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  • Writer's picturecaitlyncallery9

Winners and losers in the Industrial Revolution

In “The Smuggler's Daughter,” Catherine Ashton's father is a wealthy cit, (a derogatory term for a member of the merchant class, originally used just in London, but soon spreading to describe anybody whose wealth and elevation came from trade, rather than land and breeding.)

Like many of the newly wealthy merchants, Walter Ashton made his fortune thanks to the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution started in Britain in about 1760 and continued until about 1820-1840. It was able to happen largely because of the invention of machines that changed and speeded up production methods, and the increased use of water power, and later, steam power. These things greatly improved output, caused the movement of vast numbers of people from rural to urban homes, and the subsequent growth of towns and cities, as well as an explosion in population growth everywhere, and the rise of Britain as a commercial nation and world power.

It was as important to human history as the transition from nomadic hunter-gathering societies to settled agricultural communities had been, and it influenced every aspect of daily life.

The manufacture of textiles was much affected by industrialisation. Mechanising cotton spinning increased the output of a worker by about 500 times. Cotton gins, which removed seeds from the cotton, improved output by 50 times. Entrepreneurs and investors became rich overnight, their wealth on a par with the multi-millionaires of today.

There were, of course, losers as well as winners. The increased production of cotton in the mechanised mills meant an increased demand for the raw material. Although cotton was grown in various parts of the world, including India, China, and the Middle East, it was easiest to obtain from colonial plantations in the Americas.

The plantations used slave labour. Slaves, most of them black people originally from Africa, lived lives of deprivation and harsh treatment, while their masters grew rich. Before Britain made the slave trade illegal in 1807, then deployed the Royal Navy to ensure that other countries followed suit, the average lifespan of a slave on a cotton plantation in the Americas was just five years.

As well as slaves, others suffered to enrich the merchants. Before mechanisation, cotton was spun and woven by hand in workers’ homes, under contract to the merchants. The workers were often farmers wives, and the work provided a fairly decent second income. Newly invented machines were too large for private homes and required housing in manufactories. People were forced to leave their homes to work in these manufactories. Many had to move from the countryside into towns and cities so that they could work there.

Women and children were employed more than men, and this was reflected in the extremely low wages. Revolt by workers protesting the low wages and ensuing poverty was ruthlessly put down by troops.

The hours worked in factories were long. However, the 1802 Health and Morals of Apprentices Act did attempt to make things better, by preventing children working more than 12 hours a day! The children so protected began work at the age of four years.

Most people today would probably consider the Industrial Revolution a good thing, on the whole. Most of those who lived through it, might beg to differ.

Picture of slaves on a plantation courtesy of BBC.

Picture of child in a factory courtesy of National Museum of American History.

The Smuggler's Daughter is published by The Wild Rose Press and can be found here.

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