Poverty of Urban Industrial Workers in Britain in the Early 19th Century

Korean Minjok Leadership Academy
International Program
Park, Il Heon
Term Paper, AP European History Class, December 2007

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Demographic Changes
III. Housing and Sanitation
IV. Labour Environment
V. Wages and Employment
VI. Children and Child Labour
VII. Capitalism and Employers
VIII. Poor Relief
IX. The Life of Workers as Reflected in Charles Dickens' Works
X. Effects : Labour Unions, Workers' Movement, Socialism
XI. Notes
XII. Bbliography

I. Introduction

            The rich man in his castle,
            The poor man at his gate,
            God made them, high and lowly,
            And order'd their estate
                        Cecil Frances Alexander, 1848

            Britain was the first country in the world to begin the industrial revolution. It was powered by the increase of population due to the agricultural revolution, and started in the mid 18th century with the advent of the refined steam engine, and factories. Britain had several advantages because there was a plenteous quantity of human labor and natural resources, and easy transportation on water through rivers and canals. The metal industry and mining industry boomed and the standardization of units and measurements took place. As more inventions were introduced in the 19th century, other industries like textile industry were further boosted by the second industrial revolution.
            The industrialization of Britain resulted in the overall increase in productivity and abundance in material goods, but there were severe socioeconomic side effects. Life for the industrial workers ? workers that do not possess any special skills who had to work at industrial factories - was horrible, ridden with poverty. Many people had moved into cities from farms to work in factories, but cities were not prepared to accommodate such large populations. Housing and sanitary conditions were terrible with families living in filthy, crowded rooms with no air circulation. The labor environment was just about as horrible. Workers wages were astonishingly low in comparison to the prices of other goods. Child abuse and child labor was also a big social problem of the time. These harsh conditions, well described in the literary works of Charles Dickens, were largely because the industrial employers believed in "Laissez-Faire" or the free market policy. The British parliament made efforts to alleviate the living conditions of the industrial workers and rescue them from poverty. In this paper, these problems will be discussed in detail.

II. Demographic Changes
            There were two main demographic changes during the 18th and the 19th century; one is the expansion of population, and the other is the movement of rural population to urban areas. Both changes ultimately resulted in the 19th century cities that were overcrowded with industrial workers. The population of England increased because of increased agricultural production and improvements in medical technology and sanitations. As child mortality fell and life expectancy was increased, the population of England increased threefold from 5.5 million in 1751 to 16 million in 1851 (2). Changes in the farming pattern with the use of mechanized tools such as the threshing machine led to the reduced number of farm workers employed by landowners. Enclosures also contributed in creating more landless farmers. These unemployed farm workers had no other choice but to move into the cities as landless laborers to work in factories. The population of London increased from 900,000 in 1800 to 2,363,000 in 1850. New industrial centers such as Manchester, in which the population grew from 35,000 in 1801 to an astonishing 353,000 in 1841, were met with even greater increases (3). However, most cities were unprepared for such upsurge of populations, and the cities were soon overcrowded with people, most of who were competing for living space and for jobs in factories.

III. Housing and Sanitation
            ities lacked both an adequate number of houses and the necessary facilities to accommodate such abrupt increase of population. Housing shortages, Slum Housing, and terrible living environments resulted, while diseases plagued the filthy, crammed streets and houses.
            There was no space for new houses, but people had to stay somewhere. Houses also had to be close to the workplace, because the time taken walking to and from work would extend an already long day beyond endurance. As a solution existing buildings were modified to provide as many living quarters as possible. In London, where the population grew at record rates, many large houses were turned into flats and tenements without permission from the landlords; it was dangerous and nobody was concerned with the upkeep or the condition of such dwellings. These quarters were not only small and expensive, but also lacking in windows, lightings, and heating. An alternative was the practice of 'rookeries' in which people lived in large rooms together without separate living accommodation for each family (4). Buildings pervaded the streets, and extended balconies covered the streets, resulting in extremely overcrowded conditions. In some extreme cases, underground storerooms were turned into living spaces. In other cases, factories required its laborers to live in quarters provided by them, called the "Workers' Towns", this made the workers even more dependent on the employers.
            Sanitation was also a large problem because neither the industrial workers nor the builders and owners of houses have a strong concept of hygiene. Because cities did not have an established drainage system, people emptied their drainage and sewage on the streets. A typical London street in the poor district of mid 1800s was covered with numerous ditches into which people emptied their waste baskets. Workers often had to live in dilapidated tenements without a system of air circulation, and they would rarely clean them. Many essential facilities like toilets had to be shared, which often led to careless usage and even filthier conditions. Diseases like Cholera were rampant in these filthy homes because their water supplies were often polluted, and Typhoid was also common (5).
            While the industrial workers had to put up with such baneful living conditions, the rising middle class and the rich lived right next to them in grand mansions with gardens. Many people living in the poorer conditions lost their lives from diseases, and death rates in the poor district was sometimes more than 4 times that of the rich district.

