The Industrial Revolution, 1750-1914

Working life

During the Industrial Revolution in Britain there was high unemployment – up to 75% in some trades. For many of those that did work, life was extremely arduous. There are countless examples available of harsh working conditions, particularly in coal mines.

A person is chained to a wagon full of coal and dragging it forward while stooped over in a low roofed mine. Two other miners are pushing the wagon from behind. A hurrier and two thrusters moving a corf full of coal.
© 2013 Education Services Australia Ltd, except where indicated otherwise. You may copy, distribute and adapt this material free of charge for non-commercial educational purposes, provided you retain all copyright notices and acknowledgements.

Despite the hardships, in the eighteenth century wages were far higher in London (and Amsterdam) than in other areas of Europe. Most people were employed in manufacturing, domestic service or agriculture, and the professional services industry gradually gained more prominence. Some workplaces were progressive – for example, Robert Owen's New Lanark mills on the Clyde River paid good wages and provided a free school, evening classes for workers and a nursery for the under-fives. Although Owen did not employ children under ten and incurred many costs from the provisions listed above, his business was very successful.

Working life changed in a number of ways. People had to attend work for regular hours every day, they had to maintain consistent physical effort to keep up with machinery, they were continually under the eye of supervisors and they worked in closer proximity to others than they had in the past. Children were said to have been more adaptable to the new demands, as well as cheaper to employ, and thus were a popular choice with employers.

Activity 8

Examine Accounts of working life (lPDF, 431 KB) and complete the tasks below.

  1. Note down 10 things you learned from the sources about working in a coal mine.
  2. What indication is there in the sources that working experiences varied during the Industrial Revolution? Give evidence to support your comments.
  3. In a few sentences, summarise the makeup of the workforce in Britain in 1871.
  4. Estimate what proportion of British people you would expect to be employed in a) teaching, b) clerical/office work, and c) trade in 1891, based on the sources.
  5. Find evidence from the sources that the Industrial Revolution was not entirely a time of cruelty and exploitation.

Activity 9

Use Documents on the 1833 Factory Act  and your own research to complete the tasks below.

  1. What rules about child labour did the 1833 Factory Act impose?
  2. Does the Act appear to have been effective? Explain, using evidence.
  3. Give examples of harsh employment practices the Act aimed to eradicate.
  4. Find 2–3 examples of laws that protect workers in Australia today.