The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844
With a Preface written in 1892

By FRIEDRICH ENGELS, Translated by Florence Kelley Wischnewetzky (London: GEORGE ALLEN & UNWIN LTD)


In 1834 England exported 556,000,000 yards of woven cotton goods, 76,500,000 pounds of cotton yarn, and cotton hosiery of the value of £1,200,000.  In the same year over 8,000,000 mule spindles were at work, 110,000 power and 250,000 hand-looms, throstle spindles not included, in the service of the cotton industry; and, according to MacCulloch’s reckoning, nearly a million and a half human beings were supported by this branch, of whom but 220,000 worked in the mills; the power used in these mills was steam, equivalent to 33,000 horse-power, and water, equivalent to 11,000 horse-power.  At present these figures are far from adequate, and it may be safely assumed that, in the year 1845, p. 8the power and number of the machines and the number of the workers is greater by one-half than it was in 1834.  The chief centre of this industry is Lancashire, where it originated; it has thoroughly revolutionised this county, converting it from an obscure, ill-cultivated swamp into a busy, lively region, multiplying its population tenfold in eighty years, and causing giant cities such as Liverpool and Manchester, containing together 700,000 inhabitants, and their neighbouring towns, Bolton with 60,000, Rochdale with 75,000, Oldham with 50,000, Preston with 60,000, Ashton and Stalybridge with 40,000, and a whole list of other manufacturing towns to spring up as if by a magic touch.  The history of South Lancashire contains some of the greatest marvels of modern times, yet no one ever mentions them, and all these miracles are the product of the cotton industry.  Glasgow, too, the centre for the cotton district of Scotland, for Lanarkshire and Renfrewshire, has increased in population from 30,000 to 300,000 since the introduction of the industry…. A corresponding extension has taken place in the branches dependent upon the cotton industry, in dyeing, bleaching, and printing.  Bleaching by the application of chlorine in place of the oxygen of the atmosphere; dyeing and printing by the rapid development of chemistry, and printing by a series of most brilliant mechanical inventions, a yet greater advance which, with the extension of these branches caused by the p. 9growth of the cotton industry, raised them to a previously unknown degree of prosperity.

…Sixty, eighty years ago, England was a country like every other, with small towns, few and simple industries, and a thin but proportionally large agricultural population.  To-day it is a country like no other, with a capital of two and a half million inhabitants; with vast manufacturing cities; with an industry that supplies the world, and produces almost everything by means of the most complex machinery; with an industrious, intelligent, dense population, of which two-thirds are employed in trade and commerce, and composed of classes wholly different; forming, in fact, with other customs and other needs, a different nation from the England of those days. 

…At the same time the destruction of the former organisation of hand-work, and the disappearance of the lower middle-class deprived the working-man of all possibility of rising into the middle-class himself.  Hitherto he had always had the prospect of establishing himself somewhere as master artificer, perhaps employing journeymen and apprentices; but now, when master artificers were crowded out by manufacturers, when large capital had become necessary for carrying on work independently, the working-class became, for the first time, an integral, permanent class of the population, whereas it had formerly often been merely a transition leading to the bourgeoisie.  Now, he who was born to toil had no other prospect than that of remaining a toiler all his life.

