The Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions

The Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions

The Agricultural Revolution


The Agricultural Revolution was the unprecedented increase in agricultural production in Britain between the mid-17th and late 19th centuries. It preceded the Industrial Revolution and is often considered one of its causes. The Agricultural Revolution was linked to such new agricultural practices as crop rotation, selective breeding, and more productive use of arable land.


Learning Objectives  

  • Examine the foundations of the Agricultural Revolution in Britain.

  • Analyze the social and technological impact of the Agricultural Revolution on the British classes.


Key Terms / Key Concepts  

Agricultural Revolution: a period of agricultural reform in England that produced numerous technological inventions and techniques  

Enclosure: The process that ended traditional rights on common land and restricted land use to the property owner

General Enclosure Act of 1801: an early piece of English legislature sanctioning the practice of enclosure 

Threshing machine: a piece of farm equipment that separates grain seeds from stalks and hulls


The Agricultural Revolution 



The Agricultural Revolution was the unprecedented increase in agricultural production in Britain due to increases in labor and land productivity between the mid-17th and late 19th centuries. Agricultural output grew faster than the population over the century up until 1770; thereafter productivity remained among the highest in the world. This increase in the food supply contributed to the rapid growth of population in England and Wales, from 5.5 million in 1700 to over 9 million by 1801, and domestic production gave way to food imports in the 19th century as population more than tripled to over 32 million. The rise in productivity accelerated the decline of the agricultural share of the labor force, adding to the urban workforce on which industrialization depended. The Agricultural Revolution has, therefore, been cited as a cause of the Industrial Revolution. However, historians also continue to dispute whether the developments leading to the unprecedented agricultural growth can be seen as “a revolution,” since the growth was, in fact, a result of a series of significant changes over a long period of time. Consequently, the question of when exactly such a revolution took place and of what it consisted remains open.


Crop Rotation and New Industrial Tools


One of the most important innovations of the Agricultural Revolution was the development of the Norfolk four-course rotation, which greatly increased crop and livestock yields by improving soil fertility and reducing fallow.

Crop rotation is the practice of growing a series of dissimilar types of crops in the same area in sequential seasons to help restore plant nutrients and mitigate the build-up of pathogens and pests that often occurs when one plant species is continuously cropped. Rotation can also improve soil structure and fertility by alternating deep-rooted and shallow-rooted plants. The Norfolk System rotates crops so that different crops are planted with the result that different kinds and quantities of nutrients are taken from the soil as the plants grow. An important feature of the Norfolk four-field system was that it used labor at times when demand was not at peak levels. 

Townshend is often mentioned—together with Jethro Tull, Robert Bakewell, and others—as a major figure in England’s Agricultural Revolution, contributing to the adoption of agricultural practices that supported the increase in Britain’s population between 1700 and 1850.

An important factor of the Agricultural Revolution was the invention of new tools and advancement of old ones, including the plough, seed drill, and threshing machine, to improve the efficiency of agricultural operations.

The mechanization and rationalization of agriculture was a key factor of the Agricultural Revolution. New tools were invented and old ones perfected to improve the efficiency of various agricultural operations.

In his 1731 publication, Jethro Tull described how the motivation for developing the seed drill arose from conflict with his servants. He struggled to enforce his new methods upon them, in part because they resisted the threat to their position as laborers and skill with the plough. He also invented machinery for the purpose of carrying out his system of drill husbandry, about 1733. His first invention was a drill-plow to sow wheat and turnip seed in drills, three rows at a time.

A threshing machine or thresher is a piece of farm equipment that threshes grain: removes the seeds from the stalks and husks by beating the plant to make the seeds fall out. Before such machines were developed, threshing was done by hand with flails and was very laborious and time-consuming, requiring about one-quarter of agricultural labor by the 18th century. Mechanization of this process removed a substantial amount of drudgery from farm labor. The first threshing machine was invented circa 1786 by the Scottish engineer Andrew Meikle, and the subsequent adoption of such machines was one of the earlier examples of the mechanization of agriculture. 


