Working Time, Dinner Time, Serving Time: Labour and Law in Industrialization

May 2018 | 164

Authors: Douglas Hay


Many economic historians agree that increased labour inputs contributed to Britain’s primary industrialisation. Voluntary self-exploitation by workers to purchase new consumer goods is one common explanation, but it sits uneasily with evidence of poverty, child labour, popular protest, and criminal punishments explored by social historians. A critical and neglected legal dimension may be the evolution of contracts of employment. The law of master and servant, to use the technical term, shifted markedly between 1750 and 1850 to advantage capital and disadvantage labour. Medieval in origin, it had always been adjudicated in summary hearings before lay magistrates, and provided penal sanctions to employers (imprisonment, wage abatement, and later fines), while giving workers a summary remedy for unpaid wages. The law always enforced obedience to employers’ commands, suppressed strikes, and tried to keep wages low. Between 1750 and 1850 it became more hostile to workers through legislation and judicial redefinition; its enforcement became harsher through expansion of imprisonment, capture of the local bench by industrial employers, and employer abuse of written contracts. More work in manuscript sources is needed to test the argument, but it seems likely that intensification of labour inputs during industrialisation was closely tied to these legal changes.

Keywords: coercion, contract of employment, labour law, industriousness, punishment, work time

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