Steam Engines: How they Changed a Rural Way of Life

Few inventions had as dramatic of an impact on both Britain and the wider world than the invention of the steam engine.

First used at the end of the 1700s and rising to prominence throughout the nineteenth century, steam engines changed the very landscape of the UK. The rise of steam powered machinery impacted everything from agriculture to transportation to production of goods, and reshaped the political, social and economic structure of the UK. 

Steam thrashing machine
Steam thrashing machine at the Great Dorset Steam Fair

Many people associate the invention of the steam engine with the railway industry, and while the impact the steam engine had on the railways was immense, steam engines were used for so much more than just powering trains.

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Although it came to be used for a wide range of applications, when it was first invented the steam engine was intended to be used in the mining industry.


Steam Engines

A steam powered pump invented and perfected in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century was created to pump water out of mines, allowing shafts to be built further underground. These deeper mines allowed more coal and other goods to be extracted from deep within the earth. 

Steam engines reshaped what country life looked like. They were a catalyst for the creation of a more city based society and brought both positive and negative impacts to the rural economy. This world-altering invention facilitated transport, improved the opportunity for trade, and drastically changed the living conditions and opportunities of people living across Britain.

Prior to the steam engine, machinery relied on water power, wind power, animals or, more often than not, manual labour. In the case of factories that relied on water wheels, these could only be built by suitable rivers and streams, limiting the geographical reach of industries.

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Farm labour was almost exclusively completed through backbreaking manual labour with some assistance from horses, oxen or other large animals.

These more manual ways of working gave limitations on production levels that were greatly surpassed when the power of steam was harnessed. In the mid-1700s, James Watt further developed early versions of the steam engine, making it more efficient, while the addition of a rotary motion made it more effective for driving machinery.

A preserved Watt beam engine at Loughborough University
A preserved Watt beam engine at Loughborough University

This invention allowed factories to move away from relying on water wheels powered by rivers and streams, removing many of the geographical limitations that they previously faced.

Factories and Farms

The invention of the steam engine revolutionised the world of agriculture. While stationary steam powered machines were used as early as 1790, it was the introduction of more portable steam powered machinery that morphed the agricultural landscape.

Fowler ploughing engine
Fowler ploughing engine

Working in a similar way to steam powered train engines, albeit on a smaller scale, steam powered engines were moved between farms to power machinery and were used for everything from ploughing to powering steam rollers.

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Transitioning from manual labour to steam powered machinery increased the efficiency of agricultural practices and, in many cases, reduced labour and running costs associated with farm tasks.

Steam Ploughs

Steam powered engines were even used to drain flooded areas to make the land suitable for agriculture. These mechanized farming practices in turn created an industry that adapted to large scale agricultural production.

This represented a massive shift from small-scale and locally-based agricultural practices, in which local farms were responsible for providing for primarily just their community – a system that had dominated the agricultural scene for millennia.

This type of plough would have been hauled across a field on a wire rope by two steam traction engines
This type of plough would have been hauled across a field on a wire rope by two steam traction engines.

Early steam powered agricultural machines paved the way for the modern tractors of today. To put this into context, a ploughman and his horse could plough an acre a day. A pair of steam ploughing engines, could plough 40 acres per day and work seven days per week.

Factories also underwent rapid changes with the introduction of the steam engine. While early factories and mills had to be located near water, steam engines meant that they could be located anywhere across the country.

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The introduction of steam power also meant that these industries were not as reliant on natural cycles. Where previously operations ceased when rivers froze in the winter or streams dried up in summer droughts, steam engines freed factories from the whims of nature, allowing production to continue even in extreme weather conditions that once would have brought production to a halt. 

The Beginnings of Mass Production

Factories could also produce goods at rates previously unimaginable with the introduction of steam powered machinery. Few industries demonstrate the impact of steam power quite as well as the textile sector.

cotton mill
By the middle of the 1800s, Britain was producing half the world’s cotton cloth. Before the advent of steam, workers plied their craft at home, sometimes to supplement farming.

Seemingly overnight, textile production shifted from a cottage industry reliant on small scale home producers to a mass production behemoth. Steam powered machinery was installed in textile factories across Britain at a rapid rate – in just one factory sixty steam powered spinning mules may have been installed. 

