The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban Literary Studies

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Engels: The Condition of the Working Class in England

  • Jeremy TamblingEmail author
Living reference work entry


This chapter discusses the 1845 book by the German philosopher Friedrich Engels, the study of the working class in Victorian England.


Friedrich Engels (28 November 1820–5 August 1895), born in Germany, in Barmen (since 1929, part of Wuppertal, a town east of Düsseldorf, both just south of the Ruhr), was the son of a Pietist (i.e., highly Protestant) cotton textile mill-owner who had a plant there, and in Weaste, Salford, which is now part of Greater Manchester. Barmen’s neighboring town was Elberfield, where Engels attended the local Gymnasium; already, in 1839, he described the demoralized life of factory workers there, and the gap between them and “respectable people,” meaning the Pietists. He notes the consumptiveness present, the syphilis, the child labor, and the “terrible distress among the lower classes, particularly among the factory operatives in the valley of the River Wupper” (Henderson 1967: 123–124).

At the age of seventeen, he began work at a commercial office in Bremen and wrote articles; and in Berlin as part of his military service, he associated with the Berlin “Young Hegelians” and met Karl Marx (1818–1883), who was editing Rheinische Zeitung, in Cologne in 1842. The Young Hegelians – David Strauss, Bruno Bauer, Ludwig Feuerbach, Carl Nauwerck, Arnold Ruge, and Max Stirner, among others – were radical, anti-Christianity and believed in history as a force for progress, and for Marx took no account of economic determinants, which made them idealists. Engels, however, was not a Young Hegelian, influenced here by Moses Hess (1812–1876), from Bonn, a Paris-based contributor to the Rheinische Zeitung.

Engels’s father sent him to Manchester to work in the office of Ermen and Engels, where he engaged with the older socialism of Robert Owen (1771–1858). Owen was of the same generation as the “utopian” socialists Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825) and Charles Fourier (1772–1837); and he became interested in Chartism, a movement which had begun in 1837, with its paper, the Northern Star, edited from Leeds by Fergus O’Connor (1796–1855). Chartism persisted as a mainly northern-based movement with petitions presented to Parliament in 1839 and 1842, concluding in 1848. For a brief history of Manchester, see Briggs (1968: 88–138); for Chartism, from a huge bibliography, see Dorothy Thompson (1984, 2015).

In 1844, Engels met Marx again in Paris, and in Barmen, collected earlier articles he had written such as The Conditions of the Working Class in England (Die Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England) which was published in Leipzig in Germany in 1845, and in English in 1887. His association with Marx continued with the works The Holy Family (1845), The German Ideology (1845–1846 – against the Young Hegelians), and The Communist Manifesto (21 February 1848), all in Brussels, the capital of the newly established (1830) nation of Belgium. Marx had been expelled from Paris on 3 February 1845, on the request of the Prussian King, Frederick William IV. In 1848, Marx and Engels were living in Cologne, writing for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung.

Marx returned to Cologne, but was exiled by the highly reactionary Prussian state after the attempted coup of June 1849. (The Berlin-based government was in any case out of sympathy with the rapid industrialization in the Rhine and the Ruhr.) Marx came to London, first to Dean Street in Soho, then in Kentish Town, and Belsize Park. In 1850, Engels had taken part in the armed Baden uprising in south-west Germany and had had to escape via Switzerland and Genoa. He settled in Manchester with his father’s firm, becoming a partner in 1864. He retired in 1869, and all his work was aimed at supporting Marx financially in his writing. He was to edit the second and third volumes of Capital (1885 and 1894) which appeared after Marx’s death in 1883: the first volume had appeared in 1867. For nearly 20 years he lived with the Irish Mary Burns (1821–1863), whom he met in Salford, and he then lived with her sister, Lydia, who died in 1878. In London after 1870, he brought out Anti-Dühring (1878), a popular work on socialism. His other works include The Peasant War in Germany (1850), repositioning this as less religious in motivation than economic, class-based, and highly critical of Luther; The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), the presentation of work by the American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan in his book Ancient Society (1877), critical of the family, patriarchy, and monogamy. One of his influences was on Margaret Harkness (1854–1923), friend of Eleanor Marx, Olive Shreiner, and Annie Besant, and author of A City Girl: A Realistic Portrait (1887), Out of Work (1887), Captain Lobe (1889), and In Darkest London (1889). He advised her to show the proletariat as active in resistance, not as passive; which means he stood more for realism than for socialist realism (Nord: 743–744).

