Life in Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution

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The Industrial Revolution is the period encompassing the vast social and economic changes that resulted from the development of steam-powered machinery and mass-production methods, beginning in about 1760 in Great Britain and extending through some of the first half of the nineteenth century. The lives of large sections of the population of Great Britain underwent massive changes during the industrial revolution. Work became more regimented and disciplined, and began to take place outside the home. A movement of the population to the cities from the countryside produced dramatic changes in lifestyle.

The Industrial belt of Britain stretched from the Scottish lowlands, to the valleys of southern Wales. The establishment of major factory centers help developed networks of canals, roads and railroads. Some of these major factory centers are Derbyshire, Lancashire, Manchester, Nottingham shire, and Yorkshire. This is where the proletariat class were born. The Industrial Revolution helped create opportunities for employment for all members of the family. However, any improvement to the quality of life for the laboring class, had come from a hard and bitter experience from factory labor.

Background for the Industrial Revolution[edit]

Main article: Industrial revolution

The world before the indurial revolution was characterized as a period of very slow, almost imperceptible, changes in technologies and commerce that affected wide sectors of the population. Such changes as occurred in per capita productivity resulted only in increases in the population, leaving living standards unchanged. This state had existed for millennia in all cultures worldwide. The living standards of the mass of the people in 1700 hardly differed from those living in Babylonia in 2000 BC. This state of affairs had been called the Malthusian trap, after Malthus' analysis of the relationship of the production of goods, which were supposed to grow linearly with population, to that of the increase of population, which grew geometrically. The industrial revolution is the process by which, for the first time in the history of man, a nation broke out of the Trap by producing large changes in per capita productivity, resulting in rapid technological changes and eventually in greatly improved living conditions for the mass of the people.

In 1760, taken as the start of the Industrial Revolution, power was generated by water (70,000 hp), wind (10,000 hp) and steam (5,000 hp).[1]

The population of Great Britain in the late eighteenth century was about seven million just before the start of the Industrial Revolution. During the Revolution, the population was 12 million at 1811. By 1851 the population of Great Britain had reached over 21 million.

The agricultural revolution is helped create conditions for the Industrial Revolution. But it did not bring radical transformation from agriculture to industry labor. There had been several different individual enclosure acts from the 1773 to 1868. The enclosures happen over in different regions of Great Britain, over this long period of time. These enclosure acts had forced the farmers and their families off the land and made them to move into major factory cities in search of work. Only a small amount of the population could access the factories employment at a time.

At about the same time, canals began to be constructed in Britain, which resulted in greatly decreased costs in transporting coal and other commodities.

Another important precursor event for the industrial revolution was the Patent Act in 1623, which encouraged inventions to a certain extent by raising the possibility that successful inventors might actually profit by their inventions, as opposed to having their work at once pirated.

Whatever the ultimate cause, inventions, at first especially in textile manufacture, began to made by a few innovators which greatly improved labour productivity. A little later, James Watt's improvements to the Newcomen steam engine, in about 1776, produced power more efficiently anywhere it was desired, and led to many inventions in machine tools, and finally began to have a significant impact in the improved production of manufactured goods. With the application of further improvements in the steam engine a few decades later, railways and steamboats revolutionized the transportation of goods and people.

A Watt steam engine.[2]

Impacts on society[edit]

Change of Social Structure[edit]

During the Georgian era from 1714-1837, the people thought in terms of status when describing their own place in society. The emphasis is on a person's birth, being directly linked to their relationship to the social hierarchy. But during the Victorian era, the emphasis of a person's birth becomes less important to social hierarchy. The new emphasis shifted to one's economic group. The industrial revolution shattered the traditional Georgian society and contributed to the new Victorian society.[3]The industrial revolution was the driving force behind social change between the 18th and 19th centuries. It changed nearly all aspects of life through new inventions, new legislation, and spawned a new economy.

As a result of many new inventions such as the steam engine, locomotive and powered looms production and transportation of goods radically changed. With new mechanized machinery factories could be built and used to mass-produce goods at a rate that human labor could never achieve. When the new factories were built they were often located in cities which led to the migration of people from rural landscapes to an urban center.

