Thursday, 2 June 2011

Working in factories, 1850-1875

Craft-like control persisted in amended form in the mid-Victorian factory, a privilege enjoyed by a new aristocracy of labour. John Foster argues that these new aristocrats derived their status from a change in employer strategy. Skilled workers were incorporated in a new authority structure designed to strengthen discipline and increase productivity. The introduction of the ‘piece master’ system in the engineering factories brought the skilled engineer into active involvement in the work of management as group leader and technical supervisor. In cotton factories, spinners retained skilled status as a crucial group after the introduction of the self-acting mule. These male workers forced an intensification of labour from juvenile and female time-paid assistants, an effective adaptation of traditional gender and family roles to the factory environment.[1]

There is some disagreement over the extent to which this position was secure. Gareth Stedman Jones insists that distinctions of status were purely formal and real control had passed to the employers with the restructuring of industry on ‘modern’ lines.[2] Skilled workers became defensive and collaborationist in approach seeking to preserve their status and differentials through the goodwill of their employers. However, in the absence of technical expertise, employers were often forced to concede considerable autonomy to skilled workers, though they generally derived some benefit from the arrangement. Allowing spinners to appoint their own piecers relieved employers of direct responsibility for labour recruitment and discipline. Apprenticeship operated in a similar way, providing employers with a skilled workforce trained at worker expense.

This pragmatic compromise between skilled workers and employers was usually negotiated locally and informally. Capital made production possible, but the actual details of production, workers insisted was the responsibility of labour.

Class 12

Domestic servants, c1900

Where no independence was allowed, workers were often reluctant to enter employment whatever the material advantages it offered. Domestic service, a comparatively well-paid occupation largely unaffected by cyclical unemployment, was shunned by working-class girls in factory districts and urban areas. Lancashire marriage registers show that servants tended to marry husbands from a lower social-economic status than their peers, an indication of the social stigma attached to service in an area where alternative female employment was readily available.[3] The middle-classes of the factory districts had to depend on rural migrants for domestic servants and some obtained cheap live-in servants from the local workhouse.[4]

Factory employment offered women some independence but they seldom held the most well-paid and responsible jobs especially supervisory tasks that carried skilled status and workplace authority. These male preserves were jealously protected by ‘closed’ trade unionism. There was some technical and physical basis that denied women access to the well-paid spinning sector. Women were physically quite capable of operating self-acting mules but they often lacked the necessary technical skills and experience.[5] They had been excluded from the spinning factories in the 1810s and 1820s when the use of ‘doubled’ mules put a premium on male physical strength. Without recent practical experience, women became the victims of discontinuity in the transmission of craft skills and knowledge from one generation to another. The cult of domesticity that sought to limit female paid employment to the brief period before marriage further hindered the acquisition of workplace skills. In some parts of Lancashire, married women went out to work in substantial numbers, but not in the southern spinning belt where the well-paid spinners and engineers feared a loss of status should their wives return to paid employment.

Unable to restrict labour supply through closed organisations, the weaver, male and female, united in ‘open’ trade unionism, a development resisted by paternal employers. The Preston lock-out of 1853-1854 brought confrontation between employers and workers in an attempt to reverse the 10% wage cuts of 1847.[6] The cotton workers were starved back to work after twenty-eight weeks, a decisive defeat that marked a turning-point in strategy as union leaders cultivated an image of moderation and respectability, a public relations exercise to secure recognition from reluctant employers.

