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Lords and Labor


The Industrial Revolution marks the most fundamental transformation of human life in the history of the world recorded in written documents. For a brief period, it coincided with the history of a single country, Great Britain. An entire world economy was thus built on, or rather around, Britain, and this country therefore temporarily rose to a position of global influence and power unparalleled by any state of its relative size before or since, and likely to be paralleled by any state in the foreseeable future. There was a moment in the world's history when Britain can be described . . . as its only workshop. (Hobsbawn 13).

Milestones of the Great Divide: Seeking a National Consensus

Tories and Whigs — the parties in the late 18th century. The Tories were principally members of the aristocracy and the landed class. The Whigs, whose origins in the late 17th century lay "in the opposition of certain great families to the royal domination of Parliament and who, although equally aristocratic, were therefore committed to a wider and balanced distribution of political power"; they "were the obvious party to promote the interests of the commercial middle class" (Altick 81).

Rumors of revolt in the 1780s: working class expressed discontent with lack of political empowerment

  • local clashes in London and "No Popery" riots
  • Edmund Burke: "the swinish multitude."

Danger across the Channel, 1789: The French Revolution

  • The working class as mob; intimations of a Republic; Edmund Burke, "The age of chivalry is gone"
  • The Romantics: celebrating the unspoiled existence of the common man: the humble, unlettered peasant, awaiting political empowerment
  • Jeremy Bentham: educating the masses in preparation for politics

National uneasiness intensified by Luddite riots in Midlands and Yorkshire, 1811-12: pressure on employers to enter into collective bargaining, not—as it appeared widely at the time—to discontinue use of machines; memories lingered on in national psyche; Ned Ludlam; Charlotte Brontë's Shirley 1849

"The Peterloo Massacre" 1819, Manchester: peaceful and orderly meeting of 60,000 workers in St. Peter's Fields—speech of progressive/visionary orator in favor of "Suffrage Universal,""Liberty and Fraternity," etc; outbreak of ill-disciplined militia

The same day your letter came, came the news of the Manchester work, and the torrent of my indignation has not yet done boiling in my veins. I wait anxiously to hear how the country will express its sense of this bloody, murderous oppression of its destroyers. "Something must be done. What, yet I know not." (Shelley to his publisher, 6 Sept 1819; "The Mask of Anarchy," The Cenci)

PM to working class and pro-labor middle class a symbol of tyranny, to the rest of the country a reminder of the revolutionary potential of politically disenfranchised labor (qua mob) û "Six Acts" (1819) to crush post-Peterloo protest movement: severe curtailment of freedom of speech, right of assembly, and press; hundreds of prosecutions; atmosphere of police state.

Duke of Wellington, repeal of Test and Corporations Act (1828) and Catholic Emancipation Act (1829) — only cosmetic surgery because middle-class still unenfranchised

Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel, the Metropolitan Police Act 1829

  • creation of the world's first preventive police force—the "Peelers"—to combat crime and to hold in check the proletarian Other: the threat to the status quo
  • strategy of visible invisibility, of non-violent police policy to counter public hostility.

Political situation in the 1830s

  • England and Wales: of adult population of seven million, only 435,000 could vote;
  • Of 658 members of Parliament, only 234 were elected by a real body of voters; rest handpicked by aristocratic owners of pocket and "rotten boroughs"
  • Industrial cities, such as Manchester (182,000) or Leeds (123,000), without political representation

First Reform Bill (1832):

  • enlarged electorate from 435,000 his 652,000 in England/Wales (50% increase), but five out of six adults still could not vote
  • only middle class received vote, not working class, since property ownership was still a criterion of citizenship: right to vote only to so-called "ten-pound householders" (Altick 134) and, in rural areas, to owners/tenants of property worth forty shillings annual rent
  • abolition of the most flagrant rotten and pocket boroughs
  • redistribution of constituencies

"The chief practical fruit of the First Reform Bill was that by redistricting and setting up uniform electoral requirements it divided the representation somewhat more equitably between the two parties, both of which remained essentially aristocratic in composition and interest. The old claim that the First Reform Bill put the middle class in power is now universally discredited. What happened in 1832 was that the commercial, "town" interest began to play an effective role in politics, breaking the monopoly hitherto enjoyed by the great landowners" (Altick 88).

The Condition of England and Chartism—a term designating the first sustained, all-encompassing working-class movement in modern British history

  • context: "The Hungry Forties," the ongoing general economic depression in the 1830s and 40s
  • The People's Charter: an electoral bill of rights (a Magna Carta of labor) demanding those issues that did not materialize in 1832: (1) universal male suffrage; (2) secret ballot; (3) removal of property qualifications for Members of Parliament; (4) salaries for MPs; (5) electoral districts representing equal numbers of people; (6) annual elections.