With an increase in goods the economy began to surge. The only way for the industrial revolution to continue expanding was through individual investors or financiers. This led to the founding of banks to help regulate and handle the flow of money, and by 1800 London had around 70 banks. As the price of machinery and factories climbed the people who had the ability to provide capital became extremely important.

Change of Family structure[edit]

The traditional marriage of the laboring class during the Georgian society, women would marry men of the same social status. Example, a shoemaker’s daughter would marry a shoemaker’s son. And marriage outside this norm was not common. Marriage during the Industrial Revolution shifted from this tradition to a more sociable union between wife and husband in the laboring class. Women and men tended to marry someone from the same job, geographical location or from the same social group. But throughout the Industrial Revolution miners were the exception of this new trend. A coal miner’s daughter would marry a coal miner’s son.

The traditional work sphere was dictated by the father, and he controlled the pace of work for his family. However, factories and mills undermined the old patriarchal authority. Factories put husbands, wives and child under the same conditions and authority of the manufacturer masters.

The norm for women in the latter half of the Industrial Revolution, who worked in the factories or mills tended not to have children or already had children that were grown up. However, Mothers who worked in the factories and mills would often use narcotics to put their small infants to sleep. This was a common trend, because mothers would work 14 to 16 hours a day, leaving their infant with a babysitter for most of the day. Narcotics such as Godfrey, including ingredients of opium, treacle, water and spices. Mothers would use Godfrey/opium on their small infants as much as three times a day, one before work, one after in the afternoon tea time, and last one when they get home off work. Infant mortality rate in some areas were as high 17% and Godfrey/opium did contribute to the cause of mortality.[4]

There is no simple generalization about the laboring class childhood that could accurately portray their life. A person was a child until the age of 12 or 13, after they were considered adults in society. Work was a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. These children or young adults began to contributing to the family’s income, making them more independent. Boys and girls who worked and made wages demand more of their wages for themselves, making them more rebellious towards their parents.

In pre-industrial Europe it was common for children to learn a skill or trade from their father, and open a business of their own in their mid twenties. During the industrial revolution, instead of learning a trade, children were paid menial wages to be the primary workers in textile mills and mines.

Street life in the cities were very tough on young children, and they would used opium when food and employment was short. However, street life in the small villages were not always violent or criminal for young children. They would play rituals of games passed down from generation to generation, such as tiddly winks, kick the can, football, and tug of war.

Living Standards[edit]

The beginning of the Industrial Revolution (1780-1820,) did not have an overall improvement towards the standard of living the working class. Factories as well as mines had a negative effect on the working class. The working conditions caused many health related issues including diseases, missing digits, and poor food quality.

The Industrial Revolution created terrible conditions, which had sparked the increase of interest to health and specialized hospitals. More than 70 different specialized hospitals were founded from 1800 to 1860. Health became an object for concern, not only to the poor, but for the nation as a whole. Some examples of specialized hospitals created during this time would be:

  1. 1802 London Fever Hospital founded
  2. 1805 Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust founded
  3. 1814 Royal Hospital for Disease of the Chest founded by Prince Edward
  4. 1840 Kensington children hospital founded

The French Revolutionary Wars, and the Napoleonic Wars lasted from 1792 to 1815, causing the price of grain to increase. However, wages of the working class did not increase. In the years 1795 and 1796, there was major harvest failure in England. With the French wars causing the price of grain to remain high and bad harvests, the standard of living, for the working class began to decline rapidly.

The difficulty of buying untainted food in the first part of the Industrial Revolution was common. A staple diet for the average labouring class worker was potatoes, wheat bread, tea or coffee, porridge and meat was small part of the diet. And often the poor had only enough wages to pay for low quality food. However, there was some relief created by landlords and a number of local magistrates to help the poor, such as the Speenhamland system. This system was to reform the Elizabethan Poor Law. The Speenhamland systems goal was to increase the amount of wages in poverty stricken areas, and it handed out an allowances to the poor based on price of bread and size of the family.

