Emma Griffin has written a graceful and sincerely researched book. Liberty’s Dawn, tells the story of 350 British working people of the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries unearthed from their autobiographies stored in humble archives like county record offices, historical societies, and libraries, which Griffin read and, most importantly for good scholarship, cared about.

Behind her tidy piece of scholarship, one envisions Griffin, Professor of History at East Anglia University, making notes, discovering patterns and meticulously cross-referencing details of these lives to produce rich chapters on men, children and women earning a living as well as “Love” and “Culture.” Her work gives the reader a picture of the English working class from 1750-1850 that will stand as an alternative to the one that has dominated scholarship since Frederich Engels published The Condition of the Working Class in England , in 1845. Behind that traditional portrait of a degraded and alienated mass of workers uprooted by the factory system from stable, predictable pre-industrial lives, Griffin finds people struggling to keep body and soul together and construct meaningful lives. But what is more, a great many of the autobiographers, mostly men of course, express a new feeling of independence as actors in a rapidly moving revolution (though they do not use that term), not only because they had the chance to move from the farm to the city’s jobs that paid more than they expected, but because they could learn to read and write and help build workers’ organizations and non-conformist churches that nourished their identities as members of a newly self-aware modern working class.

Liberty’s Dawn can be an experienced on many levels. These real-life stories punch up our understanding of words like work, breadwinner and livelihood in this time-period, and they also make us reflect on the absolute importance of these words at any time and in any place. They give rise to thoughts about the systems we live within. The workers’ qualitative experiences are instructive and even enthralling and they modify Engels’s and other system-thinkers’ views, but they cannot replace them, for we live within systems.

Men at Work

Work is the constant here, as workers spent energy six days a week to keep a roof over their heads and food on their table. Life on the land for those who owned none had its seasonal ups and downs, and it enforced master-servant relationships that could be frustrating and humiliating. In rural areas, there was almost never enough steady work to go around. Around 1790, things changed. Time-saving inventions changed manufacturing, which led to factory work, country-wide building projects, and opportunities to sell goods and services to the new middle class. From 1803-1815 the Napoleonic wars were another aspect of the unprecedented boom and bust economy. Of course, the dates used to mark the start of these changes are somewhat arbitrary because change is constant: Griffin valuably often makes this point, noting how new mores, freedoms, and economic innovations from the seventeenth century on helped shape the era that is now called a revolution.

One of the first openings she finds appeared in the apprentice system, which since 1562 had been regulated by the Statute of Artificers and which provided training for skilled jobs — usually for seven years through financial arrangements by a young man’s family with a master in the field. The Statute was abolished in 1814, but long before that, “the unmaking of some elements of the apprenticeship system introduced a new degree of fluidity and openness to the world of skilled labour.” Many of the autobiographers tell how they took advantage of faster ways to move into new positions with more continuous employment and higher earnings and how, to escape the dearth of jobs in their hometowns, such escape often involved moving away from England’s rural districts and joining new social circles in the cities. In fact, moving became part of the new coming of age. Another reason to roam was the abundance of navvying (construction work). For the navvies, canals, roads, factories, warehouses and railroads “amounted to one more option for men who had been raised to expect to spend their lives devoted to earning a subsistence wage in agriculture.”


Griffin undercuts the theme of dreary oppressed workers by documenting the benefits of industrialization, but in doing so she insists that we remember that poor children had it worst for, in effect, the system gobbled them up and erased any chance for schooling. But this system had been in place a long time; child labor for poor families was the norm in the early 1700s, the start of Griffin’s focus. Though it is now a commonplace to see childhood as the time in which the innocent mind (Locke’s tabula rasa) can be formed caringly at home and school, the fact is that poverty has always gotten in the way of this ideal. In the life-stories, there are no reports of parents’ holding off a child’s work until they have learned how to read, write, think, plan, organize, and discover the fruits of creative play; children are workers who help their families get by and maybe even get ahead. One writer’s wife is very clear that she will not mend her children’s clothes because she wants them in new ones, and their wages will help pay for this. In the country, children were out early as bird-scarers in the fields, picking over coals at the pit-mouth, or winding thread on the bobbins at home for their parents. As the revolution picked up there was more work for kids and sunset had no effect on their hours. Robert Collyer reports that by the age of eight he worked weekdays at the mill 13 hours a day and 14 on Saturday. It was not until 1833 that the Factory Act banned the employment of children under the age of nine, and reformers worked for ten years, until 1847, to get Parliament to limit hours for women and teens to ten per day.