If there do exist general madness of discontent, then sanity and some measure of content must be brought about again, —not by constabulary police alone . . . . When the thoughts of a people, in the great mass of it, have grown mad, the combined issue of that people's workings will be a madness, an incoherency and ruin! Sanity will have to be recovered for the general mass; coercion will otherwise cease to be able to coerce . . . . Surely Honourable Members ought to speak of the Condition–of–England question too. Radical members, above all; friends of the people; chosen with effort, by the people, to interpret and articulate the dumb deep want of people! To a remote observer they seem oblivious of their duty. Are they not there, by trade, mission, and express appointment of themselves and others, to speak for the good of the British Nation? Whatsoever great British interest can the least speak for itself, for that beyond all they are called to speak. They are either speakers for that great dumb toiling class which cannot speak, or they are nothing that one can well specify." (Thomas Carlyle, Chartism, 1839)

Slowly comes a hungry people, as a lion creeping nigher,/Glares at one that nods and winks behind a slowly-dying fire (Alfred Lord Tennyson, "Locksley Hall" 1842)

Benjamin Disraeli, Young England Movement (early 1840s): partly inspired by Sir Walter Scott's portrayal of chivalry, Carlyle's utopian medievalism, and the fear of eroding aristocratic power û commitment to a socially responsible aristocracy.

Second Reform Bill (1867): franchise still related to property, but now including all males who owned or rented town property exceeding £ 10 annually; SRB doubled electorate

Third Reform Bill (1884): voting rights extended to include most rural agricultural laborers, tripling the electorate (2 million); locally elected government in rural areas. — However, women were not granted the right to vote until the Act of 1918, which enfranchised all men over 21 and women over 30. The remaining legal discrimination was eliminated 10 years later by the Equal Franchise Act (1928).

Milestones in Labor Legislation

1802—The First Factory Act, Health and Moral of Apprentices Act ("Sir Robert Peel's Act").

1819—Prohibition of labor for children under age nine, in cotton mills only. 12-hour days (age 9-16).

1833—Lord Ashley's Factory Act (later 7th Earl of Shaftesbury), based upon the work done in the "Sadler Committee," whose report "stands as one of the classic documents of British social history" (Pike 116).

  • No work between 8:30 pm and 5:30 am
  • age 9-13 < 48 hours/week (=12-hour days); age 9-18 < 69 hours/week
  • children in school during working hours for at least 2 hours/day
  • For the first time, an Act provides for independent "factory inspectors" to enforce law

Sir, I will make but one observation upon this subject, and that is this: that this reformed House has, this night, made a discovery greater than all the discoveries that all former Houses of Commons have ever made, even if all their discoveries could have been put into one.... [namely] that the shipping, the land, and the Bank and its credit, are all nothing compared with the labour of three hundred thousand little girls in Lancashire! Aye, when compared with only an eighth part of the labor of these three hundred thousand little girls, from whose labour, if we only deduct two hours a day, away goes the wealth, away goes the capital, away go the resources, the power, the glory of England! (William Cobbett, Political Register 1833, in Pike 153)

1833—Robert Owen, the industrial philanthropist, founds the Grand National Consolidated Trades Union; in 1834 employers begin to issue "The Document" for mutual assistance against strikers and burgeoning trade unionists.

1834—Poor Law Amendment Act, a reallocation of poverty relief measures: formerly understood as a form of welfare practice and tied to family size; under the aegis of the principles of political economy, able-bodied men and their families were, in principle, sent to workhouses, "Poor Law Bastilles."

1841-42—Reports of the Children's Employment Commission (Royal Commission on Labour of Young Persons in Mines and Manufactures) brings about protective legislation

Coal Mines Regulation Act: no women, girls, boys under 10 underground.

Lord Shaftesbury proposes Ten Hours Amendment Bill for all workers under eighteen in 1842; law not implemented until 1847.

Including powerful visual evidence—illustrations accompanying report/substituting for reading.

1844—a Textile Factory Act gives inspectors greater powers; women not allowed to work more than 12-hours; first legal provisions for health and safety.

1855—The Mines Act: general safety rules following systematic reports of numerous mining fatalities.


Altick, Richard D. Victorian People and Ideas: A companion for the modern reader of Victorian Literature. New York: Norton, 1973.

Carlyle, Thomas. Past and Present. Ed. Richard Altick. New York: New York UP, 1965.

Child Labor, The Victorian Web

Hobsbawn, E. J. Industry and Empire: From 1750 his the Present Day. Volume 3, the Pelican Economic History of Britain. London: Penguin, 1985.

Jennings, Humphrey. Pandaemonium. The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers, 1660-1886. Ed. Mary-Lou Jennings & Charles Madge. New York: The Free Press, 1985.

The Life of the Industrial Worker in 19th-century England I and II, The Victorian Web,

Royston, Pike E. "Hard Times." Human Documents of the Industrial Revolution. New York: Praeger, 1966.

Victorian Legislation: a timeline, The Victorian Web

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