Optimist & Pessimists during the Industrial Revolution: An insight into the contemporary views of life in Britain throughout the Nineteenth Century

The Industrial Revolution, a time of technological advance where machinery replaced the role of man in the workplace, is and always has been of particular interest to me. Of course there are varying ways to observe during this time, such as noting the significance capital growth or the ways in which technology from this time contributed has to our lives today. However throughout my own research of the Industrial Revolution in a contemporary context, I have found that the political and socio-cultural impacts of the revolution are consistently intriguing, along with the detailed arguments surrounding the views of living standards at this time, with a large proportion arguing that the working class suffered, with an equal amount of observers saying the opposite. Each view presented by nineteenth century historians, reformers and observers is delivered in differing ways, allowing us as modern critics to understand the ways in which the people of industrial Britain lived.

“In the poorest London districts the men, women and children appear, on entering, to have abandoned all hope.” [1]

Firstly we are offered a pessimistic, or social view of the Industrial revolution from figures such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Jerrold Blanchard and Gustave Dore. Industrial pessimists have contributed to this historical debate, arguing against the ‘tyranny’ of capitalist growth, claiming that members of the working class were subject to squalor and poor health. Social reformer Edwin Chadwick in his reports of sanitary conditions from 1842 is extensively critical of the dwellings of the lower classes, supporting the pessimist view held by so many. Furthermore statistical reports were provided over extended periods throughout the nineteenth century, finding that overall wages, health and housing conditions were deteriorating, contributing to the vastly pessimistic views that existed. The following illustration, which is untitled is taken from London: A Pilgrimage by Blanchard Jerrold and Gustave Dore further emphasises views of the working class, showing a family distressed and lifeless, suffering at the hands of the revolution.


These Nineteenth Century views are provided from real life contact with the working class, however we can in fact identify such historians as being those with defined left-wing tendencies, particularly when referring to individuals such as Marx and Engels, who argue from what may be identified as a ‘radical’ ideology by many. Yet who were these views being provided by? Essentially it was socially concerned members of the middle class who throughout their lives had come to terms with the conditions that they saw and endured and attempted to insight change.

As so often the case, history again provides us with an alternative view, those of the optimistic observers. Individuals such as Andrew Ure, Lord Macaulay and David Ricardo, along with artistic interpretations offer us a perception, which argues that the revolution was beneficial for the working class, improved Britain’s economy and ultimately empowered the working class for the best. The nineteenth century in particular was seen by these figures as a time of progression and magnificence, for example the architectural achievements of this time are glorified through the works of Joseph Nash as pictured in the below example titled, Queen Victoria Opening the 1962 Exhibition after Crystal Palace moved to Sydenham.



Such historians have argued with economic intent, defending the notion that technological progress was in fact beneficial and historian G.R Porter contributed by claiming that the negative conditions perceived by pessimists was deeply romanticised, further provoking the debate. Ultimately, with optimists observing such an economic effect of the revolution, we may conclude that such individual approached this time from higher classes, with better access to the finer details of capitalist live, enjoying the change that arguably took so long for lower classes to endure.

These conflicting viewpoints surrounding the revolution are ongoing. A debate fuelled by the political and social backgrounds of those who commented on, or offered their insight at the time, that continues even today amongst modern observers. However it is important that we have such diverse opinions available to us. Essentially it shows that those of differing backgrounds in many ways are in fact exposed to different experiences of their surroundings and as a result form their own perceptions of what is occurring around them. Yet this is both a positive and negative thing, one on hand we are exposed to a degree of opinions and arguments, yet on the other hand our own understanding may be clouded and is largely reliant on the views offered by historians, ultimately making it up to us to determine the real history.