Eighteenth-Century Threshing Machine. 


The Enclosure Acts


Enclosure is the process that ended traditional rights on common land formerly held in the open field system and restricted the use of land to the owner; Enclosure is one of the causes of the Agricultural Revolution and a key factor behind the labor migration from rural areas to gradually industrializing cities.


Background: Common Land 


Common land is owned collectively by a number of persons, or by one person with others holding certain traditional rights, such as to allow their livestock to graze upon it, to collect firewood, or to cut turf for fuel. A person who has a right in or over common land jointly with others is called a commoner. Originally in medieval England, the common was an integral part of the manor and thus part of the estate held by the lord of the manor under a feudal grant from the Crown or a superior peer, who in turn held his land from the Crown, which owned all land. This manorial system granted rights of land use to different classes.  A commoner would be the person who, for a time, occupied a particular plot of land.




Most of the medieval common land of England was lost due to enclosure. In English social and economic history, enclosure was the process that ended traditional rights, such as mowing meadows for hay or grazing livestock on common land formerly held in the open field system. Once enclosed, these uses of the land became restricted to the owner and the land ceased to be for the use of commoners. Under enclosure, such land was fenced (enclosed) and deeded or entitled to one or more owners. The process of enclosure became a widespread feature of the English agricultural landscape during the 16th century. By the 19th century, unenclosed commons were largely restricted to large areas of rough pasture in mountainous places and relatively small residual parcels of land in the lowlands.


Implementation of the Acts


The more productive enclosed farms meant that fewer farmers were needed to work the same land, leaving many villagers without land and grazing rights. Many moved to the cities in search of work in the emerging factories of the Industrial Revolution. Others settled in the English colonies. English Poor Laws were enacted to help these newly poor. Some practices of enclosure were denounced by the Church and legislation was drawn up against it. However, the large, enclosed fields were needed for the gains in agricultural productivity from the 16th to 18th centuries. This controversy led to a series of government acts, culminating in the General Enclosure Act of 1801, which sanctioned large-scale land reform.

The Act of 1801 was one of many parliamentary enclosures that consolidated strips in the open fields into more compact units and enclosed much of the remaining pasture commons or wastes. Parliamentary enclosures usually provided commoners with some other land in compensation for the loss of common rights, although the “other land” was often of poor quality and limited extent. They were also used for the division and privatization of common “wastes” (in the original sense of uninhabited places), such as fens, marshes, heathland, downland, and moors.




The primary benefits to large land holders came from the increased value of their own land, not from expropriation. Smaller holders could sell their land to larger ones for a higher price, post enclosure. Protests against parliamentary enclosures continued, sometimes also in Parliament, frequently in the villages affected, and sometimes as organized mass revolts. Enclosed land was twice as valuable, as a higher price could be sustained by its higher productivity. While many villagers received plots in the newly enclosed manor, for small landholders this compensation was not always enough to offset the costs of enclosure and fencing. Many historians believe that enclosure was an important factor in the reduction of small landholders in England as compared to the Continent, although others believe that this process began earlier.

Enclosure faced a great deal of popular resistance because of its effects on the household economies of smallholders and landless laborers. Common rights had included not just the right of cattle or sheep grazing but also the grazing of geese, foraging for pigs, gleaning, berrying, and fuel gathering. During the period of parliamentary enclosures, employment in agriculture did not fall but failed to keep pace with the growing population. Consequently, large numbers of people left rural areas to move into the cities where they became laborers in the Industrial Revolution.

Enclosure is considered one of the causes of the British Agricultural Revolution. Enclosed land was under the control of the farmer, who was free to adopt better farming practices. There was widespread agreement in contemporary accounts that profit-making opportunities were better with enclosed land. Following enclosure, crop yields and livestock output increased while at the same time productivity increased enough to create a surplus of labor. The increased labor supply is considered one of the factors facilitating the Industrial Revolution.


