Industrial Revolution and the Working Class

Debate 1: The Industrial Revolution in England from the 18th to the 19th century was a benefit to the English working class.

Looking at the Industrial Revolution, it’s important to consider its effects on people. We learned that industrial production increased tremendously, bringing wealth and power to Great Britain throughout the 19th century. But we have yet to explore the effects of industrialization on society, on the daily living and the working conditions of common people and the environment. What was life like for the average industrial worker?

Was living in a new industrial city and working in a factory an improvement over life in the countryside? Did the new factory life change for the better the roles of family members, including women and children? Were people healthier? In general, did the Industrial Revolution improve life for most people?

Since the Industrial Revolution was so new at the end of the 18th century, there were initially no laws to regulate new industries. For example, no laws prevented businesses from hiring seven-year-old children to work full time in coal mines or factories. No laws regulated what factories could do with their biohazard waste. Free-market capitalism meant that the government had no role in regulating the new industries or planning services for new towns.

And those who controlled the government liked it that way—only a small minority of people, the wealthiest, could vote in England at this time. So during the first phase of the Industrial Revolution, British society became the first example of what happens in a country when free-market capitalism has no constraints. You will learn about the effects of the Industrial Revolution on living and working conditions, urbanization (the growth of cities), child labor, public health, working class family life, the role of women, the emerging middle class, and economic growth and income.

Working Conditions

What were the working conditions like during the Industrial Revolution? Well, for starters, the working class—who made up 80% of society—had little or no bargaining power with their new employers. Since population was increasing in Great Britain at the same time that landowners were enclosing common village lands, people from the countryside flocked to the towns and the new factories to get work. This resulted in a very high unemployment rate for workers in the first phases of the Industrial Revolution.

As a result, the new factory owners could set the terms of work because there were far more unskilled laborers, who had few skills and would take any job, than there were jobs for them. And since the textile industries were so new at the end of the 18th century, there were initially no laws to regulate them.

Desperate for work, the migrants to the new industrial towns had no bargaining power to demand higher wages, fairer work hours, or better working conditions. Worse still, since only wealthy people in Great Britain were eligible to vote, workers could not use the democratic political system to fight for rights and reforms.

In 1799 and 1800, the British Parliament passed the Combination Acts, which made it illegal for workers to unionize, or combine, as a group to ask for better working conditions.

Many of the unemployed or underemployed were skilled workers, such as hand weavers, whose talents and experience became useless because they could not compete with the efficiency of the new textile machines. For the first generation of workers—from the 1790s to the 1840s—working conditions were very tough, and sometimes tragic.

Most laborers worked 10 to 14 hours a day, six days a week, with no paid vacation or holidays and each industry had safety hazards too. Under such dangerous conditions, accidents on the job occurred regularly. Life in the factory was most challenging for the first generation of industrial workers who still remembered the slower and more flexible pace of country life.

Factory employers demanded a complete change of pace and discipline from the village life. Workers could not wander over to chat with their neighbors or family as they would have done while working in the country. They could not return to the village during harvest time to help their families, unless they wanted to lose their jobs. Instead, they were no longer their own bosses; foremen and overseers supervised a new working culture to insure that workers’ actions were focused and efficient. A few workers were able to improve their lot by going into business for themselves or winning a job as a supervisor, but the majority saw very little social mobility.

Living Conditions

Working in new industrial cities had an effect on people’s lives outside of the factories as well. As workers migrated from the country to the city, their lives and the lives of their families were utterly and permanently transformed.

For many skilled workers, the quality of life decreased a great deal in the first 60 years of the Industrial Revolution. Skilled weavers, for example, lived well in pre-industrial society as a kind of middle class. They tended their own gardens, worked on textiles in their homes or small shops, and raised farm animals. They were their own bosses. But, after the Industrial Revolution, the living conditions for skilled weavers significantly deteriorated.

They could no longer live at their own pace or supplement their income with gardening, spinning, or communal harvesting. For skilled workers, quality of life took a sharp downturn. In the first sixty years or so of the Industrial Revolution, working-class people had little time or opportunity for recreation.

