British Manufacturing History

My exploration of the story of British Manfacturing

How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World

On this page I am creating to links to short podcast extracts from my book along with a chapter by chapter outline. But first here are some reviews and a bit about the book itself.


I wanted to read How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World by Philip Hamlyn Williams because I studied economic history last year and I liked the subject a lot. On top of that the author’s great grandfather exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851. That made the book too enticing to miss and I’m glad I didn’t because it’s great.

The book covers the period from 1850 to 1950, the last chapter being on the Festival of Britain of 1951. It’s a wonderfully circular structure, to start with the Great Exhibition and finish with the Festival of Britain. With wars, including both world wars, and disruption to supply chains, advances in technology, changes in manufacturing, this book had to cover a lot of information and it does it beautifully. It’s easy to read, explained clearly and engaging.

Many topics are covered, from steam power which was still in its infancy in the 1850s to the Mallard of the 1930s, covered developments in communication, the sewing machine, bicycles, cars and aeroplanes. He covers the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, which were interesting to read about. Germany had a leading role when it came to dyestuff, but the war changed that, of course.

This is a very good book, one I would recommend to anyone, without any doubt

Coffee and Books

What a really fascinating book that looks at the manufacturing world from the 1850’s through to the 1950’s. Piggybacking on the industrial revolution that saw Britain expand and grow greatly, saw the expansion of the manufacturing industries such as Coal, Metals, Textiles, Glass, Electrical and so on. It was really interesting and reading about some big companies and industries and how they started, some are now long gone but some are still around today. 

This book begins from the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace and continues for the next 100 years and covers the inter-war years too. There were some nice photographs to accompany the text which I probably would have liked to have seen more of. But overall, this has been an interesting read and I would recommend it to others if you enjoy this period of history.

The History Fella

This is a brilliant book. I am reading it and find it both very enlightening and absolutely full of information. Recommend it!

Neil Main – Managing Director Micrometric Ltd

The subject is fascinating; covering the period between the Great Exhibition and the Festival of Britain would seem to be an impossible task, but you have done it very well indeed. There are some great photographs.

Richard Pullen – author of The Landships of Lincoln

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Fascinating book.

Well written and brings life the amazing work many people did within manufacturing.

I never knew Britain had such a wide history.

Karen Bull – NetGalley

When Phil asked me to write the forward to his book, I was not prepared for the scale, scope, detail and insights I would gain through this magnificent body of work.

Phil covers the changing industrial and manufacturing landscape between the two great exhibitions of 1851 and 1951, the latter being the year I was born.

Household names, emerge, merge and disappear as the reader is taken on a wonderful journey from our seafaring and exploring past, through a depression and two world wars to the wonderful exhibition of 1951 which displayed the strength and depth of our industrial capability.

Paul Barron CBE DSc from the foreword he wrote for the book.

How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World

The peoples of the British Isles gave to the world the foundations on which modern manufacturing economies are built. This is quite an assertion, but history shows that, in the late eighteenth century, a remarkable combination of factors and circumstances combined to give birth to Britain as the first manufacturing nation. Further factors allowed it to remain top manufacturing dog well into the twentieth century whilst other countries were busy playing catch- up. Through two world wars and the surrounding years, British manufacturing remained strong, albeit whilst ceding the lead to the United States.

This book seeks to tell the remarkable story of British manufacturing, using the Great Exhibition of 1851 as a prism. Prince Albert and Sir Henry Cole had conceived an idea of bringing together exhibits from manufacturers across the world to show to its many millions of visitors the pre-eminence of the British. 1851 was not the start, but rather a pause for a bask in glory.

The book traces back from the exhibits in Hyde Park’s Crystal Palace to identify the factors that gave rise to this pre-eminence, just as the factory system at Cromford Mill. It then follows developments up until the Festival of Britain exactly one century later. Steam power and communication by electric telegraph, both British inventions, predated the Exhibition. After it came the sewing machine and bicycle, motor car and aeroplane, but also electrical power, radio and the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.


Chapter 1 The Great Exhibition of 1851

was an opportunity for the British to enjoy their manufacturing achievement – they were the workshop of the world

Chapter 2 Trade and Shipping

hold the key to how the industrial revolution began

I now jump ahead to Chapter 9 before retracing my steps

Chapter 9 The sewing machine and bicycle

How these inventions came about and the famous names that would go on to create another even greater industry

Chapter 3 Coal and Metal

Bicycles, sewing machines and indeed railway locomotives would have been unimaginable without the energy supplied by coal or the material of metal

Chapter 4 Textiles

The British economy needed a wealth creating machine to take it from an essentially agrarian society to one thriving in industry. We had great skills of weaving with wool and flax; the import of vast quantities of raw cotton kick-started an industrial revolution.

Chapter 5 Steam and Steel

In order to manufacture vast quantities of cotton cloth at low prices, power was needed and it came in the form of the steam engine. This did of course also revolutionise transport.

Chapter 6 Communication

No society can advance without effective communication – the railway and telegraph hand in hand

Chapter 7 Armaments

Technology produced for peace can so easily be used in war. British manufacturing, as that in other waring nations, accelerated with the demands that war makes and the funding that it opens up.

Chapter 8 The Home

My father was a Victorian born in 1891 in South London. I try to imagine was his home might have been like. It was a modern semi-detached. I know he would rig up tricks for his parents giving them an electric shock when they touch his door handle. What was the source of the electricity. The Deptford power station? Probably not. So an accumulator? A dynamo? All these inventions were slowly making homes more comfortable. The memories he recorded before he died in 1965 helped me write about British manufacturing and the home.

Chapter 10 The Internal Combustion Engine

Was this the vital breakthrough?

Chapter 11 Electric Power

Or was this?

Chapter 12 The Great War

A war conducted on an industrial scale was bound to transform industry as well as the social fabric of the nation it served

Chapter 13 The Aftermath of War

The country winning a war has to create an industrial base far larger than it can sustain in peacetime. The aftermath is a painful contraction

Chapter 14 The Interwar Years

Out of the desolation of war came new shoots of manufacturing – a motor industry, radio and chemicals to name by a few

Chapter 15 Re-armament and the Second World War

A long hard slog that produced so much excellent British manufacturing, and drained the nation’s coffers

Chapter 16 The Postwar Export Drive

The cupboard was bare and exports were essential to pay for vital imports. Manufacturing industry rose to the challenge just as it had in war.

Chapter 17 The Festival of Britain

One century after the Great Exhibition, the country celebrated again. Both the country and the form of celebration had changed, but some threads survived.

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