The Effect of the Industrial Revolution on British Society

Since time immemorial man has had a vision to advance in all aspects of life; he never seems to fail.
Since time immemorial man has had a vision to advance in all aspects of life; he never seems to fail.

Since time immemorial man has had the vision to advance in all aspects of life; he never seems to fail. From the very first homo sapiens who walked the earth in Africa all those millions of years ago, to the farmers and herdsmen who kicked started human dependency on agriculture in Baghdad ‘Fields of Blood’ by Karen Armstrong – P.1, it seems we as a species, have come leaps and bounds when talking about advancement in wealth and prosperity. Or have we?

Although human development has seen great milestones throughout the pages of history, where society at large moved further in terms of living standards, wealth, produce and infrastructure, has always been debated whether or not, in real terms, society gained more than it lost.

For the Pharaohs and the aristocracy of ancient Egypt, using slavery as a means to build some of the most magnificent structures was an act well justified – at the time. Not only did the Pyramids of Giza ‘secure’ Tutankhamun’s afterlife, but they also portrayed a gesture of power and might to anyone who opposed the monarchy. Sharing the same fabric, for the Sumerians cultivation of the land was key in achieving surplus produce to ensure the higher ends of society could live a life of ease and luxury and so that a constant food supply was provided to its people; this was only to be achieved by cheap labour. There is no denying the fact that these streaks of change in society did benefit a plethora of societal aspects. However, the flip side of the coin cannot be disregarded.

One of the most (if not the most) shifts in European society was the industrial revolution that took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It had such a dramatic effect on society that the course of history was to take a complete change of direction; changing culture, social norms, the economy, technology, industry, living standards, and even the lives of those not yet born. In fact, as Professor Jeremy Black puts it, “It was a revolution which changes the way we think, work and play forever”. BBC Documentary 2013 – BBC Why the Industrial revolution happened here – Britain that is.

As the eighteenth century progressed an unprecedented growth of new ideas and technological inventions transformed our use of energy; creating an increasingly urban and industrialised country. Hundreds of thousands of miles of roads, railways and canals were built. Great cities appeared, and scores of factories and mills sprang up. Our landscape would never be the same again; it helped create the then wealthiest nation in the world, ruler of the largest empire in history – Britain.

The industrial revolution was a mixed blessing; there were both advantages and disadvantages. In this piece, I aim to explore the effects of the industrial revolution in British society.

An impressive by-product of the industrial revolution was the intellectual atmosphere of the time. With Britain now not censoring scientific ideas, knowledge became more readily available for the lower classes; something European history had never seen before. People were able to move further in research and discovery; for scientists, the temperature was just right. Sir Isaac Newton was able to explain the nature of gravity, whilst the established Christian view of creation was challenged by science itself. The free hand of scientists enabled more advancement in technology and research. This benefitted the factory owners the most, as development in science inevitably led to more inventions in industry and agriculture; pumping more fuel into production. In turn, more powerful and efficient machines were developed at an extraordinarily fast rate.

An example of this was the spinning water wheel, invented by Richard Arkwright. This (cotton) machine was easily replicable and thus was produced at a very fast rate, creating cotton sheets in huge quantities at a blinding pace. The first factory was born. Britain was not dependant on India (a commonwealth country) anymore for thread; it could produce its own, saving the owner’s huge quantities of wealth. The truth is, numerous avenues opened that would really bolster the economical sides of society, industry and infrastructure with development in science and technology. Henry Bessemer invented a method for converting iron into steel at a fast rate, resulting in bigger ships, bridges and buildings.

The industrial revolution developed great pace due to the power of steam; an invaluable source of energy. The engineers of that time were able to develop bigger and more powerful machines that could run whole factories, self-sufficiently of course. Again, this led to more textile production as mills popped up across the map at a tremendous rate. In fact, by 1870 over 100,000 steam engines were at work in Britain, in turn, huge capital was being pumped in; Britain became wealthier.

Another way society, as a whole, was better off by the industrial revolution was because previously people would use wood as the primary source of energy. And as trees grew further and further away, it became more taxing to access them, this is where Coal came to the rescue. The rise in coal mining rose by astronomical rates from approximately 2.54 million tonnes in 1700 up to 224 million tonnes in 1900. Britain was part of a coal mining boom.’

London led the way in both accepting there was a shortage of wood as fuel and also seeing coal as a viable alternative. Coal was abundant in many regions; particularly the North and the advancements in transport infrastructure enabled this to reach areas of the greatest demand. This advancement in transport subsequently linked the North with London helping with economic growth significantly. The demand for coal was both domestic for heating as well as industry, but now Britain basically had an unlimited source of cheap energy from the ground.

Painting of a steam train
The introduction of steam trains linked the North with London, helping with economic growth significantly

Apart from the gains in energy and production, another argument for how the industrial revolution positively affected society is the fact that men became free to develop their capabilities in areas other than farming. A shift from an isolated life in the village, to a life of more opportunity in the city, took place. In 1837, Britain was still a rural nation with 80% of the population living in the countryside. However, by the middle of the nineteenth century over 50% of the population lived in towns and cities. Though life was tough in the urban cities like London, Manchester and Liverpool, income was higher and there was (a little) more food available on the table for the general populace.

