What Was Happiness for Industrial Workers?

During the Industrial Revolution, the British working class lived in poverty and squalor. Their written testimonies capture those conditions — but also how they fought to find fulfillment despite their exploitation and bleak circumstance.

An aquatint by Robert Havell, appearing in George Walker's The Costume of Yorkshire (published in 1814), depicts an early steam train at the beginning of the industrial revolution. (SSPL / Getty Images)

How did industrialization impact not only the prosperity and welfare of the nineteenth-century British working classes but also their “happiness”? That’s the question that Jamie Bronstein sets out to answer in this book — not altogether satisfactorily, as she herself would probably acknowledge, but with a wealth of detail about the emotional lives of Victorian workers and their families along the way.

It is a brave venture into an area of history that was bound to be problematic, in view, first, of the obvious difficulties of defining and measuring such a slippery concept as happiness; and second, of the limitations of Bronstein’s sources, which are mainly the autobiographies and memoirs of contemporaries who may not have been fully representative of their kind. To do her justice, however, she is fully aware of most of this; discusses the difficulties fairly, with reference to the new scholarly field of happiness studies; and has made the best go that probably could be made of such an intractable task. The outcome is fascinating and — within its scarcely avoidable limitations — thoroughly worthwhile.

The main problem with working-class autobiographies is that few working-class men — and even fewer women — wrote them, and the fact that they did write them must mark them off from the majority of their class. They were literate, for a start, which not all working people were, especially early in the century, and usually upwardly mobile, sometimes socially and professionally — giving rise to self-congratulatory “rags to riches” accounts — but most different in terms of their intellectual aspirations. A number of Bronstein’s memoirists broke through the class barrier to become preachers (usually Methodist or Baptist), missionaries, scientists, authors in other genres, and even professors, which of course made them exceptional, and could have affected their recollections of when they had been poorer.

Most were elderly, which gave them a lot to look back on, but also a particular perspective to look back on it from. More rural laborers than urban ones wrote about themselves. There are very few accounts penned by factory workers during the course of their working lives, when of course they wouldn’t have had much opportunity. The paucity of direct evidence from women is clearly the most serious lack, although their absence is significant in itself. These qualifications must raise doubts about whether any generalized account of British working-class lives derived almost exclusively from this kind of evidence can be relied upon on its own.

And there are other possibilities. National, political, and local newspapers are one — a vast and unwieldy source, true, but now largely digitalized and so searchable. Another is contemporary novels, not many of them written by working- or ex-working-class authors, but some based on close and sympathetic observation of laboring life, and occasionally on direct experience. A couple of former boot-blacking factory worker Charles Dickens’s novels are mentioned briefly and one of Elizabeth Gaskell’s, but not in reference to the main happiness theme; and Bronstein doesn’t appear to have used Dickens’s periodical writing — of Household Words and All the Year Round — at all. These, with their reportage from the dwellings and workplaces of some of the more silent majority of workers, might have filled a few of the gaps — once we have made allowance for Dickens’s tendency to caricature for novelistic purposes.

And then there are the acclaimed “social explorers” of the middle and later nineteenth century: Henry Mayhew, James Greenwood, Charles Booth, Seebohm Rowntree, and even Friedrich Engels. These more thorough accounts of working-class lives should not be totally dismissed because they were written from a middle-class — or in Engels’s case, proto-Marxist — “improving” perspective.

The other major problem with this enterprise — how to define “happiness” — is one that Bronstein quite reasonably leaves to her subjects themselves. They knew what they thought made them happy, and in some cases how they could manage to appear happy when in fact they were depressed or even desperate underneath. “When mixing with a merry company” wrote a (rare) female memoirist, “no one could be more cheerful, for I had learned to conceal my own cares and sorrows, knowing well that ‘the mirth maker hath no sympathy with the grief weeper.’” Others admitted to putting on shows of “forced merriment . . . just to drive away dull care.” They also generally discriminated between things that could bring intense but only temporary pleasure — Bronstein notes that almost none of their accounts dilate at all on “physical intimacy” — and solider, longer-lasting sources of joy.

One Thomas Carter, writing in 1841, was adamant in discounting “the childish, trifling and irrational mirth which too frequently is dignified by the name of pleasure.” He seems to have been a dull bird. None of these testimonies appears to bear out Jeremy Bentham’s notorious utilitarian calculus that “prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value” in securing happiness “with the arts and sciences of music and poetry.” But that may only have been because of the selection of witnesses presented here. Being part of the literati, if only for a brief moment, put them above such “low” pursuits.

When it came to the matter at hand, childhood was nearly always remembered as the happiest time in working people’s lives, even when it was squalid and cruel, affording the simplest of pleasures: such as Samuel Bamford’s only child’s toy, “a tin can, out of which he ate bread and milk, and which he liked so much that he took it to bed at night.” (This recalls the celebrated Four Yorkshiremen British TV comedy sketch.) That was followed by the more relaxed joys of old age. Both of these were the times in most people’s lives when the weight of personal responsibility was lightest. “The morning and evening of life seem nearest each other,” wrote John Kelso Hunter.

“The middle part is more bustle and confusion.” During this “middle” or working stage, happiness was occasionally attributed to the work itself, especially when there was perceived to be a “good fit” between the worker and the tasks he or she was made to perform. Another teenager — they started early in the labor market then — recalled “what pleasure there is in running your fingers through your first payment for work!” More often, however, and more predictably, it was the relief from work that gave them the greatest pleasure: when the factory horn sounded at the end of their shifts, for example, or their Sunday day of rest.

