Monday, 23 May 2011

From domestic to ‘modern’ production, 1815-1850

The subject of the working-classes in the nineteenth century is an enormous one.[1] It is 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 most of their waking hours; and the amounts of money they had to their disposal. It also determined most other aspects of working-class life: 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 held.[2]

The swing away from domestic forms of production was largely the result of 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 did not mean a linear progression to large-scale factory production nor did it necessarily entail the deskilling of labour, though there were notable exceptions.

Class 8

The enclosure of common lands had a profound impact on the livelihood of rural workers and their families from the last quarter of the eighteenth century. It led to a reduction of resources available for many workers and a greater reliance on earnings. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic war, the spread of enclosure pushed rural labourers on to the labour market in a search for work, a situation worsened by falling arable farm prices and wages between 1815 and 1835.[3] 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, a process that was already evident before 1800. 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. The norm now became day-labourers who had little job security and who were employed only when there were agricultural jobs to be done.

Added to this was the development of factory-based textile production that had a profound effect on the other source of earned income for rural workers involved in outwork. Different parts of the country were associated with different types of product: lace-making round Nottingham, straw-plaiting in Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, stocking-knitting in Leicester and 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 were thrown into poverty as such work became increasingly scarce and available only at miserably 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.[4] 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 their rural counterparts. Pre-industrial towns had tended to be commercial centres with markets rather than major centres of manufacture and employment there had been more specialised than elsewhere. Small units of production in which skilled artisans worked, 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. [5] 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.[6] 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.

Class 9

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. [7] 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. Stipulated ratios between journeymen and boys were increasingly ignored and apprentices became a cheap alternative for adult labour further 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.[8] These practices were more common during economic downturns. This abuse of apprenticeship provoked sporadic industrial disputes as skilled workers tried to protect their position and to prevent their trade from being 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.[9] Even in new forms of work organisations, they often succeeded in 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. [10] Skill as property became skill as patriarchy that left women defenceless against the degradation of their labour and increasingly marginalised.

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.[11] 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 while resisting 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 monotony 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.[12]

The growth of labour market conditions in the nineteenth century makes it difficult to make clear distinctions between the employed, the unemployed, the underemployed, the self-employed and the economically inactive. Sub-contracting was widespread, notably in the clothing trade where middlemen ‘sweated’ women to earn a profit. The ‘slop’ end of the fashion and furnishing trades competed frantically for available orders 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[13] 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 metropolitan sweated trades.


[1] The literature on the labouring population is immense.  Ibid, Hunt, E.H., British Labour History 1815-1914, Rule, J., The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England 1750-1850, (Longman), 1986, ibid, Benson, J., The Working-class in Britain 1850-1939, (Longman), 1989, Hopkins, E., A Social History of the English Working-classes 1815-1945, (Edward Arnold), 1977, Belchem, J., Industrialisation and the Working-class, (Scolar), 1990, Savage, M. and .Miles, A., The remaking of the British working class, 1840-1940, (Routledge), 1994 and Brown, K.D., The English Labour Movement 1700-1951, (Gill and Macmillan), 1982 are good starting points.

[2] Ibid, Benson, John, The Working-class in Britain 1850-1939, pp. 9-38 is the best introduction to this issue. Ibid, Joyce, Patrick, (ed.), The historical meanings of work, is an excellent collection containing a seminal introduction by the editor. Ibid, Joyce, Patrick, ‘Work’ in Thompson, F.M.L., (ed.), The Cambridge Social History of Britain 1750-1950: Vol. 2 People and their environment, pp. 131-194 is a short overview.

[3] Richardson, T.L., ‘Agricultural labourers’ wages and the cost of living in Essex, 1790-1840: a contribution to the standard of living debate’, in Holderness, B.A. and Turner, M.E., (eds.), Land, labour and agriculture, 1700-1920: essays for Gordon Mingay, (Hambledon), 1991, pp. 69-90.

[4] See ibid, Bythell, Duncan, The Handloom Weavers and The Sweated Trades for a detailed discussion of this issue.

[5] Lane, Joan, Apprenticeship in England, 1600-1914, (UCL Press), 1996 and Wallis, Patrick, ‘Apprenticeship and Training in Pre-modern England’, Journal of Economic History, Vol. 68, (2008), pp. 832-861 provide background.

[6] See ibid, Hobsbawm, E.J., ‘The tramping artisan’ in his Labouring Men, pp. 34-63 and ibid, E.P. Thompson The Making of the English Working-class, pp. 259-296 and ‘Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism’, Past and Present, Vol. 38, (1967), pp. 56-97 reprinted and revised in ibid, Customs in Common, pp. 352-403.

[7] Ibid, Humphries, Jane, ‘English Apprenticeship: A Neglected Factor in the First Industrial Revolution’, in David, Paul A. and Thomas, Mark, (eds.), The economic future in historical perspective, (Oxford University Press), 2001, pp. 73-102, Rose, Mary B., ‘Social policy and business; parish apprenticeship and the early factory system, 1750-1834’, Business History, Vol. 31, (1989), pp. 5-32, Lane, J., ‘Apprenticeship in Warwickshire cotton mills, 1790-1830’, Textile History, Vol. 10, (1979), pp. 161-174 and a valuable comparative study Elbaum, Bernard, ‘Why apprenticeship persisted in Britain but not in the United States’, Journal of Economic History, Vol. 49, (1989), pp. 337-349.

[8] Honeyman, Katrina, Child workers in England, 1780-1820: parish apprentices and the making of the early industrial labour force, (Ashgate), 2007, Steinberg, Marc W., ‘Unfree Labor, Apprenticeship and the Rise of the Victorian Hull Fishing Industry: An Example of the Importance of Law and the Local State in British Economic Change’, International Review of Social History, Vol. 51, (2006), pp. 243-276 and Reinarz, Jonathan, ‘Learning By Brewing: Apprenticeship and the English Brewing Industry in the Late Victorian and Early Edwardian Period’, in Munck, Bert De, Kaplan, Steven L. and Soly, Hugo, (eds.), Learning on the shop floor: historical perspectives on apprenticeship, (Berghahn Books), 2007, pp. 111-130 and ‘Fit for management: apprenticeship and the English brewing industry, 1870-1914’, Business History, Vol. 43, (2001), pp. 33-53.

[9] That this was often unsuccessful is explored in Green, David R., From artisans to paupers: economic change and poverty in London, 1790-1870, (Scolar & Ashgate), 1995. See also, Levene, Alysa, ‘“Honesty, sobriety and diligence”: master-apprentice relations in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England’, Social History, Vol. 33, (2008), pp. 183-200.

[10] This was especially evident in attacks, widespread in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, on new technology where it posed a threat to employment but was especially focused on the use of unskilled labour. See, for example, Brodie, Marc, ‘Artisans and dossers: the 1886 West End riots and the East End casual poor’, London Journal, Vol. 24, (1999), pp. 34-50.

[11] Honeyman, Katrina, ‘The Poor Law, the Parish Apprentice, and the Textile Industries in the North of England, 1780-1830’, Northern History, Vol. 44, (2007), pp. 115-140.

[12] Ibid, Boot, H.M., ‘How skilled were Lancashire cotton factory workers in 1833?’

[13] Rankin, Stuart, (ed.), Shipbuilding on the Thames and Thames-Built Ships: a symposium for researchers and authors held on Saturday 2 September 2000: supported by London Borough of Southwark, Department of Education & Leisure and the Greenwich Maritime Institute to mark the 130th anniversary year of the launch of “Lothair”, last large vessel built in Rotherhithe, 1870, (Rotherhithe & Bermondsey Local History Group), 2000.

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