Through the Mill

Jane Humphries

  • Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution by Emma Griffin
    Yale, 303 pp, £12.99, March 2014, ISBN 978 0 300 20525 1

In 1836, Benjamin Shaw looked back on a life of toil in the textile factories of the North-East. He was a skilled worker, but had lived in poverty for years, buried his wife and four of his children, had a leg amputated (diseased as a result of unhealthy working conditions), and been left to care for his illegitimate orphaned granddaughter. His is one of the many autobiographies Emma Griffin uses in Liberty’s Dawn to illustrate what she calls ‘a people’s history of the industrial revolution’. Her message is unequivocal: ‘It is time to think the unthinkable: that these writers viewed themselves not as downtrodden losers but as men and women in control of their destiny; that the industrial revolution heralded the advent not of a yet “darker period”, but of the dawn of liberty.’

This is a challenge to much conventional economic history, yet Griffin’s book is light on historiography. It devotes only five pages to the debate over workers’ standard of living, the longest running and possibly most important controversy in economic history, which has relevance even now in discussions of the implications for welfare of unbridled capitalism. Griffin acknowledges that ‘historians have never lost interest in the impact of the industrial revolution on ordinary people,’ but dismisses much recent work as just ‘economics and statistics’ and claims that economic historians see in this period only ‘stagnation and decline’. This isn’t an accurate assessment, but even if it were, can a few hundred memoirs written by working people really trump the mass of data concerning wages, working hours, family incomes, longevity etc? Griffin would answer that the memoirs supply an authentic working-class voice and that ‘no matter how we try, it is not possible to frame the autobiographical literature within the dark interpretation without imposing a wilful distortion.’

Working-class memoirs in this quantity seem to be unique to this country, although the historian Mary Jo Maynes has identified a smaller group of French and German autobiographies. It is striking, therefore, that contributors to the first wave of ‘history from below’, including E.P. Thompson, used working-class memoirs so sparingly, cherry-picking from already known and accessible texts. But this soon changed. John Burnett used annotated extracts to illustrate various aspects of working-class life in Useful Toil and Destiny Obscure. By 1981, David Vincent had found 142 memoirs spanning the years from 1790 to 1850, and in Bread, Knowledge and Freedom used them to explore the response of ordinary people to economic and social change. In 1989, Vincent, Burnett and David Mayall issued a bibliography listing more than a thousand documents, published and unpublished, from 18th, 19th and 20th-century Britain. Griffin confines discussion of such work to footnotes. It is simply not true, as she claims, that ‘no one has opened the pages of the books and notebooks’ to find out how the industrial revolution was experienced.

It is true, however, that working-class memoirs are often used only as a source of anecdotes, and even historians who have worked with them disagree over how they should be interpreted. Vincent counsels against using them as if they were factual accounts, insisting that their real relevance lies ‘in the connection between the activity of autobiographical self-analysis and the formation of class consciousness’. Much subsequent work has followed his advice. However, Griffin argues – and I think she’s right – that the memoirs span ‘a broad swathe of working-class life’ and that the writers’ families are economically and demographically representative of the wider population. Her interpretation of them is that ‘industrialisation brought immediate and tangible benefits for large sections of the labouring poor.’ But that isn’t necessarily what the memoirs show.

The writers’ early circumstances – the occupations of their fathers, the size and structure of their families, the counties of their birth etc – were indeed typical, but the writers themselves were not. The men and women who wrote their autobiographies selected themselves for posterity by possessing the ability and motivation to tell their own life stories. A general improvement in conditions cannot be reliably inferred from accounts written by people who were particularly adept at seizing opportunities, overcoming obstacles and bettering themselves. The titles of the memoirs reflect these successes: From Workhouse to Lord Mayor; Climbing the Ladder; Pitman and Privy Councillor; Onward and Upward; Success Hammered out of the Rock; and simplest of all, How I Got On. Only 12 of the autobiographers in Griffin’s sample of 350 who were born in rural areas remained agricultural workers, which she agrees is ‘much fewer than we would expect, given what the censuses tell us about the structure of 19th-century society’. Life-writing was, she claims, associated with ‘adventure and achievement’; hard then to conclude, as she does a line later, that ‘there is nevertheless no reason to think their experiences particularly exceptional.’

Griffin doesn’t give much evidence of a more general improvement in workers’ conditions. Her argument is that skills were becoming easier to acquire, in particular because traditional apprenticeships were being replaced by informal arrangements that enabled more men to be trained, to enter trades and enjoy the benefits of higher wages and more secure employment. Apprenticeships certainly declined during industrialisation, as a result of the diminishing effectiveness of guild regulation and the repeal of the Statute of Artificers in 1814, which removed the legal requirement to serve an apprenticeship before practising a trade. In Annals of the Labouring Poor: Social Change and Agrarian England 1660-1900 (1985), K.D.M. Snell maintained that in the late 18th and early 19th centuries apprentices served less time, were less likely to take out formal indentures and more likely to quit. None of this is surprising in an age of labour market deregulation. What is surprising is that apprenticeships persisted at all: indentures, it seems, still had some value. Evidence from memoirs suggests that completed formal apprenticeships did pay off. They also secured additional benefits, including entitlement to poor relief, until 1834, when the introduction of the New Poor Law weakened the claim. Informal training was still second best, and is probably over-represented in Griffin’s sample of exceptionally entrepreneurial individuals. At ten, James Lackington believed he would be a better salesman than the man who cried apple pies about the streets, and tells us that when he offered his services to the pie-maker they were eagerly taken up. A few years later he was able to persuade a master shoemaker to take him on ‘without any premium’. Such likely lads were more common among autobiographers than in the population at large.

