6.2 The Social Issue -T-

AGE 8. The Time of Citizens and Steam Engines
6.2 The Social Issue

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This lesson contains 18 slides, with text slides and 1 video.

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Items in this lesson

AGE 8. The Time of Citizens and Steam Engines
6.2 The Social Issue


Slide 1 - Slide

What is this lesson about?
During the industrial revolution, there were huge social differences. Employers hired employees to do hard work but they paid them poorly. The life of labourers was hard. Socialists wanted to improve the lives of workers and find solutions to social issues. Workers united in trade unions and organised strikes. Eventually, politicians introduced social laws so the conditions of the working class improved.

Slide 2 - Slide

What you learn (to do)

  1. that men, women and children had to work in factories to earn enough money to survive
  2. that the main goal of the capitalist system is to make profit
  3. that living and working conditions were tough for labourers during the time of citizens and steam engines
  4. recognise the bad living and housing conditions of factory workers
  5. explain why this led to the emergence of political views such as socialism,

Slide 3 - Slide

people in this lesson
Samuel van Houten
Robert Owen
Charles Dickens
Karl Marx
Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis

Slide 4 - Slide

Word Duty


Capitalism: an economic system in which making profit and private ownership are essential

Employer: a person or institution which hires employees to do a certain job in exchange for a wage

Employee: works for an employer in exchange for a wage

Socialism: a political and economic system in which equality is important; ways of making money are owned by the whole society

Trade union: organisation of labourers and union leaders with the goal of improving the work situation

Social issue: the problem of bad working, health and living conditions of the labourers

Social laws: laws that helped to improve the living and working conditions of labourers

Slide 5 - Slide

Important dates in this lesson:

1874: "Children's Law" of van Houten

Slide 6 - Slide


Charles Dickens was only eleven years old when he was sent to work in a factory. His parents had an enormous debt and he had to work 10 hours a day, for a minimum wage, to help pay it off. They failed and his father was sent to prison, leaving Charles in the factory and on the streets. As an adult, this experience inspired him to write books and Charles Dickens became one of England’s greatest authors. In his stories, he describes the hard life in the industrial cities and the poor working and living conditions during the industrial revolution in Britain.

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Differences in a new class system

In the book Oliver Twist, Dickens describes the lives of poor children in Britain. He tells how they grew up to do hard work, became beggars or were trained to become criminals. Dickens wrote it to show the huge gap between rich and poor, and to help improve their situation.
During the age of citizens and steam engines, a new class system developed all over industrialised Europe. The social differences no longer only focused on lords and serfs, but shifted to employer and employee.
Factory owners became the new rich. These were mostly self-made men who had built up their factory from scratch. They hired labourers to work in their factories. In exchange they paid them, but these salaries were low. The reason for the low wages was that the factory owners wanted to make as much profit as possible.

  1. write down the title of this paragraph
  2. explain the new class system
  3. why did the employers keep the employees' wages low?

Bottom: Charles Dickens (1812-1870), portrayed in his study.
Top: Oliver Twist was a novel that over time was made into musicals and films.

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Making profit

Employers used the profit to invest in their companies, for example to buy new machines. This economic system to make profit by investing money in your company is called capitalism. They also used their money to pay for their own comfortable lives. Some factory owners lived in big houses, had plenty of food and expensive clothes, while their employees struggled to survive.
At first there was hardly any resistance to these inequalities. Many believed that God had made the world this way and this should be respected. The poet Cecil Frances Alexander wrote a hymn for children about it: ’The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, God made them, high and lowly, And order’d their estate.’

A girl working at a weaving machine in a factory. Painting by Rodriguez, (1882).

  1. write down the title of this paragraph
  2. what is capitalism?
  3. why was there hardly any resistance to the inequality?

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Wealthy middle-class citizens in their well-decorated house. Painting by Ludwig August Most (1844).

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A tough life for labourers

The working class in the industrialised countries had a tough life because of the physically hard labour they had to do on workdays, which could last more than fourteen hours. Standing behind a machine all day could be very monotonous. This combined with exhaustion, illnesses and drunkenness or feeling faint of hunger, caused accidents. People regularly lost hands, got burned, were buried when the mines collapsed or died when they got stuck in a machine. The factory buildings were an unsafe and filthy environment. They were filled with smoke, dust and soot that damaged the lungs when inhaled and there was constant buzz of machines. You would think that nobody wanted to do the work, but the opposite was true. It was very difficult to find and keep a job. Employers knew that there were plenty of labourers to choose from and they were not afraid to fire people. For factory owners it was easy to find someone else to do the job, sometimes even for a lower salary.

