The Impact of the Industrial Revolution on British Society

The Industrial Revolution is considered to be an important turning point in history. It both influenced the British society and economy. This essay will focus on the impact on British society, which includes about the birth of class, standard of living and child labour. While the Industrial Revolution could be argued to have a largely negative impact on British society at that time, this essay will argue that it also had positive consequences.

The first part of this essay will illustrate the division of social class and the positive consequence that some organizations were established for working classes. The second part will argue the standard of living in the industrial revolution. The last part will demonstrate the experience of child labour at that time and several possible reasons for the large numbers of child workforce in the industrial revolution, and the promulgation of laws for protecting children’s right.

Britain has experienced the world's first industrial revolution, and the period of it was generally considered from 1780 to 1830, and the Industrial Revolution promoted the national transition from predominantly agricultural to predominantly industrial. At that time, urbanization has become a significant social phenomenon in Britain.

The percentage of urban population in England rose sharply from 8.0% in1600 to 27.5% in 1800, while the percentage of agricultural population dropped from 70.0% to 36.3% during that period (Hudson, 1992: 151). In addition, during this period, the population of UK had grown tremendously (Brown, 2010: 106). The number of people in England and Wales increased from 6.7 million in 1760 to 13.9 million in 1830, as well as in Scotland, the population also had an increasing (Brown, 2010: 106).

Moreover, Industrial Revolution brought some important technological innovations, such as the steam engine, and the use of it had changed the production which relies on the limitations of human and animal, and provided cheap and adequate power for the industrial production. Besides, the spinning jenny and flying shuttle had been used in the textile industry and the smelting of pig iron with coke in iron industry. The following essay will focus on three parts of social consequences which include birth of class, standard of living and child labour.

Birth of class During the industrial revolution, ‘birth of class’ became a nonnegligible social phenomenon. In this period, the formation of class had been enhanced may due to the acceleration of proletarianization, urbanization, technological and organizational change in both agriculture and industry (Hudson, 1992: 202), and the society was separated into working class, middle class and upper class, and in rural area, was separated into farm laborers, tenant farmers and landlords (Brown, 2010: 119).

During this period, Aristocracy and capitalists’ income came mainly from the rent, inheritance, or the profits generated in the production process (Hudson, 1992: 203). The middle classes who composed of professionals, shopkeepers and clerks that had stable income (Brown, 2010: 120). By contrast, the working class depended on the wage which came from landlords and capitalists (Hudson, 1992: 203).

For example, in 1775, London masons usually earned 15s (shillings) per week, and had less change after the decades (Rule, 1986: 119). Therefore, the income gap may be one possible reason for the enhanced of classes. Thus, wage dependent and mass work force may be the reason to explain the poor treatment for working class at that time. During the Industrial Revolution, workers were forced to work longer hours, and their leisure time was deprived.

For working class, not only their normal week spare time was deprived, and even the traditional half-work day of St Monday was threatened by employers (Brown, 2010: 120). In addition, at that time, workers’ wage form was not usually the actual money, but was paid by goods, such as bread, or the goods which they produced (Rule, 1986: 107).

Also, bread was the medium of exchange was generally accepted and used to buy necessity (Rule, 1986: 107). Therefore, if workers wanted to buy product, they had to exchange that kind of wage into bread. Nevertheless, these discounting actually declined workers daily wages (Rule, 1986: 107).

However, due to the working class experienced an intensification of labor, the exploitation from employers, and reduction of the domination of property in the end of the 18th century, they began to unite in order to find strength (Brown, 2010: 120). According to Brown (2010: 120), workers formed friendly societies, benefit clubs and burial clubs, into which they put regular savings in return for benefits when they were sick or died. The establishment of these kinds of organization should be seen as one positive impact in the industrial revolution.

Standard of living Generally, the working class was thought suffering a poor standard of living in the early industrialization. This essay will consider some situations which are unemployment and consumption during that time. Firstly, unemployment had been very heavy in the industrial revolution. There are some statistics can be used to prove it. According to Taylor (1975: 69), over 25% of smiths and engineers in Liverpool, over 50% of the mechanics and shipbuilders in Dundee were unemployed.

Around 50% of Liverpool shoemakers and tailors, more than 60% of the London tailors were unemployment, and 75% of plasterers, over50% of bricklayers in Liverpool, 75% of the carpenters, plumbers, slaters in Dundee were unemployed at that time (Taylor, 1975: 70). Connected with the industrial revolution, the unemployment may be caused by the increased population and the development of machine manufacturing which based on the innovation. To be specific, during the period of industrial revolution, some new technologies were invented that means factories could produce the same quantity of goods by employing fewer workers.

Also, at that time, the population increased sharply to 13.9 million in 1830. However, just consider the figure of unemployment could not explain clearly for the poor standard of living in industrial revolution. The income also needs to be considered together. At that time, more than 15% of population of Leeds earned less than one shilling per week, and the income of over 30% of the families was less than five shillings per week in the Vauxhall Ward of Liverpool (Taylor, 1975: 77).

