A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution, by Emma Griffin

Published by Yale University Press

By digging into 350 published and unpublished autobiographies of working people who experienced the Industrial Revolution then Emma Griffin has produced a very interesting, highly readable book. However, to state this makes her work “an alternative account of labour and the historical revolution” is a grandiose claim that the author fails to substantiate.

According to Griffin, far too little attention has been given to the benefits working class people, especially adult males, derived from the Industrial Revolution.

Griffin thus challenges accounts that include Friederich Engels 1845 book: The conditions of the Working Class in England as well as the many, often highly statistical, reports from the nineteenth century not forgetting books written many years later, the most famous of which is EP Thompson’s 1963 classic The Making of the English Working Class.

Before the Industrial Revolution people earned their living largely from their own labours. Radical changes meant that by utilising coal to power increasingly sophisticated machines a whole range of new products could be manufactured and brought to market and sold. The profits generated helped fuel further expansion. The subsequent increasing demand for additional labour resulted in an exodus from country to town, a process often accompanied by the expropriation of  common land and the forced eviction of the rural poor from their humble lodgings.

Amongst those who experienced the Industrial Revolution are a number who wrote their autobiographies. Griffin consulted over 350 of these unique records that are stored in local County Record Offices across England. These are highly fascinating but for Griffin to argue that they are “the only way to examine the working lives of working people during a critical epoch in world history” cannot be justified.

It could (wrongly, in the opinion of the author of this article) be suggested that Engels, a communist, and Thompson, a radical socialist, had ulterior political motives in writing negative accounts of the Industrial Revolution. The problem for Griffin is that their views were supported by numerous accounts – such as the Factories Inquiry Commission Report (1833) – from the period that were written by those that passionately supported the new developments that helped turn Britain into the Workshop of the World.

By far the vast majority of the autobiographies are written by men and when they are compared to those written by women it is clear, according to Griffin, that: “the patches of sunlight certainly shone more brightly on men rather than their wives and children.” In particular, the latter, are not well served by the Industrial Revolution.

Men are better rewarded than women and they also earn – often considerably – more than their rural counterparts. Writers coming towards the end of their lives were often at pains to stress how much better their own had been compared to their parents and grandparents.

Improvements in income meant workers enjoyed a greater degree of independence from their employers. In turn this led to the development of a wide range of clubs and societies that gave working class males a part and a say in their organising. The new skills that were acquired from such activities helped fuel the development of the Chartist movement. This was the first truly working class political movement ever seen. When it threatened to turn the Industrial Revolution into one in which all of mankind benefited it was ultimately ruthlessly suppressed by a combination of capitalist and aristocratic forces.

Griffin fails to explain why it was that if so many people were having their lives improved by the Industrial Revolution that there was the development of Chartism. This would require a much longer book in which Griffin would need to challenge the likes of Engels and Thompson in a much more rigorous fashion in order to try and prove the Industrial Revolution really was ‘Liberty’s Dawn.’