Did industrialisation improve life for working people?

Introduction

Britain’s Industrial Revolution between the late 18th and early 19th century created many social and economic changes[1] which, as Michael Anderson states, changed the lives of working people in different forms dependent on one’s birth place, gender, and their profession in terms of job role and location.[2] The development of factories brought with them new job roles, education of the masses began created a skilled set of newly literate workers and women and children discovered paid work for the first time[3]. Despite this, industrial jobs were not always stable with regards to employment and wages, therefore depending on the individual’s previous situation with regards to the success of harvesting, their rural, industrialised jobs may have been more preferable, particularly given the poor living and working conditions industrial city life provided for the workers. Ultimately, in order to determine whether life for working people was improved or worsened by industrialisation, the factors on which we base this evaluation on must be established. The individual’s situation before and after industrialisation must be taken into account before we can determine whether their life was now better or worse as experiences differed greatly dependent on the social factors mentioned above by Michael Anderson.[4] The improvement of life for working people during and after industrialisation can also be categorized in terms of short term and long term effects, as some improvements may not fully blossom until several years after the method of achieving improvement is created, such as the effects of mass education.

Main Text

Given the volume of jobs arising with the development of industrial workspaces, it can be argued that stability with regards to employment and wages was an aspect of life that improved life for the working class.[5] Business, education, politics, and service sectors for employment had been created.[6] The promise of wages for a day’s work was more predictable than a harvest failure which could have left families starving despite their efforts and money invested in sufficiently providing for themselves off their land, for it then to produce poor quality or a low quantity of crops. Furthermore, the prospect of paid employment was opened up to women and children for the first time in British history, suggesting that families would be significantly better off economically as they were not reliant on one income, but several, putting them in a far better situation than living off the land and perhaps one monetary wage. Certainly, in terms of women who began their journey to gaining independence in Ivy Pinchbeck’s opinion, working class life had improved with industrialisation.[7]

On the contrary, it could be argued that working people had been satisfied providing for themselves sufficiently from their own land pre-industrialisation. Whilst the revolution had in theory created mass employment, this was fairly unpredictable and therefore unreliable as redundancy was a high risk with the development of machines taking over tasks previously carried out by men, reducing the number of workers necessary to complete the same amount of labour. In particular, unskilled workers were at risk of losing their job as they could be easily replaced by someone with experience.[8] As a result, wages were also poor as machinery meant higher efficiency of production at the expense of the workers wages, in addition to the owner naturally wanting to make the most profit possible, therefore reducing employer wages further. This implies that industrialisation did not improve life for the workers. It could be argued that actually, their quality of life decreased, as not only were they still living off unpredictable wages comparable to their harvest success or failure, they were now also labouring in dangerous and harsh working conditions, and living in poverty. Hobsbawm states that the life expectancy in the countryside was double that of the city, primarily due to accidents in the workplace and the fumes of the machinery degrading the lungs,[9] arguing that from a health and safety point of view in the workplace, quality of life for working class citizens had decreased to the degree that their duration of life decreased with it.

Despite this, it can be argued from a perspective of intellect that quality of life for the working class improved during the industrial revolution. Laurence Stone estimated that male literacy rose from 6-7% in 1700 to 56% in 1775, however estimating this is difficult as typically literacy was judged on the basis of if one is able to sign their name, they are able to read – which may not be the case; therefore, these statistics must be treated with caution.[10] Ultimately, increased education would improve the minds of working class people, but also increase their job opportunities as they could reach out for professions such as primary teaching if they were determined to intellectually progress, to which Hobsbawm states the industrial revolution created a ‘thirst for education’ which would put England as increasingly more developed than other European and Western countries of the time.[11] This would particularly benefit the quality of life of children as they transitioned into adulthood, as they were provided with the skills that had the potential to increase their job opportunities, ultimately increasing their pay and improving their quality of life, although this would be a considerably long term improvement as education is a process in which development takes years, from primary schooling through to university higher level education.

