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Living and working conditions

The shift from working at home to working in factories in the early 18th century brought with it a new system of working. Factory and mine owners sought to control and discipline their workforce through a system of long working hours, fines and low wages.

Working conditions in factories

  • Long working hours: normal shifts were usually 12-14 hours a day, with extra time required during busy periods. Workers were often required to clean their machines during their mealtimes.
    illustration of a cotton mill.  A child crawls on his hands and knees under a moving machine, sweeping up cotton.

    A child sweeps inside a moving machine in a cotton mill

  • Low wages: a typical wage for male workers was about 15 shillings (75p) a week, but women and children were paid much less, with women earning seven shillings (35p) and children three shillings (15p). For this reason, employers preferred to employ women and children. Many men were sacked when they reached adulthood; then they had to be supported by their wives and children.
  • Cruel discipline: there was frequent "strapping" (hitting with a leather strap). Other punishments included hanging iron weights around children's necks, hanging them from the roof in baskets, nailing children's ears to the table, and dowsing them in water butts to keep them awake.
  • Fierce systems of fines: these were imposed for talking or whistling, leaving the room without permission, or having a little dirt on a machine. It was claimed that employers altered the time on the clocks to make their workers late so that they could fine them. Some employers demanded that their overseers raise a minimum amount each week from fines.
  • Accidents: forcing children to crawl into dangerous, unguarded machinery led to many accidents. Up to 40 per cent of accident cases at Manchester Infirmary in 1833 were factory accidents.
  • Health: cotton thread had to be spun in damp, warm conditions. Going straight out into the cold night air led to many cases of pneumonia. The air was full of dust, which led to chest and lung diseases and loud noise made by machines damaged workers' hearing.
  • Parish apprentices: orphans from workhouses in southern England were "apprenticed" to factory owners, supposedly to learn the textiles trade. They worked 12-hour shifts, and slept in barracks attached to the factory in beds just vacated by children about to start the next shift.

Back to British society - 1815-1851 index

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