Gateway to the Classics: The Hanoverians by C. J. B. Gaskoin
The Hanoverians by  C. J. B. Gaskoin

Economic Changes: The Industrial Revolution


The Conference of Engineers at the Menai Straits Preparatory to Floating one of the Tubes of teh Britannia Bridge.
Robert Stephenson is seated at the middle of the table, the chief assistant engineer is speaking to hime.

1. Many Inventions

Great as was the wealth which all these changes created, it was as nothing compared with the results of the Industrial Revolution which was proceeding at the same time. The main features of this Revolution were three.

First came the invention of machinery. To begin with, there were machines for making "textile fabrics," first of cotton, then of woollen and other stuffs. Next came machines and new processes for making iron and steel. And then followed a whole host of inventions—machines for manufacturing every kind of article, and machines for making other machines—an endless succession year after year.

Some of these machines did what human hands had done before, but much faster and more accurately. With Kay's famous "flying shuttle"—one of the first inventions in the cotton weaving trade—one weaver could do what had hitherto been the work of four. With Hargreaves' "spinning jenny" a child could spin as much as eight men without it. A century later the spindles used by a single worker were reckoned not by ones but by thousands; and what was true of spinning and weaving was true of countless other industries.

Other machines did what no man, and no number together, could do without mechanical help. They lifted weights that no human could raise. They dealt blows that not a thousand human arms together could strike. They poured out ceaseless streams of delicate and complicated work, so accurate that no one thing differed by a hair's breadth from another, though no unaided human skill could produce two alike.

2. Harnessing Nature


Before the Age of Steam: An old water-mill.

This strength and evenness in machine work was partly due to the second great feature of the Industrial Revolution—the use by man of natural forces—wind, water, steam, and electricity—to furnish "driving power" to his machines.

The idea itself, of course, was nothing new. Windmills and watermills had worked for centuries. Steam engines were known even in ancient Egypt. But wind, however great a power, was too fitful and uncertain to furnish an even and constant pressure. Water power was long used only for grinding corn. And, till the later eighteenth century, steam found no favour except for pumping engines, and was far too costly for general use. But now first water was employed to drive the new machines for spinning and weaving, and then steam replaced it for almost every purpose, and held sway till electricity in its turn came on the scene.

The effect upon the life of the nation was enormous. For one thing, the distribution of the population was entirely altered. For centuries the cloth and iron trades had centred in the east and south, and the most populous counties had lain south of the Trent. But when water-power became all-important the sluggish streams of southern England were deserted for the shorter but swifter rivers of the north.

Presently, indeed, steam replaced water, and steam could be produced at every time and place, so that the need for it did not tie manufacturers down to any particular spot. Yet other motives now caused them to congregate in the north and west. Lancashire, Cheshire, the West Riding of Yorkshire, Staffordshire, Nottinghamshire, Worcestershire, Warwick-shire, Durham, and the neighbourhood of Cardiff, in South Wales, became the most thickly peopled districts. For now coal was the all-important thing. It was the cheapest means of producing steam. Also, thanks to recent discoveries, it could now be used for smelting iron, whereas for centuries smelters had had to use wood, and had therefore worked their ore chiefly where timber was plentiful, as in Sussex. And, to save carriage of both coal and iron, it was best to work them where they lay close together, as in the "Black Country," and Durham and South Wales, while manufacturers naturally gathered where coal was near at hand, and therefore cheap.

3. The Factory System

And now the third feature of the Industrial Revolution appeared in the rise of the Factory System, and the recasting of the whole industrial organization of the kingdom. When "power" replaced human muscles in driving machines, employers largely ceased to give their work out to men and women who bought or hired machines for use in their own homes. Instead, they gathered all the machines together in a single factory, or mill, where the "power" could be applied to all at once with the least trouble and expense. And thither the workers had to come, so that the man now came to the machine, not the machine to the man.

Thus the factory system grew up. All over the coal and iron fields great towns sprang into existence. The old "domestic," or home, system of industry and the combination of agriculture with manufacture disappeared for ever. Enormous businesses were built up, employing armies of workmen; the whole character of industry changed, becoming far more adventurous and speculative; year by year England sent more and more goods to seek markets all over the world; and the wealth of the nation, and the power and importance of the commercial classes, grew ever greater.

