Decorated initial In The Making of Victorian England, J. Kitson Clark insists that to evaluate the degree to which the Industrial Revolution, the factory system, and urbanization benefited or harmed Victorian Britain “what matters most is the result of these developments in mechanization on the life which was offered to contemporary men and women. In fact, there can be little doubt that in very many cases these results were beneficial, sometimes immediately, sometimes ultimately.” Although historians still debate whether real wages improved between 1800 and 1850, he points out that if one were to use wages as a “touchstone to test whether in fact the Industrial Revolution benefited or harmed humanity, another question must be asked even though it is one which cannot be answered,” and that question is

What would have happened to the wages of large sections of the working class if there had been no Industrial Revolution? This question should not only refer to those whose special skills and fortunate positions gave them peculiar opportunities to benefit by the Industrial Revolution, but also to humbler unskilled workers who got jobs for whom otherwise, as far as can be seen, there would have been no employment. What would have happened for instance to the Irish immigrant if there had been no railways to construct? Indeed this question might as well be extended over the whole century; it seems to be agreed by most people that in the second half of the century there was a general or continuous advance in real wages, it might be asked whether there would have been any chance of this if there had been no mechanization and industrialization on the scale achieved in the early nineteenth century. The answer here surely is No. [92-93]

The benefits of industrialization appear not only in wages earned but in what people could buy with those wages. “As the century went forward it produced 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.” Yes, he says, much of what consumers encountered was poorly designed and manfactured, crude and even tasteless, yet that should not let us “forget how much was being added to the richness of life. And when such things as washable clothes and soap are provided for those who would have had in the past little chance for such luxuries, the advantages to health and comfort are incalculable” (93).

Clark concludes, however, that none of these improvements in any way establishes “that the Industrial Revolution was a benevolent movement designed by far-sighted philanthropists for the good of humanity. It probably should be considered as nearly as void of moral significance as a change in the weather which happens to produce in some year a good harvest” (93).

Related material


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

[The following journal articles are cited by Clark on p 92n.]

Ashton, T. S. Journal of Economic History Supplement IX, (September 9, 1949) pp. 19-38.

Hartwell, R. M. Economic History Review 2nd Series, 13.3 (April 1961).

Hobsbawm. E. J. Economic History Review 2nd Series, Vol 10, No. 1 (1957) 46-48.

Pollard, S. Economic History Review 2nd Series, 11.2 (December 1958): 215-26.

Last modified 26 May 2018