“It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face over which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of buildings full of windows where there was rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next…
“You saw nothing in Coketown but what was severely workful. If the members of a religious persuasion built a chapel there– as the members of eighteen religious persuasions had done– they made it a pious warehouse of red brick, with sometimes (but this is only in highly ornamental examples) a bell in a birdcage on the top of it…. All the public inscriptions in the town were painted alike, in severe characters of black and white. The jail might have been the infirmary, the infirmary might have been the jail, the town-hall might have been either, or both, or anything else, for anything that appeared to the contrary in the graces of their construction. Fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the immaterial. The M’Choakumchild school was all fact, and the school of design was all fact, and the relations between master and man were all fact, and everything was fact between the lying-in hospital and the cemetery, and what you couldn’t state in figures, or show to be purchaseable in the cheapest market and saleable in the dearest, was not, and never should be, world without end. Amen.” —From Hard Times by Charles Dickens
Today we see the Industrial Revolution as being responsible for the higher standard of living we enjoy. This, of course, is true, but there was a great and, at times, appalling, price paid in human suffering to attain this standard of living. From the start, industrialization meant the transformation of countries’ populations from being predominantly rural to being predominantly urban. In England, this involved the migration of millions from the agricultural south to the cities springing up near the coal and iron fields in the north. The population of Manchester, England grew from 25,000 in l772 to 303,000 by l850. Liverpool’s population rose from 80,000 to 397,000 in the first half of the nineteenth century. Other cities told similar stories of incredible growth. Overall in Britain, the number of cities with populations of 50,000 or more rose from 3 in l785 to 3l in l860. By l850, Britain had become the first nation in history to have a larger urban than rural population. Other countries would soon follow suit.
These early industrial cities created problems in three areas: living conditions, working conditions, and the social structure. First of all, cities built so rapidly were also built shoddily. Tenement houses were crammed together along narrow streets, poorly built, and incredibly crowded. Whole families were packed into attics, cellars, or single rooms, with one house holding 63 people in 7 rooms. Sanitation was virtually non-existent, making clean water a luxury reserved for the rich. Open sewers ran down streets carrying water fouled with industrial and human waste. Diseases such as cholera, typhoid, typhus, and tuberculosis often reached epidemic proportions. Add to these problems air pollution and malnutrition, and one gets a picture of incomparable human misery. Alcoholism, drug abuse, crime, and prostitution were natural outcomes of having to endure these conditions.
Away from home, working conditions were even worse. Depending on the hours of sunlight, the workday could extend up to l9 hours a day, six days a week. The work itself was hard, boring, and tedious. Conditions around the steam engines and in the mines were hot and at times extremely dangerous. In the absence of safety devices, machines often tore off fingers, hands, and even arms. Mine shafts would occasionally explode or cave in, trapping and killing hundreds of workers deep within the earth.
Despite all this, there were often long lines of the unemployed waiting for any available jobs. This surplus of labor kept wages excessively low. As a result, families had to send their women and even their children to work in the factories just to make ends meet. In fact, women and children were preferred as workers because they could be paid less while being worked harder. Occasional depressions in the economy could lead to whole industries shutting down. This left thousands of families with no jobs and no public welfare to see them through such hard times. Even medieval serfs had been assured some rights to a living off their lands, which was more than these people could often enjoy.
The Industrial Revolution also upset old social patterns of life and family. Under the old domestic system of cottage industries, peasants worked in their own homes, produced at their own rates, and were paid accordingly. Under the new factory system, laborers worked in the factories owned by bosses whom they rarely, if ever, saw. They had to be at work precisely on time and work at the much faster pace of the machines. Nevertheless, they were paid by the hour, not according to their productivity, since that was cheaper for the owner.
Previously, the farm, home and the workplace were one and the same, with men and women sharing in many of the same tasks. In the industrial city, there was a separation of home and workplace and a correspondingly greater separation of the roles men and women played. In middle class families, men went to work while women stayed home with the children. In working class families, men, women, and children all went to work, but usually to separate places. For both middle and working class families, these were added strains that pulled the family apart.
Although the nuclear family had generally replaced the extended family in European society since the Black Death (largely in order to keep from splitting up family lands), there was still a network of close friends and relatives in the villages providing each other mutual support. However, as individual families moved to the city, they left behind the support network of the villages, often living in isolation and having little or no support from their neighbors.
The growing numbers of people left helpless and destitute by the rapid changes of industrialization did not go unnoticed, and reform movements arose from three directions. Some reformers were genuinely concerned industrialists such as Robert Owen and W. H. Lever, who built model communities in which their workers could live and work. Other reformers were liberal politicians trying to alleviate the sufferings of the masses or conservative politicians trying to avert social revolution caused by such misery. Together such politicians enacted legislation that gradually eased the plight of the working class, such as the Factory Act of l833, which limited the use of child labor, and the Factory Act of l850, which limited women and children to workdays of ten and a half hours.
However, many workers felt that for real progress to be made, they would have to work for it themselves. That involved organizing into trade unions, the very existence of which was illegal until l824. Even then, they could only exist as mutual aid societies to provide their members with insurance against sickness and injury. Not until l87l could British unions represent their members’ grievances and actively work for reforms. The struggle for those reforms was a long, hard, and often violent one. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, trade unions had made substantial progress toward improving the living and working conditions that industrial workers had to endure.
The standard of living for workers in the early Industrial Revolution was certainly horrible, but it did improve in the course of the nineteenth century. Two types of statistics tell us this. First of all, the overall population of Europe rose dramatically from some l87,000,000 in l800 to 466,000,000 by l9l4. Add to that another 60,000,000 who emigrated to other continents, and one gets the distinct impression that the overall standard of living in Europe was getting better.
Another figure telling a similar story of progress is the average life expectancy of Europeans during this time. In l800, most people could expect to live around 30 years or less, depending on their social class. By l900, the average life expectancy had risen about fifty per cent to 45 years. Better living conditions and nutrition, public sanitation, and great advances in medical science were all responsible for this jump. However, the price those early generations of factory workers paid for this progress and our own comfortable life styles was a terrible one indeed.