The most important flaw in Griffin’s argument is that she assumes wage differentials persisted even though barriers to entering the trades had crumbled, defying the laws of supply and demand. Many trades in the early industrial era were reorganised and deskilled, notably Griffin’s examples of tailoring and shoemaking. The confident Lackington found it hard to make a living from shoemaking and eventually became a bookseller. While some prospered, others found their much struggled-for skills two-a-penny or totally useless as they were replaced by cheaper workers, children among them.

The autobiographies make clear that there was a boom in child labour, and that the age at which a child started work was dropping. Griffin accepts that during this period more and younger children were put to work. Statistical analysis confirms that children from poor families – in receipt of poor relief, or without fathers, or with fathers in low-paid jobs – started work younger. Those who lived in industrial districts started work earlier than those from agricultural areas and small towns. Division of labour and semi-mechanisation created new jobs for children in traditional handicrafts such as pin making, saddlery, toy making, lace embroidery and cutlery making, while factories provided new sorts of work for children as piecers, doffers and cardroom hands in textile mills, or as mould runners and oven boys in the potteries.

Griffin does not dwell on the adverse effects of all this on children’s health or consider how sending your children to work in such conditions affected parents. Ben Shaw blamed the deafness of two of his daughters on the din of the textile factories they worked in, and remembered his little brother Joseph being ‘catched in the wheels’ and dying shortly afterwards. One might well link the girls’ jobs and their periodic underfeeding to the tuberculosis that killed them and Griffin acknowledges that ‘the gains for the smallest and weakest were very questionable.’ As one autobiographer, J.R. Clynes, wrote,

When I was a young man the term ‘to have been through the mill’ had a grim meaning. We accept it now as a slang addition to the English language, indicating a knocked-about and hard-worn appearance. In 1890 it described a mill worker whose childhood had been ruined by hard labour and little sleep, and who, in manhood, looked shrunken and white-faced.

How do we reconcile the boom in child labour with the purported improvement in conditions during the industrial revolution? If fathers were being paid more why did they send their sons and daughters out to work at ever younger ages? Griffin sees this as a matter of cultural continuity, but a more coherent interpretation would emphasise the progressively deregulated labour market, which pushed down men’s wages and made skilled jobs harder to get, while creating jobs for children whose families now needed their wages. If we add the disruptions caused by the French and Napoleonic Wars (unmentioned in Griffin’s account), and the increasing restrictions put on access to poor relief, the forces behind the boom in children’s employment become clearer.

Women, like children, are ill served by conventional sources. Although working women seldom wrote about their lives, men’s memoirs provide some detail about their female relatives. These tend to confirm the view of gender historians that women by and large found it difficult to take advantage of new employment opportunities; as Griffin says, ‘the weight of existing social structures and cultural expectations kept women firmly shut out.’ Men’s wages may have been higher or more regular, but they were needed to support dependent wives: it is unlikely that there was any great increase in families’ living standards.

Griffin also discusses marriage, sexuality, education, religion and political involvement – all brought to life in the vivid accounts of working people. But here too Griffin’s material doesn’t really support her argument. Take the first case she discusses, of a man called John Lincoln. She acknowledges his life was an uphill struggle, but attributes his difficulties not to industrialisation so much as his failure to take advantage of it, going on to suggest that he found compensation in evangelical Christianity. Ben Shaw had similar struggles. He lived in the North-West, the crucible of the industrial revolution, was hard-working and well trained, and willingly tramped in search of work, yet still he experienced poverty, unemployment and appalling treatment by employers (unlike Lincoln, he gave up on the Church).

Griffin claims too that the industrial revolution liberated women. Sally Marcroft, for example, ‘did not need to settle for marriage, housekeeping and a large family. She also had the choice of motherhood in a small single-parent family.’ But Marcroft did not choose this. A destitute orphan, she was made pregnant by a local weaver whose father then forbade them to marry. Ill after the birth of a second child, she was forced with her children into the workhouse, where she was almost murdered by a deranged fellow inmate. She was rescued by her brother, who helped her to set up as an independent weaver. She was extremely skilful, but still sometimes had to resort to poor relief. All this took its toll. Marcroft suffered from depression and died at the age of forty in the poorhouse imbecile ward. Ellen Johnston, another unmarried mother, is described by Griffin as pursuing ‘a life of freedom’ even though she spent her life slaving in the textile factories of Dundee and, Griffin says, was probably the ‘Helen Johnston who died in the Glasgow workhouse in 1874’. Griffin doesn’t tell us that Johnston was probably sexually abused by her stepfather, was shunned for having an illegitimate baby, and died in the Barony Poorhouse after suffering anasarca, a generalised swelling caused in part by kidney failure, a result of poor nutrition.

Stories like these can support either a narrative of progress or one of struggle and suffering. How to get a balanced picture? To produce a genuine people’s history of the industrial revolution you need to use memoirs to find evidence about wages, episodes of unemployment, how long children attended school for and so on, working out averages and variances, trying to avoid selection biases and at last weaving together the qualitative and the quantitative. My guess is that Ben Shaw, who moved from a childhood in a Pennine valley to an apprenticeship at one of the North-East’s largest mechanised textile mills, and then to long years in cotton factories in booming Preston, is representative of this people’s history. He ‘wrought hard – lived poor & died without much attention’, unconscious of liberty’s dawn.