Life in Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution

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Life in Great Britain during the Industrial Revolution underwent rapid social and economic changes due to the developments of mechanized working methods based, in part, on the factory system and the steam engine. As a result, work became more regimented and disciplined, and moved outside the home. Large segments of the rural population migrated to the cities causing dramatic lifestyle changes.

The industrial belts of Great Britain included the Scottish Lowlands, South Wales, northern England, and the English Midlands. The establishment of major factory centers helped develop networks of canals, roads, and railroads, particularly in Derbyshire, Lancashire, Cheshire, Staffordshire, Nottinghamshire, and Yorkshire. This is where the proletariat class was 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 working class had come from a hard and bitter experience from factory labor.[citation needed]

Impacts on society[edit]


It is generally agreed[by whom?] that the impact of the Industrial Revolution was negative for children. In the industrial districts, children tended to enter the workforce at younger ages. Many of the new factory owners preferred to employ children as they viewed them as easier to deal with than adults. Although most families channeled their children's earnings into providing a better diet for them, the physical toll of working in the factories was very great and led to detrimental outcomes for children.[1]

Children were preferred workers in textile mills because they worked for lower wages. Child laborers tended to be orphans, children of widows, or from the poorest families. Children were needed for low pay and nimble fingers. Child labour was not an invention of the Industrial Revolution; they were first exploited by their parents on the farm.

Children were required to work under machines and were constantly cleaning and oiling tight areas. Young children were worked to near exhaustion, to such an extent that they would fall asleep over machines. If they were caught sleeping or showed up to work late, they were beaten and tortured by their supervisors. Cruelty and torture were enacted on children by master-manufacturers to maintain high output or to keep them awake. The children’s bodies become crooked and deformed from the work in the mills and factories. Their bodies and bones became so weak that they couldn't hold themselves up, and their backs permanently hunched.[2] Children in the mines did not have it any better. Both boys and girls would start working at the age of four or five. A large proportion of children working in the mines were under 13 and a larger proportion from ages of 13-18. Mines were not built for stability, rather, they were small and low and children were needed to crawl through them. The conditions in the mines were not remotely safe, children would often have limbs crippled, and bodies distorted or be killed. Children could get lost within the mines for days at a time. The air in the mines was injuring to breathe and could cause painful and fatal diseases.

Change of society[edit]

The impact of the Industrial Revolution on adults is more complex and has been the subject of extensive debate amongst historians for the past hundred years. Optimists have argued that industrialisation brought higher wages and better living standards to most people. Pessimists have argued that these gains have been over-exaggerated. They argue that wages did not rise significantly during this period, and that whatever economic gains were actually made must be offset against the worsening health and housing of the new urban sectors.[3] Since the 1990s, many contributions to the standard of living debate have tilted towards the pessimist interpretation. Most of the work has been within the economic history framework. There have been attempts to measure variables such as real wages, mortality, and heights. More recently the historian Emma Griffin has marked a departure from this approach by using a large number of working-class autobiographies to consider how working people themselves conceived of these changes. She has argued that some working men did see improvements in their lives at this time, through higher wages and a greater degree of autonomy and self-determination.[4]

In traditional labouring class society during the Georgian era, women would marry men of the same social status. For example, a shoemaker’s daughter would marry a shoemaker’s son. Marriage outside this norm was rare. During the Industrial Revolution marriage shifted from this tradition to a more sociable union between wife and husband. 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 style of authority. Factories put husbands, wives, and child under the same conditions and authority of the manufacturer masters.

In the latter half of the Industrial Revolution, many women who worked in the factories or mills did not have children or had children who were already 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. They used narcotics such as Godfrey, including ingredients of opium, treacle, water, and spices. Mothers would use Godfrey or opium on their small infants as much as three times a day, one before work, one in the afternoon, and the last one when they get home from work.

Life affected from working conditions[edit]

Safety was very poor in early industrial factories and mines and there was no injury compensation for the workers as well. The injuries from machinery could cause whole fingers to be cut off, mild burns, severe arm and leg injuries, amputation of limbs and death. However, diseases and cancer were the most common health issues that had long-term effects on 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 was 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.

Reforms for change[edit]

The Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802 tried to help the condition for workers by making 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 failed to stop or force mill masters.

The Cotton Mills and Factories Act 1819 forbade the employment of children under the age of nine in cotton mills, and limited the hours of work for children aged 9-16 to 12 hours a day. This act was a major step towards a better life for children, since they were less likely to fall asleep during work, resulting in fewer injuries and beatings in the workplace.

Michael Sadler was one of the pioneers in addressing the living and working conditions of 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. This bill limited children aged 9-18 to working no more than 48 hours a week, and stipulated that they spend two hours at school during work hours. The Act also created the factory inspector and provided for routine inspections of factories to ensure factories followed the 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, in as much as the relief given to the child is in some measure imposed on the adult."[5]

The first report for women and children in mines lead to the Mines and Collieries Act 1842, which stated that children under the age of 10 could not work in mines and that no women or girls could work in the mines. A second report in 1843 reinforced this act to the public.

The Factories Act 1844 limited women and young adults to working 12-hour days, and children from the ages 9 to 13 could only work nine-hour days. The Act also made mill masters and owners more accountable for injuries to workers. The Factories Act 1847, also known as the ten-hour bill, made it law that women and young people worked 10 hours a day, and a maximum of 63 hours a week. The last two major factory acts of the Industrial Revolution were introduced in 1850 and 1856. After these acts 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.

The Prevention of Cruelty to, and Protection of, Children Act 1889 aimed 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 until 1880 since many factory owners feared the removal of children as a source of cheap labor. However, with the simple mathematics and English skills the children were acquiring, factory owners had workers who could read and make measurements and therefore contribute more to the factory.


  1. ^ Maxine Berg, What Work did women's work make to the industrial revolution, History Workshop Journal 1992
  2. ^ "Factory Labour and Physical Deformation". 2008. Archived from the original on 2014-04-04. Retrieved 2014-03-31.
  3. ^ E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963)
  4. ^ Griffin, Emma. "Liberty's Dawn. A People's History of the Industrial Revolution". Retrieved 9 March 2013.
  5. ^ "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.