Otherwise it was families and friends that made them most happy or — almost universally — the great outdoors.

The natural world provided much that was lacking in working-class lives . . . a sense of expansiveness, fresh air, commodities available outside the market, novelty, beauty. Many may have moved to urban areas in search of higher wages and better opportunities, but there are few paeans to cities, wages or opportunities in their recollections.

It was the quiet of the countryside that partly attracted them. (Bronstein has found one witness who enjoyed walking in towns, but he was “profoundly deaf.”) The cover of this book features a painting by the nineteenth-century artist Edmund Aylburton Willis, An Idyllic Day — trees, sheep, cows, and happily resting young boys — which says it all. If they couldn’t get out into these idyllic surroundings much, workers took pleasure in cultivating small gardens and allotments, and even growing flowers in window boxes. All this must be seen as an implicit reaction, even a protest, against the industrial — and hence “unnatural” — revolution that was now dominating and demeaning their lives.

On another level entirely, several writers claimed that their greatest joy came from doing good to others — “prosocial behavior,” as it is called here — or from being on the receiving end of such charity. That may be something that could be particularly associated with their class and condition, if it was true — as many claimed — that “charity was harder to find among the rich than among the poor.” Several religious writers maintained that the poor must be happier than the better-off for that reason. “You can have abject misery in a palace; I have seen rapturous joy in a slum tenement. Only by bringing one’s life into harmony with God’s will can one attain that real happiness which is independent of environment or circumstance.” That could be seen as justifying poverty and exploitation, which would have been reassuring for the rich, too.

By the same token, education for the working classes was widely feared to make them discontented by giving them “ideas above their station,” possibly political ones. This was one of the main reasons why nineteenth-century Tories were so much against it, and then endeavored to control it once it became compulsory. “The less a poor man is taught, the more happiness he will enjoy, as he is more content with his hard life,” wrote a “radical soldier.” One imagines that this contributed to the pretty deplorable “rote” school education of the time, which must be one of the reasons — together with excessive discipline — why young proletarians derived so little happiness from their formal schooling.

By contrast, writes Bronstein, “the same cannot be said of self-guided education, which autobiographers reported was a major source of happiness” — and, if the poet Robert Southey was to be believed, without necessarily making the autodidacts “discontented with their stations in life.” It was self-education — not school education — that inspired and nurtured the creativity that so delighted a small but significant number of these impecunious workers, and manifested in poetry, essays, art, and also, of course, in the creation of these very narratives.

Throughout most of the latter, there runs a consistent moral theme: that happiness was achieved more by adaptation to one’s environment, however unpromising it might be, than by kicking against it. Resilience, or “adaptation to circumstances,” was the best way of getting through even the hardest life. That chimed in with contemporary religious teaching and with the individualistic ethos that ran through much of British society at this time, to the benefit — obviously — of those higher up, in whose interests it was to keep the lower classes in their place.

Working-class charity in particular, or those “prosocial activities,” “helped to substitute for the lack of distributive justice.” “In my research,” Bronstein tells us, “I found that nineteenth-century working-class autobiographers expressed remarkably little resentment about structural inequality, and great gratitude for the opportunities they managed to cobble together” for themselves. “Much of the onus for personal success was placed on the individual,” and “few autobiographers assigned anyone else to blame for their predicaments.” That could be said to have distracted and diverted them from politics.

Exceptions include those memoir writers who were, or became, actively engaged in radical or trade union politics, like Thomas Burt, Joseph Arch, and the anti-socialist William Collison. All of whose careers were, however, rooted in the same prosocial attitudes — and sense of duty — that animated the best of the rest of them. They were less happy. Collison in particular seems not to have been motivated by happiness at all but mainly by anger — unless, of course, it was his anger that made him happy. (But isn’t that true generally of the Right?)

As a Rightist, one might have thought that he would have taken a patriotic pride and pleasure in his country’s doings abroad — “Wider still and wider, May thy bounds be set” — but there is little sign of this in any of these autobiographies.1 That might surprise those historians who insist that the British working classes were just as imperialist as their betters in the later nineteenth century but conforms with the present reviewer’s own research of these same materials. Bronstein examines other emotions than happiness in two later chapters, covering — in addition to anger — pain, illness, disability, poverty, sadness, and fear — all of them analyzed by period (early or late Victorian), age, and gender (she’s particularly good on weeping men). This provides some essential context to her broader happiness theme.

That is Bronstein’s sample of literate — by definition, or at least self-selection — British working-class men and women in the nineteenth century. But what about the others, the uncultivated majority who didn’t write memoirs, didn’t — perhaps couldn’t — read, and who, for these reasons, barely feature in this book? A representative analysis of working-class happiness should surely include them too: the men in their pubs and clubs, perhaps playing push-pin (whatever that is), watching football matches and fistfights, demonstrating and rioting; and women sewing, cooking, chatting, and suckling (or burying) their innumerable sickly babes. Which is of course how many of their middle- and upper-class contemporaries regarded the whole bunch of them, the “great unwashed” — but unfairly, as this splendid book shows.

About the Author

Bernard Porter is emeritus professor of modern history at Newcastle University and the author of several books on Britain and empire.