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Britain's First Industrial Revolution By Simon Elliott |

Published in History Today Volume: 64 Issue: 5 2014  Britain's First Industrial Revolution

While the advances in technology and manufacturing that took place in Britain during  the 18th and 19th centuries have entered the mainstream of history, few know about the industrialisation carried out during the Roman occupation, says Simon Elliott.


The gravestone of a Roman cutler with a relief of a shop selling knives and sickles, second century AD. Bridgeman/Museo della Civilta Romana, Rome

The phrase ‘Industrial Revolution’ plays such a central role in the narrative of British history that few historians have asked whether the British Isles experienced anything similar prior to its advent in the 18th century. It seems, however, that Britain did experience a form of industrial revolution, from the later first century through to the the end of the fourth, the period of the Roman occupation. During this time, parts of the British Isles, especially in the south and the east, developed a wide variety of industries, which, like those of the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, were large in scale, were marked by engineering innovation and involved complex manufacturing processes. These industries became incorporated into a sophisticated international economic system, supported by an advanced maritime and land-based transport infrastructure. This revolution played a major role in shaping the nature of society throughout the period of the Roman occupation.

While there is no question that the economy of the Roman Empire as a whole remained overwhelmingly agrarian, industry played an important role, a fact still evident today in the high levels of pollutants that remain from Roman industrial activity (such as lead and copper emissions), which can be traced in the Greenland ice cores. Using ice-core copper pollution as an example, it appears that the only other major period of substantial industrial output anywhere in the world between the Roman Empire and the modern Industrial Revolution occured during the 11th century, in Sung dynasty China. The scale of industry that developed in Britain during the Roman occupation was certainly revolutionary compared with what had existed before, during the later Iron Age. It was also extraordinary in comparison with what came later.

The economy of the Roman Empire featured large-scale state-controlled mining (metalla) and quarrying enterprises, as well as manufactories producing a wide variety of products, including: weapons of uniform quality and size; fine Samian ware pottery; textiles; milling and other food production enterprises, not least the ubiquitous garum fish sauce, beloved throughout the Empire. Such a suite of industries also became a major feature of the British experience of Romanitas. Examples include the huge iron producing enterprises (initially in the Weald of Sussex, Surrey and Kent and later in the Forest of Dean and the East Midlands); industrial-scale quarrying to serve the urbanisation and later fortification of Britain (a demand fulfilled by a thriving construction sector); tile and brick production; mining of all kinds; a huge number of pottery kilns; mosaic and glass production; salt production; and, possibly, the manufacture of garum. Meanwhile the production of quern stones flourished, along with the milling industry to which it was central, while Britain was also home to a thriving textile industry. The latter was highly regarded throughout the empire for two textile products: a form of the birrus hooded cloak and a fine quality tapetia rug.

A coin-minting industry also developed, revealing of the political and economic progress made in the province during the occupation. There were more coins minted and circulated in Britain during the occupation than ever before. The principal official mint was in London, where coins were produced between AD 286-324 and 383-388. Of the 29 major mints from across the empire represented in the British Portable Antiquities Scheme database, the 2,987 coins made in London represent the fifth largest category, an impressive statistic as it is surpassed only by the output of the major urban centres of Rome itself, Trier, Arles and Lyon.

To look at a specific regional example of Roman industrialisation in Britain, the south-east featured a range of enterprises, largely based on the extractive industries. These sat broadly within three economic zones of activity. The first was around the river valleys of the Darent, a tributary of the Thames, and (principally) the Medway, both of which were within the economic sphere of London. A second was in a zone running down the east Kent coast from Dover to Lympne (in the economic sphere of Canterbury and the imperial gateway at Richborough). The third was in the Weald of Kent, Sussex and Surrey.


The Blackstone Edge Roman road in the Pennines, part of the Roman imperial transport infrastructure.
Alamy/David Speight

While the Darent Valley was notable for the large villa estates constructed for Roman London’s political and economic elites, the luxurious villas constructed along the Medway valley belonged in the main to those who managed a vast and flourishing industrial landscape based around extensive ragstone quarries above the tidal reach at Allington. This industry was facilitated by a complex river infrastructure in the form of locks and weirs, which made the Medway navigable to the ships and barges that carried the enormous quantities of ragstone into the Thames Estuary and beyond.  

From there the ragstone was shipped around the south-east, as far afield as Colchester (where it was used in the construction of the town’s Claudian temple and the gates of the Circus) and Bradwell (later a Saxon shore fort) to the north, London to the west and Richborough (where it was used in the monumental arch and its superseding Saxon shore fort) to the east. The scale of this industrial activity has led scholars to consider the possibility that the Roman state was directly involved, at least during the earlier years of the occupation. The excavation in the early 1960s of the 14 metrelong merchant ship Blackfriars 1 has shed light on this process. This vessel, dated to the early second century, was found by Blackfriars Bridge on the western edge of the City of London, just where the River Fleet would have entered the Thames. Crucially, it foundered while carrying 26 tonnes of Kentish ragstone from the Medway valley quarries, still in its hold when it was discovered some 1,800 years later.  

