Monday, October 22, 2012

North and South: Unions

Guest Post by Dr. Ken Bugajski:

One of the central plot lines of North and South is the conflict between Thornton and the factory workers. Lauren and I thought you might like some historical context to fill in why there was so much animosity between these two.

For us, the idea of working at a factory is commonplace. Even if you have not worked in one personally, you probably know someone who has, and you can imagine what that sort of job might be like. But for Gaskell and for England, this was all new. The Industrial Revolution has its roots in the late 1700s, but manufacturing took off in the 1820s, and factories of the kind Thornton owns did not exist in large numbers before that time. So from the beginnings of Industrial Revolution to the time of Gaskell’s novel (probably between 1850-1855), there was large-scale change throughout the nation. 

The changes in industry sparked huge changes elsewhere. Between 1800 and 1850, the population of England doubled from 8.3 million people to more than 16 million. From 1850 to 1900, the population of England doubled again, to about 30 million. In Manchester (the model for Milton), the increase was even greater. In 1801, the city had a population of around 75,000 people. In 1850, there were more than 300,000, most of whom were drawn there by the possibilities of employment in the factories. 

Factory work, however, provided little income, as wages were kept very low, especially in Manchester. More than half of the factory workers in Manchester earned 4 shillings a week (or less). 4 shillings in the 1850s is equivalent to about $28.00 in 2010.

 Keep in mind, too, that there is no labor regulation at this time. If the factory owner says you get 4 shillings for working 12-hour shifts, 6 days a week (which would not have been unusual), that’s what you do. If the factory owner changes his mind and states that for 4 shillings, you’ll now work 14-hour shifts 7 days a week (also not unusual*), that’s your new job. If you don’t like that, you can quit—there are literally hundreds of men who will wait in line to take your place.

Further, prior to 1867, these workers had no realistic way to improve workplace conditions except through unions. You probably don’t want me to get into the tangled mess of voting rights in nineteenth-century England**, so suffice it to say that most factory workers—especially a man like Nicholas Higgins in North and South—would not be able to vote in elections. The political system was closed to people who did not own land of a certain value, and almost all factory workers fell into this category.

So what you have, then, in factory workers are a group of men who are working long shifts almost every day for very little money. They live in poverty and have no way to address what they perceive as unjust treatment. When unions were allowed (they were illegal prior to 1824), they became the only way workers could express their desires, and all the unions could do was strike.

I know I’ve thrown out a bunch of information here, and unlike my previous blog entry, this one only touches on North and South a little bit. What I hope, though, is that this information will help contextualize the dynamics of labor in the novel, especially the relationship between Nicholas and Thornton. *A 7-day work week was really the standard. If a laborer only worked 6 days, it was generally because his employer required attendance church on Sunday.

**If you do want me to discuss voting in 19th-Century England, just say the word. ☺


  1. Something that came to mind for me was the encyclical Rerum Novarum, written by Pope Leo XIII in the nineteenth century to address the issues of injustice for factory workers in the wake of unrestricted capitalism. I am not familiar with a great number of encyclicals, but I had to study this one when I worked in social ministries. From the little that I understand, much of our Catholic Social thought and doctrine originated because of these conditions (for example, tiny five year olds climbing up to work on dangerous gigantic machines and losing their limbs in the process!). I've always been drawn to Charles Dickens novels for the same reason. I'm sorry if this is a slight tangent, but I think it is so amazing to look at history for the people who stand up for justice. How awesome it is that our Church is always in defense of those most vulnerable.

    Something I wondered about was why Mr. Thornton has such a hostile approach with his factory workers (in the beginning). I would think since he understood the hardships of being poor himself that he would have been more compassionate with the people trying to earn a fair wage in such an unfair system. What was the best model of a successful factory/owner relationship at that time?

    1. Now I have to read Rerum Novarum, Julia! I love that our Church is always there to defend the most vulnerable. You are such a wealth of knowledge in that area!

      I think his relationship to his workers in the beginning is a mistake in leadership that can happen in various places. I can't tell you how many times I was told, as a beginning middle school teacher, "Don't let 'em see you smile until December."

      I never considered before just how the factory setting was a new one and I guess the closest thing to it upon which to model was the military. That would have been the only other system where you would have dealt with such large groups of people in some framework of order and productivity.

      In my personal experience, sometimes people self-made men are the hardest on others, for different reasons.

  2. I appreciate this information--particularly the contextualization of wages in today's terms.

    I teach similar details on working conditions in America during the Gilded Age, and one question I'm never able to answer satisfactorily for my students is this: Is the industrialist argument (that low wages are necessary for preserving a competitive advantage so that the factory can remain a viable business) a true one? Or do the terribly low wages only serve to line the pockets of the capitalists?

    Of course, supply and demand (in this case, huge supply and relatively lower demand) serve to push down wages... but was this necessary for the survival of the industry?

    In the US, we see the creation of the trusts and huge amounts of wealth, but I don't know enough about British history to know if there's a similar case. It doesn't seem so, considering Mr. Thornton, at least.

    I guess, to sum up this post of musings--the question at hand is: could the factory owners have maintained a viable profit margin on existing prices if they had paid their workers even a bit more? Or were textile prices so low that low wages were required?