The stories get one thinking. When Professor Griffin rounds off this chapter on children she sums up her findings in a way that, perhaps inadvertently, shows how hard it is to modify a dominant economic system. To show how far she has gotten in her argument, she totes up the gains and losses for that sector of the working class at the end of each chapter. At the end of the childhood chapter, she re-emphasizes that though in the previous one she showed that men found mobility and opportunity, for youngsters early industrial Britain was a “disaster.” This stunning word, disaster, makes us think twice about the ageless human requirement of making a living and that even the gains these life-writers recount cannot obscure the reality that in most cases a poor working person was and is completely dependent on the system to provide work. In other words, it may be hasty to describe only the effect on young ones as a disaster. Readers know as they go through the book that the overseers of the industrial revolution system were doing well, and therefore, no matter what workers had gained, it would be a long haul for them to alter the system in any way. Systems whittle down our choices, and it is possible to think of this as its own existential disaster. A sobering thought, but one that can be restorative, because when we see that choices are limited, we appreciate choice itself so much more.


Griffin would like to have seen more women being able to make the choice to work to boost their self-identity and to make money for the family, but the more children they had, the less they worked outside their homes. Most of the 350 autobiographers were men, so the women mentioned are mothers, wives, and girlfriends. Some women were midwives and nurses, a few travelled and sold goods they made at home, one ran a school. Griffin emphasizes that women’s labor for pay was always in addition to the work of the household, and many children in the autobiographies cannot believe their mothers handled it all. Betty Shaw of Lancashire stands out for us as well as in her husband Benjamin’s story. She started as a domestic servant at 14, found work soon in a local mill, and then moved to Preston, living in lodgings and working in the mill there. She married Benjamin, and they had many children, and for awhile she took weaving work into the house, but this ended when the duties of keeping the house grew. When the family most needed her because her husband fell ill and the whole economy took a downturn, she turned again to bringing in mill work as well as mending and also started baking oatcakes which she sold to neighbors. We hear from Benjamin that his wife’s baking irritated him — the smoke and it was “injurious to health” — but Mrs. Shaw seems to have never settled but to have stayed vigilant and creative.

Women’s work. An amazing phrase that should be constantly unpacked. What is a woman’s place? Why has it been for so long that women, though not the breadwinner, usually bake the bread, divide it, feed the family, and save the remainder of the bread for the days ahead? There is something both essential and unsaid in the traditional role — a home maker — and Betty Shaw is a good example: supportive in so many ways of her husband and children, she seems to be the key even when there is no money coming in. We should reflect on why in a system of nineteenth-century capitalism that must have felt absurd and grand at the same time, women were always second to work but first to keep the home and keep things going. The answer might tell us a lot about our way of surviving.

With Betty Shaw and the other women, Griffin has completed the work of combing her autobiographers’ hard-knocks stories to bring us facts that show the industrial revolution in a more positive light. It looks like she had an easier time portraying liberty’s dawn by highlighting what the writers say about love and sex because she uses a lighter tone in these next chapters. It must have been refreshing to report on the similarities between courtship then and now. We see this immediately when she switches to stories of “heart-gushings and powerful physical urgings” and especially when she winks at the reader, “You know the kind I mean.”

The chapter on marriage gets started slowly because as Griffin says, “love and sex are timeless constants.” The stories of couples walking out (dating), finding time and space to be alone, and their romances and paths to the altar humanize what could be a monolithic class of people, but the couples pass by us in snippets that seem interchangeable. Before the industrial revolution, couples were more patient and deliberate than after, putting money away, delaying sex and marrying in their late twenties. The chapter picks up interest when Griffin points to a distinction between lovers before 1790 who followed these unwritten rules of conformity and those after who acted more impulsively. Our interest grows. Could this be that turn toward liberal thinking that is always compelling to those of us interested in the evolution of Victorian society? We are sure it is when Griffin uses two important phrases, “rejecting traditional values” and “disregarding society’s expectations.” Old ideals become challenged and social customs unraveled around 1815, due in part to freedom from the apprentice system, lots of new work almost everywhere and the rise in workers’ pay (also important, we surmise, is the victorious end of the Napoleonic Wars, in so many ways a game-changer for England.)

Griffin’s argument gains strength because her writers “step away from the harsh struggle for existence . . . [finding] the outlook for young parents hoping to raise a child brighter than ever.” Here is the liberty of Griffin’s title: the much-improved economy helps make parents less vigilant about the sexual activity of their children; twenty-somethings become less risk-averse and can “set their own timetable” and, if they want, marry without their parents’ consent. Four male writers in the early 1800s leave their indentured arrangements — once a prized opportunity — to get married in the early 1800s, confident in gaining employment quickly. Griffin delivers her final argument in this section through the defiant actions of William Hanson’s daughter. Around 1840, this nameless young woman married against her father’s wishes because she had the power to do so — a good job. Miss Hanson not only had had factory experience since her early teens, she had now become a dressmaker. We feel Griffin’s pride: “With a decade of wage-earning under her belt, she knew enough about life to feel confident in her ability to start making her own way in the world.”

Making one’s way and pulling away towards individuality is another thread. Watching Griffin bring the period to life, one muses that there are historians for every time in human history, and part of their work involves shining a light like this on the lives of real people. Focused on the period at hand, the reader naturally holds in her mind a blurry peripheral vision of what came before, and as we focus on the industrial revolution we have an impression of the working classes of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries as an amorphous mass. But as we read Griffin, the life-writers break away from the mass and become individuals to us, each finding their own degree of liberty.

