What was the impact of the industrial revolution on the men and women whose labour made it happen? This question divided commentators in the nineteenth century and whilst some found evidence of favourable outcomes for the working population, it was the images of dark satanic mills, Coketown, and naked children in the mines that proved to be most enduring. Bleak Victorian assessments echoed through twentieth century interpretations, and although the self-styled 'optimists' worked hard in the 1960s and 1970s to persuade the profession of capitalism's benefits for the poor, the pessimists' account of industrialisation ushering in very limited gains for the working class undoubtedly triumphed. More recent research has turned heavily towards quantitative methods, yet new and innovative studies have only served to strengthen the pessimistic account: an increase in working hours and work intensity, stagnating real wages, deteriorating housing and living conditions, falling heights, the imposition of new forms of labour discipline, all are reported somewhere in the recent literature. It is not of course that the work of the past few decades has been completely bereft of more positive assessments. Yet isolated regional, occupational, and gender studies that paint a more benign picture have been insufficient to up-end such a well-entrenched historical thesis. Hidden Lives turns to new material to consider an old problem, and argues that the standard account must be modified in a number of significant ways.
At the heart of Hidden Lives lie almost 400 life histories, memoirs, diaries, and autobiographies written by the labouring poor. By turning to records in which ordinary people described and reflected upon their lives for their own purposes it becomes possible to develop an account that contains many surprises. I demonstrate, for example, that adult male workers, particularly those in skilled trades and in (proto) industrial work, enjoyed opportunities, freedoms, and a personal autonomy of which their earlier counterparts could only have dreamt. This empowerment is revealed first and foremost in the sphere of employment where we witness fundamental changes in the relationship between master and worker; but it is also evident in the cultural sphere. Hidden Lives develops the concept of local power to explore how working men moved from the margins of religious and political action to take up a far more significant role in church and government (broadly defined). The process is illustrated by looking at how men began experiencing and experimenting with very small-scale local leadership in the final quarter of the eighteenth century- setting up village libraries, educational institutes, Sunday schools, trade unions, friendly societies - culminating in the building and leading of their own churches and the setting up and running of large, complex, national political movements in the nineteenth. Hidden Lives does not aim to discount the substantial literature documenting low wages, long hours, hard labour, and poor housing, but it argues that this account of economic misery must be tempered by an appreciation of working men's sense of their own empowerment.
Yet Hidden Lives is not conceived simply as a provocative and opportunistic revisionism. It also looks at how the advantages secured by working men rippled through the family unit. I show that whilst unmarried women, particularly in industrial districts, made discernible gains, these gains did not extend into married life on any significant scale: the lives of wives and mothers changed remarkably little throughout the period. And as working-class parents continued the very old practice of putting their children to work as soon as they could, the benefits of industrialisation for children were dubious in the extreme. What emerges, then, is not a restatement of the 'optimist' view, but a complex and finely-balanced picture of unevenly shared opportunities.