The industrial revolution changed the lives of the population drastically. It affected both the wealthier and the poorer sections of society, but in very different ways. The rich became richer through the success of manufacturing businesses, but the poor people were living in germ infested, crowded and very unhealthy conditions, much like their place of work. The streets were not cleaned or maintained and the health of the population suffered as a result. Working hours were long and often in unhygienic or hazardous conditions and here again health and moral suffered.
In 1750, most people (whose views were acknowledged) thought it best to leave everyone to sort out their own mess, rather than pay for it by higher taxes.
This was the idea that Laissez-faire was the best policy for a country to sort out its problems. Laissez faire is a French expression meaning to leave to do or leave alone. The thought behind Laissez-faire believed that if left to their own devices, people in difficulties would eventually resolve their problems through their own initiative, rather than become dependant on an outside influence and therefore find their affaires out of their own control. This was the philosophy of Samuel Smiles, who in1859 believed ‘Whatever is done for men or classes, to a certain extent takes away the stimulus and necessity of doing for themselves; and where men are subjected to over-guidance and over-government, the inevitable tendency is to render them comparatively helpless.’ This philosophy was also adopted to encourage a free trade system that would regulate itself.
Another philosopher of the day, Jeremy Bentham, believed that if one followed a system of laissez faire and free trade ensued then it would naturally follow that the majority of people would also benefit. He supposed that the optimum society would bring happiness to the majority of the population.
Opposers to the laissez faire system argued that it was a system bias to the rich. They claimed that capitalists would benefit and become richer at the expense of the working class. This is exactly what did result as Britain became more and more industrialized. Although industrialization meant production was greatly increased, conditions of the workers in the factories and the living conditions lagged greatly behind and their health began to suffer which in turn had a knock on affect on their working abilities and it was clear that if something was not done to improve the situation, production would suffer as a result.
By the mid-Victorian era, the idea of laissez faire was being abandoned and many people wanted the government to step in to try to ease the problems. The government became increasingly more involved with the social issues of the land, but the responsibility lay with the local authorities and not with central government, so conditions could vary greatly from borough to borough. In the past, taxes had been introduced to raise money to finance wars, but now the government felt increasing responsibility to improve public facilities, employee working conditions, sewage works, better housing etc.
It has been argued that the government only gained a conscience of social awareness out of greed, as they realized that the profits and the gains of industrialization could be in jeopardy if the workforce became increasingly ill and unable to work efficiently.
Whatever the reasons for abolishing the laissez faire system of running the country, it is clear that it didnt work in all spheres. If the government wanted the economy to look after itself, it realized that the workforce needed to also be looked after and that this did not happen on its own, or at least not if that same workforce was working unreasonable hours. Someone had to take responsibility and adopt a duty to care. This duty was taken up by the government and laissez faire was left undone until Mrs Thatcher decided that she would like to give it another try in 1989.
britain’s world dominance
Throughout the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), the United Kingdom was the world’s leading power. Its naval supremacy was unchallenged and its dominant influence in diplomacy and international power broking acknowledged on all sides. However, it was the strength of Britain’s economy, which underpinned this pre-eminence. Britain had progressed from Napoleon’s dismissive ‘nation of shopkeepers’ into ‘the workshop of the world’ on the back of the world’s first industrial revolution. Moreover, its control of international trade routes and its dominance of the financial services ensured that – for a while at least – the country could withstand the challenge of other newly industrial nations in the second half of the queen’s reign. Why was the UK, a small nation inconveniently situated at the northwest fringes of Europe, so dominant for so long? There are many answers but, by the 1860s, it was almost an article of faith that the nation thrived because of laissez-faire.
Understanding the term ‘laissez-faire’
Laissez-faire, a French term, means ‘leave to do’ or ‘leave alone’. It relates to policies which rely on the power of unregulated markets to deliver the goods. These were secure economic growth, high levels of unemployment and international competitiveness. Applied to social policy, it indicates minimal government involvement. Left to their own devices, according to this argument, people will develop habits of sturdy self-reliance. However, if they are supported by the state, people rapidly sink into a mode of dependency. As Samuel Smiles, the greatest propagandist of the self-help ideal, put it in 1859: ‘Whatever is done for men or classes, to a certain extent takes away the stimulus and necessity of doing for themselves; and where men are subjected to over-guidance and over-government, the inevitable tendency is to render them comparatively helpless.’
