The rise of technology and industry
Photograph showing the construction of the London Underground's Central Line
Construction of the London Underground, 1898.View images from this item (1)
Changes to everyday lifeBy the 1860s, iron cooking ranges had arrived in most middle-class kitchens. They were a huge improvement on the old open fires, since they had built-in ovens and tanks for heating water. In the bathroom, water could be heated by gas powered ‘geysers’, which were terrifying to the user but a blessing to the maid who no longer had to carry bath water up the stairs.
All about the Telephone and Phonograph
Illustration of Queen Victoria trying out the newly invented telephone from All about the Telephone & Phonograph, 1878.View images from this item (2)
After the triumph of Mr. Jennings’s lavatories, at the Great Exhibition, public toilets known as ‘halting stations’ began to make a coy appearance in the streets. By 1852 there was one for men in Fleet Street, and one for women in the Strand, but they were slow to spread. The design of lavatories caused much head-shaking, until Thomas Crapper developed his new improved model: ’a certain flush with every pull’.
The textile industryThe textile industry was at the centre of Britain’s industrial expansion in the Victorian period. Technological advances meant that cottons, wools, silks and dyestuffs could be produced at unprecedented rates, and the results were exported around the Empire.
Cotton needs a humid atmosphere, to keep the fibres pliable enough to twist into thread. The cotton industry settled in rainy Manchester for that reason, but the weaving and spinning sheds were still full of dust and fibres, which irritated and damaged the lungs of the operatives. The factories were tightly packed with moving machinery, without guards. There were moving belts everywhere which could catch a woman’s hair and scalp her. A worker who leant over to adjust a spindle risked losing a finger or a hand, or worse. Children were employed to clear faults, and accumulated dust, from underneath the machines. They often lost concentration, or fell asleep, with terrible results. The appalling clatter of a weaving or spinning shed led to occupational deafness, that was taken for granted.
Leeds and Halifax remained the centres for worsted and woollen spinning and weaving. (Worsted is a cloth with a smooth surface, resistant to wear, used for men’s suitings. Woollen cloth has a softer ‘handle’. It is used for women’s fashions.)
Heavy industry: coalThe landed gentry made huge fortunes from coal discovered under their land. Coal-fired steam engines powered the booming economy, whether in factories or on the rail network. Conditions in coal mines were dire. Women and children were employed to pull the wagons of coal from the coal face to the shaft foot, because they were smaller, and cheaper, than a properly trained horse. Underground workings got very hot, so they often worked more or less naked. Sir Humphrey Davy’s safety lamp, invented in 1815, enabled deeper levels to be exploited, but it was adopted very slowly. Various methods of ventilating mines were invented, but none was widely adopted until 1849 when compressed air first became possible.
Between 1850 and 1880 the number of miners rose from an estimated 200,000 to 500,000, and their output rose from 30 million tons in 1836 to 44 million in 1880.
'Collier's Explosion in Staffordshire' from A Collection of Songs
Broadside reporting a colliery explosion in Staffordshire that resulted in deaths and injuries.
Ship buildingShip building still continued in London. Brunel’s innovative Great Eastern, made of iron, driven by propeller and powered by steam, was launched in Blackwall in 1858. But by the end of the century ship building and other heavy engineering had mostly moved to the north-east of England, the south of Wales and the Clyde in Scotland, where supplies of coal and iron were nearer.
Localised tradesSheffield was the centre for cutlery, Leicester and Nottingham for hosiery, Northampton for shoes, Birmingham for metalworking and small arms. Norwich had a small niche in exporting flat-packed kits of corrugated iron to the Empire, supplying the market for churches (known as ‘tin tabernacles’), millionaires’ mansions in South Africa and summer residences in Darjeeling.
LegislationA series of Acts from 1819 onwards imposed on factory owners the duty to look after the health and safety of their workers. From 1850 mines were regularly inspected. By 1850, women, children and young people could work ‘only’ ten hours in a day, and ‘only’ between six am and six pm, so night work was now forbidden in factories, and from 1860, boys under 12 could not be employed in coal-mines. In 1850 mines were regularly inspected for compliance with lighting and ventilation regulations. But legislation does not always bring about reform. Conditions in coal-mines particularly, remained life-threatening until the next century.
The Truck Act of 1831 was a long-delayed attempt to outlaw the practice of paying workers, not with money, but with goods, or tokens exchangeable only at shops nominated by – and often owned by – the employer (‘truck’). Despite the Act, the practice was difficult to eradicate until the Mint put more low-value coinage into circulation.