Characters in Opposition as Teaching Tools in Martineau's "A Manchester Strike" (ENG 436)

Engraving of Manchester in 1840 by Percy William Justine [Public Domain]
Characters in Opposition as Teaching Tools in Martineau’s “A Manchester Strike”

Harriet Martineau was a prolific Victorian author whose worked spanned history, fiction, social commentary, education, and political advocacy for causes she believed in, and who “was particularly devoted to adult education.” (Rossi 357) While her work remains difficult to categorize, the intent behind her series of stories collectively published as Illustrations of Political Economy was clear: Martineau wrote Illustrations to “tell ‘the people’ how to abide by the laws of economic necessity” (Sanders, 119). In “A Manchester Strike” Harriet Martineau specifically addresses the struggle of the English working class faced with declining wages, large families, and the impacts of industrialization. "In "A Manchester Strike" Martineau uses characters in opposition to illustrate economic theories regarding labor, wages, capital investment, and market forces, which were prevalent at the time. 

Political economy, today referred to simply as the study of Economics, was a relatively new field and scholars such as David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus were working to solve problems of rapid population growth set against scarce resources in a landscape rapidly transforming from agriculturally based to an industrialized one. The convergence of industry, human migration into cities for work, and a large poor population with little or no avenue for upward mobility in a class-based society, motivated Martineau to educate the working class and to influence their choices and understanding on economic issues as well as moral ones—as reflected in her frequent encouragement of preventive checks on population growth within specific tales such as "Weal and Woe." In order to understand the basis of Martineau’s arguments as presented in “Manchester,” it is important to understand where those theories originated. 

Martineau studied the writings of classical political economists, the most significant of which at the time were Adam Smith whose Wealth of Nations was the first theory published in 1776 to address the idea of economic growth, and his successors whose theories were dominant in Martineau’s day, Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo. Her work in Illustrations draws significantly from the theories both men. In fact, Martineau felt “It was [her] business in illustrating Political Economy, to exemplify Malthus’s doctrine among the rest.” (Autobiography 170) Malthus’s writing on population vs. resource scarcity and Ricardo’s views on profits and business viability are clearly represented in “A Manchester Strike.” However, while the theories in Martineau’s writing were current at the time, they are no longer accurate and have been overcome both by events and economic thought with the benefit of more than 160 additional years of study.

Malthus was a mathematician, a clergyman (for a brief period), and the first professional economist  in history when he was hired as a consultant to the East India Company. Malthus argued that population growth would always be in conflict with the resources available. (Barber 57) In his work, An Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798, Malthus wrote:
I think I may fairly make two postulata. First, That [sic] food is necessary to the existence of man. Secondly, That [sic] the passion between the sexes is necessary, and will remain nearly in its present state. … Assuming, then, my postulate as granted, I say, that the power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man. Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence only increases in an arithmetical ratio.  A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison with the second. (qtd. in Barber 59) 
Essentially, Malthus believed human population growth outpaced resource growth. According to William Barber, Malthus also proposed that “a war between the powers of human reproduction and the production of food would be perpetual.” (59). Malthus’ essay “Principle of Population” goes on to state:
The number of labourers also being above the proportion of the work in the market, the price of labour must tend toward a decrease; while the price of provisions would at the same time tend to rise. The labourer therefore must work harder to the same as he did before. During this season of distress, the discouragements to marriage and the difficulty of rearing a family are so great, the population is at a stand. (qtd. in Barber 59)
Martineau draws heavily on Malthus’s theories in “Manchester”—they serve as the scholarly explanation for the plight for of a starving population of families with more children for which they can provide. Additionally, Martineau addresses the idea of profit for the "capitalists," which we would today simply refer to as "employers" or "business owners." Those arguments draw heavily from David Ricardo’s work. 

