Anyone who has read my blogs knows that I generally praise stuff, but for a change, I have discovered a book which is genuinely bad.
Liberty’s Dawn – a People’s History of the Industrial Revolution is by Emma Griffin, and claims to disprove the long held belief that people were worse off by moving from agriculture to factories and towns. She claims:
“In looking at the encounter between industrialisation and the working poor, this book takes up a theme – that the industrial revolution degraded and exploited workers – that has exercised writers and thinkers since the first quarter of the 19th century. Not that there was anything new about poverty and exploitation. Toiling away for scant reward has been the lot of mankind since the dawn of time.”
Whoa! If that were so I think humanity would have died out long ago. Whether you are looking at the many medieval holidays and festivals or any race I can think of, our ancestors had varied lives, working when they had to and celebrating when they could. In Britain, the end of harvest was a huge annual event, which marked the end of a period of hard work bringing in the harvest, and to celebrate the fact that they would have enough food to survive the impending winter. Even the poorest of any community knew celebrations.
She cites the brilliant historian E P Thompson: “It is neither poverty nor disease but work itself which cast the blackest shadow over the years of the Industrial Revolution… long hours of unsatisfying labour and severe discipline for alien purposes.” That is a huge change. People on the land worked at least in part for their own and the community’s benefit. Factories changed that entirely.
she claims “tradition and protectionism kept the gates barred to those who had not served an apprenticeship in a handful of trades.” Apprenticeship ensured trades maintained standards, and people within the trade helped each other out when in financial trouble. with the breakdown of this system, tradesmen were without support if they were ill or injured. The poor were often put to apprenticeship to give them a trade, which was often paid by charities or friends, so being poor did not mean they had to stay that way.
Post Reformation and Civil War, the population of England had taken a battering, so there was plenty of space for people with ambition and willing to work to better themselves. It was a time of investment, industry, enclosures, huge amounts of change, not the dreary endless plod she seems to envisage.
Griffin cites Victorian writers who described the horrors of Victorian children’s lives, “The industrial novels are perhaps not the finest examples of Victorian literature, but it is nonetheless remarkable that privileged writers were so ready to take up their pen for the most powerless members of society.” Most of these authors were practicing Christians, so were well aware of Christ’s admonitions to care for the poor and the vulnerable, so these novels were not surprising at all.
She writes a lot on the lack of opportunity for women to earn money outside the home, yet people in the countryside did not need to. Women spun, wove and sewed the family’s clothes so they did not need to be purchased. she bemoans the lack of rural employment for children, yet she knows nothing of the life in the country, where kids helped out on family farms, feeding and caring for animals as appropriate to their ages. She even cites boys making shelters whilst minding sheep. Their work was not hard, and being out in the fresh air was a wonderful thing, as John Clare and others described. Her version of the countryside had no employment for kids, so must have been after the enclosures when fewer people had access to land, fewer were able to keep animals, life in general became hard.
John Clare’s family house had been an old farm house which cost £4 per yer, most of which was paid for by the sale of apples from the adjoining orchard. with enclosure this house was divided into 4 family homes, and the rent for their portion increased, as well as losing access to the orchard, so their income plumeted whilst costs of living soared. This was new, not normal.
“child labour had a very long taproot in Britain. Society had always viewed putting poor children to work as an answer to the miserable poverty in which their families lived. The trouble was that the pre-industrial economy was ill-equipped to give most families any hope of earning income from their children’s labour, no matter how much they might need it. … Industrialisation unleashed a wave of economic growth and when faced with the prospect of gainful employment for their children families responded in the way they had always done. ”
No, no and no. Children traditionally did what they could, just as communities worked together to bring in the harvest. In an earlier post I noted how supplies of nails from north of England had been delayed by the workers having to help out with the harvest. One of the biggest problems with the agricultural revolution was the threshing machines as they deprived locals of work in the depths of winter when income was most needed.
She claims most women did not work once married – makes no mention if they were allowed to. Until well into the 20th century women were expected to only work till married, then the husband was responsible for them.
I do like one of her anecdotes though, “When George was 6, she [his mother] went to the parish officers with 5 of the children, requesting ‘some further relief’, and when she was denied she left the children with them, saying ‘keep them!’ The children were soon returned with bread, flour and treacle, but when that was used up, they had to go begging. ‘
The book has some good research on diaries of people -mostly men of course, and often having found god, so motivated to tell their tales of redemption. The trouble is, Griffin just doesn’t know her wider history well enough. If she wants to find a time when social mobility was common, the 18th century ranks highly, especially for women. She cites Cobbett, yet knows nothing of the landscape and people he described in such fascinating and passionate detail, and the changes – often tragic – of the times she writes of.