• Search 


call for papers

Volume: II, Issue II, July-December 2011



This paper tries to portray the condition of Indian mill-workers in second half of nineteenth century. As a result of industrial revolution and the advances made in engineering and technology, the British goods flooded Indian markets giving a jolt to the indigenous industries. Establishment of mills started in India in second half of nineteenth century. Initially the condition of workers in factories was appalling. There were no regulations to prevent exploitation of labour force. However, the Factory Act of 1881 brought some changes in working conditions. The workers fought back in their own way by of assaults on overseers, sporadic riots and short-lived strikes. Trade union movement started to redress the grievances of mill workers. Before the mill owners and workers matured to respect the regulatory and humanitarian obligations, the mill workers had to pass through a grueling phase.

Keywords Content


Study of the condition of Indian mill-workers in second half of nineteenth century throws significant light on the economic policy and its socio-economic impact on Indian society. Indeed, it was in the second half of nineteenth century that establishment of mills started in India. Initially, British entrepreneurs started the mills and were soon joined by Indian mill owners. Traditional Indian industries were small-scale cottage industries and were severely threatened by large-scale industrialization as mass produced goods were introduced in the market. Textile and jute mills by far out-numbered mills of other industries. Some other industries of minor importance were woolen mills, paper mills, arms and ammunition factories, cotton ginning and pressing factories, indigo factories, rice mills, saw mills etc. Most of the mills were monopolies of foreign capitalists, only cotton mills had significant Indian ownership.

Even before the mills were established in India, mass-produced goods were imported. The industrial revolution of Europe created means of producing goods on large scale. Naturally large markets were required to consume goods produced in mass quantities. Also large sources of raw material were required for feeding raw material to European mills. To serve these requirements the British rulers of India gradually converted India into a huge market to absorb British goods and a supplier of raw material. Production of cash crops started in India in a big way. By administrative and fiscal controls the British rulers ensured that imported goods were available at lower prices than local made products. Thus as a result of industrial revolution and advances made in engineering and technology, the British goods flooded Indian markets giving a jolt to the indigenous industries.

Agrarian policies and natural calamities such as famines and epidemics rendered large numbers of peasants unemployed. Destruction of village level industries also left artisans jobless. Many artisans turned to agriculture putting even greater strain on already over-stretched peasantry. Many others preferred to look for alternative employment. They were therefore available to be employed in the mills that started in India in second half of nineteenth century. There was migration of population from rural areas to urban centers. Initially the condition of workers in factories was appalling. There were no regulations to prevent exploitation of labour force. There was no age bar and no restrictions on working hours. However, the Factory Act of 1881 brought some changes in working conditions.

The mill workers generally accepted the working conditions imposed on them. But at some places there was resistance from the workers. Organized resistance led to formation of labour unions that attempted to fight to redress the grievances of the workers. Before the mill owners and workers matured to respect the regulatory and humanitarian obligations, the mill workers had to pass through a grueling phase.

Material and Methodology

The source materials that have been used for preparing this article are mostly original. More specifically, extensive use has been made of native newspapers and Parliamentary Papers obtained from India Office Library, London in the form of microfilms.

Main Subject

The English who came to India as traders did not change their attitude of fleecing the country even after they became the rulers of India. With a motive of exploitation they simply applied their political power to serve their economic interests. Under the banner of imperialism the commercial exploitation of India continued year after year. The result was obviously the poverty of Indian people because people belonging to every class and profession in India became either passive or active victims of the British policy of exploitation1.  Indian mills and its workers met with the same fate.

The free-trade policy adopted by the British Government in 1813 as an effect of industrial revolution handicapped the entire Indian trade and brought it to a point of destruction. British-made goods flooded the Indian markets, pushing the indigenous industries almost to the point of destruction2.  Indian-born industries - cotton, textile, jute. sugar, indigo, silk and many others - failed to compete with the British as the interests of Manchester and Lancashire were always kept supreme by the British rulers in India. The Indian mill - owners and their workers and artisans were badly hit by this unequal competition. Perhaps the greatest sufferers were the Indian textile industries as they collapsed like house of cards in the race for survival and supremacy, affecting a vast number of weavers and artisans. This process was very rapid in Bengal and Bihar; elsewhere it spread like a cancerous disease with the expansion of the British rule3.  In fact, the primary object of the selfish cotton manufacturers of Manchester was to destroy the rising cotton industry in India. Unfortunately, they also got the support of the British Parliament and its members, who left no stone unturned to nip the bud of growing industries in India4.  

