Urban Conditions of the British Poor in the 1800s
Did The Industrial Revolution Create the Urban Poor?
There have always been poor people in society. Poverty is an unfortunate side-effect of human life if people fail to thrive and prosper.
There were people who could be described as the urban poor before the 1800s but that century saw the greatest rise in urban poverty, in part due to the industrial revolution.
In the United Kingdom, the industrial 'revolution' came not over 10 or 20 years, so not really a revolution at all, but over about 50 years.
It is astounding to imagine that the industrial revolution in the 1800s actually made more people wealthier than ever before and in effect, created a middle class.
But the towns, indeed urban areas in the 1800s, were just not prepared for the population shift from rural areas.
The towns and cities were ill -equipped to deal with this influx and the results were there for all to see.
Britain's urban areas became the focus for politicians, churches and philanthropists in the 1800s who looked on aghast at the conditions and the scale of the deficiencies in the urban areas and the horrific effects on the urban poor.
1800s Agrarian Revolution - Enclosures and The Displacement of the Rural Workers
Enclosures or the enclosing of common land meant that rural villagers could no longer plant crops or fruit or graze their animals on common, open land.
In many cases, the land was simply taken by force by the landowner most closely linked to the common ground.
The effects of enclosures were devastating for the rural worker. Some stayed in their villages and sought work as labourers on their new landowners' fields but with industrialisation came less call for the plough, the loom or the scythe.
Families who had worked the same area of common ground for years were suddenly without any means of subsistence and had to seek work elsewhere.
The cities beckoned with tales of factory and mills needing hundreds of workers.
The rural population who could not thrive as farm workers left the villages in which they and their parents and grandparents had been born and went to cities like Manchester, London, Leeds, Birmingham, Bradford and Newcastle where work was plentiful.
Little did they know that conditions in those cities were not what they expected.
Factories, Mills and Mines - Urban Industry
In the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. Richard Arkwright created the first factory in about 1770 in Derby after he created the spinning frame.
His factory mill changed the face of fabric and wool manufacture forever.
What had been a 'home' based industry ended. Basically women carding, dyeing and spinning wool in their front room had been the usual way to get wool ready before it went to the local weaver.
Arkwright's first factory employed eight hundred workers, most of them working the spinners and looms. The factory was open twenty four hours a day and the workers were employed in shifts.
Arkwright was a forward thinking man and although a hard taskmaster, for example he did not allow whistling in his factory, he did build houses for his workforce close to the factories and they were cared for appropriately, if not particularly well paid.
However, his example was the exception rather than the rule and for the vast majority of the urban poor, life in the city was dreadful.
Squalor, filth and disease were rife. Often three or four families shared one house and might have a single room each, sectioned by a length of curtain; children slept on one side and parents on the other.
Conditions for good health were neglected. Diseases like typhoid and in time cholera led to early death for many of the urban poor but one of the biggest killers was undernourishment.
Factory workers worked up to twelve hours and often came home to nothing more filling than stew made with potatoes and whatever vegetables they could afford. Meat was a rare commodity in urban areas.
The life expectancy of a man in the mid 1800s was just over forty!
The Irish famine in the 1840s, as well as causing the deaths of many millions of Irish peasants also led to a wave of immigration to England, causing the conditions in urban areas to be even worse with overcrowding a real problem.
The fact was that the factory, mill and mine owners were by this time, extremely rich and few of them were investing any money into their workers well being.
But there were notable exceptions.
Support for the Poor in the 1800s - Victorian Philanthropy
By the 1830s, the churches had begun to fear the worst for the urban poor who they saw as a largely Godless population with many a sermon concentrated on their 'idleness' and 'drunkenness' - neither description fair or fitting.
Who knows whether the churches would have taken much notice if it had not been for a rise in population on the streets but not in the churches themselves. Victorian religion was going through a torrid time with non-conformist religions like Baptism and Methodism seemingly catering much more willingly to the common man.
In any event, the church of England's evangelical (with a small 'e') preachers went out from the pulpit onto the streets to make them less 'godless' and indeed tried to put the fear of God into them - sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't. The Catholics, newly emancipated in the 1820s did a much better job, getting out into the communities and offering genuine support to the poor, bringing food, clothes and offering better shelter.
The Irish famine killed millions of Irish people and those who survived came to England with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. They were almost all Catholics and so the Catholic church supported them with real care. Catholic churches were very full. The Pope even sent young Italian churchmen to cities like London, Liverpool and Manchester to offer additional support, Many of these young churchmen died young. Their dedication to caring for the urban poor was absolute!
