Despite longer hours and harsh conditions, many workers celebrated the Industrial Revolution. Source: British Library
Despite longer hours and harsh conditions, many workers celebrated the Industrial Revolution. Source: British Library

Writers and academics often show an interesting ambivalence about industrialization. Today, they regard it as a blessing, the single-most-effective way to lift people out of poverty. But in thinking about Britain’s Industrial Revolution, they have tended to reach the opposite conclusion: The rise of the factory, they argue, caused the end of more “natural” working hours, introduced more exploitative employment patterns and dehumanized the experience of labor. It robbed workers of their autonomy and dignity.

Yet if we turn to the writing of laborers themselves, we find that they didn’t share the historians’ gloomy assessment. Starting in the early 19th century, working people in Britain began to write autobiographies and memoirs in ever greater numbers. Men (and occasionally women) who worked in factories and mines, as shoemakers and carpenters, and on the land, penned their stories, and inevitably touched on the large part of their life devoted to labor. In the process, they produced a remarkable account of the Industrial Revolution from the perspective of those who felt its effects firsthand -- one that looks very different from the standard historical narrative.

More Hours

First, working-class writers put a very different spin on the increase in working hours that accompanied industrialization. The autobiographies make clear that in pre-industrial Britain, there simply wasn’t enough work to go around. As a result, few people were fully employed throughout the year. This gave them leisure time, but it also left most families eking out an uncomfortable living on the margins.

The lack of consistent employment also forced workers to stay in positions that were unsuitable or grossly exploitative. William Chubb, living in the sleepy Wiltshire village of East Harnham, spent four years working as a glove maker, despite fearing that the work was destroying his eyesight. As he glumly noted, he had “no better, or indeed no other way, to get a livelihood.” And in rural Scotland, James Ferguson stayed at his post as a miller’s assistant even though the miller was a drunkard and left him “almost starved.” What other choice did he have? There was no point in returning to his father, “who I knew full well could not maintain me.”

This situation changed dramatically with the onset of industrialization. In the factory heartlands, there was a lot of work that needed to be done, which benefited anybody with a strong back and healthy body. There were jobs not only in the factories, but in building them. The industrial workforce needed homes, shoes, clothes, furniture, bread and beer -- it all meant jobs for large numbers of workers, skilled and otherwise, and incomes that greatly exceeded what could be earned from the land. Historians have tended to rue the increase in working hours, and in the modern world long hours are often associated with deteriorating living standards, but the assessment of 19th-century workers was often quite different. Of laboring in a stone quarry, Emanuel Lovekin declared he enjoyed “very good jobs and plenty of money.” John Lincoln considered that in the factory his “work was very Light and the pay very good.”

Not all factory workers enjoyed better wages or appreciated the new working conditions, of course, but many found that industrialization meant the difference between poverty and plenty.

Power Dynamics

Higher levels of employment also helped change the balance of power between master and laborer. So long as jobs remained scarce, workers, by necessity, obeyed their employers. The price of dissent or disobedience was unemployment. With more jobs, such subservience became less and less necessary. In the booming new industrial towns, workers could, and did, walk out on employers over relatively minor matters, confident that finding more work wouldn’t be difficult. One autobiographer left his position simply because he “grew sick” of the work; another because he didn’t want to “beg pardon” after a falling out with his master; another objected to wasting his precious Sunday mornings at his master’s religious services; and another quit when his master refused to let him take his tea breaks off the premises. All working relationships are defined by a disparity in power between master and servant. But that inequality is rendered more palatable if we’re well remunerated for our services and can leave at will.

The way in which working people described the upheavals of this period provides us with a powerful reminder of the transformative effect of industrialization and of its capacity to improve living standards, even for the poor. Generations of historians have dwelled on the loss of old working patterns and presumed that the introduction of more intensive ones was detrimental to workers’ welfare. But these developments weren’t viewed in such a sinister light at the time. Industrialization promised full employment, and for those used to scraping together a living from the land, this was very good news indeed.

(Emma Griffin is a senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia and the author of “Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution.” The opinions expressed are her own.)

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