The history of manufacturing in the UK

Manufacturing as we know it today began with the Industrial Revolution in the UK, during the late 1700s.

Prior to this, manufacturing mostly occurred within people’s homes and small workshops, and was carried out with hand tools rather than by machines. Industrialisation led to a major shift  from an economy focused around agriculture and handicraft to one dominated by machine-powered manufacturing,with the rapid rise of innovative engineering technologies and the arrival of hundreds of factories. These developments made systemisation and mass production of goods possible, and ultimately gave rise to the birth of what became known as “industry”.


The main materials manufactured during the 1800s included textiles, iron, steel, and chemicals. The period of the Industrial Revolution also saw the rise of the coal industry which helped to trigger rapid growth in transportation, with the steamship and new railway networks enabling manufacturers to transport their goods much further afield. As a result, Britain’s export value increased five-fold during the first half of the nineteenth century; during this period, the UK had the biggest manufacturing sector and became widely recognised as the most technologically advanced country in the world.

The pioneers of industrialisation came mostly from the Midlands and the North of England. In particular, Birmingham was home to a huge number of famous inventions and was a thriving centre for manufacturing innovation during the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, to the extent that it became known as ‘the city of a thousand trades’.

The Second Industrial Revolution

By the beginning of the 20th century, during what became known as the Second Industrial Revolution, Germany and the United States had overtaken the UK as the world’s biggest manufacturers. However, the UK remained one of the major global players, and in 1948 manufacturing still accounted for around half of its national output. By this time, proceeds from oil, gas and other manufactured utilities made up a significant percentage of the UK economy.

Deindustrialisation since 1945

Following the Second World War, the UK’s manufacturing sector began to decline, in terms of employment and proportion of national GDP. The economy shifted steadily towards modern services which reflected major cultural and lifestyle changes, as new technological developments continued apace. As a result of this deindustrialisation in the UK, British businesses began to import many more goods from overseas, and service industries gained much more of a foothold in Britain.  

During the 1980s, many industries suffered widespread cuts and closures, particularly in the North and the Midlands. Coal mining and shipbuilding were hit particularly hard whilst the finance and service industries in the south were simultaneously booming. 

Over the past 30 years, many previously British-owned car manufacturers have been sold to overseas companies. Some of these include Mini, Rolls Royce, Jaguar Land Rover, Bentley, Vauxhall Motors, Austin Motors, Lotus, Morgan, Leyland Trucks, and JCB. Triumph Motorcycles Ltd is now the only remaining wholly British-owned major transport manufacturer.

The past 10 years

By 2010, 8.2% of the total British workforce (around 2.5 million people) were employed by manufacturing industries, and manufacturing accounted for 12% of the country’s national output. In 2014, manufacturing accounted for 44% of British exports, and by 2019 this has risen to 52%. The Midlands remains the region with the highest proportion of employees in manufacturing, at just over 12% of the total workforce, whilst London is the region with the lowest proportion, at 2.8%.

So, manufacturing is still an important, increasingly diverse industry in the UK today, despite the deindustrialisation and subsequent shrinking market of the past 70 years. Although the manufacturing sector has decreased in terms of employment share and share of national GDP, manufacturing output (both production and value) has continued to increase steadily since the end of the Second World War.

Today, in terms of manufacturing as share of national GDP, the UK ranks in fifth place globally, only trailing behind China, the United States, Japan and Germany. Pharmaceuticals, food, drink, textiles, chemicals, metals, tobacco, publishing, printing, aerospace engineering and defence equipment are some of the UK’s major manufacturing industries in 2019.

While the industrial powerhouses of the early twentieth century have long since disappeared, we now have many more smaller companies specialising in the manufacture of specific, high-value products. There has also been a move away in recent years from the mass import of cheaper, lower-quality products, with a growing consumer demand and preference for quality British-made products.

What of the future of manufacturing in the UK?

It is expected that new and emergent technologies will continue to create new jobs in the UK’s manufacturing and engineering sectors for the foreseeable future. Solar energy, 3D printing, self-driving vehicles, and robotics are just a handful of the growth industries in the UK at present.

However, while these new technologies could mean a boom for the manufacturing sector on one hand, they could also represent a threat on the other. This is not a new concept though – technological advances have always resulted in entire sectors being rendered obsolete. Remember when the audio cassette and vinyl record were replaced by the CD almost overnight, for example? This is one unfortunate outcome of an industry always pushing for innovation.

Today, many people employed in the manufacturing sector are concerned that robotic engineering may eventually replace them. However, as robots and machine automation will replace many manufacturing jobs, it will also generate many new jobs. The basic skills of making things with tools are still applicable – it’s just that the tools that are changing. And people will always need things made.

The best way for people employed in the manufacturing sector to “future proof” themselves is to constantly adapt and evolve by seeking frequent training and professional development opportunities. The better prepared you are, the better your chances of surviving any new wave of automation within your industry.