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VINE VOICEon 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.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 10 April 2014
Dark and satanic mills - this phrase defines a lot of popular perceptions of the industrial revolution, of a lost innocence and a paradise lost. There was of course a dark side to the industrial revolution and it made great fodder for moralists and novelists. But how did the people who lived through this change actually see things? Did they see things the way people like Charles Dickens and Frederic Engels saw things? Middle-class novelists and writers like Dickens and Engels often assumed the existence of a lost bucolic paradise, against which the realities of the industrial revolution would inevitably fall short. But they didn't provide much evidence that such a state of affairs ever existed. They also assumed that workers' experience of the industrial revolution was one of seamless, undifferentiated misery. Their perceptions continue to shape our own till this day.

What this book does is to complicate this picture. There was no doubt a great deal of misery, exploitation and squalor that accompanied the social and economic changes that we call the industrial revolution. But the picture that bourgeois writers of the 19th Century have left us (and have been repeated by historians like E P Thompson, for example) differs from the picture that literate, first generation working-class people who lived through this time has left us. By examining the autobiographical accounts of over 300 working-class people, as this book does, a different picture emerges. It's important to emphasise the demographic from which these accounts are drawn. The accounts are from working-class people born in a rural United Kingdom, from rural origins themselves, the first generation of working people to experience changes such as moving from country to town at the sharp end; their accounts were often composed old age, living in a country transformed. What did they say - both about their rural origins and their experiences of the extraordinary transformations they experienced?

As far as the question of their rural origins was concerned, few had anything good to say about them. Life on the land was hard - not just in the physical sense, but also in the senses of zero prospects for intellectual or social advance or development, of being beholden to members of the rural ruling class, of virtually non-existent opportunities to do anything else for a living other than haul a plough (the much vaunted apprenticeship system was out of reach for the majority of the rural poor due to fees and guild restrictions). Perhaps the one thing that could have been said about life in the country is that it left more spare time - but spare time without money to spend, or without anything to interesting to do with it, and with the ever present fear of starvation only one harvest failure away. Not for nothing did Marx refer to the `idiocy' of the countryside. Many of the writers featured in this book would have agreed with him. What the industrial revolution did was to upend many oppressive rural social relations and create genuine opportunities to be something other than tilling the land, not just because of the increased range of professions available to working people that the industrial revolution created, but increased opportunities for social mobility, educational and intellectual advance, social and political engagement. These changes did not just affect men, but women too, although entrenched attitudes predictably died harder for working-class women than it did in the case of working-class men.

This is not to say that there was no such thing as a dark side to the industrial revolution and it does not mean that all benefited equally. But even in such deplorable cases as child labour, the assumption that the reason why parents sent their children to labour in factories was not on account of impoverishment suffered because of the industrial revolution, but because children provided an additional source of income. And many people did not think twice about it at the time. The author also assesses positively the influence of the non-conformist religious denominations in making positive contributions to working class advance, especially through education - education that workers used to their own ends, and not necessarily their religious sponsors'. Some forms of religion, at least, were not an opiate for the people but a steroid.

This book is not trying to upend the conventional perception of the industrial revolution - the dark, satanic mills view and replace it with a `Whig' interpretation of progress toward sunny uplands instead. It does not claim that there was no needless suffering. It does not deny that the government at the time could have done more to alleviate some of the evils that accompanied the industrial revolution. What it wants to introduce degrees of light and shade into our understanding of working peoples' experience of the industrial revolution. For instance, the new industrial economy produced novel forms of exploitation but also opportunities for working people to band together to counteract them, by forming associations like the Chartists, and take some degree of control over their lives. The first thirty years of the 19th Century saw an explosive growth of working-class political engagement, forms of engagement that were virtually absent in the 18th Century, an absence that cannot be explained by invoking the supposed idyllic working conditions or rural England. Working people were not always passive victims. What's more, they had a voice, a voice that has sometimes been hidden by some of the people who claimed to be speaking for them. This book allows them to be heard.
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on 5 April 2013
Emma Griffin follows up on her short history of the industrial revolution with a wonderful analysis of the freedom it gave an emerging generation of workers to take control of their own destinies. Built around research based on contempary diaries it revals the patern of mutual help that broke the pattern of servitude. This is a unique study and a must for anybody interested in this period of history.
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on 10 August 2014
An absolutely enthralling account of the Industrial revolution as seen by those who actually experienced it. the author has drawn on autobiographies written by people who actually lived through the revolution, and who seem, contrary to popular belief, to be unanimous in regarding the revolution as something that had improved their lives greatly.

in describing conditions in the factories etc, historians have often overlooked what was on offer before the revolution. An expanding population meant that opportunities for employment were very poor, huge numbers of people could barely scrape a living working on the land, and opportunties in trade were limited too, far too many people did apprenticeships and then found there was no work for them, and they were obliged to rely on the limited relief that could be obtained from the parish. For them, the growth of the factories, with regular employment and better wages, was a blessing.

Child labour was the notable exception to the generally favourable accounts of the revolution found in these autobiographies. Those who experienced life as child labourers are unanimous in agreeing it was a terrible life, with much suffering, but all agree that their lives improved greatly once they grew up. they do not condemn the factory system as such, only the treatment of children.

This is so interesting and so different from most of what is written on this era, that it is a really gripping and exciting read. I couldn't put it down.
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on 30 December 2013
History is usually written by the winners.

This book gives a voice to some of the victims and losers, but were they really victims.

Research on a neglected area which gives a fresh slant on history. A voice which history has been unaware of and ignored in an important area of our society.

Similar to the current computer age which is giving many thousand a voice which should not be ignored
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on 20 June 2014
I would have liked some of the autobiographies used by the author to have been quoted, if not in full, at least in bigger chunks instead of always being carved up for the purposes of each chapter heading. To me the book read more like a doctoral thesis than a good history book.
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on 27 May 2014
If you are going to present a different perspective then it ought to be interesting and Emma Griffin's book is certainly that. Surprisingly it is quite exciting too written with a passion and a pace that makes it, in part, read more like a novel. She has achieved this by using the autobiographies of those who have previously only been written about; here Emma Griffin allows the authors to speak for themselves. In doing so she gives a life and a clarity to her subject not to be found in other accounts of this most important period of English history.
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on 26 May 2016
This could have been a brilliant book as it was based on some very interesting research but t was an uneven read. The first few chapters were so loaded with quotes from original sources that the author's voice almost got lost in the cracks between the quotes. As a consequence many of the sentences were clumsy and did not make for a smooth read. As the book progressed the author's voice came through and the read became much more enjoyable. Poor editorship failed to deal with unnecessary repetition and the proof reader missed some errors too. I got the impression that the first half of the book was part of a thesis or dissertation (hence all the endless quotes) and then the remaining chapters were added to turn it into a book. Despite my criticism the book is well worth reading if you are interested in this period.
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on 16 July 2013
an excellent new look at the industrial revolution i can re commend it to any one with an interest in this period of our history
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on 28 January 2015
This was a gift for my son in law he s writing a play about the industrial revolution and he s been very pleased with it.
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