The social mobility of the early part of the industrial revolution in England was lauded in books, newspapers and official reports as evidence of the fairness of a social system which rewarded hard work. In the novel North and South the mill owner stated that it was “one of the great beauties of our system that a working man may raise himself into the power and position of a master by his own exertions and behaviour”.
Organisations such as the Bettering Society promoted thrift and self-improvement and criticised measures to aid the poor. Samuel Smiles was one of the foremost advocates of “the spirit of self-help”. His 1859 book Self-Help argued:
In many walks of life drudgery and toil must be cheerfully endured as the necessary discipline of life... He who allows his application to falter, or shirks his work on frivolous pretexts, is on the sure road to ultimate failure... even men with the commonest brains and the most slender powers will accomplish much, if they will but apply themselves wholly and indefatigably to one thing at a time... Nothing that is of real worth can be achieved without courageous working.
Workers were urged to work hard towards success, to be independent and raise themselves above their lowly stations in life through saving, striving, and industriousness.
In Britain the myth of the self-made man was evident in popular music hall songs in the 19th century, such as Work Boys Work by Harry Clifton:
Reference: Transcribed from Harry Clifton, 'Work Boys Work' on The Birth of the Music Hall. Wellington: World Record International, n.d. record.
...labour leads to wealth
Work boys, work and be contented,
Whilst it was true that many of the early English manufacturers started off as workers themselves, they tended to come from the middle classes and as time went by the opportunity for working people to become capitalists were reduced as capitalists became wealthier and the distance between capitalists and workers broadened.
The rapid increase in economic growth did not benefit all. Whilst the wealthy reaped the gains the poor seemed to get even poorer. One report showed that between 1796 and 1815 the wages of weavers in Glasgow had been reduced by 75% whilst the cost of provisions had increased 100%. Richard Pilling wrote in 1843: “I was twenty years among the hand-loom weavers, and ten years in the factory... and the longer and harder I have worked the poorer and poorer I have become every year, until at last, I am nearly exhausted.”
Once steam engines and power machines and large scale factories employing hundreds of workers became the norm, a great deal of money was needed to become a manufacturer and the small entrepreneur was squeezed out. An important pathway from worker to capitalist was closed and classes became more rigid.
In fact the much publicised gospel of improvement and self-help served only to obscure the very limited prospects and achievements of the self-made men within early and later Victorian society, and investigations of the steel and hosiery industries, for instance, have shown how little recruitment occurred from the ranks of the workers to those of the entrepreneurs.
However, there were enough oft repeated stories of individuals moving from poverty to wealth to keep alive, at least in the minds of the well-to-do, the idea that hard work could lead from rags-to-riches, despite this not being the case for the vast majority of people who were born in poverty and died in poverty after a life time of hard work. In this way the affluent were able to feel comfortable about poverty in their midst, blaming it on individual weakness rather than societal failings.
As opportunities became more limited in England and other parts of Europe, many of those wanting to make their fortune migrated to America. America had a reputation as a land of opportunity, a place where people could advance socially through their hard work.