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.

Squalid living conditions in nineteenth century Britain
Squalid living conditions in nineteenth century Britain
A typical street in the slums.
A typical street in the slums. | Source

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.

Victorian slum
Victorian slum | Source

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.

A jerry built house which had collapsed in London
A jerry built house which had collapsed in London | Source
A slum street with clean washing billowing outside in the street.
A slum street with clean washing billowing outside in the street. | Source

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
Robert Owens | Source

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.

Temple of Vaccinia, Edward Jenner's building provided by the church to vaccinate the poor of his parish against disease.  He provided the service free.
Temple of Vaccinia, Edward Jenner's building provided by the church to vaccinate the poor of his parish against disease. He provided the service free. | Source
Sir Edwin Chadwick
Sir Edwin Chadwick | Source

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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Comments 36 comments

Jools99 profile image

Jools99 22 months ago from North-East UK Author

Sue, thanks for reading. I see you found my potato recipe too :) The English poor were pretty destitute and did not live long lives but that still didn't compare with the fate of the Irish poor.


Sustainable Sue profile image

Sustainable Sue 22 months ago from Altadena CA, USA

Interesting article - ironic, actually. I just finished publishing a hub about the Irish Potato Famine you mention here. I didn't realize England was neglecting its own poor as well. And speaking of potatoes, I originally came to your hubsite looking for an article on how to bake potatoes. You have one, right?


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Michelle, education works in any century.


midget38 profile image

midget38 3 years ago from Singapore

Over the years, as the gap between the rich and poor grows wider, it's an increasing problem. Hopefully education can be a better source for them to be lifted out of the trap! Thanks for sharing!


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Sherri, since writing this one I have thought about developing some of the individual areas further so I may go off on a tangent with some of this stuff. Just found out my own 19th century ancestors had immigrated to the states where 2 of their daughters were born (n Montour, Pennsylvania) - turns out my gr-gr grandfather was a primitive methodist!


Sally's Trove profile image

Sally's Trove 3 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

What in interesting overview. Jools99, each of the topics you cover here could be individual articles, explored more in-depth. This hub puts the problem of poverty in a historical perspective, which is what makes it so worthwhile, but there's so much more to be said about factories, migration from rural to urban, uprooting agrarian practices on common land...the individual topics are huge in and of themselves.

I very much admire your hubs that illuminate British history in accessible ways, and I hope you will explore further in the future the subjects touched on here.

Up, useful, interesting, and I want more!


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

shiningirisheyes, many tanks for your comment. In Ireland, it was much, much worse to be honest. Ireland was far more rural at that time or at least, I should say, it was a lot less urban so the rural workers/farmers had nowhere to go. Often they lost their land by violent force and although it happened in England, it was not as bad as in Ireland.


shiningirisheyes profile image

shiningirisheyes 3 years ago from Upstate, New York

I am also a history buff and found this interesting hub very insightful. The bullying with taking others land is reminiscent of the Irish as well.

Excellent Jools


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Case1Worker - thanks for your comment. The Poor Law applied in WW2 seems even more insane than in 1800s but the workhouses were still used to these rules up to the 1920s and the oroginal law was Elizabethan - it beggars belief really!


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

GoldenThreadPress, thanks so much for your comment - I think it is difficult to imagine how they must have lived and what a shock it must have been to the previously rural poor.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Pamela, many thanks for your comment - Owens worked tirelessly to support the working classes, especially factory and dock workers but at least he went out to have a look at their dwellings; he didn't just create something out of assumptions. The co-op is still going strong today in the UK.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Dianna, thanks for your comment. You're right of course, what was prevalent in the 1800s still goes on now in some cities.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Cyndi, many thanks for reading - it is a subject dear to my heart!


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Michelle, many thanks for reading. I'm sure most countries have a parallel to this? Where you get people getting richer, you invariably get people also getting poorer.


CASE1WORKER profile image

CASE1WORKER 3 years ago from UNITED KINGDOM

Very interesting- like you I could research and write on History all the time. Your comment about the Poor Law interested me- I have recently read some HMSO documents about relief services for the second world war and initially they were based on the provisions of the poor law- ie you received relief in the area that you were born in! I guess in Victorian times town relief boards simply did not want to support country migrants. Keep on writing these "evergreen" hubs!