…Population becomes centralised just as capital does; and, very naturally, since the human being, the worker, is regarded in manufacture simply as a piece of capital for the use of which the manufacturer pays interest under the name of wages.  A manufacturing establishment requires many workers employed together in a single building, living near each other and forming a village of themselves in the case of a good-sized factory.  They have needs for satisfying which other people are necessary; handicraftsmen, shoemakers, tailors, bakers, carpenters, stonemasons, settle at hand.  The inhabitants of the village, especially the younger generation, accustom themselves to factory work, grow skilful in it, and when the first mill can no longer employ them all, wages fall, and the immigration of fresh manufacturers is the p. 21consequence.  So the village grows into a small town, and the small town into a large one.  The greater the town, the greater its advantages.  It offers roads, railroads, canals; the choice of skilled labour increases constantly, new establishments can be built more cheaply because of the competition among builders and machinists who are at hand, than in remote country districts, whither timber, machinery, builders, and operatives must be brought; it offers a market to which buyers crowd, and direct communication with the markets supplying raw material or demanding finished goods.  Hence the marvellously rapid growth of the great manufacturing towns.  The country, on the other hand, has the advantage that wages are usually lower than in town, and so town and country are in constant competition; and, if the advantage is on the side of the town to-day, wages sink so low in the country to-morrow, that new investments are most profitably made there.  But the centralising tendency of manufacture continues in full force, and every new factory built in the country bears in it the germ of a manufacturing town.  If it were possible for this mad rush of manufacture to go on at this rate for another century, every manufacturing district of England would be one great manufacturing town…


…English manufacture must have, at all times save the brief periods of highest prosperity, an unemployed reserve army of workers, in order to be able to produce the masses of goods required by the market in the liveliest months.  This reserve army is larger or smaller, according as the state of the market occasions the employment of a larger or smaller proportion of its members.  And if at the moment of highest activity of the market the agricultural districts and the branches least affected by the general prosperity temporarily supply to manufacture a number of workers, these are a mere minority, and these too belong to the reserve army, with the single difference that the prosperity of the moment was required to reveal their connection p. 85with it.  When they enter upon the more active branches of work, their former employers draw in somewhat, in order to feel the loss less, work longer hours, employ women and younger workers, and when the wanderers discharged at the beginning of the crisis return, they find their places filled and themselves superfluous—at least in the majority of cases.  This reserve army, which embraces an immense multitude during the crisis and a large number during the period which may be regarded as the average between the highest prosperity and the crisis, is the “surplus population” of England, which keeps body and soul together by begging, stealing, street-sweeping, collecting manure, pushing handcarts, driving donkeys, peddling, or performing occasional small jobs.  In every great town a multitude of such people may be found.  It is astonishing in what devices this “surplus population” takes refuge.  The London crossing-sweepers are known all over the world; but hitherto the principal streets in all the great cities, as well as the crossings, have been swept by people out of other work, and employed by the Poor Law guardians or the municipal authorities for the purpose.  Now, however, a machine has been invented which rattles through the streets daily, and has spoiled this source of income for the unemployed.  Along the great highways leading into the cities, on which there is a great deal of waggon traffic, a large number of people may be seen with small carts, gathering fresh horse-dung at the risk of their lives among the passing coaches and omnibuses, often paying a couple of shillings a week to the authorities for the privilege.  But this occupation is forbidden in many places, because the ordinary street-sweepings thus impoverished cannot be sold as manure.  Happy are such of the “surplus” as can obtain a push-cart and go about with it.  Happier still those to whom it is vouchsafed to possess an ass in addition to the cart.  The ass must get his own food or is given a little gathered refuse, and can yet bring in a trifle of money.  Most of the “surplus” betake themselves to huckstering.  On Saturday afternoons, especially, when the whole working population is on the streets, the crowd who live from huckstering and peddling may be seen.  Shoe and corset laces, braces, twine, cakes, p. 86oranges, every kind of small articles are offered by men, women, and children; and at other times also, such peddlers are always to be seen standing at the street corners, or going about with cakes and ginger-beer or nettle-beer.  Matches and such things, sealing-wax, and patent mixtures for lighting fires are further resources of such venders.  Others, so-called jobbers, go about the streets seeking small jobs.  Many of these succeed in getting a day’s work, many are not so fortunate.

“At the gates of all the London docks,” says the Rev. W. Champney, preacher of the East End, “hundreds of the poor appear every morning in winter before daybreak, in the hope of getting a day’s work.  They await the opening of the gates; and, when the youngest and strongest and best known have been engaged, hundreds cast down by disappointed hope, go back to their wretched homes.”

