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The British Isles and the modern world, 1789–1914

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The British Isles in the long nineteenth century was a place of rapid expansion and growth when the United Kingdom became the so-called ‘workshop of the world’. It was also a period of conflict and uncertainty, where poverty and political unrest prompted widespread anxieties about the nature of progress. Taking up these different perspectives, in this module, you 'll look at the landmark transformations of the period such as the political union of Britain and Ireland, industrialisation, the growth of cities, and the expansion of the British Empire. By focusing on one century, this module provides you with the space for a deep engagement with historical methods and debate.

What you will study

The ‘long’ nineteenth century (1789-1914) was an exceptionally vibrant and exciting period in the history of the British Isles. It was the epoch during which the ‘modern’ Britain and Ireland we know and experience today took shape. Spanning the French Revolution (1789) to the First World War (1914), this module explores the rapidly changing social, cultural, political and economic landscapes of the British Isles during this period and investigates both the causes of this dizzying change and its effects on individuals and institutions.

The nineteenth century was, on the one hand, hugely exhilarating. The ‘Industrial Revolution’ fundamentally changed the nature of work and the economy. New ideas of political reform resulted in the involvement of ‘ordinary’ citizens in the government of the country for the first time. Vast cities grew, national and class identities developed, and the global power of the United Kingdom reached a peak. Yet, at the same time, such rapid and fundamental change also bought turbulence and fear. Riots, famine, poverty, conflict (both civil and international) and government repression were all prominent features of the nineteenth century alongside more ‘progressive’ developments.

The module includes the study of historical documents of many kinds from the period itself and also introduces a range of fascinating historical debates.

The module will equip you with:

  • an understanding of the ‘long’ nineteenth century as a period when the British Isles experienced unprecedented change
  • insight into the nature of modernisation and the ways it changed daily life in the British Isles
  • an appreciation of how international trade, migration and cultural exchange shaped events in Britain and Ireland
  • an awareness of the development of competing and complementary religious, national and class identities

This module will teach you about the landmark developments of the period, such as industrialisation, the growth of cities, campaigns for political reform and the expansion of the British Empire. However, it is not solely concerned with long-term historical changes and big historical processes. You will also study the impact of these new developments on everyday life through, for example, the experience of working in a factory or a day in a workhouse, attending church or visiting the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Throughout, the module also takes an expansive and questioning approach to the history of the British Isles. You will be asked to think about the changing boundaries of the ‘nation’ and the emergence of the United Kingdom as a legal and political entity. You will study the rise of the British Empire and the development of global trade and will explore how ideas and events from overseas helped to shape national and regional history in the British Isles.

You'll study the nineteenth century through a wide and interesting array of historical texts and images. From personal accounts of everyday life to official inquiry and parliamentary debate, you will explore the different ways that contemporaries described and understood their lives. You will also use prints, cartoons and photographs, as well as objects and artefacts as evidence. You will learn how historians build a picture of the past from a multitude of sources and how you can critically interpret narratives about the past by understanding how and why they were created.

Teaching will be organised chronologically across the three printed books and in associated online activities (which include specially commissioned audio-visual materials).

Book 1: Ambition and Anxiety, 1789 to 1840 
This book introduces you to a period in which social and economic relations, which had been relatively stable for centuries, began to unravel as a result of deep shifts in the nature of the economy and political turmoil in Europe. You'll study these shifts through the history of the industrial revolution, the growth of cities and the rise of the working class. You'll also explore the significance of global connections to British history by tracing the influence of the French Revolution on political change in Britain and by considering the links between the Atlantic slave trade and the British economy.

Book 2: Confidence and Crisis, 1840 to 1880 
This focuses on the so-called ‘Age of Equipoise’, a period of stability and optimism about the future progress of the nation. You'll look at the reasons behind this optimism via consideration of the rise of the middle class, the impact of sanitary reform on cities and the decline of radicalism, but you will also see how the roots of further uncertainty were to be found in the Irish famine, the New Poor Law and the campaign for political rights for working men.

Book 3: Decline and Renewal, 1880 to 1914 
The final book considers the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as a period in which change continued but was met with greater uncertainty about its costs and benefits. You'll look at mass consumption and politics, and their effects on working-class life, as well as the rise of empire and the impact of imperial culture on the British Isles. Alongside this, you'll consider the increasingly divisive nature of the Irish question, the rise of the Labour Party and the women’s movement. You'll end the module by looking back at the nineteenth century as a whole to evaluate the extent of change and how the nineteenth century helped shape the twentieth. 

You will learn

As well as providing an appreciation and understanding of a vibrant and exciting period in the history of the British Isles, and equipping you for further historical study, by working with a variety of historical sources, you'll develop your own skills of analysis and argument. You will further develop your skills in critical reading and in written expression, learning how to analyse complex contemporary documents, how to evaluate and participate in debates, and how to express an argument clearly and persuasively in written form. The module will guide you through the rich archive of online documents and information available to all students through The Open University Library, and you'll improve your ability to find and use these resources.

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 2 module and you need to have the study skills required for this level, obtained either through OU level 1 study, or by doing equivalent work at another university.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

Preparatory work

No preparatory work is required, but having studied Discovering the arts and humanities (A111), or The arts past and present (AA100), and Voices, texts and material culture (A105) (both now discontinued) would be an advantage. 

What's included

All teaching material for this module is delivered via three printed books and online via the module website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner
  • module materials
  • audio and video content
  • assessment guide
  • access to online tutorials and forums.

Computing requirements

You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11) or macOS Ventura or higher.

Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.

It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop, as described above.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

You will have a tutor who will help you with the study material and mark and comment on your written work, and whom you can ask for advice and guidance. This module will be taught through a blend of methods that may include online tutorials and moderated online discussion forums. This blend of methods is designed to help you benefit from tuition, whatever your circumstances.

Contact us if you want to know more about study with The Open University before you register.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying A225 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

Future availability

The British Isles and the modern world, 1789–1914 starts twice a year – in February and October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2024 and February 2025. We expect it to start for the last time in February 2030.

Course work includes:

5 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment

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