Reading 24: Workers in the Early Industrial Revolution
(See also Flash Animation at end of reading for additional Information.)
Reading 1: Testimony before Parliamentary committees on working conditions in England
Introduction: A key to England's early industrial growth was the large pool of available workers willing to
accept low wages for long hours of labor in factories and mines. Many of these workers were displaced
farmers or farm workers, forced from rural areas because of land shortages caused by population growth
and the consolidation of small farms into large agricultural estates by wealthy aristocrats. Rural families
moved to cities or coal-mining towns, where parents and children, some as young as five years old, went to
work in tile factories or mines. Even with whole families working, few avoided poverty, crowded housing,
and poor health.
Eventually, the British government abandoned its commitment to unlimited free enterprise, and Parliament
passed laws to protect factory workers and miners, especially children, from exploitation. When
considering legislation, parliamentary committees held hearings to gather testimony from workers,
employers, physicians, clergy, and local officials. Their statements present a vivid picture of working-class
conditions in the first half of the nineteenth century.
This reading is testimony from the records of various Parliamentary committees during this period
investigating the conditions of working class people.
ELIZABETH BENTLEY, CALLED IN; AND EXAMINED
What age are you, -- Twenty-three. . . .
What time did You begin to work at a factory -- When I was six years old. . . .
What kind of mill is It., -- Flax-mill. . . .
What was your business in that mill, -- I was a little doffer [A worker, usually a young child, whose job
was to clean the machines used in textile manufacturing.]
What were your hours of labor in that mill? -- From 5 in the morning till 9 at night, when they were
For how long a time together have you worked that excessive length of time, -- For about half a year.
What were your usual hours of labor when you were not so thronged? -- From 6 in the morning till 7 at
night. 13 hours
What time was allowed for your meals? -- Forty minutes at noon.
Had you any time to get your breakfast or drinking? -- No, we got it as we could.
And when your work was bad, you had hardly any time to eat it at all? -- No; we were obliged to leave it or
take it home, and when we did not take it, the overlooker took it, and gave it to his pigs.
Do you consider doffing a laborious employment, -- Yes.
Explain what it is you had to do-, -- When the frames are full, they have to stop the frames, and take the
flyers off, and take the full bobbins off, and carry them to the roller; and then put empty ones on, and set
the frames on again.
Does that keep you constantly on your feet? -- Yes, there are so many frames and they run so quick.