Before housing was recognized by government as concern to the nation, it had been in the hands of charities and private enterprises. During the Industrial Revolution thousands of new cheaply built houses were constructed near mines and factories. The conditions or quality of the houses was not a major concern to the factory owners. These homes were England’s first urban slums. The homes were small, more like rooms, and were extremely overcrowded. The area of the rooms were 22 by 16 feet, and could house up to 50 different people from several different families. Families would take turns sleeping in the same bed, if they could afford one. People without a home slept in parks, and fishermen sleep in their boats.

The form of education the children received came primary from Sunday School. Sunday Schools were first established by the middle class in 1780, to teach young children from the working class industrial habits and skills for factory life. Also to teach Christian values as well as teach the poor their place in society. In 1811, the Church of England National Society for Promoting the Education for the Poor or also known National Society for Promoting Religious Education was created. In 1833 the Society was given over 20,000 pounds from the government to invest for the purpose of creating more schools.

It was not until the late 1830s, and early 1840s, when a noticeable change in the standard of living for the laboring class started to show. The Labourer's Friend Society was created in 1830, and their mandate was to create better housing for the working class. They helped create better homes for the poor. When the old styles were reformed to adhere to Laissez-Faire ideals, the changes of living standard of the poor changed as well. The factory and mill masters, and the rich merchants were anxious they could not compete if they gave bigger wages to the employees. They believed Artificial control from the societies and the government might upset the natural balance of economies, and this caused a very slow change to the Laissez-Faire system. There needed to be a good deal of proof to show that improving the working class, did not necessarily mean lower profits for the mill and factory masters.By improving the quality of life of the workers, increased production levels for the factories and mills. The New Lanark Mill, owned by Robert Owen, introduced many new reforms to this mill that gave better hygiene, better housing and better physical and mental welfare for his workers. This brought greater quality of goods to his mill.[5] With new laws and reforms to the working conditions and better wages help improved life for the laboring classes.

Life affected from Working Conditions[edit]

The life for the laboring class in the Industrial Revolution was short and brutal because factories, mills and mines were a dangerous place to work. The life of the average laboring class worker were even worse than slavery conditions. The working conditions in the textile factories were substandard and the workers had to put in 70 hour weeks on a regular basis. The additional hours were supported with legislation. The manufacturers in the run to maximize productivity from the improvised machinery tried to extract more work from the over-stretched workers making their lives miserable. The workers had to work all year long, summer and in winter. They would work from 4 or 5 am, get home around 8 or 9 pm, as high as 16 to 17 hours or more a day. The factory and mill doors were often locked while the workers worked, only to be opened for breaks. On average there were two or three breaks during the day, the longest being tea time for half hour, a quick bite and run back to work. The average mill or factory smelt horrible and would have temperatures of 80 degrees, and the workers would be worked so hard they won’t have time to wipe the sweat from their forehead. For both children and adult alike, they suffered from Genu valgum or commonly known as knocked knees from standing all day on their feet in the factories.

Safety was not a concern for factory or mill masters, and there was no injury compensation for the workers as well. The injuries from machinery would cause whole finger to be cut off, mild burns, severe arms and legs injuries, amputation of limbs and death. However, diseases and cancer were the most common health issues that had long term effects to the workers. Cotton mills, coal mines, iron-works, and brick factories all had bad air, which caused chest diseases, coughs, blood-spitting, hard breathing, pains in chest, and sleepless nights for the workers.

Housing for the workers were overcrowded and unclean, making it suitable for the hazards of typhoid, cholera, and smallpox. Workers during these times did not have sick days, and forced themselves to work to provide money to support the family. Traditionally women and girls were always in charge of cleaning the house, but since the women were spending just as much time working as the men, they had no time to clean the house. The housing was tiny, dirty, and sickly for the working laboring class during the Industrial Revolution, and the workers had no personal time to clean or change their own atmosphere even if they wished to.