Effects and Significance of the Agricultural Revolution


The increase in agricultural production and technological advancements during the Agricultural Revolution contributed to unprecedented population growth and new agricultural practices, triggering such phenomena as rural-to-urban migration, the development of a coherent and loosely regulated agricultural market, and the emergence of capitalist farmers.

The Agricultural Revolution proved to be a major turning point, allowing the population to far exceed earlier peaks and sustain the country’s rise to industrial preeminence. During the nineteenth century, improved technology helped agriculture output soar not only in England but also throughout much of Europe and North America. England’s position as the leading industrial-agricultural nation eroded as European countries experienced their own agricultural revolutions, raising grain yields on average by 60% in the century preceding World War I. Interestingly, the Agricultural Revolution in Britain did not result in overall productivity per hectare of agriculture that would rival productivity in China, where intensive cultivation (including multiple annual cropping in many areas) had been practiced for many centuries. Towards the end of the 19th century, the substantial gains in British agricultural productivity were rapidly offset by competition from cheaper imports, which were made possible by the exploitation of colonies and advances in transportation, refrigeration, and other technologies.  

The Industrial Revolution: The Transportation Revolution


The Industrial Revolution is recognized as the beginning of modern, Western culture. Characterized by improved technology and the rise of factories, it created a profound impact not only in England, where it began but also across much of western Europe and North America. One of the hallmarks of the Industrial Revolution is the "Transportation Revolution" which saw the mass development of canals and railways.

Learning Objectives

  • Examine the technology of the Transportation Revolution
  • Evaluate how technological developments affected British society


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Canal: human-made waterway used as a primary mode of transportation in the early years of the Industrial Revolution  

Steam Locomotive: rail vehicle that emerged as the most efficient and prominent form of transportation in England during the Industrial Revolution 

Salamanca: First successful steam locomotive




As enclosure deprived many of access to land or left farmers with plots too small and of poor quality, increasing numbers of workers had no choice but migrate to the city. 

While the improved agricultural productivity freed up workers to other sectors of the economy, it took decades of the Industrial Revolution and industrial development to trigger a truly mass rural-to-urban labor migration. As food supplies increased and stabilized and industrialized centers moved into place, cities began to support larger populations, sparking the beginning of rural flight on a massive scale.  The development and advancement of tools and machines decreased the demand for rural labor. That together with increasingly restricted access to land forced many rural workers to migrate to cities, eventually supplying the labor demand created by the Industrial Revolution. 


The Canals


The British canal system of water transport played a vital role in the Industrial Revolution at a time when roads were only just emerging from the medieval mud and long trains of packhorses were the only means of more easily accessible transit of raw materials and finished products. The building of canals dates to ancient times, but in Britain, the modern canal network came into being because the Industrial Revolution demanded an economic and reliable way to transport goods and commodities in large quantities.  


Eighteenth-nineteenth century canal boat
Eighteenth-nineteenth century canal boat. 


Big canals began to be built in the 18th century to link the major manufacturing centers across the country. Known for its huge commercial success, the Bridgewater Canal in northwest England opened in 1761. The Bridgewater Canal is often considered to be the first “true” canal in England. Its success helped inspire a period of intense canal building in Britain, known as Canal Mania.

By the 1820s a national canal network—the first in the world—was in existence. The system proved highly successful. The canal boats could carry thirty tons at a time with only one horse pulling, which was more than ten times the amount of cargo per horse that was possible with a cart. It was this huge increase in supply that contributed to the reduction of the price of coal.

The last major canal to be built in Britain was the Manchester Ship Canal, which upon opening in 1894 was the largest ship canal in the world and opened Manchester as a port. However, it never achieved the commercial success its sponsors had hoped for and signaled that canals were a dying mode of transport. From about 1840, railways began to threaten canals. They could not only carry more than the canals but also could transport people and goods far more quickly than the walking pace of the canal boats. Most of the investment that had previously gone into canal building was diverted into railway building. 


