Sunday, July 28, 2019

Industrial Revolution in Ireland: Fortune and Misfortune

The ruins of a large 5-storey factory building in open countryside in the townland of Knocknagarrane 4 kilometres south-west of the West Cork town of Bandon (visible from the road linking the villages of Old Chapel and Timoleague), is a symbol of the heroic failure to bring the British Industrial Revolution to the area. However, the entrepreneuring family that built the factory would still have a local economic impact for 100 years more.

George Allman (1750-1827) and his sons, who had experience running a cotton mill in Bandon using horses, decided to build the Overton Cotton Mill near the Bridewell tributary of the River Bandon. The Allmans wanted to utilise the latest technology and they engaged Thomas Hewes, the Manchester-based inventor of the suspension water wheel that would be his first installation.  The Overton wheel was 12 metres (40 feet) in diameter and 1.5 metres wide.

The advantage of the mainly iron wheel was that it did not need a large flow of water to turn it. William Fairburn, would later make improvements on Hewes' design.

The Allmans likely knew of the 1786 spectacular collapse after six years in operation of Sir Robert Brooke's cotton manufacturing plant in County Kildare which had up to 1,500 employed at its peak. The officer of the British East India Company's army in Bengal, India, had returned prosperous with war booty and named the area of his factory Prosperous. Having lost his shirt, he was employed as governor of the island of St. Helena in 1788-1800 — the remote island in the South Atlantic Ocean, about 1,950 km (1,200 miles) west of the southwestern coast of Africa, would later become the last home of an exiled former French emperor.

The Overton Cotton Mill was extended about a decade after the opening and it had a typical staff of about 300 people with a peak of 600. The mill was put up for sale in 1830 and in the 1840s it became a workhouse during the Great Famine.

Following the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo in 1815, the war economy that had benefited Ireland was followed by economic retrenchment. The British government returned to the gold standard which in 1820 triggered the collapse of the 4 banks operating in Cork City. Bank runs were triggered elsewhere in Ireland and Richard Tresilian, a Bandon spirits and wine merchant, wrote to the Chief Secretary of Ireland (the top British civil servant in Ireland), seeking a reduction in excise duties on spirits. He drew attention to the recent demise of "several Banking Houses in the County" and bemoaned the "distresses of the Tradesman, and the like distresses affecting the Farmers from the depression in the Value of their commodities."

Five years later the 'Panic of 1825' in London followed the crash of investments in Latin American countries that had been liberated from Spanish rule together with the fictional country of the Republic of Poyais.

In 1825 the Allmans launched the Bandon Distillery in a former cotton mill on the east of Bandon town, which employed more than 400 people in some years and used barley predominately from local farmers. It was a significant exporter and it had a rail link from the factory to the Bandon-Cork rail line. However, it closed in the 1920s partly because of alcohol prohibition in the US. The Allman, Dowden & Co. brewery on Watergate Street, Bandon, had earlier been sold to the Cork brewery Beamish and Crawford, in 1914.

Official duty data show that between 1797 and 1840, Irish spirit consumption was always higher than Scotland's and despite the difference in population, was higher than consumption in England and Wales in 23 of those 44 years. A key development for Irish distillers was the production of a still by Aeneas Coffey (1780-1852), who had been an inspector of customs in Dublin. Patented in 1831, it was a modification of a Scottish still and was called the "continuous, column, patent or Coffey still." Irish distillers were slow to adopt new technologies compared with the Scots.

The Irish Department of Agriculture and Food has said that "between 1823 and 1900, the output of Ireland’s distilleries quadrupled. Dublin whiskey, with its six powerhouse distilleries, dominated the Irish and world stage, employing hundreds of workers with their own cooperages, stables, blacksmiths and carpenter shops and they exported around the globe."

In 1904, 12.5m gallons of Irish whiskey were produced and two-thirds were exported but "It seems probable that a greater share of these Irish exports merely entered Scotch blends," according to Andy Bielenberg of University College Cork – National University of Ireland while a number of Irish pot still distilleries produced a high-quality product. UK data show that total production of whisky in Scotland for the 12 months ended March 31, 1905, was 25.2m gallons and exports were about 7m.

Alcohol prohibition was ended in the US in early December 1933, but Irish distillers did not have sufficient mature stocks to take advantage of the market reopening. Whisky production in the UK (including Ireland) had been halted in 1917 as a wartime measure to divert grain for food and in the following years, there was the Irish revolt for independence. As prohibition was ending in the US a trade war between the Irish Free State and Great Britain was beginning. After World War II, the Irish government put a quota on whiskey exports as there were fears of a domestic shortage which would have hit excise revenue receipts.