Manchester and Literature

Apart from Mary Burns, who must have given Engels some practical guidance, the authorities whom Engels relied on for information about Manchester were the Rochdale-born medic and educationalist James Kay-Shuttleworth (1804–1877 here, simply called “Kay,” since his name was to change with his marriage) and Peter Gaskell, a surgeon, author of The Manufacturing Population of England (1833). Rochdale was also the birthplace of John Bright (1811–1889), the leader of the Anti-Corn Law League, along with the Manchester businessman Richard Cobden (1804–1865). Engels was not impressed with their middle-class radicalism. Engels mentions other sources in his footnotes, but another to be noted is Thomas Carlyle (1795–1881), who though he was to become highly reactionary, was fascinated by Germany and German literature, which gave him a link to Engels, and he wrote passionately on Chartism (1839), and in Past and Present (1843) he showed his awareness of the horrors of industrial England and Scotland.

The 1840s saw a rise in fiction addressing industrial issues. It came partly under the inspiration of Carlyle, but also because of Chartism and the outrage of the Whig-Benthamite Poor Law Amendment Act (1834), which Engels especially demolishes in an angry attack, along with an attack on Thomas Malthus and his sense that a “surplus population” was created by the poor, poverty being, virtually, a crime (Engels 2005: 282–285). Engels’ work must be seen in the context of these “social problem novels,” or those dealing with “the condition of England” (a phrase from Carlyle), whose subject was the urban poor. Examples to be noted include the following (and the number of women writing here will be noticed):
  • Dickens, Oliver Twist (1839) – against the Poor Law Amendment Act; The Old Curiosity Shop (1840) – scenes in Birmingham, and Hard Times (1854) – “Coketown,” which is Preston, and Manchester.

  • Frances Trollope, Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy 1839–1840 – on the Ten Hours movement, which eventually limited work to 10 h a day (1847) – set in Manchester.

  • Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, Helen Fleetwood (1841) – set in Manchester; on child labor.

  • Elizabeth Stone, William Langshawe, the Cotton Lord (1842) – set in Manchester.

  • Benjamin Disraeli, Coningsby (1844) – set in Manchester; Sybil, or the Two Nations (1845) –set in the Northeast, Birmingham, and London.

  • Elizabeth Gaskell in Mary Barton (1848), the first novel in English to use the word “communist” (Gaskell 1969: 160, and indeed assimilating this to Chartism), and North and South (1855).

  • Charlotte Brontë, Shirley (1849) – Yorkshire mill towns.

  • Charles Kingsley, Alton Locke (1849) – set in London, but as a Chartist novel, aware of Sheffield, Bradford, and Manchester.

  • Geraldine Jewsbury, Marian Withers (1851) – Jewsbury was the daughter of a cotton manufacturer and writes about Manchester here.

The difference between these texts, most of which Engels would have called “liberal” in inspiration, and his own very different approach is that they look for a reconciliation between the classes, something very clearly seen in Mrs Gaskell. He, however, sees the “proletariat,” a word which deriving from the lowest class of Roman citizens who had no property rights and who produced children for the state (a meaning not lost on Engels), as locked into a social war with the middle classes. Hence relationships within towns are adversarial. The argument is unassailable: for criticism of Engels looking on as an outsider, and not quite aware of working-class consciousness, see Lucas, 1975, 461–472.