The First Locomotives and Early Railways


As a result of advancements in metallurgy and steam power technology during the Industrial Revolution, horse-drawn wagonways were replaced by steam locomotives, making Britain the first country in the world with modern railways.


Steam Locomotives


The first commercially successful steam locomotive was the twin-cylinder Salamanca, designed by in 1812 by Matthew Murray using John Blenkinsop’s patented design for rack propulsion for the Middleton Railway. Blenkinsop believed that a locomotive light enough to move under its own power would be too light to generate sufficient adhesion, so he designed a rack-and-pinion railway for the line. 

In 1821 an Act of Parliament was approved for a tramway between Stockton and Darlington. It opened in 1825. The first train was hauled by Stephenson’s locomotive at speeds of 12 to 15 miles per hour. Four locomotives were constructed and were effectively beam engines on wheels with vertical cylinders. 




The development of the railways, starting in the 1830s, transformed the economy and society by creating powerful railway companies, attracting massive investments, advancing industries, transforming human migration patterns, and even changing people’s daily diet.

The Liverpool and Manchester Railway (L&MR), which opened in 1830 between the Lancashire towns of Liverpool and Manchester, was not the first railway; it was, however, the first one to rely exclusively on steam power, with no horse-drawn traffic permitted at any time; the first to be entirely double track throughout its length; the first to have a signaling system; the first to be fully timetabled; the first to be powered entirely by its own motive power; and the first to carry mail. As such, it revolutionized transportation and paved the way for the phenomenal development of railways that would soon take over the world. 


Black and white photograph of an early steam engine on the L & MR Railway.
Steam Engine Victoria on the L & MR Railway.


All the railways were promoted by commercial interests. Railway directors often had important political and social connections and used them to their companies’ advantages. Furthermore, aristocrats with established connections in London were especially welcome on the corporate boards. The aristocrats saw railway directorships as a socially acceptable form of contact with the world of commerce and industry. 

The railways had a sizable impact on many spheres of economic activity. The building of railways and locomotives, for example, called for large quantities of heavy materials and thus provided significant stimulus to the coal mining, iron-production, engineering, and construction industries. The railways also helped reduce transaction costs, which in turn lowered the costs of goods. The distribution and sale of perishable goods, such as meat, milk, fish, and vegetables, was transformed; this gave rise not only to cheaper products in the stores but also to far greater variety in people’s diets.

The railways were also a significant force for the changing patterns of human mobility. Rail transport had originally been conceived as a way of moving coal and industrial goods, but the railway operators quickly realized the potential for market for railway travel, leading to an extremely rapid expansion in passenger services. The number of railway passengers tripled in just eight years between 1842 and 1850. Traffic volumes roughly doubled in the 1850s and then doubled again in the 1860s. In the words of historian Derek Aldcroft, “In terms of mobility and choice [the railways] added a new dimension to everyday life.”

The legacy of Railway Mania can still be seen today with the duplication of some routes and cities possessing several stations on the same or different lines, sometimes with no direct connection between them. The best example of this is London, which has no fewer than twelve main line terminal stations, serving its dense and complex suburban network; this is basically the result of the many railway companies that were competing to run their routes in the capital during the mania. 

The Industrial Revolution: The Factory System and Technology


The Factory System, a system of mechanized workers and innovative technology, remains prominent in the memory of the Industrial Revolution. This development transformed British society and much of the western world. No longer was England a quiet, rural society. With the rise of the factory system, England emerged as an urbanized society.


