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Year 6 History and Geography

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This information has been adapted from the History and Geography section of the What Your Year 6 Child Needs to Know resource book. To purchase What Your Year 6 Child Needs to Know, visit our shop. Also, sign up for the free Core Knowledge UK newsletter to receive updates about new resources and activities.

British History: The Industrial Revolution

Industrial Revolution

For the whole of human history up to 1760, people depended on human muscle, animal muscle and wind to make power. All things that were transported on land were moved by horse or by foot, and all goods, like clothes and furniture, were made by hand. However, the Industrial Revolution saw the invention of engines and machines that would change the world forever. By using the power of fossil fuels, like burning coal to create steam power, the Industrial Revolution started a period of change in technology that we are still living through today. It all started in a few small towns in the north of England.


The first product to be made on a large scale by machines was cotton. Cotton grows naturally in tropical regions and was imported from colonial plantations to Britain. Then the fluffy raw cotton was spun into threads, and the threads were woven into textiles. This was a time-consuming process done almost entirely by hand, until a series of inventions led to a huge increase in British cotton production. The Cromford Mill employed 1,000 workers. Many claim it was the world’s first-ever factory. Arkwright built more factories in Manchester and Scotland, each mass-producing cotton thread and working twenty-four hours a day. He died the richest commoner in England. (To describe Arkwright as a commoner means he was not a member of the aristocracy who had inherited his wealth.) Before the Industrial Revolution, it took one worker with a spinning wheel 500 hours to spin 1 lb (453 grams) of cotton. In comparison, in a cotton factory, or ‘mill’, it took one worker three hours to spin 1 lb of cotton. Cotton spinners in their cottages could not make as much cotton as the mills and had to shut down their businesses.


In the cotton mills of Manchester, the spinning frames were powered by steam engines. This was the second great invention of the Industrial Revolution. These days, we are used to engines driving our cars, power plants and factories. However, in the 1760s the engine was a completely new idea. A steam engine uses boiling water and cylinders to create movement. A man from Glasgow named James Watt designed the first successful model. He had his idea in 1763, but struggled to find anyone with enough money to pay for his work until he met a factory owner from Birmingham called Matthew Boulton. Together, Boulton and Watt designed and built their first engine in 1776. For the first time in human history, coal could be used to provide power – by heating the water which turned into steam. The first use for these engines was to pump water out of mines, but they went on to find many other uses: spinning cotton, grinding grain and powering transport. Between 1775 and 1800, Boulton and Watt built around 450 steam engines at the Soho Manufactory in Handsworth, Birmingham. It is hard to think of an invention that has had as great an effect upon the world. Whilst showing a writer called James Boswell around the Soho Manufactory in Birmingham, Boulton boasted: 'I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have... power.'

Read more about the Industrial Revolution on pages 128 - 141 of What Your Year 6 Child Needs to Know, which can be purchased here.