In addition, consumption is another standard of the standard of living. According to Brown (2010: 131), although the clothing consumption increased due to the falling prices of production at that time, the food consumption declined for some groups of people. About the consumption of meat, the London’s population of beef rose from 100 in 1801 to 202 in 1841, while the number of beef slaughtered increased only to 146 (Taylor, 1975: 77).

About the wheat production, it did not growth as same as the population, therefore, the number of wheat available fell from the end of eighteenth century until the middle of nineteenth century (Taylor, 1975: 78). The consumption of milk also declined during that period because of the declining of the cow-keeping with the urbanization (Taylor, 1975: 78).

However, there was a debate that during the first half of nineteenth century, the standard of living in England had been rising. For instance, the deposits rose from £14.3millions in 1829 to almost £30 millions in 1850,and the most deposits were saving by wage-earners (Taylor, 1975: 104). In addition, the price of goods at that time were declining, and the real wages generally rose after 1815 (Taylor, 1975: 106-107). Also, the consumption of meat, tea, sugar, eggs was claimed increased between 1811 and 1850 (Taylor, 1975: 108).

Child labour During the Industrial Revolution, child labour became an important issue. At that time, child labour as seen as the ‘social problem’ for British society. According to Hudson’s describe (1992:162), children under 13 occupied 13% of the workforce in cotton factory in 1816 and those under 18, 51%. One witness showed that there were more than five timed as many children under 10 in these factories in earlier years. In addition, domestic industry depended greatly on the labour of children, and they were often forced to work for long hours and under poor conditions (Kirby, 2003:31).

Child platers who were 8 to 13 earned only 18d (pence) per week if they also needed to afford the training fee. Although some young females could earn 3s (shillings) or 4s peer week, they had to work between 12 and 14 hours per day (Kirby, 2003: 31).there are several possible reasons to explain the entry of more children to the labour market during the industrial revolution.

Firstly, higher child dependency was considered one possible reason for this phenomenon. During the industrial revolution, Britain had large numbers of children and the child population increased sharply. In 1661, the percentage of the population aged under 15 was about 29%, but this figure had increased sharply to 39% in 1821 (Kirby, 2003:26). This could be attributed to the high birth-rate which based on earlier and more universal marriage during industrial revolution.

The age of first marriage fell from about 26 to 23 years old, and the ratio of single women fell from 15% to no more than 7.5% (Hudson, 1992: 135). Thus, during 1750-1851, the birth-rate had risen and the population of England and Wales increased from 5.8 to 16.7 million (Hudson, 1992: 135).

The second reason may be the levels of household poverty. According to Brown (2010:107), the real wages moved very little during industrial revolution, and the farm labourers were earning less in real wages in eighteenth century than in the early fifteenth century. Therefore, the poor family needed their children to work earlier to support their daily consumption. Moreover, at that time, there was a high mortality rates among the industrial working classes (Brown, 2010:107). If children lived with single parents or had no parents, they had to leave home to work at early ages.

The last reason for the high percentage of child workers in the industrial revolution could be the influence of innovation. At that period, new technologies and innovations were used on the child workforce (Hudson, 1992: 163). These trials made the further factory machine more convenience and comfortable for child workforce. Compared with adults’ wage, children’s wages were much lower that employers were more willing to employ child for the workforce.

Due to the high population of child workforce and the poor working condition, in the early nineteen century, some laws were promulgated to protect the right of children, such as Factory Act. In 1819, Factory Act prohibited that the employment of child should be over 9 years old in cotton factories, and limiting to 12 hours per day of those children aged 9-16. In the Factory Act of 1833, the working hour was limited to 9 hours per day for children aged 10 to 12 in textiles factories (Kirby, 2003: 104).

Also, the second major Factory Act of 1844 ruled children aged between 8 to 12 need to attend school each day for 3 hours and their working hour was reduced to six and a half (Kirby, 2003:105). Therefore, due to the constant amendment of these laws, there are the increasingly improved laws for the vulnerable groups.

According to above illustrates, there were a largely negative impact of the industrial revolution, which are the enhance of social classes and the low status for the working class, the poor standard of living in the early industrial revolution and the bad experience for children workforce.

However, these negative impacts were argued that had been improved in the late industrial revolution. In conclusion, this essay considered three parts of social consequences which are the birth of class, the standard of living and child labour in the industrial revolution. This essay has demonstrated that the Industrial Revolution brought a lot of social impact, not only the largely negative impacts, but also brought some positive impacts, especially in the late Industrial Revolution.


Reference Brown, C. G. and Fraser, W. H. (2010). Britain: since 1707. Harlow: Longman.

Hudson, P. (1992). The Industrial Revolution. London: Arnold.

Kirby, P. (2003). Child labour in Britain, 1750-1870. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rule, J. (1986). The labouring classes in early Industrial England, 1750-1850. London: Longman.

Taylor, A. J. (1975). The standard of living in Britain in the Industrial Revolution. London: Methuen.