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19Th Century Working Conditions In England Essay

, Research Paper The Transformation of The Conditions of The Working Class in 19th Century England The pace in the Lancashire Cotton Mill is frenetic as cotton is transformed into cloth. In a picture of the female workers at the mill in 1900 a women sits just feet from the camera, her eyes gazing down at her hands as they guide fabric through the mechanized loom. 1 Behind her rows of women stare into the camera, their eyes perhaps transfixed for a moment before they return to their work amidst the buzz and whirl of the looms.

, Research Paper

The Transformation of The Conditions of The Working Class in 19th Century England The pace in the Lancashire Cotton Mill is frenetic as cotton is transformed into cloth. In a picture of the female workers at the mill in 1900 a women sits just feet from the camera, her eyes gazing down at her hands as they guide fabric through the mechanized loom. 1 Behind her rows of women stare into the camera, their eyes perhaps transfixed for a moment before they return to their work amidst the buzz and whirl of the looms. The Lancashire Cotton Mill looks like a sweatshop, its walls are worn and its workers weary. But the working conditions in the Lancashire Cotton Mill in 1900 were a far cry from the working conditions of workers in similar factories one hundred years prior. The women in the Lancashire mill were regulated by a plethora of laws governing everything from child labor, to factory sanitation. They had rights to organize in unions, vote in elections, and strike for better wages. The change in the protections and status of workers in the mills was due in large part to unionization efforts in the middle of the 19th century fueled by appalling conditions in factories in the early part of the century. Sanitation reports from the first half of the 19th century describe the living conditions of the working class in Lancashire as, “disgusting in the extreme.” 2 In reaction to these conditions the workers of Lancashire organized into unions. In 1800 Lancashire had no formal unions but by 1850 more than 2/3 of the workforce were unionized. 3 Lancashire was prototypical of the way in which workers reacting to intolerable working conditions in the early 1800’s formed unions which in the later part of the century were able to secure improved rights and working conditions. Prior to 1800 the lower class in England was predominantly concentrated in rural areas where it was unorganized and isolated. More than 40% of the population worked in agriculture 4 and what industry there was took place not in factories but in informal networks of cottages which doubled as workshops. 5 Unions were illegal but because of the isolation and lack of large scale business they were largely superfluous. This is manifest in the way in which unions were regulated in pre 19th century England. Up until 1791 unions were not even outlawed because so few workers saw a need to form one. 6 The lack of large factories prevented workers from organizing and the cottage industry basis of most manufacturing made organizing against employers untenable. The turn of the century though profoundly altered the bedrock of English society. An urban working class emerged in the cities of England as people from the countryside flooded into the urban areas to work at factories which sprung up in the major cities. This working class was marked by holding no capital and working long and dangerous hours. By 1900 only 8% of the English population worked in agriculture 7 and the sizes of most cities had more than quintupled. 8 The transformation of England shattered the old ways of life by bringing the lower classes together into densely packed tracts. These densely crammed urban areas created appalling conditions for workers that gave rise to the union movement. The influx of workers into cities to meet the demands of industry severely taxed the infrastructure of the cities. Sanitation records from the time describe six or more people living in a single room in cities like London and Lancashire. 9 Diseases and poverty were rampant. The influx of workers was fueled by a growing population which forced excess workers off of farms and into the cities in search of work. In the beginning of the 19th century these workers came to the cities and took what work could be had. One observer in 1824 tells of how factories acted as a type of forced slavery where workers would be fined for the smallest transgression. 10 In other factories children as young as seven years old worked on dangerous machines or in perilous mine shafts. In some mines workers were forced into a type of indentured servitude as they were forced to pay a fine if they wanted to leave the mine where they worked. 11 In one description from 1830 an eyewitness tells of how, “Thousands of little children both male and female but principally female from seven to fourteen years of age are daily compelled to labor from six o’clock in the morning to seven in the evening.” 