home | history

Industrialization, Wages and Life in Britain

The First Industrial Revolution was about the introduction of machines, often powered by water or steam. It lasted from roughly 1760 to 1850 and was greatest in Britain. The historian Paul Kennedy has a chart that gives Britain in 1830 a score of 25 in per capita production, up from 16 in 1800. It was a steeper upward climb than other European states, and it compares to China remaining at 6 during this period. The German states in 1830 had a score of 9 — 36 percent of Britain's. By the early 1840s, industrialization in Britain was almost three times what it had been in 1800.

A part of the big change in Britain was a big population shift from rural agricultural areas to new factory towns, from work on farms and home (cottage) industries to work with steam-driven machinery in large textile producing factories. As British historian Jan Morris describes it: “stylish English cities of the eighteenth century were invested now by tenements and factories."

Different regions were specializing: metal production in England's Midlands, for example, and coal mining in its Northeast. And accompanying the growth of manufacturing was a growth in food production. Herds had been growing, providing more manure for the fields. With more food there had been a population increase (adding significance to the per capita manufacturing figure). Helping to provide a market incentive for production, Internally Britain was without tariff barriers. All of England was connected by waterways, with no place no more than twenty miles away from water transport — this infrastructure having been improved with canal building in the 1700s. There was also an increase in world commerce. And in Britain production was helped by a stability in government and security in holding private property. Britain's economy benefited also from an effective central bank and well-developed credit mechanisms.

Factory hiring had a great supply of people to draw from. There was no government intervention with minimum wages. Wage compensation was a market affair with wages bid down to bare subsistence or less. The British historian Sir R J Evans adds some details:

There were no regulations or restrictions whatever to govern the physical state of the factories, the age or suitability of the workers, or to limit in any way the hours worked. In 1815 the average factory working time seems to have varied from twelve to fourteen hours a day, with not more than two half-hours off for meals… And these hours were worked in dirty, ill-lit building, devoid of sanitation, or any arrangement or regulation to control the number of machines, or to protect the human beings packed to the limit of the available space.

Workers and their families lived in smelly slums, and fighting for their survival they fought for their jobs. In the early 1800s in Nottingham were the Luddites, workers in the spinning industry who feared being replaced by machines and who rioted. A few were hanged. In 1816, during an economic downturn, rioting resumed over much of Britain, but it ended when the economy recovered.

In addition to the working poor, in the coming decades Britain would have more of those who would be called middle class: managers and skilled specialists and professionals of various kinds. They would live in the better parts of town. And there would be a corresponding change in politics. Whig-oriented newspapers and political leaders welcomed the increasing participation of the middle classes in politics, and in parliamentary debate public opinion was given more importance. Elections to the House of Commons gave liberals – the Whig Party — largely aristocrats with liberal leanings, a majority.

In October 1831, the Labor in Cotton Mills Act eliminated night work for persons under twenty-one. For those under the age of 18, hours were restricted to twelve. In 1834 the Factory Act became law. In textile factories no child under nine was to be employed, and children under twelve were to work no more than 48 hours per week.

And in 1834, a new Poor Law system was enacted. It provided work and a place to live in what became known as "workhouses." Living conditions, including the food, was intentionally less attractive than what people were experiencing in regular employment — for incentive sake and the private enterprise labor market. There was, moreover, a sense of lost respectability in going to a workhouse. Also in the workhouses were children without parents and abandoned children, the physically and mentally sick, the disabled, the elderly and unmarried mothers. There was work involving textiles. For men there was stone breaking, milling corn and grinding bones to make fertilizer. For women, there was making beds, cooking, doing laundry, sewing and cleaning.

Healthy young men had another choice: military service. And women could enter what was also called "servuce:" They might win employment as maids and such for families with enough wealth afford such help.

Being a slumlord, meanwhile, could be highly profitable. The rent per cubic foot was higher where people were living densly packed together. There were no health and safety regulations and little incentive for landlords to spend money making improvements.

Labor unions were officially illegal, but in 1836 the London Working Men's Association formed. In 1837, cotton spinners were out on strike for three months (the year that Victoria, recently turned eighteen, became queen). According to the British historian Jan Morris, as late as 1837, "...at least one in ten of the British people were paupers, naked women pulled wagons through mine shafts, poor little children of eight and nine were working twelve-hour days in the dark factories of the north.” In 1837 a strike paralyzed much of Lancashire for sixteen weeks, and in other places troops clashed with the working poor, and people burned down the workhouses that had been built for them.

In 1938 a worker "Charter" movement began. It called for giving the vote to every adult male. In 1839 a "Charter" was presented to parliament and was rejected. Riots followed in cities such as Glasgow, Newcastle, and Birmingham, and in Wales. In 1842 what began as resistance to wage cuts spread into a general strike across Britain. But those on strike could hold on no longer than two or three months before returning to work. An accompanying call for pay for Members of Parliament so that the poor and middle-class could serve, also failed.

Into the 1840s, industrial production was growing at a faster rate. Between 1830 and 1860, manufacturing more than doubled in per capita production — in addition to population growth despite the poverty. The British economy was helped by a move from tariffs to free trade. And a second Industrial Revolution was underway that was to use more advanced technologies such as the internal combustion engine and electricity.

Worker share in this growth in terms of what their pay could provide (real wages) was to remain a controversy. Karl Marx had calculated that real wages were declining and producing an immiserization that would eventually produce a socialist revolution. There would be agreement among economists (including Charles Feinstein) that real wages grew slowly if at all before 1820 and more rapidly after 1840.

Britain's economy had not yet produced much of a consumer society. Common people spent much of their income on food, which they had to shop for often, not having refrigerators. And there was rent to pay. Online are many articles with much data on the real wages and quality-of-life issues. If well-being can be measured in the average lifespan of people in general it would be worth noting that at the beginning of the 1800s life expectancy for infants that survived their first year averaged around 40 years; by 1841 it was an estimated 42.2 for females and 40.2 for males; and by 1900 it would increase to 50 for females and 47 for males. Infant mortality in Britain in 1840s was around 150 for every 1000 births. In 2016 in Britain it would be 3.6 and life expectancy at birth would be 83.0 for females and 79.4 for males.

As for education, common laborers in the middle of the 1800s were little interested in their children having what they did not have. Working-class families were remained reluctant to give up the earnings of their children, with some complaining that depriving children of work in factories merely forced them to find work elsewhere. On the side of educating children, at least on a part-time basis, had been the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), connected to the Church of England. They had established 230 schools in Britain. Parliamentarians joined them, deciding that it was the government's duty "to promote the religious and moral education of the laboring classes" and that literacy needed to be advanced so that working people could understand their responsibilities as citizens.

In 1860 in England, 35 percent of males getting married could not sign their marriage papers. For females that number was 48 percent. In 1870, parliament passed its first legislation for education on a national scale. It allowed voluntary schools to continue as before while establishing a system of local school boards to build and manage schools where schools were needed. The state mandated that religious teaching in these schools was to be "non-denominational." Another law in 1880 made school attendance compulsory for children between the ages of five and ten, and by the end of the century the state had made education compulsory, and free, for all children to the age of 12.

In one century, Britain had changed from predominately rural and agricultural to an urban and industrialized society. Its population had more than doubled and had experienced a significant rise in living standards. It had become a leader in international and domestic banking and trade.


PLEASE CONTINUE: International Conflict, Industrialization and the US Civil War

I welcome your opinions.

Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.