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 Her method is to work through 350 published and unpublished autobiographies of people of the period who were, or started, poor.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.

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  1. Arbeit macht frei. Only in a good way.

    1. you know who else arbeit macht frei?

  2. but mostly she presents a history of expanding opportunity

    Without the industrial revolution we’d still be plowing fields with mules and oxen. The average person would spend his entire life within 50 miles of where he was born and that life would be about half what it is today. Make no mistake. Industrialization is the single best thing that can happen to any large geographical region.

    1. All true, but the Western Intellectual Twits hate it because

      A) It made the lower classes uppity


      B) They fail to understand, or willfully forget, that they are descended for the most part from the lower classes.

      1. They may hate it, but they can’t do anything about it. Their ability to use government to stifle progress is waning because information is damn near free now.

        I wonder what the next big revolution will be. Will it be an energy revolution where costs drop by orders of magnitude due to nuclear fusion or space-based solar? Will it be a health revolution where lifespans increase by orders of magnitude due to cloning, gene-therapy or cyborgization? Will it be a political revolution where the number of states increases by orders of magnitude as people demand freedom? Will it be a geographical revolution where habitable landmass increases by orders of magnitude as people colonize space?

        I’m betting on health revolution first.

        1. Their ability to use government to stifle progress is waning because information is damn near free now.

          You are way too optimistic; God bless your little heart.

          1. I think there’s evidence to back my claim. Sure we have more and more laws, but we also have a lot of people going around or straight up ignoring those laws. Look at all the laws designed to protect IP and how utterly they have failed. Look at the failure of the War on Drugs. Watch as the various totalitarian regimes try to clamp down on communication and fail. In the past few years there’s even been an uptick in the size of the shadow market.

            1. Nonetheless, people virtually revolted at the notion of alcohol prohibition and nowadays the Drug War is a normal part of life. The repeal of which is unthinkable for most people.

        2. If the health revolution comes first, don’t expect it to come out of the U.S.

          1. I just think it will come first because that issue is foremost on people’s minds. Rich people have no problem getting land, energy and freedom. But all the money in the world won’t guarantee you extra years. And for that reason I think it is likely to come from the wealthiest part of the world, which right now is Western Civilization. Maybe the Chinese will beat us to it, though. Anything could happen over the next century.

            1. You may be right. I hope so, although an energy revolution would be almost as good. I just don’t expect a health revolution to originate in the U.S., as socialized medicine strips the last bits of incentive to innovate in medical devices and treatments.

            2. I was reading a study where scientists have found the gene which causes you to age. They have turned it off in lab mice and their life span didn’t increase dramatically but their body stayed in a younger state and even regenerated ailed organs.

              It would be like having a 30 year old body at 60.


              1. Well, nobody’s going to be interested in *that* sort of thing.

              2. Does anyone get the feeling if some scientist actually figures out some sort of forever young immortality that they wouldn’t tell anyone.

                1. After a few decades their appearance would betray them.

                  1. Unless they assume the identity of an orphan who died at birth or soon after every 30 years or so. You know, like in the Academy Award winner for Best Movie Ever Made, Highlander.

                2. I figured it out 357 years ago.

            3. The energy revolution will come from China when it brings its first thorium MSR online in 2017.

              All bets are off after that.

      2. All true, but the Western Intellectual Twits hate it because

        A) It made the lower classes uppity

        Not just uppity.

        It reduce the gulf between upper and lower classes in numerous ways.

      3. I don’t know how many hate it. They just want to control it. Marxism, for example, really only works (not to say that it works at all in reality or isn’t complete bullshit) in an industrial society where the lower classes work for other people. There are a lot more earnest Marxist intellectuals than there are White Indians.

      4. No no no, they hate it because it makes some people rich, and a lot of people middle class who would like to be rich, and who no longer reliably respond to Marxist rabble-rousing.

    2. Without the industrial revolution we’d still be plowing fields with mules and oxen. The average person would spend his entire life within 50 miles of where he was born and that life would be about half what it is today.

      On the upside, a libertarian government might make a shred of sense.

      1. So we’re starting to win you over.

    3. Without the industrial revolution we’d still be plowing fields with mules and oxen. The average person would spend his entire life within 50 miles of where he was born and that life would be about half what it is today.

      No, if it wasn’t for the Agricultural Revolution we’d all still be plowing fields for sustenance. It was that revolution, freeing up vast amount of labor, together with the Banking Revolution, making financing available to lower or middle class people, that made the Industrial Revolution a possibility.

