Impact of industrialisation

Two phases

The First Industrial Revolution, beginning at the end of the eighteenth century, started with the mechanisation of the textile industry. The development of steam power meant:

  • An increase in production
  • The replacement of skilled weavers and spinners working from home with unskilled operatives working machines in a factory and mills
  • A change in the structure of the family unit
  • For the first time, an understanding of the work place as separate from the home
  • Many people beginning to move away from the countryside into towns and cities which grew rapidly.

The second phase of the Industrial Revolution, often termed the Second Industrial Revolution, ran from the mid to the late nineteenth century. This saw:

  • Further advances in mechanisation
  • A greater development in international trade
  • Increased urbanisation.

Textile Manufacture

Power loomThe development of steam power enabled the use of power looms and spinning frames in cotton mills. These increased production and Britain became the chief supplier of cotton goods to the rest of the world.

Since owners ran their mills for profit and there were very few laws protecting workers from exploitation, many men, women, and children suffered death and ill health from working long hours in terrible conditions.

In her 1855 novel, North and South, realist writer Elizabeth Gaskell set out to highlight the atrocities that were taking place as a result of careless management of both industrial and rural labourers. Having encountered the misery of a farm hand, her heroine Margaret Hale moves to the industrial town of Milton where she befriends a teenage girl named Bessy Higgins. Bessy tells Margaret,

‘I think I was well when mother died, but I have never been rightly strong sin' somewhere about that time. I began to work in a carding-room soon after, and fluff got into my lungs and poisoned me.'
‘Fluff?' said Margaret inquiringly.
‘Fluff,' repeated Bessy. ‘Little bits, as fly off fro' the cotton, when they're carding it, and fill the air till it looks all fine white dust. They say it winds round the lungs, and tightens them up. Anyhow, there's many a one works in a carding-room, that falls into a waste, coughing and spitting blood, because they're just poisoned by the fluff.' (Chapter 13)

Once the plight of workers such as Bessy Higgins was brought to the attention of the general public, parliament did eventually pass several regulation acts and labour laws to prevent such exploitation.

The railway

The 1830s saw the rapid spread of the railway. The construction of railway lines:

  • Radically transformed both the rural and urban landscape
  • Challenged traditional conceptions of time, space, and distance
  • Gave rise to new opportunities for trade, commerce, and technology.

The fact that the government demanded rail companies provide low fares meant greater travel for the general public. This in turn led to:

  • The first commuter trains
  • The rise of day-trips and vacations
  • Greater movement between the country and the city.

In 1851, millions of people were able to take advantage of the railway and travel to the Great Exhibition in London.

More on the Great Exhibition: Queen Victoria opened the Great Exhibition on May 1st 1851. Located in the magnificently built Crystal Palace, in Hyde Park, London, it showcased new inventions and innovations in science and technology from all over the world.

For the impact of the railway on literature, see The world of Victorian writers 1837-1901 / Transport, communication and travel.

Printing and publishing

In the early to mid nineteenth century, the advancements made in the technology of printing, along with the mass production of paper and the speed of travel, gave rise to a new reading public.

  • Street ballads, already incredibly popular in the eigtheenth century, became even more so in Industrial England. Thousands continued to be printed on single sheets of paper known as broadsheets and sold on the streets in towns and cities. With simple rhythms and rhymes, ballads were often used to narrate current events.
  • Newspapers and periodicals were readily available and levels of literacy soared.
  • Many novels and short stories were published in serial form, appearing in popular periodicals.
  • Cheap books, named yellowbacks were sold in railway terminals throughout the country and became immensely popular among the travelling public and rising middle classes.
  • The establishment of circulating libraries meant that, for the first time, novels were readily available.


The Luddites

In Nottinghamshire in 1811, a series of machine breaking riots took place. These riots marked the beginning of Luddism. The Luddites were angry at the increasing use of mechanisation in factories and highlighted the urgent need for better working conditions. They took their name from ‘Ned Ludd', who, according to legend, lived in Sherwood Forest and advocated anti-industrialization.

In 1849, Charlotte Brontë's novel Shirley portrayed the Luddite uprisings in the Yorkshire textile industry. Here, mill operater Robert Moore finds that the shipment of machinery he had been awaiting arrives smashed to pieces by angry workers protesting the loss of their jobs.

Trade unions

The mid nineteenth century saw the birth of the trade union and the strike. Unhappy with their lack of rights, many workers protested by organising strikes. However, with no organised strike pay, many found it hard to sustain such protests and employers often refused to hire known strikers.

Highlighting the living and working conditions in the industrial cities, Elizabeth Gaskell's 1848 novel Mary Barton discusses the terrible repercussions of a worker's strike.

Literary protest

Following on from William Blake's mention of ‘chartered streets' in the poem London, and ‘dark, satanic mills' in Jerusalem, protest poems such as Caroline Norton's A Voice from the Factories (1836) and Thomas Hood's Song of the Shirt (1843) were written to highlight the sufferings of the oppressed working classes in industrial cities. Alongside these, Elizabeth Barrett Browning composed The Cry of the Children to express her anger at the reports of the Children's Employment Commission of 1842, whilst Charles Kingsley's Alton Locke addressed the wrongs of industrialisation and the rise of the Chartist movement.

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