If now we review again the condition of the factory workers in the Britain of 1800, we must not exaggerate their prominence in the total picture of the time. Presumably there were many more pleasant scenes in “Merrie England.” Factory labor itself was not then the main feature of British industry; most industrial production was still carried on in rural or urban homes at individual looms or lathes, or by craftsmen in their independent shops. The factory system was for the most part confined to the processing of cotton, linen, or wool. Even as so limited, its role in the panorama of the age is one of the saddest episodes in English history.
The factories themselves were rooted in slums and shrouded in their own effluvia of bilge and fumes. Their interiors were generally dusty and dirty, ill-ventilated, and ill-lit—till 1805, when, here and there, gaslighting was installed. The machines were geared to a speed that required their human attendants to keep eyes alert and hands busy through the twelve or fourteen hours of the working day; like some latter-day inventions the machine saved labor and spent men. An hour was allowed for luncheon; thereafter the toil continued, in most cases till eight o’clock.8 The labor force was replenished at need from a human reservoir continually replenished by displaced peasants or careless wombs.
Between deliveries women were preferred to men as factory workers, and children were preferred to women, as requiring less pay. In 1816, of 10,000 employees in forty-one Scottish mills, 3,146 were men, 6,854 were women, 4,581 were under eighteen.9 Still cheaper, and widely favored, was the labor of orphaned or destitute children sent to the factories by the Poor Relief administrators. The Factory Act of 1802 tried to establish some minimal standard for the use of such “apprentices,” forbidding their employment for more than twelve hours a day; but Parliament refused to pay the commissioners appointed to enforce the act.10 Generally, child labor continued in British mills till 1842.11
In 1800 the average wage of a London adult male worker was eighteen shillings per week (about $23.00 in the United States in 1960); in the country it was about one-third less.12 By and large, the wages of a family were determined by the amount needed to maintain the strength needed for work; but this was predicated on the wife and child joining the factory force.13 Employers argued that wages had to be kept low to get the workers to come to work; some laborers took weekends of two or three days, and when they returned they might be still drowsy with alcohol in their blood.14 Only hunger would bring them back to the machines.
There were certain mitigations. Some employers paid the rent and fuel expenses of their employees. Commodity prices were low—approximately a third of their average in the Great Britain of 1960.15 Wages generally rose and fell with prices, until 1793, when war began with France; then all classes suffered in their incomes, but as the workers had been kept down to a subsistence wage they suffered most.
They lived in towns where air was poisonous, in ghettos that nurtured disease, in crowded homes—sometimes damp cellars—where sunlight was a rare intruder, lighting was dim, cleanliness was a mirage, domestic strife rasped tired nerves, privacy was impossible, and the only refuge for the woman was piety, and, for the man, the pub. Drunkenness was hebdomadal. Houses took water from wells and public pumps; when these ran short the women carried water from the nearest river or canal, which, as like as not, was polluted by industrial, domestic, or human waste.16 Sanitation was primitive, sewers were rare: “I am convinced,” wrote Thorold Rogers in 1890 (when he was professor of political economy in Oxford), “that at no period of English history for which authentic records exist, was the condition of manual labor worse than in the forty years from 1782 to 1821, the period in which manufacturers accumulated fortunes rapidly, and in which the rent [receipts] of agricultural land was doubled.”17 This condition lasted till the 1840s. Carlyle, who grew up in Scotland and England between 1795 and 1840, summed up the condition of the British factory worker in that period by concluding that Britons had been better off when they were medieval serfs. Industrial progress had left the proletaire so slight a share in the growing wealth that he was reverting to barbarism in manners, dress, amusements, and speech. “Civilization works its miracles,” wrote Alexis de Tocqueville on visiting Manchester; “civilized man is turned back almost into a savage.”18 Honor to Manchester and her fellow cities for the immense advances they have made since those bitter days.
The Poor Law, first enacted in 1601, often thereafter reformed, offered some help for the destitute. It was administered by parish officials who usually gathered the recipients into workhouses. It was financed by a specific tax on householders, who complained that their payments were wasted on ne’er-do-wells, encouraging reckless fertility; they submitted to the impost as insurance against social disorder. In many districts, after 1795, the rate of relief was adjusted to supplement wages deemed inadequate to subsistence; some employers took advantage of this to keep wages low.
Despite such middling mercies the discontent of the workers reached a danger point as the nineteenth century began. Forbidden, till 1824, to organize for better pay, they secretly organized; forbidden to strike, they struck; defeated, they struck again.19 Reformers like Robert Owen warned Parliament that unless factory conditions improved, costly violence would increase. Discontent was checked by the renewal of hostilities with France (1803); it increased as the war dragged on, and came to open revolt in 1811. It was led not by factory employees but by lace and stocking weavers operating “frames” in homes and small shops in or near Nottingham. These men and women could still recall the open-air life on the farms, and perhaps they idealized it in contrast with confined work at their looms. They resented their subjection to the “hosier” who leased them the frames, sold them raw material, and bought their product at rates determined by him and the suppliers of his stock or capital. Moreover, they feared that even their present jobs would soon be lost to the spreading factories and their multiple, powerdriven looms. In their mounting fury they resolved to smash, wherever they could, the machines that symbolized their serfdom.
An obscure and perhaps mythical individual named Ned or King Ludd organized the angry weavers, and drew up plans for their raids. In the fall of 1811 separate bands of “Luddites” invaded one district after another and destroyed all the textile frames they found. The movement spread from Nottinghamshire to Lancashire, Derbyshire, and Leicestershire, and continued through 1812. The machine-wreckers abstained from injuring persons except in the case of an employer who ordered his men to fire upon them; the strikers sought him out and killed him. Half of England shivered with fright, remembering the French Revolution. “At this moment,” wrote Robert Southey, “nothing but the Army preserves us from that most dreadful of all calamities, an insurrection of the poor against the rich; and how long the Army can be depended upon is a question which I scarcely dare to ask myself…. The country is mined beneath our feet.”20 William Cobbett, a lusty liberal journalist, defended the raiders in the House of Commons; the poet Byron delivered a fervent address in their favor in the House of Lords. The Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, put through Parliament some severe legislation, and sent a regiment to suppress the revolt. The leaders were rounded up, and were summarily condemned in a mass trial at York (1813); some were deported, some were hanged. The machines multiplied. No legislative relief came to adult British labor till 1824.