4. The Price of Progress

Yet neither the Agricultural nor the Industrial Revolution was wholly beneficial. The farmer's profits and the landlord's rents rose rapidly with the spread of the new farming, but the country labourer for many years lost more than he gained. His wages were still miserably low, and their value really fell when prices rose, since less could now be bought for any given sum. And too often an "encloser" laid hands on "common" land where his poor neighbours had long had the right to feed their sheep or pigs, or even on their own little plots.

The small farmers or yeomen, too, who a century before were thought the backbone of the English nation, often found themselves obliged to sell their land. Without enclosing they could not compete against their wealthier neighbours; yet often they could not afford the cost of the enclosure. Even the new farming itself often required an expenditure to start it which was beyond their means.

Yeomen and labourers alike, too, lost by the new separation of manufacture and agriculture. For, when factories took over the weaving and spinning that had been done so long in cottages and farms, few "bye," or secondary, industries remained to fill up idle hours or make amends for a bad farmer's year. So, too, the factory "hands," or workers, penned up in the smoke-stained streets of crowded towns, had neither space nor time to find health or profit or pleasure in gardening or farming. They also had now but one means of livelihood, and if it failed starvation stared them in the face.

Moreover, partly because manufacturers worked now not merely for neighbours, or customers whose needs were known, but for distant and uncertain markets, more stock was often produced than could be quickly sold, and then, at least for a time, the men were unemployed. And, for a time, too, with almost every new invention, some men and women found their occupation gone, when perhaps they were too old to learn another trade. Often, indeed, such sufferers, in despair, took to violence, and smashed the hated machines which seemed the cause of so much evil.

5. Industrial Slavery


Factory workers and machinery at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

But the factory "hands" suffered not only from times of unemployment, but also from the conditions of their labour while they were employed. Many factories—often mere barns hastily altered for the purpose—were badly built, badly lighted, badly ventilated, and badly drained. The hours of work were terribly long and the wages were miserably low.

There were, of course, many kind masters, with healthy factories, large or small. Yet the Industrial Revolution certainly tended to make employers look on their "hands" simply as human machines, from which, as from the machines of steel and iron, the utmost profit must be wrung. Further, while the small master might grudge every penny spent upon his workers, the large owner often handed them over to the care of "overlookers," seeing but little of their life himself. And the overlookers, whose own earnings depended on the amount of work they could get out of their miserable charges, were strongly tempted to be harsh and brutal. Thus the lot of men was often terribly hard. Women endured not only hardship but bitter degradation. And worst of all were the sufferings of children.

Orphans and other pauper children were often taken as "apprentices" by millowners eager to find cheap labour, and these, perhaps, suffered most, for they had no one to care for them or save them from their tyrants. They were, to all intents and purposes, slaves. Indeed, there were regular agents who took them over from the "Guardians of the Poor," carried them to manufacturing towns, and kept them—often in dark cellars—till a bargain was struck with their new masters. And then they could be treated just as their masters chose. The undertaking to teach them a trade need never be carried out. They could be kept throughout the fourteen years or so of "apprenticeship" always at the same hard but unskilled labour. If they lived they could then be turned out into the world without a single qualification for earning their bread. And if they died they could be easily replaced, and no one would care to make awkward inquiries.

But children who were neither paupers nor orphans were also often forced into the same slavery. It might be through the pitiless greed of their relations—even in the old domestic industries children of four or five sometimes earned their daily bread. It might be through the wretched poverty of the whole family, which made every penny that could be earned important. And such children fared little better than the pauper apprentices.

So day after day—in winter even before sunrise—little slaves of seven or eight, sometimes of five or six, were hunted out of wretched beds in the apprentice houses, or forced to leave their homes, perhaps miles away, and—still half asleep—drag their weary limbs along the hated road to the factory. And then, for twelve or fourteen or sixteen hours, often for just a penny a day, all had to toil in stuffy, dusty, badly lighted, evil-smelling rooms, straining body and mind in the effort always to keep pace with the never-halting machines.

If they arrived a minute late, if for a moment they ceased to attend to their work, if something annoyed the over-looker, they might be beaten and kicked, picked up and shaken by the ears, hurled to the ground, tied up by their wrists to the roof, or tortured in a hundred other ways. Sometimes they were fed on food unfit for pigs: sometimes for many hours they had no food at all. If they tried to run away they might be flogged and kept in chains by day and night. It was only in death—and deaths were very frequent—that many of them found an escape.