  3. My thoughts, without going back into the book and pulling out quotes, is that Gaskell wasn't trying to take sides, per say, like politicians today take sides. I think she was trying to show the injustice of labor during that time in history, while still being sympathetic to the efforts of the mill owners. Maybe that is how she figured she'd get readers. If she completely bashed the masters, the middle and upper class would have never read her works and she would not have accomplished any change from her writing. She obviously has sympathy for the owners, too, or she would not have made Thornton the eventual hero of the story. In the novel, she does compare him to other masters who are very cruel and selfish, and shows how he tries to do what is best for the business, not going into speculation, etc., so as to risk his livelihood and those of his workers. And the changing relationship between Higgins and Thornton is a great example of "what could be" if masters and workers could come together for the good of the company and lives of the employees.

    Seems to me that the relations between Thornton and his workers mirror the title of the book - North and South - opposite sides of the same world. In this case, the mill, rather than the country. And the coming together of these two sides is another 'reconciliation' that occurs.

    Bobbi, I don't have a researched answer to your question - and I'm sure you know much more about the subject than I do :). But, it seemed in the book that Thornton was between a rock and a hard place: the strikes, the price of cotton, the fact that cotton was NOT linen or silk and they could not sell it at anywhere near those prices. But that is the book. I'm not sure how well that lines up with reality of the times. Ken? Should Mr. Joey Duhon chime in here? :)

  4. Maybe I can get Mr. Joey can chime in later:) I have talked to him about this before.

    Part of my fondness for this novel, along with my love for the city of Liverpool after my visits there, is the connection I feel as a native of the deep south. Not just as a resident of a state that was part of the confederacy, or a state that was part of the geographic south, but as someone who grew up in Plantation Country, in the Delta region of Louisiana.

    The first summer we went to Liverpool, I explored the library while Joey was combing through archives. I found an entire section about the American South and learned more about Liverpool's place in the slave trade and the northern English textile manufacturers' links to the south's cotton plantations. I felt a kinship with Liverpool as I explored some of her great buildings and monuments that were built upon the backs of so many unknown workers. It was similar to the feeling I had when I toured the grand plantation homes of my homeland. As the visible moldings, treatments, and gracious furnishings visible hid the less attractive hidden skeletal beams and messy cypress and mud bricks, so did the beauty of that era rest atop the unjust and inhumane world of slavery. No matter what progress the deep south makes, it will always be seen in the shadow of slavery and segregation. I felt Liverpool could relate in some way to that cloud of shame and guilt.

    In the area of Louisiana where I grew up, along the Mississippi River, prior to the Civil War, there were more millionaires per capita than anywhere in the U.S. Three bumper crops of cotton could make you a millionaire because cotton prices were going up so high. So, a textile mill in the time of North and South would have to deal with rising cotton prices.

    At the same time, the English were trying to keep textile prices cheap to build up market shares in places like Africa and Asia. In England and continental Europe, cotton was still not fashionable or desirable in the upper classes. An owner like Thornton would have been at the mercy of cotton prices and market conditions. As described in the novel, some owners took advantages in wages, but I don't think the abuses in pay were as pronounced as those we would see only decades later.

  5. Conclusion (didn't know there was a word limit!)

    At the time in which the novel is set, there was still more money to be generated from agriculture by the nobility who owned the lands. The wealth generated by mills such as Thornton's fictional one was not as huge in proportion to the wealth we would see generated from Victorian times to the start of the Great War. I'm playing loosey-goosey with that time description, I know.

    Eventually, the nobility and landed gentry--or just the umbrella title of the Upper Classes--began to branch out as there was more money to be made in manufacturing and business. We see this in the way investing--in its infancy-- is portrayed. At this point, it was a tempting, but suspicious activity and it makes sense that the nobility and gentry would have been last to come around to it, particularly the older generation. Skipping ahead quite a few decades, we can see in American businessman Andrew Carnegie, the suspicion for the stock market and investments he carried with him from his upbringing in Scotland. He only trusted seeing his money in REAL estate and business that he could physically touch and see. My husband always reminds me there's a reason why it's called real estate. So, capitalism was a different animal from what we see today and as the wealth grew in later decades, so did the greed that we would see in the latter part of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. There's a reason Chesterton and Belloc preached against capitalism left un-checked.

    My take is similar to Lauren's as to Gaskell's motivations and goals. Her perspective as a person living a few decades later, when manufacturing really came into its own and began increasing wealth, and therefore, greed, is what makes the novel much different from what it would have been if written during the same period as its setting. She was providing her contemporaries with a little illustration of how England had come to the place where the nation found itself, that place we see described in such vivid terms by Dickens. To begin to fix a situation, one must understand it in its entirety, including how the situation came to be the first place.

  6. Oh, and in full disclosure, I FIRST learned about Liverpool's connection to slavery and textile mills' connection to the American south on my trip. My history teachers in school did a horrible job! I love catching up on all I missed!

  7. We had a mission trip at St. Mary's to the border (maybe some remember it) called the Border Witness Trip. We traveled down to Weslaco and visited the maquiladores (factories) and spoke with the owners of the factories on the U.S. side, and then crossed the border to speak with the factory workers on the Mexican side. The idea was to allow students to see both sides of the issue and understand the complexity of the interdependence between the two. The issues were not black and white.

    I LOVE how Nicholas Higgins and Mr. Thornton come together in the end to work together - I completely forgot about that critical change in the story. I wonder how many factories were able to work towards that dynamic during that time. Can you see that I am still on Chapter 4?!!!


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