Early industry and Parliament

In the late 17th century Britain's economy depended mainly on agriculture. In certain parts of the country there were already some forms of industrial activity where large labour forces were essential, such as shipbuilding, coal-mining, and iron-ore extraction. The manufacture of many types of household items, however, took place in workshops. Mass production in factories was a thing of the future.

Parliament responds to change

Britain's chief export industry was woollen textiles, though production processes were often small-scale and confined to workers' cottages. But the 18th century saw rapid advances in methods of textile manufacturing led by expanding trade and a rate of industrialisation experienced nowhere else in Europe. Britain became the first industrial nation in the world.

The role of Parliament in these complex developments was often crucial, and a great deal of regulatory legislation was put in place. This was achieved, however, in a piecemeal fashion, and not through the kind of wide-ranging pieces of 'industrial' legislation which became the norm in the 20th century. Instead, Parliament responded, when required, to the needs of particular branches of industry, and quite often in specific regions or localities.

Petitions and Acts

Petitions from localities would be presented in the House of Commons and referred to parliamentary committees. Merchants, manufacturers and tradesmen - anyone with knowledge of local conditions - would be summoned to these to provide MPs with detailed information and outline the case for legislation. These proceedings then led to the drafting of a Bill embodying some form of regulation which was discussed in the Commons, and afterwards in the Lords, before receiving the Royal Assent.

One issue connected to Britain's industrial development was the subject of petitioning on a scale that before the late 18th century had not been seen before: the Slave Trade. Although many industries and businesses were part of an economy that depended upon this trade many of the petitions received by Parliament objecting to it were signed by people whose livelihoods would be affected by its abolition, which was achieved in 1807.

An alternative way of stimulating ailing branches of industry or manufacture would be for MPs for affected areas to persuade the Government to alter customs or excise duties on products.

Related information

Information on how the public can petition the House of Commons

Much of the work of the House of Commons and the House of Lords takes place in committees. Find out more about this work

Glossary link

Also within Living Heritage

Find out more about the Act of Parliament to abolish the British Slave Trade

Did you know?

The earliest Act of Parliament held in the Parliamentary Archives concerns the employment of apprentices in the Norfolk woollen industry