When these people find no work and will not rebel against society, what remains for them but to beg?  And surely no one can wonder at the great army of beggars, most of them able-bodied men, with whom the police carries on perpetual war.  But the beggary of these men has a peculiar character.  Such a man usually goes about with his family singing a pleading song in the streets or appealing, in a speech, to the benevolence of the passers-by.  And it is a striking fact that these beggars are seen almost exclusively in the working-people’s districts, that it is almost exclusively the gifts of the poor from which they live.  Or the family takes up its position in a busy street, and without uttering a word, lets the mere sight of its helplessness plead for it.  In this case, too, they reckon upon the sympathy of the workers alone, who know from experience how it feels to be hungry, and are liable to find themselves in the same situation at any moment; for this dumb, yet most moving appeal, is met with almost solely in such streets as are frequented by working-men, and at such hours as working-men pass by; but especially on summer evenings, when the “secrets” of the working-people’s quarters are generally revealed, and the middle-class withdraws p. 87as far as possible from the district thus polluted.  And he among the “surplus” who has courage and passion enough openly to resist society, to reply with declared war upon the bourgeoisie to the disguised war which the bourgeoisie wages upon him, goes forth to rob, plunder, murder, and burn!

….These Irishmen who migrate for fourpence to England, on the deck of a steamship on which they are often packed like cattle, insinuate themselves everywhere.  The worst dwellings are good enough for them; their clothing causes them little trouble, so long as it holds together by a single thread; shoes they know not; their food consists of potatoes and potatoes only; whatever they earn beyond these needs they spend upon drink.  What does such a race want with high wages?  The worst quarters of all the large towns are inhabited by Irishmen.  Whenever a district is distinguished for especial filth and especial ruinousness, the explorer may safely count upon meeting chiefly those Celtic faces which one recognises at the first glance as different from the Saxon physiognomy of the p. 92native, and the singing, aspirate brogue which the true Irishman never loses.  I have occasionally heard the Irish-Celtic language spoken in the most thickly populated parts of Manchester.  The majority of the families who live in cellars are almost everywhere of Irish origin.  In short, the Irish have, as Dr. Kay says, discovered the minimum of the necessities of life, and are now making the English workers acquainted with it.  Filth and drunkenness, too, they have brought with them.  The lack of cleanliness, which is not so injurious in the country, where population is scattered, and which is the Irishman’s second nature, becomes terrifying and gravely dangerous through its concentration here in the great cities.  The Milesian deposits all garbage and filth before his house door here, as he was accustomed to do at home, and so accumulates the pools and dirt-heaps which disfigure the working-people’s quarters and poison the air.  He builds a pig-sty against the house wall as he did at home, and if he is prevented from doing this, he lets the pig sleep in the room with himself.  This new and unnatural method of cattle-raising in cities is wholly of Irish origin.  The Irishman loves his pig as the Arab his horse, with the difference that he sells it when it is fat enough to kill.  Otherwise, he eats and sleeps with it, his children play with it, ride upon it, roll in the dirt with it, as any one may see a thousand times repeated in all the great towns of England.  The filth and comfortlessness that prevail in the houses themselves it is impossible to describe.  The Irishman is unaccustomed to the presence of furniture; a heap of straw, a few rags, utterly beyond use as clothing, suffice for his nightly couch.  A piece of wood, a broken chair, an old chest for a table, more he needs not; a tea-kettle, a few pots and dishes, equip his kitchen, which is also his sleeping and living room.  When he is in want of fuel, everything combustible within his reach, chairs, door-posts, mouldings, flooring, finds its way up the chimney.  Moreover, why should he need much room?  At home in his mud-cabin there was only one room for all domestic purposes; more than one room his family does not need in England.  So the custom of crowding many persons into a single room, now so universal, has been chiefly implanted by the p. 93Irish immigration.  And since the poor devil must have one enjoyment, and society has shut him out of all others, he betakes himself to the drinking of spirits.  Drink is the only thing which makes the Irishman’s life worth having, drink and his cheery care-free temperament; so he revels in drink to the point of the most bestial drunkenness.  The southern facile character of the Irishman, his crudity, which places him but little above the savage, his contempt for all humane enjoyments, in which his very crudeness makes him incapable of sharing, his filth and poverty, all favour drunkenness.  The temptation is great, he cannot resist it, and so when he has money he gets rid of it down his throat.  What else should he do?  How can society blame him when it places him in a position in which he almost of necessity becomes a drunkard; when it leaves him to himself, to his savagery?

