Cours / chapitre 5
The progress of the British working class: towards visibility and representation
The county of Lancashire had been the area where the first Industrial Revolution had taken place in the second half of the 18th century. In the 1820s, Lancashire had become the most highly industrialized area in the world, the centre of the new cotton industry, providing halfthe total of British exports. It boasted two of the largest cities of the UK: Liverpool, which was a major harbour, and Manchester, which rapidly became a trade centre with links to the whole world. These two flourishing local capitals, which were famous for trade and industry, developed a strong pride. This pride became visible as these cities grew into cultural centres, with the opening of artgalleries, public parks, and universities. Manchester was often called “the Florence of the 19th century”. However, despite these signs of cultural achievement, people in Britain were still prejudiced against the industrial magnets of Northern England. Compared with the agricultural south they were associated with the emergence of the working class and squalid working and living conditions.This image was true to a certain extent. Indeed, in the 1830s, many workers had suffered tremendously as handlooms were being replaced by power looms. With the introduction of new machines, the number of jobs available had been reduced and the wages had been drastically cut. Handloom weavers sometimes revolted (Luddite revolt and machine-breaking in the 1810s, big demonstrations in 1817-1819,Cato Street Conspiracy against members of the Cabinet in 1820, strong Chartist agitation, strikes and riots in the 1840s). This gave rise to revolutionary agitation. In Manchester 64% of the population belonged to the working class and in the neighbouring cotton towns (= towns built around cotton mills) the proportion was even higher (80% to 95%). Moreover, in the new system families could not worktogether any longer. Women and children, who made up 65% of all cotton workers, were now separated, as one person was enough to watch several machines. Yet despite the opposition of manufacturers several Factory Acts were passed during the first half of the century in order to improve the working conditions, especially for women and young children.
Following the example of suchprogressive mill owners as socialist precursor Robert Owen, Lancashire industrialists were gradually convinced to improve the working conditions of their employees. The first effective measure regulating working conditions in the textile industry were taken in 1833. Under the 1833 Factory Act, the employment of children under the age of 9 was limited. Children could not be made to work more than 8 hours aday. Later the 1844 Factory Act limited children’s work days to 6 ½ hours and for women the working week could not exceed 65 hours. In 1847, women’s workweek was limited to 60 hours, then in 1874 to 56 ½ hours with the Sunday and half a Saturday off. Other branches of industry benefited from this progressive legislation in the textile trade with the passing of the Mines Act of 1842 which forbadethe employment of women and boys under the age of 10 in mines. Furthermore, the Bank Holiday Acts of 1871 and 1875 made Boxing Day (=day after Christmas Day), Easter Monday, Whit Monday and the first Monday in August non-working days. Finally in 1880 the Employers’ Liability Act made employers responsible for any work accident sustained by one of their workers. Throughout the century people thusbecame gradually aware of the necessity to treat employees as human beings. It is no coincidence that the first major Factory Act of 1833 was passed the same year as slavery was abolished in all British colonies.
One of the striking differences between the working class in Britain and the working class in continental Europe was that no violent revolution occurred in the UK. There were...