One Englishman, though, stands out from all others in wishing to change the conditions of the urban poor in the 1800s and that is Robert Owen.
Robert Owens - Utopian Socialist & Kind Man
Robert Owens is the man who created the co-operative society in England in the 1800s.
He did so in response to the conditions of the urban poor. He went into towns and cities and visited factory workers in their homes.
Often the housing to cope with the urban poor was jerry built - poorly constructed, badly finished homes with no running water and no other services.
It was not unusual for families to be living in these houses, two or three families to one house with water running down the inside of the walls. They were extremely cold, damp rooms with ill fitting window frames and the wind whistling in under doors and through broken glass which was never repaired by landlords.
What Owens saw horrified him. When he visited mills in Lanarkshire in Scotland he saw jerry built housing and also saw that factory workers were not paid in cash but in tokens which they could only use at the mill owners shop which provided a selection of cheap and shoddy goods and foodstuff.
Owens reported this abuse to parliament and a law was passed to ban this for occurring again.
Owens then created better housing and also created a childcare programme to care for the young children of the workers, providing them with free education which was not related to the churches at all (Owens was indifferent to religion).
Owens was one of the first 'socialists'. Someone who saw that there was a way to support the poor and vulnerable whilst at the same time educating them on ways to improve their lot in life.
This is an over-simplification; Owens was a man of means who used his own money and raised money from affluent friends to create the co-operative society - an organisation in which all members had a role to play to support one another, improve welfare of themselves and others and also provide a means to educate children which would get them off on the right foot.
Owens was a vehement supporter of factory reform but was disappointed at the slow response of the government to the conditions of the urban poor.
Owens is an admirable man; he continued his work to improve the conditions of the urban poor right up to his death and his sons continued his work after he died. The co-operative society still exists today, though in a more modern form.
Conditions of the 1800s Poor - Health and Control of Disease
The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 came as a direct response to the publication of 'The Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population' by Edwin Chadwick.
It made difficult reading, here is his main reason for the enquiry:
"That the various forms of epidemic, endemic and other disease caused, or aggravated, or propagated chiefly amongst the labouring classes by atmospheric impurities by decomposing animal and vegetable substances, by damp and filth and close and overcrowded dwellings prevail amongst the population in every part of the kingdom..."
Chadwick's report made the news because it was an official document and was finally evidence of the conditions of the urban poor.
The government had no recourse; they had to act. Amazingly, Chadwick paid for the report himself!
Soon, the government went into action, cleaning up the streets and improving beyond recognition the sewerage systems, drains and water courses in all the major towns and cities.
Chadwick continued to be an advocate for sanitation in the towns and cities and urged 'local' government to get involved in health improvement.
He changed the conditions of the poor forever - Britain worked on getting clean! Life expectancy improved and general health improved. Death from water-born disease decreased exponentially as Chadwick's suggested improvements were carried out.
Earlier in the century, Edward Jenner had acted upon the work of a Dorset farmer who had managed to immunise his wife and children from smallpox by deliberately giving them cowpox.
Jenner's work made an enormous difference to the population, over 60% of whom caught smallpox in the early 1800s. The Industrial Revolution made the spread of disease worse. Smallpox would kill about a third of the people who caught it so Jenner's work cannot be underestimated.
The work of the Salvation Army later in the 1800s also supported improvements in health and sanitation with a programme of education which included actually demonstrating cleanliness.
By the end of the 1800s, the conditions of the urban poor were greatly improved but it had been a long, hard road beset by the difficulty of convincing their employers that profit was more achievable with a healthy, happy workforce.
The Conditions of the 1800s Urban Poor - The Dawn of A Social Consiousness
The 1800s could take up a whole series of articles which centre on the changing industrial and urban landscape.
The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain but reached out beyond Britain's empirical and former colonial influence both East and West.
That the poor were seen often as no more that a commodity - a means of creating wealth cheaply for factory and mill owners is one of the less pleasant realities of the 1800s but it is one which cannot ever be ignored.
It highlighted the less pleasant side of the rise of capitalism and it is difficult to believe that it went on for so long.
The conditions of the 1800s urban poor improved with changes which concentrated on helping and supporting them without profit or personal gain.
Workhouses and a disgracefully ill-fitting poor law (it was the same one as used during the Elizabethan period!) were also deeply unpleasant aspects of a a British 'empire', getting richer by the day but ignoring the fate of the majority of its population. Had it not been for men like Owens, Chadwick and even Charles Dickens (as a reporter of real urban poor life), it may have gone on much longer than it did.
Many thanks for reading.
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