Both employer and employee had to change their habits, skills, and relations. The employer, dealing with ever more men, and in a faster turnover, lost intimacy with them, and had to think of them not as acquaintances engaged in a common task, but as particles in a process that would be judged by profits alone. Most artisans, before 1760, worked in guild shops or at home, where the hours of labor were not inflexible, and intervals of rest might be allowed; and in an earlier age there had been holydays in which all gainful labor was forbidden by the Church. We must not idealize the condition of the common man before the Industrial Revolution; nevertheless we may say that the hardships to which he was subjected were such as had tradition, habituation, and in many cases the open air to soften them. As industrialization advanced, the hardships of the employee were mitigated by shorter hours, higher wages, and wider access to the increasing flow of goods from the machines. But the half century of transition from craft and home to factory, after 1760, was for the laborers of England one of inhuman subjection sometimes worse than slavery.
Most factories in that period required twelve to fourteen hours of work per day six days a week.18 Employers argued that the laborer had to be kept for long hours because he could not be relied upon to report regularly: many workers drank too heavily on Sunday to come in on Monday; some others, after working for four days, stayed home the next three. Adam Smith explained that “excessive application during four days of the week is frequently the real cause of the idleness of the other three”; he warned that prolongation or high speed of work might lead to physical or mental breakdown; and he added that “the man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly not only preserves his health the longest, but in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.”19
Real wages, of course, can be estimated only in connection with prices. In 1770 a four-pound loaf of bread in Nottingham cost about sixpence, a pound of cheese or pork fourpence, a pound of butter sevenpence. Adam Smith, toward 1773, calculated the average wage of London workers at 10 shillings, in smaller centers 7 shillings, in Edinburgh 5 shillings.20 Arthur Young, about 1770, reported the weekly wages of English industrial workers as varying geographically from six shillings sixpence to 11 shillings. Wages were evidently much lower in relation to prices than now, but some employers added fuel or rent to the wages, and some employees gave part of their time to agricultural work. After 1793, when England began her long war with Revolutionary France, prices rose much faster than wages, and poverty became desperate.
Many eighteenth-century economists recommended low wages as a stimulus to steady work. Even Arthur Young, who was disturbed by the poverty that he saw in some districts of France, declared: “Everyone but an idiot knows that the lower classes must be kept poor, or they will never be industrious.”21 Or, as one J. Smith put it:
It is a fact well known to those who are conversant in this matter, that scarcity, to a certain degree, promotes industry, and that the manufacturer [i.e., manual worker] who can subsist on three days’ work, will be idle and drunk the remainder of the week. … Upon the whole we can fairly aver that a reduction of wages in the woolen manufacture would be a national blessing, and no real injury to the poor. By this means we might keep our trade, uphold our rents [revenues], and reform the people into the bargain.22
Women and children were employed in the factories, usually for unskilled operations. Some skilled women weavers made as much as their men, but the usual earnings of factory women averaged three shillings sixpence—rarely more than half the wage of men.23Textile mills alone, in 1788, employed 59,000 women and 48,000 children.24 Sir Robert Peel had over a thousand children in his Lancashire factories.25 Child labor was no new practice in Europe; it had been taken for granted on the farms and in domestic industry. Since universal education was frowned upon by conservatives as leading to a surplus of scholars and a dearth of manual laborers, very few Englishmen in the eighteenth century saw any evil in children going to work instead of to school. When machines were simple enough to be tended by children, factory owners welcomed boys and girls five years old or more. Parish authorities, resenting the cost of supporting orphans or pauper children, gladly farmed them out to industrialists, sometimes in lots of fifty, eighty, or a hundred; in several cases they stipulated that the employer should take one idiot to every twenty children.26 The usual working day for child laborers was from ten to fourteen hours. They were often housed in groups, and in some factories they worked in twelve-hour shifts, so that the machines rarely stopped and the beds were seldom unoccupied. Discipline was maintained by blows or kicks. Disease found defenseless victims in these factory apprentices; many were deformed by their labor, or were maimed by accidents; some killed themselves. A few men were delicate enough to condemn such child labor; however, it diminished not because men became more humane but because machines became more complex.
