The industrial revolution in 19th century Britain saw the country’s shift from a largely agricultural economy and towards becoming the world’s biggest and mightiest industry hub. This transformation greatly changed the landscape as well as the lives of British citizens, who saw their traditional way of life give way to rapidly-expanding cities, atomization of the society, and many other effects on family units and inter-generational relationships.1 The nature of work had also changed both for the previous farmers and the once-exalted and rare working class. The most important effects of the industrial revolution on the working class and the locals have been in social and working life, driven by social and technological developments that have shaped the face of the British economy.
Urbanization, Migration, and the Industrial Revolution
The industrial revolution came hand in hand with the transformation of the farmland countryside. The process of forcing peasants out of their farms, known as the enclosure period, was slowly going on between 16-18th centuries, before being formalized by the Enclosure Act of 1801.2 This practice sought to replace large swatch of land used for food production into pastures or areas fitting for semi-mechanized farming, taking advantage of the early machines that were becoming available.3 As such, many peasants were losing their homes and land, thus being forced to migrate into cities, where they could join the increasing workforce necessary to man the developing industrial complexes.
Cities had to rapidly adapt to their population greatly increasing over short periods of time. This resulted in a rapid, sometimes uncontrolled expansion. Buildings and districts were made to house newfound workers, which was done in haste. People had to live in small, cramped spaces, with several families sometimes having to occupy a single room. Sizes of families were being reduced as well – if in the countryside entire generations could live side by side in large houses, with plenty of children, city life forced a smaller size of the family unit.4 Grandparents lived away from their children, and their families were reduced to 2-3 children, as they could not support more. The quality of life for individual families in the city did not improve to any significant margin, especially in the first half of the century.5 If anything, the destruction of social ties, the large-scale migration from villages into cities, and the increased competition for workplaces led to reduced wages, cramped spaces, and a general diminishment in the quality of life.
The early industrialists, on the other hand, profited greatly from both the migration and urbanization efforts. The newfound denizens of cities were not only a cheap source of labor, but also potential customers located in major cities en-masse.6 At the same time, they were disorganized and disjointed, unlike the worker cartels of pre-industrial age, which significantly lost in power. Thus, the industrialists were capable of save greatly by hiring migrants and paying them the bare minimum necessary to survive, while investing their gains into building more machines and production facilities.7 Thus, to summarize, the social developments did not have any positive effects on the lives of natives and the working class for at least the first half of the 19th century due to the weakening of social ties, cramped up living spaces, the lack of sanitation, and the exploitable social position of workers. At the same time, the elites and the upper-middle class improved their standing due to owning the means of production and taking advantage of the position of the impoverished natives and workers.
Technological Developments, Industrialization, and the Quality of Work
Technological development that made the industrial revolution possible greatly simplified the production of cheap quality goods. Before the industrialization, all production was ruled by manufactures, which heavily employed complex manual labor to produce fabrics, metals, and various other products for the purposes of making life comfortable.8 People working in those manufactures were paid well, highly-skilled, and difficult to train, which ensured their bargaining power against their employers. Literacy rates among men employed in manufactures were much higher compared to the rest of the population; they were capable of teaching their children the same trade, ensuring that their heirs would be well-employed.9
The industrial revolution greatly simplified the production of most necessities, ranging from food supplies to tools and clothes. Machines were doing the most labor-intensive tasks, making production easier and faster. Human labor was reserved for small and meticulous tasks. Many individuals lost their jobs and had to be employed elsewhere, with unemployment crises prevented solely through the economy of scale.10 The development of the train network in Britain facilitated industrialization in two ways. They provided means of transportation for people going back and forth, and, more notably, a way for transporting goods and materials fast and in large quantities.11 This enabled cheapening the price for individual products by streamlining the supply chain.
As it is possible to see, thus, the technological development had an impact on the quality of life in workers and natives in several ways. First, they broke the monopoly of the working class by greatly expanding it, but doing so at the price of greatly reducing the quality of life for individual workers from what it used to be. At the same time, goods and services for the population in general became more available at a lower price. That effect, however, was diminished by the meagerness of payment received by individuals engaged in industrialization efforts. Finally, the invention of the steam engine and the development of world trade enabled the rich to become even richer by broadening their horizons to other markets.
The industrial revolution increased the availability of various goods to the general populace. However, the quality of life itself took a much longer time to improve, and felt incremental in nature. The upheaval caused by migration from rural areas and into cities, the poor sanitation and living conditions and the weakening of the bargaining position of the working class versus the new bourgeoisie introduced a new reality. In it, an employee was more dependent on their employer than ever, the conditions of labor were made more dangerous, and the capacity for the industrial magnates to become even richer increased. Any benefits, such as those in medicine and life expectancy, took over a century to be felt.12
In essence, the conditions changed greatly, but the essence remained the same. Instead of the poor farmers being exploited by feudal lords, they were now forced to produce goods for their industrial employers to sell. All while retaining only a little bit of the value they produced. The positive effects of the technological revolution, thus, were more of a side-effect than an intentional motion on the part of the class that enacted these changes. This limited number of people was the true winners and recipients of most of the benefits that the industrial revolution had to offer.
Engels, Friedrich. The Condition of the Working Class in England. Leipzig: Otto Wigand, 1845.
Griffin, Emma. A Short History of the British Industrial Revolution. London: Macmillan International Higher Education, 2018.
Huck, Paul. “Infant Mortality and Living Standards of English Workers during the Industrial Revolution.” The Journal of Economic History 55, no. 3 (1995): 528-550.
Stearns, Peter N. The Industrial Revolution in World History. New York: Routledge, 2020.
Wrigley, Edward Anthony. Continuity, Chance and Change: The Character of the Industrial Revolution in England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
- Emma Griffin, A Short History of the British Industrial Revolution (London: Macmillan International Press, 2018), 45.
- Peter N. Stearns, The Industrial Revolution in World History (New York: Routledge, 2020), 73.
- Stearns, 74.
- Griffin, 81.
- Griffin, 83.
- Friedrich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (Leipzig: Otto Wigand, 1845), 39.
- Engels, 43.
- Edward Anthony Wringley, Continuity, Chance and Change: The Character of the Industrial Revolution in England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 80.
- Wringley, 81.
- Wringley, 85.
- Griffin, 60.
- Paul Huck, “Infant Mortality and Living Standards of English Workers during the Industrial Revolution,” The Journal of Economic History 55, no. 3 (1995): 528.