In 2018, Irish whiskey exports were valued at €654m, according to the CSO (Central Statistics Office) while the export value of Scotch whisky was a record £4.7bn.

In 1972, more than 40 years after the closure of the Bandon Distillery, the top 10 employment outlets (excluding retail and services) in the greater Bandon area, including a bakery and the local cattle mart, accounted for 347 people with Sunbeam Wolsey, a textile manufacturer, employing 101 people while no other business employed more than 50 people. The population of the town was 2,257 in 1971.

Why did the Industrial Revolution begin in Britain?

Arnold Toynbee (1852-1883), an English economist, was the first economic historian of the remarkable period from 1760 in mainly England, when the modern world began. 'The Industrial Revolution' (1884), published posthumously, was Toynbee’s single book and it popularised the name for the period 1760-1840.

The Dutch Republic (1581-1795) was the first country with the trappings of a modern economy but what began in Britain was a step change for humanity from the stagnation of subsistence agriculture to technological advances that would for the first time trigger sustained economic growth as machines resulted in a huge jump in the output of workers. It also revolutionised agriculture to provide food for growing cities. 

Two American economists Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr in a 2011 paper wrote that the Industrial Revolution took hold in Britain because of “the supply of highly-skilled, mechanically able craftsmen who were able to adapt, implement, improve, and tweak new technologies and who provided the micro inventions necessary to make macro inventions highly productive and remunerative.”

For example, the spinning mule invented by Samuel Crompton in 1779 was “arguably the most productive invention” but tweakers had metal rollers added to smooth its acceleration and deceleration and efficiently mechanise the manufacturing of cotton.

The authors used a sample of 759 mechanics and engineers and examined the incentives and institutions that facilitated the high rate of inventive activity during the Industrial Revolution. They wrote:

"First, apprenticeship was the dominant form of skill formation. Formal education played only a minor role. Second, many skilled workmen relied on secrecy and first-mover advantages to reap the benefits of their innovations. Over 40% of the sample here never took out a patent. Third, skilled workmen in Britain often published their work and engaged in debates over contemporary technological and social questions. In short, they were affected by the Enlightenment culture. Finally, patterns differ for the textile sector; therefore, any inferences from textiles about the whole economy are likely to be misleading."

In November 211, after the death of Steve Jobs, Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker wrote that the Apple co-founder was a "tweaker" but Walter Isaacson, Jobs' official biographer, rejected that label and said Jobs was an "artist." 

Steve Jobs had said in the 1980s that while the Macintosh computer was being developed he kept in mind a quote from Pablo Picasso: “Good artists copy. Great artists steal,” even though there is no evidence that the Spanish painter said that.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote that Microsoft Windows used the same graphical user interface — icons and mouse — as the Macintosh. He quoted Isaacson [Jobs was outraged and summoned Gates from Seattle to Apple’s Silicon Valley headquarters. “They met in Jobs’s conference room, where Gates found himself surrounded by 10 Apple employees who were eager to watch their boss assail him,” Isaacson writes. “Jobs didn’t disappoint his troops. ‘You’re ripping us off!’ he shouted. ‘I trusted you, and now you’re stealing from us!’”

Gates looked back at Jobs calmly. Everyone knew where the windows and the icons came from. “Well, Steve,” Gates responded. “I think there’s more than one way of looking at it. I think it’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.”]

Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr conclude:

"The one obvious conclusion one can draw from this is that a few thousand individuals may have played a crucial role in the technological transformation of the British economy and carried the Industrial Revolution. The average level of human capital in Britain, as measured by mean literacy rates, school attendance, and even the number of people attending institutes of higher education are often regarded as surprising low for an industrial leader. But the useful knowledge that may have mattered was obviously transmitted primarily through apprentice-master relations, and among those, what counted most were the characteristics of the top few percentiles of highly skilled and dexterous mechanics and instrument-makers, mill-wrights, hardware makers, and similar artisans. This may be a more general characteristic of the impact of human capital on technological creativity: we should focus neither on the mean properties of the population at large nor on the experiences of the 'superstars' but on the group in between. Those who had the dexterity and competence to tweak, adapt, combine, improve, and debug existing ideas, build them according to specifications, but with the knowledge to add in what the blueprints left out were critical to the story. The policy implications of this insight are far from obvious, but clearly if the source of technological success was a small percentage of the labour force, this is something that an educational policy would have to take into account. 

