Monday, 21 July 2008

The working classes: A transition in work 1830-1850

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of work in working-class life. Work helped determine two fundamental elements of working-class existence: the ways in which workers spent many, if not most of their waking hours; and the amounts of money they had to their disposal. Work also determined most other aspects of working-class life already considered: the standards of living they enjoyed; standards of health; the type of housing they lived in; the nature of the family and neighbourhood life; the ways in which leisure time was spent and the social, political and other values that were adopted.[1]

The swing away from domestic forms of production can be roughly explained by three developments: the growth of population, the extension of enclosure with a consequent reduction in demand for rural labour and the advent of mechanised production boosting productivity and fostering the growth of new towns and cities. The result was a change in the structure of the labour market. However, this was not a linear progression to large-scale factory production and did not necessarily entail the deskilling of labour, though there were notable exceptions.

The enclosure of common lands had a profound impact on the livelihood of rural workers and their families. It led to a contraction of resources for many workers and a greater reliance on earnings. The spread of enclosure pushed rural labourers on to the labour market in a search for work that was made the more frenzied by falling farm prices and wages between 1815-1835, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic war. The result of the growth in labour supply and agricultural depression was the collapse of farm service in the south and east of the country. It had been customary for farm workers to be hired for a year, to enter service in another household and to live with another family, receiving food, clothes, board and a small annual wage in return for work, only living out when they wished to marry.  Added to this was the development of factory-based textile production that had a significant effect on the other source of earned income for rural workers: outwork. Different parts of the country were associated with different types of product: lace-making round Nottingham, stocking-knitting in Leicester, spinning and weaving of cotton and wool in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The appearance of the mills damaged the status and security of some very skilled branches of outwork. Many rural households found themselves thrown into poverty as such work became increasingly scarce and available only at pitifully low rates of pay. The fate of the handloom weavers, stocking-frame knitters and silk weavers in the 1830s and 1840s, all reflected the impact of technological change on the distribution of work[2]. Textiles were not the only industry to experience such structural changes. In both town and country, mechanisation had a marked impact on a wide variety of employment and the position of some skilled workers was undermined while the demand for new skills grew.

Urban workers had always been more reliant on wages than had rural labourers. Pre-industrial towns had tended to be commercial markets rather than centres of manufacture and employment there had been more specialised than elsewhere. Small units of production in which worked skilled artisans, providing local services and goods rather than commodities for export operated largely on a domestic basis through frequently under the control of the craft guilds. These stipulated modes of recruitment and training and the quality of products and founded the vocabulary of the rights of ‘legal’ or ‘society’ men who worked in ‘legal’ shops that permeated craft unions in the nineteenth century. The nineteenth century saw the position of the skilled urban artisan increasingly under threat from semi-skilled and less well trained workers.

The Elizabethan Statute of Artificers (or Apprentices) 1563 provided a legal framework of craft regulation but had fallen into abeyance long before its apprenticeship clauses were repealed in 1811. Under the old system of apprenticeship, the pupil was formally indentured at 14-16 and joined a master’s house for a period traditionally specified as seven years before being recognised as a journeyman, qualified to practice the trade. It was also usual for journeymen to ‘live in’, entitled to bed, board and wages in return to work, only moving out on marriage. Often journeymen tramped the country in search of work in part to extend their experience and knowledge of their trade but also to escape increasingly uncertain employment prospects in their immediate locality.[3] To become a master the journeyman had to produce his ‘masterpiece’, demonstrating his mastery of the skills of the specific trade. From the early nineteenth century fewer apprentices were completing their indentures and journeymen’s wages were falling, both signs that employers were no longer bothered about hiring only men who had served their time. This led to a dilution in the labour force and an increased blurring of the boundaries between ‘society’ and ‘non-society’ men, a situation made worse by the mechanisation of production that required fewer skills than handwork.

The nature of training for skilled work changed; apprenticeships were shortened and concentrated on specific skills rather than on an extensive understanding of all aspects of production. Lads worked alongside journeymen rather than being attached to a master’s household with various adverse results. The new system bore heavily on apprentices’ families, who frequently still paid for indentures while the apprentice lived at home and could expect little or no wages for his efforts until his time was served. The old stipulated ratios between journeymen and boys were increasingly ignored and apprentices became a cheap alternative for adult labour thus depressing the adult labour market. Such developments were resented by the journeymen expected to train recruits, souring relations and often making training uncooperative. The fate of boys was often instant dismissal as soon as they were old enough to command an adult rate.