Learning Objectives

  • Examine the development of the factory system and technology
  • Evaluate the pros and cons of the factory system for different classes


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Textile: cloth products produced through weaving, knitting, and crocheting 

putting-out system: nineteenth-century way to subcontract labor

spinning jenny: multi-spindle spinning frame used widely in the Industrial Revolution 

Richard Arkwright: English inventor who developed the spinning frame, water frame, and often called the “Father” of the Factory System 

flying shuttle: device that allows for faster, wider weaving 

James Hargreaves: English inventor of the spinning jenny 

James Watt: Successful inventor of the steam engine

Eli Whitney: inventor of the cotton gin

Calico Acts: series of nineteenth-century English laws prohibiting the importation of cotton products and restricting their sale

Factory System: a system of labor that divides labor sources and uses machinery extensively 

Truck System: A system in the early part of the Industrial Revolution that forced workers to accept wages in-kind


Early British Textile Industry


The British textile industry drove the Industrial Revolution, triggering advancements in technology, stimulating the coal and iron industries, boosting raw material imports, and improving transportation, which made Britain the global leader of industrialization, trade, and scientific innovation.


Pre-Industrial Textile Industry


In the early 18th century, the British government passed two Calico Acts to protect the domestic wool industry from the increasing amounts of cotton fabric imported from its competitors in India. On the eve of the Industrial Revolution, spinning and weaving were still done in households, for domestic consumption, and as a cottage industry. Occasionally the work was done in the workshop of a master weaver. Under the putting-out system, home-based workers produced under contract to merchant sellers, who often supplied the raw materials. In the off-season the women, typically farmers’ wives, did the spinning and the men did the weaving. Using the spinning wheel, it took anywhere from four to eight spinners to supply one handloom weaver.


Industrial Revolution and Textiles


Textiles have been identified as the catalyst of technological changes. The application of steam power stimulated the demand for coal. The demand for machinery and rails stimulated the iron industry. The demand for transportation to move raw material in and finished products out stimulated the growth of the canal system, and (after 1830) the railway system. The introduction of steam power fueled primarily by coal, wider utilization of water wheels, and powered machinery in textile manufacturing underpinned the dramatic increases in production capacity. The development of all-metal machine tools in the first two decades of the 19th century facilitated the manufacture of more production machines for manufacturing in other industries. The effects spread throughout Western Europe and North America during the 19th century, eventually affecting most of the world.

The invention of the flying shuttle by John Kay enabled wider cloth to be woven faster and created a demand for yarn that could not be fulfilled. Thus, the major technological advances associated with the Industrial Revolution were concerned with spinning. James Hargreaves created the spinning jenny, a device operated by hand that could perform the work of a number of spinning wheels. However, Richard Arkwright invented the water frame,  which could be powered by the water wheel. Arkwright is credited with the widespread introduction of the factory system in Britain and is the first example of a successful mill owner and industrialist in British history. The water frame was, however, soon supplanted by the spinning mule (a cross between a water frame and a jenny) invented by Samuel Crompton. Mules were later constructed in iron.


Illustration of nineteenth-century spinning jenny.


The steam engine was invented and became a power supply that soon surpassed waterfalls and horsepower. The first practicable steam engine was invented by Thomas Newcomen and was used for pumping water out of mines. A much more powerful steam engine was invented by James Watt. It had a reciprocating engine capable of powering machinery. The first steam-driven textile mills began to appear in the last quarter of the eighteenth century, greatly contributing to the appearance and rapid growth of industrial towns.

The progress of the textile trade soon outstripped the original supplies of raw materials. By the turn of the nineteenth century, imported American cotton had replaced wool in northwest England, although wool remained the chief textile in Yorkshire.

Such an unprecedented degree of economic growth was not sustained by domestic demand alone. The application of technology and the factory system created the levels of mass production and cost efficiency that enabled British manufacturers to export inexpensive cloth and other items worldwide. Britain’s position as the world’s preeminent trader helped fund research and experimentation. Further, some have stressed the importance of natural or financial resources that Britain received from its many overseas colonies or that profits from the British slave trade between Africa and the Caribbean helped fuel industrial investment.

The British textile industry triggered tremendous scientific innovation, resulting in such key inventions as the flying shuttle, spinning jenny, water frame, and spinning mule. These greatly improved productivity and drove further technological advancements that turned textiles into a fully mechanized industry.


