Look around. From the laptop you are reading this on to the trains you ride in and the electricity you use every single day, all of these and so much more began their lives in the Industrial Revolution.
Starting in Britain from the 1760s-1830s, and in the 1840s onwards rippling outwards across Europe and beyond, the Industrial Revolution transformed our lives beyond recognition! This often-overlooked revolution is rightly celebrated for the remarkable achievements that took place within its years, from the development of electricity to the first steam engines. The revolution marked a complete upheaval of pastoral life, but what were the damages? What do we forget in championing this age of innovation?
With the surge in industry came huge wealth and prosperity for factory owners, but beneath the surface were huge cracks and areas of concern. First, not everyone agreed with the movement towards mechanisation. Similarly to that which we may think of now in the digital age, the surge of electric and coal-fuelled machines rendered craftsmen obsolete. In choosing to trade a man with a spinning jenny or mechanised loom, many skilled artists and workers were replaced by machines that didn’t demand the same pay and rights as their human predecessors. Bit by bit, workers were losing their jobs, fingers and minds replaced by nuts and bolts. Later the writer and artist William Morris would encourage the ethos of a hand-crafted life, but the industrial revolution acted in complete contrast. Depersonalisation dominated mechanisation, and cost thousands of trained workers their jobs and livelihoods.
The worst part of this change, (aside from watching your whole career slip away, of course) was the fact that people didn’t even have the right to challenge it! In 1799, The Combination Act received royal assent. This meant that workers in England couldn’t form groups or unions to campaign for better pay and improved working conditions. In this world of supposed progress, those at the top were leaving their fellow man behind. Although the sacrifices these workers made paved the way for trade unions today, their voices were silenced. The people at the core of the revolution were made invisible, turning the cogs, and surrendering to machines.
For example, in the early 1700s, Manchester had been a small market town populated by less than 10,000 people, but by 1800, 89,000 people inhabited what was now becoming a growing city. However, this development from small hamlets to bustling, smoke-filled hives came at the cost of sanitation and dignity. Maltreatment of workers led to sicknesses both in and outside of the factory. Ironically, in moving into the city to help contribute to the bettering of society, many workers faced living in horrendous conditions. Packed into houses with multiple families and a lack of sanitation meant that in cities diphtheria ran rife.
Out of the streets and onto the page, writers were also some of the boldest activists and critics of the industry’s poor treatment of its workers. Charles Dickens was an outspoken critic of the workhouse – somewhere he had lived as a child. His works such as Hard Times, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield all have connections to Dickens’s lived experience and staunch opposition to the maltreatment of the poor. As demonstrated in Elizabeth Gaskell’s visceral novel North and South, long-term exposure to cotton fibres without protection such as face coverings had the power to lead to illness. Many developed tuberculosis and breathing problems as a direct result of inhaling so much of the cotton and dust. The fact that this isn’t tended to by factory owners here shows how poor the treatment of workers was, allowing them to work their ‘heart and life away.’ Swathes of workers died, not just from inhaling cotton fibres, but also from the neglectful standards in factories. Some lost limbs trapped in machinery or were even killed!
Additionally, whilst our neglectful use of plastic is destroying our ecosystems, the damage of climate change began in the industrial revolution. Consider the first steam locomotive built in 1802, or the mass-production of the development of smoke-filled factories, puffing chimneys and smog-coated streets were significant catalysts contributing to global warming. A study by scientists ahead of COP26 said that for 800,000 years, the atmosphere’s CO2 didn’t increase, but at the birth of the industrial revolution, carbon emissions soared.
We can look at the industrial revolution with rose-tinted glasses and a proud gaze, but we must remember the cost of life, both human and in nature, that has occurred as a direct result.