Industrialisation and its consequences politicised the working class in the first half of the 19th century. How true is this statement?
Britain was the first nation to industrialise. Industrialisation is “change from an economy based on agriculture to one based on industry and commerce”.
Allen Clarke suggested industrialisation happened because “capitalists saw that fortunes were to be made more quickly in manufacture than in agriculture”. It appears agriculture lost the investors attention, despite the fact that “from 1760 to 1834 nearly seven million acres of waste land were reclaimed”. This waste land was exploited primarily for industrial purposes.
Some historians argue that industrialisation and its consequences politicised the working class. Politicised means becoming politically active, and having a proper political agenda. This essay will discuss how true the theory is, with first wave industrialism in Britain up until 1850 being the focus.
By 1800 Britain was experiencing mass economic growth, in turn creating enough income to sustain that growth. Industrial growth was concentrated in coal-rich areas such as the North-East, Midlands, Lancashire, the West Riding, and South Wales. Symbiotic with industrialisation was urbanisation. Thousands migrated to these areas, hoping for regular work with regular wages. This shift towards industry had many varied consequences. Consequences here mean the results of industrialisation.
The government at this time reaped rewards from the industriousness classes, but took little responsibility for the welfare of those people, “central government still assumed few responsibilities beyond the defence of the realm”. Political restrictions on working and middle classes meant that neither group had political representation, and therefore had no means of voicing concerns.
This hierarchy was considered outdated by democrat Thomas Paine, whose book The Rights of Man, was published in 1791-2, outlining ideas for universal (male) rights, which should not be denied because of birth, wealth, or tradition. Paine brought to light some radical ideas for reform, and aspired to address poverty through the redistribution of wealth.
The popular book was widely discussed at British political meetings during the time of the French revolution. These ideological views spread easily and quickly, creating within the British government a fear of revolution, and higher ideals within the people.
Some of Paine's ideas came to fruition, though this happened slowly, requiring that, “Britons entrusted the state with more responsibilities . . . But the historiography now stresses that they did so haltingly and grudgingly”.
Trust was possibly begrudged because the industrial employer was not dependent on the worker, but the worker was very dependent on the employer. This upset the equilibrium, because historically, a moral economy had meant that both parties had existed with mutual dependency. Landowners had previously taken responsibility for labourers, ensuring food and fuel enough for survival. The new political economy meant that wage earners were now responsible for personal and family welfare, and could no longer rely upon employers for handouts during difficulties.
The Combination Acts passed in 1799-1800 made the formation of trade unions illegal, along with groupings of men for attaining wage increases or limiting working hours, and also outlawed attempts to instigate strikes.
It therefore became ever more important to the working class to gain parliamentary representation, ensuring self-protection. As Thomas Spence said:
“Are not our legislators all landlords?” He continued by stating, “It is childish to
ever to see small farms again, or ever to see anything else than the utmost
grinding of the poor, till you quite overturn this system of landed
property.” Much urban and industrial property was also owned by
Factory owners could not...
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