Industrialization’s Dark Side and Disraeli’s Solutions
Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, Britain was a rapidly industrializing country. Production processes became faster with every new innovation in technology, and mass factory production became a cheaper and more profitable method of creating in demand goods like textiles. Inventions such as Samuel Crompton’s spinning mule were so efficient that they rendered older hand looming methods quite obsolete (Vernon, 91). Yet, despite the forward progress of technology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the working and living conditions of the lower classes in Britain seemed to take a step backwards. Industrialization and the rise of capitalism brought about new forms of unregulated and exploitative practices that often aimed to extract as much profit as possible from the new working class.
Wages in the early factory systems were abysmally low while working hours were unreasonably long. The new plight of the working class did not go unheard, however. Some more well-to-do members of society, like Charles Oastler, would sometimes identify with and try to solve the social problems that accompanied industrialization (Neuheiser, Lecture 4/22). Benjamin Disraeli, in his novel Sibyl, does just this as he tries to illustrate the negative consequences of industrialization and to propose some solutions to the problems that plague the working class. Although Disraeli’s proposed solutions to remedy the plight of the working class throughout the novel are not actually feasible, he does adequately represent the negative effects of industrialization such as terrible living conditions and the exploitation of workers in British industrial cities.
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Throughout the novel, Disraeli manages to represent the exploitative nature of employment in factories rather well. As the earliest country to undergo an industrial revolution, Britain had no examples to follow and therefore had very few regulations on new systems of labor. Adding to this was the popularity of laissez faire economics, which preached that the government should not interfere in trade. This lack of regulation and parliamentary oversight led many laborers in the new factories to be exploited by factory owners, and oftentimes even led to inhumane practices and accidents. Child labor was one of the main vices of the new industrial system that people sought to address. Children, due to their small stature, were able to reach areas under machines and areas in mines that adults could not. Often times this meant that they were assigned jobs under machinery or in small dark areas of mines. Robert Blincoe, a former child laborer in a textile factory, recalls in his autobiography an instance in which he lost a finger to a machine while cleaning out the cotton waste under it (Vernon, 99). Disraeli illustrates the cruel child labor system in Sybil by describing how children often had to work twelve to sixteen hours a day hauling coal and operating levers and switches in the darkness of the mines (Disraeli, 122). It was not until the 1830’s that parliament passed legislation such as the Factory Act of 1833 that aimed to regulate industrial labor. While the Factory Act of 1833 dealt with some aspects of child labor, such as as the creation of an age requirement and maximum working hours, it was not enough to satisfy the population of factory laborers that were still subject to meager wages and long hours.
Even with new regulations such as the 1833 Factory Act, factory owners were often able to find ways to avoid the restrictions imposed. In his novel Disraeli captures this fact by noting how some factories required workers to clean machinery during mealtime, which served as a way to get around legal working hour limits (Disraeli, 85). Apart from work hours and child labor, factory workers and other labourers also bemoaned the low wages they were offered by factories in comparison to traditional means of employment. The previous “putting-out” textile system, which supplied handloom weavers with a modest income in exchange for their handmade products, would be rendered obsolete by faster factory processes. This resulted in tens of thousands of people to turn to low paying factory work as a last resort (Vernon, 100). Disraeli encapsulates this sentiment in the novel through the words of Philip Warner. Warner, a former artisan, was forced to abandon his trade as textile manufacturing became mechanized and rendered his handloom useless. Frustrated with his descent to poverty under the industrial system, he likens himself and other factory laborers to “slaves” of the capitalists who are treated worse than beasts of burden (Disraeli, 101). Disraeli’s comparison of the working class to slaves and his description of child labor provide a good overall representation of how poorly a majority of working class were treated throughout early 19th century.
Poor living conditions in large industrial cities were also a negative consequence of industrialization that Disraeli accurately portrays in Sibyl. Like with issues of working hours and wages, there were few regulations on city planning and environmental issues in early industrial Britain. As people such as artisans and rural workers found their work obsolete or unneeded, they were forced to find employment in factories and industrial cities soon became overcrowded with the huge influx of unemployed laborers. Living quarters, which were often rapidly built, were commonly in contact with open sewers and had no access to clean water (Vernon, 103). Disraeli illustrates the reality of these living quarters through his description of Philip Warner’s house as a cellar “without resources” and that the “sun never touches” (Disraeli 101,104).
Although Disraeli does not go so far as to state that Warner lived near an open sewer or had no access to running water, the description of Warner’s living condition sufficiently highlights the living conditions of most factory workers in Britain’s early industrial cities. In addition to the overcrowding and poor living conditions, immoral practices amongst the working class such as infanticide were common practice. Many families could not afford to raise extra children on their meager wages, and therefore had to abandon or kill infants. An 1864 British government report went so far as to compare the frequency of finding murdered infants to the frequency of finding a dead kitten or puppy in the streets (Meliora Vol. V). In the novel, the character Devilsdust is one of the few abandoned children who managed to survive on his own on the city streets. His experiences of sleeping among cesspools and dung heaps, as well as his description of the common sight of corpses and dying people of all ages, all seem representative of the overpopulation problem in Britain’s cities at the time (Disraeli, 86-87).
