Why some social groups benefited more than others from industrialization in 19th century Europe?

Kristian Ola
  Category: 19th Century
The industrial revolution, a period of transition and innovation, inevitably brought with it changes. Life for both rich and poor was changed forever. A way of life in Europe was passing away, when the lord of the manor, independent farmers, servants and workers that had previously lived independently in a vertically integrated society were replaced by a city based society of segregated social classes. The population grew rapidly, and people found work in the factories of cities.

The industrial revolution began in Britain, which filled all the requirements for it to happen. As an aftermath of 1688 and the “Glorious Revolution”, British kings lost much of their power and influence to aristocratic landowners, who in turn sought to bring their own lands under greater control. This is known as the Enclosure Movement. This lead to two very important consequences; the land became more productive, which in turn lead to the agricultural revolution, and people who used to work the lands of the aristocratic landowners effectively became a poor, unemployed, new class of society in need of work. It was this class of poor that manned and worked in the factories that the industrial revolution brought along with it. They were ideal for the job, because they were in desperate need of work and would work for low wages. Although they were mostly unskilled labourers, it didn’t matter much since the jobs at factories required little skill from the workers. So, the factories had a big work force available at the very beginning, and this was not the case in other European countries.
Beet Field next to factory, circa 1907. Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Record Number  2001231
Beet Field next to factory, circa 1907. Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Record Number 2001231

As the Industrial Revolution literally revolutionized society, power and influence in Europe changed hands once more. The traditional aristocratic landowners had to give away to new entrepreneurs and manufacturers. This was because of mainly two things; the new “upstart” entrepreneurs and manufacturers were often wealthier than the aristocracy, thanks to their successful businesses; and they were also more important to the nation’s economic well being in general. They were also the major employers in most nations. Although the Aristocracy still held power, it had been diminished considerably in relation to the manufacturers and entrepreneurs.

In the early days of the industrial revolution, many European governments adopted the “Laissez faire”. This meant that individual entrepreneurs could work with virtually no government interference and pursue their own interests to the greatest extent. This policy would, according to economists of the day, help the nation reach its maximum utility. This meant that the factory owners and other major employers could really dictate working hours and wages as they pleased, and the workers were had little choice in the matter, for they needed the job. Towards the mid 1800’s, many laws that tried to protect the rights of workers were passed, and the rest of Europe followed the example set by the British.

The Industrializing nations in Europe developed large middle-classes in the 19th century, which in turn began to have considerable political say and influence. The workers, large in numbers, but minute in terms of political power, found their strength towards the mid 19th century and developed a counter-ideology of their own. The upper and middle-classes promoted an ideology known as liberalism. They wanted a modern and efficient government, freedom of speech and freedom of press, Laissez-Faire economic policies, for example low trade tariffs and free trade. They generally opposed workers unions, which were set up to strive for the interests of the working class. Socialism was born during the 19th century, and was the ideology of the working man. It promoted equal wealth and life in general for all. It saw the working class as being oppressed by the wealthier upper classes of the society, and was really the counter-part of liberalism.

People who were employed in agriculture and other “traditional” fields of work were generally the ones who were worst off. They had low wages, and many of them migrated to the cities in hope of a better life. Especially women and children suffered from the changes that the industrial revolution brought with it. However, things got gradually better for workers of all kinds, as the governments of European nations took a more active role in the economy. Minimum wages and maximum working hours were established and backed up by law. Many other laws that protected children and women from exploitation were passed. The first real “winners” in the industrial revolution were the relatively new middle-class and the wealth generating entrepreneurs. They gained power, wealth and influence at the cost of the traditional, landed gentry, who in turn grew less important. Although the working class, living in the slums of the cities that had experienced rapid population growth, were initially at the mercy of their employers gained from the industrial revolution in the long run. As living conditions improved and different protective laws were passed, they started to move towards a better and safer standard of living. During the industrial revolution, the role of women employees also became more important and more accepted. Eventually, women would be able to support themselves through they’re work and gained a whole lot of independence because of this. They did not need to get married in order to make a living, but could now work for their own bread. The landed gentry, or aristocracy, diminished significantly in power, but still maintained a high standing in society. They still exist today in some European countries as a relic of times before the industrial revolution.