Working class life in the Industrial Era

Living and working conditions for the Victorian working classes

The improvement in working conditions for working class in industrial revolution.

During the Industrial Era society was highly stratified. Even within the working-class, a station-master would regard himself higher than the porters, and a butler 'lorded' it over the maids. Many working-class people aspired to join – or worked so their children could join the middle-classes. At the start of the 19th century few poor people received an education, until the 1880 Education Act made primary school, called board school, compulsory.

Before 1832, working-class children as young as six worked in factories and in mines. People often worked long hours with very little pay and in dangerous conditions. Three acts of Parliament were passed to make working life safer for the Victorian working-class:

  • In 1832, the Factory Act stopped children under the age of 9 working.
  • In 1842, the Mines Act stopped women, girls and boys under 10 working below ground in mines.
  • In 1847, the Ten Hours Act limited women and young people to working a maximum of 58 hours a week.

Living conditions at the start of the Industrial Revolution were terrible and many poor town-dwellers lived in filthy slums, but:

  • In 1890, the Housing of the Working Classes Act set standards for new houses
  • In the second half of the century, food improved, especially after meat began to be imported from Australia, New Zealand and Argentina
  • In 1844, the Rochdale Pioneers set up the first Co-op, to provide quality groceries at fair prices, and share the profits between the members

The rise of trade unions and changing attitudes towards the poor

Page from THE GRAPHIC journal on London dock workers strike depicting scenes from the strike.
London dock workers strike

Trade unions were forbidden until 1824. As the century went on, workers formed trade unions to improve their wages. After 1850, skilled workers such as the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, set up New Model Unions. In the late 1880s, after a series of strikes including the Match Girls Strike of 1888, and the Dockers' Strike of 1889, trade unions were set up for unskilled workers.

Some harsh attitudes toward the poor remained in place. For instance, The Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) had sent the poor to the workhouse but the Bank Holiday Act (1871) made paid bank holidays compulsory. Electoral reform meant that many working-class men got the vote in 1867 or 1884. The Independent Labour Party was formed by Kier Hardie in 1893. By 1900, the work of writers such as Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree had created new attitudes towards poverty by publishing their research on poverty. The 'Liberal Reforms' included Old Age Pensions (1908) and National Insurance (1911).

Working class entertainment and leisure activities

Though working-class life was hard and sometimes scarred by deep poverty, working-class people did find time to relax and enjoy themselves. Working-class leisure activities included playing or watching football, participating in bicycling clubs, reading newspapers and trashy serialised novels called 'penny dreadfuls' and visiting the local music hall.The 1871 Bank Holiday Act made paid bank holidays compulsory and working-class people started to travel by train to the seaside at Scarborough or Blackpool for their holidays.