Before the revolution, all economies were based on agriculture and the wealth was accumulated around the elite. However, the industrial revolution brought about a shift to the economy, changing it from being an agriculture-dependent one to an industry dependent one. Although this did bring setbacks (discussed further on), it eventually brought about an enormous improvement in the economy as well as the quality of life of the developed nations. In an agriculture-based economy, the populace was dependant on their crops and the overall wealth was in the hands of a few Landlords. But industrialisation spread the wealth, enabling the general public to release themselves from the shackles of the rich (to a certain extent). Also, industrialisation ensured that people could survive in a job by just learning the skills related to its performance. This reduced the learning curve ensuring that more people with lesser skills were better employed. Thus, the industry-based economy brought about a stronger and faster growing economy.

The industrial revolution led to better and newer jobs for the population that was until then totally dependent on agriculture. These new jobs led to technological developments, better standards of housing, food, education etc. The middle class became well established as a result of the revolution; objects that were once considered luxuries became affordable for the middle class, which meant better healthcare, education, and laws for the middle-income group.

The huge increase in factory and company owners, with their success rates, meant that the aristocracy and nobility with their feudal ideas were replaced by the newly rich middle-class capitalists who also became politically powerful. Although the rich still did not give the poor a hugely better life, society was still better off from the orders, punishments, manipulation, dependency and injustice from the aristocracy and nobility.

Overall, although there were huge work opportunities and development in the economy and infrastructure during and post-industrial revolution, there were also the dark facts to which we cannot pass a blind eye. The hundreds of thousands of factories did provide work for the less skilled and poor, but they also had a dramatic effect that caused great pain and agony. As Thomas Jefferson once noted about the American Revolution, “We are not to expect to be translated from despotism to liberty in a featherbed.”Letter to Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette -2 April 1790. The same goes for the industrial revolution; the transition was most certainly not a ‘featherbed’ for all.

Factories were many but few (if any) had any form of safety regulations. In today’s society, we enjoy safety standards in almost every part of our life, whether it is in the preparation of our food or the safety regulations at workplaces. This was something the pioneering factory, railway and mine workers did not enjoy. Despite the growing wealth, due to trade and commerce in Britain, many of the working people, who actually produced the wealth lived, worked and died in very poor conditions. In fact, the deplorable conditions in factories and mills can be felt through countless poems written by little boys, women and men who could only cry in words. Whilst researching this topic I came across a book called Songs of the People: Lancashire Dialect Poetry of the industrial revolution, a compilation of many poems written by factory workers, describing their agony and pains.

As a whole workers suffered from long working hours, low wages, and unemployment, unsafe conditions of work, with no rights to strike or to form trade unions. As over 50% of the population in Britain was in the cities by 1885, factories quickly became overpopulated; with no proper sanitation and safety procedures, epidemics were commonplace. Factories broke the discipline of workers from agricultural backgrounds to hours on strict regimes, to ensure machines were constantly working, no limits were put on working hours. If workers missed their shift or were ill (usually from intoxication) they would be punished or fired instantly. This meant people became easily homeless.BBC Documentary 2013- BBC Why the Industrial revolution happened here – Britain that is. Children were exploited the most, working from tender ages, children were often malnourished, overworked and paid low wages. They even were made to sleep in cramp and overcrowded beds, sometimes six to one bed. Primary source evidence from the era of the industrial revolution shows just how intense conditions were for children:

“The smallest child in the factories were scavengers……they go under the machine, while it is going……….it is very dangerous when they first come, but they become used to it.”Charles Aberdeen worked in a Manchester cotton factory, written in 1832.

A famous poet of the era, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, wrote a poem called The Cry of the Children in 1843, showing the destructive effects of child labour in factories and mines through images of these poor children, who “look up with their pale and sunken faces.” This poem exemplifies the children in such a way that we see them as almost lifeless, as toiling has turned them into machines. Talking in the voice of the children, Browning gives a depiction of the hopelessness of their daily lives saying:

“For, all day the wheels are droning, turning; their wind comes in our faces, till our hearts turn, our heads with pulses burning.”Growing Pains – the Industrial revolution in Britain: The Reactions of Two Victorian Poets –Hopkins and Barrett Browning sumonova. com.

A year prior to Barrett’s poem, Parliament released a report about the condition of coal mining – the Mines Report – and its contents was shock horror to the people of Britain. The report informed the public that children under five years of age toiled underground as trappers for 12 hours a day and for 2 pennies a day; older girls carried baskets of coal which were far too heavy for them and caused deformities in these girls. Often children in the mines would have stunted growths.

One girl – Ellison Jack, aged 11 – told the Commission of Enquiry that she had to do twenty journeys a shift pushing a tub which weighed over 200 kilos and if she showed signs of slacking, she would be whipped.C N Trueman – Coal Mines in the Industrial revolution. Children used to work whilst water came up to their thighs. Pregnant women also worked underground as they were in need of money. One woman claimed that she gave birth on one day and was expected by the mine manager to be back at work that very same day.Ibid. Such was the need to work, there was no social security at this time, and they did as their managers commanded.

