While it has been concluded that the Industrial Revolution was a major turning point of modern world history, the question remains whether that period of unprecedented scientific and industrial advancement actually improved living conditions of the Western European—particularly the British—masses. Before one can realize the effect the Industrial Revolution had upon the English working class, a brief definition of the period and summary of circums-tances leading up to it might be helpful.
Text or reference book definitions of the Industrial Revolution commonly describe the period as one of social, economic, and cultural change, initially tak-ing place in Great Britain in the latter half of the eighteenth century. The period was characterized by an increase in the output of industrial goods—many of which had previously been unavailable to the public—and the coinciding acceleration of the use of power-driven machinery to produce these goods.
A decline in demand for manual and domestic production is also noted of the period, in relation to the advent of the machine. The century preceding the Industrial Revolution in England was characterized by a new and expanding trade market, which was hard pressed to keep up with the growing demand for diverse commodities on an international level. Accompanying this new demand was an unprecedented willingness of the consumer to pay for the necessities of life. Western Europe was torn by wars for a century prior to the Industrial Rev-olution.
The main thrust of many of these disputes (namely King William’s War, Queen Anne’s War, King George’s War, and the Seven Years’ War, particularly between England and France, long-time commercial enemies) was over trade routes, goods, or customers. In these war-torn years, however, England ma-naged to take the lead in international commerce and in building a colonial sys-tem, gaining footholds in Asia Minor, India, Africa, and the New World.
Finally, “in 1763, after the signing of the Treaty of Paris which gave Canada and a large part of India to Great Britain, her supremacy spread over the sea. Moreover, in half a century, even before her triumph in the Seven Years’ War, her foreign trade had already doubled.”1 Let us begin our look at the Industrial Revolution’s effect on the English working class by finding out whom the masses were at the time.
An important tool in understanding the life-style of working-class England in the eighteenth century is the knowledge of how many working-class citizens were living in the period of the Industrial Revolution. There are several unofficial population esti-mates of England and Wales made by a group of demographers contemporary to the period. These, along with some writings of the time, give us an idea of population size, densities in some areas, and population movements.
These figures show a combined population of England and Wales in 1700 of some 5.7 million.2 The overall figures seem to climb steadily through the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and into the early nineteenth century as follows: •5.8 million in 1730
•6.2 million in 1750 •7.6 million in 1780 •8.3 million in 1790 At this point, more reliable information becomes available with the begin-ning of census-taking in England. Following a broader time frame, we see the British population quadruple during the nineteenth century, with a reported 8.8 million British citizens counted in 1801, 17.9 million in 1851, and 32.5 million in 1901.
3 Thus, the sheer number of working people in England before the Industrial Revolution is a major clue to the common life-style. Long prior to the period, large shifts among the laboring population became noticeable as farmlands were “enclosed,” or shut off from private cultivation or livestock raising by the government or large corporations.
Examples of this are traced back to the seventeenth century, as the high price and demand for wool caused much land to be taken over for the pasturing of sheep: Sheep drove out men in consequence, for only a few shepherds were needed to run the farms, and the laborers were forced into the towns. . . . It was strongest in England, where the highways swarmed with beggars, and the out-skirts of towns with cheap labour.
4 This shift became much more pronounced in the following century as new technological advances narrowed the demand for hand labor both in manufacturing and agriculture. Achievements such as the steam engine, the spinning jenney, and the “fire engine for plowing” brought about unprecedented advances in the mining, transportation, textile, and agriculture markets—and squeezed thousands of heretofore manual laborers out of their traditional job markets, forcing mass migrations to more industrialized villages and cities.
These towns, many springing up in the path of industrialism, “ate up men, women, and children.”5 With the rise of these towns came a decline in the standard of living for the working class: The first noticeable thing about these towns would have been the stench. There was no sanitary system; an open cesspool in the court often served the richer inhabitants; the poor . . . made a public convenience of every nook and cranny. The unpaved streets were narrow . . . too narrow for carts. . . .
The hous-es of the poor were one or two room hovels, frequently made only of weather-board with a pitched roof, placed back to back; or there were the houses of the rich, deserted because their owners were seeking more salubrious suburbs. . . .6 A vicious cycle of squalor and overpopulation is evident as many new ci-ties sprang up in the wake of mechanization. As populations grew, living stan-dards in these rising townships declined accordingly.
For instance, the small town of Bradford, one of many which developed along with the country’s newly expanding railroad lines, grew astonishingly, from a population of 8,800 in 1760 (the official start of the Industrial Revolution), to 66,715 in 1841.7 It is noted that the quality of life did not necessarily rise in relation to population in such towns. Life does not appear to have been much better in some of Britain’s exist-ing cities, which grew rapidly. In the period between 1801 and 1831, the popula-tion of Birmingham, “undoubtedly England’s most versatile industrial city,” grew from 70,000 to 130,000 residents.
8 Thus we see incredibly large movements of people from the agrarian-based life seeking jobs and homes in areas of more industrialized society. This movement led to the overall working class being divided into two sectors popularly referred to as the “agricultural poor” and the “industrial poor.” This division created a good deal of argument in regard to the distribution of wealth as well as raising questions about which group benefited more from the advent of technology.
Bibliography Renard, G. and Weulersse, G. Life and Work in Modern Europe. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1968. Briggs, Asa. Iron Bridge to Crystal Palace. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd., 1979. Plumb, J. H. “England in the Eighteenth Century.” In The Pelican History of Eng-land, no. 7. Aylesbury: Hunt Barnard Printing Ltd., 1963. Glass, D. V. “Population and Population Movements in England and Wales, 1700 to 1850.” In Population and History, edited by D. V. Glass and D. E. C. Eversley. London: Edward Arnold Publishers Ltd., 1965. Mitchell, B. R. European Historical Statistics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1975.