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, 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. These regions saw the formation of a new workforce, described in Marxist theory as the proletariat. The Industrial Revolution helped create opportunities for employment for all members of the family. Any improvement to the quality of life for the working class, however, came despite hard and bitter experiences among factory labourers.[citation needed]

It is generally agreed that the impact of the Industrial Revolution was negative for children.[1] In the industrial districts, children tended to enter the workforce at younger ages than rural ones, although child labour was not a consequence of the Industrial Revolution: children were first exploited by their parents on farms.[2] Many of the new factory owners preferred to employ children, whom they viewed 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.[3] Child labourers tended to be orphans, children of widows, or from the poorest families.

Children were preferred workers in textile mills because they worked for lower wages and had nimble fingers. In general, children were required to work under machines and were constantly cleaning and oiling tight areas. Young children were worked to near exhaustion, as was evident from those who fell asleep over their machines. If children were caught sleeping or showed up to work late, they were beaten and tortured by their supervisors. Such cruelty was enacted on children as a result of the drive of master-manufacturers to maintain high output. While it is a common view that some children's bodies become crooked and deformed from their work in the mills and factories,[4] it has also been argued that the prevalence of childhood diseases in this era made a bigger contribution to deformity.[5]

Children in the mines suffered similarly. Both boys and girls would start working at the age of four or five. A sizeable proportion of children working in the mines were under 13 and a larger proportion were aged 13-18. Mines of the era were not built for stability; rather, they were small and low. Children, therefore, were needed to crawl through them. The conditions in the mines were unsafe, children would often have limbs crippled, their bodies distorted, or be killed. Children could get lost within the mines for days at a time. The air in the mines was harmful to breathe and could cause painful and fatal diseases

Life affected from working conditions[edit]

Safety was very poor in early industrial factories and mines and there was no injury compensation for workers. The injuries from machinery ranged through whole fingers being cut off, mild burns, severe arm and leg injuries and amputation of limbs to death. The most common health issues with long-term effects on workers were disease and cancer. Cotton mills, coal mines, iron-works, and brick factories all had bad air, which caused chest diseases, coughs, blood-spitting, difficult breathing, pains in the chest, and sleepless nights.

Housing for workers in the era was overcrowded and unclean, creating a favourable environment for the spread of typhoid, cholera, and smallpox in working-class districts. Workers in this period did not have sick pay and even while ill were obliged to work to provide money to support the family. Traditionally, women and girls were in charge of cleaning the house, but since women were spending just as much time working as the men, they had no time for such duties.

Reforms for change[edit]

The Health and Morals of Apprentices Act 1802 tried to improve conditions for workers by making factory owners more responsible for the housing and clothing of the workers, but with little success. This act was never put into practice because magistrates failed to enforce it.

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 twelve 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 textile workers. The Ashley Commission was another investigation committee, this time studying the situation of mine workers. One finding of the investigation was the observation alongside increased productivity, the number of working hours of the wage workers had 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 working 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 implemented the reforms.

According to one 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.[1]

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 ten could not work in mines and that no women or girls could work in the mines. The second report in 1843 reinforced this act.

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 not more than ten 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 working hours for women and children. They were to work from 6 am to 6 pm in the summer, and 7 am to 7 pm in the winter. These acts took a lot of power and authority away from the manufacturers 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 both 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 labour. With the basic mathematics and English skills that children were acquiring, however, factory owners had a growing pool of workers who could read and make measurements and therefore contribute more to the factory.


  1. ^ "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.