David Ricardo, a contemporary and friend of Malthus, was recognized to be the leading economist of his time. (Barber 78) He first published his work, Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, in 1817 but continued to revise it over the following years. In the third edition of Principles Ricardo wrote:
I am convinced, that the substitution of machinery for human labour, is often very injurious to the interests of the class of labourers. … [I] see reason to be satisfied that the one fund, from which landlords and capitalists derive their revenue, may increase, while the other, that upon which the laboring class mainly depend, may diminish, and therefore it follows, if I am right, that the same cause which may increase the net revenue of the country, may at the same time render the population redundant, and deteriorate the condition of the labourer. (qtd. in Barber 86) 
In this theory, Ricardo identified the struggles that would arise in the industrial age, struggles which inform Martineau’s writing. The characters in “Manchester” are caught in the middle of this struggle as they work in factories which increase productivity through implementation of increasing amounts of machinery which reduces the amount of human labor that is required. Ricardo’s theories span a great number of fundamental economic problems and his writings on what motivates employers and owners to stay in business, as well as what motivates labor to continue working is also central to Martineau’s writing. Ricardo states:
The farmer and manufacturer can no more live without profit, than the labourer without wages. Their motive for accumulation will diminish with every diminution of profit, and will cease altogether when their profits are so low as not to afford them an adequate compensation for their trouble, and the risk which they must necessarily encounter in employing their capital productively. (qtd. in Barber 88)
Ricardo’s theories on what motivates labor and employers is also central to Martineau’s writing in “Manchester.” The struggle the laborers find themselves in is that of diminishing wage rates. The owners, or “masters,” as a result of the strike also suffer diminished returns. Martineau tackles these complex issues by setting characters in conflict and through that opposition uses dialogue to explain economic theories to her reader.

“Manchester” places the reader at the center of a labor strike for the equalization of wages, which as predicted by Malthus, are decreasing as population increases. The strike for equalization of pay plays out slowly and throughout the days and weeks it progresses, Martineau describes the abject poverty of the workers and the impact of their strike on the families. The extended suffering and spiraling from poverty into near famine continues throughout the story and with the depiction, Martineau paints the picture that labor by attempting to force change through the strike, is actually exacerbating the situation and workers should instead pursue smaller families rather than to attempt to force the masters to change wage rates.

Martineau casts William Allen as the reluctant hero. Allen exemplifies the kind of calm, sure, morally upstanding person Martineau uses as an example for conduct for the working class. Allen is  devoted, kind to his neighbors, treats his family respectfully, and puts duty in front of his personal desires. When he is asked by his fellow workers organizing a strike to represent them, he does not want to lead the effort, but his sense of duty requires him to set aside his personal misgivings and to represent the labor movement. He “did not … dally with his duty, but it cost him a bitter pang.” (Illustrations, 165) Allen faces conflicts with other workers, most notably Clack, but primarily he is the face of the opposition to the masters, Mr. Mortimer and Rowe, Mr. Wentworth, and Mr. Elliott.

The four masters, represent the spectrum of relationships between labor and owners—Mortimer and Rowe represent the middle of the road, both in their relationships and views on their labor force. Mortimer and Rowe are also set against one another as Rowe is portrayed as sympathetic to the workers, but unable to effect change due to his junior position in the firm. Mr. Wentworth is the wise old master that has rebuilt his business and wealth from bankruptcy and, therefore, understands the labor struggle. Mr. Elliott exemplifies the separation between classes despite offering the highest wages to his workers. Elliott’s encounter with Clack brings the divide into sharp focus when he strikes Clack with his riding whip and says, “How dare you handle my reign with your greasy fingers?” (Illustrations 156). In addition to these primary male figures devoted to developing the issues of the strike, Martineau also includes a condemnation of child labor in “Manchester” through Hanna Bray and Martha Allen, William Allen’s daughter. 

