Emma Griffin, ‘Working class autobiography in the industrial revolution’

[This is the fourteenth piece in ‘The Future of History from Below’ online symposium (#historyfrombelow). Emma Griffin is Professor of History at the University of East Anglia. Her research and publications focus on the impact of the industrial revolution on the lives of the working poor. Here, she brings our conversation about ‘history from below’ forward into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and considers the light working class autobiography can shed on workers’ experiences of the British industrial revolution and argues that approaching this landmark historical development ‘from below’ can radically alter our perspective on it.]

The industrial revolution was possibly the single most significant event in our history.  But when we think about the men, women and children, who with their strong backs and nimble fingers did the most to power the industrial revolution, we tend to feel that there is little to celebrate.  The introduction of new working patterns which compelled men to work at the relentless pace of the machines.  Children forced into factories and down mines at ever younger ages.  Families squeezed into dark, disease-ridden cities.  And nothing but the workhouse for those who slipped through the net.  All the great Victorian commentators – Engels, Dickens, Blake – painted their industrial times in a very dark hue. And their dismal litany echoed throughout the twentieth century, as a succession of pioneering social historians – the Hammonds, Eric Hobsbawm, and of course E. P. Thompson – turned their attention to the devastating impact of the industrial revolution on the working poor.

Yet despite the frequency with which various versions of the bleak account of the industrial revolution have been retold, the claim that this period was worse than anything that has gone before has not received the kind of scrutiny it deserves.  In particular, it is remarkable that so little effort has been made to listen to what working people themselves had to say about their life and times.  Of course, it is usually countered that such an effort would be futile as working people did not leave behind much in the way of written sources.  But whilst it is certainly true that they wrote far less than their social superiors, it is not the case that they wrote nothing at all.  Less well known, but no less important, is a remarkable collection of autobiographies written by working people themselves.  And if we listen to these, we hear a story that is very different to the one that we are used to.

Historians have long been aware of the existence of working-class autobiographies, but most have been sceptical about using them to study working-class life.  After all, this was a period of relatively high illiteracy, so (it is argued) there was something exceptional about the working man or woman with the ability to write an autobiography.  Yet this line of argument assumes that literacy was more unusual amongst the working class than was really the case.  Nineteenth-century society had a range of very cheap means of learning literacy available to both children and adults – dame schools, Sunday schools, night schools, and mutual improvement societies – which meant that writing an autobiography was within the grasp of even the very poor.  Included amongst the autobiographers are men like John Hemmingway, who was put to work in a Manchester cotton mill at the age of eight and raised in poverty by his single-mother following the desertion of his father.  As an adult, he turned his hand to various occupations – weaving, the army, shop-keeping, and driving a horse and cart – but never rose above the station to which he had been born.  In old age he and his wife were forced to sell their furniture and wedding rings, move into a miserable cellar dwelling, and live off a small dole from the parish.  So whilst some of the autobiographers were exceptional in one way or another, it is far from the case that this is true of all.

This is not to suggest, of course, that the use of autobiographies is entirely unproblematic.  One difficulty that cannot be overcome is the paucity of autobiographies written by women.  And autobiographers are haunted by failures of memory and inevitably provide a subjective account of their life.  Yet with nearly 400 autobiographies written during the period of industrialisation they provide a rich and untapped seam of evidence that we cannot afford to ignore.  Furthermore, in contrast to the other sources to which historians interested in the lives of ordinary workers usually turn – the Poor Law, the Census, the criminal courts – these records were freely created by the men and women we wish to study.  In this they are unique and this makes them an excellent resource for the study of working-class experiences of the British industrial revolution.

What, then, do these autobiographies tell us about how life changed for workers with the advent of industrialisation?  More than anything, the autobiographers indicate that industrialisation, and the urban growth that accompanied it, increased the amount of work that was available. These sources make it possible to compare the descriptions of earning a living in pre-industrial, rural and industrial areas and reveal that in the absence of industry most workers were not fully employed and as a result lived in a state of chronic poverty. Because of the low wages and patchy employment experienced by agricultural workers, even skilled workers in pre-industrial Britain – shoemakers, blacksmiths, carpenters and so forth – were rarely able to make a good living from their trade, as few of their neighbours had the means to pay for their services.  As a result, many skilled workers turned to agriculture to try to make ends meet, thereby contributing to the low living standards endured by those trying to earn a living from the land.

This more than anything is what changed with industrialisation.  The industrial revolution increased the amount of work available, for the skilled and the unskilled, for the young and the old.  As manufacturing expanded, young men and women poured in from the countryside to work in the new factories.  But working on the factory floor was just the beginning.  Coal was needed to run the machines, providing an important stimulus to the mining industry.  Factories needed their workers, but they also had to be built, their machines had to be maintained, their warehouses organised – it all amounted to a steady stream of employment for the men who flocked to the cities.  One autobiographer found goods needed to be weighed as well as made, and found a job doing precisely that.  Many others made a living transporting raw material and finished goods around – driving horses and carts, building railways, driving trains.  Then there was a mountain of work to be done providing for the needs of a large population.  The urban workforce needed houses, furniture, bread, shoes, clothes; their demand for the staples of life provided plenty of business for skilled workers and what is more, unlike the rural poor, the urban workforce had the money with which to pay them.  The demand for labour meant that many workers were now fully employed throughout the year and this helped to drag families out of the grinding poverty that agricultural workers endured.

And the changes were not simply material.  It is true that cities could be dark, crowded and dirty.  But they were also places of freedom.  Here it was possible to attend a night school in the hours after work and to get a little learning. You might worship at whatever church you chose. You might join a union, or even political organisation, and try to shape the society in which you lived.  Here it was possible to spend the nights drinking and carousing all far from the gaze of one’s employers or social superiors.  The men who threw themselves into city life did not view themselves as victims.  William Aitken described his fellow Manchester Chartists as the ‘sons of freedom’.  His view, shared by many other autobiographers, was that city life was liberating, not oppressive.  Little surprise then that so many flooded in to those ‘dark satanic mills’; and so few ever returned to that ‘green and pleasant land’.

Thinking about the industrial revolution in this way doesn’t mean we are indifferent to the grinding poverty endured by some.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t hold the Victorians to account for not doing more to alleviate the worst excesses of rapid economic growth. But it does require us to be more realistic about what life was, and still is, like in places that have not industrialised.

It is easy to be seduced by such powerful thinkers and talented writers as Engels, Dickens and Blake.  It is difficult to pick up what the unlettered, sometimes illiterate, workers themselves were saying.  But they did have things to say and it’s important that we try to listen.  It may jar with our expectations, but these, our first hand witnesses, teach us that Britain’s mills and factories were not just ‘dark and satanic’ but promised autonomy and material advantage for those who worked them.


One thought on “Emma Griffin, ‘Working class autobiography in the industrial revolution’

  1. Beautifully written Ms. Griffin. You´re very fortunate to have that material in your hands, I wish I´d have something like that in mine (I work with peasant communities during the wars of independence in The Andes). Also, all of the sources we work with are problematic. However, if we use one in combination with the others we can bring a new light into the era getting closer to what it used to be: a very complex society. I thinks that works for nineteenth century England or for my Peruvians. Those were all very complex societies with several layers, and the only way to understand them is through different sources, as many as we can find. We just can´t afford to dismiss a source for its subjectivity. At least in this case, “more is more”.

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