An Upper Working Class British History of the Industrial Revolution

I was at the local public library for no particular reason. It just so happened that I was passing through downtown and stopped in for a brief perusal. When I have the opportunity, I like to check out the new arrivals shelf.

There are always books of interest I can find. On this visit, I grabbed several books, mostly to do with history. The one that I was most interested in was a book by Emma Griffin, Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution. I’m not familiar with the author and I’ve never heard of the title before, but it sounded promising.

Griffin’s focus is on the “working class” and her sources were mostly personal writings. I started reading it last night. I speed read it and finished it today. On top of that, I thoroughly searched the index and I used the search function on Amazon to look for other terms. One could spend more time with it and maybe get more out of it. The book is more than two hundred pages and it is interesting, but not as interesting as I hoped it would be.

The main limitation of the work is that it is surprisingly narrow in focus. The topics considered are mostly mainstream and the interpretation is mostly conventional. I read a lot of alternative histories, what some call revisionist, and this Griffin’s historical account didn’t bring up anything I wasn’t already aware of.

The narrow focus is caused by the source material. As far as I can tell, she entirely relies on British writings. The title was misleading. Her viewpoint was rather parochial, in both senses of the word. She limited herself to a local area of interest, leaving out larger contexts. And, besides personal writings, she relied to a great extent on parish records.

She acknowledged to some degree the limitations of her sources. They were mostly male adults, although I didn’t notice her discuss that the writings she was relying upon probably came from those of the upper working class, those who were successful enough to have the time, money, and opportunity to write. She did turn to other records to try to get at the experiences of women and children, but she never dug down into the experience of the poorest of the poor, the most oppressed of the downtrodden. I know that during early industrialization there were massive numbers of people dying of starvation, malnutrition, and disease in the big cities such as London.

This book wasn’t broadly “A People’s History”. Rather, it was a particular people’s history, the British people. And it was constrained mostly to a particular demographic of that people.

The larger context she ignores includes a wide variety of factors — for example: imperialism, colonialism, slavery, genocide, resource exploitation, native populations, ethnic/racial minorities, the commons and the rights of commoners, enclosure movement, privatization, incarceration, etc.

She doesn’t discuss the English Civil War origins of the religious dissenting tradition. She doesn’t discuss the Levellers and only briefly mentions Quakers a few times. Of course, the influential foreign religious movements such as the German Pietists and the French Huguenots aren’t even referenced, nor do the American Shakers and Harmonists come up. All of these influenced the British experience, in particular for the religious dissenters. It would have been interesting if she had mentioned such things as Abraham Lincoln’s letter to the Manchester mill workers, when the Civil War interrupted trade. What was so interesting about industrialization is that it arose alongside an increasingly globalized and multicultural world.

Also, she only mentions once in passing the terms ‘Luddites’ and ‘Owenite’, but never offers any info about them. Anarchism gets no mention at all while feminism, socialism, communitarianism, and Marxism each get a single mention; plus, one person gets referred to as ‘indentured’; but none of these are given any space for discussion. Democracy and republicanism, the great ideals of the early modern revolutions, don’t even get acknowledged. None of the revolutions are brought up, including the Irish bid for independence. The Irish Potato famine and the London food riots never make an appearance. The Populist movement of the late 1800s doesn’t come up either.

Marx’s compatriot, Engels, does get some attention, although just in the beginning of the text. Some other things that do come up a bit is the co-operative movement and the reform movement. She does go a bit into radicalism, but mostly just to dismiss it from her analysis. It is made clear that her focus is elsewhere.

Her preferred focus is more on the personal realm of experience, of how people lived their lives and the work they did.

As one reviewer explained (S. J. Snyder):

It’s true that the working class’s lot may have risen compared to its past. But, Griffin dodges a couple of issues.

First, directly related to that, she doesn’t address whether or not income inequality rose during the IR, if so, how much, and whether we shouldn’t weigh that in the balance against the reported benefits.

Second, per stereotypes of dirty London and its coal-driven smog, she ignores environmental issues related to the IR, and how much more those affected the working class than the upper class. As part of that failure, she doesn’t address life expectancy issues. (My bits of Googling tell me that child mortality in Britain declined throughout the 1700s, but adult mortality remained unchanged. I can’t find any breakouts by economic class, at least with a brief search.)

The lack of data issue cuts other ways, too. Griffin indicates that the IR seemed to give the working class more money. But, again, we’re not given any data. I don’t know how much is available, but there has to be some.

In other words, it’s a good anecdotal people’s history. But, it’s not more than that.

This isn’t to say she didn’t cover other important topics. She goes into a fair amount of detail about all kinds of things that did interest me: child labour of various sorts, sexual violence and prostitution, single mothers and illegitimate children, courtship and marriage, underemployment and unemployment, rural and urban differences, education opportunities for children and adults, etc.

If you’re fine with the limited scope, it is a useful history for what includes.  The meat of the text probably could be condensed into a short essay. The majority of the book is filled with lots of concrete examples, which is good for those who want more detail. So, for anyone who shares the author’s focus, there might not be any other book that cover the same territory using this particular set of material. It would be a great book for doing research.

As a good source of information, I might go as high as four stars. As an engaging and accessible read, I’d give it an average rating of three stars. But I must detract a bit for all that was left out. It could have been so much more interesting of a book, if it had lived up to its title. Over all, from the perspective of someone with a casual interest in the topic, I’ll give it a solid three stars. It is good for what it is, not great but still a worthy read.

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