Five Best Books on life during the industrial revolution

Emma Griffin
on life during the Industrial Revolution

June 13, 2014 2:01 p.m. ET
The Condition of the
Working Class in England
By Friedrich Engels (1845)

Ms. Griffin is the author of ‘Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution.’
1. Friedrich Engels was a young German visitor, and his stay relatively brief, yet the product of that trip—”The Condition of the Working Class in England”—provided the single most influential account of life during the world’s first industrial revolution. There was considerable truth in his claim that no English writer before him had considered “all the workers.” Engels framed his account around the borrowed notion of a more primitive, but more contented, past, when the cottagers had enjoyed a material condition “far better than that of their successors” and a life that was simpler and more wholesome. But this peace had been crushed by the industrial revolution. Now workers were driven by the relentless pace of the machines rather than the ebb and flow of the seasons and were crammed into disease-ridden slums. Industrial Manchester, he declared, was “Hell upon Earth,” and its workers forced to endure “a long life of toil and wretchedness, rich in suffering and poor in enjoyment.” A hundred and seventy years have passed since the publication of Engels’s book. Yet his simple equation of industrialization with loss and destruction remains imprinted on our imagination today.

Sybil, or The Two Nations
By Benjamin Disraeli (1845)

2. By the 1840s, few observers could fail to notice Britain’s transformation. Novelists began turning their hands to depictions of working people and the bleak state of the nation. Benjamin Disraeli, a future Conservative prime minister, provided an evocative account in this novel. The “two nations” of his subtitle were the comfortably circumstanced aristocracy and the workers, or as one of his characters styled them: “THE RICH AND THE POOR.” In Disraeli’s fictional industrial village of Wodgate—”the ugliest spot in England, to which neither Nature nor art had contributed a single charm”—the workers lived drab lives, their humanity crushed. The residents, wrote Disraeli, were “animals; unconscious; their minds a blank.” Few could read their own name or knew their age; “rare was the boy who has seen a book; or the girl who has seen a flower.” Devoid of beauty or contentment, Wodgate is a more frightening creation than Dickens’s better-known Coketown in “Hard Times.”

The Making of the English
Working Class
By E.P. Thompson (1963)

3. Thompson’s magisterial text runs to nearly 1,000 pages of angry and beautiful prose. At its heart, “The Making of the English Working Class” is an investigation into the ways in which the Industrial Revolution destroyed older patterns of life. For much of his adulthood, Thompson was a card-carrying Marxist, so it is not entirely surprising that he drew heavily on the insights and arguments of Engels. He was convinced that the average worker was shut out from the gains reaped by the property-owing classes. He got, Thompson claimed, little more than some “potatoes, a few articles of cotton clothing for his family, soap and candles, some tea and sugar, and a great many articles in the Economic History Review.” In the end, the Industrial Revolution brought workers nothing more, he charged, than intensified exploitation, greater insecurity and increasing misery.

The Autobiography of a
Beggar Boy
By James Dawson Burn (1855)

4. James Burn was the illegitimate son of an itinerant beggar, born at some point (he thought) between 1800 and 1803. “I was born in poverty, nursed in sorrow and reared in difficulties and privations,” wrote Burn, echoing the conventional wisdom of novelists of that era. But as a working man living through the Industrial Revolution, he testifies to the positive changes wrought by industrialization. At the core of his autobiography is the story of his desperately poor childhood, his often absent mother, his intense yet troubled relationship with his stepfather, and his struggle for self-knowledge in the face of uncertain origins. Yet Burn knew, as he makes clear, that he was living in a changing world—one that allowed for other possibilities than endless privation. He certainly worked hard, and his life was often precarious, but he was also engaged in a lively and exciting political scene. He had come to feel, moreover, that industrialization was enhancing the lives of poor men such as himself. Anyone who cared to compare “the state of affairs in Great Britain” in the early 19th century with the present (he was talking about the 1850s) would have to admit, he wrote, “that as a nation we have much cause to feel grateful.”

Early Days
By Samuel Bamford (1849)

5. Samuel Bamford was born in Middleton, a weaving village just over four miles from Manchester, in 1788 and so experienced the Industrial Revolution firsthand. As an adolescent he learned weaving but gave it up to move to Manchester and take up a position in the warehouse of one of the town’s many great textile factories. Whether weaving or warehousing, Bamford was able to earn a good living, and that freed him from the watchful eye of family, neighbors and employers. He grasped these opportunities to the full, managing to father two children out of wedlock and playing an active role in working-class political movements (ultimately spending a year behind bars for his involvement). For Bamford, the city offered good wages, educational opportunities and personal freedom. As he fondly recollected, he had spent as a young man “some of [his] most satisfactory days” in Manchester. The autobiography that Bamford wrote later for both his fellow workers and “readers in the ranks of affluence” is a finely drawn portrait of working life in Britain’s industrial heartlands. It shows that life could certainly be harsh, but it was not so bleak as middle-class observers feared.

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