Engels and “The Great Towns” : London

Engels arrived in London in late 1842 and first discusses that city, first noting, impressed, the view that the Thames offers as the ship comes up the estuary from the North Sea to London Bridge. However, that perception gives way to another: how many qualities of human nature have been sacrificed to produce this civilization. The turmoil of the streets and the crowds deny human togetherness and common interests. People “crowd by one another as though they had nothing in common, nothing to do with one another, and their only agreement is the tacit one, that each keeps to his own side of the pavement, so as not to delay the opposing streams of the crowd” (Engels 2005: 69). What has been produced is the dissolution of mankind into “monads”; that is, beings of which nothing can be said about what they are in terms of the interior. Hence the “social war, the war of each against all”: a Hobbesian analysis which Engels returns to several times, but actually derived from Max Stirner’s book The Ego and Its Own (Der Einzige und sein Eigenthum), which was published in Leipzig in 1844. When Engels describes every man’s house as in a state of siege, this gives rise to a sense of the city as a paranoid structure and reflects on the attitude of homeowners. The indifference people have for each other means that the poor man finds himself in a “whirlpool” (69), an image which is repeated and which George Gissing uses as the title of his novel of 1897.

He then turns to the slums, a word emerging in the 1820s, which are, he says, common to all towns; noting their characteristics – unpaved streets, bad ventilation, bad sewage, and irregularity in the way they coexist. He is keen to note cellars, and what life goes on in them. Often he notes water supply and comments on the state of the rivers, the flooding of streets, courts, and cellars. He begins with St Giles, in Bloomsbury in London (centered on the present-day Henry Flitcroft church at the southern end of Tottenham Court Road). This, on the site of a monastery and leper hospital, and a place of execution, was where the Great Plague of London began in 1665. Later, it was the site of Hogarth’s picture “Gin Lane” (1751). Further it is the setting of the rookery which is called Tom All-Alone’s in Dickens’s Bleak House (1852–1853). OED first cites 1824 for the word “Rookery” and applies it just to this part of London: the word may have connotations of a row, a disturbance: it becomes one which Engels uses often. He specifies its proximity to Oxford Street, to Trafalgar Square, and to the Strand: all fashionable areas of London’s West End:

Here live the poorest of the poor, the worst paid workers with thieves and the victims of prostitution huddled together, the majority Irish, or of Irish extraction, and those who have not yet sunk in the whirlpool of moral ruin which surrounds them, sinking daily deeper, losing daily more and more of their power to resist the demoralising influence of want, filth, and evil surroundings. (71)

It should be added Engels later gives a chapter to “Irish immigration,” and the writing in 1856 says that “Ireland may be regarded as the first English colony … the so-called liberty of English citizens is based upon the oppression of the colonies” (Henderson, 94). The presence of the Irish, and of “the Irish-Celtic language” being spoken in “the most thickly populated parts of Manchester” (Engels 2005: 124), is a constant in The Condition of the Working Classes of England, but it starts with the rookery of St Giles, as one of the places in London for the Irish (Kirkland 2012: 16–30).

Further London slums are discussed: near Portman Square; around Drury Lane; around St George’s, Hanover Square; Whitechapel and Bethnal Green; Bermondsey, Spitalfields; even behind Grosvenor Square. Then he speaks of the homeless in London (72–76) throughout, documenting his sources from official records.

Towns Outside London

Engels passes from London to Dublin: “the approach to which from the sea is as charming as that of London is imposing,” its Bay being compared by Dubliners to the Bay of Naples. The contrast is with its slums. (Engels’s information was secondhand here: he did not visit Ireland until 1856.) From there he passes to Edinburgh, to its aristocratic New Town, and to the way in which humans share the same dwelling as dogs and horses in “wynds” (alleys) which run away from the high street of the Old Town. He notes that houses are like those of Paris, five or six storeys, unlike English houses. He then turns to Liverpool, to Bristol, Nottingham, Leicester, Derby and Sheffield, and to Glasgow; and then contrasts the countryside of the West Riding of Yorkshire with Leeds, and Bradford, before turning back to Manchester, and other Lancashire towns, such as Bolton, Stockport, Ashton-under-Lyme, and Stalybridge.


