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World turned upside down

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Issue 1696

New TV series on the industrial revolution

World turned upside down

By Helen Shooter

WE ARE told that capitalism is the only way to run the world. But the society we live in today is a product of revolutionary changes that began only about 200 years ago. Those changes are shown in a fascinating TV series, The Day the World Took Off, about the impact of the industrial revolution in Britain and its effects across the world.

The first of the six programmes gives a real sense of “the radical change in the daily lives of the human species” that came with the rise of capitalism around the beginning of the 19th century. This economic transformation-factories, new machines and technological innovations-was the most radical since the beginnings of agriculture some 10,000 years before.

The way people had lived and worked for generations and the ideas they had about the world were turned upside down within a few decades. Britain was at the forefront of this process. It benefited from the concentration of resources like iron ore and coal that were key to fuelling the industrial revolution. The fact that the stifling power of the landed aristocracy had been broken during the English Revolution of the 1640s paved the way for entrepreneurs to push their innovations.

THE TV series shows how inventions like Hargreave’s Spinning Jenny and Arkwright’s Water Frame propelled key industries like cotton forward. These machines meant a spinner could produce as much yarn in a day as a hand spinner could produce in a year. There were no power looms in Manchester in 1814. Just 16 years later there were 30,000.

In 1784 there were just eight bales of cotton imported into Liverpool. By 1830 that figure had grown to 650,000. The production of textiles by workers and their families in their own homes was replaced by mass production inside factories. These economic developments required better transport to deliver goods at speed across the country.

The system of canals bringing goods from docks like Liverpool to Manchester could not cope with the increased volume of trade. It took longer to get cotton the 30 miles from Liverpool to Manchester than it took to transport it from the US to Liverpool. This pressure helped lead to the development of a railway network. The TV series dramatises the launch of engineer George Stephenson’s Rocket train in 1830 on its two hour journey from Liverpool to Manchester.

It shows the passengers’ sense of wonder at travelling at speeds of 35 miles an hour and still being able to breathe. They were used to coach journeys of ten miles per hour. In 1840 there were 1,857 miles of track in Britain. By 1870 there were 15,570 miles.

BRITAIN’S industrial success was also built on robbery, the plunder of resources from the people across its vast empire. Britain’s lucrative plantations in America and the Caribbean used slave labour from Africa. In the 17th and 18th centuries around 12 million Africans were herded onto slave ships. Those who survived were worked like animals to produce sugar, tobacco and cotton.

Britain became the world’s leading slave-trading nation. By 1771 one third of Britain’s ships were slave traders. By 1792 Liverpool had 42 percent of the total European slave trade. The drive for profit meant capitalists extended their influence across the world in the first wave of globalisation. The TV series shows graphically how dynamic that system was, but it also shows how not everybody gained under the new system.

The changes of the industrial revolution took place in a brutal, class-divided society, which meant a few prospered off the backs of the majority. The huge cities that sprang up around the industrial centres housed the wealthy industrialists and their families. They could enjoy the trappings of a comfortable lifestyle that had previously only been available to rich aristocrats.

They could take afternoon tea in crockery produced by Joseph Wedgewood’s factories. Fabrics and carpets could be mass produced by machines instead of hand crafted and painted. This was a world away from the appalling, disease-ridden slum accommodation that hundreds of thousands of workers were condemned to live in. Many ordinary people were forced to the cities to find work. In the area around Manchester the population soared from 22,000 in 1760 to 235,000 by 1830.

Around 100,000 workers clocked on in factories in Lancashire, an area where there were more machines than in the rest of the world put together. The factory system demanded a strict routine, so the clock began to regulate workers’ lives. It ruled what time they started and finished work, and how much they got paid. As the TV series points out, the industrial revolution meant, “For some there are fortunes to be made. For the majority on the treadmill of mass production there was a price to pay.”

The Duke of Wellington, then prime minister, had a taste of the discontent these changes stoked up on the maiden journey of Stephenson’s Rocket. A large crowd of workers jeered him when the train arrived in Manchester. Many were handloom weavers who had been put out of a job by new machinery. They waved the French tricolour, a symbol of the French Revolution.

THE TV programme shows Frederick Engels, the 19th century socialist and collaborator with Karl Marx, giving a graphic description of slum conditions. It is not generally known that Engels spent much of his life in Manchester. The programme explains that “the 22 year old German was sent to work in his father’s textile factory in Manchester where he witnessed at first hand the ugly face of unchecked capitalism”.

An actor playing the character of Engels reads from his work The Condition of the Working Class in England. “Everywhere heaps of debris, refuse and offal, standing pools for gutters. And a stench alone which would make it impossible for a human being in any degree civilised to live in such a district,” wrote Engels. “Often more than one family lives in a single damp cellar in whose pestilent atmosphere 12 to 16 persons are crowded together.” Working conditions were just as brutal. Children as young as six or seven worked till they dropped at the mills.

In Manchester in 1840 the average age at death for a labourer was 17. For the middle classes it was 38. The programme acknowledges that “Engels’ account will form the basis of a radical new ideology-communism.” Unfortunately the series stops short of exploring the contribution Engels made to understanding the industrial revolution’s importance.

In 1848 Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto, which explained how the industrial revolution brought about both massive social progress and mass poverty: “The bourgeoisie during its rule of scarce 100 years has created more massive and colossal productive forces than have all the preceding generations put together.” But the rise of capitalism also meant that “masses of labourers, crowded into the factory, are organised like soldiers. They are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, the overlooker.” Those workers had no security, but were always “exposed to the fluctuations of the market”. Marx and Engels also identified how these conditions pushed workers together and “they begin to form combinations, trade unions”. Capitalism had produced “its own gravediggers”-the working class.

The Day the World Took Off gives a sense of how quickly a society can be transformed, and with it all the attitudes and ways of living that appear natural to people. It is a powerful argument against those who tell us there is no alternative to the rotten system that we live in.

  • The Day the World Took Off, Sundays, 8pm, C4.

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