It was to these ideals of self-help and sturdy independence that Margaret Thatcher looked when, as Britain’s prime minister from 1979 to 1990, she sought to revive the country’s flagging fortunes. She called for a return to ‘Victorian values’ – by which she meant rolling back the powers of the state, lowering levels of direct taxation and encouraging people to stand on their own feet. Thatcher also aimed to make Britain a more competitive trading nation. Here, she invoked the spirit of the Scottish political economist Adam Smith, whom she considered to be the high priest of free trade. Smith’s famous book Wealth of Nations (1776) had advocated removing the tariffs, customs and other restrictions which nations traditionally used to advantage their own goods. Embracing free trade would encourage producers and traders. It would stimulate competitiveness and innovation. From the ensuing economic growth, everyone would benefit.
Laissez-faire in Victorian Britain: a paradox?
Smith’s ideas became dominant over the next century. His disciples and successors persuaded senior politicians like George Canning, Robert Peel and William Gladstone of the virtues of free trade and low taxation. In the 1860s and 1870s, the age of Gladstone and Disraeli, income tax rates fluctuated between 3d and 6d (1.5 to 2.5p) in the pound. So distasteful did Gladstone find the principle of direct taxation that he even promised to abolish income tax if he won the election of 1874. He lost, and income tax not only stayed but flourished to become the mainstay of government revenue for at least another century. In 1869, though, only 2.1 per cent of all state expenditure went on government departments. The Victorian civil service was very small. Concerns about ‘centralisation’ and state power, which some critics voiced at the time, seemed ludicrously wide of the mark. One of our most distinguished historians, Eric Hobsbawm, has asserted that, ‘By the middle of the nineteenth century government policy in Britain came as near laissez-faire as has ever been practicable in a modern state.’
Mid-Victorian government, however, was much more interventionist in social and economic matters than it had been in the 18th, or indeed in any previous, century. The duties of 18th-century governments extended little beyond diplomacy, defence and warfare. Taxes were raised to fight the frequent wars in which Britain was then engaged but the welfare of its citizens was a local (and usually a parish) responsibility. If indeed, there was any state involvement at all. By contrast, and against the general assumptions of laissez-faire ideology, Victorian Britain was a country of growing state intervention.
Locating the problems
It was industrialisation that did more than anything to develop state involvement in what Victorians called ‘the social question’. The industrial revolution meant much bigger towns and huge population increases. Britain’s population was almost twice as large in 1800 as in 1700, three times as large by 1850 and more than five times as great by 1900. By that year, it had reached 37 million. Urbanisation and population growth combined to produce social problems on an unprecedented scale. As early as 1832, a doctor working in Manchester, J.P. Kay, graphically illustrated the key problems.
The state of the streets powerfully affects the health of their inhabitants Want of cleanliness, of forethought, and economy, are found in almost invariable alliance with dissipation, reckless habits and disease. The population gradually becomes physically less efficient as the producers of wealthWere such manners to prevail, the horrors of pauperism would accumulate. A debilitated race would be rapidly multiplied. Morality would afford no check to the increase of population: crime and disease would be its only obstaclesA dense mass, impotent alike of great moral or physical efforts, would accumulateThey would drag on an unhappy existence, vibrating between the pangs of hunger and the delirium of dissipation – alternately exhausted by severe and oppressive toil, or enervated by supine sloth.
Urban and rural squalor
So, was Manchester better seen as the triumphant productive capital of the world’s first industrial nation or as the ‘shock city of the industrial age’? Should the Victorians celebrate their world-beating industrial triumphs or quake at a modern civilisation threatened by numberless hordes of the dirty, the disease-ridden and the ill-educated. All potential recruits to a vast criminal underclass? Evidence steadily accumulated which confirmed Kay’s early analysis. Severe social problems afflicted all the large cities of the United Kingdom. By the mid-Victorian period, it was also clear that these problems were not confined to urban areas. Poverty and hopelessness abounded in rural areas now dominated by markets and profit and where the supply of agricultural labour was much greater than the demand for it. The Victorians were great fact-grubbers and they accumulated evidence about the health and morality of the nation which range the most urgent alarm bells.
The growth of the state
Another influential ideology, Utilitarianism, developed in the early 19th century alongside laissez-faire. Associated primarily with the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1749-1832), its central belief was that a well-ordered society should seek to secure ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’. In theory, laissez-faire could deliver that happiness for the greatest number. Free trade stimulated economic growth. Economic growth created more jobs. More jobs meant more opportunities for people to consume which in turn meant new market opportunities for producers and traders. A virtuous circle was thereby created and ‘the greatest number’ duly benefited. However, what happened when large population growth was not matched by substantial economic progress was horrendously demonstrated in Ireland in the late 1840s. The so-called potato famine killed one million and induced still more to emigrate in search of a better life.
