Social Conditions in the Black Country during the Industrial Revolution.

(Just what was it like in our ancestors' day?)
Mick Pearson

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A Picture of England

The Eighteenth Century

Eighteenth century England saw revolutions in agriculture, religion and industry. There were rebellions in 1715, 1745 and 1800. The Americas were lost, but gains included Canada, India, New Zealand and Australia. There were four great wars during the century - Austrian Succession, Seven Years War, American War of Independence and the war against Napoleon. The threat of revolution in England was on many peoples minds, not least those in power.

The England of the "common" Englishman was not an attractive place. Life in the military included the cat o' ninetails and the press-gang, which kept the army and navy in check and fully recruited. Life was cheap, especially for the poor and those unfortunate to be in prison or the workhouse, this situation was rarely commented on.

During the century Parliament passed 23 acts regulating the slave trade, for example, the Treaty of Utrecht in 1715 committed England to supply 5000 slaves to South America for 30 years; in 1748 the contract was renewed. The church of the day seemed indifferent to the human market, with a Bishop declaring "Christianity and the embracing of the Gospel does not make the least alteration in civil property, even when that property consists of human flesh and blood".

A magistrate once described the poor a "a very great burden and even a nuisance in the kingdom…..oppressed with hunger, cold, nakedness and filth and disease."

Crime and Disorder

Robbers infested the highways, the mob ruled the streets, smuggling and ship-wrecking was rife on the coast. Justice was savage, attempting to crush crime by imposing the death sentence for hundreds of relatively minor crimes. This was no true justice mind; the administrators of "justice" had often brought their judicial privileges.

The people of England hardly contributed to their own position, at all levels. The aristocracy were, for the most part, consumed by alcohol, crude, full of feuds and lovers of cruel sport. Public entertainment was coarse, representatives of different classes hated and despised each other, religious strife between clashing factions was common.

Justice was harsh, relatively minor offences often led to a sentence of death. Criminals were often granted reprieves and in many cases condemned prisoners requested they be transported rather than hang. Until 1776 many prisoners were transported to America, it is estmiated that about 40000 had been so transported.

The American War of Independence put paid to this form of transportation. This soon led to overcrowding in British gaols and led to the use of prison 'hulks' in various ports around the country

Prison Hulks in Portsmouth Harbour - Daniel Turner

These too soon became overcrowded and Parliament had to consider alternatives. Transportation was again considered, Africa was suggested, but found to be unsuitable. Eventually in 1787 a penal colony was founded in New South Wales, Australia.
(Criminal Ancestors - David T Hawkings)

Between 1750 and 1900 there was an increase in theft and assault, a gradual increase until 1800, then becoming steeper in the decade following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Small-scale theft seems to have been the most common offence.

Three quarters of offenders were male, with a strong concentration of males in their teens and early twenties (sound familiar!). The number of female offenders coming before the principal courts declined steadily. The increase in crime may be accounted for by the increase in population. Other factors may include an increase in personal possessions, urbanisation and capitalisation of property.
(Crime and Society in England 1750-1900 - Clive Emsley)


The population increased during the century from 5.5 to over 9 million, though it was difficult to find reliable figures before 1801, alongside high rates of mortality. In 1801 the population in England and Scotland was 9187000 (of those over 8 million were in England). The rate of growth increased rapidly between 1760 and 1800 (2 million being added in 40 years). The reason for this jump is probably due to a drop in the death rate because of slightly better diet and improving medical services.

The appearance of towns had to change to accommodate the increase, over-crowding was rife, tenement blocks and courts housed many more people than was healthy, sanitary conditions were all but non-existent.

The size of towns in the 1770s is difficult to pin down. The following are approximate sizes:

Birmingham 30000
Manchester/Salford 27000
Leeds 17000
Nottingham 17000
Hull 20000
Sheffield 20000
Northampton 5000
Bolton 5000
Bradford 4000
Oldham was a village of about 500.

In the same decade as the above figures London's population was put at a massive 800000, with Bristol the second city at 75000 and Norwich 60000. The Black Country was soon to benefit from the effects of the Industrial Revolution, which changed the statistics greatly, during the century towns such as Birmingham and Sheffield would see 7-fold increases, and Liverpool 10-fold.

The increase in population necessitated advances in farming to feed the growing population. Prior to 1760 England exported corn, but by 1800 could not satisfy her own needs. 10000 square miles of land was reclaimed for general cultivation.

Large families were the order of the day; the expectation was for wives to produce a succession of off-spring. Boys and girls married young, infant mortality was high, even Royalty suffered. Queen Anne had 17 or 19 children, but it is only certain that one of those children reached double figures; even that child died aged 11 years!

Socially there were major problems, yet great contrasts. Dickens "Tale of Two Cities" highlighted the violence, both in England and on the continent. By the end of the century Thomas Paine and William Cobbett shouted long and loud for an "Age of Reason" and the "rights of man". Both attacked politics, privilege (place and position), nepotism, corruption and so on.

Medicine also developed throughout the century, there were many quacks and charlatans, but the work of others saw the use of vaccination and the spread of infirmaries. Personal and public hygiene was very poor, knowledge of drugs was very meagre, with advances reliant on testing on animals and prisoners.

The Industrial Revolution was probably the most important factor, and one which saw the greatest contrasts. Industry moved from cottage to factory, following the invention of machines that were both dangerous to the people that used them, forcing people to work long hours, and leading to the increased use of child labour to help feed the ever-growing demand.

People did not move very far from home to shop. They bought shoes and ironmongery from 'cheap-jack' travelling vans, and food and clothing from 'Tommy Shops' kept by large employers of labour.
(Pits and Furnaces - Mrs Alfred Payne [1869])

The Blackcountryman

Much of the information contained in the section will have come from the archives of "The Blackcountryman" magazine. Details of articles used will be available in the bibliography at the foot of each article. If you would like to purchase either the magazine concerned, or a scan or photocopy of the article (many early magazines are out of stock) then please contact the author by clicking on his name (Mick Pearson)

If you have useful information or an article you would like to contribute to the section, please contact me, again via email, or write to the Society at the PO Box address on the contacts page.


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The Netherton I Remember (the reminiscences of Tom Mondon)


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