Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution, by Emma Griffin

Pat Hudson on a treasure trove of accounts of working-class individuals enjoying new opportunities and choices amid change

August 1, 2013

This is a brave book that challenges accepted wisdom by offering a decidedly optimistic view of the impact of the Industrial Revolution on the opportunities, freedoms and choices available to the working class. Although Emma Griffin is at pains to point out that she is not trying to replace a pessimistic interpretation with its opposite, she nevertheless insists that if we listen to the voices of working people, expressed in memoirs, it becomes necessary to challenge the view, dominant since the early work of Eric Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson in the 1960s, that for the vast majority of workers, the period from about 1760 to the 1840s saw considerable immiserisation and, along with this, a restriction of political, social and personal freedoms.

Griffin’s new view is entirely dependent on a close reading of about 350 surviving manuscripts and printed autobiographies of working people. Such memoirs have long been recognised as an important source, giving uniquely direct access to the lives of individuals whose experiences have otherwise generally escaped the historical record. Since they were first used by historians several decades ago, many more memoirs, varying in length from a few pages to considerable published works, have been discovered, dating especially from the later 18th century, and from the 19th century when there was a vogue for publishing such material, thus increasing the chance of survival.

Autobiographies can yield the sort of rare qualitative evidence that can be used to question generalities

Autobiographies can tell us much about the living standards of individuals during the life course, the age of starting work, the nature of labour, the threat of unemployment, relationships with employers, geographical and social mobility, political, religious, social and personal life. Some contain information about courtship, marriage, procreation, familial relationships and friendships. They can thus yield the sort of rare qualitative evidence that can be well used, as it is here, to question blanket assertions and generalities based on aggregated employment, demographic, poor relief, anthropometric (height and weight) or wage data, all of which present a more pessimistic picture of average experiences of living standards, employment prospects, the scourge of poverty, class-specific mortality and disease rates, and the disamenities of urbanisation.

Autobiographies obviously require careful interpretation. There is inevitably a relationship between the purposes and intentions of the authors and the veracity of their narratives. More importantly, are these surviving works representative of the working population as a whole? They emanate from a self-selected group who were sufficiently literate and who felt they had something important to pass on to their family or to others. There are only a handful of female authors. And for many of the important aspects of life discussed in the book, the number of works relied on is necessarily much lower than the total number of autobiographies located, often very small indeed. Griffin is aware of these problems, which are discussed briefly in an early chapter, but she nevertheless makes strong claims on the basis of slender evidence, particularly when discussing change over time in such matters as sexual and intergenerational relationships, because the survival of memoirs from the earlier 18th century is poor.

Apart from some coy and colloquial analysis of sexual behaviour, Liberty’s Dawn is at its best in synthesising and relaying a mass of first-hand accounts that provide a wealth of personal detail. Evidence of cultural changes, of growing political, educational and religious confidence, and of greater individual freedom in decision-making about migration, courtship and marriage is of great interest. The latter adds weight to a long-standing critique of the idea of an unchanging relationship between nuptiality and real wages, and endorses important arguments about the cultural and social as well as the economic transformations under way during the classic Industrial Revolution period. (Why else would the age of marriage fall at the same time as illegitimacy rates were rising?) Griffin’s repeated arguments against pessimistic accounts of changes in living standards for the masses, before the 1840s, are much more questionable because of the unrepresentative nature of her evidence. However, this book can be read as a treasure trove of individual accounts.

Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution

By Emma Griffin
Yale University Press, 336pp, £25.00
ISBN 9780300151800
Published 21 March 2013

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