British Working Class Movement

The rise of industry in Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The rise of industry in Britain was a complex process. An important factor was the study of Mathematics and Science that began during the 17th century and was pursued by the Royal Society founded in the early years of Charles the second and also especially in some of the Dissenting Academies. These were the schools set up by non-members of the Church of England who were excluded from Oxford and Cambridge universities. Some of them taught science and many of the people who made the inventions that caused the new production methods of industry had studied there. Joseph Priestley is a good example. Some of the people responsible for the new inventions met in such discussion societies as the Lunar Society in Birmingham . Its name came from the meetings being arranged for dates when the moon was bright - there were no street lights in the 18th century.

Economists like to emphasise the invention of the The Joint Stock Company as an important social tool in the rise of industry. Its importance was as a means of mobilising capital to build the initial factories, or so it is claimed. It was derived from the structure of the East India Company

The Joint Stock Company was in some respects a continuation of feudalism. The profits of the organisation went not to the people who did the work but to those who put up the money. The actual workers were in much the same condition as the Villeins in a feudal manor.


Low wages


Nick Robins - The Corporation that changed the world

The Corporation That Changed the World: How the East India Company Shaped the Modern Multinational

See also John Keay

John Wesley (1703-1791) was a preacher who believed the Church of England was not active enough in the new towns that were springing up near the new industries. He felt called to preach to the people who had no connection with the Church. He converted many people to the religion he preached about. He found they were not welcome in the official Church of England so he founded a network of independent churches. In the Church of England all important decisions were taken by the priests, who were often the relatives of the local landowners - the younger sons of the Squire would "go into the church" and become priests. But the Church of England was mainly concerned with keeping people satisfied with the social order in the countryside where the Squire presided over the village as magistrate and as member of the organisation (the meeting of magistrates) that controlled government in the County. This arrangement did not work in the new industrial towns where there were no churches or squires.

John Wesley founded "Societies" of the believers who elected their officials and often had lay preachers to conduct their religious ceremonies. Wesley had hoped these societies would be incorporated into the Church of England but the hierarchy of bishops and priests refused to recognise them. So Wesley's Societies formed their own national organisation which was called the Wesleyan Church (or Methodist Church). This was at a time when there were few non-governmental organisations that covered the whole country - perhaps only the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) were there before them.

Most of his members were from the working class - people who worked for wages in the new industries - or from the rural workers on farms.

From the point of view of politics the important thing about these Societies was that the members learned how to conduct meetings, keep minutes and look after the money. If they were illiterate they had to learn to read and write. They also acquired personal morality.

These were the skills that soon were put to use in forming new working class organisations that grew out of the religion. In a world where working people had no vote in the election of members of Parliament, or any other national officials, Wesley had formed a nationwide democratic organisation that ordinary people could control.

There had been Dissenting Churches before Wesley - they had played a large role in the English Civil War, which had been partly about resistance to the monopoly of the Church of England as it was directed by King Charles the first, but Wesley's was the first to become a mass movement.


Trade Unions
The defence of ordinary working people against being exploited by the owners of businesses was to unite together and confront together the owners. One of the best known of the early Trade Unions was the Tolpuddle Agricultural Workers They formed the "Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers". They were prosecuted by the farmers and sentenced to be exiled to Australia. A huge public campaign against their sentence eventually brought them back. We should note that the men concerned were Methodists.

Building Societies
In the 19th century the number of people was rapidly increasing. Partly this was the result of increased food supplies as the new grainlands of the Americas opened up. There was a need for new houses. The shortage of houses caused rents to be high. A building society was a communal arrangement by which people pooled their money to build new houses, without making the landlords rich. There were several types. One was a temporary society which would exist until each member had built a house. The members would save and the person to be given the money to build a house would be chosen by lot. The commoner type was the Permanent Building Society by which the members saved money and might get a loan to build a house. This was the origin of the modern Mortgage system.

The first cooperative is said to be the retail coop in Rochdale, generally known as the Rochdale Pioneers. Its purpose was to provide the necessities without the excessive profiteering of the "conventional" shops (and also the adulteration of goods). From this start there grew a large network of shops that also owned farms and factories to produce "own brands". After a long period of decline in the later 20th century the cooperative has grown again and entered new fields - such as the provision of gas and electricity.

Working men's education

Jeff Madrick - Age of Greed
The triumph of finance and the decline of America

Age of Greed: The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present

Review New York Review of books
Andrew Norman - The Story of George Loveless and the Tolpuddle Martyrs

The Story of George Loveless and the Tolpuddle Martyrs

 Early alternatives to the capitalist company

Robert Owen



The major social problem in western countries of the 21st century is that the difference between the classes has grown immensely to almost feudal proportions. Whereas for much of the 20th century the differences seemed to be narrowing, when major parts of economic activity were owned and operated by the state, since they were all sold off by the Thatcher regime (in Britain) the differences have greatly increased. (We were told at the time "ownership doesn't matter". Yes, it does, for all sorts of reasons.)


Last revision 28/03/12


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