The Industrial Revolution: Transformation of Cities and the Urban Experience

Europeans faced issues such as pollution, health, disease, poverty, and crime.


The Industrial Revolution started in Britain in the late 18th century. Through raw materials, the improvement of machinery and transportation, which created many more factories, lead to the start of the Industrial Revolution. While we consider it a great achievement in history, many people of Europe at the time suffered through the new changes. In fact, the revolution changed almost every aspect of their lives. Many new workers had to migrate to cities for work. Here they faced difficulties with pollution, health, disease, poverty, and crime. These social issues were all results of the Industrial Revolution and the changes to the cities. We cannot help but ask ourselves this question: How did industrialization transform cities and the urban experience?


Source: Hardie, D. W. F., A History of the Chemical Industry in Widnes, Imperial Chemical Industries Limited, 1950. Date: Late 19th century

A rising problem that came from the Industrial Revolution was pollution. With all of the machinery improvements and the building of large factories, two different types of pollution (air and water pollution) arose. Many factories were meshed together and located on the edge of the rivers. Coal was the main energy source for these factories, and the smoke from the coal was released into the air. This caused smog to form throughout the cities, and dangerous chemicals polluted the air. From the Description of Manchester, Friedrich Engels states, “In dry weather, a long string of the most disgusting, blackish-green, slime pools are left standing on this bank, from the depths of which bubbles of miasmatic gas constantly arise and give forth a stench unendurable even on the bridge forty or fifty feet above the surface of the stream.”1  Standards of Living describes the problems associated with sewage run off, “In some cases town sewage was allowed to flow into the rivers from which the water companies were taking their water supply.”2 The factories were tied closely to the rivers, which caused pollution to runoff into several main water sources. This contamination lead to water pollution. Friedrich Engels emphasizes that many rivers, which were used for drinking water, became polluted by runoff from factories. Subsequently, the British still drank the water, which made the majority of the population ill.  The overcrowding of the city led to a higher percentage of illness and made it easier for disease to spread. For more information on pollution, click here.

Health and Disease

(“The Silent Highwayman” (1858). Death rows on the Thames, claiming the lives of victims who have not paid to have the river cleaned up.” Source: Cartoon from Punch Magazine, Volume 35 Page 137; 10 July 1858

Many diseases and health problems occurred because of pollution. During this era the public lacked knowledge of general hygiene, which led to sanitary issues. The result caused many people to have a low immune systems, making them easily susceptible to diseases such as cholera, smallpox, typhoid, and tuberculosis. Subsequently, many factories dealt with air pollution resulting in the spread of airborne diseases. This was caused by dangerous chemicals from industrial factories. The public often inhaled this substance, causing many people to contract tuberculosis (TB).  Another issue was water pollution which caused one of the most feared diseases of this era, cholera. The public contracted cholera by drinking the contaminated water from the rivers, causing major health problems. From “Health and Hygiene in the Nineteenth Century”, Bruce Haley states, “before it had run its course it claimed 52,000 lives”.  He then goes on to state, “the progress of the illness in cholera victim was a frightening spectacle: two of three died of diarrhea which increased intensity and became accompanied by painful retching; thirst and dehydration; sever pain in limbs, stomach, and abdominal muscles; a change skin hue to a sort of bluish-grey.”3 This disease caused fear and panic because most people used river water as their main source of drinking water. Most importantly this issue is essential to living standards because you cannot survive without water.

Poverty and Destitution

(A correctional institution, with criminals being punished) Source: Author: Google scan of 1864 book by Henry Mayhew & John Binny

People who lived in poverty could not support family living standards. From “Slums and Slumming in Late-Victorian London”, Dr. Andrzej Diniejko said, “in the last decade of the nineteenth century London’s population expanded to four million, which spurred a high demand for cheap housing. London slums arose initially as a result of rapid population growth and industrialization.”4 The most common slums were in East London, which became known as  “darkest London”. East London was mostly inhabited by the working classes, consisting of: native English population, Irish immigrants, immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, poor Russians, and Polish and German Jews. From “The Learning Curve, Crime and Punishment”,  it lists the following as most common crimes: Murder, burglary, robbery, receiving stolen goods, assaulting and inflicting bodily harm, shooting and stabbing.5 There was no modern police force before the Industrial Revolution. The Metropolitan Police Act of 1829 was established making this modern police force an immediate success.  From “Crime and the Industrial Revolution: British and American Views”, Roger Lane states that,  “Much of the impetus came from Methodists concerned with reforming the vicious habits of the poor.”6 The creation of the Metropolitan Police Act came from high concerns regarding crime caused by the poor.  Another area of crime was the working class which often attacked factories. One example of this was from Labor Protest: Luddite Attack on a Water-Powered Textile Mill in the West Riding of Yorkshire, which talked about attacks on a water-powered textile mill. Workers were angry at the machinery that overtook their jobs, so they broke into this mill and destroyed all of the machinery inside.7 It’s clear that the working class had anger for low wages and would fight for better living standards. This frustration represents the anger related to the machinery replacements. In turn, this resulted in a high rate of crime during the Industrial Revolution.


The Industrial Revolution was a key foundation of transforming cities and the urban experience.  Europeans faced issues such as pollution, health, disease, poverty, and crime. Factories were shaped identically along the riverside. This resulted in the first generation of pollution. As this development continued, the water became contaminated. Along with air pollution, this caused an uprise in new diseases such as: cholera, smallpox, typhoid, and tuberculosis. In some cases these diseases led to death. Cholera was considered to be the most dangerous, and this disease made the pubic uneasy because it was directly correlated to their drinking water. Without water the population couldn’t survive, but it also had the potential of making you extremely ill. Overcrowding was another issue that struck fear into this era. The result of overcrowding forced a majority of Europeans into poverty.  Which then led to a higher rate in crime. These crimes consisted of murder, burglary, robbery, receiving stolen goods, assaulting and inflicting bodily harm, shooting and stabbing.  In order to establish the balance of crime, The Metropolitan Police Act of 1829 was established.  This helped create order and balance for the Industrial Revolution.


  1. Friedrich, Engels. The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844.  Translated by Swan Sonnenschein & Co. London. 45-53. “n.d.”
  2. Dean, Phyllis. “The First Industrial Revolution.” Google Books. Syndicate of the U of Cambridge,n.d. Web. 3 May 2016. <
  3. Douglas, Laurelyn. “Health and Hygiene in the Nineteenth Century.” The Victorian Web. Last modified October 11, 2002. Web.
  4. Litt, Dr. Andrezej D., ed. “Slums and Slumming in Late-Victorian London.” The Victorian Web. Last modified October 3, 2013. Web.
  5. Culpin, Chris. “Crime and Punishment Statistics.” National Archives. Ed. Tom O’ Leary and Emma Nixon. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 May 2016 < g07/g07cs2.htm>.
  6. Lane, Roger. Crime and the Industrial Revolution: British and American Views: Journal of Social History. Vol. 7.3: 287–303. Web.
  7. Wiesner, Merry, Andrew Evans, William Wheeler, and Julius Ruff. “Labor Old and New: The Impact of the Industrial Revolution.” In Discovering The Western Past: A Look At The Evidence, 133-67. Seventh ed. Vol. II. Stamford, CT: n.p., 2008.

Originally published by Foundations of Western Culture, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.