Class 13

Gustave Dore: Loading Cargo at Thames Warehouse,

Blackburn employers granted union recognition and negotiating rights on the strict understanding that union officials would ‘police’ the agreement.[7] Though recognition was elsewhere delayed until the 1880s, the Blackburn weavers pointed the way forward towards modern collective bargaining. In already unionised industries, similar conciliation and arbitration schemes enjoyed considerable success in the late 1860s and early 1870s.[8] They were first introduced in the Nottingham hosiery industry and were of mutual benefit to unions and employers, an institutional expression of the mid-Victorian compromise in labour relations.[9] New sliding wage-scales were welcomed in the coal and iron trades where wage disputes had broken many unions: conciliation boards now automatically adjusted wages to product price.[10] Some of the other schemes clearly favoured employers: in the building trade, for example, employers took advantage of mutual negotiation to reassert and redefine managerial powers thereby curtailing the autonomous regulation of the trade. [11]


[1] Ibid, Foster. J., Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution: early industrial capitalism in three English towns, pp. 224-238.

[2] Jones, Gareth Stedman, Outcast London: a study in the relationship between classes in Victorian society, (Oxford University Press), 1971, pp. 19-51. See his critique of Foster ‘Class Struggole and the Industrial Revolution’, in his ibid, Languages of Class, pp. 25-74.

[3] Anderson, Michael, ‘What can the mid-Victorian censuses tell us about variations in married women’s employment?’, Local Population Studies, Vol. 62, (1999), pp. 9-30.

[4] Horn, Pamela, The rise and fall of the Victorian servant, rev. ed., (Sutton Publishing), 2004, Higgs, Edward, ‘The tabulation of occupations in the nineteenth-century census with special reference to domestic servants’, in ibid, Goose, Nigel, (ed.), Women’s work in industrial England: regional and local perspectives, pp. 250-259, Drake, Michael, ‘Aspects of domestic service in Great Britain and Ireland, 1841-1911’, Family & Community History, Vol. 2, (1999), pp. 119-128 and Jamieson, Lynn, ‘Rural and urban women in domestic service’, in Gordon, Eleanor and Breitenbach, Esther, (eds.), The world is ill-divided: women’s work in Scotland in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, (John Donald), 1990, pp. 136-157.

[5] Freifeld, Mary, ‘Technological change and the “self-acting” mule: a study of skill and the sexual division of labour’, Social History, Vol. 11, (1986), pp. 319-343.

[6] See, Dutton, H.I. and King, J.E., ‘Ten Per-Cent and no surrender’: the Preston strike, 1853-1854, (Cambridge University Press), 1981.

[7] Beattie, Derek, Blackburn: the development of a Lancashire cotton town, (Ryburn), 1992 provides the context but see also, Daumas, Jean-Claude et al, ‘Trade unionism in textiles towns and areas’, in Robert, Jean-Louis, Prost, Antoine and Wrigley, Chris, (eds.), The emergence of European trade unionism, (Ashgate), 2004, pp. 56-57, 64-65 and 70-73.

[8] The advent of arbitration is frequently understood only as evidence of a mid-Victorian social reconciliation that was ultimately based upon progress and the advance of capitalism. However, such a view is seriously misleading. A wide variety of trades, some as distinctive as handloom weaving, carpentry, printing, and coal mining, elaborated or participated in forms of industrial arbitration before this period while still others eagerly sought to adopt it. Different formats for collective arbitration developed during the early nineteenth century, either across a trade or among work groups, at the same time that more traditional forms of individual arbitration were still being actively pursued within the context of labour relations.

[9] Church, R.A., ‘Technological change and the Hosiery Board of Conciliation and Arbitration, 1860-84’, Yorkshire Bulletin of Economic & Social Research, Vol. 15, (1963), pp. 52-60.

[10] Loftus, Donna, ‘Industrial conciliation, class co-operation and the urban landscape in mid-Victorian England’, in Morris, R.J. and Trainor, R.H., (eds.), Urban governance: Britain and beyond since 1750, (Ashgate), 2000, pp. 182-197 and Porter, J.H., ‘Wage bargaining under conciliation agreements, 1860-1914’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., Vol. 23, (1970), pp. 460-475.

[11] Price, Richard, Masters, Unions, and Men: Work control in building and the rise of labour, 1830-1914, (Cambridge University Press), 1980, pp. 94-197 looks at the development of industrial relations from the late 1860s.

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