Industrialization came to Britain early and among the first to feel its effects were the textile workers in the Midlands and the North. When the work in the fabric-weaving industry shifted away from artisans' homes to textile mills, it meant that cloth was produced by unskilled laborers who earned very little. From 1811 to 1816, groups of workers who called themselves Luddites sporadically rioted and smashed machinery. In 1817, a group of textile workers marched from Manchester to London to appeal to the Prince Regent.

During this period, workers experienced falling incomes and chronic high unemployment as well as rising food prices, partly due to periodic famines. All of this led to great unrest among the industrial workers and their families. The government came under pressure to reform itself and were specifically pressured to provide the working class with representation in Parliament. A large meeting to discuss these issues was planned for August 1819 at St. Peter's Field in Manchester. British troops charged the meeting, resulting in at least 11 dead and over 400 wounded.

The population of several major cities more than doubled as agricultural workers relocated and an entire class of people lived and worked in unhealthy, unsanitary factories. Working conditions in the mills and other industrialized sectors were harsh. Extremely long hours, dirty air, and polluted water exacerbated already dangerous working environments. Artificially low wages led to equally unhealthy living conditions for workers. As displaced agricultural workers crowded into the cities, the situation worsened. The side effects of these conditions led to cholera and typhoid being rampant in many cities across Britain.

Only the workhouses provided a worse environment. After Parliament passed the Poor Laws in 1934, the poor and unemployed were forced to move to residential institutions (aka workhouses) and made to do hard labor, including breaking stones for roads and breaking bones for fertilizer. Conditions were so bad that workhouses were colloquially called "bastilles," after the infamous Paris prison.

One of the reformers' first efforts was directed at limiting the hours children could work. In 1832, Michael Sadler introduced a child labor bill into Parliament, where it caused great debate but was not passed. Sadler then chaired a Parliamentary committee charged with investigating the conditions of child labor. The committee found that children as young as 8 years of age worked 12 to 18 hours a day, were beaten or heavily fined if they arrived late to work, and were routinely struck to keep them awake during the long working day. In 1833, Parliament passed the Factory Act, which prohibited children under the age of 9 from working in a factory and limited children between the ages of 9 and 13 to eight hours of work a day.

About the Author

Written by Michael Marcin of Crest Capital. Marcin oversees all operations and finance for this national equipment finance lender. He is an excellent technical writer on topics including equipment, vehicle, and software finance and associated tax implications.