However, the opening of education and employment created a desire to migrate to the city. The strain of rural to urban migration meant that cities became overcrowded. Slums were unsanitary, housing was damaged and small, with multiple extended families living within their walls[12]. Engels quotes statistics of the City of Manchester during industrialisation: 960 houses were out of repair, 959 had insufficient drains, 1455 were damp, 452 were badly ventilated, and 2221 were without privies. Furthermore, of the streets: 248 were unpaved and 352 contained waste. [13] Ultimately, the ‘disadvantages fell upon the poor’ living in poverty and sickness such as cholera epidemics, starvation, and crime – crime which was uncommon in rural areas, due to the lack of necessity to steal and greed, but also the absence of close proximity to others belongings as the population was more widely spread.[14] Furthermore, mass alcoholism, infanticide, prostitution and mental derangement was common in large industrialized cities, typically as a last resort, as a result of desperation through insufficient wages.[15] This suggests that whilst education may have improved the quality of life working people could achieve after industrialisation, their quality of life in the home was poor. Regardless, Michael Anderson argues that close kinship and friendship groups formed which created a support base in which to help each other through the hard times they may have faced.[16] This argues that socially, life for the working class citizens of Industrial Britain improved for the majority, which in turn would raise morality and perhaps lessened disappointment at the conditions in which they were living in.

This being said, we are judging this poor quality of life against today’s standards of housing and city life, living in spacious houses powered by electricity and plumbing. In comparison to the working class during the industrial period, even those struggling to make ends meet today are in a much better position with the support of benefits and council housing, and the law on minimum wage which means that we are able to provide sufficiently for our families if we use this aid appropriately. Arguably, this proves that ultimately industrialisation did improve the lives of working people from a long term perspective as a society, as our living conditions today are much more luxurious and sanitary than they were before industrialisation. To us these industrial conditions are seen as squalid; we would not wish to digress back to these standards of living. However, for the contemporary industrial worker, whether their quality of life improved or deteriorated is relative to what the individual was experiencing before. For example, if one were to have lived in a rural area they may have suffered from starvation due to their failed harvest and braced exposure to the cold weather in poorly built houses. Hobsbawm argues that poverty was worst in the countryside, with a succession of bad harvests in 1789, 1795, 1817, 1832 and 1847.[17] Therefore if the living conditions for the working class before industrialisation were considered worse than that after industrialisation, it can be argued that their quality of life therefore improved. To further this argument, the long term consequences of industrialisation can be said to have improved the lives of the working class citizens of England, by examine the society we live in today. Whilst briefly comparing modern society’s support systems for the working class to the lack of support and development in the industrial period, our current systems have ultimately evolved from the progress of industrialisation, arguing that whilst the contemporary working class of the time may not have experienced the benefits of industrialisation as the effects were yet to develop, working classes decades and centuries since have achieved an improve quality of life due to the development in employment and education in particular.

Conclusion

In conclusion, industrialisation improved the lives of working class women by opening up their paid job prospects, giving families better economic provisions and beginning women’s journey towards gaining further independence. Whilst a vast number of jobs were created during industrialisation, wages were unpredictable due to cost and demand of supplies and the creation of mechanical labour which once employing men to create them, they eradicated the jobs of lesser workers. Furthermore workers tended to be in circumstances which would now be deemed dangerous by today’s health and safety standards, which decreased their life expectancy in the transition from country to city environment due to injuries and smoke fumes. Furthermore, the quality of living was considerably poor, with damaged housing and unsanitary provisions which led to overcrowding and resulted in disease. Whilst this clearly implies that life for working class people during industrialisation was tough and inadequate by today’s standards, this may have actually been an improvement or at least equivalent to what the individual was experiencing beforehand, rather than worsening. From a perspective of intellect, the creation of mass education certainly improved the quality of life of children as they transitioned into adulthood, as they were provided with the skills that had the potential to increase their job opportunities, ultimately increasing their pay and improving their quality of life, although this would not be an immediate improvement as education is a process in which development takes years. Overall, the contemporary people seemed satisfied with their life during the industrial revolution providing they had strong bonds with the people surrounding them, who helped them through their struggles. Ultimately, it can be argued that the industrial revolution improved conditions for the working class long term, creating the spacious society of sanitation, education and support we live in today.

