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. ☺