Life in Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution
||This article is written like a personal reflection or opinion essay rather than an encyclopedic description of the subject. (January 2009)|
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. Many of the jobs, especially in the textile industry, could now be done by common laborers, or even children, rather than skilled tradesmen, and was closely supervised. A movement of the population to the cities from the countryside produced dramatic changes in lifestyle. Resistance to the changes in the form of machine-breaking riots and other Luddite actions was widespread, but ultimately futile.
Background for the Industrial Revolution
The world before the industrial 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). The population of England was about seven million.
Perhaps the first sign of the revolution was in the enclosure movement, which started in the 16th century and peaked from about 1760 to 1832. This movement often enclosed lands held in common and assigned ownership to large landowners, who were motivated to improve them by draining wetland, ditching, introducing new crops and better cultivation techniques and so on. These measures improved farm productivity, and at the same time drove some peasants into the cities who began to earn wages.
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.
Impacts on the Society
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.
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.
Sending boys up chimneys to clean them was a common practice, and a dangerous and cruel one. Lord Ashley became the chief advocate of the use of chimney-sweeping machinery and of legislation to require its use.
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:
- Cotton Factories Regulation Act 1819
- Set the minimum working age to 9
- Set the maximum working hours to 12 per day
- Regulation of Child Labor Law 1833
- Established paid inspectors to inspect factories on child labor regulations and enforce the law
- Ten Hours Bill 1847
- Limited working hours to 10 per day for women and children
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. 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."
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.
Many families where 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 which sent them to sleep on empty stomachs until they got to work the next day.
- 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
- Watt steam engine image: located in the lobby of the Superior Technical School of Industrial Engineers of the UPM (Madrid)
- "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.