IV. Labour Environment
            Industrial workers' conditions in factories were just about as bad as their living conditions. Most had to work long hours in dangerous and unsanitary conditions under strict supervision of the factory superintendents and work place rules. Many workers were day-to-day workers and many people were laid off during seasons when less work was needed. Holidays did not exist, and there was nothing even close to job security or insurance.
            Working conditions were most terrible in the first half of the century when no government regulations protecting labourers were enforced. Because the machines in the factories were extremely efficient, employers wanted to keep them running as long as possible. 16 hours of labour per day was so common that workers were overjoyed when the factories finally switched to the 12 hour shift system. Fitting themselves into the system of the factory was the hardest part for the workers. They had to begin and finish their work exactly on the assigned time with no breaks, coordinate with other workers and machines, and repeat the same work everyday without exceptions with strict supervision of the factory superintendents. Workspaces in the factories were packed to the capacity, and there was little light and air circulations; to make things worse, temperatures were very inside the factories. To the workersĄŻ miseries, many workplaces even had fines for people who broke the factory rules.
            In a Textile Factory in Manchester, Labors had to work 14 hours a day non-stop, in a heated room of 27-29 degrees Celsius without even a water break. This was no surprise when compared to its rules and fines :

      Workers reported for opening the windows ------------------------------------- 1s
      Workers reported for dirty products ---------------------------------------------- 1s
      Workers reported for washing ----------------------------------------------------- 1s
      Workers reported for fixing machines under a gas lamp ------------------------ 2s
      Workers reported for whistling ---------------------------------------------------- 1s (6)

            The exhaustion from work in such begriming conditions resulted in the deterioration of physical health of factory workers. A passage from the Manufacturing Population of England in 1833 by P. Gaskel reveals the detrimental effects of harsh laboring conditions on the health of workers in a textile factory :

            Any man who has stood at twelve o'clock at the single narrow door-way, which serves as the place of exit for the hands employed in the great cotton-mills, must acknowledge, that an uglier set of men and women, of boys and girls, taking them in the mass, it would be impossible to congregate in a smaller compass. Their complexion is sallow and pallid -- with a peculiar flatness of feature, caused by the want of a proper quantity of adipose substance to cushion out the cheeks. Their stature low -- the average height of four hundred men, measured at different times, and different places, being five feet six inches. Their limbs slender, and playing badly and ungracefully. A very general bowing of the legs. Great numbers of girls and women walking lamely or awkwardly, with raised chests and spinal flexures. Nearly all have flat feet, accompanied with a down-tread, differing very widely from the elasticity of action in the foot and ankle, attendant upon perfect formation. Hair thin and straight-many of the men having but little beard, and that in patches of a few hairs, much resembling its growth among the red men of America. A spiritless and dejected air, a sprawling and wide action of the legs, and an appearance, taken as a whole, giving the world but "little assurance of a man," or if so, "most sadly cheated of his fair proportions..." (7)

            The working milieu was the worst in furnaces, forges, and mines. Workers in furnaces lost their eye sight due to long hours of staring at the burning fire; they were scorched to dehydration and skin burns. Mines always had the danger of large fires and explosions due to gas deposits in the cracks of the earth walls. More than anything, the respiratory system of miners was severely damaged.
            There was also an inconsistency of work. A large percentage of the factory laborers worked day to day. Sometimes, they found their place taken away by another person and had to look for somewhere else to work. When factory owners closed down the work place to control the supply of goods and to raise prices, the burden fell to the workers who had to go for days without income and food.

