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The Condition of the Working Class in England

Engels, Friedrich
1958 (Translation)

Engels, Friedrich, The Condition of the Working Class in England, translated and edited by W. O. Henderson and W. H. Chaloner (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958), 33 – 35. Original written in 1845.

This excerpt comes from a book written by Friedrich Engels in 1845. Engels was an immigrant from Germany who traveled and lived in England. He was a socialist and a writing partner of Karl Marx. What specific details does he give as evidence of the condition in slums? How would his perspective influence his writing? What words and phrases give evidence of his perspective?  Some historians argue that the standard of living for the poor fell in the 1830s and 1840s, because so many former spinners and weavers were unemployed. Spinning and weaving had provided work for many poor people in the countryside, but that work ended when spinning and weaving were mechanized. This fall in the standard of living may have been one of the causes of the cholera outbreaks in the 1840s.


segregated: separated

terrace houses: houses that are right next to each other with no gap in between

strewn: covered with 

refuse: garbage

ventilation: access to air through windows

slops: sewage; there were few or no toilets — people used pans and threw the contents out into the streets


emit: send out

Friedrich Engels is most famous for co-writing The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx. Engels chose to write about conditions of the working class in Britain because industrialism was most advanced there. He wanted his book to serve as a warning to Germans about the dangers of industrial capitalism. He cites overcrowding, separate neighborhoods for the poor, unpaved and dirty streets, lack of drainage and gutters, lack of ventilation, and piles of garbage and sewage. His Marxist perspective led him to write about the poor, and he clearly sympathized with them, but he also took pains to cite factual information and quotes from other sources, such as the minister of Bethnal Green. Students should understand that Engels was biased, just as all writers are biased, but the specific evidence he cites to support his interpretations makes this a more credible source.

[There are] slum areas into which the working classes are packed . . . [T]he workers are segregated in separate districts where they struggle through life as best they can out of sight of the more fortunate classes of society. The slums of the English towns have much in common — the worst houses in a town being found in the worst districts. They are generally unplanned wildernesses of one or two-storied terrace houses built of brick. . . . The streets themselves are usually unpaved and full of holes. They are filthy and strewn with animal and vegetable refuse. Since they have neither gutters nor drains, the refuse accumulates in stagnant, stinking puddles. Ventilation in the slums is inadequate owing to the hopelessly unplanned nature of these areas. A great many people live huddled together in a very small area. . . . Piles of refuse and ashes lie all over the place and the slops thrown out into the street collect in pools which emit a foul stench.
[A quote from a minister about the parish of Bethnal Green:] “It contains 1,400 houses, inhabited by 2,795 families, comprising a population of 12,000. . . . [I]t is no uncommon thing for a man and his wife, with four or five children, and sometimes the grandfather and grandmother, to be found living in a room from ten to twelve feet square, and which serves them for eating and working in.”