Voices of the Industrial Revolution

A new study of the Industrial Revolution examines the lives of 350 people who lived through it.


Liberty's Dawn: A People's History of the Industrial Revolution, by Emma Griffin, Yale University Press, x + 303 pages, $45.

For over a century the ruling interpretations of the industrial revolution have been thoroughly negative. Leading socialist historians, from the Hammonds to E.P. Thompson, have kept the red flag flying through sheer compelling prose. Theirs has been "the embalmer's art," as someone said of Winston Churchill: The history may not add up but style preserves the opinion. By contrast, the few who dissent from the idea that industrialisation was a disaster have often encumbered their work by appealing to statistics, which may be more persuasive but only nerds can find fun.

The phrase "A People's History" in the title of a book does not bode well, but Emma Griffin, author of Liberty's Dawn: A People's History of the Industrial Revolution, cannot be tarred with the brush of negativism. She does temporise at the end—the history profession would still punish anything smacking of an optimistic view—but mostly she presents a history of expanding opportunity. She hopes to turn tales of human interest into a serious analysis of the experiences of the poor as they lived through the process of industrialisation. Her method is to work through 350 published and unpublished autobiographies of people of the period who were, or started, poor. A majority of these so called "life-writings" comes from a list compiled in the 1970s by John Burnett and others.

A total of 350 writings is a lot to examine but is it, in the current phrase, "fit for purpose"? As a sample of millions of individuals, 350 cannot be called anything other than minute. (This is even more of a problem when Griffin writes about women: She has only a dozen or so female autobiographies to draw on.) Moreover the representativeness of the sample is in grave doubt, as the author herself repeatedly acknowledges. People who commit their story to paper are not typical in any age, and they are more likely to be marked by steep changes in their lives. (Between a third and a half of the individuals examined here rose above their initial status.) They concentrate heavily on their early years, and select, or select out, parts of their experience. They are "hard to categorise," Griffin admits, and deciding how common their work experience proved "is simply impossible." Differences in the agricultural economy over time and space "are hardly visible in the autobiographical material." How long and hard parents thought their children should work is "impossible to establish." Individuals who wrote about their sex lives are extremely rare and their evidence cannot be used to measure illicit activity "in any meaningful way." And relating the proportion of writers who engaged in social or political affairs to the whole working class "is of course impossible."

Faced with the fragility of autobiographical sources, Griffin makes the best of a bad situation. The stories, she argues, do indicate certain trends over time. The most noteworthy of these is that job opportunities expanded during the two generations following 1790 and, with a better chance of finding another position after being fired, the poor were therefore emboldened to engage in education and activism of various types. Sunday schools and improvement societies figured prominently. People felt themselves more in control of their lives—and bodies. They tended to move away from the Anglican church and its reinforcement of an unjust social order, instead embracing the Nonconformist chapels. More jobs and the parallel ladder of achievement through positions of a little authority in the chapels expanded men's horizons. Women, however, had fewer opportunities than men and in any case motherhood, or large families, led them to quit paid work.

Two points need to be made. First, there is not much by way of a baseline. Before the middle of the 18th century, working-class autobiographies are few and far between. Griffin resorts to the argument that at that time underemployment was widespread in the main occupation, agriculture; the lack of work was more than merely seasonal. This has long been a staple of development studies, though easy to overgeneralise.

Second, we are not really seeing the effects of the industrial revolution as commonly recognised. The autobiographies do not all come from the pens of workers in heavy industries using powered machinery; their occupations and geographical locations were far more varied. What lifted life chances were rising population and urbanisation in the context of broad economic growth. The author sees a break of trend in social life in the 1790s. Traditional values evaporated, people married younger, and between 30 to 40 percent of brides were pregnant at their weddings. This is claimed as an "overlooked consequence" of the industrial revolution, though such trends are familiar to demographic historians.

In short, the market was expanding and creating more jobs, even new trades. Leaving the land, as many did, was a risk now softened by the reasonable hope of finding a new post if the first choice did not suit or the first new boss found fault. People were escaping from the grip of a handful of local employers. This does seem to have been a genuinely liberating influence, though the growth of London through migration from the countryside predates the period covered and is not what is commonly meant by "industrial revolution." These earlier changes had a liberating effect too. It is impossible to read, say, Daniel Defoe's Tour Through England and Wales, written right at the start of the 18th century, without noting the power of competition to widen pre-industrial markets.

Griffin supplements her "life-writing" sources with a detailed study of the secondary literature, and in broad terms the autobiographies are consistent with what that literature already tells us. Individual circumstances varied enormously, but on the whole the mass immiseration described in the Marxist literature did not occur, even during the rise of the factory. Besides increasing the quantity and range of products, industrialisation clearly enhanced the quality of working-class life, though for men more than for women and children. To this conclusion the contemporary writings of the poor do add a measure of personal colour. On the other hand, the insistence that these generations of industrial revolution saw a unique "transition to modern society" does not fully reflect the longer and broader benefits of market economies.