Comments Off on 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 …read more