The British industrial revolution stands out as a pivotal moment in human history. But when we think about the men, women and children who, with their strong backs and nimble fingers, did the most to power it, we tend to feel that there is less to celebrate.
All of the great Victorian commentators – Engels, Dickens, Blake – painted those industrial times in a very dark hue: they lamented the introduction of new working patterns that compelled men to work at the relentless pace of the machines; children forced into factories and down mines at ever-younger ages; families squeezed into dark, disease-ridden cities; and no future but the workhouse for those who slipped through the net.
Their dismal litany echoed through the 20th century as a succession of pioneering social historians – Barbara and John Hammond, Eric Hobsbawm and EP Thompson, to name a few – turned their attention to the devastating impact of the industrial revolution on the working poor.
Yet, despite the frequency with which various versions of these bleak perspectives have been retold, their central claim – that this period was worse than anything that has gone before – has not received the scrutiny it deserves. In particular, it is remarkable that so little effort has been made to listen to what working people themselves had to say about their life and times.
Of course, it is usually countered that such an effort would be futile because such people did not leave behind much in the way of written sources. But though it is certainly true that they wrote far less than their social superiors, it is not the case that they wrote nothing at all. Their legacy is a little-known but remarkable collection of autobiographies written by working people. If we listen to these, we hear a story very different from the one that we are used to.
Historians have long been aware of the existence of such memoirs, but most have been sceptical about using them to study working-class life. After all, this was a period of relatively high illiteracy, so (it has been argued) there was something exceptional about the working man or woman with the ability to record their personal history.
Yet this line of argument assumes that literacy was more unusual among the working class than was really the case. In the 19th century a range of very cheap avenues for developing literacy – dame schools, Sunday schools, night schools and mutual improvement societies – were available to both children and adults, so writing a memoir was within the grasp of even the very poor.
Among autobiographers of the time were men such as John Hemmingway, who was put to work in a Manchester cotton mill at the age of eight and raised in poverty by his mother following the desertion of the family by his father. As an adult he turned his hand to various occupations – weaving, shop-keeping, driving a horse and cart, joining the army – but never rose above the station to which he had been born. In old age he and his wife were forced to sell their furniture and wedding rings, move into a miserable cellar dwelling and live off a small dole from the parish. So, though some of the autobiographers were exceptional in one way or another, that was far from true of all.
Of course, the use of these accounts is not without its problems. One major frailty is the paucity of autobiographies written by women. Also, these writers were haunted by failures of memory, inevitably producing subjective accounts of their lives.
But nearly 400 autobiographies written during the period of industrialisation provide a rich and hitherto untapped seam of evidence that we cannot afford to ignore.
Furthermore, in contrast to the other sources consulted by historians interested in the lives of ordinary workers – the poor law, the census, the criminal courts – these records were freely created by the men and women we wish to study. In this sense they are unique, and an excellent resource for the study of working-class experiences of the British industrial revolution.
What, then, do these personal histories tell us about how the advent of industrialisation changed workers’ lives? More than anything, the autobiographers indicate that industrialisation, and the urban growth that accompanied it, increased the amount of work available.
These sources make it possible to compare descriptions of earning a living written by people in pre-industrial areas with those set in rural and industrial districts. They reveal that, in the absence of industry, most workers were not fully employed – and, as a result, lived in a state of chronic poverty.
The low wages and patchy employment of agricultural workers meant that even skilled artisans in pre-industrial Britain – shoemakers, blacksmiths, carpenters and so forth – were rarely able to make a good living from their trade, because few of their neighbours had the means to pay for their services. As a result, many skilled workers turned to agriculture to try to make ends meet – and the resulting growth in the number of people trying to eke out a livelihood from the land helped ensure that living standards remained low. This situation, more than anything else, changed with the emergence of industrialisation. The industrial revolution increased the amount of work available – for the skilled and the unskilled, for the young and the old. As manufacturing expanded, young men and women poured into cities from the countryside to work in the new factories.
But working on the factory floor was just the beginning. Coal was required to run the machines, providing an important stimulus for the mining industry. Factories needed their workers, but they also had to be built, their machines maintained, their warehouses organised – and it all amounted to a steady stream of employment for the men who flocked to the cities.
One autobiographer noted that goods needed to be weighed as well as made, and found a job doing precisely that. Others made a living transporting raw material and finished goods – driving horses and carts, building railways, driving trains. Providing for the needs of a large population also created a mountain of work: the growing urban populace needed houses, furniture, bread, shoes and clothes. This demand for the staples of life provided plenty of business for skilled workers – and what’s more, unlike the rural poor, the urban workforce had the money with which to pay them. The factories’ labour needs meant that many workers were now fully employed throughout the year, which helped to drag families out of the grinding poverty that agricultural workers endured.
Full employment was the single most important way of increasing a family’s prosperity, but it was also significant because it changed the balance of power in the working relationship. As long as workers outnumbered jobs, employers held the upper hand. In the industrial heartlands, though, the demand for workers was insatiable, placing them in a far stronger position to bargain over such matters as working hours and wages.
Included among the autobiographers are men who gave their notice over disputes concerning the length of tea-breaks or the church they attended. One worker gave as a reason for resigning simply that he “got sick of the job”! Such actions were inconceivable in the rural context and help to remind us that full employment not only improved men’s incomes but also enhanced their working conditions and status.
Yet, though adult men generally stood to gain from industrialisation, we should not assume that these advantages were enjoyed by others in their families. The demand for labour, particularly in the factories and mines, meant that there was ever more work for children too, with the unfortunate result that those in industrial districts were being hustled into the workforce at ever younger ages.
