Energy and the industrial revolution in the Low Countries

August 16, 2022 | Blog
Home > Energy and the industrial revolution in the Low Countries

by Wouter Ryckbosch (Vrije Universiteit Brussel) & Wout Saelens (Universiteit Antwerpen)

This blog post is based upon the authors’ article forthcoming in the Economic History Review.


Energy plays an unsurprisingly large role in the historiography on economic development. In the debate on the Great Divergence or in the literature on the causes of the Industrial Revolution, the ability to use energy from fossil energy carriers is seen as a precondition, cause, or first step toward development. However, the historical conditions and underlying determinants of this ‘energy revolution’ remain subject to debate. Was the transition to a fossil economy the cause or consequence of urbanisation and growth? And how important were resource endowments in explaining the breakthrough of industrialisation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? In a forthcoming article in the Economic History Review, we have attempted to contribute to the understanding of energy in pre- and early industrial development by comparing two cities in the Low Countries. Thus, far the Low Countries have played a supporting role, at best, in the energy debate. On the one hand, the presence of abundant coal in Belgium (the Southern Low Countries) has been invoked in support of Bob Allen’s ‘high wages, cheap energy’ model for British industrialisation. On the other hand, the lack of an efficient transport corridor to nearby coalfields has been used to explain why industrialisation did not break through in the Netherlands (the Northern Low Countries).


For two cities, we estimated the total amounts of energy consumed over the course of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, as well as the energy carriers that produced them; see figures 1 and 2. Ghent (Flanders), situated in current-day Belgium, was the first industrial textile town outside of Britain; see figure 3. The historical evolution of the energy mix in Ghent fits relatively well into the familiar model of the relationship between fossil fuels and industrialisation that has been formulated based on the history of British industrialisation. Coal was consumed in modest quantities in Ghent from at least the early seventeenth century until the middle of the eighteenth. Following a period of gradually rising prices for fuelwood and charcoal, coal became the cheapest energy source around 1750 and rapidly expanded its share of the energy mix during the following decades. In the final years of the eighteenth century, the city’s reliance on coal facilitated its rapid take-up of steam-driven technology in the production of industrial textiles.


Figure 1.   Energy mix in Ghent, 1600-1860

Sources: See appendix of Ryckbosch and Saelens, ‘Fuelling the urban economy’.


Figure 2.   Energy mix in Leiden, 1600-1860

Sources: See appendix of Ryckbosch and Saelens, ‘Fuelling the urban economy’.


Figure 3.   Spinning and weaving factory of Ferdinand Lousbergs in Ghent

Source: Collection City Archives Ghent, IC_AG_L_133_003.


If Ghent’s early access to coal and its rapid industrialisation appear to confirm the relationship between cheap energy and economic development, the comparison with Leiden complicates the narrative. Leiden (Holland) is situated in the current-day Netherlands. Like Ghent, it was a production centre for textiles in the early modern period; but unlike Ghent, it industrialised only late in the nineteenth century. From the seventeenth until the middle of the nineteenth centuries, the city of Leiden consumed more energy per capita and per unit of economic output than did Ghent; see figure 4. This was possible because of Leiden’s early transition to a peat-based energy regime, which took place before the start of the seventeenth century. The access to abundant peat ensured that the inhabitants of Leiden had recourse to cheaper energy sources per GJ than those of Ghent until well into the nineteenth century; see table 1. The well-documented high living standards and elaborate domestic material culture and lifestyle that developed in early modern Holland might well have profited significantly from the cheapness of energy compared to Flanders or Britain. Even the expansion of the Leiden textile industry during the seventeenth century might have profited from the abundance of peat, but ultimately this cheap-energy economy did not lead to early industrialisation or mechanisation.


Figure 4.   Energy consumption per capita in Ghent and Leiden, 1600-1860

Sources: See appendix of Ryckbosch and Saelens, ‘Fuelling the urban economy’.


Table 1.   Fuel type and price for the cheapest source of energy available on the market


The study of Ghent and Leiden illustrates the difficulties involved in transposing existing models of the relationship between energy transitions and economic development to new cases. The transition to a cheap-energy economy in Holland was associated with economic growth, but not with mechanisation. On the other hand, the rapid mechanisation process in Ghent was associated not with a cheap-energy economy (relative to that of Leiden), but more specifically with a cheap-coal economy. The incentives for industrial mechanisation do not appear to have depended on energy endowments or the technological environment of both cities per se. In our article, we argue that the organisation of industrial production was also an important factor in determining the relationship between energy and mechanisation. While cotton manufactures in Ghent quickly adopted spinning mules, power looms, and cylinder presses from 1797 onward, the first steam engines appeared in Leiden only after 1816. Despite conditions in terms of the factor prices of energy and labour having been more conducive to mechanisation in Leiden than in Ghent, the industrial divergence between the two cities suggests that other factors mediated this relationship. In Ghent, the political and economic influence of a small group of textile entrepreneurs had already given rise to the conditions of large labour concentration as a first step toward factory production. The political struggles in Ghent and Leiden that preceded and determined these outcomes likely played an important role in the demand for fossil-based technology that allowed this concentrated labour to become more productive and profitable.



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Ryckbosch, W. and Saelens, W., ‘Fuelling the urban economy: a comparative study of energy in the Low Countries’, Economic History Review (forthcoming).