In considering the major question, did the Industrial Revolution help or harm nineteenth-century Britain, J. Kitson Clark emphasizes “what matters most is the results of mechanization on the life which was offered to contemporary men and women” (92). Although Clark admits that the question is nearly impossible to answer, in part because historians disagree about whether real wages rose or fell during the nineteenth century, he concludes that in general industrialization did give people better lives by century’s end. According to Clark, not only did mechanization of work provide far more jobs but but gave those who had these jobs far more choices, producing “even for poor people, if they had any money to spend at all, goods in a profusion and a variety which would have been beyond men’s wildest expectations in earlier ages.”

The next question, then, is did mechanization help or harm people in their places of work, and Raphael Samuel’s study of those who worked in mines, quarries, and brickfields provides needed answers, some of them perhaps surprising. For example, some occupations, such as specialized brickmaking or quarrying slate. saw little change.

Firebricks themselves continued to be made by hand, long after machinery had made inroads into the red brick trade. . . . Technical change in the nineteenth century made mineral work more productive, but did not impair its handicraft character. Explosives were more widely used but they did not put an end to hewing. Moulding machines were introduced but they did not lighten the clay getter’s task. The basic tools remained unchanged — in mining the double-headed pick, in quarrying the ‘jumper’, in the case of blasting work, or the crowbar and wedge; in clay digging, the long-handled, square-mouthed spade.82 The work was rough and laborious, yet highly skilled. It continued to demand enormous inputs of physical strength, while at the same time leaving everything to the worker’s judgement. It was simultaneously open to all comers — freely recruiting labour from all sides — and yet, at the same time, hereditary tendencies were strong. The rockman perilously perched on his ledge, drilling at a high-level face, the tutworker in the airless extremities of a winze, the collier in his stall, all had to combine a labourer’s strength with an artisan’s ability to work to fine limits. The moulder or temperer on the brickfield had to be really choice in his selection of material. The stone dresser, like the mason, retained his own individual brand. [46]

Samuel’s main point, however, is that “when machinery was introduced it was extraordinarily lop-sided in its effects, and if it abridged labour in some directions (e.g. in coal mining, by the elimination of trap boys), it greatly increased it in others” (46). In mining and quarrying, for instance, many of the changes involved what Samuel terms intermediate improvements, such as the substitution of steel for iron tools, new methods of stone splitting, and better, longer lasting boring rods. Where new technologies had major effects they often simultaneously made more money for owners while putting workers in greater danger, since “technological improvements in mining and quarrying encouraged owners to take risks with safety and health” (47), something miners realized when they resisted the introduction of the newly invented Davy lamp, which permitted working at greater depths. Similarly,

use of explosives greatly increased the risk of fatalities in both quarries and mines. It none the less spread. As Warrington Smyth, a Mines Inspector, put it in 1875: ‘to the objection . . . that it shakes the coal more, and that it is sadly conducive to accidents, there is always returned the answer that without the effective agency thus obtained, it would be difficult for certain collieries to maintain their place in the general competition’. With the spread of deep mining in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, the colliery disaster became a regular and half-expected calamity on the coalfields. In quarrying, too, as often though less dramatically, the increased use of explosives (along with larger and more perilous faces) produced injury and death. [47]

Mechanization also had the effect of filling the air workers breathed with dangerous dust and other pollutants. Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South described the fatal effects of air filled with cotton fibers on textile workers’ lungs, and “pneumatic, or steam-powered, drills raised a great deal more dust than the ‘jumper’, and when they were introduced into metalliferous mines and quarries the ‘miner’s disease’ of phthisis soared.” All kinds of labor-saving devices fulfilled the law of unintended circumstances: thus, “straps and pulleys and unfenced gearing were added to the health hazards of a brickfield when machinery was introduced, and the same may be said of the introduction of cranes to the quarries” (47)

Related material


Clark, G. Kitson. The Making of Victorian England Being the Ford Lectures Delivered before the University of Oxford. New York: Atheneum, 1971.

Samuel, Raphael. Miners, Quarrymen and Saltworkers. History Workshop Series. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977.

Last modified 26 May 2018