12 Although laws existed such as the 1802 Health and Morals and Apprentices Act to regulated child welfare a lack of enforcement prevented these laws from being effective. Workers were also unorganized and un-unionized and consequently could not fight the poor wages and bad working conditions that factory bosses compelled them to take. 13 But growing desperation in the face of meager wages, unsafe working conditions, and child labor lead to the beginnings of worker organization. Workers in urban areas lived in close proximity unlike before 1800 when they lived in isolated cottages. In the overflowing cities of England the close proximity of workers enabled them to organize; they could share their common grievances and were exposed to radical political ideas. At first the organization of workers took spontaneous and undisciplined forms. The luddite movement from 1811 to 1817 in areas such as Lancashire and Yorkshire was one of the first movements of the working class. 14 The luddites destroyed machinery and mechanical devices to protests what they saw as a destruction of working conditions by the new factories and machinery of the Industrial Revolution. The movement although quixotic was a representation of the despair that workers felt about their declining living standards in the face of technological advancement. The luddites represented a primitive form of organization and anger at the living and working conditions of the working class. The Chartists another movement in the first half of the 19th century was also representative of early forms of worker organization that converged around working conditions. 15 The Chartists one of the first national working class movements in England aimed to implement a six point charter based around improving the rights of workers. As Thomas Carlyle put it Chartism was a, “knife and fork question” it was aimed at securing basic rights for workers among the rampant poverty in the early 19th century. 16 Although the Chartists movement’s power waned and virtually ended by 1848 it laid the ground work for the union’s in England and many of the Chartists members went onto work to serve working class causes in England. The increasing venting of anger by workers in the early 19th century lead to the legalization of trade unions. Many elites saw the specter of union activity as less dangerous then the unorganized and riotous outbreaks typified by the luddite and chartist movements. 17 In 1824 the Combination Acts which had prohibited trade unions were repealed and in 1825 laws were passed which gave trade unions a quasi legal status which continued until 1871 when trade unions were granted full legal status in the Trade Union Act of 1871. 18 The legalization of trade unions lead to an explosion in their growth. Workers who had previously channeled frustration at working conditions into violent rebellion or desperation now joined the emerging union movement in England. By 1845 union activities had grown so prevalent that union activists attempted to set up a national body to unify all the unions. 19 Although this body failed in its mission the fact of its existence is indicative of the growing power of the unions by the 1840’s. As the population increased and still more people streamed into the cities the emerging unions were able to take advantage of this opportunity and gain new members and new power. By 1851 London had almost tripled in size from its population 50 years before. In Glasgow the population had more than quadrupled in the same period. 20 At the same time that the population in cities was multiplying; employment in industries such as mining and textiles was swelling. Between 1841 and 1851 alone the employment of people in the textile and clothing industry more than doubled in England. The number of people working in mines also nearly doubled during this period. 21 The increasingly tightly packed urban centers, and increasing employment in manufacturing and mining job sectors combined to give the unions more members. Despite the lack of power of unions prior to the early 1840’s a variety of laws were passed in England aimed at protecting women and children from abusive working conditions; these acts though proved ineffectual. Most of these acts were spurred not by the working class but by concerned members of the English elite. 22 These acts although well intentioned did little to change the status of the working poor. They relied on enforcement mechanisms such as the courts, or factory inspectors which were either overwhelmed or unequipped to deal with the plight of the urban poor. The workers lacking organization in these early years were unable to take advantage of any of the limited rights these acts afforded them. For example the Factory Act of 1833 limited the hours of children in textile factories to nine hours a day but the act only provided four inspectors for its implementation thus deeming it ineffectual. 23

