Business and Industry

British business and industry, this historic theme explores  how business has shaped and created the wealth of this nation. Search the timeline at the bottom of this page to see the context, diversity and worldwide impact of British business over the last 300 years.


Industrial revolution

Industrial Birmingham


The essential elements of business and trade both domestically and internationally are the creation and distribution of products. These may be manufactured goods, labour, natural resources or provision of services. It includes money and assets, land and property, stock and other financial instruments, all fundamental and critical to the development of the business model.

Profits and capitalism were sometimes at the cost of humanity and morality. The British Empire (Great Britain) was largely fueled by the business of exploitation. The East India Company is an example of a business that could be described as the first multinational company. It's nefarious dealings in the opium trade fueled the market for opium use in China. It operated at a distance and eventually almost became a 'company state', with, for example it's own army.

The Industrial Revolution created a fresh opportunity for abuse of workers. The new inventions took production away from the workers homes and placed them in large new premises. The age of the factory was born. There was however little thought for the workers who came to work in this envirnment. Women, men and children, all worked alongside each other, almost like slave labour, so poor were their conditions and pay. Profit came before care of workers. Overtime, business was forced to make adjustments through legislation, such as the Factory Act 1850.

Humanitarian organizations such as the Foundling Hospital, taking care of destitute children and philanthropic individuals, including George Cadbury whose model village gave the company's workers improved living conditions but despite this, in the main business succeeded at cost to the workers and as the 19th century progressed, there were many demonstrations by workers demanding reform in all aspects of society.

There was an ongoing battle to keep the business of making profits both reasonable and fair at home and overseas. With profit-making comes responsibility and as democracy evolved checks and balances emerge to protect the vulnerable and mend the most extreme capitalistic ways.

From little acorns grow great big companies

The history of some of Britain's largest and most well known businesses, shows that they started as the seed of an idea. The story of Marks and Spencer is well known but how fascinating is the history of the oil company Shell, whose beginnings lie in the import and export of exotic Far East shells for Victorians to display in their homes. Some of our banks started life as 17th century goldsmiths, lending money to customers from their premises, such as Coutts Bank.

Industry on an 'industrial scale'

The idea of Britain being the industrial powerhouse of the world during the 18th and 19th century was true. From Britain's mines more coal was excavated than anywhere else in the world. More iron was produced, cotton cloth, ships, trains and as the Great Exhibition of 1851 showed, goods of every type and style imaginable for all over the British Empire. It was a triumph of invention and manufacturing.

Control of the seas

None of this would have been possible without the British trade routes being kept open for business and the British Government went to quite extraordinary measures to ensure that they remained in control of them. This created problems for many other countries around the globe. The dominance of the British over trade, certainly made enemies in certain quarters. Like all good things though, the dominance of the British Empire began to fade and business and industry had to learn to stand on it's own two feet away from the protection of the British Empire.

So we hope that you explore our timeline and dip into the latest articles as we discover more about the intriguing connections in British business and industry.

Before 1066Anglo Saxon Guilds and Livery Companies
the earliest Guilds and Livery companies were formed much earlier than we generally anticipate and date back to the Anglo Saxon Period. You can see a brief summary about how Saxon Guilds benefited society here but you might also be interested in our History of Organisations Theme.
Anglo Saxon
Livery Companies
1440Redevelopment of Leadenhall Market in the City of Leadenhall MarketLondon by John Croxton. It becomes one of London's most important markets.
1518Royal College of Physicians. Founded by a royal charter from king Henry VIII, the Royal College of Physicians of London is the oldest medical college in England. The leading physicians of the time wanted the power to grant licenses to those qualified to practice medicine and to punish unqualified practitioners and those engaging in malpractice. A small group of physicians led by the scholar Thomas Linacre petitioned king Henry VIII to establish a college of physiciansMedicine 16th century Tudor
1600East India Company. English company formed from a group of merchants for the development of trade links with East and Southeast Asia and India, incorporated bFounding of the East India Company 1600y royal charter on December 31, 1600. Starting as a monopolistic trading body, the company became involved in politics and acted as an agent of British imperialism in India from the early 18th century to the mid-19th century. In addition, the activities of the company in China in the 19th century served as a catalyst for the expansion of British influence there.Commercial 17th century
1606Virginia Company Granted Royal Charter
17th century Virginia Company
Americas USA
1660The Royal Society. A group of 12 met at Gresham College after a lecture by Christopher Wren, then the Gresham Professor of Astronomy, and decided to founThe Royal Societyd 'a Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning'. This group included Wren himself, Robert Boyle, John Wilkins, Sir Robert Moray, and William, Viscount Brouncker. The Society was to meet weekly to witness experiments and discuss what we would now call scientific topics.Institution 17th century science
1694Bank of England founded 1694 by Royal Charter. William Paterson's ideas were adopted by Montagu the Chancellor, a loan of £1,200,000 to the Government, in return for which the subscribers would be incorporated as the "Governor and Company of the Bank of England". The Royal Charter was sealed on 27 July 1694.Banking 17th century
Bank of England
Public Institutions
Joint Stock Companies
1698London Stock Exchange. Starting life in the coffee houses of 17th century London, London Stock Exchange quickly grew to become the City’s most important financial institution. John Castaing begins to issue “at this Office in Jonathan’s Coffee-house” a list of stock and commodity prices called “The Course of the Exchange and other things”.Finance 17th century
1711South Sea Company Chartered in 1711

