Work before industrialisation

The last two weeks I’ve written a bit about growing a sense of community at work. On Thursday I mentioned that working locally, from home, alongside neighbours and family, is the way that people worked before industrialisation. My friend Dylan said he was interested in reflecting more on what work and family were like before industrialisation. I thought I’d write a brief summary of my limited understanding of this topic:


Before industrialisation, most work was farming for food production. In pre-industrial Britain, nobles had responsibility for areas of land. They would get local people to live on and work the land. No-one had a lot of incentive to improve the land. The nobility couldn’t sell up and workers couldn’t go looking for better places to work. Most production was for consumption within the extended household of the manor where it was made. It was often too risky to try and take goods to cities to trade, because of the cost of transportation, tolls that needed to be paid and prevalence of banditry. Local exchange was controlled by relationships of obligation.

One of the factors that began a move away from this system was a movement toward private ownership of land. In England, the nobility began to push for the ability to enclose the land they were responsible for – to claim ownership, and the right to sell it. Previously a lot of the land had been held in common, so all the local people could use it. Private ownership gave the nobility the incentive to develop the land and sell up. This meant that many tenant farmers were no longer needed and became displaced. I think this meant more than just geographical movement – it meant a severing of the relationships of obligatory exchange that bonded feudal communities together. Many displaced workers ended up in big cities, providing the labor that allowed industrial work to begin.

Hopefully think it’s obvious that I’m not arguing for a return to pre-industrial economics, but I wonder if there is anything we can learn from pre-industrial society?

One thought on “Work before industrialisation

  1. Thanks for this post Chris. Interesting that you mention that most work was focused on food production.

    I recently read in ‘The Art of Frugal Hedonism’ (Raser-Rowland & Grubb, 2016) that the idea of a personal lawn (backyards etc) is relatively recent. That people used to use their land purely to grow fruit and vegetables. I guess people in cities are gradually realisiing they need this connection to land with more veggie patches, community gardens etc growing around the place (pun intended).


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