17.10. Contradictory “Optical” Assumptions

A large part of our vision of life in the period of the Industrial Revolution is that there were horrible sanitary and drainage conditions in the towns, and concurrently very high mortality rates for infants below 12 months and children of from 13 to 60 months old. We make the – apparently – “logical” jump to the idea, that the fact of these conditions demonstrates that the workers were poor, and had no intellectual or cultural interests.

This was not the case. A large number of the textile workers had good incomes. The point is that they could not do anything themselves about this state of affairs, and they could not have done anything, even if they had suddenly received 5 shillings a week more. The exception is Manchester, where from 1820, the better paid workers changed their domicile to the new “suburbs”.

It is also not the case that the bad sanitary conditions were exclusive to the industrial towns in the North (they were somewhat worse in Manchester and Leeds, as parts of these were constructed on low-lying ground, immediately next to a river). The majority of medium and large towns had these problems. They were not able to solve them. 

We can take the example of Abergavenny, a town of 5,000 inhabitants and 1,000 houses in Monmouthshire. The working population is mostly of building artisans of a good level (3 to 4 shillings a day), shoemakers, and agricultural labourers (10 to 14 shillings a week). The professional persons are attorneys, druggists, land agents, insurance agents. There are a number of shops (grocery, butchers, cabinet makers, booksellers, etc.) which also serve the nearby iron district. 

We have a report written by a doctor in 1844. He notes that the yearly mortality in Abergavenny is 1 in 42 (Leeds 1 in 37, average of Lancashire 1 in 37), 38 % of the population die before their fifth birthday (Manchester 51 %, Leeds 49 %). The average age at death was 43 for gentlemen and professional persons and their families, 28 for tradesmen and their families, 26 for mechanics, labourers, and their families (obviously including the deaths of children).

One of the main streets has a gutter running down the middle, which is always full of “liquid refuse”. Many houses do not have a privy. In one old part of the town, the houses are all crowded together, there is only one privy, but the door and the roof do not exist, and “the soil appearing above the level of the seat, so as to render use impossible”. Close by the privy is a manure heap, and beyond it a slaughter-house with pools of mingled water, blood and urine. In Pant Lane, here are some blocks of lodging-houses, which before had only one privy for all, but two more have been built, even so, that is one privy for 50 people; the cesspool is a hole in the ground. All the wards of the town have this sort of description, except around the High Street, which appears to be acceptable.

The doctor then gives statistics of annual deaths per ward, and infectious illnesses per ward. “The conclusion drawn from this is that although the town wards where the rate of mortality is highest are inhabited chiefly by the poor, the privations caused by poverty are not alone sufficient to account for this and that the poor sanitation and other defective arrangements are the main causes for so many deaths.”

Thus we see that the professional classes and better-paid artisans get on with their lives, although they inhabit districts with horrible sanitation.

(Samuel H. Steel, A Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Town of Abergavenny, 1847) 

The following investigation is from John Finch the Younger, a large-scale iron merchant, and comes from a book publishes by the Liverpool Anti-Monopoly Association, about the “Statistics of Vauxhall Ward, Liverpool; showing the actual condition of more than Five Thousand Families”, and compares their situation in 1842 with that of 1835.

Vauxhall Ward had a “large number of superior mechanics”; 15 % of the inhabitants were middle class, 45 % labourers, and 25 % mechanics and artisans. The population was 25 % born in Liverpool, and 45 % immigrated from Ireland (“mostly in indigent circumstances”). The commercial activities were “iron foundries, soap, alkali, chemical, and other manufacturies”. Of 1,600 mechanics and artisans, 150 are engineers and smiths, 160 are joiners, 250 are shoe and boot makers, 140 are tailors, 190 are sailors and ship pilots.

We show a page for a sample of 50 families in 1835 and in 1842.

From the data columns for 1835, we can calculate that the labourers have earnings of from 15 to 20 shillings, with an average of 17 shillings 6 pence. The mechanics have earnings of from 15 to 20 shillings in general (but with cases of 40, 34, 30, 30, 25), with an average of 17 shillings.