Not satisfied with the reduction of import duties from 7½% on English piece goods, the English merchants pressurized the Government to abolish the tariff duties altogether in 1870’s. By directing the abolition of cotton duties at the instance of the merchants of Manchester, the English Parliament also revealed the fact that the English nation could never rise above selfish considerations when their interests were at state. Considering the weak financial condition of India such a policy was nothing more than dishonest statesmanship on the part of the English5.  It was more or less a conspiracy hatched by the English politicians and manufacturers to oust the Indian goods from the market. Decrease in the value of cotton after the American Civil War had already left many Indian firms bankrupt and pushed the Indian textile industry to ruin. But instead of helping these industries the English Government under Lord Lytton ultimately abolished the import duties on cotton goods leading to further deterioration in Indian mills and textile industry. As a result local mills failed to compete successfully on equal terms with their English counterparts. Mill workers lost their jobs in thousands and even thousands of village handloom weavers were suddenly sunk into poverty6.  

The Indian capitalists in spite of great competition and opposition from English manufacturers went on establishing national industries under some very difficult conditions. It was in 1855 the first Indian cotton mill was established at Bombay. By 1879-80 there were 58 cotton spinning and weaving mills in India with an aggregate of 13,307 looms and 14, 70,830 spindles7 . Around 40,000 persons on an average worked daily in these mills. Out of these 58 cotton mills - 30 were in Bombay, 14 in Gujarat, 6 in Calcutta, 3 in Madras, 2 in North-Western Provinces, 1 in Indore and 1 in Hyderabad8. It was estimated that in 1877, of the 698.  million yards of cotton cloth sold in the Bombay market, 318 million yards were supplied by England and the rest 380 by Indian mills. These figures revealed the very serious nature of competition with which the English manufacturers had to contend with9.  Irrespective of all difficulties the number of cotton mills increased in India. From 1879 to 1895, the number of cotton mills increased from 58 to 144, that of workers from 40,000 to 139,578.The number of spindles rose from 14, 70,830 to 3.7 million and looms from 13,307 to 34,161. In 1874 alone eleven new factories were opened in Bombay. However, the rate of construction fell off because of some over-production of cotton goods, and only two factories were built over the next eight years. In 1883, Bombay’s cotton industry was supplemented by 13 mills, 8 of which belonged to Indian capitalists. In fact, after 1870 there was a remarkable rise in the production of yarn owing to its increased exports to countries like China and Japan. According to one estimate the total yarn export rose from £ 26.7 million to £ 175.5 million from 1879 to 1891. But gradually the Japanese businessmen began to build their own cotton spinning mills and the Indian manufacturers lost a big market10. 

What prevented the Indians from engaging in commercial pursuits were the increased want of capital, and not a spirit of enterprise and speculation. The facilities that existed in England for this purpose, such as abundance of capital, a low rate of interest, joint-stock companies and the like were hardly visible in India. The amount of available capital was small in India, the rate of interest was very high, and the people were not interested in forming joint-stock companies11 . The rise in cotton prices in India during the American Civil War was a short-lived affair. Profit margin in cotton declined to a greater extent after the War as there was a steep fall in the prices of Indian cotton. Apart from this, the export duty of two Annas par bale of cotton was a great burden on the trade12 . The lower prices realized were not due to any deterioration in the quantity of cotton shipped out of India, but to the English market being well-supplied at moderate prices with better cotton from America and other producing countries13. 

Excessive importations of Manchester goods were accompanied by the accumulation of the stocks of Indian mills, which had to be disposed of at any price. Most of the Indian mills were compelled to work on short time, while some others were closed and even wages of the mill workers were greatly reduced14 . The entire situation became so bad that the members of the Mill-owners’ Association resolved to close their mills for two-days in a week. Besides, the depressed state of trade and the interest of the mills demanded a diminished production. The entire supply in open market soon exceeded the demand. Excessive famine in 1875 - 76 also diminished the consumption of mill products and lessened the demand for cloths in the country. Thus, when demand was dwindling since 1875, the supply increased with the rise in number of mills. Excessive number of mills gave rise to over-production. The entire problem was further aggravated when there was stiff competition between the production of the English and Indian mills for the supply of coarse goods to India15.  At a meeting of the Bombay Mill-owners Association it was categorically stated that nearly one-third of the local mill industry had actually failed in the space of few months. Eight mills were already put into liquidation by the end of 1879 and some more were expected to follow the suit. Adding to the misery of Indian mill-owners and their workers, the British Government passed the ‘Boiler Inspection Act’ by which the Boiler Inspector was given the power to stop the working of mills in which boilers were used. The stopping of mills and other workshops inflicted a heavy loss on their owners and operators, subsequently leading to the unemployment of its workers on a large scale.

