Life Wasn't All Trouble at T'mill; So You Thought the Industrial Revolution Brought Misery to the Workers? Wrong. an Astonishing New Account in Their Own Words Reveals That They'd Never Been Happier; HISTORY

Article excerpt



by Emma Griffin

(Yale University Press [pounds sterling]25, [pounds sterling]20)

THE working classes had a thoroughly rotten time of it during the Industrial Revolution - or so history books maintain. Uprooted from their picturesque rural hovels, they were crammed together in filthy factories where they either wheezed themselves into early graves, or else became hideously entangled in their Spinning Jennies.

However, Emma Griffin doesn't see it like this. As far as she's concerned, the Industrial Revolution came as a tremendous boon to a lot of working people: they earned far more than they had done before, escaped lives of crushing poverty and for the first time began to exert some measure of control over their lives.

It might be tempting to dismiss this as the ravings of a particularly cranky historian desperate to make a splash - except that Griffin has lots of evidence to back up her claims. For this was also the era in which large numbers of working men and women learned how to read and write.

Remarkably, their testimonies, or 'autobiographies', as she calls them, have been sitting - largely untouched - in county archives for the past 200 years.

It soon becomes clear that Griffin has stumbled on an enormous treasure trove. Here are our ancestors, falteringly at first, then with increasing confidence, describing their daily lives.

Just a generation earlier they would have been illiterate. Now, with the world changing at a furious pace all round them, they wanted to set down their experiences for the benefit of their children.

And what unexpectedly jolly times they turn out to have had. One man, recalling the seven years he spent working in a Lancashire factory in the early 19th century, wrote wistfully that 'I was never as happy as I was then'.

A man called Charles Campbell, faced with a choice between working in a medical practice in a small village in the Highlands, or being a spinner in a Glasgow cotton mill, plumped unhesitatingly for the latter and never regretted it.

Rather than slog his guts out for next-to-nothing in the Highlands, he earned a hefty 30 shillings a week in a mill. 'We seemed to be rolling in wealth,' crowed another man who worked weaving cotton shawls in Manchester.

This, though, as Griffin concedes, is only part of the story. Even the sunniest optimist would have a job persuading anyone that the Industrial Revolution brought joy to generations of working-class children. In most cases, they simply exchanged one form of drudgery for another.

One man recalled how, aged six, he'd been sent off to work at a local farm. 'I sometimes lost my way in a fog, and wandered miles shouting and crying for my mother, half-blind and nearly heartbroken.' Most children, wherever they lived, started work between the ages of six and ten, sent out by their parents to supplement the family income.

One boy, apprenticed to a carter 'who used me ill', ran home hoping his parents would protect him. Instead, his father promptly lashed him to a pony and took him straight back, whipping him all the way.

In textile mills, children usually started off as 'piecers', standing by the spinning machines repairing breaks in the thread. There, they worked 13-hour days, six days a week. …