The Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions

The Industrial Revolution: Social Impact and Legacies


Although the Industrial Revolution ushered in a new era of urbanization, productivity, and wealth for England, it had tremendous social effects and legacies. For the middle class, the Industrial Revolution offered opportunity and potentially higher income. But for the lower class, it brought about low wages and poor working conditions. Most of English society now worked for a boss, rather than themselves. And inside the factories, workers increasingly experienced dehumanization as wealthy factory owners viewed their employees as disposable.


Learning Objectives

  • Evaluate the social impact of the Industrial Revolution on English society


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Luddites: organized, English textile workers who often protested labor conditions by destroying machinery 

The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844: book by Friedrich Engels in which he examines English workers of the Industrial Revolution

Child labor: a major component of the Industrial Revolution in which children were widely used to fill work positions considered unfit for adults  

Chartism: organized movement led by English workers who advocated for improved labor conditions during the Industrial Revolution 


Factory System and Society


The transition to industrialization was not without difficulty. For example, a group of English textile workers known as Luddites protested against industrialization and sometimes sabotaged factories.


Cartoon image of a large man gesturing to others to follow with a building burning in the background
Leader of the Luddites


Debate arose concerning the morality of the factory system, as workers complained about unfair working conditions. One of the problems concerned women’s labor. Women were always paid less than men and, in many cases, as little as a quarter of what men made. Child labor was also a major part of the system. However, in the early nineteenth century, education was not compulsory and in working families, children’s wages were seen as a necessary contribution to the family budget. Automation in the late nineteenth century is credited with ending child labor and according to many historians, it was more effective than gradually changing child labor laws. Years of schooling began to increase sharply from the end of the nineteenth century when elementary state-provided education for all became a viable concept.


One of the best-known accounts of factory workers’ living conditions during the Industrial Revolution is Friedrich Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England In it, Engels described backstreet sections of Manchester and other mill towns where people lived in crude shanties and shacks, some not completely enclosed, some with dirt floors. These shantytowns had narrow walkways between irregularly shaped lots and dwellings. There were no sanitary facilities. The population density was extremely high. Eight to ten unrelated mill workers often shared a room with no furniture and slept on a pile of straw or sawdust. Disease spread through a contaminated water supply. By the late 1880s, Engels noted that the extreme poverty and lack of sanitation he wrote about in 1844 had largely disappeared. Since then, the historical debate on the question of the living conditions of factory workers has been very controversial. While some have pointed out that living conditions of the poor workers were tragic everywhere and industrialization, in fact, slowly improved the living standards of a steadily increasing number of workers, others have concluded that living standards for the majority of the population did not grow meaningfully until the late 19th and 20th centuries and that in many ways workers’ living standards declined under early capitalism.


Working-Class Women


Before the Mines and Collieries Act 1842, women (and children) carted tubs of coal up through the narrow mine shafts. In Wolverhampton, the law did not have much of an impact on women’s mining employment because they mainly worked above-ground at the coal mines, sorting coal, loading canal boats, and doing other surface tasks. Over time, more men than women would find industrial employment, and industrial wages provided a higher level of material security than agricultural employment. Consequently, women, who were traditionally involved in all agricultural labor, would be left behind in less-profitable agriculture. By the late 1860s, very low wages in agricultural work turned women to industrial employment.


In industrialized areas, women could find employment on assembly lines, providing industrial laundry services, or in the textile mills that sprang up during the Industrial Revolution in such cities as Manchester, Leeds, and Birmingham. Spinning and winding wool, silk, and other types of piecework were a common way of earning income by working from home, but wages were very low and hours long. Often 14 hours per day were needed to earn enough to survive. Needlework was the single highest-paid occupation for women working from home, but the work paid little and women often had to rent sewing machines that they could not afford to buy. These home manufacturing industries became known as “sweated industries.” By 1906, such workers earned about a penny an hour. Women were never paid the same wage as a man for the same work, despite the fact that they were as likely as men to be married and supporting children.


Child Labor


Although child labor was widespread prior to industrialization, the exploitation of child workforce intensified during the Industrial Revolution.

Child labor became the labor of choice for manufacturing in the early phases of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries. In England and Scotland in 1788, two-thirds of the workers in a water-powered cotton mill were children. Employers paid a child less than an adult even though their productivity was comparable. There was no need for strength to operate an industrial machine and since the industrial system was completely new, there were no experienced adult laborers. Factory and mine owners preferred child labor also because they perceived the child workers’ smaller size as an advantage. In textile factories, children were desired because of their supposed “nimble fingers,” while low and narrow mine galleries made children particularly effective mine workers. Working hours were long: builders worked 64 hours a week in summer and 52 in winter, while domestic servants worked 80-hour weeks.


Organized Labor


The concentration of workers in factories, mines, and mills facilitated the development of trade unions during the Industrial Revolution. After the initial decades of political hostility towards organized labor, skilled male workers emerged as the early beneficiaries of the labor movement.




In the later 1830s and 1840s, trade unionism was overshadowed by political activity. Of particular importance was Chartism, a working-class movement for political reform in Britain that existed from 1838 to 1858. Support for the movement was at its highest in 1839, 1842, and 1848, when petitions signed by millions of working people were presented to Parliament. The scale of support demonstrated by these petitions and the accompanying mass meetings put pressure on politicians to concede manhood suffrage. The government did not yield to any of the demands and suffrage had to wait another two decades. Chartism was popular among some trade unions, especially London’s tailors, shoemakers, carpenters, and masons. One reason was the fear of the influx of unskilled labor, especially in tailoring and shoemaking. Chartism taught techniques and political skills that inspired trade union leadership.




The Industrial Revolution transformed England in the nineteenth century. Likewise, it set in motion a blueprint for how modern, western society should develop. Cottage industries were rendered archaic, and urbanization exploded as people moved from the countryside into the cities in search of factory work. As England industrialized, so too did their people. And in the process, they lost much of their autonomy and became cogs in England’s great industrial wheel.