In mines, meanwhile, children and women, scantily clothed and harnessed like horses, spent their days in reeking galleries underground, crawling on hands and knees, dragging heavy trucks of coal. And tiny girls, who could do nothing else, sat alone hour after hour in pitch darkness, opening and shutting doors for the trucks to pass through.

So a generation of children grew up who never knew what it was to play out in the sunshine and fresh air; who had no time to play at all; who, indeed, would have had no spirit or strength to play if they had had the time. Untaught, untrained, half-fed, half-clothed, dividing days and nights between exhausting toil and unrefreshing sleep, they grew up ignorant, stunted, often diseased and deformed in body, mind, and soul.

6. The Struggle for Reform


Pit hands about 1850.

Yet for years little attempt was made to stop the evil, for many Englishmen were then so impressed by the mischief which Government interference with trade and industry had done in days gone by that they really thought such interference worse than any evil, and employers quite honestly believed that they would soon be ruined by foreign competition if, unlike foreign manufacturers, they were hampered by law in dealing with their workers.

Men, indeed, though only with extreme difficulty, could do something for themselves. They began to combine to protect their interests. They formed "Trade Unions" to demand better terms from their masters; they declared a "strike" (i.e. refused to work) if their demands were rejected; and in these and other ways—helped, too, by the unselfish labour of friends in Parliament and elsewhere—they slowly and painfully progressed.

They made mistakes; they sometimes acted wrongly; they often failed. But on the whole their cause was just, and in time they obtained Acts of Parliament, from Conservative and Liberal Governments alike, to check oppression, to lessen the risks of dangerous callings, to secure compensation if they were injured in their employer's service, and the like.

Women, however—and even more, children—could do little or nothing by their own strength. They had to depend almost entirely on generous champions like the first Sir Robert Peel, and the seventh Earl of Shaftesbury, and Robert Owen, and others of equal merit though smaller fame. These men helped them from sheer pity, and shame for the national disgrace. And they had a terrible fight against prejudice, and ignorance, and selfishness, though they were aided by the growing fear that the abuses of the factory system would undermine the national health—that the factories might become, as it were, plague spots, spreading infection all round them.

A beginning of reform was made by Peel's Act of 1802, dealing with apprentices in "textile" factories. It limited the working day to twelve hours, and required some education, at least, to be given to the children. And in time it was followed by more general Acts affecting all children, and all factories, and mines, and shops, and even labour in the fields, where till quite recently there was much brutal treatment of children.

These Acts compelled employers to arrange reasonable hours, limited to the daytime, and proper meal-times, and opportunities for education, and healthy surroundings. They forbade altogether the employment of women underground, and any employment at all of children under eight. They required dangerous machinery to be fenced in to prevent accidents. And they created an army of Inspectors to see that these and scores of other rules were obeyed. Many such rules, moreover, applied to women and "young persons" as well as children, and even benefited also, directly or indirectly, the men themselves.

So—though trade and industry still grew, and manufacturers made ever larger fortunes—it was not, for the most part, by sacrificing the happiness, or health, or character of their workers. Evils, no doubt, remained, though less, perhaps, in the factories than among "home workers," slaving for starvation wages with no Factory Acts to protect them. But such evils were no longer considered matters with which neither the Government nor private people should concern themselves.

On the contrary, public opinion urged ever more strongly the duty of removing them, even if the profits of employers suffered. Men of every class and profession—clergy and politicians, men of business and men of science—agreed that every citizen ought so to act as to promote not the mere wealth but the general welfare of his country. And every year saw some new attempt, both by public and by private efforts, to carry out this maxim.

Ever since the Methodist Movement of the eighteenth century the spirit of mercy and kindness had been gaining ground. That movement had roused Churchmen as well as Nonconformists against the evils of the time, and when it was over other movements followed and kept the conscience of the nation alive. And so the work of John Howard and Elizabeth Fry for prison reform, and Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce for the abolition first of the slave trade and then of slavery, was followed by the labours of Charles Kingsley and "Christian Socialists" on behalf of oppressed workers and of Lord Shaftesbury in the cause not only of these but of dumb animals suffering from the cruelty or ignorance of human beings.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Agricultural Revolution  |  Next: King and his Advisors
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.