Consequences of the Industrial Revolution on English Society
The ninety years between 1760 and 1850, commonly regarded as the "First Generation" of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, were to bring about sweeping changes: technological, economic, philosophical and social. Previously, technology was low. Manufactured goods were produced by hand, often in the home or in small workshops, by skilled artisans who generally specialized in making one type of goods or one component of an item. The economy was dominated by agriculture, and the majority of the population was rural. Wealthy families who owned the land rented it to tenant farmers; these tenants, while mostly illiterate, had the opportunity to grow their own food and live in somewhat appealing and healthful surroundings. They were almost a cashless society, paying their rents and buying goods largely through their produce and exchange of labor. Their diversions often centered around fairs and saints' days, and were local in nature.
Several more or less concurrent events were to change this social structure forever, producing both beneficial and harmful effects in the short-term. England, as an intensely class-conscious society, was about to witness the gradual decline in importance of the aristocratic class and the rise of the middle class, the bourgeoisie, both in Parliament and indirectly in social attitudes. Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations advanced the view that the pursuit of wealth is the highest goal of governments and of the individual entrepreneur.
The absence of internal duties on goods in England facilitated the cheap movement of goods in that country (opposite to the situation faced by other European nations), and paved the way for booming domestic industry. England's virtual dominance of world trade, and extensive and varied Empire, meant that her ability to import raw materials such as cotton and export finished goods was extremely advantageous.
Parliament's passing of the enclosure laws meant that farmland could now be worked by a smaller and more efficient labor force, and much more foodstuffs could be produced. A population explosion was underway, and the increased amount of food could support this growth; however, the change in the agricultural economy meant that huge numbers of farm workers and their families were now bound for the cities in search of work. For the first time, the agricultural economy and soon the nation's economy as a whole were no longer founded on the notion of subsistence and sustainability, but on the idea of surplus. More goods had to be produced than the workers themselves and their immediate employers needed; this surplus would be sold in Britain and exported to the Empire and elsewhere throughout the world, for profit.
At the same time, technology made startling advances. England had long enjoyed the rich local deposits of coal as a cheap and efficient source of power, but the deeper mines tended to flood. The steam engine, designed in 1712 to pump the water out, was refined by James Watt in 1763, and because of its increased efficiency, now had application in a wide variety of industries. By the turn of the century, steam was well on its way to replacing water as the engine that drove English business.
Added to this innovation, the development of the spinning jenny in 1767 and the American invention of the cotton gin in 1793, along with the cheap labor provided by black slaves, supported a massive boom in the textile industry in England. Factories, not only for clothing and cotton goods, but for matches, nails, and so forth, proliferated, and provided places of employment for the displaced farm workers. A more or less on-going series of military actions during the same time period meant that in addition to consumer goods, there was a high demand for the materiels of war, especially ship-building and armament manufacture.
Needless to say, all of these changes produced a profound effect on society, both on the large scale and on the family level. Much has been written about both the good and the bad consequences of this upheaval.
To deal first with the problems and social ills that were certainly a result of the profound disruption of society in this time period, we can use the term coined by R.M. Hartwell: "immiseration - a belief that unrestrained capitalism [made] the rich richer and the poor poorer during the Industrial Revolution" (Hartwell, 1974). A laissez-faire attitude on the part of the government to the growth of industry resulted in subsistence wages, dreadful working conditions, dehumanizing working hours and the employment of not only men but also women and children on a large scale at tasks that could not help but shorten their miserable lives. Working class poverty and suffering were so great and so visible that capitalism became seen by many as a sin against humanity; the peasant of earlier times was now the proletariat. Charles Dickens did much to publicize the inhumanity of the bourgeois to the poor, as well as the indifference of the aristocrat to their misery, in much the same way as Harriet Beecher Stowe dramatized the similar exploitation of the slave.
Poverty became not merely an undesirable state but an actual crime, as thousands were sent to debtors' prison (Dickens' parents among them). Orphanages were also common. This trend toward the institutionalizing of the disadvantaged was something new.
Child labor was certainly nothing new, in the sense that children on the farms were also expected to work. However, the Industrial Revolution saw children employed as young as three years of age, in textile factories, gas works, match factories and the iron and coal mines, mostly as "hurriers," pushing or pulling the ore carts ("corves") through the tunnels. The advantages to the owners were obvious: children were cheaper, there was seemingly an inexhaustible supply of them, and their small size was advantageous for many situations (for example, chimney-sweeping). In testimony gathered by the Ashley's Mines Commission of 1842, this is the report of Patience Kershaw, aged seventeen: "I cannot read or write. I go to pit at five o'clock in the morning and come out at five in the evening; I get my breakfast of porridge and milk first. I take my dinner with me, a cake, and eat it as I go, I do not stop or rest any time for the purpose; I get nothing else until I get home...I hurry in the clothes I have now got on, trousers and jacket; the bald place upon my head is made by thrusting the corves...I hurry the corves a mile or more underground and back; they weigh 300 cwt.; I hurry 11 a day; I wear a belt and chain at the workings to get the corves out; the getters that I work for are naked except for their caps; sometimes they beat me and the boys take liberties with me." (Parliamentary Paper #26).
Many children worked 16-hour days, until public outrage led to various Acts designed to regulate these conditions. By 1847, adults and children were limited to no more than ten hours' work per day; however, since there were only four inspectors in the entire country to enforce the law, it is fairly certain that there were infringements.
Working conditions in general were deplorable in most of the factories, with inadequate ventilation, cramped work-stations, dreadful heat from the machines, as well as constant danger from the machinery. In the mines the conditions were even worse, with the danger of cave-ins and floods adding to the pollution, heat, heavy labor and constant bending.
Living conditions were very bad as well. The factories polluted the cities heavily, and sanitary conditions were almost non-existent. The urban infrastructure was ill-equipped to support the factories themselves, let alone the swelling population of the poor. There was not enough clean water to drink, and no proper way to dispose of waste and garbage. Disease was a constant problem. Families crowded together into dirty, inadequate rooms, and had a poor diet of grain products primarily, with not enough meat or vegetables and fruit.
The long, hard hours of work found the worker frequently ready to squander his meager wage on drink. Drunkenness, fighting, prostitution and other vices became prevalent in the cities. The workers sank to a level of degradation that was previously unheard of in the rural agrarian past.
In all of this, the family underwent a profound change. All members of the family worked in the factories or mines in order to support themselves even at the most basic level; there was no longer some-one to "keep house" in the sense of preparing meals, cleaning, making clothing, etc. The crowded conditions meant that several families might share the same space. At work, members of the same family often did not work together, but were segregated into units according to task. Men, while still grossly underpaid and overworked, had better pay than the women or children. The integrity of the family structure was heavily compromised by these factors, as well as by the temptations of the city's vices.