While there is evidence that other materials were quarried in the Medway valley during the occupation – for example, the sand and chalk for which the industry is better known in the modern era – it is the ragstone quarrying which has left its unmistakable mark to this day on the Roman south-east. Ragstone is a grey-green, sandy and glauconitic limestone found within the Hythe Beds of the Lower Greensand geological formation near Folkestone. It was highly valued by the Romans for its durability and the comparative ease with which it could be worked and is a common feature of many of the region’s buildings and monuments. A primary example is the late second-century Roman land walls of London, over three kilometres long, whose fine quality facing blocks are still visible in surviving sections, such as those near Tower Hill underground station. This enterprise alone is a remarkable example of the demand for the material, with modern estimates indicating that over one million squared and dressed ragstone blocks would have been required for the inner and outer facing, together with a rubble ragstone core, which was then set with mortar. A similar vessel to Blackfriars 1 would have needed to have made around 1,750 voyages of 56km each way to transport the 45,000 tonnes of ragstone required for such a massive building programme.

The quarries needed to supply this monumental demand were of a matching scale. While ragstone outcrops are found in the Hythe Beds, the finest quality material lies within the outcrops in the upper Medway valley and these were heavily exploited during the occupation. There are four likely sites for the quarries: at Allington (actually on the tidal reach), Boughton Monchelsea to the south of modern Maidstone, Dean Street (also south of Maidstone and, at 2.5km long, one of the largest man-made features of occupied Britain) and finally at Teston, slightly further upriver. Each of these sites had direct access either to the Medway itself or, in the case of Boughton Monchelsea, to a major tributary, the Loose Stream, notable for its mills. The luxury villas of the associated elite were located in Maidstone, East Farleigh, Barming and Teston, all within easy reach of the quarries. A Roman road ran from the Dean Street quarry to the Roman ford at Barming and to a nearby villa at East Farleigh.

East Wear Bay, at Folkestone, was well known for its quern stone industry, which manufactured high quality Greensand querns from the outcropping in the local cliffs. The success of the industry is evident from the widespread export of the querns made there, examples being found as far afield as Hunsbury in Northamptonshire and possibly in northern France. This particular Greensand was noted for its strength, a quality critical to the quern stone’s grinding power and resistance to wear. It also allowed industrial-sized millstones to be manufactured, for use at high-volume regional water mills, such as that on the River Stour at Ickham, Kent. The archaeological record suggests that the quern stone industry in Folkestone preceded the arrival of the Romans, with evidence of its origins in the later Iron Age. However it is clear that the beginning of the occupation marked a dramatic increase in the scale of such activities and in the ability to transport the manufactured goods to new markets, a hallmark, too, of the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. Meanwhile other building stone was quarried locally, as the region began its path to Roman urbanisation and fortification. Tufa (volcanic rock), was quarried extensively in the valley of the River Dour above Folkestone. Blocks of the material are found in the walls of the forts of the Classis Britannica, the Roman fleet based in Britain, and also in later Saxon shore forts at Dover and Lympne, the pharos at Dover, settlement buildings in the same town and in the large villa at East Wear Bay. Chalk was also quarried extensively, as was flint. Again, both were used as building materials, while a large ragstone quarry has been located above the Saxon shore fort at Lympne, which supplied the stone for its construction.


Central roundel of Bacchus from a first or second century Roman mosaic pavement, City of London.
British Museum

Further west the Weald reveals the extensive industrial landscape renowned for iron manufacturing during the occupation. This industry, too, had its origins in the later Iron Age, at sites such as Garden Hill in East Sussex. However it is with the arrival of the Romans that large-scale activity began, especially near the coast of the eastern Weald. Intensive sites such as Beauport Park, Footlands and Oaklands Park began processing huge quantities of locally mined iron ore to produce high quality iron, which was exported around the region and abroad from ports such as Bodiam on the River Rother and Castle Croft on the River Wallers Haven. These major sites were also linked to the Medway valley by the Roman Road that travelled north from Beauport Park, past Footlands and Oaklands Park, through modern Maidstone and then on to Roman Rochester.

Using a ‘direct process’ method, which combined smelting and forging in one procedure, some of the furnaces used during the occupation were larger than any in use again until the coming of the Industrial Revolution proper. Recent estimates indicate that during the 200 years when the Romano-British Wealden iron industry was at its height, based on the current estimate of 100,000 tonnes of slag in the region, the industry produced up to 30,000 tonnes of iron at 113 known sites.

The four largest sites produced 44 per cent of the total of this waste volume and were thus by far the largest contributors to overall iron production. The Beauport Park site produced 210 tonnes of iron annually from the first to the third centuries AD.