The South Sea Company was formed to develop trade with South America and as a rival to the Whig dominated Bank of England and East India Company, primarily as a source of funding of governmentloan debt. Holders of government securities were compelled to exchange them for shares at par in th new company which had been chartered and given a monopoly on the Trade with South America, he west coast of North America and all Spanish colonies. In 1719 a further scheme was created for the company to assume more of the British National Debt this led to the South Sea Bubble and it bursting. An act of parliament known as the Bubble Act 1720 was not repealed until a century later but eventually to avoid such disasters the Limitation of Liabilities Act would enable wider participation in share ownership at reasonable risk to the shareholders. This would in turn enable the proliferation of Joint Stock Companies and eradicate the monopolistic control of the need for a Royal Charter.
Business Company law Incorporation Limitation of Liability Joint Stock Companies
1768Royal Academy of Arts established by King George III to promote art design in Britain.Art 18th century
1787Marylebone Cricket Club founded. Aristocrats and noblemen played their cricket in White Conduit Fields at Islington, London. As London's population grew, so did the nobility's impatience with the crowds who gathered to watch them play. In pursuit of exclusivity, they decided to approach Thomas Lord, a bowler with White Conduit CC, and asked him to set up a new private ground. An ambitious entrepreneur, Lord was encouraged by Lord Winchilsea to lease a ground on Dorset Fields in Marylebone. He staged his first match Middlesex versus Essex on 31st May Sport 18th century
1788The Times newspaper founded daily national newspaper based in London. It began in 1785 under the title The Daily Universal RegisterNewspapers printing 18th century
1788The African Association. Dedicated to the exploration of West Africa, with the mission of discovering the origin and course of the Niger River and the location of Timbuktu, the "lost city" of gold. The formation of this group was effectively the "beginning of the age of African exploration". Organized by a dozen titled members of London’s upper-class establishment and led by Sir Joseph Banks.Science exploration 18th century
1799West India Dock Company. Robert Milligan was a wealthy West Indies merchant and shipowner. Outraged at losses due to theft and delay at London's riverside wharves, Milligan headed a group of powerful businessmen, including the chairman of the West India Merchants of London, George Hibbert, who promoted the creation of a wet dock circled by a high wall. The group planned and built West India Docks, lobbying Parliament to allow the creation of a West India Dock Company. Milligan served as both Deputy Chairman and Chairman of the West India Dock Company. The Docks were authorised by the West India Dock Act 1799 Commercial transportation 18th century
1805Royal Society of Medicine. Founded as as the Medical and Chirurgical Society of London when leading members of the Medical Society of London split from the society to form a new society that would bring together branches of the medical profession "for the purpose of conversation on professional subjects, for the reception of communications and for the formation of a libraryMedicine 19th century
1809-1810Rothschilds establishes London Business 1810 Nathan Mayer Rothschild opened for business in London base in St Swithin's Lane. The earliest known dealing of Rothschilds dealing in Gold bullion took place in London. Once his sons joined the firm, the name was changed to N M Rothschild & Sons. Their connections across Europe are renowned. A business started by a father in the Frankfurt Ghetto's that spreads its wings and sons across Europe creating an incredible enterprise and strong connections with Britain and its established institutions. Amazing feats and partnerships with governments would follow. Funding Wellington's Waterloo army in the field with local coin and bailing out the Bank of England during financial crisis being just two examples. The lasting legacy will impact and connect widely during the next 200 plus years. Not bad for a family startup.Finance Banking
10th Century
People Wellington Waterloo Rothschilds Banks
1815News of Waterloo Reaches London by Rothschilds Network before the Government could be told
The ultimate social and communications network, the Rothschilds were not Bankers but the Reuters of their time without the technology to facilitate it. The family used superior information networks to create their fortunes. Few banks would inspire Byron to write poetry about them but Rothschilds and Barings did.
