Social Change in the Industrial Revolution: An Application of Theory to the British Cotton Industry

By Neil J. Smelser | Go to book overview

CHAPTER V
STRUCTURAL DIFFERENTIATION IN SPINNING (Continued)

Step 2. Symptoms of Disturbance . In the period between the crisis in yarn supply (early 1760's) and the initial steps to relieve it ( 1764- 70), a full-fledged "disturbed movement" did not develop. From the very limited evidence, however, we may extract several signs of disturbance in these years: (1) We may assume that friction between spinners and weavers developed, particularly when the latter were spending long periods in search of yarn to keep them occupied.1 (2) In Lancashire in the early 1760's there was excited speculation about instantaneous fortunes for the man lucky enough to stumble upon the right invention. To be sure, such dreams came true in later decades, but only after great trial and error in the assembly and reassembly of resources. Dreams of overnight riches are too general, because they neglect, or perhaps deny the necessaries which have to be overcome ploddingly before any invention can reap fortunes. (3) The eighteenth century was a century of browbeating the poor over lack of discipline, immorality, theft, drunkenness, holiday- keeping, etc. In certain respects this was unjustified. Even though the consumption of alcohol increased during the early part of the century, it decreased in the second half 2; it is not probable, furthermore, that leisure or dishonesty among workmen increased during this period.3 More important, in so far as critics -- such as John Clayton and Edward Whitehead -- blamed poverty and industrial inefficiency on the poor, they were expressing misplaced aggression. Even if the workers had stretched their work-day, delivered their goods punctually, etc., the fact remains that the system of production was out- moded. Any realistic solution required more than augmented individual exertion and responsibility.

This last point, incidentally, illustrates the delicate interpretive problems in assessing symptoms of disturbance. The phenomenon of exhorting the population to follow the code of economic rationality

____________________
1
Guest, A Compendious History of the Cotton Manufacture, pp. 12-13. Ogden referred to the "insolence" of the spinners. A Description of Manchester, p. 87.
2
M. D. George, London Life in the Eighteenth Century ( London, 1930), p. 307.
3
Wadsworth and Mann, The Cotton Trade and Industrial Lancashire, p. 399.

-80-

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