[Click on image to enlarge] The Industrial Revolution — the changes in the making of goods that resulted from substituting machines for hand labor — began with a set of inventions for spinning and weaving developed in England in the eighteenth century. At first this new machinery was operated by workers in their homes, but in the 1780s the introduction of the steam engine to drive the machines led manufacturers to install them in large buildings called at first mills and later factories. Mill towns quickly grew in central and northern England; the population of the city of Manchester, for example, increased by ten times in the years between 1760 and 1830.

[Click on image to enlarge] By the beginning of the Victorian period, the Industrial Revolution had created profound economic and social changes. Hundreds of thousands of workers had migrated to industrial towns, where they made up a new kind of working class. Wages were extremely low, hours very long — fourteen a day, or even more. Employers often preferred to hire women and children, who worked for even less then men. Families lived in horribly crowded, unsanitary housing. Moved by the terrible suffering resulting from a severe economic depression in the early 1840s, writers and men in government drew increasingly urgent attention to the condition of the working class. In her poem The Cry of the Children, Elizabeth Barrett Browning portrays the suffering of children in mines and factories. In The Condition of the Working Class (NAEL 8, 2.1564), Friedrich Engels describes the conclusions he drew during the twenty months he spent observing industrial conditions in Manchester. His 1845 book prepared the ground for his work with Karl Marx on The Communist Manifesto (1848), which asserts that revolution is the necessary response to the inequity of industrial capitalist society. Elizabeth Gaskell, wife of a Manchester minister, was inspired to begin her writing career with the novel Mary Barton (1848) in order to portray the suffering of the working class. In Hard Times (1854), Charles Dickens created the fictional city of Coketown (NAEL 8, 2.1573–74) to depict the harshness of existence in the industrial towns of central and northern England. During the 1830s and 1840s a number of parliamentary committees and commissions introduced testimony about the conditions in mines and factories that led to the beginning of government regulation and inspection, particularly of the working conditions of women and children.

[Click on image to enlarge] Other voices also testified powerfully to the extremities of working-class existence in industrial England. Poverty Knock, a nineteenth-century British folk song, catalogs the hardships of the weaver's job. Correspondent Henry Mayhew's interviews with London's poor portray the miseries of life on the streets. Drawing an analogy from popular travel writings, reformer William Booth's In Darkest England compares the dense and gloomy urban slums to the equatorial forests of Africa. Especially dramatic are the contrasting accounts of C. Duncan Lucas, who writes in 1901 about the pleasant "beehive of activity" that he sees as the typical London factory, and crusader Annie Besant, who passionately analyzes the economic exploitation of workers by wealthy capitalists. Ada Nield Chew's letter about conditions in a factory in Crewe states strongly the case for improving wages for the tailoresses who "ceaselessly work" six days of the week. These sharply different perspectives define an important argument in the debate over industrialism: Was the machine age a blessing or a curse? Did it make humanity happier or more wretched?


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