There was an extensive brick and tile manufacturing industry in the Weald, which made use of the fine quality clays abundant in the region. The industry is heavily associated with the tiles stamped ‘CLBR’, indicating a building belonging to the Classis Britannica, which are found across the region and have been discovered as far afield as Boulogne. The Grey Wealden shale quarried to make finely cut tiles is regularly found within the boundaries of what was Roman London in the form of Opus Sectile tiled floors, a style of illustrative, mosaic-like decoration.

Patterns common to all three of these significant industries are discernible. Kentish ragstone is known to have been used in the first Roman forum in London, built during the AD 50s. It is also found in the Claudian temple in Colchester, constructed sometime before the Boudiccan revolt. Meanwhile at least nine of the iron-making sites in the Weald were fully operational by the end of the first century AD, indicating the early beginnings of industry. Although iron manufacturing existed to a limited extent in the Weald before the occupation, there was certainly no ragstone quarrying taking place. It, therefore, seems likely that the Romans had some knowledge before their official arrival of the available resources in the south-east and of their potential for industrial-scale exploitation.

There is a clear chronological distinction between the period of large-scale industry typical of the middle of the third century and the more localised activity which marks the period immediately before the end of the Roman occupation. The use of Kentish ragstone on a grand scale declined during the third century (the later river wall and bastions of London are made of recycled material from public buildings and mausolea rather than the fine ragstone of the earlier land wall). Meanwhile, iron manufacturing in the Weald had also ceased by this time. The Classis Britannica in its earlier, large-scale phase, acting on the authority of the Procurator (the official in charge of a province’s financial affairs), had facilitated the opening up of industrial activity on a large scale, with the emphasis on making the new province pay its way. Across the empire the regional merchant navies had a strong association with the extractive industries (including the Classis Germanica on the River Rhine) and this was certainly the case in the Weald, where many of the larger iron manufacturing sites that have been excavated feature considerable numbers of local CLBR-stamped tiles. The Classis Britannica played a similarly crucial role with the Medway valley’s ragstone quarrying industry, given the need to manage what was a vast business enterprise, including the maritime transport necessary to carry the stone and the building and management of the river infrastructure required. Even the quern industry at East Wear Bay has a Classis Britannica link, evidenced by the plentiful CLBR-stamped tiles found locally (including at the Folkestone villa).

But the Classis Britannica disappears from history in the middle of the third century, its last reference being in an epigraphic testament to one Saturninus, ex-captain in the fleet, dated to no later than AD 249. It is at this time that major changes take place in the three zones, for example, the decline of industrial-scale ragstone quarrying and iron manufacturing described above, as well as in settlement patterns. It is in this context that industrial activity becomes much more localised. This transformation is paralleled by other changes in Britain, for example, in settlement patterns. It is a matter of debate whether such changes from large-scale state-run activity and associated settlement to localism was regionally specific or simply a symptom of the maturing imperial project during a century when huge changes were taking place amid the crisis of the third century, which culminated in the Diocletianic Persecution of Christians throughout the Roman Empire in the late third and early fourth centuries, ending in 313 with the Edict of Milan, passed by Constantine and Licinius.

There were clearly differences between the arrival of industry into Britain during the occupation and the ascendency of industry over agriculture during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. Britain’s census of 1851 shows that over half of the economically active population were for the first time employed in industry (determined as manufacturing, mining and construction). One simply cannot say that the Classical economy was dominated by industry, because it was not, though it did play an important role. In that regard, three questions arise: was there a pronounced increase in the scale of industry in Britain with the advent of the occupation? Was there a pronounced increase in the level of engineering innovation at the same time? Could one describe some of the industry as manufacturing? The answer to all three questions is yes. The increase in scale of the industries, such as quarrying and iron manufacturing, was enormous. Further, consider the impact that the 18th century Industrial Revolution had on the economy and on society and ask if this was replicated earlier, during the Roman occupation. While long-range trading networks have been a feature of human economic activity since the Neolithic period or earlier, nothing had existed in Britain before the Roman occupation to compare with the international economy within which it suddenly found itself. Society in Britain dramatically changed with the advent of the occupation and manpower intensive industries such as quarrying and iron manufacturing had a major social impact in the regions where they were prominent. Both the Britain of the Roman occupation and that of the Industrial Revolution experienced substantial population growth. In the Roman period this peaked at up to four million, an increase from no higher than two million in the later Iron Age. There is evidence that parts of the country experienced a population crash towards the end of the Iron Age, indicating that pre-Roman population levels were not sustainable. The rapid population growth that followed the occupation is evident in the new towns and cities, the civitas capitals, municipa, coloniae and small towns replacing the far fewer oppida (defensive settlements) which had existed before. While Roman population growth can seem insignificant compared with that associated with the later Industrial Revolution, it is important to acknowledge the scale and rate of change in comparison with what had existed before. For all these reasons one can argue that the arrival of the Romans in Britain marked the onset of an Industrial Revolution which would not be replicated nor surpassed until the 18th century.

Simon Elliott has embarked on a PhD study of Kent during the Roman occupation, with a particular focus on the extractive industries.