Quantifying Industrialisation in England and Wales, 1565-1688

North’s 1993 Nobel Prize-winning work focused on ‘the institutional changes of the Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, and in particular on the protection of property rights. Such changes are widely believed to have led to the world’s first Industrial Revolution. Yet Nef’s largely-discounted hypothesis of substantial earlier industrialisation is supported by recent work on occupational structure (Shaw-Taylor and Wrigley, 2014; Keibek, 2017), suggesting that England was already substantially industrialised by 1688. However, the occupational data do not cover the whole country or include the sixteenth century (map below).

Male adults employed in the secondary sector, 1600 (Keibek, 2017). Grey: no data.

Using big data, this project seeks to:

    1. Quantify, by commodity, any localised early industrialisation and agricultural specialisation;
    2. Document changes in transport infrastructure and capacity.

From 1565, the Exchequer Port Books (portbooks) recorded details of virtually every voyage of every merchant vessel into or out of every seaport in England and Wales. A typical entry in a coastal portbook (distinct from overseas) records the vessel’s name, homeport, destination, master, burthen/tonnage (sometimes), merchants and the weight/volume of their individual cargoes, and key voyage dates. Water transport was preferable for fragile goods and essential for the long-distance transport of bulky goods (even many perishables), and was consistently recorded over more than 150 years.

A typical entry in a coastal Exchequer Port Book, recording the shipping of paper and of alum and copperas manufactured near Bournemouth, 12 Jun 1592 [TNA E 190/866/6, f.5r.]

Despite the lack of any comparably-detailed domestic economic data for this period in England and Wales, the portbooks have remained singularly underexploited. The most influential exceptions to this neglect include Nef’s (1932) Rise of the British Coal Industry (largely limited to movement of a single commodity to London), and Willan’s (1938) English Coastal Trade (excluding Wales and the Tudor period, and in which he himself urged ‘more detailed studies’). Despite their limitations, both works are foundational in the study of early modern economic history, underlining the enormous potential of the source material. More recent impactful studies include those of Withington (2019), which considered a limited range of commodities (intoxicants) at five leading ports, and Lambert (forthcoming), which is concerned with ships and not their cargoes, and only before 1580.

Before a significant proportion of the portbooks was temporarily withdrawn from access due to mould infestation, the biggest obstacle to a fully comprehensive study of their contents was the enormity of the task. A crowd-sourced project (Wanklyn, 1996) digitised ~25% of the coastal portbooks of Gloucester. Details of the changing location and types of manufacturing output and consumption revealed by this pioneering exercise confirmed the value and feasibility of extracting economic data from the portbooks.

In contrast to all previous studies, this project, made possible by recent AI developments, will examine over a long period virtually every commodity – manufactured, mined, or agricultural – carried by sea around the whole of England and Wales. Photographs of three sample sets of portbooks covering the years around which the greatest national coverage is available (1580, 1630, and 1680) will be uploaded to a Goobi Workflow  installation currently under development for detailed cataloguing and image rectification, before being fed to Transkribus, the leading Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR) platform. A neural network will be trained recursively using large annotated subsamples of portbooks, to produce transcripts of cargo data for some 50,000 coastal voyages, considerably more detailed and extensive than any previous study.

This will reveal details of:

    1. Production and consumption of multifarious manufactures, coal, and mineral-extraction in port hinterlands, e.g. cloth, saltfish, meat, paper, alum/copperas, honey, cheese,  butter, salt, grains, flour, malt, beer, soap, hides, glasswares, bricks, pottery, building-stone, timber, furniture, and metalwares;
    2. Changes in the size of ships and ports’ ability to accommodate them, the composition and distribution of the merchant fleet and its crews, and speed of transport.

These indicators of economic, industrial, and demographic growth, decline, and redistribution during this period of profound societal, occupational, and regulatory change will allow an assessment of:

    1. The impacts of state policy respecting customs, mariners and shipping;
    2. The changing economic geographies of coastal and riparian hinterlands;
    3. The centralisation of commerce in London and elsewhere;
    4. The effectiveness of river and port improvement.

Significantly, these geographically-comprehensive data will also allow (through extrapolation and estimation) the geographical and chronological extension and quantification of early secondary-sector occupational data.

CAMPOP’s unrivalled collaborative environment, expertise-pool, and high-spatial-resolution datasets concerning transportation, population, and occupation, will greatly facilitate these assessments. The project will also rely on collaboration with Oliver Dunn and Alexis Litvine, whose ground-breaking use of AI for the extraction of manuscript tabular data (THOTH) guarantees the project’s successful completion within three years. Besides a monograph (targeted at CUP), journal articles (EcHR, P&P), and dataset (UKDA), a key outcome of this project will be a new HTR model for use in a later project for the transcription of the remaining 19,000+ portbooks, to be undertaken in collaboration with Craig Muldrew and Leigh Shaw-Taylor. The images generated by these projects will form a richly-catalogued and accessible digital library, and the software techniques developed will serve as a model for other digitisation and cataloguing projects that deal with manuscript sources.


This web site will be augmented as the project progresses. We are currently seeking funding!