      1. Right, so with the agricultural revolution, without the industrial revolution, we’d all be unemployed, or incredibly poor farmers.

        1. Well chances are 99.99% of your ancestors were slaves, serfs and poor unlanded farmers. And before that hunter gatherers and before that fecal tossing apes. I’d say the Agricultural and Industrial revolutions taken together have done quite a bit to alleviate man’s natural state of abject poverty.

      2. Weren’t the industrial and agricultural revolution twos sides of the same coin? I mean, cheap farm equipment played a huge role in increasing agricultural productivity. Thus freeing up man hours to make better machines, etc.

        1. Well this a chicken before the egg kind of thing. But it was not the industrial revolution that enabled the agricultural one, it was the other way around.

          Innovations in both tools and methods made agriculture far far less labor intensive. The former farmers went to cities seeking work, driving down the cost of labor and capital investment which allowed for an explosion in industrial tools and methods (like engines and assembly lines). Causing the price of commodities traditionally produced by artisans to plummet, which drove up the average person’s purchasing power. That’s the condensed cause and effect of it all.

          Directly related ‘revolutions’ yes, but until man was free to cast his gaze away from the soil he tilled, none of it would have been possible.

    4. Or at least the people in that geographical region.

  3. I remember writing a mini-thesis on the topic lo those many years ago.
    The prof. was surprised at the number of citations I brought in that ran counter to the “gamboling around the rose-covered cottage” view which permeated the anti-industrial revolution scholarship in those days. While giving me an “A”, he still remarked that most of my sources – some by Parliamentary committees – were self-serving or written on the behest of the “Koch brothers” of the times. The anti-capitalist writings were, of course, untainted by self-interest.

    1. “gamboling around the rose-covered cottage”

      Well, it wasn’t as if they could farm the commons, what with their being enclosed and all.

  4. Whoever or whatever was behind White Indian is freaking the fuck out right now. It wants so bad to grief us. It’s like an electric charge running through what is left of its genitals. It’s a hunger that ravages and consumes.

    Gambol, you griefer fuck. Gambol, gambol, gambol.

    1. Miss Manners would not approve of your taunting. I expected better of you SF.

  5. I find it amusing that the romantic view of the pastoral life of times gone by does not include the hordes of parasites and pathogens that plagued mankind throughout history.

    Very little progress would need to be lost before they came swarming back.

    1. …would come….before they would come swarming back.

    2. You assume that the anti-industrial retards aren’t in favor of rickets and cholera. Why would you think that?

      1. You are correct. Mankind is a plague in their view. Occasionally I forget just how evil they are.

    3. Very little progress would need to be lost before they came swarming back.

      You mean like the return of bedbug epidemics and increasing malaria due to bans of things like DDT and harsh detergents? And the return of childhood dieseases due to anti-vaccine idiocy?

      1. dieseases, an apt misspelling

      2. Even without anti-vaccine idiocy, it takes a lot of infrastructure to manufacture, package and distribute vaccines.

    4. In Alfred Bester’s “5,271,009,” the last man on Earth kills himself because he has an infected tooth and there are no dentists.

      1. What a pussy. I had an uncle who pulled three of his own teeth with a pair of pliers.

        1. What a shock.

    5. Indeed. They forget that sanitary, injury-free working places with children nowhere to be found is a luxury you can afford only after you industrialize, in which case, improved working conditions and a reduction in child labor already become a feature, without intervention.

      You can’t go around regulating family farms into hyper-hygenic safety zones, with all the children in K-12 mandatory education, because then people starve.

      But, once you have industrialization, increased income, safer working conditions, you can come in regulate, and claim responsibility for all of it.

      1. It was only after the advent of “unfettered” (to use their pejorative) capitalism that child labor laws and worker safety regulations could even be a thing to be demanded, let alone possible. These socialists prefer to take the revisionist approach and claim things were all hunky-dory until dirty, dangerous and unjust capitalism was in full swing.

    6. Oh, we still have hordes of parasites. Visit DC.

  6. Having a choice between working on a farm or in a factory beats having the choice between working on a farm or starving.

  7. The Industrial Revolution asked the socialists to be its pallbearers so they could let it down one last time.

    1. zing

  8. Wait… I thought liberty was in greater supply when we were free to gambol about plain and forest!

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