Factory Production in Nineteenth-Century Britain

By Elaine Freedgood | Go to book overview

THREE
CALCULATING LOSSES

In this section, reformers and radicals assess the damage inflicted on individuals and society as a result of factory production. None of the writers in this section seek to end factory production. Rather, they suggest the ways in which its effects might be mitigated so that the laboring population might live better lives, and, not incidentally, pose less of a threat—in political and public health terms—to the middle and upper classes.

Richard Oastler's letter to the Leeds Mercury describes factory work as a worse evil than colonial slavery; indeed, working in a factory is a form of slavery in Oastler's description. This analogy will become a familiar one over the course of the nineteenth century. Reformers like James Phillips KayShuttleworth and Peter Gaskell are less concerned with working conditions and more focused on the home lives of workers. Indeed, it seems that the living conditions of the working class are more important than their working conditions: “the first step to recklessness,” Kay writes, “may often be traced in a neglect of that self-respect, and of the love of domestic enjoyments, which are indicated by personal slovenliness, and discomfort of the habitation” (29). Poverty breeds not only disease, but also dissent—which may be expressed recklessly.

Gaskell specifically suggests that women who work in factories cannot provide a comfortable domestic life. Engels also bewails the loss of domesticity that working women represent: the health of women is sacrificed and in turn, the whole family suffers: it is turned “upside down” by women at work and men (because they demand higher wages) at home. Engels includes devastating examples of illness and deformity caused by factory work. Indeed, his list of accidents anticipates an unsigned article in Household Words of

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