Martineau uses the benevolent Mr. Wentworth to educate the workers (and readers) when he explains that when “labour is unusually profitable, laborers provide for a great decline in wages in future years, by bringing up large families to the same employment.” (198) Wentworth also reinforces the population argument when he asks Allen if people “have a right to comfortable subsistence in return for full and efficient labour, provided he does not, by his own act, put that subsistence beyond his reach.” (Martineau’s emphasis, Illustrations169) It is notable that Martineau uses Allen and Wentworth as the primary voices in opposition that describe the many facets of the conflict between labor and the business owners; however, both of them speak with one voice to pass Martineau’s message that poor families should have fewer children in order to ensure prosperity by creating fewer laborers to dilute the wage potential of all workers and thereby ensure prosperity for everyone. With these scenes and through the voices of her characters, Martineau is channeling both Malthus and Ricardo—the echoes of both men’s theories are clear.

In addition to the adult characters’ struggles, Martineau uses the children, Martha Allen and Hannah Bray, to both drive home the point of suffering for families that cannot provide for their children and the struggles children themselves face as workers in factories. Martha works in the same factory as William Allen while Hannah Bray is a homeless street performer that travels and also works with her father who plays instruments while she sings and dances to entertain people—they essentially panhandle. She sets a homeless child against a working child and depicts Hannah as “strong and plump” while Martha limps and is feeble with aching knees. ("A Manchester Strike" 140-7) At the height of the family’s struggle, Martha has to surrender both her dog and her bullfinch because the family can no longer afford to feed and keep them. This extreme depiction of poverty pulls at the readers' heartstrings and reinforces Martineau’s agenda to influence readers to consider family size against their ability to provide for their families. 

Hanna’s father Bray also foreshadows what will happen to William Allen after the strike—he will lose his job and be cast aside for his role in the strike; Bray is forced to street performance because he also incited a labor conflict and was cast out of the workforce. William Allen, in turn, has to work a water-cart in the summer and as a street sweeper in winter. As the strike winds down and workers and owners reach an agreement, only two-thirds of the workforce are re-employed, and Allen is not among them. This ending is an exclamation point to Martineau’s position on labor organization and its futility in light of the principles and laws Malthus and Ricardo wrote about. 

Martineau’s “A Manchester Strike” is both an educational vehicle and a warning derived from the economic thought prevalent at the time. Through the depiction of extreme suffering and an ending in which the main characters are worse off than when they began, Martineau warns readers against both failing to apply checks to the population and against fighting against principles of economic growth based on ignorant assumptions and a lack of understanding. She advocates that people have a duty to society and that the well-being of the greater number is above that of the individual. Martineau uses both caustic and benevolent characters like Clack and Allen respectively, pitted against one another at times, and in full agreement at others, to make her point.  Further, Martineau deliberately casts the hero down to further illustrate the goodness of William Allen in accepting his lot without complaint because he knows he did his duty. “A Manchester Strike” is a complicated representation of the struggles faced by Martineau’s era in adapting to a new economic system driven by innovation and industrialization. Deborah Logan writes that with Illustrations of Political Economy, Martineau “forged and entirely new genre whose innovativeness was peculiarly suited to society’s needs in 1832” (Logan 29). Martineau’s work was a valiant effort to educate the working classes on the leading thoughts on economic progress and growth of her time.

Works Cited
Barber, William J. A History of Economic Thought. Wesleyan UP, 2009.
Logan, Deborah Anna. Introduction. Illustrations of Political Economy: Selected Tales. By Harriett Martineau. Edited by Deborah Anna Logan. Broadview Editions, 2004, pp. 9-50.
Martineau, Harriett. “A Manchester Strike.” Illustrations of Political Economy: Selected Tales. Edited by Deborah Anna Logan. Broadview Editions, 2004. pp. 137-216.
---. Autobiography, edited by Linda H. Peterson. Nineteenth-Century British Autobiographies, 2007
Rossi, Alice S. "Harriet Martineau: Theoretical and Methodological Perspectives." Contemporary Sociology, vol. 31, no. 3, 2002, pp. 356-57. ProQuest,, doi:
Sanders, Valerie. "Harriet Martineau: Authorship, Society and Empire." The Gaskell Journal, vol. 25, 2011, pp. 119-21. ProQuest,

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