GoldenThreadPress 3 years ago

I have a governmental book for the U.S. that disclosed the lifestyle of the city dwellers about the same time as your article. Sad how difficult life was then. Some areas of the world are still like this, though. Maybe by making people aware of this, changes can occur. --Deb


Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

Pamela Kinnaird W 3 years ago from Maui and Arizona

This was SO interesting. Now I'm very curious about Robert Owens and Edwin Chadwick's lives before they became so helpful to the poor. Thank you for such a great hub and photos -- and good sources listed under the photos.

Voting up, awesome and sharing.


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 3 years ago

Great post, Jools. Always enjoy the education from reading your posts. Hope our government acts accordingly to help clean up towns.


cclitgirl profile image

cclitgirl 3 years ago from Western NC

What an incredible hub! I love the details you included here and the re-telling of how the conditions for the urban poor were created. It's tough to think about and it's sobering that it still happens a lot today. Voted and shared.


midget38 profile image

midget38 3 years ago from Singapore

Wow. This came about mostly because of the industrial revolution...with the rise of urbanization came housing that few could afford at the time. I would say it did create the urban poor. A very interesting write, and I was thinking of the great victorian writers during the time too!


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Tills, many thanks for your comment - I am tempted to do a USA version but it would take so much research and European history is my thing really....now you on the other hand could nail this one!


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Mike, thanks so much for your comment - it is pretty shameful the way the rich got richer and the poor just seemed to die!


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Velur, many thanks for your comment - sorry for responding to it so late :o) They had it pretty rough, it's just as well there were kind people around who wanted to help.


tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 3 years ago from New York

Thank you for the interesting history lesson! I had never heard of Owens or Chadwick, but you know that pond sometimes filters things out before they get here.

Similar situations occurred here. We started a little later than Britain but the factory system and mill towns led to the same types of problems including child labor....Britian's exports to the US had the US trying to catch up.

Great hub. Voted up, useful, and interesting.


Mike Robbers profile image

Mike Robbers 3 years ago from London

Extremely interesting hub Jools. Those were times of tremendous changes for our world.

Voted up and shared... and happy New Year as well!


Vellur profile image

Vellur 3 years ago from Dubai

A great hub. The conditions of the poor were really pathetic and very sad. Very well written, a great write. Voted up.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Hiya Paula and thanks for your comment! I do love history and spend far too much time imagining myself living in centuries gone by! Britain had so many keen philanthropists because all around them was real poverty and they were not having to live in those cities but were usually related to the people who were exploiting the poor working people. All of my hubs would be history hubs if I had my way but not many people read them :o(


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

europewalker, many thanks for your comment - I enjoyed writing it and finding all of these really old photos was a treat :o)


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Kerry, many thanks for reading. History is dear to my heart :o)


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Bill, many thanks for reading and of course, you're right. In some nations, this is still going on. To be honest I think Britain was sadly lagging too at the time! People were going on and on about the British 'empire' but the working class in Britain were treated very, very badly.


fpherj48 profile image

fpherj48 3 years ago from Beautiful Upstate New York

Julie.....I found this a very interesting and educating History lesson. It surely grabbed my attention and thanks to your fabulous writing, I found it quite enjoyable.

It never ceases to amaze and impress me, how a handful of good, strong, moral men and women, can take action and create such vital improvements in the lives of those who seem to be lacking.

As you so clearly state, if not for these generous and wise individuals, the poor living and working conditions would have continued for much longer.

Thank Heaven for heroes everywhere!....Bravo, Jools, yet another great work by you!......UP+++


europewalker profile image

europewalker 3 years ago

Very interesting hub, I enjoy reading about the 1800s. Voted up and interesting.


KerryAnita profile image

KerryAnita 3 years ago from Satellite Beach, Florida

Very interesting hub! Thanks for sharing this bit of history! Merry Christmas!


billybuc profile image

billybuc 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

Good job as always, Julie! Sadly, there are still parts of the world where these conditions exist. Great historical context in this hub. Nicely done, and Merry Christmas to you.


Jools99 profile image

Jools99 3 years ago from North-East UK Author

Carol7777, many thanks for reading and Merry Christmas!


carol7777 profile image

carol7777 3 years ago from Arizona

I always enjoy a good history lesson. Good information here...There has always been poverty and I suppose always will be. Excellent job on your research.Voting UP+++

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