Top positive review
18 people found this helpful
on 4 August 2013
Blake's "dark satanic mills" have long dominated the way we think about the industrial revolution. Dickens' novels echoed a belief that capitalists enslaved the working classes in the greedy pursuit of wealth. The images of young children working shifts of 12 hours or even more confirm our belief in the wickedness of the times. During the 19th century, romantics like William Morris sought to recapture the virtues of pre-industrial times, which were almost likened to a lost Eden.
However, serious historians have known for some time that the rural economy of 17th and 18th century England offered very little to the lowest classes, the cottars who depended almost entirely on cash wages. It offered even less to squatters--those who had no legal right of residence in any parish--those who lacked even an acre or two to graze a cow, and a hovel to call their own. Even though most English peasants had secure tenancies and were very well-to-do in comparison to their continental counterparts, the lowest classes suffered greatly when times were hard.
Emma Griffin takes this further--she has studied 350 autobiographical accounts written by labourers and poor artisans who grew up in the early days of industrialisation. And she makes a convincing case that the lowest classes not only enjoyed unprecedented prosperity in our industrial towns, but they were liberated from the class structures which oppressed them. Work was extremely scarce in rural areas, and time and time again children were forced to go back to tyrannical employers because their parents couldn't even afford to feed them. Often the children were not paid and barely fed, yet there was no alternative--except to move to an industrial town.
Once there, there was so much work available that employers had to compete by offering better wages--and they had to treat their employees decently, or they'd simply go to another mill. This is not to say that life wasn't still very hard, but at least everyone had enough to eat and a chance to get ahead. And many of them did. Education was highly prized, and workers even formed self-help groups to supplement the day schools, Sunday schools, and Mechanics' Institutes that were spreading basic skills to the very lowest ranks of society.
Ms Griffin explores these biographies from all angles, and concludes that the industrial revolution was in fact 'Liberty's Dawn'. This view has long been unfashionable on both the right and the left. Some conservatives like to think that things were better when everyone knew their place in rural England, and left-wingers need to demonise the capitalists. Even more people have a romantic view of our 'green and pleasant land' the pre-dated the mills.
This book goes a long ways towards reviving the Whig view of history--Britain did indeed lead the world into the modern age. Whatever horrors we see from our comfortable 21st century armchairs look entirely different when recounted by those who actually lived through this remarkable era.