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Industrial History | Belgium

The industrial revolution on the European continent began in Belgium. Before that, the country had traditionally enjoyed a vibrant trading tradition for many years. Textile production flourished in Flanders, iron processing in Walloon and there were large coal reserves in the south and east of the country. These key branches proved ideal pre-requisites for industrialisation. Belgians also maintained intensive contacts with Great Britain and in 1720, the first steam engine on the continent went into action near Liège. The model, made by Thomas Newcomen, was used to draw out waste water from a coal mine. Sometime later this was succeeded by another steam engine in the coal region around Mons and Charleroi. Thus everything was in place for boosting the coal and steel industries in both areas.

In 1792 the country was conquered by Napoleon. His occupation had a positive effect on the economy: he abolished the old guilds and introduced freedom of trade. At the same time a large new market was opening up in France, not least for coal.

A Briton was responsible for the next pioneering breakthrough. In 1799 William Cockerill installed the first woollen spinning machine on the continent in Verviers, thereby laying the foundations for a booming textile industry in the region. Cockerill then built an engineering factory to make the machines in Liège. Some years later his son John began to produce iron in nearby Seraing on the River Sambre, and the business expanded rapidly. "Cockerill-Sambre" is still producing steel today under the roof of the gigantic "Arcelor-Mittal" concern.

The sole industrial centre outside the collieries and blast furnaces of Walloon was the old cloth making town of Ghent. Around 1800 a manufacturer by the name of Liévin Bauwens smuggled a spinning-jenny from England and put it into operation there. When the canal was built to Terneuzen at the mouth of the Schelde, the town was given direct access to the sea. From then on the town was generally acknowledged as the "Manchester of Flanders".

A boom in canal buildings resulted in a long-term improvement in transportation communications. Soon coal was being taken along the new waterways from the region around Mons and Charleroi to Northern France and further on to Paris. The fuel was also delivered to Brussels via a new canal which also linked the once flourishing business centre of Antwerp to the river Maas, the traditionally important trading route.

After the foundation of the Belgian state in 1830 successful investments in British technology began once more. Belgium was also a pioneer in the building of the railways. Between 1840 and 1880 the rail network expanded tenfold – even more than in Great Britain. Thanks to its highly developed transport communications the country profited from trade with less-developed neighbours, not the least with Germany where there was a high demand for Belgian goods. Belgian investors and entrepreneurs made a considerable contribution to building up industrial activity along the rivers Ruhr und Emscher.

In 1863 Ernest Solvay set up a pioneering business with his first factory in Charleroi. He had invented a revolutionary process for producing soda chemically. Soda was a basic material used in making glass, soap and chemicals. The Solvay works grew to become a huge concern, which nowadays produces chemical products, synthetic materials and pharmaceutical goods all over the world.

Towards the end of the 19th century the industrial areas in Belgium were the breeding grounds of the European working class movement. On more than one occasion bad working conditions in the collieries around Mons and Charleroi resulted in major strikes. In the textile town of Ghent workers organised themselves into self-help cooperatives with their own suppliers, including bakeries, a newspaper and their own bank.