Finally, the supply of competence reminds us of something rather central about the direction of innovation, which seems very generally relevant. The direction is dependent on those supply factors that reflect what engineers and skilled workers actually can do regardless of what they would like to do."

Patrick Colquhoun, a Scottish merchant, who had been one of the first to study the rise of the cotton manufacture in the 1780s, wrote in 1814 that:

“it is impossible to contemplate the progress of manufactures in Great Britain within the last thirty years without wonder and astonishment. Its rapidity, particularly since the commencement of the French revolutionary war, exceeds all credibility. The improvement of the steam engines, but above all the facilities afforded to the great branches of the woollen and cotton manufactories by ingenious machinery, invigorated by capital and skill, are beyond all calculation…”

'Rehabilitating the Industrial Revolution,' May 1990. 

The Illustrated London News: "His Excellency, Archibald William, the Earl of Eglinton and Winton, Lord Lieutenant General and General Governor of Ireland and the Countess of Eglinton," arrived by train from Cork City for a public visit to Bandon, County Cork, in June 1852.

Evolution of Irish economy in Bandon and elsewhere

Bandon was founded by English planters in the aftermath of the final devastating defeat of Gaelic Ireland at the nearby Battle of Kinsale in 1601. 

Following the suppression of rebellions by Gaelic chieftains in the southern Irish province of Munster in the 1580s, Queen Elizabeth I granted Phane Becher (1546-1592, sometimes written as Beecher) 12,000 acres of land by the River Bandon. Becher qualified for the grant by his position as a landless younger son of English Landed Gentry. The land grant included the castle of the O'Mahoney clan and in 1604 Becher's son Henry together with other English adventurers began the development called Bandon Bridge (Droichead na Bandan). A Royal Charter was issued in 1613. The freehold on the land in Bandon was sold to Robert Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork, in 1618. Boyle had acquired Sir Walter Raleigh's estates of 42,000 acres (170 km2) in 1602 in the counties of Cork (in particular Youghal), Waterford (including Lismore Castle) and Tipperary. In 1753 through marriage, the Boyle family land interests, including Bandon, passed to the dukes of Devonshire. Raleigh, an explorer of the Americas, is said to have introduced the potato plant and tobacco use to Ireland.

Bandon was a staunchly Protestant town and for 2 centuries, Papists (Catholics / natives), were not allowed to live within the town’s protective walls. The so-called church of Kilbrogan from the Gaelic Cill Brógáin, also known as Christchurch (which can be viewed today on North Main Street), is said to be the first Protestant church to have been built in Ireland. It was commenced in 1610 and was later extended.

In 1689/1690 Ireland became the battleground for the deposed King James VII and II of Scotland, England and Ireland and his successor King William III — a prince of the House of Orange in the mainly Protestant Dutch Republic, which then was the wealthiest country in Europe. William's wife Queen Mary II (1662–1694) was James II's daughter!

While economic growth became sustainable in England from the early years of the eighteenth century, even though at a low pace, Ireland’s progress in the period 1700-1820 based on estimates of per capita GDP (gross domestic product) made by Angus Maddison (1926-2010), the renowned British economic historian, show Ireland’s economic performance to have been comparable with Sweden, Norway and Finland (see chart).

The first half of the 18th century was a time of intermittent famines and what was called the Great Frost in Europe lasted from December, 1708, to March, 1709, and was very severe in the south of England and Europe, but scarcely felt in Scotland and Ireland. France was particularly hard hit with the subsequent famine estimated to have caused 600,000 deaths by the end of 1710. 

In 1740/1741 the second Great Frost hit Ireland hard from early 1740 when the great Irish rivers, the Liffey, the Boyne, the Slaney, the Lee, the Foyle and parts of the Shannon had all frozen solid. The potato crop was wiped out and after the thaw, there was a drought which destroyed fodder for cattle. 1741 became known as Bliain an Áir (Year of Slaughter) with a continuation of anomalous weather.

The death toll in Ireland was several hundred thousand people.

Prof Cormac Ó Gráda, an economic historian, noted in a paper:  

“At the height of the 1740‐41 famine George Berkeley, philosopher‐bishop of Cloyne, feared  that the ‘nation probably will not recover this loss in a century.’ Yet between the mid‐eighteenth century and 1821 Ireland’s population grew from about 2.2m c. 1750 to over 7m, faster than anywhere else in Western Europe.  This implies a rather benign demographic regime by the standards of the day.”