Children, women, and men were subjected in the factories to conditions and disciplines not known to them before. The buildings were often of hasty or flimsy construction, assuring many accidents and much disease. Rules were severe, and violations of them were punished by fines that might forfeit the wages of a day.27 Employers argued that the proper care of the machinery, the necessity of co-ordinating different operations, and the lax habits of a population not accustomed to regularity or speed required a rigorous discipline if confusion and waste were not to cancel profits and to price the product out of the market at home or abroad. The discipline was endured because an unemployed artisan faced hunger and cold for himself and his family, and the employee knew that the unemployed were eager for his job. Hence it was to the advantage of the employer to have a pool of unemployment from which to take replacements for workers disabled, dissatisfied, or dismissed. Even the well-behaved and competent employee faced dismissal when “overproduction” saturated the available market beyond its buying power, or when peace put an end to the blessed willingness of armies to order more and more goods and to destroy them as rapidly as possible.
Under the guild system the workers were protected by guild or municipal ordinances, but in the new industrialism they had little protection by the law, or none at all. The propaganda of the physiocrats for leaving the economy free from regulation had made headway in England as in France; the employers convinced Parliament that they could not continue their operations, or meet foreign competition, unless wages were governed by the laws of supply and demand. In village mills the justices of the peace retained some control over wages; in the factories, after 1757, they had none.28 The upper and middle classes saw no reason for interfering with the captains of industry; the swelling flood of exports was conquering new markets for British trade; and Englishmen who could pay were pleased with the abundance of manufactured goods.
But the workers did not share in this prosperity. Despite the multiplication of goods by the machines they tended, they themselves remained as poor in 1800 as they had been a century before.29 They no longer owned the tools of their trade, they had little part in designing the product, they took no profit from the widening of the market they fed. They added to their poverty by continuing the high fertility that had paid living dividends on the farm; they found in drink and sex their chief consolation, and their women were still rated by the number of children they bore. Pauperism spread; the expenditure for poor relief rose from £600,000 in 1742 to £2,000,000 in 1784.30 The growth of housing could not keep up with the immigration or multiplication of industrial workers; these had often to live in tumble-down dwellings that crowded one another in dismal and narrow streets. Some laborers lived in cellars, whose dampness added to the causes of disease. By 1800 all the larger towns had developed slums in which living conditions were worse than anything known in the previous history of England.
The workers tried to better their lot by riots, strikes, and organization. They attacked the inventions that threatened them with unemployment or drudgery. Parliament in 1769 made the destruction of machinery a capital crime.31 Nevertheless in 1779 the workers in Lancashire factories formed themselves into a mob that grew from five hundred to eight thousand men; they collected firearms and ammunition, melted their pewter dishes to make bullets, and swore to demolish every machine in England. At Bolton they completely wrecked a factory and its equipment; at Altham they took by storm the textile factory of Robert Peel (father of Sir Robert the minister), and smashed its costly equipment. They were on their way to attack the plant of Arkwright at Cromford when troops sent from Liverpool came up with them, whereupon they fled in a rout. Some of them were caught and were sentenced to be hanged. The justices of the peace explained that “destroying machines in this country would only be the means of transferring them to other countries, … to the detriment of the trade of Britain.”32 An anonymous “Friend of the Poor” bade the workers be more patient: “All improvements by machines do at first produce some difficulties to some particular persons. … Was not the first effect of the printing press to deprive many copyists of their occupation?”33
The law forbade the formation of labor unions for collective bargaining; however, “journeymen’s associations” existed, some dating from the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth they were numerous, especially among textile workers. They were primarily social clubs or mutual-benefit societies, but as the century advanced they became more aggressive; and sometimes, when Parliament rejected their petitions, they organized strikes. In 1767-68, for example, there were strikes of sailors, weavers, hatters, tailors, glass grinders; and several of these walkouts were accompanied by armed violence on both sides.34 Adam Smith summarized the results to 1776:
It is not difficult to foresee which of the two parties must, upon all ordinary occasions, have the advantage in the dispute, and force the other into compliance with their terms. The masters, being fewer in number, can combine much more easily, and the law … does not prohibit their combinations, while it prohibits those of the workmen. We have no acts of Parliament against combining to lower the price [wages] of work, but many against combining to raise it. In all such disputes the masters can hold out much longer. … Many workmen could not subsist a week, few could subsist a month, and scarce any a year, without employment.35
The employers had their way, both in the factories and in Parliament; in 1799 the Commons declared illegal any associations aiming to secure higher wages, to alter the hours of work, or to decrease the quantity of work required of the workers. Employees entering into such combinations were punishable by imprisonment, and informers against such men were to be indemnified.36 The triumph of the employers was complete.