did technological concepts originate, and how did technology move around? Why did engineering lag a generation behind its customer industry, textiles, in moving into factories? How did bans on machinery exportation and artisan emigration impact upon textile engineering, and why were they abandoned? And in an environment generally very welcoming of innovation, how to explain Luddism?

To contact the author: g.cookson@leeds.ac.uk


[1] See Gillian Cookson (1997) ‘Family Firms and Business Networks: Textile Engineering in Yorkshire, 1780–1830’, Business History, 39:1, 1-20

Business before industrialization: Are there lessons to learn?

by Judy Stephenson (Wadham College, University of Oxford) and Oscar Gelderblom (University of Utrecht)


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Bruegel the Elder (1565), Corn Harvest (August)

Business organization is mostly absent from economic history debate about the rise of economic growth, but it was not always so  

As a new protectionist era in political economy dawns, it would be fair to ask what scholarship business and policy can draw on to understand how trade flourished before twentieth century institutions promoted globalization. Yet, pre-industrial business organization, once a central concern in scholarly debates about the rise of capitalism, and the West, currently plays only a marginal role in research on long-run economic development. Once a central pillar of economic history, the subject is almost absent from the recent global meta-narratives of divergence and growth in economic history. Since 2013 Oscar Gelderblom (Utrecht) and Francesca Trivellato (Yale) have been reviving interest, exploring finance and organization in early modern business thanks to a grant from the Netherlands Organization of Scientif Research (NWO).

“our survey suggests that a strong theoretical foundation and rich empirical data exist on the basis of which we can develop a comparative business history of the preindustrial world.”

In May they convened the last in a series of workshops ‘the Funding of Early Modern Business’, in Utrecht, bringing together speakers from around the globe to look specifically at means and methods of funding and finance in a comparative sense.

The old literature on western business focused, for the largest part, on the large chartered and state backed organizations of colonialism, possibly to the detriment of our understanding of domestic and regional business practice. The cases under discussion at the workshop were geographically and methodologically varied – but mostly they stressed the latter. Susanna Martinez Rodriguez (Murcia) examined the cases of Spain’s Sociedad de Responsibiliadad Limitata in the early twentieth century, highlighting the attractiveness of the hybrid legal form for small business. Claire Lemercier (CNRS Paris) showed the use of courts and the legal system by trading businesses in 19th century Paris were a last recourse for the complex credit arrangements of urban trading. A large number of trading women used the courts and this raises the question of whether this represents a larger number of women in business than expected, or whether other means were less accessible to them. Siyuan Zhao (Shanghai) showed the vast records available to the researcher of Chinese business forms in the 19 century. His case showed that production households operated with advanced subcontracting networks of finance. As the first day ended conversation among participants and discussants – including Phillip Hoffman, Craig Muldrew, Heidi Deneweth and Joost Jonker focused on contracts, enforcement, and the varied ways in which early modern businesses responded to costs and risk.

Meng Zhang (UCLA) delighted participants with meticulous research showing that small farmers and plot owners in 18th-century Southwestern China securitised timber production and land shareholdings with complex contracts risk mitigation among small agricultural operators that allocated future output and allowed division of land and produce. Her work challenges current narratives of China in the 18th century. Judy Stephenson described the significant credit networks of seventeenth century building contractors in London. The structure and process of the contract for works enabled the crown and city to finance major infrastructure development after the Great Fire. Pierre Gervaise showed that French merchants in the southwest were opportunist in using their de facto monopolies on supply of goods to Bordeaux to price gouge. His amusing and detailed archival sources give the opportunity for new analysis of French supply chains and transaction costs.

Thomas Safley needed no introduction to this audience. His work on fifteenth and sixteenth century Southern German family networks is well established, but here he demonstrated that norms and collective action institutions in southern Germany were distinctive. Mauro Carboni traced the development of the limited partnership to 15th century Bologna and described the contract stipulations made as the time of partnership formation.

One of the key areas that Gelderblom & Trivellato highlighted as of particular interest was that of women in business in the early modern period. Hannah Barker used her wide research in women and family business to discuss the high number of trading businesses in mid-19th century Manchester run by women, and make the point that existing accounts of welfare and output do not take women’s businesses into account. The area is one with active research.

The overall picture gained from the workshop was of the remarkable organization flexibility of early modern business co-ordination, most particularly y in relation to credit. Almost all cases showed businesses moderating and contracting the rights and involvement of creditors in varied ways non-financial ways. Almost all cases indicated that contracts entered into determined outcomes to the same or greater degree as the structure of the enterprise.

Gelderblom & Trivellato have come to the end of the project but will continue to forge research links and networks on early modern business. Their work so far shows clearly that research into domestic and regional businesses before 1870 will bear fruit for historians, and very probably business leaders too.

How new technology affects educational choices: lessons from English apprenticeships after the arrival of steam power

by Alexandra de Pleijt (Utrecht University), Chris Minns and Patrick Wallis (London School of Economics)


Many workers today worry whether robots will do away with their jobs. Most economists argue that the effect of automation is likely to depend on what workers do. Robots may replace some types of manual work, but new jobs will also be created to design, maintain and manage automated production.

A shift towards ‘new jobs’ would mean that different skills will be valued in the future, and many policy experts have argued that secondary and post-secondary education will have to change in response. But if young people and their parents anticipate how automation will affect their job prospects, the choices made among current educational opportunities could shift ahead of any changes in what is offered.

The effects of automation on educational choice will be seen in the future. But past experience can offer some ideas as to whether the arrival of new technology affects these choices, even before the technology is widespread.

This research examines how the arrival of a new production technology affected educational choices in late eighteenth century England. The period between 1760 and 1810 is at the beginning of the largest shift in history from hand- to machine-powered production, through the invention and spread of the steam engine that powered the British Industrial Revolution.

Our research combines detailed evidence on the location and timing of the adoption of steam engines with the records of over 300,000 English apprenticeships from the rolls of the Commissioner of Stamps.

The main finding is that the arrival of steam power changed the willingness of young people to pursue apprenticeships, which for centuries had been the main route to acquiring the skills required for the production of manufactured goods. Counties saw a fall of 40-50% in the share of population entering into textile apprenticeships once a steam engine was present.

Despite the possible association with machine design and maintenance, mechanical apprenticeships also saw a decline of just under 20% following the arrival of steam. Merchant and professional apprentices, who were trading the goods produced by craft or industry, were mostly unaffected.

These findings show that the workforce responded to the emergence of technology that would dramatically change the nature of production and work in the future, but that much of the response was local. Apprenticeships fell first in northern counties where industrial towns and cities with factory-based production had emerged earlier. A similar decline in how workers were trained was not seen in southern and eastern England in the early part of the Industrial Revolution.