A slum street in the late nineteenth century.

  1. write down the title of this paragraph
  2. can you give examples of why workers' lives were tough?
  3. why did workers accept the bad conditions and low wages?
  4. Why could factory owners pay such low wages?

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The start of socialism

Robert Owen was a factory owner with a different approach. He had the vision to improve the working and living conditions of his employees, by founding his own community around his factory. Owen made sure that his workers were paid higher wages, he reduced their working days to eight hours and he built good houses. He also made sure that children could go to school. Among his employees, there was almost no drunkenness and poverty and Owen had a good relationship with his workers.

In New Lanark schools, Robert Owen pioneered new methods of teaching, involving the use of pictures, maps, and charts. He thought that education should be natural and spontaneous, but most of all enjoyable. Music, dancing and games became an important part of school life.

  1. write down the title of this paragraph
  2. In what way was Robert Owen different from other factory owners?

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Robert Owen is considered to be one of the founders of socialism. Socialists believe that a perfect society can be made if the government focuses on making everybody more equal. At the beginning of the age of citizens and steam engines, the government did not bother to protect the poor, which had always been a task for the church or through donations from private benefactors. Socialists wanted the government to reduce the difference between rich and poor by regulating the capitalistic free market and reducing exploitation by factory owners. Labourers should be protected through laws and have more rights, for example the right to vote for representatives in the government. Institutions, such as banks, transportation and even factories should be in common ownership.

a workers meeting in the 19th century.
the text on the banner says:
8 hours work
8 hours rest
8 hours recreation

  1. what is socialism? (!)
  2. what did socialists want (three things)

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The first trade unions and social laws

The concentration of people in cities led to workers gainning more knowledge of the world. They talked to each other and got information from labourers in other cities and about the lives of the rich. Influenced by socialist views, they learned that they could unite to protest against the factory owners. They started to unite in trade unions: organisations of labourers and union leaders with the goal of improving the work situation. One of the weapons they could use was to strike. During a strike they stopped the work and demonstrated for better working conditions. Factory owners and governments sometimes responded by firing labourers, cutting salaries or even by using violence. This did not always work because the workers were with many and could force the employers to negotiate and come to better terms.

Workers are on strike, demanding better wages. (1878, Blackburn, UK)
  1. write down the title of this paragraph
  2. what did workers learn from socialist ideas?
  3. what are trade unions? (!)
  4. why was strike a powerful weapon for workers?

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an old and a modern print of Marx' book "Das Kapital"

In 1867 the German philosopher Karl Marx wrote 'Das Kapital'. In this book he describes that a revolution of labourers is the only way to stop the abuse of the capitalistic system. He and his book played a central role for socialists.

Next year you will learn that Marx' ideas had enormous effects on the history of the 20th century...

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The social issue

The situation of the labourers also did not stay unnoticed by politicians. After hearing stories from workers, they felt that they had to find a solution for this social issue, the bad working, health and living conditions of the labourers. Commissions were sent to visit factories and check conditions.
More people felt that politicians had to come up with social laws. Also in the Netherlands, social laws were made to help the poor, such as the Poverty law of 1854 to defend the rights of the workers. In 1874, ‘the Children’s law of van Houten’ was introduced. This law forbade factory owners from hiring children under the age of twelve. In the years that followed socialists fought for more of such laws that led to fewer working hours, minimum wages and financial help for people who were old or unable to work. Preacher Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis was an important Dutch socialist leader who helped implement social laws in the Netherlands. He was so well loved that his funeral was attended by 12,000 factory workers.

De fabriekskinderen: "Leve mijnheer van Houten", Johan Michaël Schmidt Crans, 1874
  1. write down the title of this paragraph
  2. what was the social issue?
  3. what kind of people now got involved in the social issue and how did they want to change things?
  4. what are social laws?
  5. give some examples of social laws

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Slide 18 - Video