The Industrial Revolution is viewed today in a largely positive light. This could hardly have been less true at the time.
It began in the countryside
Inventions like the famous spinning jenny in 1764, allowed the work of eight people to be done by one. Later versions allowed 120 spindles to be wound by a single machine. It only took four years until starving weavers broke in to smash machines.
Richard Arkwright combined the new jennies into a water-powered frame in Cromford, Derbyshire in 1774, followed by another in Nottingham. Arkwright’s Mill is today a tourist attraction, and Arkwright celebrated as a hero, but two-thirds of his labourers were small children. Arkwright became very rich, and fat, from child labour in dangerous factories where the loss of limbs was commonplace.
Migration to the cities
Displaced peasants had no choice but to seek work in overcrowded towns. Conditions soon became worse than those left behind. In some cities the average lifespan deteriorated to as little as 26 years. Cholera, typhoid, diphtheria, polio and crime ravaged the slums. At times half the population was unemployed in an age when there was no welfare state. Attempts to organise to defend living and working conditions resulted in a series of massacres, riots and executions – two of which are the Pentrich rising in Derbyshire in 1817 and the ‘Peterloo Massacre’ in Manchester in 1819.
Pollution and explosion
Cities were polluted and factories dangerous. Several Factory Acts were passed but were toothless until those of Disraeli beginning in 1874. Dust frequently caused cancer and explosions, a hazard only legislated against since the 1940s when machinery to control it became available. For example, ventilation systems with a ductwork blast gate damper to focus dust extraction where needed – see one here http://www.dustspares.co.uk/Blast-Gate-Damper.html. And legislation is still being phased in today.
Far from improving our lot, studies show that health and nutrition declined for the 100 years of the industrial revolution, only beginning to rally in the 1870s when the pace of change began to subside.
The country lived in continual fear of revolution up until the Great War of 1914-18, and contrary to popular myth, it is the decline of the industrial revolution that corresponds with an improvement in our living conditions and social justice.