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200 YEARS From Poverty to Decency


INDEX to PART 1 - Social Conditions

INDEX to PART 2 - Revitalize the Democratic Wellfare State

(Part 2 is on a separate page for your convenience. It includes "The progress of reform" - Robert Owen, Karl Marx, The Fabian Society, The Attlee Government   Back to Laissez-Faire;   What of the Future;   Overpopulation and Pollution:  includes suggestions for future policies and Sources.)


The first Industrial revolution started in Britain around 1776 when Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations.  A few years before, the spinning jenny had been invented and Watt's first efficient steam engine was built in 1775.

Adam Smith(1) believed that competition would lead to proper control of the market, he opposed government intervention, trade restrictions, minimum wage laws and product regulation. While Smith also pointed out the importance of morality and favoured anti-monopoly laws, this was ignored by the capitalists who insisted that child labor laws, maximum working hours and factory health codes were a violation of their rights, and laissez-faire became government policy.

Laissez-faire meant unemployment, low wages, long hours, poor housing, negligible education.  These in turn added up to disease, poor health and early death. It also meant riots and rebellions.  During the next 200 years the slow and tortuous process of reform took place which despite the interruptions of war, culminated in the Welfare State in the 1950s.  But by 1975, laissez-faire policies were again being promoted and the result has been more unemployment and bad distribution of wages.(2)


Many children worked 16 hours a day in terrible conditions.(3) The Parliament Acts of 1802 and 1819 regulated the work of workhouse children in factories and cotton mills to 12 hours per day, but these Acts were ineffective.

The 1833 Act permitted children aged 11-18 to work a 12 hour day maximum; children aged 9-11 an eight hour day, and children under 9 were no longer permitted to work. (previously children aged 5 and even younger were expected to work) But this Act only applied to the textile industry and not to other industries. These Acts were only introduced after extensive radical agitation and their provisions were reduced to the bare minimum on the grounds that factory owners could not afford it.

Owners of cotton mills collected orphans and the children of poor parents, obtaining their services for little more than the cost of maintaining them. Many industries were dangerous, such as iron and coal mines, and many died before they were 25. Gas works, shipyards, match factories, nail factories and the business of chimney sweeping were all dangerous. The results were illiteracy, diseased and crippled children.

In 1847 the 10 hour day was introduced for both adults and children. It was not until the 1878 Act that employment of children between the ages of 10 and 14 was restricted to alternative days or consecutive half days making some education possible. While Britain had a head start in the Industrial revolution, it was not long before other countries throughout the world developed their own industries complete with the same abuses of child labor as in Britain. These countries also have a history of a long battle by dedicated persons, who came often from non-conformist religions and later from trade unions, putting in place legislation to protect children from the greed of factory owners.

Today there are millions of children throughout the world(4) (but mainly in the undeveloped countries such as Latin America, India, Africa and Asia) who have to work, often because their families are so poverty-stricken that the childs meagre income is needed for the families survival.

Even in western countries(5) there are, today, many homeless children to be found in most cities, due to marriage break-ups and stress in the home. While many reasons are given for these problems, there can be no doubt that the increased unemployment and stress in the work place are the major cause.

In Australian cities, we have voluntary organisations helping to solve this problem while our government has reduced funding to all voluntary organisations.


In 1800 both men and women were expected to work 14 hours a day, longer in some industries. In the U.S. workers agitated for shorter hours in the 1820s. In Britain, the political reformers known as the Chartists(6) led a series of militant struggles for a 10 hour day. After the Chartists, reforms were mainly led by the Trade Unions. The movement for an 8 hour day started in Australia in 1856, later in Europe, by The International Workingman's Association, led by Karl Marx in 1866, by the National Labor Union in the US in 1866 and the Trades Union Congress in Great Britain in 1869. While some Acts were passed the 8-hour day was mainly achieved through Trade Union bargaining.
There was increasing evidence that productivity increased when hours were reduced.

In the Great Depression(7) of the 1930s there was much agitation for a 5 day week and by 1938 the 5 day 40-hour week was the accepted standard in most countries. During the last 50 years some places have a 35 hour week, some have longer holidays but in general there has been little change. In view of today's unemployment, the position should be reconsidered, bearing in mind the number of part time jobs now on offer, which might suit industry, but may take the average worker closer to poverty. Today employers are offering individual contracts, designed to tempt workers away from unionism. Tomorrow when employers have done some more downsizing and reduced the value of their contracts workers will realise that they must rejoin or recreate the union.(8)


Wages paid to factory workers at the beginning of the 19th century were bare minimum wages which were quite inadequate to pay for good housing. The result was serious overcrowding which, coupled with long hours and insanitary conditions, resulted in physical deterioration of the textile workers(9) (as reported by P Gaskell in 1833). The Chadwick Report(10) on Sanitary Conditions, 1842, made it plain that "disease caused... by decomposing animal and vegetable substances, by damp and filth, and close and overcrowded dwellings.... prevailed in the lowest districts of the metropolis."   The report also pointed out that of the 43,000 cases of widowhood and 112,000 cases of destitute orphans, most were due to the death, under the age of 45, of the head of the family, this was 13 years below the natural probability of life as shown by the experience of the whole population of Sweden.

