August 16, 2023 Reading Time: 6 minutes

Literary accounts of the alleged horrors of the industrial revolution are many. Some of these accounts focus on the aesthetics of Britain’s fast-changing economy of two centuries ago. In his 1814 long poem, The Excursion, William Wordsworth recognized that the “gainful Arts” better enabled Britain to produce for export so much that her “crowded ports” featured:

Freighted from every climate of the world
With the world’s choicest produce

But Wordsworth judged the price too high. He grieved:

when on the darker side
Of this great change I look; and there behold,
Through strong temptation of those gainful Arts,
Such outrage done to Nature as compels
The indignant Power to justify herself;
Yea to avenge her violated rights
For England’s bane

It’s true that industrialization builds factories, warehouses, and roads – and, today, also paved parking lots – on once-pristine riversides and meadows. And, at least in the 19th century, such visible, novel manifestations of economic growth were far easier to demonize than to romanticize. But it was also easy – too easy – to focus one’s gaze on admittedly unlovely industrial structures and miss the manifold improvements that the opportunities and outputs of these structures brought to the lives of ordinary people.

Of course, the countless critics of the industrial revolution deny that Britain’s stupendous economic growth beginning in the mid-18th century produced benefits for ordinary people who lived through those early years of growth. Instead, this growth is widely believed to have enriched only the real-life Scrooges and Thomas Gradgrinds, as it soiled the environment and, even worse, dragged the masses into unremitting misery, despair, and degradation.

After portraying the life of rural peasants as close to idyllic, Friedrich Engels – in his hugely influential 1845 book, The Condition of the Working Class in England – decried the hell of factory work in towns:

The division of labour has multiplied the brutalizing influences of forced work. In most branches the worker’s activity is reduced to some paltry, purely mechanical manipulation, repeated minute after minute, unchanged year after year. How much human feeling, what abilities can a man retain in his thirtieth year, who has made needle points or filed toothed wheels twelve hours every day from his early childhood, living all the time under the conditions forced upon the English proletarian? It is still the same thing since the introduction of steam. The worker’s activity is made easy, muscular effort is saved, but the work itself becomes unmeaning and monotonous to the last degree. It offers no field for mental activity, and claims just enough of his attention to keep him from thinking of anything else. And a sentence to such work, to work which takes his whole time for itself, leaving him scarcely time to eat and sleep, none for physical exercise in the open air, or the enjoyment of Nature, much less for mental activity, how can such a sentence help degrading a human being to the level of a brute? Once more the worker must choose, must either surrender himself to his fate, become a “good” workman, heed “faithfully” the interest of the bourgeoisie, in which case he most certainly becomes a brute, or else he must rebel, fight for his manhood to the last, and this he can only do in the fight against the bourgeoisie.

Writing 120 years later, the late E.P. Thompson declared, in his The Making of the English Working Class, that the industrial revolution had a “truly catastrophic nature [which brought] intensified exploitation, greater insecurity and increasing human misery.” And in this century Thomas Piketty agrees, cavalierly taking to be descriptive of reality the fictional portrayals of industrial life by novelists such as Charles Dickens and Émile Zola. The belief remains widespread that the astronomically higher living standards enjoyed by us denizens of 20th and 21st century modernity were purchased at the price of subjecting ordinary workers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries to unprecedentedly brutal toil, privation, and peril.

Careful quantitative research by economic historians has exposed these horror accounts of the industrial revolution as false. This research shows that inflation-adjusted daily wages began rising no later than 1840, and likely much earlier. Inflation-adjusted annual incomes began rising even sooner as work became more steady. Even in the last half of the 18th century, the households and bellies of ordinary people were growing accustomed to goods and foods that, just a few years earlier, were available only to the rich. The economic historian Peter Mathias found that “quite a lot of evidence suggests that beer sales per head were rising toward the end of the [18th] century; that the working masses were demanding wheaten bread and meat more insistently in the 1780s than when the century opened.”

