Capitalism and the Working Class

The Industrial Revolution engendered the birth of the wealthy middle class, which had hitherto been comprised of merchants and professional people. Now they were factory owners and railroad operators with tremendous wealth and economic power. At the same time, a new class of workmen, the factory worker, also appeared. Men, women and children who previously worked in farms and fields or in putting out cottage industries were now operating complicated machinery for a single owner (or perhaps a few partners) in a single large company. The disparity between the wealthy factory owner and the overworked and underpaid factory worker soon reached critical mass. A new understanding of social division also developed in which individuals were members of an economically determined class (previously class division had been by accident of birth.) The educated "public" of the time saw itself as the backbone of the middle class and the "people" saw themselves as the modern working class. An important factor was not that these classifications were written in stone, but that most people saw themselves as members of one class or another; a concept which Karl Marx and his followers called "class consciousness."

Factory Owners: Most of the original factory developers, such as Samuel Watt originated from modest means, although a few had been successful businessmen. Many were members of ethnic and religious minorities such as Quakers and Scots in England and Protestants and Jews in France who had been excluded from the occupations traditionally reserved for the landed nobility. They borrowed from their families and friends to develop their enterprises. They were not assured of success, hard work and risk was required. There was the constant need to cut production costs and such profit as was earned often had to be reinvested in the business for new machinery. Said one critic, the manufacturer "dragged on by the frenzy of this terrible life [has] no time for niceties. He must conquer or die, make a fortune or drown himself.

As factories developed and grew larger, the opportunity for new entries into the field grew less and less. Formal education became an important element if one were to be successful, which was expensive; therefore the children of the poor were virtually excluded from the opportunities available to their fathers to enrich themselves. The second generation of factory owners typically inherited the factory from their families (they earned their money the old fashioned way: they inherited it.) It was they, more than their fathers, who developed a sense of class consciousness, of being somewhat better than those who worked for them. Their attitude widened the gap between the factory worker and the factory worker.

Wives and daughters of successful business owners were expected to avoid dirtying their hands with factory work or work of any kind; rather they were to present themselves in a ladylike and genteel manner. They were to avoid undignified work in factories and offices; rather they should protect and enhance their feminine charm. The wife should concentrate on her role as spouse and mother of the children, a role she should carry out in an elegant mansion far removed from the "wrong side of the tracks" where the working class lived and struggled.

The Factory Workers: The Industrial Revolution in England invited its share of critics. William Blake, the poet, called early factories "satanic mills" and railed about the hard life of the poor of London. William Wordsworth decried the loss of the rural way of life and pollution of the land and water. A number of handicraft workers, notably the Luddites of England, attacked factories and smashed machinery which they believed were putting them out of work. In the meantime, Thomas Malthus and Ricardo (mentioned earlier) believed that factory workers could only earn just enough to stay alive.

French handicraft workers also damaged machinery by throwing their wooden shoes into the machinery to jam up the works. Wooden shoes were not exclusive to Holland; they were worn by the poor in all of Europe, as they were easily made and reasonably durable. The French word for wooden shoes was sabots. Hence the act of destroying the machinery by throwing one’s shoe into it was an act of "sabotage." The things we learn from our beloved instructor!

Friedrich Engels, the German writer who later collaborated with Karl Marx on the Communist Manifesto, also railed against the conditions of English workers. In 1844, he published The Condition of the Working Class in England in which he stated, "At the bar of world opinion, I charge the English middle classes with mass murder, wholesale robbery, and all the other crimes in the calendar." He claimed that the poverty suffered by industrial workers was far worse than that of cottage workers and those who worked in agriculture. He blamed this condition on capitalism, which he said encouraged competition and technical change. Marx and other socialists alter embellished Engels’ charge of middle-class exploitation of the working class.

Others disagreed, and said that conditions had actually improved for the workers. Andrew Ure wrote in 1835 that conditions in the textile factories were not harsh; in fact they were rather good. Edwin Chadwick, a government official who understood the problems of the working class concluded that "the whole mass of the laboring community" was increasingly able "to buy more of the necessities and minor luxuries of life" Those who considered factory conditions to be "not that bad" were a notable minority, however. Most observers thought conditions were deplorable.

The truth of the condition of workers is a matter of considerable scholarly debate. It does appear that workers during the Industrial Revolution ate more food of better nutritional quality including potatoes, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, and their clothing also improved. At the same time, however, their housing conditions deteriorated.

Working Conditions: Factory work represented a substantial change over cottage work, in which workers performed at their own pace. In the factory, workers had to keep up with the machine; thus their pace of work was predetermined. The work was monotonous and boring, and often involved long hours. Workers were required to adjust their lives according to their work hours. Factories employed a variety of methods to summon workers or end the day, from whistles to large bells in towers.