Ó Gráda paid tribute in 2012 to Prof Louis M. Cullen’s research on Irish economic history, [The Ireland that emerges...is more complex, more commercialized, more sophisticated than that described in the hastily produced works of George O’Brien almost a century ago [a professor of economics at Univerity College Dublin 1926-1961]. For pre-Cullenite economic historians, Ireland before the famine was largely a place of lazy-beds and one-room cottages where legislative restrictions had impeded economic growth for centuries. For Cullen, however, even though his earliest work was about the west, the economy’s... epicentre lay in Munster and Leinster. Farmers and traders occupy central stage; in a classic paper...Cullen wrote of an “Irish history without the potato”...For Cullen, places such as counties Kilkenny and Kildare, south county Wexford, and north county Dublin — largely by-passed by colonization, socially differentiated, and mainly Catholic — were the most “traditional” in the pre-famine era. Already densely settled relative to the rest of the country in the seventeenth century, they retained much of their late medieval character well into the nineteenth.] 

Construction of the Grand Canal linking Dublin with the River Shannon began in 1756.

In research by Ó Gráda and Prof Joel Mokyr of Northwestern University, Illinois, they compared the heights of 1,000 Irish and English men recruited for service in India by the East India Co in the late 1770s and early 1780s (Robert Brooke had organised the recruitment in Ireland — see above). The height data served as a guide to determining the economic conditions of various regions in Ireland and England. 

The economists found that "despite coming from a conventionally poorer socio-economic background, the Irish recruits were healthier than the English recruits."

Landlord absenteeism accounted for 12% of rents in 1770s while the breakdown of exports was: Cattle 38.8%; Grain 3.8%; Linen 51.6%; Wool 4.5% and Other 1.3% — more statistics here.

Jeffers bakery and grocery store, 86 South Main Street, Bandon, Co. Cork in the early 1900s. In the 1960s the Jeffers family launched West Cork's first supermarket Source: Jeffers Genealogy Page

Bandon had an estimated population of 4,000 in 1775 and then from official census returns: 10,179 in 1821; 2,836 in 1926; 1,943 in 1986 and 6,957 in 2016.

The Act of Union of 1800 provided for the abolition of the Irish Parliament of Anglo-Irish Protestant aristocrats with all tariffs and trade restrictions between Great Britain and Ireland removed from 1825.

Ireland was heavily dependent on textiles and lacked coal. Cotton manufacturing relied on imported raw material and English mills had a large domestic market to compete against Irish exports. In contrast, flax was cultivated in Ireland from the 11th century and linen would continue to thrive in the northeast where exiled Huguenots (French Protestants), who were typically urban artisans, settled. Later heavy industry in particular shipbuilding would develop in Belfast.

The ratio of persons able to read and write rose from 47% in 1841 to 75% by 1881.

Andy Bielenberg of University College Cork – National University of Ireland, has argued that protectionist policies would only have been successful where there was a large domestic market, while during the decades of population decline after the Great Famine, industrial output at least rose.

The late David Johnson of Queen's University, Belfast, noted that "in 1911, 23% of the economically active population was involved either in manufacturing industry or construction. This placed it (Ireland) in the middle rank of industrial countries, along with Portugal, the Scandinavian countries, Italy, and the Netherlands, all of which were in the band from 22 to 25%. Ireland had a more industrialised economy than Austria, Spain, Hungary, or any of the nations in Eastern Europe."   

On the political partition of the island in the early 1920s, Northern Ireland with 6 of 32 counties had about two-thirds of the industrial production on the island.

Ireland's national income per head at 56% of Great Britain's in 1922 

The population of the 26 counties that would become the Irish Free State in 1922 and the Republic of Ireland in 1949, had been 6.5m in 1841 and by 1926 was down to 3m. Peninsular Malaysia (excluding 2 provinces on the island of Borneo) had a similar population size in the 1920s and it has grown to 26m today.

Employment in transportable goods production in 1926 was only 55,000 while brewing (mainly Guinness stout) accounted for 30% of net manufacturing output.

However, Henry Ford — the American industrialist  — whose father had emigrated from Ballinascarthy, west of Bandon, during the bleak  Famine year of 1847 — had 7,000 employed at his Cork tractor plant in 1930. However, while British Great Depression tariffs resulted in a shrinkage of the plant from the 1930s, foreign direct investment would be the saviour for the Irish economy when tariffs and trade restrictions were eliminated from the 1950s.