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<   No. 4143   2019-12-11   >

Comic #4143

1 Death of Insanely Overpowered Fireballs: WE’RE HERE TO FILE A WORKER’S RIGHTS CASE AGAINST OUR EMPLOYER.
2 Disinterested Receptionist: Fill out this form.
3 Death of Insanely Overpowered Fireballs: She didn’t even care that we’re skeletons.
4 Death of Choking on a Giant Frog: Must have seen a lot of starving workers.

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I'm currently reading Volume V of Peter Ackroyd's History of England, Dominion, about the end of the Regency period and the subsequent Victorian era. Around the 1830s, when Victoria became Queen, was the early Industrial Revolution, when steam power and mechanised factories began to proliferate across England. The people working in many of the factories were subject to appalling conditions.

One thing that stopped me in my tracks as I was reading was that the English Parliament debated several bills designed to protect the rights of workers (called the Factory Acts). One in particular was a bill to ban factory workers under the age of 9, and to limit the working hours of older children to a maximum of 12 hours per day. This was not seen as a sure thing - the bill was actually controversial and opposed by many people. And when it was passed, it was more or less ignored by the factory managers, because there were no resources to police it.

This was also a time when the lower classes were under increasing financial pressure due to the high price of food, resulting in many people living in abject poverty and disease-ridden conditions. The high cost of food was caused by the so-called Corn Laws, which imposed heavy tariffs on imported grain, in an attempt to protect the livelihood of the local English farmers, and so indirectly the incomes of the rich land-owning class. Opposition to the Corn Laws built up steadily throughout the 1820s and 30s... and 40s, as the starving poor began to get more desperate and some of the people in politics argued that it might be a good idea to reduce the price of food to a point where most people could actually afford it. But the ruling rich land-owners in Parliament resisted for decades.

There's a reason the Dickensian era was so... Dickensian.


Simon Beard, who obviously knows more about this than I do from my one-off reading, writes:

One point I was surprised you didn't mention was that one of the reasons why the Factory Acts and Corn Laws where controversial was that they were being supported by different, and opposed groups. My understanding is that the opponents of the Corn Laws where the primarily Liberal industrialists who saw rising food prices as a threat to their profits because they would need to put up wages in response, and so wished to see these come down. The supporters of the Factory Acts on the other hand where largely rural landowners who were concerned that too many rural people were leaving for the cities to work there and that this was driving up rural wages, so they were keen to rein in factories, reducing the number of people they could employ and pushing families back to the countryside.

I understand that 19th century Britain was not entirely heartless, but it certainly is not the case that there were many social-minded reformers who supported both measures and were being opposed by 'the rich', rather two groups of wealthy people were trying to use the state's power to do what they felt would make them even richer. The first mass movement in the UK, the People's Charter of 1838, managed to mobilise a full third of the country's population behind it, by far the largest group of any political movement ever, calling largely for political rather than economic reforms because the poor working classes simply could not get a word in edgeways at the time.

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