Environmental regulations also did not exist yet in this period. Soot and smoke from factories and industrial waste became massive problems for cities and negatively affected the health of its inhabitants (Vernon, 103). Throughout the novel, Disraeli notes the smoke produced by factories multiple times. He calls industrial cities like Mowbray “cities of toil and smoke,” with smoke clouds so thick they even blind out the rays of the sun (Disraeli 75, 121). His depiction of the smoke filled skies above industrial cities falls in line with how these cities were in reality. So much smoke was released into the sky daily that white trees in the vicinity of the cities turned dark with soot, and even prompted some species of moths to change from light to dark colored to match the new blackened forests (Cook, 661).
Crime, possibly a result of the abandonment of children and low wages, was also a problem in these industrial cities. In the novel, Disraeli depicts this through Sibyl’s race to find her father in the fifth book. He describes the back alleys of London as “teeming” with criminals such as pick-pockets, burglars, and assassins of all ages (Disraeli, 269). Without a sustainable income, crime seemed to be a lucrative if not necessary occupation for many. All in all, Disraeli’s depictions of the living conditions brought about by industrialization in Sibyl seem to adequately represent the reality of early industrial cities like Manchester.
In Sybil, Disraeli proposes a few solutions to the negative aspects of industrialization he describes throughout the novel. The recurring Traffords Mill is used throughout the piece as a representation of the ideal factory system. In contrast with the other factories depicted in the novel, Traffords Mill seems to be a lot more humane and fair to its workers. Ms. Carey describes the Traffords as “kind people” and the Traffords Mill as a great place for people to work (Disraeli, 79). Innovations that Disraeli attribute to the Traffords Mill include both underground and above ground ventilation, a single chamber in which all factory processes took place, a village for workers that included wells and baths with clean water as well as a church and school (Disraeli 157-158). Disraeli also notes that in the Traffords Mill and the village spawned by it crime and drunkenness were virtually non-existent (Disraeli, 158). While Disraeli’s description of the Traffords Mill represents the ideal factory system, such a system is still just an ideal one unlikely to be applied in reality.
In a capitalist system, the costs of implementing such measures and designs in an actual factory are economically infeasible and therefore are not able to compete at a similar level to factories that forego them. In fact, Disraeli’s description of the Trafford Mill seems uncannily similar to Robert Owen’s factory system, which included many of the same innovations that Disraeli’s Trafford Mill employed. Owen’s factory system included free medical care and schooling for children, low tolerance for crime and drunkenness, and decent living quarters and fair working conditions much akin to the Trafford Mill (Davidson, 64). Yet despite the success of Owen’s system few copied his methods because it was still just more profitable to keep wages low and living conditions poor. Without actual enforceable regulations from the government, a grand majority of owners would do whatever they can to increase profits and minimize costs.
Another point that Disraeli brings up in his novel, while not necessarily a solution to any problems on its own, is the necessity of the aristocracy in initiating social reform. In other words, Disraeli advocates a strictly top-down model of change rather than a bottom-up model. He shows this through Egremont’s dialogue with Sibyl in London, where Egremont suggests that the aristocracy were the “[only] natural leaders of the people” and that “the people can never be strong” (Disraeli, 238).
With this Disraeli implies in a rather condescending way that the aristocracy knows the needs of the people better than the people themselves. While parliamentary commissions such as the Sadler Commission helped pass legislation that alleviated some negative consequences of industrialization, the fact remains that throughout the nineteenth century living conditions in industrial cities continued to be poor. In addition, the “reforms” passed by the aristocratic parliament were not always well made or well received by the working class. One such example of this would be the New Poor Law of 1834, which established prison-like workhouses for the poor to work in. Those working in the workhouses were often paid less than what they would get if they were working elsewhere, and this led to the widespread discontent of the working class who likened the workhouses to “English Bastilles” (Vernon, 133; Neuheiser, Lecture 2/19).
In conclusion, Disraeli’s novel accurately represents the reality of the negative effects of industrialization on the working class. His novel vividly illustrates the horrid conditions in industrial cities and the exploitative nature of factory labor in mid-nineteenth century Britain. Through the narratives and actions of characters like Egremont, Sibyl, Gerard, Morley, Devilsdust and others, we are able to reconstruct a rather accurate depiction of industrial Britain at the time with all of its shortcomings. Even though the solutions Disraeli proposes were not realistic enough to be practical in a capitalist society, his comparison of the Trafford Mill and other factories in the novel further inspires the sentiment that factory systems can be optimized for the welfare of workers and successful at the same time.