Posts Tagged ‘Industrial Revolution’

The Industrial Revolution is not mentioned specifically, but implied in Jane Austen’s novels, the more rapid means of transportation being one of them. Life was hard for the working poor, and many died premature deaths. But miracles did occur. Take the tale of John Evans, a miner in a coal pit at Pentre’r Fram Colliery, Minera, Wrexham, Wales. On the 27th of September in 1819, almost 200 years ago, the pit flooded and two men lost their lives and a third went missing.

John Evans in 1819. Image from the National Museum Wales

The miner was trapped by the flood 120 yards below the surface with 18 other men. Fifteen were rescued, but not Evans and two other miners. During the 7 days that it took to pump the water out, three coffins were made to bury the presumed dead men. On day 8, two bodies were recovered, but John Evans was nowhere to be found. His wife begged for the rescuers to continue so that she could give her husband a proper burial.

He was found alive on the 13th day. His daughter reported that he had managed to survive by eating tallow candles and drinking water droplets from the roof of the mine. After his rescue, John took the coffin home with him and used it as a cupboard for many years. He died in April, 1865 at the advanced age of 73. The colliery closed during the Depression after 124 years of continuous work. – Callaghan Family Archives

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Jospeh Pinder, one of the last living handloom weavers of the 19th century

This poem was printed in Punch Magazine in 1862. In the early 19th century Luddites attacked the factory machines that were about to destroy the cottage industry of handloom weavers. By 1815, these weavers had difficulty finding work. They tried selling their cloth at lower prices than the factories, with the result that their average wages plummeted from 21 s to less than 9 s in 1817, the year of Jane Austen’s death. By 1850, handloom weavers had been reduced to starvation wages. In light of their plight, this poem, which contrasts the wistful observances of the lowly weaver against the lavish lifestyle of the Ton, becomes all the more poignant.

Hyde Park, 1817


A Little “Weaver, unemployed,
Chanced in Hyde Park to stray,
And there, as best he might, enjoyed

Unwilling holiday.
The great folks being now in Town,

He strolled, and viewed their show,
Around the Ring, and up and down

A stroll in the park

The walk by Rotten Row.
What high-bred cavaliers were there,
Straight-backed, and clean of limb;
What horsewomen, superbly fair,

Displayed their airs to him!
What equipages Beauty bore.

And Consequence, reclined,
Whom portly coachmen sat before;

Smart footmen stood behind!
The little man, admiring, read
The faces of the Great,
Who passed him with erected head,

Rotten Row, Tom and Jerry, 1821

And countenance elate,
High fed, from sordid want secure,

From cares and troubles mean,
How brave their bearing, to be sure,

Their aspect how serene!
A heart our little weaver had
In others’ joy that shared.
Himself though hungry, he was glad

Hyde Park, Rotten Row

To think how well they fared.
It raised him in his self-respect
To see how riches can,
With nurture in a sphere select,

Exalt his fellow-man.
If, entering on this earthly scene,
Endowed with Fortune’s boon, His infant lips he had between
But held a silver spoon, He thought he also might have shone
Amongst the grand and gay, Then being out of work alone,
Not likewise out of pay.

Punch Magazine, Vol 42-43, 1862, p 133

Handloom weaver, 1888

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Mr. Knightley's Harvest Ball

Mr. Knightley's Harvest Ball

I prefer Kate Beckinsale’s Emma, written by Andrew Davies, because of the film’s depiction of ordinary life, such as farmers threshing grain before the Harvest Ball. These scenes were not written by Jane Austen, but they added authenticity to the film. When I saw this image, (Detail taken from the New York Public Library’s digital collection of the Costumes of Yorkshire, 1813-1814), I knew that the costumers and the director, Diarmuid Lawrence, had done their research. I loved the quality of the golden light that bathed the workers, lending the scene an antique, painterly feel. There are so many glorious visual moments in this film, which is well worth watching despite the script’s many variations from Jane’s plot.

Detail, Rape Threshing, 1813, The Costume of Yorkshire, New York Public Library

Detail, Rape Threshing, 1813, The Costume of Yorkshire, New York Public Library

By 1750, British agricultural practices were regarded as among the best in the world. The Industrial Revolution accelerated new practices in agriculture, in which animal power and human labor were aided by newly invented farm machinery. These inventions, as well as the new methods of food production, greatly increased the food supply.

Four-field rotation was practiced in England.  Specific crops were grown in a scientific sequence that managed the different nutrients in the soil. With this method, the continuous use of land was possible; more importantly, additional forage crops for livestock could be grown. This increase in the food supply could support livestock through the winter, which led to an improved diet year round. Even the poor could occasionally augment their bread with meat and dairy products, such as cheese.

harvest 2 (2)
While the Enclosure Acts from 1750-1831 drove many subsistence farmers off their small holdings of around 20 acres, the movement combined land into larger tracts for more efficient farming, and allowing portions of the fields to lie fallow. The traditional method of subdividing the land allowed farmers to feed their families, but their holdings were too small to follow the new method of crop rotation.  The larger holdings (which usually favored the richer land owners) applied modern methods of crop production. The unlucky farmer who lost his lands also lost the means to support his family independently. He and his family had no choice but to find work in the industrial north or in London. These burgeoning urban centers required an enormous amount of food to be brought in daily over long distances. One imagines that after Mr. Knightley set aside enough of the harvest for his own consumption, he transported the remainder to cities to be sold for profit.

harvest 3 (2)

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The diet of the handloom weavers would have been augmented in Ribchester by the nearby agricultural areas which encroached well into the village. Early maps show most homes had gardens, substantial areas of meadow, orchards and open spaces. Around 90% of the agriculture in the parish was permanent grass for rearing cattle, sheep etc and only a very small acreage was arable land, suggesting a good ready supply of meat and dairy produce. Gardens would provide vegetables, fruit and would