For more on these quantified data, consult the work of, among others, Nathan Rosenberg and L.E. Birdzell. Of Gregory Clark. Of Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson. Of Jane Humphries and Jacob Weisdorf. Of Mark Koyama and Jared Rubin. And of Deirdre McCloskey. This research overwhelmingly justifies McCloskey’s call to rename the past 200 or so years as “the Great Enrichment,” with the period commonly called “the industrial revolution” being simply the launch of this Enrichment.

By all means, consult the quantitative data. They’re vital.

But consult also the fascinating non-quantitative research of historian Emma Griffin. In her 2013 book, Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution, Griffin reports the results of her deep-dive into 350 personal accounts written by ordinary British workers from the late 18th through the mid-19th centuries. These “autobiographies,” as Griffin calls them, unfailingly reveal lives, at home and at work, that were incomparably harder and more perilous than are the lives of Brits and Americans today. Yet they also reveal that these workers overwhelmingly believed themselves to have benefitted from the unprecedented economic change in Britain during the first several decades of the Great Enrichment.

Consider, for example, John Bennett, a carpenter who was born in a rural English village in 1787.

Writing down his memories at the end of his life [recounts Griffin], he asked his children to “Look back and see what troublesome times we had during my bringing up.” He told them ‘the working classes in my opinion, was never as well off’ as they were in the present day…. Bennett saw the developments he observed in the most positive terms. He did not think simply that life had changed. He thought it had done so for the better.

Griffin continues a few lines later:

What is striking is the degree of agreement between the autobiographers concerning the general tenor of the changes they had witnessed. All through the nineteenth century, writers sound the same celebratory notes of improvement and progress….

If wages were higher, what about the possibility that life was simpler and the poor happier back in the old days? James Hawker could not be more scathing about this proposition. He scoffed at the notion that the agricultural labourer ‘seemed a Deal happier 60 years ago’…. None of the autobiographers had time for those who fondly reminisced about the past. ‘When I hear people talk of the good old days,’ thought George Mallard, ‘they must be ignorant of what did hapen [sic] in those days. I know it was hard times where I was….

Our writers were not simply commenting on the change in their personal circumstances. They were also reflecting upon the strides that other working men and their families seemed to be making. These writers never lamented the passing of the old days – or ‘the bad old times’, as they were styled by one writer. There were no fond words for the quite or simplicity that their forefathers had known. To a man, our writers were glad that their grandchildren would never know the life they had once lived….

Gains were tenuous; gains were sometimes lost. Life was still extremely hard and many lived perilously close to the edge of a comfortable subsistence. Yet tenuous gains were preferable to the predictable course of a life devoted to hard labour with no prospect of real improvement. Industrialisation brought immediate and tangible benefits for large sections of the labouring poor. It held out the promise of better wages even to the unskilled and and very poor.

I could go on at length offering similar quotations from Griffin’s book, but what appears above more than suffices to make this much clear: At least according to those workers who chose to record on paper their life experiences, the industrialization and accompanying rapid changes to Britain’s economy starting in the 18th century, and accelerating in the 19th century, emphatically did not, contrary to Engel’s prediction, turn each worker into a “brute.” Nor did it usher in the “intensified exploitation, greater insecurity and increasing human misery” that E.P. Thompson, writing in 1965, thought to be the case. Quite the opposite. As Emma Griffin herself puts the matter,

It is time to think the unthinkable: that these writers viewed themselves not as downtrodden losers, but as men and women in control of their destiny; that the industrial revolution heralded the advent not of a yet ‘darker period’, but of the dawn of liberty.

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux

Donald J. Boudreaux is a Associate Senior Research Fellow with the American Institute for Economic Research and affiliated with the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University; a Mercatus Center Board Member; and a professor of economics and former economics-department chair at George Mason University. He is the author of the books The Essential Hayek, Globalization, Hypocrites and Half-Wits, and his articles appear in such publications as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, US News & World Report as well as numerous scholarly journals. He writes a blog called Cafe Hayek and a regular column on economics for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Boudreaux earned a PhD in economics from Auburn University and a law degree from the University of Virginia.

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