Finance Banking
10th Century
People Wellington Waterloo Rothschilds Banks News and Media
1820Royal Astronomical Society. It began as the Astronomical Society of London to support amateur astronomical research. It became the Royal Astronomical Society in 1831 on receiving its Royal Charter from William IV.Science 19th century
1820Royal Society of Literature. Established by King George IV to reward literary merit and excite literary talent.Arts 19th century
1824Royal Society For The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. First animal welfare society to be founded in the world. It was established by a group of 22 reformers led by Richard Martin MP, William Wilberforce MP, and the Reverend Arthur Broome in "Old Slaughter's Coffee House", St Martin's Lane, near the Strand.Science 19th century
1826Zoological Society of London. Inspired by members of the Linnean Society. The society was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles, the Marquess of Lansdowne, Lord Auckland, Sir Humphry Davy, Robert Peel, Joseph Sabine, Nicholas Aylward Vigors along with various other nobility, clergy, and naturalistsScience 19th century Georgian
1827London Evening Standard newspaper was founded by barrister Stanley Lees Giffard anearly owner of the paper was Charles Baldwin.Newspapers 19th century
1830Royal Geographical Society. Started as the Geographical Society of London as an institution to promote the 'advancement of geographical science. Founding members of the Society included Sir John Barrow, Sir John Franklin and Sir Francis Beaufort.Science 19th century exploration
1833Great Western Railway.It was founded in 1833, received its enabling Act of Parliament in 1835 and ran its first trains in 1838. It was engineered by Isambard Kingdom BrunelTransportation 19th century engineering
1840Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company. Incorporated by Royal Charter, emerged when two Dublin ship owners, Charles Wye Williams and Captain Richard Bourne, who were successfully running paddle steamers in the 1820s. It was a costly business but both men realised that the future of steam lay in operating larger ships on longer voyages and subsidised ‘mail’ services.Commercial 19th century maritime
1841Thomas Cook travel company. Begun by Thomas Cook Baptist preacher as he organized days out for Temperance societies.Commercial 19th century
1843British Archaeological Society founded by Charles Roach Smith, Thomas Wright and Thomas Joseph Pettigrew, to encourage the recording, preservation, and publication of archaeological discoveries, and to lobby for government assistance for the collection of British antiquities
1845White Star Line. Shipping company established in Liverpool by John Pilkington and Henry Wilson. The company's initial focus was on the Australian gold mine trade and taking people out to the gold rush.
1847Siemens Halske, was established as a partnership by Werner Siemens in Berlin in 1847, to take advantage of the latest advances in communications technology, and quickly established a reputation as one of the leading innovators in the field.Communications 19th century
1849Boots Pharmaceutical Industry. John Boot, an agricultural worker, moved to Nottingham to start a new business. He opened a small herbalist store on Goose Gate in 1849, from which he prepared and sold herbal remedies. His business soon proved popular, especially with the working poor of Nottingham's new industries, who could not afford the services of a doctor. Commercial 19th century
1852Cable and Wireless. John Pender, a Manchester cotton merchant, joined other businessmen as director of the English and Irish Magnetic Telegraph Company. This company ran a telegraph cable service between London and Dublin. This was only two years after the first submarine cable between England and France had been laid. This was the beginning of Pender’s submarine cable empire and Cable & Wireless.Communications 19th century
1852Wells Fargo and Company’s Express provided financial services by the fastest means available: overseas by sailing ship or steamer; and overland by stagecoach, Pony Express or railroad. Within a few years, business was transacted electronically by telegraphBanking finance 19th century
1853Otis Elevator Company. Founded in New York by Elisha Otis, the company pioneered the development of the 'safety elevator', invented by Otis in 1852, which used a special mechanism to lock the elevator car in place should the hoisting ropes fail.Commercial 19th century