Many families were having economic problems because they were getting paid too little, and they felt that it was unfair that they work for so long with only a little bit of money. Many people were not able to feed their kids everyday and sent them to sleep on empty stomachs until they got to work the next day.

Working Conditions for Children[edit]

Women and children were preferred workers in textile mills because they worked for lower wages. Children labors tended to be orphans, children of widows, or from the poorest families. Children were needed for low pay, and nimble fingers. Child labor was not invention of the industrial revolution, they were first exploited by their parents on the farm. Now for the first time in history children were important factor of the economic system, but at a terrible price.

Children were required to work under machines all day, in tightly closed areas to clean and oil. Young children were worked to near exhaustion, to where they would fall asleep over machines. If they were caught sleeping or showing up to work late, they were beaten and tortured by their masters. Cruelty and torture to children done by master-manufacturers to maintain high output or to keep them awake. Being worked for long hours and beaten, caused children to run away from factories, but they were normally caught and brought back to their masters, only to be tortured again. In factories, mills and in trades’ jobs, children did the worst tasks and got the worst punishment in these jobs. The poor children’s bodies become crooked and deformed from the work in the mills and factories. Their bodies and bones becomes so weak they can’t hold themselves up, and their backs permanently hunchbacked.[6]

Children in the mines did not have it any better, they would start working at the age of 4 or 5, both boys and girls. A large proportions of children working in the mines were under 13 and a larger proportion from ages of 13-18. Mines were not built stable, they were small and low and children were needed to crawl through them. The conditions in the miners were not safety driven, children would often have limbs crippled, and bodies distorted or killed. Children could get lost within the mines for days at a time. The air in the mines were bad to breathe and often cause painful and mortal diseases slowly. Many children who grew up in the mines developed diseases and they won't make it past late 40s, and some disease would claim their lives during their mid-20s. A Child were often worked with family, father, mother, brother and sister and they accepted this work because their family accepted it.

The working conditions for children were the worst during the Industrial Revolution. It left children crippled, deformed and without a future employment for the rest of their lives. This greatly affected not only the child, but the family as well. There was no compensation or laws to support these families affected by the terrible working conditions from the Industrial Revolution.

Reforms for Change[edit]

Main article: Factory Acts

During the Industrial Revolution, factories were criticized for long work hours, deplorable conditions, and low wages. Children as young as 5 and 6 could be forced to work a 12-16 hour day and earn as little as 4 shillings per week. Finally seeing a problem with child labor the British parliament passed three acts that helped regulate child labor:

The first factory act Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802 tried to help the condition for workers. The act tried to make factory owners more responsible for the housing and clothing for the workers, but with little success. This act was never put into practice, because magistrates fail to stop or forced mill masters.

The 1819 Cotton Mills and Factories Act forbade the employment of children in cotton mills of children under the age of 9. Limited the hours of work for children 9-16 to 12 hours. This act is a major step towards a better life for children. They were less likely to fall sleep during work, therefore less injuries and beating to occur to them in the work place.

  1. Cotton Factories Regulation Act 1819
    1. Set the minimum working age to 9
    2. Set the maximum working hours to 12 per day

Reform Act 1832 or also know was the Great Reform allowed men who owned 10 pounds worth of property to vote. This opened the door to middle class citizens to vote, but it goes to show that the poverty of the working class. Chartism or also known as 1838 people’s charter political demands allowed all men above the age of 21 were able to vote. This really opened the doors for all men of the working class to contribute their say and power to the nation.

Michael Sadler was one of the pioneers in addressing the living and working conditions of the industrial workers. In 1832, he led a parliamentary investigation of the conditions of the textile workers. The Ashley Commission was another investigation committee that studied the plight of the mine workers. What came out of the investigation was that with increased productivity the number of working hours of the wage workers also doubled in many cases. The efforts of Michael Sadler and the Ashley Commission resulted in the passage of the 1833 act which limited the number of work hours for women and children and money babies. This bill made children from ages 9 to 18 not to work more than 48 hours, and spend two hours at school during work hours. The Act also created the factory inspector and provided for routine inspections of factories. This guaranteed that factories will follow laws of the reforms.

