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Social Development in the Industrial Revolution

We have already seen that the Industrial Revolution had an enormous effect on the lives of the people of Europe. It is also true to say that, although some people’s lives were altered for the better, many people were worse off and, in many cases, workers were exploited. As the period progressed more and more people became victims of oppression.

 Charles Dickens

Whilst writers, such as Charles Dickens in Britain and Emile Zola in France, wrote about the appalling living and working conditions, social reformers, such as Robert Owen, showed by practical experiment, that alternatives to long hours, child-labour and maltreatment were available. Others, such as Edwin Chadwick and Seebolm Roundtree, conducted inquiries into the miserable conditions of the poor. In their own way each of them highlighted the awful conditions that prevailed and suggested ways of righting them.

Robert Owen

In some ways it was the needs of the Industrial Revolution itself which, in the end, came to the aid of the working classes. As the Industrial Revolution progressed there was an increasing need for educated workers. In the old days it was not a problem if a farm hand was illiterate. However, in the new industrial society, mechanics, civil engineers, architects and builders all needed literate workers who were able to read instructions, take measurements and interpret drawings and plans.

Most European countries had tried to control education with the ‘ruling class’ preventing access to higher education to people from the ‘lower orders’ (the middle and working classes). It was inevitable that once the ‘lower orders’ gained access to education they would become aware of two fundamental flaws in their lives; first, that they were being outrageously exploited and second, that, whilst they were creating the wealth of the country, they were gaining little benefit for themselves and they had no political power.

In most European countries members of the middle class began to emerge as an increasingly wealthy part of the society. Often their wealth, newly founded on industrial investment, was considerably more than that of the old upper, or ruling, class. However, in the majority of Europe the upper class still dominated the newly rich Bourgeoisie (the Nouveau Riche), and kept political power out of its hands.

An increasing frustration within the working class often led to bloody conflict. In Britain, from the early 1800’s, this manifested itself as social unrest. As early as 1832, during the Merthyr Riots in Wales, the Red Flag of revolution was raised. (In this case it was a white shirt dipped in the blood of a fallen hero of the riots. The Red Flag soon became the symbol of revolution). Each time workers caused violent unrest they were dealt with with equal violence. Many people throughout Europe died at the hands of the militias.

The Bristol Riots

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© Shirley Burchill, Nigel Hughes, Richard Gale, Peter Price and Keith Woodall 2014

Footnote : As far as the Open Door team can ascertain the images shown on this page are in the Public Domain.