Victorian Factories and the Machines of Industry: Facts and Information

From the mid-18th century industrial machines were being developed, changing the way in which goods were manufactured. Factories, built to house the machinery, dominated Britain’s urban areas and were the workplace of many. Here are some facts about the factories of Victorian Britain.

  • Factory towns, such as Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Birmingham, Middlesbrough and Bradford (to name just a few), were dirty and overcrowded. Smoke from the chimneys of the factories used to coat the walls of the houses and make the streets grimy. The industrial areas around Wolverhampton became so covered in grime that it became known as the Black Country.
  • However, the industrial machinery and the development of the factory did bring wealth to the country. During the the reign of Queen Victoria, Britain’s exports went up dramatically and many businessmen made a lot of money.
  • One of the most valuable exports was cotton cloth. This was mainly manufactured in Lancashire and in parts of Scotland. It is estimated that the cotton industry alone provided jobs for more than 1 million people in the 1850s.
  • Some of the Victorian factories were incredibly large and employed more than 500 people.
Cotton Mill
A cotton mill.

Conditions in Victorian Factories

  • Life was very hard for workers in most Victorian factories. The working day lasted for twelve hours or more and Sunday was the only full day off. Some factories did allow the workers to go home early on Saturdays.
  • The machines were very loud and they thundered relentlessly all day long.
  • The workers had to move quickly to keep up with the machinery. Workers could be fined or sacked for falling behind.
  • In cotton mills, dust from the yarn covered the workers and got in their throats. In order to make sure that the cotton was kept strong, factory owners kept their mills warm and damp. This meant that the workers often suffered with lung and chest infections.
  • In 1851, more than 500,000 of Britain’s children were working – and many of these were working in factories. Factory owners often paid children a small fraction of the wages they paid to grown men and women.
  • Children, sometimes as young as six, carried out dangerous tasks, such as clearing blockages on spinning frames in mills.
  • Children in factories were often beaten when they made mistakes or worked too slowly.
  • Many workers were killed or injured by the machines they worked with. The didn’t have any safety features and they were slow to stop if a worker got caught up in them.
  • Many factory workers lived in overcrowded, poor quality housing. Built near to the factories themselves, these houses were dirty and they often didn’t have proper drains or separate areas in which to prepare food.
  • Diseases spread quickly through the populations of Britain’s factory towns. Many children died from measles and typhoid.

Conditions in factories did improve during the Victorian period. Click here to learn more about the factory reforms (coming soon!).

Discover more Victorian facts by taking a look at the Primary Facts Victorian resources page.

Dr Barnardo: Facts and Information

Here are some interesting facts about the work of Dr Barnardo, founder of the charity Barnardo’s, who provided homes and education for poor children in Victorian Britain.

  • Thomas John Barnardo was born on 4th July 1845 and he died on 19th September 1905.

  • He was born in Dublin, Ireland.
  • When he was sixteen years old, he decided he wanted to become a Protestant medical missionary in China.
  • He moved to London in order to train to be a doctor. He studied at the London Hospital, but never actually completed the course to earn a doctorate. Although he is known as ‘Doctor’ Barnardo, he never actually qualified as a doctor.
  • During his time in London, Thomas Barnardo became interested in the lives of the Victorian poor. He was apalled by the number of people living on the streets of London and he witnessed the horrific effects of cholera, unemployment and overcrowding.
  • Barnardo decided to put aside his plans to visit China. He opened his first ‘ragged school’ in 1867, in the East End of London, to educate and care for poor orphans.
  • One of his pupils, a boy called Jim Jarvis, took Barnardo on a walk of the the East End, showing him the sheer number of poor children sleeping rough. Barnardo was so moved by the sight that he decided to do something about it.
  • In 1870, Thomas Barnardo opened a home for boys in Stepney Causeway, providing shelter for orphans and destitute children. A sign hang on the building which said: ‘No Destitute Child Ever Refused Admission’.
  • Barnardo founded the Girls’ Village Home. Located in Barkingside, the ‘village’ consisted of a collection of cottages and was home to 1500 poor girls.
  • During his life Barnardo continued to open institutions that helped to care for poor children. By his death in 1905 it is estimated that his homes and schools cared for over 8000 children in more than 90 different locations.
  • The Barnardo’s is still in existence today. Have a look at their website.

Click here to learn more about other famous Victorians.