Transport Revolution in Great Britain: Definition & Timeline

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Great Britain's Industrial Revolution was amongst the most efficient in the world, but why? In this lesson, we'll examine the role that transportation played in the British Industrial Revolution, and see how this redefined the nation's history.

The Transport Revolution

When we think about the Industrial Revolution, we tend to think about the massive amount of stuff people made. Something we don't always think about is how this changed the ways they moved. One of the biggest changes to come out of the Industrial Revolution was in transportation, and nowhere was this more evident than in Great Britain. Between 1750 and 1870, Great Britain created an industrialized network of transportation so quickly and so efficiently that historians call it the transport revolution. In over 100 years, the nation transformed itself from a place of medieval, muddy roads to the home of the most advanced transportation system in the world. Now that's a revolution.


Britain's transport revolution can really be traced back to three main developments. The first has to do with changes to their canals. In 1700, roads were poorly maintained, so the easiest way to transport things was by water. Rivers like the Thames were already great for this, but most cities didn't have access to big, straight rivers. They had smaller, winding ones which were much harder to navigate.

So, Parliament started focusing on improving canals. This was the first type of transportation that was rebuilt, and it was very effective. Between 1700 and 1750, the number of miles you could reliably travel by river doubled. In fact, it was so useful that over the next 80 years, Great Britain spent another 20 million pounds on canal development.

Canals were the first major system to be improved in the transport revolution

So, what did this do? Canal development let towns across Great Britain ship their products directly to the coast. From there, they could send their products around the world, make lots of money, and start to grow. That money allowed them to make more products, and then more products and more products. In fact, the ability to efficiently transport products into far-reaching markets is really what helped a few technological changes grow into the Industrial Revolution.

Canals became even more useful in the mid-19th century when steamboats were invented that could navigate rivers more quickly, and seaworthy steamships began to appear on the coastlines. By 1870, products produced in British factories were being sent around the world faster than ever before.


Of course, canals were only the tip of the iceberg. Parliament was well aware that they couldn't fix all of their transportation problems without addressing those poor-quality medieval roads that crisscrossed the island. So, in the 1750s, major reforms were made to road systems. Prior to this, each parish was responsible for maintaining their own roads. This made roads uneven and inconsistent from town to town. So, Parliament setup the turnpike trust system, in which a trust (a group of individuals) was given power over a road. Their job was to maintain it to the highest standard, and in order to do so were allowed to charge tolls. By the early 1800s, about 20,000 miles of British roads were owned by turnpike trusts, 3 million pounds were being invested into road development every year, and the island had more paved roads than Spain and France combined.

The improvement in roads let people and their products move across Great Britain much more efficiently. This was also impacted by the development of new technologies. Carriages and horse-drawn carts became larger and much sturdier thanks to the development of higher-quality iron in the late 18th century, as did roads themselves. In the late 1700s, the Iron Bridge of Coalbrookdale became the first bridge in the world made entirely of wrought iron. It was stronger than anything that had come before it, crossing a large river gorge that had previously been difficult to cover with wooden bridges. Changes like this connected Britain in ways that had never been imagined before.

The Iron Bridge of Coalbrookdale was the first of its kind

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