However it wasn’t just the textile sector. Steam powered machines were used in everything from printing presses to minting coins to mining and metal working. Iron production in Britain increased by close to 2500% between 1796 and 1854, largely due to the production advantages of the steam engine. 

Stott park Bobbin Mill Steam Engine
Stott park Bobbin Mill Steam Engine

Getting from A to B 

The introduction of the steam train is seen as a pivotal part of the industrial revolution and a significant point in the history of the modern world. The steam engine revolutionised the transport sector, allowing people and goods to travel across large distances at a speed and scale previously thought unimaginable. 

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The railways opened up a whole new world to people living in often poorer rural communities. Rail travel dramatically reduced the time it took to traverse the country, and when compared to road travel, it also often gave a cheaper option.

Rocket was designed and built by Robert Stephenson in 1829
Rocket was designed and built by Robert Stephenson in 1829

As early as 1832, taking the train between Liverpool and Manchester was on average over two hours faster than going by road, and over eighteen hours quicker than travelling via the canal system.

This increased mobility led to greater social mixing of communities from different parts of the country, impacting the cultural landscape of the UK.

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Political movements also took advantage of the new railways, using this new form of transportation to spread political messages, movements and agendas across the country rather than remaining localised initiatives.

The Anti-Corn Law League was particularly known for using the railways to spread its messages. The increased efficiency in industries such as mining further represented the need for effective transport. As production increased, these goods were loaded onto steam engines and transported to docks and urban centres to be sold.

Where Have All the People Gone?

The impacts of the steam engine, however, were not all great for rural communities. Small cottage industries and small scale makers could no longer compete with the booming factories facilitated by the invention of the steam engine.

People left the countryside in droves, seeking better economic opportunities in the urban metropolis. The movement of people out of rural areas only exacerbated the economic problems of rural communities as small local business and agricultural enterprises began to struggle to find local labour.

A slum in Market Court, Kensington, 1860s.

In some areas people lured by the promise of better wages relocated to urban areas, leading to labour and food shortages. Cities and towns swelled while rural areas emptied at a phenomenal rate. While in 1800, 20% of the population lived in urban areas, in less than 150 years, the number of urban-dwellers had jumped to 70% of the UK population.

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In just the city of Manchester, the population exploded, growing from a settlement of ten thousand people to one of 2.3 million in the space of two hundred years. 

As cities struggled to keep up with this rapid influx of people, many people found themselves trading the open spaces and clean air of their rural homes for cramped, overcrowded and poorly built housing in polluted urban centres. 

Overcrowded Highlands

As regions in England faced challenges with depopulation in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the highlands of Scotland were facing the opposite issue. The area was too overpopulated to have the means to be self-sufficient.

These overcrowded population levels were a contributing factor to the Highland Clearances. The invention of the steam engine, and the industrial revolution it spurred, was just one contributing factor to the population decrease in these areas. Hence unlike in the south, people moving to more urbanised areas represented somewhat of an advantage for northern rural populations. 

Changing Economics 

From moving populations and economic power to urban areas to breakneck advances in the different ways that goods were produced and consumed, the invention of the steam engine fuelled a changing economic landscape.

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In some rural areas, the economic landscape was negatively impacted as depopulation drove economic power to urban areas. On the other hand, new steam powered technology offered a new method of farming that could bring economic advantage.

Effective transport links powered by steam trains could transfer large amounts of produce that offered economic advantages to rural farming communities.

The later creation of the steam boat further supported economic growth across the UK, as it facilitated greater means for export and international trade that, in turn, brought in much needed wealth to the economy at both national and local levels. 

Running on Steam 

A Clayton and Shuttleworth steam wagon dating from 1920
A Clayton and Shuttleworth steam wagon dating from 1920

Steam powered engines changed not only the British countryside, but the entire world. This humble invention was a key part of what sparked the industrial revolution. It assisted transport, increased industry and commenced a migration of people from the countryside to urban capitals.

Steam powered engines laid the foundations for the electric and petrol powered modern world we live in and irreparably changed the economic, social and political landscape of the UK.

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