Labour History

Movement Publications

In 1834 Britain began to develop its own embryonic socialist theory through people like Robert Owen who believed in total social cooperation.


Agricultural workers also began to organise, much to the anger of landowners who were quick to seize on a group of agricultural labourers in Tolpuddle, Dorchester and charge them with sedition. They sentenced them to transportation. The movement was galvanised into action and in a few years their sentences were quashed.


The merchants and manufacturers class now gained ascendancy in parliament, and the parliamentary reform acts of the 1830-40s were implemented. Between 1832 to 1834 major transformations were made in civil and political law. The reform acts of this period transformed the way that society looked on poverty, women, sex and wealth. Under the acts there was no longer any outdoor relief for those who were unemployed, incapacitated or in some way not available to work.


Poverty itself became a social crime and outdoor relief lost favour to the new workhouse system. Workhouses were built on the highest point of land so they were visible to those who might succumb to idleness. The workhouse system was a punishment. Families were split up: husbands from wives, mothers from children. Using this logic, if the poor were intrinsically bad, it must mean that the wealthy were morally superior.


A much stricter attitude was also taken on so-called fallen women. Now they were to be punished: those who indulged in sex outside of marriage could be deemed to be morally insane and committed for the rest of their lives. The law interpreted any sexually transmitted disease to be the fault of the woman. Women who had such diseases could be imprisoned or committed under moral insanity. Soliciting for prostitution was an offence but the client was free from any prosecution. The early Victorians began then to rewrite labour’s history in relation to women. Women had always worked, from feudal times, on the land and had worked alongside men in the mines and elsewhere (the reason why women there were banned from working in the coal mines was not because of the appalling conditions but the fact that they were semi-naked). If this group of people could treat their own indigenous population so harshly what chance did workers in the empire have?


One cannot talk about the development of the trades and labour movement in Britain without looking at what happened during the so-called Irish famine of the 1840’s. There was no famine; in fact there was a failure of one crop – potatoes. Throughout Europe this drove the price of corn and livestock up, far beyond the means of the indigenous population. A political decision was made not to give relief to Irish farm workers and that the export of corn and livestock should be increased to meet the demand in the rest of the United Kingdom. Ireland depopulated from nine to four million in less than a decade.  Millions came to Britain and they had a profound effect on the development of organised labour from then on.

With this harsh attitude to working people, the hope that the manufacturing class would see the error of their ways of dealing with the appalling conditions suffered by women and children in the factories and cotton mills was not realised.  Indeed, their attitudes towards slums and social conditions became even worse. Many in the movement understood then that only they themselves could bring about radical change in society.


An Abridged History of the Trade Union and Labour Movement from the Industrial Revolution to the Present Day



© Labour History Movement Publications 2011

This Abridged History ©Terry McCarthy is available to buy as a book, price £7.99 + p&p.