19th-century walled kitchen

19th-century walled kitchen garden.

certainly allow for the keeping of poultry and pigs. Game was available legally or illegally, and possibly similarly fish. The traders in the village would provide dry goods, spices etc., or these could have been brought by itinerant traders. In the early 1800’s there was a carrier 3 times a week to Blackburn and twice a week to Preston. From – Ribchester Local History

The above website describes how Ribchester was considered a poor village until the early 19th century, when handloom weaving became the primary activity in the township.
Hand Loom Weaving

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I love old-fashioned, sentimental movies filled with likable characters and well told stories. I like films that take me out of time and place and land me smack dab in another world. I adore ensemble casts made up of famous and not so famous British actors. Ergo, I am wild about Cranford, which will air at 9 pm tonight on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic

This early Victorian tale, based on the writings of Elizabeth Gaskell, is about change and resisting change. Cranford is a sleepy town that time passed by until the coming of the railroad. It is ruled by women – Amazons, as Elizabeth Gaskell described them.

Eileen Atkins as Miss Deborah Jenkyns and Francesca Annis as Lady Ludlow are at the pinnacle of Cranford society: the former rules over poor widows and spinsters, and the latter commands everyone’s respect as the lady of the manor. These two powerful women are suspicious of anything that upsets their well-ordered lives. Miss Jenkyns cannot abide Charles Dickens’s modern stories, or suck juice from an orange in front of others, since to her the very thought of the word ‘suck’ is abhorrent. News that a railroad is coming to ruin her perfect town is so distressful that it brings on an apoplectic fit.

Lady Ludlow firmly believes that people should remain in their station and behave accordingly. She will not hire servants who can read or write, declaring that too much education upsets the natural order of things and would foment a revolution, as it did in France. This subplot sets up the film’s dramatic ending.

Simon Woods as Dr. Harris, represents new ideas and innovation. A frisson goes through the community when he elects to save Jem Hearne’s injured arm rather than amputate it. After the young doctor’s successful but revolutionary treatment of setting the bone and stitching the wound, his partner Dr. Morgan (John Bowe) declares testily, “Cranford has been disturbed by you.” The old doctor, thinking to relieve his work load and to turn his practice over to a younger physician once he retires, is completely taken aback by his assistant’s newfangled ways. “Cranford is a town that knows itself, he admonishes the doctor. “It is a town at peace.”

Cranford is also a town that takes care of its own. The staid ladies of Cranford donate their expensive candles to allow the doctor to practice his modern surgical techniques on the young carpenter before it is too late. They are charmed by this single man, a rare commodity in a town filled with spinsters. Many of the plot’s developments and misunderstandings that ensue are caused by their wishful thinking.

The people of Cranford are adept at hoarding scarce goods, such as candles and coal for fire. The lace incident, which, next to the cow incident, is one of my favorite scenes in the film, is all about recycling. Hand made foreign lace was a precious commodity, especially for a widow living on a meager income of 100 pounds. Any article of clothing that still had value was laundered, mended, or reworked rather than thrown out. When the cat swallowed the lace, along with the buttermilk that was bleaching it, it led to a series of events that had me choking with laughter. The ladies’ expressions as they watched a cathartic mixture being forced down the poor cat’s throat and listened to the ignominious expulsion of milk and lace into a boot were priceless.

Careful attention to detail was paid in this production, from costumes, such as the frayed bonnet of the impoverished widow (played by Julia McKenzie with Imelda Staunton at left), to the setting (the British Heritage village of Laycock), to props (two footmen huffing and puffing as they run while carrying their mistress in a sedan chair), to the plaintive wails of the cat as it expels the sadly abused lace.

As a drama, Cranford has it all: young romance (Kimberley Nixon as Julia Hutton at right), old romance, sweet comedy, dreadful calamity, deep sorrow and profound happiness. The town is populated with individuals who do what is right for themselves, their families, and their fellow man, even if it means breaking the law. I’ve read the book and was struck by how well Heidi Thomas’s script holds up against Mrs. Gaskell’s novel, which was actually a series of vignettes written for Household Words, a magazine published by Charles Dickens. Oh, the story is melodramatic and there are a few too many coincidences to be believed, but the characters are so well defined and likable that one forgives the script’s treacly overtones and neatly tied up ending.

Jane Austen’s novels were never so sugary sweet, but this film production offers us an interesting glimpse of a world that Cassandra Austen, Jane’s beloved sister, must have known before she died. Changes caused by the industrial revolution had swept England, and new inventions in manufacturing, machines, science, and travel caused wholesale changes in how people lived and worked. Jane Austen only caught a glimpse of what was to come, but Cassandra lived long enough to see macademized roads replace dirt roads, gas lights put up on public streets, and steam engines overtake stage coaches as public transportation. Other aspects of society remained the same, such as the plight of widows and spinsters whose income was inadequate, and a high mortality rate among children.

Post Script: Winning her first BAFTA award at the age of 73, Eileen Atkins edged Judi Dench for best actress for her performance as Miss Jenkyns. Eileen wasn’t sure about the role at first, saying, “I didn’t think it was too good a part – I thought she was the only one who wasn’t funny.”

More about Cranford:

  • Penny for Your Dreams features a series of great Cranford reviews. Here is the link to Episode One if you don’t mind spoilers, along with the other four posts.

I would also like to direct you to Laurel Ann’s Cranford review on Austenprose, and Kay Daycus’s take on this movie adaptation. Mrs. Elton offers a unique perspective about this first episode on Jane Austen Today. Learn more about Elizabeth Gaskell in Jane Austen in Vermont. See you next week for the second installment!

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