One of the greatest ironies of the arrival of the Industrial Revolution was that, while it brought technological solutions to many of the problems with which humanity had struggled since the beginning of time, it also exacerbated the gap between the rich and the poor, and it brought suffering to many in new ways – in particular, in terms of poverty, health and inequality. It took the efforts of such thinkers as Charles Dickens, who dedicated his writing career to the righting of social wrongs in England, to bring the plight of the poor to the attention of the masses, and to bring about changes in legislation. Without the efforts of Dickens and those like him, the privations that the Industrial Revolution brought into being would have exacted a far greater toll on those who were unfortunate enough to be caught in its cogs and gears. Changes made during the Victorian era, though, began to improve conditions for everyone.
The period of Industrial Revolution
While the Industrial Revolution created many different types of jobs, it did not create enough to soak up the pools of unskilled and skilled laborers who were looking for employment. Because of this, wages never had to rise to a level that would provide many of those laborers with a comfortable standard of living. In addition to low wages, there was also a small pool of available housing, which meant that the lodgings that were available were expensive. The result was buildings crammed full of families, as units designed to hold one family were forced to hold as many as four, as the ongoing poverty did not keep people from reproducing, and the population kept soaring at unprecedented rates. The large houses that had been subdivided into apartments to hold the families began to deteriorate, and the owners did very little to keep the buildings maintained, and slumlike conditions quickly prevailed. As a contemporary journalist described it, “Hideous slums, some of them acres wide, some no more than crannies of obscure misery, make up a substantial part of the metropolis…in big, once handsome houses, thirty or more people of all ages may inhabit a single room” (Daniels). When the Poor Law was enacted, opening up lodging in workhouses, the slum populations lessened somewhat, but that did not add to the quality of life for the poor, as conditions in the workhouses Children during this time period had no respite from a gruesome home life, because during the daytime, they were often forced to go and work in mines, factories, or as chimney sweeps (Del Col). Indeed, it was his experience of working in a shoe polish factory as a 12-year-old that first awakened the young Charles Dickens to the privations of poverty. The rest of his family had been thrown in prison because of his father’s debts, and it was left to Charles to work them off. If Charles’ grandmother had not died, leaving behind a legacy that would pay the debts, it is not clear how long he would have been working there. In 1840, only about one London child in five was in school; the other four were working. This increased to about 50 percent in school by 1860, but the practice of child labor was still widespread (Atlick, p. 77). They performed such tasks as creeping down into mine tunnels that would not fit adults, selling flowers and other items on the streets, running errands, crawling under machines to pick up pieces of equipment that had fallen off, or as apprentices to workers in trades. Some, though, were forced into prostitution, often as young as 15.
Conditions for women were particularly harsh. Because their entry into the trades was not permitted, outside of work as a domestic servant, they often had to work in factories. In 1851, the census counted 18 million Britons; however, there were 4 percent more women than men, which meant that 750,000 (approximately) women would not be able to get married, because of a lack of available men (Greg, p. 12). Because women were not permitted into most trades, there was a considerable debate as to what, exactly, those “leftover” women should spend their time doing, since they were not needed as homemakers.
Progress in health area
Health was one of the areas in which Great Britain saw progress during the Victorian Age. The introduction of anesthesia made painless surgery possible for the first time; the early anesthetics were ether and chloroform. On the other hand, because of the importation of sugar from the colonies, dental health deteriorated quickly, and so people needed more and more dental surgeries. The first dentures appeared, which were actual human teeth placed in ivory from walrus or hippopotamus jars. The actual teeth came not from the person who had had his own pulled, but from criminals who had been put to death, the dead from wars, or even purchased from those who needed money badly (“Waterloo Teeth”). Even more important than anesthetics were antiseptics, which finally started to put an end to the horror of surgical infections.
Overall, the Victorian Era started to right many of the wrongs that the Industrial Revolution had wrought. While many of these wrongs would persist into the twentieth century, the country was beginning to awaken to the horrors of poverty and inequality, and was starting to learn about ways to improve public health.