A History of Work

By Tim Lambert

Work in Pre-Industrial Britain

Before the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century and 19th century, most people worked as farmers. Only a small minority of people worked in industry.

Most of the Celts, who lived in Britain from 650 BC onward were farmers although were also many skilled craftsmen. Some Celts were blacksmiths (working with iron), bronze smiths, carpenters, leather workers, and potters. (The potter’s wheel was introduced into Britain c.150 BC). Celtic craftsmen also made elaborate jewellery of gold and precious stones. Furthermore, objects like swords and shields were often finely decorated. The Celts decorated metal goods with enamel. The Celts also knew how to make glass and they made glass beads.

Roman Britain was also an agricultural society where most men made their living from farming (although there were many craftsmen). Only a small minority of the population (probably around 10%) lived in towns.

Anglo-Saxon England was a very different place from what it is today. It was covered by forest. Wolves prowled in them and they were a danger to domestic animals. The human population was very small. There were perhaps one million people in England at that time.

Almost all of them lived in tiny villages – many had less than 100 inhabitants. Each village was mainly self-sufficient. The people needed only a few things from outside like salt and iron. They grew their own food and made their own clothes.

On a Saxon farm, up to 8 oxen pulled plows, and fields were divided into 2 or sometimes 3 huge strips. One strip was plowed and sown with crops while the other was left fallow.

The Saxons grew crops of wheat, barley, and rye. They also grew peas, cabbages, parsnips, carrots, and celery. They also ate fruit such as apples, blackberries, raspberries, and sloes. They raised herds of goats, cattle and pigs, and flocks of sheep.

However, Saxon farming was very primitive. Farmers could not grow enough food to keep many of their animals through the winter so as winter approached most of them had to be slaughtered and the meat salted. The Saxons were subsistence farmers. (Farmers grew enough to feed themselves and their families and very little else). At times during the Saxon era, there were terrible famines in England when poor people starved to death.

Some Saxons were craftsmen. There were blacksmiths, bronze smiths, and potters. At first Saxon potters made vessels by hand but in the 7th century the potter’s wheel was introduced). Other craftsmen made things like combs from bone and antler or horn. There were also many leather workers and Saxon craftsmen also made elaborate jewelry for the rich.

In the Middle Ages, the land was divided into 3 huge fields. Each year 2 were sown with crops while one was left fallow (unused) to allow it to recover. Each peasant had some strips of land in each field. Most peasants owned only one ox so they had to join with other families to obtain the team of oxen needed to pull a plow. After plowing the land was sown. Men sowed grain and women planted peas and beans.

Most peasants also owned a few cows, goats, and sheep. Cows and goats gave milk and cheese. Most peasants also kept chickens for eggs. They also kept pigs. Peasants were allowed to graze their livestock on common land. In the autumn they let their pigs roam in the woods to eat acorns and beechnuts. However, they did not have enough food to keep many animals throughout the winter. Most of the livestock was slaughtered in autumn and the meat was salted to preserve it.

However, life was not all hard work. People were allowed to rest on Holy Days (from which we get our word holiday).

In Medieval towns, there were many craftsmen such as glovers, tailors, fletchers, barber-surgeons, tanners, needle makers, turners (who made bowls), skinners, butchers, bakers, and brewers. Often craftsmen of one kind lived and worked in the same street.

In the Middle Ages, it was not unusual for middle-class women to run their own businesses. In England the mystic Margery Kempe ran a brewery and later a horse mill, using horses to grind corn. Women married to craftsmen often learned their husband’s trade and carried it on if their husbands died.

After 1500 industry gradually grew but most people continued to live by farming.

Even children who did not go to school were expected to work. They helped their parents by doing tasks such as scaring birds when seeds were sown They also helped to weave wool and did other household tasks.

Work in the 19th Century

During the 19th century, the factory system gradually replaced the system of people working in their own homes or small workshops. In England, the textile industry was the first to be transformed.

In the early 19th century the textile industry boomed. However, when children worked in textile factories they often worked for more than 12 hours a day.

In the early 19th century parliament passed laws to curtail child labor. However, they all proved to be unenforceable.

The first effective law was passed in 1833. It was effective because for the first time factory inspectors were appointed to make sure the law was being obeyed. The new law banned children under 9 from working in textile factories. It said that children aged 9 to 13 must not work for more than 12 hours a day or 48 hours a week. Children aged 13 to 18 must not work for more than 69 hours a week. Furthermore, nobody under 18 was allowed to work at night (from 8.30 pm to 5.30 am). Children aged 9 to 13 were to be given 2 hours of education a day.

In coal mines, children as young as 5 worked underground. In 1842 a law banned women and boys under 10 from working underground. In 1844 a law banned all children under 8 from working. Then in 1847, a Factory Act said that women and children could only work 10 hours a day in textile factories.

In 1867 the law was extended to all factories. (A factory was defined as a place where more than 50 people were employed in a manufacturing process). An act of 1878 said women in any factories could not work more than 56 hours a week.

In the 19th century, boys were made to climb up chimneys to clean them. This practice was ended by law in 1875.

In the 19th century, many women worked as domestic servants. Many others worked at home finishing shirts or shoes. Some made boxes or lace at home. In the Black Country in the West Midlands of England, some women made chains in forges by their homes. Married working-class women often worked – they had to because many families were so poor they needed her earnings as well as her husbands.

In the 1850s and 1860s, skilled craftsmen formed national trade unions. In 1868 a group of them formed the TUC. However unskilled workers did not become organized until the late 1880s.

Work in the 20th Century

In the years 1900-1914, the economy was stable and unemployment was quite low. However, during the 1920s there was mass unemployment. For most of the decade, it hovered between 10% and 12%. Then, in the early 1930s, the economy was struck by depression. By the start of 1933 unemployment among insured workers was 22.8%. However, unemployment fell substantially in 1933, 1934, and 1935. By January 1936 it stood at 13.9%. Unemployment continued to fall and by 1938 it was around 10%.

However although a partial recovery took place in the mid and late 1930s there were semi-permanent depression areas in the North of England, Scotland, and South Wales. On the other hand, new industries such as car and aircraft making and electronics prospered in the Midlands and the South of England where unemployment was relatively low.

The problems of depression and high unemployment were only really solved by the Second World War, which started industry booming again. Unemployment remained very low in the late 1940s and the 1950s and 1960s were a long period of prosperity.

However, this ended in the mid-1970s. In 1973 there was still full employment in Britain (it stood at 3%). However, shortly afterward a period of high inflation and high unemployment began. In the late 1970s unemployment stood at around 5.5%. (It rose to 5.7% in 1976 but fell to 5.3% by May 1979).

However in the years 1980-1982, Britain was gripped by recession, and unemployment grew much worse. It reached a peak in 1986 then it fell to 1990. Unfortunately, another recession began in 1990 and unemployment rose again. However, unemployment began to fall again in 1993 and it continued to fall till the end of the century.

Meanwhile, in the late 20th century, a change was coming in the British economy, sometimes called de-industrialization. Traditional industries such as coal mining, textiles, and shipbuilding declined rapidly. On the other hand service industries such as tourism, education, retail, and finance grew rapidly and this sector became the main source of employment.

Meanwhile, in the early 20th century, it was unusual for married women to work (except in wartime). However, in the 1950s and 1960s, it became common for them to do so – at least part-time. New technology in the home made it easier for women to do paid work. Before the 20th century, housework was so time-consuming married women did not have time to work. At the same time, the economy changed. Manufacturing became less important and service industries grew to create more opportunities for women.

In the early 21st century working from home became far more common.

Last revised 2024