Native industries were daily declining and the special manufacturers of India were becoming rarer. By the end of 19th century production of lower quality cotton became unprofitable in America. The Chinese market was also disrupted and depression lasted till 1905. The market appeared so competitive that in India the number of spindles started growing much faster than that of looms. Due to pressure of competition on Chinese market, Indian manufacturers had to compete with the British and the Japanese ones16.  The colonial dictatorship worked against the Indian manufacturers. Things like excise tax and excessive dependence of rupee on pound sterling weakened the position of Indian importers of cotton fabrics. They purchased their machinery in Britain and paid high wages to foreign experts. As a result several Indian mills faced bankruptcy and many others closed down completely.

During 1870’s and 1880’s India suffered greatly from dangerous famines and large-scale epidemics. The home market contracted temporarily; the working people in Bombay started dying from dysentery and plague or escaping to the countryside17.  The cotton weaving by hand, particularly in Bengal, started declining at a rapid pace. But the finest qualities, such as were made at Khanakool, continued to find a ready market. On the other side the cotton manufacturers of Nadia and Burdwan, as in other districts, were seriously affected by the extensive imports of cloth from England and the establishment of machinery in the country. The fine webs of Santipur, the handlooms of Futtehpur and Bongong of Maheswar somehow retained their reputation because of their unique qualities. But in large parts of India, industries suffered mostly due to the British policies with regard to trade and commerce. With declining prospects of these textile industries, the position of their workers further deteriorated. By 1879-80 nearly 593,878 persons were found engaged in the manufacture of cotton goods in Punjab, while 135,890 and 421,599 persons were working in these industries in Central Provinces and Madras respectively. When Manchester piece goods started taking the place of country-made articles in India, very survival of these workers was seriously threatened18. 

Apart from the cotton industry, the Jute industry also suffered extensively at the hands of the British capitalists. This industry was founded back in 1850’s and 1860’s. Later on, it grew as fast as cotton production though its raw-material base was less reliable and the demand of output less stable. In 1879 there were total of 22 jute factories having 27,494 workers. These numbers further increased in 1895 to 29 jute factories and 75,157 workers. Jute industry in India was mainly located around Calcutta. Most of them were operated by steam, and the largest mill was at Alumbazar, employing 4,162 workers19.  Over the years these jute factories suffered considerably due to famine and drop in the demand for sacks. They faced a stiff competition in world markets, especially in Germany and USA. The development of both cotton and jute industries in India simply strengthened its economic dependence on England. Bengal became a monoculture province and wholly depended on British firms buying jute. Its processing in various factories of Calcutta was carried out with the help of cheap manpower, bringing the firms enormous profits. When they became the monopoly suppliers of sacks to the world markets, the British capitalists began to make even more money for themselves. They robbed the Bengali peasants when purchasing their jute, exploited the workers and appropriated monopoly rent on the world market.The workers working in these jute industries suffered at the hands of their owners and the British capitalists. It was estimated that in 1878- 79 the minimum rate of wages for unskilled labour in the jute mills of the Presidency division was six rupees a month, while the rate of skilled labour was twenty-five rupees an month. In Howrah, especially in the Burdwan division 20,000 persons were employed in paper mills, cotton mills, jute mills, iron manufactories, dockyards, the workshops and goods sheds of the Eastern Indian Railway. Several workers used to work in Government factories like ammunitions and gunpowder at Ichapore, Cossipore and Dumdum. For ordinary skilled labour the maximum wage was 3 l. a month and the hours of work each day were generally nine20.  Because of large-scale unemployment people were forced to work in these industries with very little wages and in an unhygienic condition. For the artisans, their old profession was no longer open to them and the new one was barred. They died in tens of millions. The English Governor General Lord William Bentinck once reported in 1834 that, “The misery hardly finds a parallel in the history of commerce. The bones of the cotton weavers are bleaching the pains of India''21.  