Cottage workers were accustomed to the head of the household delivering work to the merchant on Saturday, and Sunday was a day of relaxing which often involved hard drinking and celebrating. Monday was often "hangover day," and serious work started Tuesday at the earliest. At that point, one had to work frantically to meet his deadline; often pulling an all nighter (shades AP Students!!) This was not the case in factory work where the pace was steady. Work in early British factories was similar to the work in poor houses which were often little more than industrial prisons, in which one was forced to work for his room and board. The similarity (including the close comparison of the physical plants) was not lost on cottage workers, who learned to fear and hate factory work.

Because cottage workers were reluctant to work in factories, factory owners often turned to orphans and children of the poor for their work force. They children were often treated harshly and brutally overworked. This system soon played out, however, and the use of pauper apprentices was forbidden by Parliament in 1802. With the advent of steam power rather than water, more factories were built in urban areas where a greater workforce was available. Demand for workers was such that workers actually moved to the cities in order to work in the factories. As a result, several changes were made in the labor system. Workers came to mines and factories as family units. The head of the household, typically the father, bargained with the factory owner, and the entire family worked as a unit. In the textile mills, the children tied broken ends of thread together and collected waste. In the coal mines, the father hewed the coal at the seam, the mothers hauled it to the surface, and the children sorted coal and worked ventilation equipment.

Parents and children worked the same 12 hour shifts in the factory or mine six days per week, normally with the parents supervising the children. It was often necessary for children to work to hold the family together, and parents often insisted that their children be allowed to work as a condition of their accepting employment. In some instances, children as young as seven were employed.

Everyone knew that the children needed some schooling, to at least learn the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic. Since they worked six days, they went to school on Sunday, hence the origin of "Sunday School." It originally was "school" in every since of the word.

Some opposition to the employment of children arose, which resulted in the Factory Act of 1833. It forbade the employment of children under nine; stated that those children must attend an elementary school which the factory workers was required to establish; the working hours of children from nine to thirteen was limited to eight hours, and of adolescents to (14 – 18) to twelve hours. As a result, child labor declined rapidly.

The Classification and Division of Labor: With the decline of child labor, a new pattern developed whereby the husband, as head of the household, was expected to be the primary bread winner. The wife was not expected to work outside the home if at all possible, but was to take care of the children and do housework. Married women were much less likely to work outside the home for wages after the first child was born, although she might earn some money by putting out handicrafts or by taking in boarders. Those women who did work outside the home were quite often from poorer families in which the husband was sick, unemployed, or could not earn enough to support his family. Such men were often looked upon with disdain, the "sorry husband" who wouldn’t/couldn’t support his family.

Single women often did work, but all women were generally in low-paying, dead end jobs. Her pay was not enough for her to live independently and there was no opportunity for advancement. Several factors were responsible for this situation:

A related problem occurred in the mines, where the heat was intense, and children were required to "hurry" [pull] carts of coal typically by means of a belt tied to their waist, as if they were mules. No one objected to this, however a British commission studying the conditions of mines were horrified to learn that many of the girls worked topless because of the heat (at the same time, men in the mines wore little or not clothing. This was considered this as an invitation to licentious sex.

The following account, taken from testimony before the Ashley Mines Commission of 1841-42 describes conditions in British mines:

Patience Kenshaw, Aged Seventeen:

My father had been dead about a year, my mother is living and has ten children, five lads and five lasses; the oldest is about thirty, the youngest is four; three lasses go to the mill, all the lads are colliers, two getters and three hurriers, one lives at home and does nothing, mother does nought but look after home.

I never went to day school; I go to Sunday School, but I cannot read or write. I go to pit at five o’clock in the morning and come out at five in the evening. I get my breakfast of porridge and milk first; I take my dinner with me, a cake and eat it as I go. I do not stop or rest any time for the purpose; I get noth8ing else until I get home. And then have potatoes and meat, not every day meat. I hurry in the clothes I have now got on, trousers and ragged jacket; the bald place upon my head is made by thrusting the courves [coal wagons]; my legs have never swelled, but sisters’ did when they went to mill; I hurry the courves a mile and more underground and back; they weigh 300, I hurry eleven a day. I wear a belt and chain in the workings to get the courves out. The putters [miners] I work for are naked except their caps; they pull off all their clothes. I seem them at work when I go up; sometimes they beat me if I am not quick enough, with their hands; they strike me upon my back; the boys take liberties with me; sometimes they pull me about; I am the only girt in the pit, there are about 20 boys and 15 men, all the men are naked; I would rater work in ill than in coal pit.

As a result of testimony before the Ashley Commission, the Mines Act of 1842 prohibited women and boys under ten from working in coal mines.

The Genesis of the Labor Movement in Great Britain: Anti-capitalist sentiment was evident as early as the 1820’s when thousands of "hired hands" performing arduous and monotonous factory work looked with disdain on the tiny group of supervisors and factory owners whom they felt exploited them. Parliament passed the Combination Acts in 1799 which prohibited worker combinations; however it was frequently ignored, and workers would strike with abandon. In 1810, a general strike shut down the cotton mills in Manchester. In 1824, Parliament repealed the Combination Acts. Attempts at large scale "national" unions did not work well. Even so, workers were becoming a force to be reckoned with.