According to John Burnett's The Annals of Labour, before the Industrial Revolution workers divided into two basic categories, skilled craftsmen, "who had learnt a specialized craft or 'mystery' by apprenticeship," and unskilled laborers, "who had only muscular strength to sell," but the arrival of the "factory system"

vastly complicated this traditional distinction by virtually creating a new category of manual worker — the machine-minder, or factory operative who, though intimately familiar with the particular, sub-divided operation of his machine, was able to exercise only limited judgement or discretion over its performance. For him — or for her, since a high proportion of such workers, especially in the textile factories, were female — a short period of training rather than a long apprenticeship was generally all that was necessary.

By the early Victorian years, manual workers — people who worked with their hands — "were generally divided into three groups: skilled, semi-skilled (often described as 'less skilled') and unskilled (usually known as 'labourers')," but since "each group shaded off into the next," . . . no sharp lines can be drawn between them." The skilled, or the craftsman, however, stood out from those below him in the hierarchy of labor.


John Burnett. The Annals of Labour: Autobiographies of British Working Class People, 1820-1920. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1974.

Last modified December 2001