A Deeper Look into the Victorian Era

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“Poverty, disease, and exposure to unsanitary working conditions were huge problems during the Victorian era. The industrial revolution was a major factor of these problems. It also caused the social classes to divide based on their wealth and social lives. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was important figure during these times because she recognized these horrible conditions and brought attention to them through Victorian literature. Browning studied government and knew that they needed to take action against these problems, yet they were doing nothing. Therefore, she showed a reflection of the dangerous conditions going on in the factories in “the report of the Royal Commission on the Employment of Children and Young Adults in Coal Mines and Factories.” In addition, she wrote many poems such as “The Cry of The Children” which I will be referring to throughout the paper. Her focus in the poem is to bring exposure and raise awareness. Her poem was devoted to child labor and is “a manifestation of the fight against child exploitation and rendering of social legal protection against child abuse and political cover.” She demands justice for the working class and most importantly children and the abuse they have been through. In this paper I am arguing how Elizabeth Barrett brought awareness to the dangerous conditions of industrialization during the Victorian era and how it impacted children in industrial societies’ and each social class especially the working class.

The industrial revolution first began during the Neolithic revolution but later made a huge transition and impact in the late 18th century in England. “It’s increased material life, extended material wealth, and was a revolutionary experience.” There was also a huge boost in technology. For instance, inventions such as the steam engine, railways, steamboats, and factories were created which caused a rapid rise in the economy. Trade and industry were developed and were rapidly increasing. However, before the industrial revolution farming was how people produced their own products and goods. Child labor was not uncommon during this time period, it was first introduced in the medieval era. Fathers often had their children work on their family farms by planting seeds and working with animals. They helped around the house and even helped the families’ enterprise. Also, there was no such thing as unemployment during this time period because peasants were not hired. They were farmers that “belonged to the landlords.” Peasants were not getting paid therefore they could not be considered employed or unemployed.

However, as soon as industrialization began unemployment became a huge problem because the population was rising rapidly, and the economy was changing drastically. Young Jin states that “the industrial revolution brought some social problems which were never existed in the past. Polarization of wealth, sanitation trouble in city, labor exploit, and unemployment were new social problems.” Many people began moving to urban areas in search of employment. Industrialization had a huge impact on the lives of people. Some people benefited greatly and became wealthy, but others were living in horrendous conditions and were not making much income to support their families. For instance, many families had both women and their children working in factories because they needed more money. This led to dangerous situations for both the mothers and the children because of the diseases and unsanitary conditions in the factories. It caused child labor to boom specifically because owners of factories wanted their workers to work long hours for low pay which led to the worst kind of child abuse. It often led to death and deformities of children.

Child labor was a huge issue during this era. There were children as young as three working in these factories. Child labor was in demand after the industrial revolution therefore many of these children never went to school and never had an education. Statistics taken in 1840 show that “only twenty percent of children in London were educated.” Therefore, many of these children were working instead of going to school. Poverty was cruel during this time because many families in the working class struggled to make ends meet. This led to high fertility rates during this time period because mothers would have as much as ten children just so they could make more money for their family. Children were always getting hired because of the advantages that came with their employment. EH states that “Since industrialization called for cheap labor,” they were good for hire and were “ideal workers because they were obedient, submissive, likely to respond punishment and unlikely to form unions.” They were forced to work long hours yet were only getting paid a fraction compared to what an adult would get and sometimes they did not even get paid. They were also forced to do tasks that caused them to get seriously injured, they would lose their fingers and limbs and sometimes they were even killed. For example, they were forced to go into tight spaces which would sometimes lead them to suffocate.

Elizabeth Barret browning was trying to raise public awareness and attention to these problems with her work. She “tackled the issue of sociopolitical reform in the realm of Victorian literature.” Browning used her work to expose issues such as child labor, women’s rights, and slavery. Browning was exposed to the horrible conditions that occurred in the factories and was so affected by it that decided to peacefully protest through her poem to describe the horror she saw. She felt strongly about these issues especially because of the injustice the children were going through. She was against the conditions that industrialization was causing. For example, some of her concerns were over “the lack of the basic facilities of safety, bad and poor food as well as the expansion of slum areas where they lived.” Therefore, she expressed her feelings and reflected her thoughts of child labor through her poem “The Cry of The Children.”

She was trying to reach her wealthy audience, specifically the women, because she wants to provoke them and appeal to their emotions by making them understand the cruelty that these children went through every day. For example, she starts off the first stanza by stating “do ye hear the children weeping, o my brothers, ere the sorrow comes with years? They are leaning their young heads against their mothers, and that cannot stop their tears…” Browning was using rich imagery to catch her readers attention and describe the horrific conditions that the children were going through. She was trying to get her readers to see that this kind of labor was a form of child abuse. Also, in a way she was blaming the parents for making their children work in these conditions and suffer through this abuse. She was shining the truth on the fact that instead of these children having normal childhoods they were forced to work in coal mines and struggled daily to have a happy life.

In the fourth stanza Browning describes the death of a little girl by using vivid images to shed light on the true unsafe conditions that go on in these factories. She states “little Alice died last year her grave is shapen like a snowball, in the rime….could we see her face, be sure we should not know her or the smile has time for growing in her eyes…” Browning was using this statement to emphasize the heartlessness of the employers and their unconcern for these children. The children were suffering so much that death was the only peace that they could find. By stating that the children would rather die than be working in these horrible conditions Browning was demonstrating the seriousness of the situation. Also, when Barrett states “the young flowers are blowing toward the west./ But the young, young children, O my brothers,/ they are weeping bitterly!/ they are weeping in the playtime of the others,/ in the country of the free. (Browning 8-12) she was displaying the situations that these children were facing during the Victorian era, particularly due to the industrial revolution. She is “urging and protesting that children are weeping, and they cannot stop their tears while animals are running freely and birds are singing and playing…in this country where, we claim that it is free country.”