"The Sewers of London"(11), an article on the Internet, details incredibly bad conditions due to bad drains and cesspits, often situated under houses; methane gas which caught fire and exploded. Epidemics of cholera took place in 1831, 1848, 1853 and in 1866. The great sewer system in London was laid between 1858 and 1865. Tuberculosis, (which accounted for a third of all deaths in England) diphtheria, measles, scarlet fever and smallpox all gave fuel to the environmentalist argument for social reform.

Scholars came forward to point out the merits of waste water systems used 4000 years ago at Knossos and 2000 years ago in Athens and Rome. While huge medical advances have been made in the last 200 years, it must be said that the major cause of improvements to health was the development of clean water supplies, efficient sewerage systems and the vacuum cleaner

National Health Insurance was first introduced by Bismarck in Germany in 1883, some other countries, including Britain, followed by 1911. More countries adopted schemes between the wars. The most comprehensive system, including Social Security as well as the National Health Service(12), was introduced by the Attlee Government in Britain in 1948. This scheme was based on Fabian research and has been adapted by many other countries.

The country which missed out on these reforms is the US.  Their Medicare and Medicaid systems only cover limited sections of the public.  Private health insurance companies reign supreme(13), but 40% of Americans have no health insurance.  Hillary Clinton tried to introduce a scheme but failed because of the greed of the Insurance companies.  If you travel to the USA you are warned to take out a large amount of travel insurance. Doctors and Hospitals in the USA will do a good job on you medically speaking, but they will cripple you financially.

 Today you will notice in the Australian press, owned by Murdoch and Packer, articles decrying our health service, complaining of waiting lists, inefficiencies, wasteful expenditure. They can no longer praise private health insurance companies as it is clear to all of us that they do not provide a good deal. The Government has cut funding to almost everything, not because they are concerned about an alleged black hole, but because they believe in a minuscule public service, in laissez-faire. Their concern is the right to make high profits so they reduce and privatise government service. They have sold a third of Telstra and they will in this year (1998) before the election spend part, but only part of what they previously cut. These concerns of the present government are completely incompatible with the idea that society should provide all its citizens with a reasonable standard of living, employment and a good health service, all of which require strong government and regulations.


Unemployment figures are notoriously unreliable, they usually underestimate the problem, and different definitions of unemployment occur from time to time. However the British unemployment data covers a period of 150 years and has similarities to other countries data. (See Ormerod's "The Death of Economics")(14)

Between 1855 and 1913 there were 8 peaks of unemployment which varied from about 7% to 10%, these were followed by troughs which averaged 2% to 3%. These cycles are large and the British society at this time was much closer to free-market ideals; workers had few rights, there was no maternity leave or redundancy payments. Claims by economists that workers rights must be reduced to insure full employment are clearly wrong.

In 1914 and 1939 there were two short periods when unemployment was virtually zero, showing that we can have zero unemployment when needed, but this would not have been appreciated by those whose lives were drastically terminated.

Between the wars unemployment went up, peaking in the Great Depression in 1930, 15% in Britain, higher in the US and Australia. The recovery was slow. After the second world war unemployment was low, 2% to 3%, but started to rise in the early 70s. This was a 25 year period of fairly steady conditions, but after 1975 unemployment figures of over 10% were again recorded and the following trough still showed 7% without work. Why was there low unemployment after the war?  There was no doubt a combination of reasons.-

  1.  There was a pent-up demand for goods and services which kept factories busy.
  2.  Under the Marshall Plan America made some very generous loans which helped many countries get on their feet (and allowed them to purchase US goods)
  3.  Most countries had economic advisers who accepted Keynes(15) advice to create employment by  spending money and running a deficit.

After 1970 Keynesian economists did not find a solution to rising inflation, and laissez-faire economists began to take over.  In America there was Reaganomics and in Britain there was Thatcherism.  In Australia Treasurer Keating, representing the New South Wales right wing of the Labor Party, deregulated the banks and started on privatisation.  The result was increasing unemployment, soaring interest rates and accelerating overseas debt.  All of this resulted in misery for the lower 20% and unemployment in most of the world up to the same levels as experienced in the 19th century.

The exception appears to be the US which currently has an unemployment rate of under 5% (if you can believe the figures). However you have to take into consideration that America has declining wages for almost half its workers,(16) and a poor system of unemployment benefits which cut out as soon you get just a few hours work. It also spends a lot of money on armaments, keeping people at work. Please note that those States which have no minimum wage rates tend to have a rise in unemployment, those States which have recently introduced minimum wage laws tend to have a fall in unemployment. This is contrary to the claims of laissez-faire economists.

Click here for Part 2
The Progress of Reform; Back to Laissez-faire; What of the Future?
Overpopulation and Pollution; Sources.

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