Just How Bad Were Working Conditions in the 19th Century?

If is commonly held that  working conditions in 19th century cities were much worse than those who lived and worked in the countryside at the time or earlier; similarly you will regularly hear that the creation of factories split up families because the father had to go to work for so many hours every day whereas previously they had seen much more of him. When I questioned the basis of this once with some, the answer I got was that ‘Charles Dickens proved it’. This was not a satisfactory answer to me – even if his picture portrayed in his novels is accurate it represents at best anecdotal evidence. It would be foolish, I suggest, to draw any conclusions about the general situation at this period only by consideration of works of fiction written for popular consumption. It does not give us facts and figures that might indicate what living standards were actually like during the 19th century; how conditions in the cities compared to those in the country; and how those conditions compared to the those of the previous century.

For an alternative view i looked to Capitalism and the Historians. This is a series of essays by economic historians who conclude that under capitalism in the 19th century, despite long hours and other hardships of factory life, people were in fact better off financially, had more opportunities to better themselves financially, had better living conditions and lived a life more supportive of the family life than those who lived in the country.

The five historians each describe first the life of the workers in the country, which were far worse for the most part than those in the cities. As a result, many people chose to leave the country and work in the city. This caused a problem for the the the landowners, who could not find the labour they needed to work the land and so they created a propaganda campaign highlighting the evils of the factories in order to dissuade their workers from leaving. The irony is that this propaganda was used by Marx and Engels who uncritically accepted much of it in their analysis of the factory system in Manchester. It is the Marxist propagandists who, harnessing envy of the vast riches for the industrialists, succeeded in making this the received wisdom. Furthermore, where there was injustice or dangerous working conditions, laws protecting workers were introduced quite quickly and without any input from Marx or Engels.

It is not true, either, if these are to be believed, that, as a general rule, industrialists thought that anything that any result of market forces was morally justified. There were some of course, but these were as likely to be landowners employing agricultural workers as factory owners in the cities. In fact, those who employed agricultural workers were much more successful in paying low wages because there wasn’t the same scrutiny of them due to the success of their propoganda campaign. So for example, WH Hutt tells us that,  ’Lord Shaftesbury, when asked by Therod Rogers why he had not sought to extend protective legislation to children in the fields when he knew that their work was ”to the full as physically injurious” as premature labour in the factories, replied that it was a question of practical politics and that, if he had sought the emancipation of all, he would have obtained the support of no party at all’

A lot of the problems that did exist were created by the success of the industrial age and the developing capitalist system. Improved diet and better housing conditions lead to improved health and mortality rates. The huge growth in the population that ensued overloaded the infrastructure and in turn to huge problems in the cities because the sewage systems could not cope and this lead to disease as the River Thames, in London, for example, became an open sewer. And again, because we are dealing with a population that is larger than ever before, the scale of the problems is greater than ever before. But this in itself does not point to a problem that is inherently worse in industrialisation than in the agricultural economy.  The response was not immediate, but when, quite fairly it was dealt with by the society of the time. So in London in 1856 work on a sewers began, for example. This was so successful a project that much of it is still in use today, 150 years later. The story of the building of this system is one of engineers with great civic pride and dedication driven by genuine concern for the common good.

The contributors to this book by no means paint a picture of perfection but make the point that generally conditions were better than those of agricultural works and were steadily improving throughout the period. Everything I read here about 19th century England supports the assertion that where there is an economy that corresponds to John Paul II’s ‘free economy’ we move towards a better society. Where it departs from it, for example where you have capitalists colluding with government to restrict competition, then problems do occur that will not be solved by the system itself, and the injustices that occur need to be addressed by increasing and protecting personal freedom.

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David is an Englishman living in New Hampshire, USA. He is an artist, teacher, published writer and broadcaster who holds a permanent post as Artist-in-Residence and Lecturer in Liberal Arts at the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts. The Way of Beauty program, which is offered at TMC, focuses on the link between Catholic culture, with a special emphasis on art, and the liturgy. David was received into the Church in London in 1993. Visit the Way of Beauty blog at thewayofbeauty.org.

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