Workers spent all the light of day at work and came home with little energy, space, or light to play sports or games. The new industrial pace and factory system were at odds with the old traditional festivals which dotted the village holiday calendar. Plus, local governments actively sought to ban traditional festivals in the cities. In the new working-class neighborhoods, people did not share the same traditional sense of a village community. Owners fined workers who left their jobs to return to their villages for festivals because they interrupted the efficient flow of work at the factories.

During the first 60 years of the Industrial Revolution, living conditions were, by far, worst for the poorest of the poor. In desperation, many turned to the “poorhouses” set up by the government. The Poor Law of 1834 created workhouses for the destitute. Poorhouses were designed to be deliberately harsh places to discourage people from staying on “relief” (government food aid).

Families, including husbands and wives, were separated upon entering the grounds. They were confined each day as inmates in a prison and worked every day. Yet, despite these very harsh conditions, workhouse inmates increased from. This increase can only be viewed as a sign of desperation amongst the poorest of the poor.

Urbanization

One of the defining and most lasting features of the Industrial Revolution was the rise of cities. In pre-industrial society, over 80% of people lived in rural areas. As migrants moved from the countryside, small towns became large cities. By 1850, for the first time in world history, more people in a country—Great Britain—lived in cities than in rural areas. As other countries in Europe and North America industrialized, they too continued along this path of urbanization.

The small town of Manchester, England also grew rapidly and famously to become the quintessential industrial city. The cool climate was ideal for textile production. And it was located close to the Atlantic port of Liverpool and the coalfields of Lancashire. The first railroads in the world later connected the textile town to Liverpool. As a result, Manchester quickly became the textile capital of the world, drawing huge numbers of migrants to the city.

In 1771, the town had a population of 22,000. Over the next fifty years, Manchester’s population exploded and reached 180,000. This process of urbanization stimulated the booming new industries by concentrating workers and factories together. And the new industrial cities became, as we read earlier, sources of wealth for the nation. This growth in wealth and industry urbanization had some negative effects. On the whole, working-class neighborhoods were bleak, crowded, dirty, and polluted.

Public Health and Life Expectancy In the first half of the 19th century, urban overcrowding, poor diets, poor sanitation, and essentially medieval medical remedies all contributed to very poor public health for the majority of English people. The densely packed and poorly constructed working-class neighborhoods contributed to the fast spread of disease. Roads were muddy and lacked sidewalks. Houses were built touching each other, leaving no room for ventilation.

Perhaps most importantly, homes lacked toilets and sewage systems, and as a result, drinking water sources, such as wells, were frequently contaminated with disease. Cholera, tuberculosis, typhus, typhoid, and influenza ravaged through new industrial towns, especially in poor working-class neighborhoods. In 1849, 10,000 people died of cholera in three months in London alone. Tuberculosis claimed 60,000 to 70,000 lives in each decade of the 19th century.

People who received medical treatment in the first half of the 19th century likely worsened under the care of trained doctors and untrained quacks. Doctors still used remedies popular during the middle Ages, such as bloodletting and leeching. They concocted toxic potions of mercury, iron, or arsenic. They also encouraged heavy use of vomiting and laxatives, both of which severely dehydrated patients and could contribute to early death, especially among infants and children whose bodies would lose water dangerously fast.

Even though there were more doctors in the cities, life expectancy was much lower there than in the country. Poor nutrition, disease, lack of sanitation, and harmful medical care in these urban areas had a devastating effect on the average life expectancy of British people in the first half of the 19th century.

Working Class Families and the Role of Women The Industrial Revolution completely transformed the role of the family. In traditional, agricultural society, families worked together as a unit of production, tending to fields, knitting sweaters, or tending to the fire. Women could parent and also play a role in producing food or goods needed for the household. Work and play time were flexible and interwoven. Industrialization changed all that.

The same specialization of labor that occurred in factories occurred in the lives of working-class families, and this broke up the family economy. Work and home life became sharply separated. Men earned money for their families.

Women took care of the home and saw their economic role decline. While many factory workers were initially women, most of them were young women who would quit working when they married. In stark contrast to the various changing tasks that a farmer performed in pre-industrial society, factory workers typically completed repetitive and monotonous tasks for 10 to 14 hours each day.

Industrial working-class families, though not working together, did serve an economic purpose of raising money to support each other. As we have seen, children often worked to earn some income for the family. In difficult circumstances, mothers struggled to make ends meet and keep the family out of the poorhouses.