 

Bibliography

Anderson, Michael. Family Structure in Nineteenth-Century Lancashire, Cambridge University Press (1971)

Cobbett, William. Rural Rides; In the Counties of Surrey [Etc.] in the Years 1821, 1822, 1823, 1825, 1826, 1829, 1830 and 1832 with Economical and Political Observation, RareBooksClub.com (2012)

Engels, Frederick. The Condition of the Working Class in England 1844, Panther, London (1969) Ch. The Great Towns

History vault, Industrial Revolution, http://www.history.com/topics/industrial-revolution [viewed: 04/12/16]

Hobsbawm, Eric. The Age of Revolution 1789-1848, Abacus, (1977)

Ivy Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850, G Routledge & Sons, Ltd (1930)

Lemire, Devon. A Historiographical Survey of Literacy in Britain between 1780 and 1830, https://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/constellations/article/viewFile/18862/14652 [accessed 04/12/16]

Pinchbeck, Ivy. Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850, G Routledge & Sons, Ltd (1930)

Poddar, Ankur. The Industrial Revolution: Working and Living conditions http://firstindustrialrevolution.weebly.com/working-and-living-conditions.html

The British Museum, The Industrial Revolution, and the changing

face of Britain, https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/publications/online_research_catalogues/paper_money/paper_money_of_england__wales/the_industrial_revolution.aspx, [accessed: 03/12/16]


[1] The British Museum, The Industrial Revolution, and the changing

face of Britain, https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/publications/online_research_catalogues/paper_money/paper_money_of_england__wales/the_industrial_revolution.aspx, [accessed: 03/12/16]

[2] Michael Anderson, Family Structure in Nineteenth-Century Lancashire, Cambridge University Press (1971)

[3] Ivy Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850, G Routledge & Sons, Ltd (1930)

[4] William Cobbett, Rural Rides; In the Counties of Surrey [Etc.] in the Years 1821, 1822, 1823, 1825, 1826, 1829, 1830 and 1832 with Economical and Political Observation, RareBooksClub.com (2012)

[5] Ankur Poddar, The Industrial Revolution: Working and Living conditions http://firstindustrialrevolution.weebly.com/working-and-living-conditions.html

[6] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 1789-1848, Abacus, (1977), Chapter, 10 pp. 224-244

[7] Ivy Pinchbeck, Women Workers and the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850, G Routledge & Sons, Ltd (1930)

[8] History vault, Industrial Revolution, http://www.history.com/topics/industrial-revolution [viewed: 04/12/16]

[9] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 1789-1848, Abacus, (1977), Chapter, 11 pp. 245-265

[10] Devon Lemire, A Historiographical Survey of Literacy in Britain between 1780 and 1830, https://ejournals.library.ualberta.ca/index.php/constellations/article/viewFile/18862/14652 [accessed 04/12/16]

[11] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 1789-1848, Abacus, (1977), Chapter, 10 pp. 224-244

[12] Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England 1844, Panther, London (1969) Ch. The Great Towns

[13] Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England 1844, Panther, London (1969) Ch. The Great Towns

[14] Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England 1844, Panther, London (1969) Ch. The Great Towns

[15] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 1789-1848, Abacus, (1977), Chapter, 11 pp. 245-265

[16] Michael Anderson, Family Structure in Nineteenth-Century Lancashire, Cambridge University Press (1971)

[17] Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution 1789-1848, Abacus, (1977), Chapter, 11 pp. 245-265

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: