We need to be cautious when generalising about life during the Industrial Revolution, as experiences varied by region, industry and social class. Many literary and artistic representations characterise the era as harsh and ugly, with people and nature exploited relentlessly for personal profit. However, there were some benefits to daily life in the era. Along with improved transport that allowed people to get out of cities on weekends, a new consumer culture emerged in the cities, where people began to experience more opportunities for leisure and improved material comfort.
However, the new consumerism attracted its critics. Quakers, Methodists and others objected to the focus on material wealth – they also feared for the morals of society, with women and children coming into frequent contact with men in workplaces, and many mothers unable to care for their own children because of work demands. Indeed, the era is known for its many representations of moral and environmental decay.
Examine the following sources and complete the tasks below.
Poets and the Industrial Revolution
Dickens' account of 'Coketown'
William Blake's 'London' (1794)
- Compile an anthology (collection) of about ten poems, paintings and novel extracts on the Industrial Revolution. Here are some suggested starting points:
- William Blake: London (1794); Jerusalem (1804)
- Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist (1838); description of 'Coketown' in Hard Times (1854)
- Alfred Newland Smith: Painting of Ebley Cloth Mills, Gloucestershire (c. 1850)
- Francis Henry Newbery: A Weaving Shop (1924–27).
- Display your anthology in the classroom along with 200 words of text explaining why you chose the works as representations of the Industrial Revolution and what they communicate about the era.
The Industrial Revolution was a time of political reform. The Chartists, who were partly influenced by the French Revolution of 1789, were particularly active in pursuing democratic rights. Their key demands were:
- A vote for every man 21 years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for a crime
- The secret ballot
- Abolition of the requirement that Members of Parliament (MPs) own a minimum amount of property
- The payment of MPs
- Constituencies (electorates) of equal sizes
- Short-term or annual parliaments.
Due to the efforts of Chartists and others, several important acts of parliament enshrined rights now taken for granted. For example, the Great Reform Act of 1832 increased accountability and the numbers of people eligible to vote (though women and the majority of men were still excluded).
The 1867 Reform Act extended the right to vote by adding just under one-million voters, including workers, and doubling the electorate to almost two-million in England and Wales. Under the 1885 Redistribution Act, the electorate trebled and most agricultural labourers were given the franchise. Voting was starting to be viewed as a basic right – though women were not allowed to vote until 1918.
Australia was well ahead of its time in regard to political rights. The core Chartist demands and women's suffrage were adopted in Australia long before they were achieved in Britain.
Examine the following sources:
Frequently asked questions about Chartism
Political reforms in Australia (PDF, 111 KB)
Create a table that compares the adoption of key political rights in Britain and Australia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Note down any links you can find between political and industrial reforms in the period.