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Poverty and the Industrial Revolution

By Brian Inglis

‘By the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread’ . . . ‘the poor shall never cease out of the land’ . . . ‘the poor are always with us’ – for centuries this pessimism was taken to embody a fact of human existence. And as long as production remained based on manual labour there could be no reason to doubt it was justified. But then, towards the end of the eighteenth century, England became the scene of two economic revolutions, agricultural and industrial.

Enclosure of land formerly farmed communally meant that up-to-date methods of crop rotation could be introduced and more efficient use made of farm machinery, to provide larger yields per acre. Industrial machines enabled one man to do the work of many. Inevitably speculation began over what this might mean for mankind. Might not the wealth which was being released be used to reduce poverty – perhaps even to allow the poor to cease out of the land?

Today, two centuries later, we are still wryly speculating. Even in the most advanced, the richest communities, poverty remains a problem – the problem. Why? Is it possible that, trapped in traditional assumptions about the nature of man and society, we have been going the wrong way about trying to solve it? And, if so, may there not be lessons for us in what happened in England as a result of the industrial and agricultural revolutions?

Poverty and the Industrial Revolution provides a reassessment of that period in the attempt to find out why our society took the course it did.

Brian Inglis (1916-1993) was an Irish Journalist, historian and TV presenter. He wrote a thesis, while still an undergraduate at Oxford, on the interaction of political and economic forces in the early nineteenth century; and after serving as a pilot in the RAF during the war, he returned to the period in his first published book – originally written for a Ph.D. at Dublin University, where he was an assistant to the Professor of Modern History, and a lecturer in economics. Inglis also went on to write for the Irish Timesand the Spectator as well as becoming a regular on Granada TV’s What the Papers Say and writing the programme All Our Yesterdays.

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