The new position of unions after 1840 gave them the power to help alleviate the suffering of workers in England. The unions attempted to ease the abject working conditions using a two pronged approach. First they lobbied for legislative acts that would give protections to the working class. Starting in the 1840’s the unions pressed for shorter working hours for both male and female workers through ordinances. The efforts of the unions lead to the securing of a ten hour work week for women and children in the factory Act of 1853. 24 By 1878 a ten hour work week was finally extended to all laborers. In the subsequent years the unions were able to help lobby for such significant legislative reforms as the Trade Union Act in 1871 which formally legalized unions, and the Factory Acts of 1864, 1867, 1874, 1878, and 1891 which steadily expanded the rights of workers. 25 The acts passed during this period stood in sharp contrast to the acts passed in the first part of the century. The differences were chiefly due to the political power of unions. These acts regulated not only the working conditions and hours of woman and children but also the working conditions of men. For example the 1878 Factory Act regulated the conditions of all factories inside the textile and clothing industries 26 . The acts passed due to the lobbying efforts of the unions also contained enforcement mechanisms that helped ensure they would be followed such as more factory inspectors and over seeing boards. One of the most significant achievements of the political activism of unions during this period was the passage of the Reform Act of 1867 which allowed certain members of the house of commons to be elected by popular vote which helped give the working class a political voice. 27 Although this act did not institute parliamentary democracy it gave the working class a say in their government and paved the way for the eventual introduction of parliamentary democracy. The Act also lead to a variety of subsequent legislation that gave workers increasing rights and in 1874 lead to the election of two miners as M.P.’s in parliament. 28 The second policy unions pursued to better the conditions of the working class was forcing companies to take part in collective bargaining. In 1861, the Cotton Workers Union was able to secure collective bargaining rights for their workers and in the 1860’s the mining union was able to press successfully for higher wages in mines throughout England. 29 As London and many other cities continued to expand in size and more and more jobs emerged in the manufacturing sector the size of unions continued to expand. From 1866 to 1890 union membership grew by more than ten times. 30 By 1889 a London dock workers strike won an unanticipated triumph when they successful demonstrated for higher pay. Because of the higher wages secured by unions for workers the wages of workers in the second half of the 19th century nearly doubled and consumption of consumer good such as sugar, tobacco, and tea swelled. By the close of the 1800’s workers were making more money and enjoying more legal protections than they had ever before. 31 Although many lived in appalling conditions in urban areas; compared to fifty years before the working class in England was predominantly better off. A union banner published at the turn of the century is indicative of the promise that unions brought to the English working class. 32 The banner for the National Union of General Workers pictures a woman representing the union draped in a gown that has on it scrawled: light, education, industrial organization, and political action. The woman motions for the workers to join her in a better world where workers as the banner reads, “have your share of the world.” The unions of the post 1850’s period had helped to secure some of these goals for the working class, and helped to give workers their share of the world.. Two alternative views have been put forward to describe the conditions of workers in the 1800’s. The first view contends that the during all of the 19th century the living standards of workers were improving. This view espoused by the economist magazine in an 1851 article ignores key evidence that shows that the workers prior to the 1850’s enjoyed few benefits of the industrial boom in England. 33 First, the article ignores the fact that a lack of legislation and unions left workers at the mercy of employers. Accounts from the time tell of workers toiling in overheated rooms for upwards of 14 hours straight. 34 Those workers that did dare unionize faced ruinous consequences. The story of George Loveless from the 1830’s is indicative of the dangers that workers faced who demanded higher wages. George Loveless one of the leaders of a group of workers in the town of Tolpuddle organized a group of workers and asked for higher wages from the town magistrate. After presenting his demands he and the other leaders of the movement were sentenced to seven years of banishment from England to, “make an example.” 35 The story of George Loveless shows the ways in which workers enjoyed few if any rights. Second, the economist article ignores key evidence which shows that per capita consumption of sugar, tea and tobacco declined from 1800 to 1840’s; even as England was undergoing an economic boom. 36 This points to the conclusion that the working class was not benefiting from economic prosperity of the early 1800’s as they could not buy non vital goods. Studies of wages during the period also show that wages between 1800 and 1840 when compared to the price of a loaf of bread in London remained the same. 37 And the wages of many weavers and artisans during this time sharply declined. The wages of wavers fell by almost three-quarters between 1800 and 1830 as mechanized looms made the work of hand weavers less valuable. 38 Third, the economist ignores the first hand accounts of workers and sanitation studies which describe the dire situation of the working class. A sanitation study from 1842 describes how the, “townships of knutton and Chesterton have been visited with fever for several months.” 39 Besides epidemics, reports from this period tell of horrific child labor and poverty. The economist by looking at the growing wealth of England as a whole ignores the plight of the working class who in the first part of the 19th century benefited little from the economic boom. The alternative view that many social reformers took during the 1800’s was that the entire period was disastrous for the working class. This view is taken by such people as Frederick Engels who in the industrial revolution see only ruin for the working class, “only industry has made it possible for workers who have barely emerged from a state of serfdom to be again treated as chattels and not as human beings.” 40 The notion that the industrial revolution lead to no improvements for the working class overlooks the benefits that the growing power of unions brought. First, the urban workers by the end of the 19th century enjoyed more political protections that ever before: he/she could be in a union, vote in certain elections, hold office, and strike. Legislation that prior to the 1840’s did little to protect workers in the latter half of the century protected workers and was enforced. Second, the economic level of the working class was greatly improved by collective bargaining which brought a tripling in consumption of tea, sugar, and tobacco per capita in England 41 and a doubling in the real income of workers. 42 This reflected the fact that workers increasingly had disposable income to spend on non vital goods. Although workers even at the end of the century were not equal partners with titans of industry, the 19th century gave them organization, power, and money which never before did they posses. In slums of Lancashire where laborers rioted, unionized, and fought for better working conditions throughout the 19th century workers were able to secure for themselves improved conditions. All across England similar efforts had through strange turns of events turned the most appalling conditions of the 19th century into a rallying cry that gave birth to a powerful and multimillion member union movement. This movement was able in the later part of the 19th century improved conditions for workers. The song of the Workers Maypole composed in 1894 at the close of the 19th century expresses the hope that workers had for their future. This hope had already been borne out in the improving conditions of workers throughout the late 1800’s. The song reads, “Let the winds lift you banners from far lands with a message of strife and hope: Raise the Maypole aloft with garlands, That gathers you cause in scope.”

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