Barrett’s poem had a huge effect on many people. It caused an uproar in the community and protests started to occur. Ahmed Saeed Adam states that “many public organizations took actions and made objections against this act.” Browning managed to open the eyes of people and made them see the horrible consequences that the industrial revolution brought to these children. It made people angry and made them understand what goes on behind closed doors. In fact, in the last stanza Browning states “how long, O cruel nation, will you stand, to move the world, on a child’s heart…” She cleverly wrote this line into the poem, so it has a stronger effect on the reader’s and for it to make them want to act. It took most of the nineteenth century for the government to take legal action. However, when the government did act, they came up with the “ten hours” bill which was an influenced by Browning’s poem. The bill limited women and children’s hours to only work ten hours a day. On the other hand, there were people that opposed because they thought that if it became a law “the industries would not operate long enough.” Meanwhile, browning had already influenced activists, and they were protesting and using their platform to act against child labor. In due time the bill eventually became a law in 1848.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning recognized the separation that occurred between the social classes and “wrote about the gulf she saw widen between the poor and the rich.” But before the industrial revolution there were two major classes. They were known as the nobles which was the upper class and the peasants who were the working classes. However, when the industrial revolution began, the middle class emerged. The revolution played a significant role in the divide of the social classes and impacted all their lives especially the working class. According to Nora Cawley, Browning “studied the formation of society, beginning with its individuals who formed the various groups which later grew into the border social division of classes.” The social classes were divided into three different groups. There was the upper class, middle class, and the working class who suffered the most. The upper and the middle class did not have it as hard as the working class. The upper class was the wealthiest class, they inherited their money from their family. They were composed of businessman, such as shop, factory owners, doctors, and lawyers. They were superficial and their appearance was important to them they were what is known as “aristocratic Victorians.” They had a fine and easy life they were fortunate enough to have maids, nannies, and servants.

The middle class emerged during the revolution. They were “self-made entrepreneurs who used their new wealth to rise in society, building large houses, educating their children and employing domestic servants.” They started to get wealthier and just as powerful as the upper class. Cleanliness, discipline, morality, hard work, education, and good manners was very important to them. Therefore, it enabled them to have a similar life to the upper class. Unlike the working class their children were able to attend school and engage in “self-improving activities.” The middle class consisted of skilled workers who had enough money to survive. They were able to live comfortably just like the upper class who never laid a finger in the factories. In addition to all the money they had many of them moved from the cities because they did not want to be around the unsanitary and unhygienic part of town. On the other hand, the working class was weakened due to industrialization and they struggled to bring in a good income. They were living off low wages and the fertility rate was rapidly increasing. Women were the majority workers in the factories, in fact Patricia Johnson states that “working-class women field the industrial revolution making up as much as 60 percent to 80 percent of the work force in light industries such as cotton manufacturing.”

Although all these women were able to work, they were not making much income. Their employers took advantage of them and thought that because they were women, they could underpay them and there was nothing that could be done about it. This was becoming a problem for men because women were taking over the factories because it is better to have women that you can underpay than men who would have to be paid more. Therefore, the low wages that the women were bringing in lead them to have to use their children to have that extra income. This began a huge problem because the working conditions were horrendous and dangerous for both the children and their mothers. The working class were forced to work for fourteen to sixteen hours a week and they only made ten cents an hour. Yet they continued to work because they were in desperate need of money and if they did not show for any reason whatsoever, they were often fired.

They were surrounded by dangerous machinery that would spit out smoke that resulted in workers getting covered in black soot. They got many diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis, and typhus. Children and women even died of black lung which occurred because they were inhaling coal dust from the machines that they worked with. There were also many places where they worked that contained fire hazards and flammable chemicals that could cause an explosion even from the smallest spark. There were no safety conditions that protected them from all these problems. Many children also had deformities because they were working all the time and never got the chance to exercise or even see sunlight. They were stuck in factories for much of the day and had no childhood.

Citations

  1. Publication, TJPRC. “SOCIAL PROTEST AND ELEMENTS OF REFORM IN ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING POLITICAL POEMS: ‘THE CRY OF THE CHILDREN’ AND ‘THE RUNAWAY SLAVE AT PILGRIM’S POINT.’” Academia.edu, www.academia.edu/36503368/SOCIAL_PROTEST_AND_ELEMENTS_OF_REFORM_IN_ELIZABETH_BARRETT_BROWNING_POLITICAL_POEMS_THE_CRY_OF_THE_CHILDREN_AND_THE_RUNAWAY_SLAVE_AT_PILGRIMS_POINT_.
  2. “”The Social Impact of the Industrial Revolution.”” Science and Its Times: Understanding the Social Significance of Scientific Discovery. . Encyclopedia.com. 18 Apr. 2019 .
  3. WHKMLA : History of Unemployment in Industrial Society, www.zum.de/whkmla/sp/0910/ferrari/ferrari2.html.
  4. Cawley, Nora, “”The Basis of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Social Thought and Poetry in the Living Conditions of Early Nineteenth Century England”” (1941). Master’s Theses. 608.
  5. https://ecommons.luc.edu/luc_theses/608
  6. Accampo, Elinor. Industrialization, Family Life, and Class Relations: Saint Chamond, 1815-1914. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1989 1989. http://ark.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/ft8f59p261/”
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A Deeper Look into The Victorian Era. (2021, Jul 05). Retrieved from https://papersowl.com/examples/a-deeper-look-into-the-victorian-era/

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