Industrial Conditions in 19th century Britain
From 'A History of the British Nation' by AD Innes, 1912
At the moment when the younger Pitt came into power in 1784, England and Scotland were beginning to feel the first effects of the impulses and the inventions which in the course of fifty years revolutionised the industrial system and changed the bases of the whole social structure. The tools worked by hand were already largely displaced by machinery driven by water-power; already the initial difficulties which James Watt had found in making his steam-engine workable had been mastered, and steam-power was being applied to mills. Already the development of a canal system had provided new facilities of transport and immensely increased traffic, and already the renewed process of enclosure was submerging the yeoman.
The Age of Steam
Before the next fifty years were over, steam had become the driving power of the machinery which made Great Britain the world's workshop; steam had been at last applied to locomotion, so that as concerns traffic the changes brought about by the canals were on the verge of becoming relatively insignificant; and a few years were to see the steamship on its way to supersede the sailing vessel. The yeoman had disappeared altogether, and the main population of England was no longer rural but had become urban.
A new phenomenon in the world's history, an industrial nation, had come into being, pregnant with new problems. And society was barely beginning to think of adjusting itself to the new conditions, barely beginning to realise that the conditions were new and unprecedented. It was still unable to distinguish between the social revolution born in France, a revolt against feudalism, a revolution of ideas, and the economic revolution born in England, a revolution in material conditions.
The application of water-power meant the setting up of machinery and the aggregation of workers where water-power was available. The application of steam-power meant the setting up of machinery and the aggregation of workers where coal was readily available. The demands of the new machinery for coal and iron gathered workers to the coal-fields and the iron-fields. These causes combined to shift the weight of population from the south to the north; it made the northern counties the most populous instead of the least populous area of the kingdom, and turned places which had been unimportant villages into crowded towns.
But the population multiplied more rapidly that the employment increased; and so long as the increased output of machinery outstripped the increased demand for goods which followed upon the lessened cost of production, the setting up of machinery diminished employment Machinery appeared to the labourer to be a device to enable rich men to take the bread out of the mouths of the poor. They had no chance of realising that in the long run machinery would mean increased employment; and even if they had been able to realise it, the prospect of good wages in the remote future did not compensate for low wages or none in the present Therefore in the eyes of the working men machinery was an evil thing; and with low wages and short employment came outbreaks of machine-smashing and general violence, which kept alive the conviction that only by stern repression could the country be saved from a repetition of the horrors which had taken place in France.
The fear of Jacobinism, not the desire to control labour in the interests of capital, was the reason of the laws which in 1799 and 1800 prohibited combinations and unions whether of masters or of workmen. The Government looked upon associations as in themselves dangerous, as instruments which would be unscrupulously directed to the subversion of the political and social order. But in fact under the new conditions the prohibition of unions placed the employed at the mercy of the employers.
Concerted action on the part of employers as well as concerted action on the part of the men was made illegal, but it did not practically affect them. Unless the men acted in concert, the individual master could always get as many individual men as he required on his own terms. In effect, therefore, the law intervened on behalf of the masters against the men, while in theory it was applying one rule to both. The obvious conclusion for the labouring man was that the law was made in the interest of the employer by the governing class to which the employer belonged, and there would be no fair play for the working man until he got the making of the laws into his own hands.
Polarisation between employers and labourers
Until the end of the eighteenth century our own history presents us with few signs of class hostility either widely spread or bitter, after the period of the great Peasant Revolt. Even Jack Cade's rebellion in the middle of the fifteenth century was not a revolt of the lower against the upper classes in the social scale; that character was attributed to it only by later writers; and for that view there was no better ground than that the leaders made use of such discontent as survived among the peasantry to increase their following. The revolts in the Tudor period were not risings of class against class, of poor against rich, but were the outcome of quite specific grievances. The Great Rebellion was in no sense a war of classes.
There was no widespread sense of antagonism between labour and capital. But that was precisely the new sense which was brought into being by the new manufacture. Until the new manufacture came into play the labourer himself possessed the tools of his trade. For the most part also his trade was not his sole means of livelihood. But with the new manufacture, accompanied by the new period of enclosure, his trade became his sole means of livelihood, and he was entirely dependent on the employer, who owned the whole machinery of production.