Early Developments


During the second half of the seventeenth century, the newly established factories of the East India Company in South Asia started to produce finished cotton goods in quantity for the UK market. The imported calico and chintz garments competed with and acted as a substitute for indigenous wool and linen produce. That resulted in local weavers, spinners, dyers, shepherds, and farmers petitioning the Parliament to request a ban on the import and later the sale of woven cotton goods. They eventually achieved their goal via the 1700 and 1721 Calico Acts. The acts banned the import and later the sale of finished pure cotton products, but they did not restrict the importation of raw cotton or the sale or production of fustian (a cloth with flax warp and cotton weft).


Mechanization of the Textile Industry


With Cartwright’s loom, the spinning mule, and Boulton and Watt’s steam engine, the pieces were in place to build a mechanized textile industry. From this point there were no new inventions, but there was a continuous improvement in technology as the mill-owner strove to reduce cost and improve quality.

Developments in the transport infrastructure such as the canals and, after 1830, the railways, facilitated the import of raw materials and export of finished cloth.


Export Technology


While profiting from expertise arriving from overseas, Britain was very protective of home-grown technology. Engineers with skills in constructing the textile mills and machinery were not permitted to emigrate—particularly to fledgling America. However, Samuel Slater, an engineer who had worked as an apprentice to Arkwright’s partner Jedediah Strutt, evaded the ban. In 1789, he took his skills in designing and constructing factories to New England and was soon engaged in reproducing the textile mills that helped America with its own industrial revolution. Local inventions followed. In 1793, Eli Whitney invented and patented the cotton gin, which sped up the processing of raw cotton by over 50 times. With a cotton gin a man could remove seed from as much upland cotton in one day as would have previously taken a woman working two months to process at one pound per day.


The Factory System


The factory system, fueled by technological progress, made production much faster, cheaper, and more uniform, but it also disconnected the workers from the means of production and placed them under the control of powerful industrialists.


Growth of Factories


The factory system began to grow rapidly when cotton spinning was mechanized. Richard Arkwright is credited with inventing the prototype of the modern factory. After he patented his water frame in 1769, he established Cromford Mill in Derbyshire, England, significantly expanding the village of Cromford to accommodate the migrant workers new to the area.


Interior of a flax mill, circa 1800.


Between 1820 and 1850, mechanized factories supplanted traditional artisan shops as the predominant form of manufacturing institution, because the larger-scale factories enjoyed a significant technological advantage over the small artisan shops. The earliest factories under the factory system developed in the cotton and wool textiles industry. Later generations of factories included mechanized shoe production and manufacturing of machinery, including machine tools. Factories that supplied the railroad industry included rolling mills, foundries, and locomotive works. Agricultural-equipment factories produced cast-steel plows and reapers. Bicycles were mass-produced beginning in the 1880s.


Characteristics of the Factory System


The factory system, considered a capitalist form of production, differs dramatically from the earlier systems of production. First, the labor generally does not own a significant share of the enterprise. The capitalist owners provide all machinery, buildings, management and administration, and raw or semi-finished materials; additionally, owners are responsible for the sale of all products, as well as any resulting losses. The cost and complexity of machinery, especially that powered by water or steam, was more than cottage industry workers could afford or had the skills to maintain. Second, production relies on unskilled labor. Before the factory system, skilled craftsmen would usually custom-make an entire article. In contrast, factories practiced division of labor, in which most workers were either low-skilled laborers who tended or operated machinery, or unskilled laborers who moved materials and semi-finished and finished goods. Third, factories produced products on a much larger scale than in either the putting-out or crafts systems.

The factory system also made the location of production much more flexible. Before the widespread use of steam engines and railroads, most factories were located at waterpower sites and near water transportation. When railroads became widespread, factories could be located away from waterpower sites but nearer railroads. Workers and machines were brought together in a central factory complex. Although the earliest factories were usually all under one roof, different operations were sometimes on different floors. Further, machinery made it possible to produce precisely uniform components.

Workers were paid either daily wages or for piece work, either in the form of money or some combination of money, housing, meals, and goods from a company store. This process was called the truck system.