Further Readings:

Karl Marx, The poverty of Philosophy, Martin Lawrence, (London, 1847)

Friedrich Engels, The condition of the working class in England, (Leipzig, Otto Wigand, 1845)

Edwin Chadwick, “Report on the sanitary condition of the labouring population of Great Britain. A supplementary report on the results of a special inquiry into the practice of interment in towns. Made at the request of Her Majesty’s principal secretary of state for the Home department,” (London, W. Clowes and Sons, 1843)

Jerrold Blanchard, and Gustave Doré. London: A Pilgrimage. (London: Anthem Press, 2005)

Lord Macaulay, “The Works of Lord Macaulay,” (1898)

David Ricardo, “On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation,” (London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1817)

Reference list:

– Jerrold Blanchard, and Gustave Doré. London: A Pilgrimage. (London: Anthem Press, 2005), p. 140.




6 comments on “Optimist & Pessimists during the Industrial Revolution: An insight into the contemporary views of life in Britain throughout the Nineteenth Century

  1. melstephens says:

    Hi 🙂
    I found your post fascinating, I have always been interested in the industrial rev- especially the social implications. I like how you create a logical progression through the different historical arguments and summarise them succinctly, it has really helped build my knowledge base on the topic. I also found the conclusion you drew really interesting, the idea that we have to try and find the truth amongst such diverse opinions. Well done 😀

    • hughcrundwell says:

      Thank you! I appreciate the feedback! I feel as though the conclusion I came to with the work was the same as the one I came to at the end of the entire capstone course, that everything is so open to interpretation, particularly when observing such controversial events or historical periods!

  2. ronnie bray says:

    Dear Hugh –

    I read your essay with interest as I am in the closing edit of my historical novel, “Luddite Spring: The Huddersfield & District Luddite Uprising 1811 – 1813.”

    I have read everything I could get my hands on about the period. I agree that opinions are divided about whether the working class suffered or not during this period, but then I disagree with most of those that have concluded that their sufferings were either slight or exaggerated. I must confess to being firmly on the side of the working poor, having been one of them all my life, but despite my natural bias towards those that suffer and cannot extricate themselves, I opine that the suffering was real, and that was also evil, whether that evil is spiritually, morally, or even humanely defined.

    To those that disagree with my point of view, I have to say, having weighed the evidence at length, that those that will not acknowledge the terrible suffering that the poor had no real choice but to tolerate until iot put them n their graves, that they will probably also disagree that there is any truth to the fact that many people in the world are homeless, and that ‘homelessness’ is only a rumour bandied about by people that have nowhere to live.

    You are right that everything is open to interpretation, but that should not be taken as an excuse not to put forth our best efforts to reach a sane and sensible determination. That is what I believe I have done in Luddite Spring.In my defense, I will say that although I have conflated some characters and created a new village, etc, every event described actually occurred to someone during this troublesome period, although some incidents took place elsewhere, but are in keeping with the temper of the times..

    Thank you for sparking a debate on a fascinating subject.

    If you would like, I will be happy to let you have a copy of LS in Word on CD although it is not yet finally edited. Even if it is not perfect, I have determined not to allow the work to exceed 30 edits!

    Yours sincerely,


    BTW – you might like to amend the date Queen Victoria opened the Crystal palace from 1962 to 1862.

    • hughcrundwell says:

      Hi Ronnie!

      Thank you for taking interest in my recent topic, I think I will always be very interested in this time period, mainly as I believe it was so important in developing the world we live in today and beyond! I would love a copy of your work, it would be great to see how others today write about the period as I have never been fortunate enough to personally encounter anyone who shares the same interest that I do, let alone anyone who comes to the same conclusion!

      Look forward to reading it!


      • Ronnie Bray says:


        E-mail me at rbray7@cox.net and I will send a MSWord file of the novel in its present state. It is finished, but I am tweaking some iof the language, but all the main points and conclusions are intact.



  3. Ronnie Bray says:


    Still want an MS copy? I have a Literary Agent eager to read it again after it has been professionally edited, a condition that is fulfilled. I have only 200 MS pages left to correct, amend, etc.

    My e-mail address is changed to: rongay6562@yahoo.com

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