Such practices were more common during depressed times. This abuse of apprenticeship provoked sporadic industrial disputes as skilled workers tried to protect their position and to prevent their trade from being flooded (or diluted) by excess labour. The independence of their ‘aristocratic’ status was upheld through the rhetoric of custom and the invention of ‘tradition’ to sanction and legitimise current practice. This excluded employers and market calculations from the opaque world of custom, tradition, craft mystery and skill, a separate culture upheld by secrecy, theatrical ceremony and, when necessary, ritualised violence. Through these means skilled workers defended their position at the ‘frontier of control’.

Reduced to wage-earning proletarians without rights to the materials and product of their labour, skilled workers fought hard to retain some control over the ‘labour process’ and to defend their workplace autonomy against the new time and labour discipline favoured by political economists, preachers and employers. Even in new forms of work organisations, they often succeeded in recomposing skills and safeguarding their status, despite ‘deskilling’ technology and increased division of labour. But in defending or reconstructing skilled status, their actions were divisive: not just a line drawn against employers but against unfair or unskilled competition in the labour market. Skill as property became skill as patriarchy, an appropriate that left women defenceless and marginalised against the degradation of their labour.

The most obvious impact of industrialisation was found in the more intense and strictly disciplined nature of work in those industries transformed by the new technology: textiles, coal-mining, metal-processing and engineering. Skilled workers may have been able to hold the ‘frontier of control’ in relation to their skills as property but they were unable to prevent, though perhaps delay, the inexorable march of discipline and compulsion within the workplace. None of the convivial culture of the workshop was allowed to interrupt the pace of factory work. Early mills were manned by convict and pauper labour (mostly children) because the regularity of work was alien to the adult population used to a greater degree of autonomy in conducting their working lives. The higher wages available in factories provided insufficient compensation for this loss of ‘freedom’. Impoverished handloom weavers would send their daughters to work on the power looms but resisted the prospect themselves. Hours in the early factories were probably no longer than those in the domestic trades but what made it far less acceptable was the mind-crushing tedium of the work involved, the loss of public feast days and holidays and, for middle-class commentators, the physical consequences of long hours and the appalling conditions in the factory towns.

The growth of labour market conditions in the nineteenth century makes it quite impossible to make clear distinctions between the employed, the unemployed, the underemployed, the self-employed and the economically inactive. Subcontracting was rife, notably in the clothing trade where middlemen ‘sweated’ domestic women to earn a profit. The ‘slop’ end of the fashion and furnishing trades competed frantically for such orders as were available at almost any price. Casualism became more visible towards 1900 as cities spread in size. Short-term engagements and casual employment were particularly associated with the docks and the construction industries. The casual labour of the old East End was trapped within an economy of declining trades. Conditions of employment deteriorated. By the early 1870s London’s shipbuilding had slumped beyond the point of recovery and by the 1880s most heavy engineering, iron founding and metal work had gone the same way. Competition from provincial furniture, clothing and footwear factories could only be met by reducing labour costs and led to the increasing importance of sweated trades.


[1] John Benson The Working Class in Britain 1850-1939, Longman, 1989, pp. 9-38 is the best introduction to this issue. Patrick Joyce (ed.), The historical meanings of work, CUP, 1987 is an excellent collection containing a seminal introduction by the editor. Patrick Joyce 'Work' in F.M.L. Thompson, (ed.), The Cambridge Social History of Britain 1750-1950: volume 2 People and their environment, CUP, 1990, pp. 131-194 is a short summary of recent research.

[2] See Duncan Bythell The Handloom Weavers, CUP, 1969 and The Sweated Trades, Batsford, 1978 for a detailed discussion of this issue.

[3] See E.J. Hobsbawm 'The tramping artisan' in his Labouring Men, Weidenfeld, 1964, pp. 34-63 and E.P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class, Gollancz, 1963, Penguin, 1968 and 'Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism', first published in Past and Present, no.38 (December 1967), reprinted and revised in Customs in Common, Merlin, 1991, pp. 352-403.

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