V. Wages and Employment
            Wages for the industrial workers were extremely low despite the harsh conditions. Most workersĄŻ families were unable to make sufficient income to provide themselves with the necessary goods to sustain their lives. Food prices and housing fees for industrial workers were high in comparison to the wages and hunger was a growing problem. Problems were worsened when workers were laid off with no savings to fall back on.
            There was a constant fluctuation in the value of money, and the numerical amount of money received by workers did not determine the real wage. Therefore, numerical data of the time itself does not have much meaning unless compared to an index. However in terms of ratio, if the typical workersĄŻ wages were between 12s and 15s per week, the price of a home with water supply, sewers and sanitation, in paved and drained streets would have cost more than 30s per week. This is why the typical factory working families could not afford a reasonable housing. Such homes were taken by the "aristocracy of laborers" such as printers, cabinet makers, and blacksmiths who made 3 - 4 times more money than an average industrial laborer. Most of the industrial workers made wages that were barely above the Speenhamland Allowance Scale which defined the line of extreme poverty (8).
            Although the wages for industrial workers were already very low, employers sought to find workers who would work for even lower wages. An alternative that they found were female and child labor. Employers fired men, and hired an increasing number of female and child workers who were willing to work for even half the wage of adult men. A survey of textile factories in 1833 found that only 25.5 per cent of the workers consisted of males aged 18 and above; 15.9 per cent were children between the ages of 8 and 12, 12.2 per cent boys between the ages of 13 and 17, and 47.3 per cent girls and women aged 13 and above. Thus, family-scale wages were even lower (9). In a survey conducted in 1850, the family-scale wage of a factory working family was at a level of less than 4 times the Speenhamland allowance, which was barely reaching subsistence.

VI. Children and Child Labour
            Some parents were simply unable to make money to buy food for their children; consequently, many children were pushed out to the streets or sent to factories to work and make money.
            Child labor was wide spread. Many parents of industrial workersĄŻ families did not receive sufficient money to support all the members of the family. Children were often thought of as burdens. As a consequence, many of them were sent out to the streets or sent to factories to work and make money for the family. Children were favored over adult laborers because employers could pay a child much less than an adult even though their productivity was comparable; there was no need for strength to operate industrial machines and children would learn to operate the machines fast. Children also had advantages because they were small in size; this made them adept at certain tasks, such as mending broken threads, or climbing on machinery to extract something impeding its operations. Some of these tasks were extremely dangerous. An English factory inspector reported that the children working at a punching machine risked losing their fingers, and that children lost their lives while working in completely dark tunnels in mines as trappers.
            In Britain during the early 1830s, youths less than 21 years of age made up almost 1/3 of the workforce. Child labor was practiced all throughout the mid 19th century and laws did not attempt to prevent child labor; it only tried to moderate the work load. The 1833 Factory Act limited labor by very young children to 8 hours per day, and subsequent legislation in 1844 and 1847 prevented children younger than 9 from work, from working at night, and work day of youth under 18 was limited to 12 hours. Another law passed by the Parliament in 1833 required factories to have part-time schools for child laborers, but they were nearly nonfunctioning (10). The problem of child labor never got significantly better.
            Homeless children and their engagement in crimes was also a big social problem. There were thousands of homeless, destitute children living on the streets of London who were turned out of home and left to fend for themselves at an early age. In other cases, children ran away because of ill treatment at home. Most of these children lived by stealing, either as individuals or in groups as portrayed in Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Many felt that something had to be done, but they were never successful in doing so.

