The Industrial Revolution . . . 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; probably the human agents who promoted it were in many cases as innocent of any far-sighted visions for humanity as the human agents who caused the increase in population. It was in fact morally neutral. It was not directed with any certainty to any particular end. It might bring good and might bring evil. Indeed, as men realized from the beginning, it did bring good and did bring evil to different people or to the same people at different times, and if it were to be made safe for humanity its propensities for evil must be brought under control or compensated. . . . One of the dangers which the new forces at work produced was that of recurrent financial crises producing ruin and widespread distress and unemployment. Even through the period of greatest prosperity men remained aware of this danger, in fact they experienced it in such years as 1847, in 1857 and in 1866. But it cannot be said that they discovered any satisfactory way of dealing with it. [93]

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n his classic The Making of Victorian England, J. Kitson Clark asks the two questions, was the Industrial Revolution good or bad, and, second, how would one answer that question. During the first years of the Victoria’s reign, people recognized that, as Clark put it, “it had already brought good and evil gifts to men.” Those who celebrated industrialization pointed out that it “had created wealth, wealth not only to be enjoyed by the masters of industry but by many of those they employed and by many of the people in general.” Equally important to those who saw its benefits were the new opportunities it created by giving “intelligence and enterprise opportunities such as they never had had before and in truth have never had since” (87). Those who praised and those who feared the Industrial Revolution pointed out that it acted as a “great social solvent” that permitted “a man like George Stephenson, an illiterate, to rise by sheer innate genius to a place among the highest in the land.” So much for the good.

At the same time all those wonderful new inventions “brought ruin to the hand-loom weavers, independent craftsmen whose work the machines took over; it had seemed to bring the harshest oppression to many of the children and women who I worked in mine and factory. And it had brought insecurity to all” (88). Part of the problem lay in the fact that by 1840 the prosperity that the first waves of the industrial revolution had produced “had very largely disappeared and had been replaced by deep depression and ruin and misery to those who had trusted to it for their living” (88). As Clark points out,

There were therefore good reasons for two sharply contested views about the Industrial Revolution in the early 1840s. On the one hand there were those who looked at the wonderful progress that had taken place since the beginning of the century and felt that if only the power that had done these great things could be liberated from the obstacles placed upon it by a stupid protectionist system, fit instrument of a selfish and parasitic aristocracy, particularly if the Corn Laws could be repealed, it would surely recover its old force and bring almost illimitable advantages to all humanity. On the other hand the Chartist, or the Tory, conscious of the revelations of the commissions of enquiry on child labour, repelled by the ugliness and inhumanity of the factory districts at any time and surveying the stricken field of Britain in the black depression that prevailed, not unreasonably took another view. Many of them felt that something evil had intruded itself into British life, something not only avaricious and cruel but dangerously reckless and unreliable as well. [88]

Reacting to the ill effects of the Industrial Revolution, such as the Manchester slums, virtual enslavement of factory workers, and destruction of so many of Britain’s green fields and clear skies, people “began to think less and less of the usefulness and importance to mankind of its inventions, or of the human genius displayed in their development, and to consider it almost wholly as if it were an event in the sphere of morals to be judged, and condemned, according to the supposed motives of those who promoted it” (see Hartwell). Clark argues that “whatever truth there might be in this view, it has had unfortunate results for historical thought” by oversimplifying “the causes of suffering and cruelty in early nineteenth-century Britain” and therefore obscuring two factors, the first of which was what Clark calls the “inherited tradition of callousness, brutality and degraded conditions which went far back into history, the results of which were now much more obvious because the nineteenth century had opportunities of learning what was going on which were denied to earlier centuries and humanitarians were teaching men to note these things and object to them” (90). Second was the “strain resulting from the rapid growth of the population.” (One must also point out something often overlooked by critics of the Industrial Revolution: population could never have expanded when the basic conditions of life, such as the availability of food, had become worse. Therefore the average person’s conditions of life must in some ways have been worse before industrialization and urban growth.)

Clark admits that changes associated with industrialization might have “increased the opportunities for men on the make, themselves the product of harsh conditions, to indulge in such abuses as payment of wages in truck and to exploit cruelly those who worked for them, particularly when they were relatively defenceless women and children.” Moreover, he admits that a factory system that divided “the great mill owner or capitalist from the artisan destroyed a natural sympathy which had existed between the small master and the man who worked at his elbow” (91) “But it is well to remember,” he adds, “that probably the worst abused child labour in the country was that of the climbing boys, the wretched children apprenticed to chimney sweeps, small masters who were only too close to those they employed for they beat them when they would not go up flues in which they might be suffocated; or that the unhappy sempstresses, like the one celebrated in Tom Hood’s ‘Song of a Shirt’ (text), also seem to have been normally working for small-scale employers who were not mechanized at all” (91). After providing other examples, Clark concludes “that neither the possession of capital nor the extensive use of machines was needed to make men callous and brutal in the early nineteenth century. Too many of them were like that by nature and had been so from time out of mind” (91).

Related material


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

Hartwell, R. M. ‘Interpretations of the Industrial Revolution in England: a Methodological Inquiry’. The Journal of Economic History, 19.2 (New York June 1959): 229-49.

Last modified 26 May 2018