We can also see that the average family size was 4.1 persons, the average weekly income was 17 shillings 6 pence, the meat expense was 2 shillings 6 pence, the bread expenses was 3 shillings, oatmeal was 4 pence, potatoes was 1 shilling, and the residual amount for clothing, rent, fuel, and non-basic food was 10 shillings 6 pence. Nearly all the families ate meat. The amount of food consumed was 6 pounds per family, the bread was 5 quartern loaves, oatmeal was 3 pounds, potatoes was 30 pounds.

But, surprisingly, this was the worst ward in Liverpool, as to housing conditions and health. The density of housing was among the worst, the percentage of families living in courts was 40 % and in cellars was 12 %, only 30 % of streets had sewerage, the deaths were 1 in 23 of the population, and the proportion of fever cases was 4 times the average of Liverpool (see First Report on the State of Great Towns, 1844, Tables 11, 12, 13, 15, 15, pp. 148-153).

But we have seen that the people have good jobs and eat well.

Merthyr Tydfil

This was a town with coal mining and ironworks in the South of Wales, built next to deposits of coal, ironstone, and limestone. It had 10,000 inhabitants in 1800 and 40,000 in 1850. In the second quarter of the nineteenth century it was the largest ironworks complex in the world. 

It had practically no sanitation; there was not one public sewer or drain in the town. There was not enough water supplied to the town – obviously the miners and the furnace workers required the water to wash themselves daily – but the water was needed for the industrial processes. In 1846, in comparison with 1601 births, there were 412 deaths of children under 5 years (260 / 1000); the region had the highest child mortality in England and Wales, apart from Lancashire and the West Riding. In 1849 there was an outbreak of cholera which killed 1,500 people, despite considerable efforts by the owners and the medical officers.

But the town had a high cultural level. 

“I must again mention the booksellers because I consider them in proportion more numerous than the other trades …. a circumstance significant of the tendency to home and fireside amusements, which deserve notice and encouragement in a place where, by far, the bulk of the population is made up of the working classes.”

(Ginswick, 1983; Merthyr Tydfil and Dowlais, Letter VI, 1849, p. 67)

“I next called upon Mr. Wilkins the bookseller, who supplies the market-houses here, at Dowlais, and in the neighbouring works. He told me that if the cheap publications were in Welsh the sale would be enormous. While conversing with Mr. Wilkins, I was forcibly struck with the circumstance that the sellers of cheap publications can lead as well as follow the taste of the labouring classes. A heavy responsibility is in their hands. Mr. Wilkins disposes of:

                                               Weekly                                 Weekly                        

The Family Herald                 360          The Northern Star        12          

The London Journal               360         The News of the World 189    

Eliza Cook’s Miscellany           18            Dipple’s Miscellany      12          

The People and Howitt’s Journal 18    The Physician    24                       

The Home Circle                      18            Lloyd’s Miscellany       24             

Reynold’s Miscellany               60           The Brigand         6                       

Reynold’s Political Instructor  36         The Hebrew Maiden      12           

The Domestic Journal              12  

These particulars give a tolerably clear insight into the literary predilections of the inhabitants of this populous neighbourhood – which it will be seen, run equally in the direction of their worldly and spiritual necessities, the learning of the sceinces on which they depend for bread, ….”

(Ibid. p. 68)

In another bookseller, a large number of religious tracts were to be bought (both Church of England and Welsh Chapel).

They had a brass band.