With such a competitor the English working-man has to struggle with a competitor upon the lowest plane possible in a civilised country, who for this very reason requires less wages than any other.  Nothing else is therefore possible than that, as Carlyle says, the wages of English working-men should be forced down further and further in every branch in which the Irish compete with him.  And these branches are many.  All such as demand little or no skill are open to the Irish.  For work which requires long training or regular, pertinacious application, the dissolute, unsteady, drunken Irishman is on too low a plane.  To become a mechanic, a mill-hand, he would have to adopt the English civilisation, the English customs, become, in the main, an Englishman.  But for all simple, less exact work, wherever it is a question more of strength than skill, the Irishman is as good as the Englishman.  Such occupations are therefore especially overcrowded with Irishmen: hand-weavers, bricklayers, porters, jobbers, and such workers, count hordes of Irishmen among their number, and the pressure of this race has done much to depress wages and lower the working-class.  And even if the Irish, who have forced their way into other occupations, should become more civilised, enough of the old habits would cling to them to have a strong degrading influence upon their English companions in toil, especially in view of the p. 94general effect of being surrounded by the Irish.  For when, in almost every great city, a fifth or a quarter of the workers are Irish, or children of Irish parents, who have grown up among Irish filth, no one can wonder if the life, habits, intelligence, moral status—in short, the whole character of the working-class assimilates a great part of the Irish characteristics.  On the contrary, it is easy to understand how the degrading position of the English workers, engendered by our modern history, and its immediate consequences, has been still more degraded by the presence of Irish competition.

….Another influence of great moment in forming the character of the English workers is the Irish immigration already referred to.  On the one hand it has, as we have seen, degraded the English workers, removed them from civilisation, and aggravated the hardship of their lot; but, on the other hand, it has thereby deepened the chasm between workers and bourgeoisie, and hastened the approaching crisis.  For the course of the social disease from which England is suffering is the same as the course of a physical disease; it develops, according to certain laws, has its own crisis, the last and most violent of which determines the fate of the patient.  And as the English nation cannot succumb under the final crises, p. 124but must go forth from it, born again, rejuvenated, we can but rejoice over everything which accelerates the course of the disease.  And to this the Irish immigration further contributes by reason of the passionate, mercurial Irish temperament, which it imports into England and into the English working-class.  The Irish and English are to each other much as the French and the Germans; and the mixing of the more facile, excitable, fiery Irish temperament with the stable, reasoning, persevering English must, in the long run, be productive only of good for both.  The rough egotism of the English bourgeoisie would have kept its hold upon the working-class much more firmly if the Irish nature, generous to a fault, and ruled primarily by sentiment, had not intervened, and softened the cold, rational English character in part by a mixture of the races, and in part by the ordinary contact of life.


…But this I maintain, the war of the poor against the rich now carried on in detail and indirectly will become direct and universal.  It is too late for a peaceful solution.  The classes are divided more and more sharply, the spirit of resistance penetrates the workers, the bitterness intensifies, the guerilla skirmishes become concentrated in more important battles, and soon a slight impulse will suffice to set the avalanche in motion.  Then, indeed, will the war-cry resound through the land: “War to the palaces, peace to the cottages!”—but then it will be too late for the rich to beware.