2.3. Development of Living and Working Conditions

The morally worst aspect of the Industrial Revolution was the employment of small children for long hours, and in bad conditions, in the factories. In the eighteenth century, children did have to work, but generally in their home or in a small workshop, and not continuously in the same activity for 12 hours or more. 

With reference to the textile mills, until 1819 the employment of children of under 9 years was legally permitted, and in many cases they worked 12 hours or more; from 1819, children under 16 could not work more than 12 hours per day; from 1833, children from 9 to 13 could not work more than 8 hours a day, and children under 18 could not work at night; from 1844, children from 9 to 13 could only work 6 ½ hours, and women and young people could not work at night.

The problem was not that the work for the children was hard, or required much energy per hour. In the majority of the cases they had to walk back and forward accompanying the machine, continuously for a total of 12 hours a day, only resting a short time for food; some of these died in the months or years after leaving the mill, from accumulated exhaustion. In other cases, they had problems with the spine, or “knock-knees”, due to working continuously in the same bodily position.   

The adults in the textile factories generally worked 12 hours, 6 days a week, up to 1833. In 1843, the employers in all the companies in Manchester, decided without legal requirement, to stop working their businesses at 2 p. m. on Saturday, without reducing weekly wages. 

In other industrial activities the adults usually worked 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. 

Many adults in “domestic manufacture” or “sweated labour” had to work more than 12 hours a day, in order to produce enough articles for sale, to have a minimum income. The worst cases were the seamstresses and shirtmakers, who on occasion had to work 18 hours a day, for a pittance.

The infant (0-12 months) and child (13-60 months) death rates in the period 1750-1800 were about 180/1000 for the infants in towns and in villages, and 180/1000 for the children in towns and 110/1000 for the children in villages. During the Industrial Revolution, the figures got better for the agricultural counties, and got worse for the industrial counties and towns. The figures for infant mortality in 1844 were: Average England and Wales 151/1000, Metropolis 161, Manchester 207, Liverpool 239, Leeds 154, Birmingham 173, Berks/Hants/Sussex 124, Devon 103, Dorset/Wilts 109. 

The high infant and child mortality in the industrial towns were not due to the bad – or non-existent – sanitary arrangements in their house or in their street. They were due to the lack of care by the mother, and lack of feeding. The mothers were working long shifts in the factory, and had only a few weeks free for the birth of the child.  

With respect to the life expectancy, the doctors of the time did not have access to assured data of births occurred, and so they used the term “Value of Life”, which was the proportion between deaths and the number of population. This improved in the following sequence: 1780 1/45; 1801 1/47; 1811 1/50; 1821 1/58; 1831 1/58. 

There was extreme housing overcrowding in nearly all the industrial towns, as the number of inhabitants increased more rapidly than the houses could be built. This process started about 1800 in Manchester and Liverpool, and about 1820 in the other towns. In Liverpool, and in a lesser proportion in Manchester, many families lived in cellars (which had originally been weavers’ workshops). On the other hand, in Manchester, starting in 1820-1830, there were large amounts of construction of houses in the new suburbs (in 1844, there were 130,000 inhabitants in the Old Township, and 200,000 inhabitants in the suburbs). In Birmingham and in Sheffield, the housing situation was better: no one lived in cellars, and each family lived in one house.   

The sanitary arrangements in the industrial towns were very bad, or rather, non-existent. There were very few sewers to take the rubbish and excrement away from the houses; the blocks of houses had very few privies (outside), often 3 privies for more than 100 persons. Obviously, these conditions made the transmission of infectious diseases (cholera, typhus) easy, and caused much diarrhea. In many towns there were no local governments which might have addressed these problems earlier. The sewers and the state of the streets were improved by the authorities, starting in around 1840 (in Manchester, 1832). 

The really bad conditions (“Engels”) were confined to smaller districts inside the towns; visitors were taken to see them.

The unhealthy situation in the towns was not replicated in the “country mills”, of which there were a considerable number with 500 or more workers. These were really “mill villages”, or communities. There was no problem with sanitation (in many cases, the owners built cottages, each with an outside privy), and the owners treated the workers and their families well. But the workers and their children did have to work 10 or more hours a day. 

The extreme working conditions and the long hours caused bodily deformation and – in the earlier years – early death, or lack of strength after 40 years of age. Working in different environments caused industrial diseases and injuries. The towns and regions with metal and chemical industries had a large amount of pollution; the worst factor in general was the coal smoke (supposedly in Leeds, you could only see the sun on Sunday, when the factories stopped).

These bad conditions would appear to have made living during the Industrial Revolution, at least from 1820 onwards, a horrible experience. But it must be remembered that the majority of the population did not work in the industrial towns.

The Industrial Revolution also brought a number of improvements for the population: trains, gas lighting in the towns, postage stamps. The work in agriculture and in mining was made easier by the use of new metal implements.

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