Workers' Lives during the Industrial Revolution
I have fallen into acquaintance with a delicious book, in which I actually found the equally delicious expression “to fall into acquaintance.” University of East Anglia historian Emma Griffin writes, referring to the 1797 autobiography of a Glasgow shoemaker, “In early adulthood, M’Kaen had ‘fallen into acquaintance’ with a young woman and wished to marry her” (Emma Griffin, Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution [Yale University Press, 2013]).
Griffin found her material in 350 autobiographies written by actual or former industrial workers starting in the late 18th century and often not meant for publication. The incipit of the Liberty’s Dawn says:
At the dawn of the nineteenth century, a subtle and little-noticed social change began to take place in Britain. As the industrial revolution picked up pace, a growing number of ordinary working people picked up pen and paper and wrote down their memories. … This book tells their story, an unexpected tale of working people carving out for themselves new levels of wealth, freedom and autonomy.
She describes the industrial revolution as follows:
It is clear that something momentous happened in Britain between the end of the eighteenth century and the middle of the nineteenth. ‘Revolution’ is an unavoidable and apt description of these events. At some point, the nation stopped trying to make all its goods by hand, and started to burn fossil fuels to drive machinery to do the work instead. In the process, large numbers of families gave up working the land, and moved to towns and cities to take up employment in factories, mills, and mines. …
By the end of the eighteenth century, the economic growth associated with industrialization began to ripple to society.
The steady incomes provided by these industrial occupations radically changed lives. For example, as one chapter explains, the new wealth reduced the age at which marriage was possible:
Skilled work, or access to relatively well-paid unskilled work in industrial areas, helped to encourage younger marriage; the absence of these opportunities in rural areas had the opposite effect. … Without access to the brighter opportunities provided by a skill, those working in agriculture, fishing, and other forms of rural day labor simply waited—their marriages were uniformly spread from their mid-twenties to their early thirties, and occasionally beyond. …
We are left then with a fairly sharp break in marriage customs around the 1890s, with almost complete social conformity before that decade and a sizeable minority of couples rejecting traditional values afterwards.
Griffin criticizes the opinion of “generations of historians” about the impact of the industrial revolution on workers’ lives:
It must be admitted that the suggestion that many of those who lived and worked their way through the industrial revolution believed their lives had been improved by that process jars with what we think we know. Generations of historians have painted the industrial revolution in relentlessly dark colors: a force which was wholly destructive for the poor, remorseless, unforgiving in its grinding down of the independent labourer of old. This, clearly, is not the assessment of those who lived through it. We have repeatedly seen that working men were extremely adept at grasping opportunities from the turbulent times in which they lived. And now we see them glorying in changes they witnessed. Surely it is time to reconsider the oft-repeated claims that the industrial revolution brought little but misery to those who did most to produce it.
The economist reader may sometime find her economic knowledge insufficient and judge a bit superficial her opinion that too much laissez-faire characterized the industrial revolution. Yet, as she admits—
Yet even with a government that did nothing, there is an uncomfortable truth that we should confront: industrialisation had remarkable power to put food on the table. And for the first generation, that generation which had expected the hunger of their own childhood to be experienced once more by their children and their grandchildren, food on the table was all that really mattered.
More than this, it was the manifestation, the effect of liberty’s dawn. Griffin writes:
Critics will argue that the material gains for most families were small. But they were just enough to drag wage-earners out of the servile submission that poverty had forced upon them since time immemorial.
Let me leave the last word to Noah Cooke, a weaver who became known as “the Weaver Poet.” In 1876, as the industrial revolution was at full speed, he wrote:
The working class never had better times than now.