In a way which he does with no other city, Engels attempts to “map” Manchester, first by providing a literal map. The historical Manchester, a Roman settlement, was subordinate to Salford, which as a town had received a charter in 1228; but both towns entered modernity when their rivers, the Irwell (which separates the two towns) which meets the Mersey, and the Mersey itself (which flows from Stockport, dividing it from Manchester, to Liverpool), were made navigable to the sea, and the Bridgewater canal was fully cut in 1776. Richard Arkwright (1732–1792)’s spinning frame facilitated the town’s expansion from 40,000 in 1791 to a quarter of a million by 1831. It was made a municipal borough in 1838 (Engels notes the word on p. 92). Smaller rivers, the Medlock and the Irk, feed into the Irwell.

The town, birthplace of Thomas De Quincey (1785) and W.H. Ainsworth (1805), was already the site of riots, as with the Peterloo massacre of August 16, 1819, where six to eleven people and another eighty plus who were peacefully demonstrating for parliamentary reform were wounded by drunken militiamen and cavalrymen. It produced Shelley’s poem The Mask of Anarchy (1819–unpublished until 1832). Engels stresses, however, the deviousness of the middle-class oppression within the town. He notes that the central commercial district is ringed by working-class settlements, while beyond that girdle, are the areas of the bourgeoisie.

And the finest part of the arrangement is this, that the members of this money aristocracy can take the shortest road of all the labouring districts to their places of business, without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and the left. For the thoroughfares leading from the Exchange in all directions out of the city are lined, on both sides, with an almost unbroken series of shops, and so are kept in the hands of the middle and lower bourgeoisie, which, out of self-interest, cares for a decent and cleanly external appearance and can care for it. (86)

Engels gives examples. He calls it a “hypocritical plan” which he knows is common to many towns, but he says here it is very deliberate, and there is no innocence among the “bigwigs” of Manchester (87).

He then turns to specific areas, as around the river Irk (the Old Town), and comments what can be seen from its banks:

Here the background embraces the pauper burial-ground, the station of the Liverpool and Leeds railway, and, in the rear of this, the Workhouse, the ‘Poor-Law Bastille’ of Manchester, which, like a citadel, looks threateningly down from behind its high walls and parapets on the hilltop, upon the working people’s quarter below. (89)

The reference is to the Poor Law Amendment Act which made workhouses so terrifying; the station is the present-day Victoria railway station (1844), from where the original railway-line from Manchester to Liverpool (1830) ran. The language of “Bastille” is Carlylean, but it obviously recalls, for Engels, the need for revolution.

Engels shows his appreciation of machinery (like Dickens in Dombey and Son) when he notes that the railway has swept away some of the worst courts in the slums there, “laying others completely open to view” (90): a similar point recurs on p. 100, relative to the viaduct which carries the Liverpool train. Elsewhere, he speaks of the slum areas as “labyrinths” (91), and notes the pigs allowed to coexist with humans, and the “piggeries” (92). And he insists that everything which arouses horror and indignation is of “the industrial epoch” (92), a phrase the text repeats four times, the paragraph concluding that houses have been run up by “manufacture” (twice repeated) “without reference to the health or comfort of the inhabitants, with sole reference to the highest possible profit, on the principle that no hole is so bad but that some poor creature must take it who can pay for nothing better” (93).

