Labor and the Industrial Revolution Essay

  • Length: 10 pages
  • Sources: 10
  • Subject: Drama - World
  • Type: Essay
  • Paper: #69742315

Excerpt from Essay :

Other employment prospects in fields such as petty trading, retailing, transportation and domestic service also developed simultaneously in urban areas. In the nineteenth century, when the industrial working class became much larger and more important in the social structure they begin to assert themselves socially, politically and economically, evolving into the social order we see today.

Growth of Cities

According to Jeffery G. Williamson (1990) Britain grew at an unusually rapid growth rate during the first part of the nineteenth century. Census data of the period indicates that some nineteenth-century cities grew at rates "that would bring cold sweat to the brow of twentieth-century housing committees" (p.2). Glasgow grew at 3.2% annum in 1830's, Manchester and Salford at 3.9% in the 1820's; Bradford at 5.9% in the 1830s, and Dukinfield nearly tripled in size the 1820's. These were the fast-growing cities and towns in the industrializing north.

The British population increased about 15% every decade during the eighteenth century creating a demand for goods and a population to support the corresponding need for labor. The living conditions these people faced in their new environment were often miserable. They faced long hours of labor every day in crowded factories. Poor sewage disposal, overcrowded living conditions, primitive medical practices, and the rampant spread of disease diminished the quality of life. Towns and cities during this period normally had a higher death rate than birth rate. Only the huge influx of people from the villages kept the towns expanding.

London was threatened by a major outbreak of cholera in 1858. Poor sewage and water purification systems in the slums led to the spread of this lethal waterborne disease. The upper and middle classes realized that although epidemic diseases might originate in the slums they could, and would spread to other residential areas. Basic sanitation in worker housing was improved in the 1860s.

Cholera in London

London was the largest city in the world in the 1800s, a city overwhelmed by the waste products of its ever-growing population. Overcrowded into decaying, stinking slums, the poorest citizens were literally surrounded by their own filth. Piled up in courtyards or overflowing from basement cesspits, into which toilets were drained, raw sewage was everywhere, and so was its stench. In such conditions disease was inevitable, but Victorian London's experience of cholera in 1832 would have a huge social impact. Spread by the bacteria-laced diarrhea of its victims, cholera's violent and rapid assault on the human body was terrifying. Although it killed fewer than other contemporary diseases, such as influenza or tuberculosis, it was cholera that provided a deadly backdrop to this era of social and economic upheaval.

The appearance of cholera prompted debate about the nature of the emerging society. Driven by a combination of genuine concern for the poor and self-preservation by the elite, the fear of cholera became a crucial element in the development of public health in Britain. It inspired some of the first investigations into the living conditions endured by much of the population.

In 1842 Edwin Chadwick made a clear link between disease and living conditions and called for urgent action. By 1848 Chadwick had been appointed to the first Board of Health and was Sanitary Commissioner of London. He now had the power to change things, but his actions were guided by the belief that the disease was spread through foul air. He supported the rapid removal of human waste through improvements to the sewage and drainage systems. Unfortunately this led to a greater flow of raw sewage into the Thames River, the main source of drinking water for London, thereby further contaminating London's water supply and greatly increasing the risk of cholera.

Dr. John Snow publicly stated in 1849 that cholera was transmitted through water. He was researching links between water supply and deaths from cholera when the disease returned in 1854. This time, a single water supply - the Broad Street pump - was contaminated by a single domestic sewer pipe. As a result, hundreds of local people were rapidly poisoned after visiting the well, or from eating or drinking the products made using its waters. The outbreak confirmed his theory. However, the importance of Snow's work was not immediately recognized. The Great Stink of 1858 ultimately banished cholera for good. Unable to ignore the stench of the Thames parliament sanctioned one of the century's great engineering projects, a new sewer network for London. The first section was opened in 1865 ("Science Museum" 2011).

Irish Immigration

Adding to the social problems Britain had to endure during the first industrial revolution was the influx of immigrants from Ireland during the potato famine (Williamson, 1986). The greatest flow of emigration from Ireland to London occurred in the early to mid nineteenth century, in response to the agricultural depressions following the Napoleonic Wars, the increasing demand for Irish labor associated with the Industrial Revolution, and the worsening conditions in Ireland associated with the Great Famine of1846 to 1849. By this time Irish communities had been a common part of the London scene for at least two hundred years. Early migration patterns were dominated by seasonal employment at harvest time. This was significantly modified during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries by the workings of vagrancy and settlement legislation, which ensured that many seasonal workers were forcibly returned to Ireland by parochial and county authorities.

Emsley, Hitchcock, and Shoemaker (2011), report that seasonal work at harvest time formed the core activity of Irish migrants throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in England. However, the more settled and stable Irish communities of London provided the basis for participation in a range of other employments. Hawking, costermongering (selling fruit and other wares from a barrow), and street selling were occupations in which large numbers of Irish men and women could be found. In the early 1850s there were 10,000 Irish men and women employed in these quasi-beggarly professions. Irish worker were brought over in the 1780s first to work on the canals, and later to work build the railroads that were instrumental in providing the infrastructure to support the Industrial Revolution.

In London, many building laborers, chairmen, and porters were Irish, as were the owners of lodging houses, alehouses, and chophouses frequented by Irish clientele. The silk industries of London and Dublin were also closely connected, bringing Irish silk and linen weavers to Spitalfields.


The working and living conditions of the working class improved gradually during the late 1800's. Parliament, which had largely represented only the upper class, began to act in the interests of the middle and working classes. It repealed the law forbidding trade unions and passed other laws regulating factory conditions. In 1832, a Reform Act gave most middle-class men the right to vote. Another Reform Act, passed in 1867, granted the right to vote to city workers and owners of small farms.

Although the workers did not at first share in the prosperity of the Industrial Revolution, members of the middle and upper classes prospered from the beginning. Many people made fortunes during the period. The revolution made available products that provided new comforts and conveniences to those who could afford them. The middle class, who consisted of business and professional people, won political and educational benefits. As the middle class gained in power, it became increasingly important politically. By the mid-1800's, big business interests largely controlled British government policies.

The Industrial Revolution indirectly helped increase Britain's population. As people of the middle and upper classes enjoyed better diets and lived in more sanitary housing, they suffered less from disease and lived longer. The material condition of the working class also improved. Partly as a result of these improved conditions, the population grew rapidly. In 1750, Britain had about 6 1/2 million people. By 1830, the population had increased to about 14 million.

The Industrial Revolution began in England and eventually spread throughout the world. New forms of transportation and improvements in the infrastructure hasten urbanization changing little factory towns or shipping centers into places where many people could live and work. Many people saw this as an opportunity to better themselves economically and were drawn to the cities. Immigrants built canals and constructed railroads. They became involved in almost every labor- intensive endeavor in the country. They provided much needed labor to operate newly developed factories. There contribution to the improvement of the infrastructure was a significant stimulant to the burgeoning world economy.


Comanor, W.S. (2005). Life during the Industrial Revolution. World book. Retrieved November 19, 2011, from

Emsley, C., Hitchcock, T., & Shoemaker, R. (2011, March). Communities -- Irish London. Old Bailey proceediongs online. Retrieved November 19, 2011, from

"Industrial revolution: The industrial revolution in Great Britain." (2006) The Columbia electronic encyclopedia. Pearson Education Publishing as Infoplease. Retrieved November 16, 2011, from

Kreis, S.…

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