According to a cotton manufacturer, "We have never worked more than seventy-one hours a week before Sir John Hobhouse's Act was passed. We then came down to sixty-nine; and since Lord Althorp's Act was passed, in 1833, we have reduced the time of adults to sixty-seven and a half hours a week, and that of children under thirteen years of age to forty-eight hours in the week, though to do this latter has, I must admit, subjected us to much inconvenience, but the elder hands to more, inasmuch as the relief given to the child is in some measure imposed on the adult."[7]

  1. Regulation of Child Labor Law 1833
    1. Established paid inspectors to inspect factories on child labor regulations and enforce the law
    2. Set the maximum working in a week to 48 hours
    3. Made children to spend time in school

First report for women and children in mines were in 1842 Mines and Collieries Act 1842 this act made children under the age 10 could not work in mines and also no women or girls could work in the mines as well. Second report for children commission 1843 reinforced this act to the public.

  1. Mines and Collieries Act 1842
    1. Set a minimum age for children to work in mines at 10
    2. Made it that no woman or girl could work in the mines

The Factories Act 1844 made women and young adults work 12 hour days and children from the ages 9 to 13 were to work 9 hour days. As well as making mill masters and owners more account for injuries to workers. The Factories Act 1847 or also know was the ten hour bill, made it law that women and young people work 10 hours, and maximum of 63 hours a week. The last two major Factory acts of the Industrial Revolution were introduced in 1850, and 1856. These acts made it that factories could no longer dictate work hours for women and children. They were to work from 6am to 6pm in the summer, and 7am to 7pm in the winter. These acts took a lot of power and authority away from the manufactures, and allowed women and children to have more personal time for the family and for themselves.

  1. Factories Act 1844
    1. Limited working hour to 12 per day for women and children
    2. Set maximum working hours for children of 9-13 for 9 per day
    3. Mill owners are more account for protection for workers
  2. Ten Hours Bill 1847
    1. Limited working hours to 10 per day for women and children
    2. Set a maximum hours in a week to 63 for women and children
  3. Factories Act 1856
    1. Factory masters could not dictate work hours

Prevention of Cruelty to, and Protection of, Children Act 1889 founded to stop the abuse of children in the work and family sphere of life.

The Elementary Education Act 1870 allowed all children within the United Kingdom to have access to education. Education was not made compulsory immediately (not until 1880) since many factory owners feared the removal of children as a source of cheap labor. However, with the simple mathematics and English they were acquiring, factory owners now had workers who could read and make measurements. A great contribution to the factory.


  1. ^ Hills, Rev. Dr. Richard (2006), James Watt Vol 3: Triumph through Adversity, 1785-819, Ashbourne, Derbyshire, England: Landmark Publishing, p. 217, ISBN 1-84306-045-0 
  2. ^ Watt steam engine image: located in the lobby of the Superior Technical School of Industrial Engineers of the UPM (Madrid)
  3. ^ Marshall, Dorothy (1973), Industrial England 1776-1851, London, England: Routledge&Kegan Paul LTD, p. 117 
  4. ^ "Opium and Infant Mortality England". 2008. Retrieved 2014-03-31. 
  5. ^ Hart, Roger (1971), English life in the nineteenth century, London, England: Wayland publishers Ldt, p. 75 
  6. ^ "Factory Labour and Physical Deformation". 2008. Retrieved 2014-03-31. 
  7. ^ "The Life of the Industrial Worker in Ninteenth-Century England". 2008. Retrieved 2008-04-28. 



  • Clark, Gregory (2007) A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World Princeton University Press ISBN 978-0-691-12135-2.
  • Mokyr, Joel. (1990). The Lever of Riches - Technological Creativity and Economic Progress. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-506113-6.
  • Stearns, Peter N. (1993). The Industrial Revolution in World History. Westview Press. ISBN 0-8133-8596-2.

External links[edit]

  1. The Industrial Revolution: An Introduction.
  2. The Growth of Victorian Railways.