“Wisely endeavouring to improve the character of his workmen by means of a refined amusement, Mr. Robert Crawshay has established among them a brass band, which practices once a week throughout the year. It is entirely composed of workmen. They have the good fortune to be led by a man (one of the roll-turners) who must have had somewhere a superior musical education. I had the pleasure of hearing them perform the Overture to Zampa, the Caliph of Baghdad, and Fra Diavolo, Vivi Tu, some concerted music from Roberto, Don Giovani, and Lucia, with a quantity of waltzes, polkas, and dance music. The bandmaster had them under excellent control; he everywhere took the time well, and the instruments preserved it, each taking up his lead with spirit and accuracy; in short I have seldom heard a regimental band more perfect than this handful of workmen, located (far from any place where they might command the benefit of hearing other bands) in the mountains of Wales. When I was informed of the existence of this band, I knew how to account for a circumstance that puzzled me – hearing the boys of Cyfartha works whistle the best airs from the most popular operas. The great body of men at these works are extremely proud of their musical performances, and like to boast of them. I have been told it cost Mr. Crawshay great pains and expenses to bring this band to its present excellent condition. If so, he now has his reward. Besides this, he has shown what the intellectual capacity of the workman is equal to, and, above all, he has provided a rational and refined amusement for classes whose leisure time would otherwise probably have been lass creditably spent than in learning or listening to music. I greatly wish his example were followed at other works. Give a man an instrument to learn or play, and his spare time is employed in a manner equally entertaining and improving whilst his family benefits by an occupation which, in a greater degree, keeps him out of temptation.”

(Ibid., p. 60)

“I visited the new schools and examined the children. The following is the substance of the notes I made. The exterior of the building is neat, and of the “ancient almshouse” style, with slate roof and high gables. It struck me, however, as being low – an objection the importance of which Mr. Wyatt, who is the architect, will, I hope, consider when he next designs an edifice of this kind. I first went to the boys’ school. On examining the books I found that the average attendance was about 120 daily. The boys were mostly well-clothed and clean; only one of them was barefoot. The master, who is from the training school at Westminster, observed that they were children who “but for the school would have been running the streets”. The course of instruction at present comprises reading, writing and arithmetic, geography, and the outlines of history. When the highest class boys are sufficiently advanced they will be taught grammar. I tried the second class, consisting of boys from seven to nine years old, in the Gospel of St. Luke, and they acquitted themselves very creditably, reading without hesitation and correctly. One boy in the head class was working a sum in practice, another in reduction, a third in subtraction and so on. As a body, the master the children show great acuteness and capacity. “The only difficulty I have,” said he, “is to get them to attend regularly; when they stay away for a few days they fall back. Mondays and Fridays are the worst days for attendance.” He could give me no reason why on these days the attendance was small. On turning suddenly from the master, I asked the boy nearest to me (who might be about nine years old); “What kindness did Mary Magadalene do for Christ?” He replied without a moment’s thought, “She washed his feet, and wiped them with the hair of her head”.

(Ibid., p. 77)

“I took the opportunity of visiting the Adult Schools. I could scarcely credit my senses when the governess told me that the girls I was were those whom I formerly described as stacking coal for coking, loading trams, and cleaning ore on the slopes of the mountain, black, coarsely clad and repulsive. Here they were clean, orderly, and well-dressed. The average attendance at present is 60. The governess, a very intelligent woman, of many years’ experience, speaking of the aptness of these grown up women for learning, said, “You would be surprised how rapidly they get on. Even married women have learnt to read the Testament and to write well, in one season.” They were mostly writing when I entered, using steel pens [Industrial Revolution!] and copy-books – far preferable to the slate and pencil, which I think are too much used in some of these schools. A lady of the town – one of the voluntary teachers – was here engaged in her beneficent duties. The school for men being at a distance, in George Town, Cyfartha, I had not an opportunity of visiting it. The average attendance, I was told, is about 90.”

(Ibid., p. 78)

We should also remember the workers attending the Ancoats Lyceum, in one of the poorest areas in Manchester, close to the largest mills. They decided to rent a house for lectures and for a library of 700 books. The men workers paid 8 shillings a year and the women 5 shillings. 

The working class in the industrial districts did not give up on life, even if they were living in the midst of horribly dirty streets, and with a high rate of infant mortality. They were capable of cultural, intellectual, and social activities, in spite of all these disadvantages in their daily living conditions. 


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