VII Capitalism and Employers
            The beliefs of employers of the early 19th century helped to shape the sphere of life for industrial workers. These harsh conditions were largely because the industrial employers believed in "Laissez-Faire" or the free market policy. According to this theory, every individual was responsible for his or her own well-being, and state policy toward labor relations was largely that of non-interference. A common belief among the higher class was as such; 'the poor were improvident, they wasted any money they had on drink and gambling', 'God had put people in their place in life and this must not be interfered with because the life after death was more important'. Except for a few philanthropic employers who took pride in paying higher wages, providing decent housing, and insisting that their workersĄŻ children attend school, the majority of employers sought to reduce the costs of production and maximize their profit. For them, human labor was nothing more than a good to be sold and they wanted to pay the least they could. This was also why many employers extensively hired woman and children.

VIII Poor Relief
            Some public effort was made to alleviate the poverty of the industrial workers. The plight of the destitute workers impinged on the conscience of more and more people from the higher class and a few employers. Philanthropy resulted in many charitable institutions, such as The Children's Society. The government also moved to solve the problem of poverty in industrial cities.
            In fact, Great Britain was the first state to have a national policy of poor relief. The 'Speenhamland system' that began in 1795 provided laborers who were put out of work, too old to work, or received low wage with supplemental funds that came from property tax. The Poor law provided unemployed parents with 78 per cent of the average income from employed parents. Similarly, old received between 70 - 90 per cent of the average income of a manual worker in 1837 - 1838 (11). This poor relief constantly expanded throughout the early 19th century. However, the problem of poverty was never resolved because families who relied on these programs kept having more children and some employers took advantage of paying fewer wages. Thus, the system was put to an end by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.
            Residential Workhouses were suggested instead, but workhouses never improved the status of poor urban populations. Poor people without jobs would be incarcerated in these workhouses, through severe and repulsive workhouse rules of discipline. Begging was forbidden in many cities in order to force the unemployed poor into workhouses. These workhouse environments weren't much better than that outside; as families were taken in, husbands were separated from wives, children from their parents, and were herded into dormitories. Inmates were forced to work hard, wear old and worn-out clothes, eat dreadful food, and follow strict schedules supervised by overseers. By 1850, more than 200,000 people were in workhouses, but other charitable institutions dispensed more assistance than the harsh workhouses. (12)
            Overall, no salutary changes began until far after 1850 when real wages began to rise.

IX. The Life of Workers as Reflected in Charles Dickens' Works
            Charles Dickens who lived from 1812 to 1870 produced many literary works that realistically portrays the horrible lives of urban population and industrial workers. Many of his works were semi autobiographical, reflecting his life in poverty as a child. In fact, no one did more than Dickens to speak up for the underfed and overused working class, or publicize the wickedness of the Poor Law and the workhouse.
            Amongst his books, Oliver Twist is most famous and illustrates the poverty and despair of the lowly classes, especially the social conditions for pauper children. When Oliver is 'farmed' out to Mrs. Mann's house as one of the offenders against the poor-laws, Dickens is referring to a common practice of the time. It was common for pauper children to send to homes where all kinds of abuses took place and they were treated worse than animals. An actual case of outbreak of Cholera at Drouet's Farm revealed children in appalling conditions of neglect and overcrowding. The scene of pauperĄŻs burial in the book was written from Dickens's real observations; the uncaring clergyman hastily finished the burial in 4 minutes. By his rendering of Fagin's gang, Dickens described how vulnerable the street children were to the net of crime and gang life. Although Oliver Twist largely focuses on the abuses of the new Poor Law system, and the evils of the criminal of London, Dickens's other works reflect the social portrait of the poverty and sufferings of the industrial workers of Britain's cities (13).

