Just How Bad Were Working Conditions in the 19th Century?

by David Clayton on September 10, 2013

If is commonly held that  working conditions in 19th century cities were much worse than those who lived and worked in the countryside at the time or earlier; similarly you will regularly hear that the creation of factories split up families because the father had to go to work for so many hours every day whereas previously they had seen much more of him. When I questioned the basis of this once with some, the answer I got was that ‘Charles Dickens proved it’. This was not a satisfactory answer to me – even if his picture portrayed in his novels is accurate it represents at best anecdotal evidence. It would be foolish, I suggest, to draw any conclusions about the general situation at this period only by consideration of works of fiction written for popular consumption. It does not give us facts and figures that might indicate what living standards were actually like during the 19th century; how conditions in the cities compared to those in the country; and how those conditions compared to the those of the previous century.

For an alternative view i looked to Capitalism and the Historians. This is a series of essays by economic historians who conclude that under capitalism in the 19th century, despite long hours and other hardships of factory life, people were in fact better off financially, had more opportunities to better themselves financially, had better living conditions and lived a life more supportive of the family life than those who lived in the country.

The five historians each describe first the life of the workers in the country, which were far worse for the most part than those in the cities. As a result, many people chose to leave the country and work in the city. This caused a problem for the the the landowners, who could not find the labour they needed to work the land and so they created a propaganda campaign highlighting the evils of the factories in order to dissuade their workers from leaving. The irony is that this propaganda was used by Marx and Engels who uncritically accepted much of it in their analysis of the factory system in Manchester. It is the Marxist propagandists who, harnessing envy of the vast riches for the industrialists, succeeded in making this the received wisdom. Furthermore, where there was injustice or dangerous working conditions, laws protecting workers were introduced quite quickly and without any input from Marx or Engels.

It is not true, either, if these are to be believed, that, as a general rule, industrialists thought that anything that any result of market forces was morally justified. There were some of course, but these were as likely to be landowners employing agricultural workers as factory owners in the cities. In fact, those who employed agricultural workers were much more successful in paying low wages because there wasn’t the same scrutiny of them due to the success of their propoganda campaign. So for example, WH Hutt tells us that,  ‘Lord Shaftesbury, when asked by Therod Rogers why he had not sought to extend protective legislation to children in the fields when he knew that their work was ”to the full as physically injurious” as premature labour in the factories, replied that it was a question of practical politics and that, if he had sought the emancipation of all, he would have obtained the support of no party at all’

A lot of the problems that did exist were created by the success of the industrial age and the developing capitalist system. Improved diet and better housing conditions lead to improved health and mortality rates. The huge growth in the population that ensued overloaded the infrastructure and in turn to huge problems in the cities because the sewage systems could not cope and this lead to disease as the River Thames, in London, for example, became an open sewer. And again, because we are dealing with a population that is larger than ever before, the scale of the problems is greater than ever before. But this in itself does not point to a problem that is inherently worse in industrialisation than in the agricultural economy.  The response was not immediate, but when, quite fairly it was dealt with by the society of the time. So in London in 1856 work on a sewers began, for example. This was so successful a project that much of it is still in use today, 150 years later. The story of the building of this system is one of engineers with great civic pride and dedication driven by genuine concern for the common good.

The contributors to this book by no means paint a picture of perfection but make the point that generally conditions were better than those of agricultural works and were steadily improving throughout the period. Everything I read here about 19th century England supports the assertion that where there is an economy that corresponds to John Paul II’s ‘free economy’ we move towards a better society. Where it departs from it, for example where you have capitalists colluding with government to restrict competition, then problems do occur that will not be solved by the system itself, and the injustices that occur need to be addressed by increasing and protecting personal freedom.




{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Desiderius Beneventanensis September 12, 2013 at 3:51 pm

I must vehemently disagree with the endorsement of this particular “highly biased” book as having worthwhile history for Catholics to read. The basic errors of libertarian economics are well known and their mythes perpetuated within this book.

The books editior, Hayek proposed a purely negative conception of individual freedom. For to him, freedom simply means not being subject to the will of other people. This rules out a state that regulates or protects, since the state is run by people (politicians and civil servants). The free market, however, is considered an impersonal force. So, according to Hayek, if we are harassed and oppressed by market forces, as all too clearly we are today, that in no way diminishes our freedom.

Hayek exalted the free market and sought to minimize the role of the state. Hayek shared an exaggerated belief in the autonomy of the individual, as against the claims of society or community. Hayek can therefore be called “libertarian”.

Hayek’s notion of freedom also rejects any link between freedom and morality: “freedom is an opportunity to do good, but…only if it is also an opportunity to do wrong.” Or, in Friedman’s words, “freedom has nothing to say about what a man does with its freedom”.

That, I need hardly remind you, directly contradicts Catholic teaching: the Catechism (#1733) tells us that “there is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just”. We can trace this idea of freedom as goodness and justice back through the history of Christian theology and indeed to the Old Testament.

F.A. Hayek is one of the foremost libertarians figures. This book “Capitalism and the Historians” was published by the University of Chicago Press the publisher of Milton Friedman’s works (The “Chicago boys”.) Let it be clear that I reject socialism and would not have voted for Allende, but I also believes the violence and economic destruction caused by Friedman in Pinochet’s Chile was ultimately worse.

Please be careful what economic positions you endorse in the future. Politics is very tricky business.


David Clayton September 13, 2013 at 9:25 am

Dear Desiderius
This is all very well, but you have brought up points that are not referred to in the book that I have not spoken of and without reference to why they are relevant. Saying you disagree with Hayak and Friedman on their definition of freedom is not in itself even a proper argument against their economics (but that is a whole different issue to this one – but I refer you to Harry Veryser’s book on Austrian economics), never mind their interpretation history. The fact that they produced a book that is consistent with their economic theories doesn’t mean that it is biased. It might be that this is a true reflection of history and so, to the degree that the economics and the history are connected, have very good reason therefore for holding the economic views that they do. If you want to address their version of history, read the book and then explain where what they say is historically inaccurate. What you have done boils down to an attempted distraction that seeks to undermine their authority of the author without actually addressing what he says. I am genuinely interested in trying to find out about what happens, but what you have written doesn’t add to the debate all, it simply looks to me like a desperate attempt to shut it down and to stop people reading this book.


Alexey September 13, 2013 at 7:58 pm

Dear Desiderius,

Both Hayek and Friedman are economists and should not be taken, especially taken “vehemently” for moral philosophers. It is also important to know that paleolibertarians such as Hayek lived in societies still predominantly Christian, unlike our neo-pagan age, and could not foresee the left wing version of secular libertarianism that gives their economic system a bad connotation.

Certainly what a renowned economist of Hayek’s stature have to say about the economic history of England should be recommended reading for anyone interested not in sloganeering but in historical fact.

You are the first from whom I hear that Pinochet’s Chile was anything but an economic salvation of Chile, whatever you think of his handling of the political opponents. I understand that this is not about Chile but since you bring this piece of history I’d be curious to know what your sources are.


David Clayton September 22, 2013 at 7:13 am



Nell Bowen September 13, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Thanks for the review. I find this subject very interesting so I plan on reading this book.


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