The Proletariat

A state policy of laissez-faire concerning the factories, and insufficient funds for charities to address the emerging social problem caused urban poverty of a scale unprecedented in history.
Adam Smith's ideal of every man being responsible for his own fate, by making his own decisions, signing contracts, did not work well for the working class, as the entrepreneur was an unequal partner in negotiations. Workers had to accept extremely low pay, long working hours, often unhealthy, even hazardous working conditions. Workers could be fired on the spot, could be fined by their superiors, received no pay in case they were absent due to illness, had no vacation. Child labour, harrassment on the job added to their misery.
Most workers were uneducated, many illiterate. They often had large families, where several children had to share a bed; they were malnutritioned, and infectious diseases often found victims among the children. The living conditions of many workers were appalling; many wore rags, for they did not have proper clothes (even workers in textile factories); many went without shoes, even in winter. Some did not have an apartment to rent, they lodged in with others who rented out a bed for a shift.

Many in contemporary society turned a blind eye. Escapist novels like Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (1811) does not feature the working class; here daughters who see their wealthy father's inheritance go to their half brother, while they inherit only a small annuity, are regarded poor and attract sympathy - they could dress and eat properly and did not have to work for their living.
Extreme poverty, the inability to pay debts, the rent, was regarded a crime; those who could not pay their oustanding often were thrown into the POORHOUSE, a king of prison-factory, where they were supposed to work off their debt. If a mother could not pay her debt, she and her children were sent to the poorhouse. Here, living conditions even were worse; many died in the poorhouse.
In the language of the time, the poor where refered to as the PAUPERS; the expression PROLETARIAT only was phrased in early socialist literature, in France in 1853.

There were a few workers' rebellions; workers still lacked organization. The proletariat in 1848 supported the (liberal) revolution; the workers in France were actually given the right to vote. In the end the workers had to learn, that the liberal leaders of the revolution had goals different from theirs.
The issue of poverty was the topic of contemporary songs, for instance POVERTY KNOCK

The Victorian Poorhouse, by Victoria Spencer
Poorhouses in Scotland, by Peter Higginbotham
Armenhaus Stenz, from, in German
Armenhaus Göteborg, from Goethe Institut, in German
DOCUMENTS Child Labour, from Spartacus Schoolnet, numerous documents
Poverty, Health and Housing, from Spartacus Schoolnet
Victorian Social Gistory : an Overview, from The Victorian Web
Poverty Knock, from Selected English Folk Singers, from Clause IV
Four Loom Weaver, from
Clause IV
REFERENCE Richard L. Tames, Documents of the Industrial Revolution 1750-1850, London : Hutchinson 1971

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on October 1st 2003, last revised on November 16th 2004

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