The disappearance of the yeoman, and of the cottar who derived a part of his living from the plot of ground which he occupied, drew a sharper distinction between, the capitalist class which paid wages for labour and the labouring class which gave labour for wages, between the wage payers and the wage earners. And precisely at the moment when the severance of classes was becoming more definite and marked came the French Revolution, the uprising of oppressed against oppressing classes, which, looked at from another point of view, was an anarchical revolt against all lawful authority.
It was inevitable that the one point of view should be adopted by the dependent classes who had no share in the government and the other by the class on whom they were dependent, who monopolised the government. It was inevitable also that the two classes should conceive of their respective interests as mutually antagonistic. The employer, conscious of his own intention to be just, was indignant because the operative did not recognise his justice; the operative could see no justice in a system under which his wages were low and precarious while the employer .grew rich, as he argued, upon the proceeds of his toil. The new manufacturing conditions, therefore, created an antagonism between labour and capital for which the old conditions had provided no basis.
In the agricultural districts, however, the effect was not quite the same; the cottar-holding, the small farm, and the open field, were absorbed into large farms, and the large fields partitioned by hedgerows came into existence, which we have learned to look upon as the characteristic of English landscape in all agricultural districts. The small farmer and the cottar were turned into wage-earning agricultural labourers; but the wage-payer was the large farmer, not the landowner. The large farmer could conduct his operations with a very much more economical distribution of labour than was possible under the old system; but the antagonism between the rural wage-payers and wage-earners was very much modified by the new application of the Poor Law. With a large overplus of labour on the market, wages were low and employment was insufficient.
The powers bestowed upon the magistrates by Gilbert's Act were brought into play; the Speenhamland Board led the disastrous way by supplementing wages out of rates, and other boards all over the country followed suit. Wherever wages were below a certain level an allowance was made to the labourer and that allowance was increased according to the size of his family. Thus a subsistence was secured to the labourer, while he was encouraged to increase his family and replenish the earth, since the enlargement of the population was regarded as an object of national importance, emphasised by the war. But the system, while it preserved the labourer from destitution, at the same time deprived him of all sense of responsibility. It destroyed the relation between work and wages, because whether wages were high or low, subsistence was secured; and the farmer did not realise that he was making up by the payment of high rates what he saved by the payment of low wages.
The war too came to help the agricultural community in another way. While the rapid increase of the population necessitated an increased food supply, the war prevented that supply from being supplemented from abroad. The price of corn rose, and it became possible to bring under cultivation great areas of land which it had not before paid to put under the plough; thus employment was increased. The prices which made the cultivation, of inferior land pay made the better land pay enormously; the landlords were able to obtain very high rents, while the farmer still pocketed large profits. The price of corn was fixed at that which made the poorer land pay, because if it had been lowered the poorer land would have gone out of cultivation, the supply would have run short, and the price would have gone up again. The war came to an end, and the agricultural interest, landlords, farmers, and labourers, were faced with the prospect of lowered prices. Land would go out of cultivation since the supply of food would be made good from abroad. Employment would diminish; the capital expended on extension would be thrown away. The farmers' profits would fall, the landlords' rents would fall.
Both landlords and farmers had acquired the habit of living up to the large incomes which the war had brought them, and retrenchment would be exceedingly difficult; to many of them it would in effect mean ruin. And beyond their personal interests there were, it appeared, national interests at stake. The country would no longer grow a supply of food sufficient for its own need; it had only been able to do so during the war by bringing the poorer land under cultivation. If a new war came, that land could not be at once brought under cultivation again, and the country would be starved out.
Without any consciousness of self-interested motives, the agricultural interest demanded that the price of corn must be maintained; and it procured the enactment of the Corn Law of 1815, which kept up the high price of living for the population at large without securing to the agricultural interest the war rates of profit, while the steady multiplication of the mouths to be fed made it yearly more impossible that the country should continue even under the most favourable conditions to be self-sufficing in its food supply.