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.

Primary Source: Andrew Ure The Philosophy of Manufacturers


Andrew Ure (1835), “The Philosophy of the Manufacturers” [Abridged]


The principle of the factory system then is, to substitute mechanical science for hand skill, and the partition of a process into its essential constituents, for the division or graduation of labour among artisans. On the handicraft plan, labour more or less skilled was usually the most expensive element of production.... but on the automatic plan, skilled labour gets progressively superseded, and will, eventually, be replaced by mere overlookers of machines.

By the infirmity of human nature it happens, that the more skilful the workman, the more self-willed and intractable he is apt to become, and, of course, the less fit a component of a mechanical system, in which, by occasional irregularities, he may do great damage to the whole. The grand object therefore of the modern manufacturer is, through the union of capital and science, to reduce the task of his work-people to the exercise of vigilance and dexterity, - faculties, when concentred to one process, speedily brought to perfection in the young. In the infancy of mechanical engineering, a machine-factory displayed the division of labour in manifold gradations - the file, the drill, the lathe, having each its different workmen in the order of skill: but the dextrous hands of the filer and driller are now superseded by the planing, the key groove cutting, and the drilling-machines; and those of the iron and brass turners, by the self-acting slide-lathe....

It is, in fact, the constant aim and tendency of every improvement in machinery to supersede human labour altogether, or to diminish its cost, by substituting the industry of women and children for that of men; or that of ordinary labourers for trained artisans. In most of the water-twist, or throstle cotton-mills, the spinning is entirely managed by females of sixteen years and upwards. The effect of substituting the self-acting mule for the common mule, is to discharge the greater part of the men spinners, and to retain adolescents and children. The proprietor of a factory near Stockport states, in evidence to the commissioners, that, by such substitution, he would save 501. a week in wages in consequence of dispensing with nearly forty male spinners, at about 25s. of wages each....

From Modern History Sourcebook, Fordham University

Primary Source: Two Women Miners


Great Britain, Parliamentary Papers (1842, Vol. XV, p. 84, and ibid., Vol. XVII, p. 108), “Two Women Miners” [Abridged]


Betty Harris, age 37: I was married at 23, and went into a colliery when I was married. I used to weave when about 12 years old; can neither read nor write. I work for Andrew Knowles, of Little Bolton (Lancs), and make sometimes 7s a week, sometimes not so much. I am a drawer, and work from 6 in the morning to 6 at night. Stop about an hour at noon to eat my dinner; have bread and butter for dinner; I get no drink. I have two children, but they are too young to work. I worked at drawing when I was in the family way. I know a woman who has gone home and washed herself, taken to her bed, delivered of a child, and gone to work again under the week.

I have a belt round my waist, and a chain passing between my legs, and I go on my hands and feet. The road is very steep, and we have to hold by a rope; and when there is no rope, by anything we can catch hold of. There are six women and about six boys and girls in the pit I work in; it is very hard work for a woman. The pit is very wet where I work, and the water comes over our clog-tops always, and I have seen it up to my thighs; it rains in at the roof terribly. My clothes are wet through almost all day long. I never was ill in my life, but when I was lying in.

My cousin looks after my children in the day time. I am very tired when I get home at night; I fall asleep sometimes before I get washed. I am not so strong as I was, and cannot stand my work so well as I used to. I have drawn till I have bathe skin off me; the belt and chain is worse when we are in the family way. My feller (husband) has beaten me many a times for not being ready. I were not used to it at first, and he had little patience.

I have known many a man beat his drawer. I have known men take liberties with the drawers, and some of the women have bastards.

Patience Kershaw, age 17, Halifax: I go to pit at 5 o'clock in the morning and come out at 5 in the evening; I get my breakfast, porridge and milk, first; I take my dinner with me, a cake, and eat it as I go; I do not stop or rest at any time for the purpose, I get nothing else until I get home, and then have potatoes and meat, not every day meat.


From Modern History Sourcebook, Fordham University