1863International Committee of the Red Cross. A humanitarian organisation founded in Switzerland following work done by Jean Henri Durant who was inspired by the work of Florence Nightingale. He advocated the formation of national voluntary relief organizations to help nurse wounded soldiers in the case of war. In addition, he called for the development of international treaties to guarantee the protection of neutral medics and field hospitals for soldiers wounded on the battlefield.Voluntary charity institution
1868Trade Unions Congress.Manchester and Salford Trades Council convened the founding meeting in the Manchester Mechanics' InstituteInstitutions 19th century
1870British Red Cross. Florence Nightingale directly influenced the establishment of the British Red Cross in 1870. She encouraged the leading men of her day to set up the organisation. Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley near Southampton, which became a significant Red Cross hospital.Voluntary 19th century institution
1877Kyrle Society, founded by Miranda Hill sister of Octavia Hill who was it's treasurer. The Kyrle Society, formed to “Bring Beauty Home to the People” and supported by William Morris among others, was forerunner of all today’s amenity societies and also the Civic Trust. The Trust wanted to enhance the quality of life in communities with art, books and open spaces. Hospitals, schools and clubrooms were decorated and community events organised.Institutions 19th century
1885National Trust. Octavia Hill, Robert Hunter and Hardwicke Rawnsley (who collected rents for Octavia Hill as a young man) worked together to raise public awareness of the railway developments threatening the Lake District. This collaboration led to the foundation of The National Trust for the Preservation of Historic Buildings and Natural Beauty, to hold land and buildings in perpetuity “for ever, for everyone”.Voluntary 19th century institution
1886Coca Cola. John Pemberton, an Atlanta pharmacist, created a fragrant, caramel-coloured liquid and took it down to a local pharmacy called Jacobs' Pharmacy. Here, the mixture was combined with carbonated water and sampled by customers who greatly enjoyed it. Pemberton's bookkeeper, Frank Robinson, named the mixture Coca‑Cola, and wrote it out in his distinctive script. To this day, Coca‑Cola is written the same way.Commercial
1887The Anatomical Society was founded to "promote, develop and advance research and education in all aspects of anatomical science". Medicine 19th century
1889Army Cadet Force. Founded by Octavia Hill, social reformer to give focus to urban youths who were struggling to find direction in life. Her father James Hill was a friend of Jeremy Bentham. She was co-founder of the National Trust.Voluntary military
1891Lister Institute. One of the UK’s oldest medical charities.Originally a Research Institute developing, and subsequently producing on a commercial scale, vaccines and antitoxinsMedicine 19th century
1894 Michael Marks and Tom Spencer built their company 10 years on from when Marks had his penny bazaar in Leeds. They built their business around 5 key qualities, quality, Marks and Spencervalue, service, innovation and trust.Commercial 19th century
1897Women's Institute. The first Women's Institute was formed in Stoney Creek, Ontario, Canada as a branch of the Farmer's Institute. Inspired by a talk given by Adelaide Hoodless at a meeting of the Farmer's Institute. Local farmers Erland and Janet Lee were instrumental in setting up the new organisation. Voluntary 19th century
1897Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company (Marconi). Marconi filed his final specification for the world's first patent for a system of telegraphy using Hertzian waves in 1896 and set up his company in an old silk factory in Chelmsford UK.Communication 19th century
1907Scout Movement. Robert Baden-Powell (1857-1941), a soldier, artist, actor and free-thinker. Best known for his spirited defence of the small South African township of Mafeking during the Boer War, he was propelled to further fame as the Founder of Scouting.Voluntary 20th century
1907Royal Dutch Shell Group. Marcus Samuel was a London shopkeeper. He sold antiques, but added oriental shells to his products. He wanted a share of the interior design market, demnd was enormous and he began importing shells from the Far East, laying the foundations for his import/export business. His sons took over and they exported British machinery, textiles and tools to newly industrialising Japan and the Far East and on return imported rice, silk, china and copperware to the Middle East and Europe. In London, they traded in commodities such as sugar, flour and wheat worldwide. They became interested in interested in the oil exporting business based in Baku, Azerbaijan and eventually began transporting oil in steam ships.Commercial 20th century

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