The Condition of the Working-Class in England, by Frederick Engels, 1844

Meanwhile, let us proceed to a more detailed investigation of the position, in which the social war has placed the non-possessing class.  Let us see what pay for his work society does give the working-man in the form of dwelling, clothing, food, what sort of subsistence it grants those who contribute most to the maintenance of society; and, first, let us consider the dwellings.

Every great city has one or more slums, where the working-class is crowded together.  True, poverty often dwells in hidden alleys close to the palaces of the rich; but, in general, a separate territory has been assigned to it, where, removed from the sight of the happier classes, it may struggle along as it can.  These slums are pretty equally arranged in all the great towns of England, the worst houses in the worst quarters of the towns; usually one or two-storied cottages in long rows, perhaps with cellars used as dwellings, almost always irregularly built.  These houses of three or four rooms and a kitchen form, throughout England, some parts of London excepted, the general dwellings of the working-class.  The streets are generally unpaved, rough, dirty, filled with vegetable and animal refuse, without sewers or gutters, but supplied with foul, stagnant pools instead.  Moreover, ventilation is impeded by the bad, confused method of building of the whole quarter, and since many human beings here live crowded into a small space, the atmosphere that prevails in these working-men’s quarters may readily be imagined.  Further, the streets serve as drying grounds in fine weather; lines are stretched across from house to house, and hung with wet clothing. ....

Such are the various working-people’s quarters of Manchester as I had occasion to observe them personally during twenty months.  If we briefly formulate the result of our wanderings, we must admit that 350,000 working-people of Manchester and its environs live, almost all of them, in wretched, damp, filthy cottages, that the streets which surround them are usually in the most miserable and filthy condition, laid out without the slightest reference to ventilation, with reference solely to the profit secured by the contractor.  In a word, we must confess that in the working-men’s dwellings of Manchester, no cleanliness, no convenience, and consequently no comfortable family life is possible; that in such dwellings only a physically degenerate race, robbed of all humanity, degraded, reduced morally and physically to bestiality, could feel comfortable and at home.  And I am not alone in making this assertion.  …

What physical and moral atmosphere reigns in these holes I need not state.  Each of these houses is a focus of crime, the scene of deeds against which human nature revolts, which would perhaps never have been executed but for this forced centralisation of vice.  …  The clothing of the working-people, in the majority of cases, is in a very bad condition.  The material used for it is not of the best adapted.  Wool and linen have almost vanished from the wardrobe of both sexes, and cotton has taken their place.  … 

The whole clothing of the working-class, even assuming it to be in good condition, is little adapted to the climate. ...
As with clothing, so with food.  The workers get what is too bad for the property-holding class.  In the great towns of England everything may be had of the best, but it costs money; and the workman, who must keep house on a couple of pence, cannot afford much expense.  Moreover, he usually receives his wages on Saturday evening, for, although a beginning has been made in the payment of wages on Friday, this excellent arrangement is by no means universal; and so he comes to market at five or even seven o’clock, while the buyers of the middle-class have had the first choice during the morning, when the market teems with the best of everything.  But when the workers reach it, the best has vanished, and, if it was still there, they would probably not be able to buy it.  The potatoes which the workers buy are usually poor, the vegetables wilted, the cheese old and of poor quality, the bacon rancid, the meat lean, tough, taken from old, often diseased, cattle, or such as have died a natural death, and not fresh even then, often half decayed.  The sellers are usually small hucksters who buy up inferior goods, and can sell them cheaply by reason of their badness.  The poorest workers are forced to use still another device to get together the things they need with their few pence.  As nothing can be sold on Sunday, and all shops must be closed at twelve o’clock on Saturday night, such things as would not keep until Monday are sold at any price between ten o’clock and midnight.  But nine-tenths of what is sold at ten o’clock is past using by Sunday morning, yet these are precisely the provisions which make up the Sunday dinner of the poorest class.  … But they are victimised in yet another way by the money-greed of the middle-class.  Dealers and manufacturers adulterate all kinds of provisions in an atrocious manner, and without the slightest regard to the health of the consumers.  …

The habitual food of the individual working-man naturally varies according to his wages.  The better paid workers, especially those in whose families every member is able to earn something, have good food as long as this state of things lasts; meat daily, and bacon and cheese for supper.  Where wages are less, meat is used only two or three times a week, and the proportion of bread and potatoes increases.  Descending gradually, we find the animal food reduced to a small piece of bacon cut up with the potatoes; lower still, even this disappears, and there remain only bread, cheese, porridge, and potatoes, until on the lowest round of the ladder, among the Irish, potatoes form the sole food.  As an accompaniment, weak tea, with perhaps a little sugar, milk, or spirits, is universally drunk.  Tea is regarded in England, and even in Ireland, as quite as indispensable as coffee in Germany, and where no tea is used, the bitterest poverty reigns. …

To sum up briefly the facts thus far cited.  The great towns are chiefly inhabited by working-people, since in the best case there is one bourgeois for two workers, often for three, here and there for four; these workers have no property whatsoever of their own, and live wholly upon wages, which usually go from hand to mouth.  Society, composed wholly of atoms, does not trouble itself about them; leaves them to care for themselves and their families, yet supplies them no means of doing this in an efficient and permanent manner.  Every working-man, even the best, is therefore constantly exposed to loss of work and food, that is to death by starvation, and many perish in this way.  The dwellings of the workers are everywhere badly planned, badly built, and kept in the worst condition, badly ventilated, damp, and unwholesome.  The inhabitants are confined to the smallest possible space, and at least one family usually sleeps in each room.  The interior arrangement of the dwellings is poverty-stricken in various degrees, down to the utter absence of even the most necessary furniture.  The clothing of the workers, too, is generally scanty, and that of great multitudes is in rags.  The food is, in general, bad; often almost unfit for use, and in many cases, at least at times, insufficient in quantity, so that, in extreme cases, death by starvation results. 

Thus the working-class of the great cities offers a graduated scale of conditions in life, in the best cases a temporarily endurable existence for hard work and good wages, good and endurable, that is, from the worker’s standpoint; in the worst cases, bitter want, reaching even homelessness and death by starvation.  The average is much nearer the worst case than the best.  And this series does not fall into fixed classes, so that one can say, this fraction of the working-class is well off, has always been so, and remains so.  If that is the case here and there, if single branches of work have in general an advantage over others, yet the condition of the workers in each branch is subject to such great fluctuations that a single working-man may be so placed as to pass through the whole range from comparative comfort to the extremest need, even to death by starvation, while almost every English working-man can tell a tale of marked changes of fortune.  ....

Adapted from the translation by Florence Kelley Wischnewetzky, 1892, pp. 26, 63-74.

 

Last Updated: 8 January 2017