X. Effects : Labour Unions, Workers' Movement, Socialism
            In the coming half of the century, workers sought to improve their conditions and payment. This movement was in the form of labour unions, workerĄŻs rights movement, and socialism. Although it was extremely weak and severely restricted, Labour Unions existed since the early 19th century, and led to the emergence of Labour Party in the early 20th century. The Chartist movement of the 1830s and 1840s organized a mass working class movement for social justice as well as political equality. Although unsuccessful, they looked forward to legislating laws in favour of the workers and the poor. Workers also set up friendly societies and co-operative societies to provide mutual support at times of hardship. Robert Owen and other Industrialists supported these organizations and sought for alleviating the conditions of the working class. These works paid off to a certain degree when franchise was extended in 1867 and 1885 (14). Marxism and socialism were also a reaction against the destitute lives of workers in the Industrial Britain. Marx and Engels published their Communist Manifesto in 1848, in which the ideas of Communism were expressed; they argued that workers should own the means of production and union's distribution of goods. It sought to eliminate the class of bourgeoisie who enriched themselves with the wealth produced by the workers who lived in poverty.
            Other social changes were triggered to solve the social problems related to poverty of industrial workers. Medical technology was improved in order to deal with the terrible death rates due to common diseases. Sanitation, drainage and plumbing systems were gradually improved and public health services were established by the turn of the century. Efforts to moderate the class divisions were also made in the struggles between the political parties in the British parliament.


(1)      Cecil Frances Alexander, 1848
(2)      Daunton, M J. Progress and Poverty. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. 1-620.
(3)      Huberman, Leo, and Sanghwan Chang. Man's Worldly Goods. Trans. ed. New York, London, Seoul: Monthly Review P, Chaekbeolae, 2000. 11-398
(4)      Barbara, Daniels. "Poverty and Families in the Victorian Era." Hidden Lives Revealed. Mar. 2003. Dept. of Religious Studies, Open U. 3 Dec. 2007 .
(5)      Huberman, Leo, and Sanghwan Chang. Man's Worldly Goods. Trans. ed. New York, London, Seoul: Monthly Review P, Chaekbeolae, 2000. 11-398
(6)      ibid.
(7)      "Victorian Political History." The Victorian Web. 9 Feb. 2007. 5 Dec. 2007
(8)      Skipper, James. "Wages and Cost of Living in the Victorian Era." The Victorian Web. Dec. 2003. 2 Dec. 2007 .
(9)      Daunton, M J. Progress and Poverty. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. 1-620.
(10)      Merriman, John. A History of Modern Europe. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996. 3-1515.
(11)      Daunton, M J. Progress and Poverty. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. 1-620.
(12)      Higginbotham, Peter. "The Workhouse". 4 Dec. 2007
(13)      Glancy, Ruth. Student Companion to Charles Dickens. Westport: Greenwood P, 1999. 1-166.
(14)      "Industrial Revolution." Wikipedia. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Hoengsung. .


Note : websites quoted below were visited in December 2007.
1.      Barbara, Daniels. "Poverty and Families in the Victorian Era." Hidden Lives Revealed. Mar. 2003. Dept. of Religious Studies, Open U. 3 Dec. 2007 .
2.      Daunton, M J. Progress and Poverty. New York: Oxford UP, 1995
3.      Glancy, Ruth. Student Companion to Charles Dickens. Westport: Greenwood P, 1999.
4.      Higginbotham, Peter. "The Workhouse". 4 Dec. 2007
5.      Huberman, Leo, and Sanghwan Chang. Man's Worldly Goods. Trans. ed. New York, London, Seoul: Monthly Review P, Chaekbeolae, 2000
6.      "Industrial Revolution." Wikipedia. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Hoengsung. .
7.      Merriman, John. A History of Modern Europe. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996
8.      Nelson, Robert L. "Poverty, Purchasing Power, and the Victorian Laborer's Standard of Living." The Victorian Web. 25 Dec. 2005. 4 Dec. 2007 .
9.      Skipper, James. "Wages and Cost of Living in the Victorian Era." The Victorian Web. Dec. 2003. 2 Dec. 2007 .
10.      "Victorian Age : Charles Dickens and the Bront? Sisters." Daria.No. 3 Dec. 2007 .
11.      "Victorian Political History." The Victorian Web. 9 Feb. 2007. 5 Dec. 2007 .
12.      "Working Class and the Poor." Victorian Life. 5 Dec. 2007 .