Underground, the miners faced very real and countless dangers. Even with improved steam engines, flooding was common in mines and explosive gas (called firedamp) would be found the deeper the miners got. One spark from a digging miner’s pickaxe could be disastrous. Poison gas was also found and killed many and underground pit collapses were common; mines were only held up by wooden beams called props.

However, despite these harsh and dangerous conditions, people taxed on; after all, they needed the money. As for their managers, well for them, heads was ‘I win’ and tails was ‘you lose.’

When one mentions the industrial revolution, images of smoky, smoggy and dark buildings pop into mind. These images are not far from the truth, as pollution, for the first time in Britain became a real concern during the industrial revolution. Chemicals were being released into rivers from factories which eventually contaminated drinking water, causing illness and disease. Mines were also contaminating the water supplies within Britain, the mining of lead, tin and other metals is thought to have contaminated nearly 2,000 miles of waterways. Up to this day, the estimated repair costs run into hundreds of millions.

Dr Hugh Potter, a mine pollution specialist for the Environment Agency, said: “The metals are going to continue to come out of these mines and spoil heaps for hundreds of years without any significant lowering of the impact.”

Another disadvantage of the industrial revolution was the loss of jobs for skilled workers. Edmund Cartwright’s power loom ended the lifestyle of skilled weavers. In the 1790s, weavers were well paid. Within 30 years many had become labourers in factories as their skill had now been taken over by machines. In 1813, there were only 2,400 power looms in Britain. By 1850, there were around 250,000C N Trueman – Coal Mines in the Industrial revolution.. Machines and factories took over many jobs; after all, the machines did it quickly and right, every time.

Weaving machine
Weaver Machines introduced in the Victorian Age

The historical math would be compelling if workers’ gains and losses balanced. But they don’t. The loss that workers were most concerned about during this period wasn’t material, but social. They were alarmed by a loss of status and independence, as control over economic life passed to large corporations and they were made to sell their labour for a wage.

The harsh realities of the industrial revolution gave birth to numerous Unions and Acts which demanded better working conditions, higher wages, lower hours and the basic rights we expect and enjoy today. The shocking conditions in the mines lead to The Mines Act of 1842 which put a cap on hours and age.

In 1833 the Factory Acts was passed, limiting children 9-16 years old to a maximum of 8 hours of work a day. The Factory Act also meant children under 13 must receive education for 2 hours per workday, paid for by the worker. In 1853 the Employment of Children in Factories Act was passed – children aged 8- 13 could not work before 6 a.m. or after 6 p.m., or 2 p.m. on Saturday. Such acts continued to be rectified, adjusted and amended right through the nineteenth century.

Although for a quarter of a century the Combination Acts had kept unions illegal and stopped their growth, there were about 30 small unions during the middle of the industrial revolution. This could not be ignored and unionism was becoming a more dangerous force; an illicit movement to the rich. A campaign to abolish the anti-union laws succeeded in 1824. Once the lid was off, many groups of workers acted and a wave of strikes took place to win better pay and conditions. The unions not only demanded fairer working conditions but wanted a hand in the voting system (workers were not allowed to vote). This led to the Universal manhood suffrage – where all men, no matter what their background, were allowed to vote.

Unions and a push for various Acts, slowly but surely, enabled workers to stabilise better working conditions and wages for themselves. It was only after the suffering of millions that a well-established environment was made in which workers had proper safety, whether financial or physical.

One aspect of life which was severely hit by the industrial revolution was Religion. Prior to the industrial revolution ‘God’ was known to carry out all acts, he was the Provider and the All-Powerful. However, due to the suffering that happened, even when promised that riches would come, religion was a faith in which faith was depleted greatly during the industrial revolution. Confidence in humans grew greater, as they were the ones producing lifesaving machines that would make a mere man into a so-called demi-god. Initially, God was the answer to all the unanswered questions, and God was the only one who could carry out miracles. However, the audacity to ask questions regarding philosophy and spirituality grew; an interest in logical answers and an incline towards science became common. After all ‘science’ was backed up by many increasingly popular theorists, Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin, as we know them today. In turn, people started to place their trust in machines rather than in God.

History does repeat itself. Man has always aspired to achieve more and gain more, even if it means exploiting others to achieve it. The Ancient Egyptians used slavery as a means to push society to success whilst the Sumerians also had a similar vision. I argue that the industrial revolution was no different, success and a powerful drive was needed to once again enable mankind to take a step for the better – this always comes at a cost. Today we consider that we are in a good place, where there is a much better work-life balance, more equalities and a better standard of living, but do we truly live in a free society, or are we still enslaved, but to something different, that is not clear to us…only time can tell.

In our society today let us remember the words of Adoniram Judson:

“There is no success without sacrifice. If you succeed without sacrifice, it is because someone has suffered before you.”


This article was originally published in the Annual Printed Edition of Majallatul Jamia

Ataul Fatir Tahir

Ataul Fatir Tahir

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