In Britain the evidence of James Kay, Edwin Chadwick and the other Victorian social commentators also demonstrated the fragility of this virtuous circle. Without state intervention, the whole Victorian economic miracle might be undermined. The solution adopted was central government intervention to mitigate the most damaging effects of unrestrained industrial capitalism. Even before Victoria came to the throne, parliament had passed the first Factory Act (1833) with government inspectors to ensure that its terms were met. Employment of very young children in textile factories was forbidden and that of adolescents restricted. Employers had to provide at least two hours’ education a day for child employees. Factory legislation was progressively extended to other branches of industry, beginning with mines legislation in 1842.
Education and health policies begin to develop
In 1833, Parliament voted the first grant to support education for the poor. It was a very small sum of 20,000. This grant did not introduce state education but it helped the Church provide schooling. Yet within 40 years, the cost of state support for education had increased to 800,000. Furthermore, there was also a bureaucracy which ensured that state funds were being properly spent.
Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools were first appointed in 1839 and the first state-sponsored teacher-training scheme followed in 1846. The path to still greater state intervention was securely paved in the early Victorian period and led to the 1870 Education Act, which developed local board schools to fill up the gaps left by church provision.
Compulsory elementary education followed in 1881 and the opportunity for almost all children to receive free elementary education without payment of any fees was provided by 1891. Responsibility for state-supported education was transferred, as Arthur Balfour put it, to ‘those great public assemblies, the borough councils and the county councils of the country’ in 1902.
A distinctive pattern of government growth was apparent in other areas too. Stimulated by cholera epidemics and by powerful propaganda led by Edwin Chadwick, a Health of Towns Commission reported in 1844/45 and a Public Health Act was passed in 1848 which established a central Board of Health with some compulsory powers.
The device of a central Board with certain powers and local administration was pioneered in 1834 when the Poor Law Amendment Act replaced a discredited older system. The aims were to save ratepayers money and to discourage idleness in working people. The new Poor Law created in ‘the workhouse’ an indelibly powerful symbol of degradation and shame until the final and unlamented dismantling of the poor law system in 1929.
Laissez-faire and state intervention
So, in the light of so many examples of state intervention in various aspects of social life, can we still say that there was ‘an age of laissez-faire’ in Victorian Britain? Some historians have argued not, but this is surely a mistaken view. By the middle of the 19th century, laissez-faire was firmly established as the guiding principle in economic life. Furthermore, state intervention was grudgingly conceded and limited in its impact until at least the last quarter of the 19th century. The state intervened to prevent those greater evils which might threaten the efficiency of a free-trade economy and not to provide positive benefits for its citizens. Also, the burden of provision rested overwhelmingly with local authorities and not with central government.
Thus, the range of what local authorities might offer was massively expanded during the Victorian era. What either central or local government must provide remained extremely limited. At the turn of the 20th century, there was no housing policy; there were no old-age pensions and no national insurance schemes. For many English property owners, reliance on local solutions to local problems remained an absolute priority. The last word might properly lie with Charles Dickens’s fictional creation in Our Mutual Friend, Mr Podsnap: “Centralization. No. Never with my consent. Not English.”
Professor Eric Evans is head of the History department at the University of Lancaster. His specialist areas include the history of social policy, the inter-relationship between society and the political process and national identities. Recent publications include The forging of the modern state: early industrial Britain 1783-1870, (2nd ed., Longman, 1996), and The Birth of Modern Britain, 1780-1914, published in 1997.
Life was drastically changed during the industrial revolution. People were living in germ infested, crowded and very unhealthful conditions, much like their place of work. Children and women labored in harsh conditions, working long hours with little pay. The British Parliament stepped in and limited and controlled child labor. This sparked a rebellion. People, especially wealthy capitalists, wanted the government to stay out of its issues, called the laissez-faire system. Many people opposed the laissez-faire system, saying the capitalists would gain too much power and people would be mistreated. The laissez-faire system was disregarded after a few years.
Art changed with the different ideas of social Darwinism, the laissez-faire system and the industrial revolution. Romanticism painted emotions that they had no control over, such as love, religion, and beauty. It showed more of how people look at one moment in time. Realism tried to capture what was really happening, all the sadness and tried to make people work to change what was happening.
Socialists were reformers who wanted to construct a better life for all people. Among them, Robert Owen, an owner of a textile mill, whose reforms reshaped the working class. He raised pay, improved working conditions, and didn’t allow children under 11 to work. Directly related to Owens reforms, crime and disease rates dropped and life improved. Marx, also a socialist, stated the class struggle, the conflict between the different classes of people, had an impact on the changes that occur in history.
The Industrial revolution brought on more technology, wealth and power, but at what consequence? The people were living in filth, working unthinkable hours and being paid very little. The revolution shaped modern society to what it is today. As Rousseau said, “Civilization spoils people,” but did people spoil civilization by implementing machines to do our work?