Accounts reveal that children living in rural areas and market towns did not usually enter the workplace until the age of 11 and a half. The contrast with the industrial districts is stark: on average, children in those areas started work aged eight and a half – three years younger than their peers living in areas without industrial employment.
Furthermore, in contrast to young workers in rural areas, who often started part-time and whose hours were limited by the seasons and daylight hours, children in factories and mines entered a world of full employment, working very long days, day in and day out, year after year.
In some respects, then, the evidence suggests that the situation for children mirrored that for adult men: industrial growth significantly improved their prospects of finding full-time employment. But whereas that enhanced living standards for men, it had the opposite effect on children. Working 13-hour days from the age of six or seven took a very serious toll on a child’s health, development and wellbeing, making their overall welfare gains highly questionable.
The outcome of industrial growth for women was different again. Though it increased the likelihood of men and children finding full-time employment, usually at better wages than the agricultural alternatives on offer, it made relatively little difference to women’s experiences in the workplace.
It is true that women living in the industrial heartlands benefited from the growth of factories. But, once they were married with a family, few were able to maintain a position in a factory, and most retreated from the workplace altogether. Betty Leeming, a mill hand in the Lancashire town of Preston, was typical in this respect. Following her marriage to Benjamin Shaw she handed in her notice at the factory. Though she did make a few attempts to earn money from home following her marriage – she took in bobbin-winding and baked oatcakes to sell to her neighbours – she never returned to the factory.
Autobiographies also reveal that family responsibilities were the primary reason for women giving up paid jobs. Indeed, unmarried women and those with no children almost always worked outside the home.
In families with just one or two children, between 70 and 80 per cent of mothers worked. As a woman’s family grew, however, the chances of her being in work rapidly diminished. Of mothers with three or four children, the participation rate hovered around 50 per cent, a figure that steadily declined as families increased in size. Almost no women with eight or nine children did any paid work. In the absence of reliable childcare or effective means to limit family size, mothers had little choice but to stay at home and care for their families – a situation the industrial revolution did little to change.
The most obvious consequence of increased work opportunities was higher family incomes; for those living close to the breadline this was a very welcome development. But the changes were not simply material. A widely recognised feature of industrialisation is the growth of great towns. Historians have often drawn attention to the fact that these could be dark, crowded and unhealthy – but cities were also places of freedom.
In a city one could attend a night school or worship at whichever church one chose. It was possible to join a union or even a political association, and start to shape the society in which one lived. Men who threw themselves into city life did not view themselves as victims. William Aitken described his fellow Manchester Chartists as the “sons of freedom”. His view, shared by many other autobiographers, was that city life was liberating, not oppressive.
The outcomes of the industrial revolution were, clearly, mixed. Healthy adult men stood to gain the most, enjoying more work, higher wages and opportunities for cultural and political expression. Women were almost wholly bypassed by these developments and, though children were affected by the great demand for labour, for them the results were far from beneficial.
Nonetheless, this much is clear: we would do well to discard the darker interpretations of this era. The industrial revolution ushered in revolutionary social change, and working people certainly shared in the benefits.
In their own words
Historians have long known of the existence of working-class autobiographies. A bibliography of 19th-century memoirs compiled in the 1980s listed nearly 800 items, and many more have since come to light. They go under various titles: life histories, autobiographies, memoirs, notes, sketches, recollections and adventures, as well as many other, more idiosyncratic names. The defining feature of each, though, is that writer and subject are one and the same.
These are works that we would today recognise as autobiographies, though it’s worth noting that the word ‘autobiography’ only entered the English language in the late 18th/early 19th century, long after the culture of life-writing had taken root.
Some of these books are well known, such as the great autobiographies of the Chartist leaders William Lovett, Thomas Cooper and Robert Lowery. A few found success in their own time. For example, James Dawson Burn’s autobiography (some editions of which were titled The Beggar Boy) was first published in 1855; by the end of the decade a fourth edition was in print. Others were published in very small numbers by obscure provincial printers, more for the writer’s satisfaction than in response to any public demand.
Some of the most interesting were not written for publication at all. One such example is the Simple Naritive written by John Lincoln, now stored in the vaults of the Norfolk Record Office. The 80 pages of Lincoln’s notebook are fragile and torn, filled with the untidy hand of a self-taught writer. The closely inscribed, margin-less pages remind us that Lincoln lived at a time when paper was a precious commodity.
They contain a detailed account of his life, from earliest childhood recollections to the present, and range over topics – sex before marriage, an illegitimate child, an unhappy marriage and the death of the writer’s small children – about which some of the more polished accounts were reticent.
Did they know it was a revolution?
Autobiographers did not use the expression ‘the industrial revolution’, but many did display an unmistakeable awareness that times had changed during the course of their life.
So what did they make of it all? In contrast to the way that historians have viewed this period, the autobiographers spoke in remarkably consistent terms of improvements and progress.
Benjamin North, for instance, thought that if his parents and ancestors could “revisit the earth… and see the domestic alterations, commercial improvements, and the wonderful and astonishing activities of life” they would not be able to “believe their own eyes”.
Looking back to the early 19th century, Joseph Livesey could not help “constantly exclaiming ‘What a contrast there is betwixt the present advantages of poor people and their children compared to that period!’”
These writers never expressed regrets about the passing of the old days – or “the bad old times”, as they were styled by one writer. There were no fond words for the quiet or simplicity that their forefathers had known. Thomas Wood declared that he would be a “misanthrope indeed who would wish the old days or customs back again”. To a man, our writers were glad that their grandchildren would never know the life they had once lived.
Emma Griffin is senior lecturer in history at the University of East Anglia. She has written widely on the history of working-class life in Britain.