During this phase, it was possible for individuals with talent to bring about revolutionary changes. Moreover, there were rich individuals to take risks and invest money in industries in the hope of making profits. In most cases, they made profit. There was dramatic increase in wealth; in the form of goods, incomes, services, knowledge and productive efficiency.
At the same time, there was a massive negative human cost. It was evident in broken families, new addresses, degraded cities and appalling working conditions in factories.
A survey in 1842 revealed that the average lifespan of workers was lower than that of any other social groups in cities. Compared to villages, more people died at a younger age in the new industrial cities. Fifty per cent of children failed to survive beyond the age of five. Population of a city increased because of immigrants. Epidemics, like cholera, typhoid and tuberculosis killed many people. Until late in the nineteenth century, municipal authorities were negligent in tackling these epidemics. Moreover, medical knowledge to understand and cure these diseases was unknown.
Women, Children and Industrialisation
Children of the rural poor had always worked at home or in farm. But they worked under the watchful eyes of parents or relatives. Similarly, rural women were actively involved in farm work. But working in factories was different. Working hours became longer. Same kind of work brought monotony. Strict discipline and sharp punishment made the life difficult. Industrialists preferred to employ women and children because of lower wages and less chances of worker’s agitation. Machinery, like the cotton spinning jenny was designed to be used by child workers with their small build and nimble fingers. Inhuman working conditions often resulted in accidents at workplaces.
British factory records show that about half of the factory workers had started working at less than 10 years of age, while 28 per cent started working at less than 14 years of age. Women gained financial independence and self-esteem from jobs. But this was more than outweighed by humiliating working conditions, loss of children at birth or in early age, and horrible living conditions in urban slums.
The early decades of industrialization coincided with the spread of new political ideas which came from the French Revolution. The French Revolution showed that collective mass action could dramatically change political, economic and social aspects of life. Workers in England started protesting against the harsh working conditions in factories. They also wanted to get the right to vote. The government reacted by repression. New laws were passed that denied people the right to protest.
Workers expressed their anger in many ways. There were bread riots throughout the country, from the 1790s onwards. Bread was the staple food of the poor and its price governed their standard of living. People seized stocks of bread and sold them at a price that was affordable and morally correct.
Enclosure: Powerful landlords merged hundreds of smaller farms into larger ones; called enclosure. Poor rural people had no other way than to look for work in factories. But introduction of machines in the cotton industry made thousands of handloom weavers jobless. From the 1790s, these weavers started demanding a legal minimum wage. This demand was refused by Parliament. In desperation, cotton weavers destroyed powerlooms in Lancashire. Similarly, workers protested against the introduction of machines in the woolen knitting industry in Nottingham. In Yorkshire, workers who traditionally sheared sheep by hand destroyed shearing frames. In the riots of 1830, farm laborers smashed the new threshing machines. Nine of them were hanged and 450 were sent to Australia as convicts.
Luddism (1811-17): This movement was led by General Ned Ludd. This movement demanded a minimum wage, control over the labor of women and children. It wanted work for those who lost job because of coming of machinery. This movement also demanded the rights to form trade unions.
Peterloo Massacre: In August 1819, about 80,000 people peacefully gathered at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester. They demanded the rights of political organization, public meetings, and freedom of press. They were brutally suppressed in this massacre. The Parliament passed the Six Acts, to deny them their demands. But after Peterloo, liberal political groups started to recognize the need to make the House of Commons more representative. The Combination Acts were finally repealed in 1824-25.
Reforms through Laws
- In 1819, laws were passed prohibiting the employment of children under the age of nine in factories. Working hours of those between the ages nine and sixteen was limited to 12 hours a day. But these laws were not enforced properly. After intense protest by workers throughout the north of England, an Act was passed in 1833. This act permitted children under nine to be employed only in silk factories, limited working hours for older children, and introduction of factory inspectors to ensure proper enforcement of the Act.
- The Ten Hours’ Bill was passed in 1847. This Act limited working hours for women and young people, and secured a 10-hour day for male workers. These Acts applied to the textile industries but not to the mining industry.
- The Mines and Collieries Act of 1842 banned children under ten and women from working underground. Fielder’s Factory Act of 1847 specified that children under eighteen and women should not work more than 10 hours a day.
- But the inspectors were poorly paid and easily bribed by factory managers. Parents often lied about the real ages of their children, because a child could bring additional earnings. So, these laws faced difficulty in enforcement.
The Debate on the ‘Industrial Revolution’
The industrialization from the 1780s to the 1820s had been too gradual to be considered a ‘revolution’. Until well into the nineteenth century, major parts of England remained untouched by factories or mines. Changes only happened around the cities of London, Manchester, Birmingham or Newcastle. The cotton textiles industry witnessed impressive growth. But this industry relied on a non-British raw material, on exports of finished product, on non-metallic machinery, and with few links to other branches of industry. Resumption of trade with North America helped in rapid growth of trade from the 1789s. Because of a low base, this growth was recorded as being sharp.
Industrialization is associated with a growing investment of the country’s wealth in ‘capital formation’, or building infrastructure and installing new machinery. It is also associated with raising the levels of efficient use of these facilities, and with raising productivity. In these senses, productive investment grew steadily only after 1820, so did levels of productivity.
From the 1850s, the ratio of people living in urban areas went up significantly. Most of them belonged to the working class. Only 20 per cent of the workforce lived in rural areas. So, the historian A. E. Musson suggested that the real Industrial Revolution occurred during 1850-1914. It transformed the whole economy and society much more widely and deeply than what happened in the earlier phase.