He now turns to the New Town and discusses the mills in Ancoats – effectively an early suburb, including the present Northern Quarter. The area expanded its mills and houses after the opening of the Rochdale canal in 1804, which extends across the Pennines into Yorkshire. The recently built houses there are “ruinous” (repeated) and “in the last stages of inhabitableness” (97). These east and northeast sides are the only ones where the bourgeoisie has not built, on account of the prevailing wind (97), a noting of how the east end of towns tends to be the working-class section. He then reaches Little Ireland, to the left and right of Oxford road (and site of the present Manchester University), which is the most “horrible spot” a “rookery” (98), and then he proceeds to Salford, whose narrow streets and filth he judges worse than Manchester’s. He moves to a conclusion with the insanitary effects which cholera revealed in 1832, which led to a Health Commission reporting in 1833: here Engels provides the official statistics which it produced. The overcrowding means that “each of these houses is a focus of crime” (102). Another point he raises is inadequate and unsuitable clothing; here he quotes Carlyle’s Chartism on the Irish, and he notes them going barefoot (103). From clothing, he passes to inadequate food, and the inadequacy of provision if the father in the family (the breadwinner) is injured: “then the brutality with which society abandons its members, just when their need is greatest, comes out fully into the light of day” (108). The chapter is summed up by saying that “the great towns are chiefly inhabited by working people,” (108) which means that the towns are most victims of being left alone, and the conditions of the people fluctuate continually from comparative comfort to death by starvation.


Engels gives one of the first attempts to account for the modern city, and does so in terms of class, of class-exclusiveness, of the city as the place of manufacture, and of the industrial mill, in which he stands as contrast to those other attempts, for example, associated with Walter Benjamin, to see the city in relation to consumption. Manchester became more respectable in the second half of the nineteenth century, a symbol of this being the Free Trade Hall (1856), on the site of the Peterloo massacre, the work of Manchester-based Edward Walters (1808–1872). It is built in Italian Renaissance style and contrasts with the Gothic Town Hall (1877), the work of Alfred Waterhouse (1830–1905), with murals by the Pre-Raphaelite Ford Madox Brown (1821–1893). This newer Manchester gave rise to the Impressionism of Pierre Adolphe Valette (1876–1942), tutor of L.S Lowry (1887–1976), and reflects a more genteel and consumerist city, which had failed to create the working-class resistance Engels and Marx hoped for. Engels’ Manchester is the scene of a crime; the decoration the bourgeoisie construct, and the facades, both are, and cover the crime.

Bibliography and Further Reading

  1. Briggs, Asa. 1968. Victorian cities. Harmondsworth: Penguin.Google Scholar
  2. Carver, Terrell. 2003. Engels. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Dyos, H.J., and Michael Wolf, eds. 1973. The Victorian city: Images and realities. Vol. 2. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  4. Engels, Friedrich. 1986. The origin of the family, private property, and the state, ed. Michele Barrett. Harmondsworth: Penguin.Google Scholar
  5. Engels, Friedrich. 2005. The condition of the working class in England, ed. Victor Kiernan. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
  6. Gaskell, Elizabeth. 1969. Mary Barton: A tale of Manchester life. London: Everyman.Google Scholar
  7. Henderson, W.O. 1967. Engels: Selected writings. Harmondsworth: Penguin.Google Scholar
  8. Kettle, Arnold. 1958. The early Victorian social problem novel. In From Dickens to hardy, ed. Boris Ford. Harmondsworth: Penguin.Google Scholar
  9. Kirkland, Richard. 2012. Reading the rookery: The social meaning of an Irish slum in nineteenth-century London. New Hibernia Review 16: 16–30.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Lucas, John, and Standish Meacham. 1975. Review: Engels, Manchester and the working class: A discussion. Victorian Studies 18: 461–472.Google Scholar
  11. Marcus, Steven. 1974. Engels, Manchester, and the working class. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.Google Scholar
  12. Nord, Deborah Epstein. 1990. “Neither pairs nor odd”: Female community in late nineteenth-century London. Signs 15: 733–754.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Smith, Sheila M. 1980. The other nation: The poor in English novels of the 1840s and 1850s. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  14. Thompson, Dorothy. 1984. The chartists. London: Temple Smith.Google Scholar
  15. Thompson, Dorothy. 2015. The dignity of chartism, ed. Stephen Roberts. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  16. Tillotson, Kathleen. 1954. Novels of the eighteen-forties. Oxford: Clarendon.Google Scholar

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© The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.LondonUK