Education and Churches

Becoming individuals appears most strikingly in the chapters on education and churches. Here the dawn of liberty becomes clear as we see workers who are creative, ambitious and inspired. The most interesting change is an uncanny rise in literacy. As an American educator, I find myself amazed that people with two, three, or four years of education could use the English language at such high levels. Though Griffin goes to some length to explain the rise of reading and writing that produced, among other things, these autobiographies, I have never seen an unlettered student pick up a language with the gusto and verbal dexterity of many of these writers (to say nothing of the idea accepted by Victorian scholars that the working class in the 1840s thoroughly enjoyed the novels of Charles Dickens! Even if they were being read to instead of reading themselves, thus cherishing Dickens’s complex writing seems to be one of the great achievements of the Victorian age.) As Griffin asks, “How on earth did they manage this?”

How did the workers find their vocabularies and suavity of style? Who was reading this complex advertisement that announced the opening of Joseph Livesey’s Sunday School: “parents and guardians of youth will find this a favourable opportunity of providing for the education of those who are obliged to labour through the week”? Around 1830, how did Christopher Thomson learn to write like this: “let us prepare ourselves for the mid-day of freedom, that even now glances her rays upon us” while he was working a lot more than 9 to 5? A component may be the Bible, a book with real meaning carried and used all the time, but the reading phenomenon involves a wonderful combination of cognitive ability, grit, curiosity, and lots of practice.

But is there something in the people’s passionate relation to the English language in play here? By 1825, night schools and the mutual improvement movement for reading and discussion existed all over Britain; Glasgow and all Scotland get kudos from Griffin. There were Mechanics’ Institutes and when they got too big or became too exclusive for the workers, workers set up alternative institutions. Some schoolmasters worked after hours, there were now reading and discussion clubs, libraries and Sunday Schools (work all week then read and write and have a chance to present and defend essays on your day off, and women allowed.) These often informal institutions were turning out “smart intelligent men and hard thinkers.” John James Bezer complains that he had attended a Sunday School for fifteen years but “knew nothing of arithmetic and could scarcely write my own name,” but where did he learn to write that sentence? Did he dictate it? To whom? Griffin sees an “uncommon degree of purpose.” Thomas Whittaker can write that his attendance at night school was “irregular and somewhat spasmodic,” a pretty nice phrase, but more importantly for the futures of all workers, these forums of alternative education turned a good number into teachers, , and leaders.

Church had always played a part in workers’ lives. Though the Anglicans are usually portrayed here as prone to make humble parishioners feel inferior, the parish appears continuously as the place many could be sure of assistance in making up for lost wages or of gifts like coal and food in the winter. But more important to Griffin are the new centers of worship hungry for members that paid much less attention to background and status, where people could pitch in, organize, and lead — transitional centers where believers got “a taste of authority and small-scale power . . . and gained the skills and confidence necessary to engage with the public sphere.” When John Bezer fell out with his parson he opened his own small church for “a little band of malcontents.” The Church of England is not portrayed as central to the workers, the more important centers of worship and study were the varied denominations that were aptly called Non-Conformist. The more we read the more we believe the new church movement — evangelical, Baptist, Methodist — was “a realignment in the balance of power, the decline of deference and the emergence of modern society.” Dissenting churches offered a personal and ecstatic experience. They met in the “kitchens and cottages of laboring men” and offered refreshing outdoor revivals. The expectation of wearing respectable clothing was suspended. Several life-writers became preachers and “spoke in simple language designed to reach the poor and uneducated.” The pews were filled with “respectable working men following an upward trajectory . . . but beside them were men and women whose trajectory was heading anywhere but upwards.” The key was participation. Personal narratives (confessions, temperance stories) were in the air. In their own churches, on Sunday but also behind the scenes, one had “the experience of having one’s voice heard . . . a small but significant step towards the creation of a working class with the confidence and ability to articulate its views.”

Liberty’s Dawn,is engaging history, so well-researched and presented that it makes us feel secure and glad about its findings. And after all her hard work travelling, discovering, thinking, and organizing, Emma Griffin fashioned a writing style that is personable and friendly. At the end of the first paragraph she invites us into her world: “Let us begin by opening the pages of one such notebook . . . in the vaults of the Norfolk Record Office lie the memoirs of John Lincoln” and at chapter’s end returns in that voice to remind us she has not forgotten us with the simple sentence, “It is time to end this chapter.” Determinedly, through inspiring sections as well as small ones that are awkward simply because they show that the more things changed, the more they stayed the same, Griffin drives her story of big changes forward to give us an indelible impression of a brave new world that started not so long ago and remains still.


Griffin, Emma. Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution.. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014. Pp. 303 pages.

Last modified 20 November 2016