The Industrial Worker in 19th-Century Britain

Industrialization came early to Britain, and textile workers in the Midlands and the north were among the first to feel its effects. The shift of the fabric-weaving industry away from artisans' homes to textile mills 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.

The combination of falling incomes and rising food prices, aggravated by chronically high unemployment rates and periodic famines, led to great unrest among the industrial workers and their families. The government came under pressure to reform, particularly 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.

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

Only the workhouse provided a worse environment. After Parliament passed the Poor Laws in 1934, the unemployed poor were forced into residential institutions and set to hard labor, which included breaking stones for roads and breaking bones for fertilizer. Conditions were so bad that workhouses were colloquially called "bastilles," after the infamous Paris prison.

Reformers' first efforts were directed toward limiting the hours children could work. Michael Sadler introduced a child labor bill into Parliament in 1832, 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, that they were beaten or heavily fined if they arrived late to work, and that they were routinely struck to keep them awake during the long working day. In 1833, Parliament passed the Factory Act, which limited children between the ages of 9 and 13 to eight hours of work a day. Children under the age of 9 were not allowed to work in factories.

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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.