Social Consequences Of The British Industrial Revolution

It was during the late 18th and early 19th centuries that most of Europe experienced a radical change to its socio-economic structure, known as the Industrial Revolution. For example, in England, this brought many advances in scientific and technological innovations that would bring forth a steady growth in both agricultural and industrial production with it. This period of economic expansion quickly affected the social consequences of its inhabitants, and the human cost of modernization would forever change the landscape of British society. The Industrial Revolution’s first and most dramatic changes started with transformations in England’s rural and agrarian areas; these once-quiet hamlets and villages become industrialized, urban centers that began to follow advances in agriculture, industry, and shipping. New technologies in machinery and the conversion from water and animal power to steam power made the production of cloth much more efficient. Some might believe that it was a sudden and drastic change; however, it was merely an “intensification of forms of production that already existed.”

Previous ways in the manufacturing of textiles was an example of the ‘cottage industry,’ meaning that production of materials was performed in small workshops or at individual homes by those who spun, weaved, and dyed. In 1764, however, weaver James Hargreaves invented the jenny, and this became a far quicker option that did not depend heavily on human labor. Thus, what became known as the ‘proletariat’ society started to emerge. With the newly designed engines that required only steam and the machinery used for the working of cotton, Fredrick Engels said these “inventions gave rise, as is well known, to an industrial revolution, a revolution which altered the whole civil society.” Part of the developing issues revolved around agriculture which had long dominated the British economy. While the new systems in farming created mass production of food, the land had become more significant economic and political influences. As the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie or middle classes owned much of the land, they also ‘owned’ society's wealth and means of production. These changes from small farmer’s feeding their families and tending to small plots of land and livestock triggered a massive rural-to-urban migration. Engels writes that it was England herself in which the “soil of this transformation” began and continues to proceed, and only in England “can the proletariat be studied in all its relations and from all sides.”

Those that were prosperous industrialist, merchants and ship owners found great wealth and comfort, while those of the working class lived in overcrowded environments. Women and men equally experienced changes in their lives as they left their families and the agriculture working life for factory employment. The continuing mechanization of labor created by the new technologies made working in the factories increasingly dangerous and tedious - extended hours for pitifully low wages. Urbanization rapidly brought significate and unwanted challenges for the lower classes in tenement slums. The population was increasing, and by the mid-1800s, the unemployment rate was starting to reach a boiling point. The factories owners could unequally set the terms of employment because there were far more unskilled laborers who would take any job available to them. Overcrowded cities began to suffer from extreme pollution, a lack of clean drinking water, many lived in squalor conditions, and had inadequate sanitation. These factors bred disease, and “hunger continued to interrupt cycles of growth”; the life expectancy for the working poor was disgustingly low.

Engel’s firsthand account of the working-class areas in Manchester, for example, describes a “phenomenal development,” that had been unforeseen in its inception by being, “unplanned and unregulated as it was unexampled and apparently unaccountable.” 5 Manchester by this time was filthy and depressing beyond recognition; muddy roads were lacking in sidewalks, houses were built upon one another, not allowing for adequate ventilation, those same homes had no inside plumbing and therefore lacked proper sewage systems. Influenza, tuberculosis, cholera, and typhoid ravaged the inhabitants of this newly thriving metropolis, while the factory owner’s and capitalist led lives much different from those of the worker’s they employed.

The mechanical age as, it had become known, was looked upon with contempt by many. The Luddites, for instance, began a labor movement that fought against the mechanized manufacturers, and their use of unskilled laborers. In 1829 Thomas Carlyle wrote a well-publicized essay condemning machinery; he wrote that if the Nation were required, “to characterize this age of ours by any single epithet” it would not be seen as an age of “Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical or Moral age” but one of the rising of machines and the downtrodden working classes.6 Many of those that suffered underemployment or employment altogether were skilled workers and artisans such as textile handweavers, whose experience and talents became useless, in the face of competition with the efficiency and cheap labor of the new textile factories. Luddites were British weaving and textile artisans that had spent years learning their craft and who openly rejected and opposed the increasing use of mechanized knitting frames and looms. Many were losing their livelihood to unskilled machine operators. Desperate weavers began to break into factories to destroy the new textile machines. A man using the name Ned Ludd, in 1811 wrote to a factory owner regarding his machinery. “Take Notice that if they are not taken down by the end of next week,” he openly threatens to send “300 men to destroy them.” Ludd continued by stating most defiantly, that the receiver of his notice should be careful in his thoughts of rebellion as the Luddites would, “increase your misfortune by burning your buildings down to ashes.”

For decades to come, outrage over substandard working and living conditions would fuel political unrest caused by the industrialization and urbanization of the nation. Until this time, elections were developed in a localized and haphazard way; a staggering 95 percent of adults did not qualify to vote, this, of course, included women, most men, and those that did not own property of their own. The increasing demands for improvement created unparalleled social and political changes to welfare, labor rights, safety, education, and equality via labor unions and child labor laws. In 1832 Parliament passed the Great Reform Act and this new law permanently changed the British electoral system. Under the reform act, manufacturing cities like Manchester and Birmingham would have representation in Parliament for the first time.

The Industrial Revolution had created a great deal of changes in Britain's society and structure. We have seen that the change started with agricultural innovations, with the shift from work done at home by hand in what was referred to as the cottage industry to the same work being cranked out of factories. These positions were taken up by those unskilled in the trade for pennies while artisans starved in the workhouses. While at one time people could make a living wage, it was bitterly short lived. In the earliest industrial factories, life became much harsher, and work conditions became unsafe; these miraculous machines became a significate threat to the lives of the workers who toiled there. It is evident that the factory owners had an unbelievable amount of control over the lives of their laborers. The average factory or mine worker would work up to 14 hours a day, and up to six, maybe even seven days a week. Women made even less money than men, and child labor skyrocketed as it kept production costs down and the profits remained high.

However, as with all things, it was not all doom and gloom; the Industrial Revolution had many positive effects too. There was an increase in wealth, faster production of goods meant faster import and export industries, for some the standard of living improved and education increased even for the working classes. Edward Jenner’s invention of the smallpox vaccine and Louis Pasteur’s discovery of bacteria lead to an increase in awareness concerning health care and, people started to live a little longer; well the fortunate did anyway. Union’s for control of labor, laws to protect children became mandatory, and in the end, everyone received to right to vote and proper representation.

The middle and upper classes benefited immediately from the Industrial Revolution; this is an obvious consequence of the industrialized movement. However, as evidence shows, for the common worker, it took much, much longer and their consequences were a bit more extreme. The innovation and modernism from the Industrial Revolution resulted in the working-class drowning in the muck, as the industry’s middle class grew extortionary wealthy. The saddest consequence of the British Industrial Revolution, however, is the seemingly abrupt disappearance of humanity toward one’s fellow man, woman, and child. The almighty dollar and progression became more important than lives, and countless suffered the abuses of the powerful and the influential.

14 May 2021
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