The industrial revolution brought technology that enabled products to be manufactured on a large scale and employed thousands of people. With all this change, however, came hardship and trouble, including the constant clash between workers and the owners of the factories over wages and working conditions. Workers formed unions to address their interests, and sometimes these unions struck in an attempt to get their employers to address their grievances.
In November 1853, workers at Preston went on strike for a number of reasons. According to them, the mill owners had promised a general ten percent raise in wages with the return of prosperity in 1847, but when prosperity returned, wages did not increase. When workers insisted their masters give them a raise, the threatened masters closed down their mills leaving thousands workers unemployed. According to The London Illustrated News, <
The facts of the case seem to be that in 1847, when a general 10-percent reduction took place, the millowners either promised their operatives — or they believed so — a general 10 percent advance on the rates of piecework as soon as prosperity returned. Prosperity came, but with it no general rise — or at least none to the extent looked for. Dissatisfaction began to prevail...the time had come for insisting on a general rise of payments in their respective trades...the associated masters, feeling that the intention was to take them in detail, closed their mills. ("The Preston Wages dispute," November 12, 1853)
A similar strike takes place in Gaskell's North and South, which appeared just two years after the Preston strike. All of the workers refuse to work for the cotton millowners in Milton for reasons similar to those of the Preston hands. Their employers pay them poorly and plan on reducing their wages. According to the workers, the owners get rich off their work while they force workers to take a pay cut. "Why yo' see, there's five or six masters who have set themselves again paying the wages they've been paying these two years past, and flourishing upon, and getting richer upon. And now they come to us, and say we're to take less. And we won't. We'll just clem to death first, and see who'll work for 'em then." (Gaskell 182) The events and details in Gaskell's novel clearly mirror the events in Victorian society.
Much of the time the two factions misunderstood and disagreed with each other. In North and South, the millowners told their side of the story, which differed greatly from the views of the hands. They are angry that the hands do not understand that the price of cotton on the market has dropped and as a result the millowners are forced to cut their spending if they are to compete with the Americans.
The Americans are getting their yarns so into the general market, that our only chance is producing them at a lower rate. If we can't, we may shut up shop at once, and hands and masters go alike on tramp. Yet these fools go back to the prices paid three years ago. [Gaskell 195]
This complete lack of communication, in addition to the contempt many of the millowners had for their workers, was the root of the troubles of the workers and the millowners.
The newspaper article claimed that the millowners' unnecessary cruelty towards their workers caused a large part of the general enmity. "They are blamed for a generally stern and unbending demeanor towards their operatives, which freezes their sympathy, and lays the groundwork for constant suspicion and occasional violent ruptures, like the present" ("The Preston Wages Dispute," The Illustrated London News, November 12, 1853).
This same attitude appears in North and South. At first Mr. Thornton feels that the it is workers' own fault that they are so poor. He feels that they deserve to live in horrid conditions.
I believe that this suffering, which Miss Hale says is impressed on the countenances of the people of Milton, is but the natural punishment of dishonestly-enjoyed pleasure at some former period of their lives. I do not look on self-indulgent, sensual people as worthy of my hatred; I simply look upon them with contempt for their poorness of character." [Gaskell 126]
Later in the novel Thornton changes after being greatly influenced by Margaret. He learns that these men are not different from him. They are like in him and do not deserve to be scorned and looked upon with contempt." Once brought face to face, man to man, with an individual of the masses around him, and (take notice) out of the character of master and workman, in the first instance they had each begun to recognise that "we have all of us one human heart" (Gaskell 511). Perhaps if the millowners of Victorian society had followed Thornton's suit, all enmity between the two factions would have eventually dissolved.
Created October 1992; last modified: 25 March 2000