- During this time many industrial changes were taking place which and arguably industrialisation was at its height.
- This brought with it its own challenges.
- It was also the era of social reform and a lot was being done at this time to improve the lives of the working classes.
- There were also economic events and factors which influenced the hardships of the working classes during the period.
- There were also ways in which the working classes were benefited.
- Overall, it is clear that the suffering of the working classes was more the result of other factors than the result of industrialisation.
On the one hand, Industrialisation did offer benefits to the working classes….
Development of the Railways
- The development of the railways (1825 Stockton to Darlington; 1828 Stephenson’s rocket; 1830 Liverpool-Manchester).
- The allowed the working classes to seek out economic opportunities in urban centres much easier.
On the other hand, industrialisation caused the working classes to suffer greatly…
- However, this did result in a swollen labour market.
- Although real wages went up, there was more unemployment and thus a wage decrease in urban centres.
- Increased urbanisation due to the opportunities that industrialisation had brought resulted in overcrowding in urban tenements and a very high population density.
- This was compounded by the population growth (doubled between 1801-1851) and the improved transport.
- Poor sewage and drainage provision meant that contamination of water occurred.
- This was not helped by the ineffective Municipal corporations Act 1835 as councils rarely had the funding or the incentive to provide services and infrastructure.
- Cholera outbreaks 1832 and 1838. 50,000 died in the first outbreak.
There were also other factors which contributed to a poor standard of living for the labouring poor…
Poor Law Reform 1834
- In 1834, the Whig government passed the Poor Law Amendment Act which laid the foundations for he abolition of the Speenhamland system and the introduction of the workhouse.
- Conditions in these workhouses were harsh, with beatings and hard labour a common occurrence.
- This made poverty increasingly shameful and poor-law provision now acted as a deterrent instead of providing the poor with any necessary handouts.
- Therefore, living conditions worsened as a result of this Act inside and outside the workhouse.
Economic downturn 1837
- The Whigs were notoriously poor at handling the governments finances.
- This resulted in the economic recession of 1837.
- For the labouring poor, this meant a period of cyclical unemployment , which undoubtedly forced many to turn to the workhouse.
- Not being able to find a secure job was another way in which the livelihoods of the working classes were worsened.
Famine of 1845
- In 1845, a fungus attacked the autumn potato crop.
- This was especially detrimental to Irish peasants, 90% of whom relied upon the potato as their exclusive source food.
- It is estimated that around 1 million Irish peasants died at as a result of the famine.
- The labouring poor is England, Wales and Scotland were also impacted by this.
- At this time, agriculture had not yet diversified extensively and therefore it was very dependent upon harvest.
- Poor harvests and resulting food shortages and famine had a severe impact on the British working classes, especially in Ireland.
The government did also provide other benefits to the working classes during the period…
The Factory Act 1833
- This saw the first example of state protection for women and children.
- It legislated for 2 hours of schooling each day for child workers, forbade that any child under the age of 9 could work in the factory and that no child of any age could work at night.
- This was very significant as it meant the future generation of workers was becoming more literate and skilled and the home life of urban families would have been improved.
- The downside to this was that men were not included under the legislation and it only applied to textile factories. Therefore, it was only in certain regions that children gained rights. In other industries in other regions, this was not the case.
Increased political engagement and the beginnings of self-help
- Thanks to the repeal of the combination laws in 1824, workers were now able to join organisations such as ‘Friendly Societies’ and the GNCTU.
- This created greater political engagement among the working class, with some petitions receiving 800,000 signatures.
- The Cooperative Movement and Friendly Societies enabled skilled workers to join together and pay subscriptions as a form of insurance in case of death or illness.
- This provided greater peace of mind for working class families and also allowed them to trade goods which had been handcrafted.
- However this was only really successful among skilled tradesmen who could afford the subscription. Unskilled labourers were still unprotected.
- The working classes did experience great suffering as a result of industrialisation at this time.
- The most important way in which this is true is the urban squalor in terms of health and lack of infrastructure which had resulted from rapid urbanisation.
- The most important factor which exacerbated this situation was a lack of government support for those who were in need and the way in which this was inaccessible for unskilled labourers.