Hordes of artisans and craftsmen had no job, no work, and all their ancient skill was useless. As a result a burden grew on the land and with it grew the poverty of India. There was a compulsory back-to-the-land movement leading to an ever-growing disproportion between agriculture and industry. An agrarian over-population became a fact, and this had a very detrimental effect on the condition of millions of people, including factory workers. This over-population became a sort of economic reserve for colonialism. It was used extensively by foreign capitalists to fetter the workers. Capitalism under the British appeared in its primitive nakedness, its harsh laws were shown up, and wage slavery proved to be merely a variety of ordinary slavery. The rate of profit was very high, and this was the only thing that interested the British capitalists. For the sake of profit they were even prepared to turn India into a desert; they were untouched even by the deaths of their workers, who could be replaced by crowds of people ready to do any job for a cup of rice, just to stay alive22.  

The British manufacturers made use of the colonial dictatorship to reduce people to the status of draft cattle. Any resistance was declared illegal and harshly suppressed. The workers were thrown out into the streets. The spread of cost system made it difficult even for factory workers to organize themselves properly. The separation of workers from the land, and especially from the village, proved to be a very painful and protracted process. The skilled factory-workers mostly returned to his village to die once his usefulness was exhausted. Exploitation of people from the villages, particularly young people, assumed a broad scale and became a common phenomenon. The formation of a hereditary proletariat advanced substantially only in Bombay. In other centers of Indian industry, and especially on the plantations, the workers maintained their link with their own villages. The Indian worker simply could not believe in the durability of capitalism and considered his condition of bondage to be only temporary. Some times the workers were taken to remote enterprises by manpower suppliers. Agricultural workers also came from far away places to the tea plantations in Assam. This helped the capitalists to step up their exploitation and allowed them to provide even worse working conditions. These enlisted workers were in the position of true slaves.

The night was the only time these exhausted people were allowed any respite from their hard labour, for the working day lasted from sunrise to sunset. Under capitalism, technological progress was used against the workers, and forced labour became a heavier burden. The number of working class people in various industries increased steadily. By 1911, it was estimated that there were some 4.4 million people working in textile industry, 3.7 million in clothing industry, 1.7 million in wood-working, 1.1 million in tile-making, and a total of 13.2 million in all these industries put together. Wages were dropped because of extensive exploitation of children, adolescents, and above all, people who had left the village. Wages were meant simply to keep the workers working. If some workers died, jobbers brought in new groups of village adolescents and often children. The jobbers themselves took bribes from the workers and kept them in bondage for years together.

It was said that the prisoners in Bombay jails were better fed than the textile workers. The workers’ housing conditions were appalling. As a rule, their houses had no windows, let alone water and sewerage pipes. The workers died from tuberculosis and very many suffered from malaria. Famines, plague, cholera and dysentery swept though the workers’ districts. India’s factory legislation was practically non-existent between 1875 and 1885. The colonial administration did not permit any such legislation to be passed. Only the threat of popular uprisings forced the British to take certain measures. The condition of workers in Bombay mills first attracted the attention of the Government when Redgrave, the Inspector of Factories in England drew the attention of the Government. An enquiry was made for the passing of a measure in order to regulate the working hours on women and children in various industries. Initially the Indian mill owners stood against the passing of any such legislation23 .However, with an object of preventing accidents and providing protection to children, Lord Lytton’s Government introduced a Factory Bill on 7th November 1879. Local Governments were directed to inspect factories and report accidents occurring in these factories. Another Factory Act was passed in 1881 under Lord Ripon by which the minimum age for employment was changed and a maximum nine hours of working was prescribed for workers below 12 years of age24.  But nothing was done with regard to proper sanitation. Even the issue of female workers, a majority of whom used to work in Bengal coal mines, was completely ignored by the Government. Wages were handed out only once in a month, making the matter a lot more difficult for the workers. Many fell into the trap of debt.

From 1884 onwards the trade union movement started raising their heads in various places. In Bombay, a predominantly Marathi labour force facilitated some degree of social contact across class lines. The middle-class philanthropic efforts to improve labour conditions were first made by N. M. Lokhande, an associate of Jyotiba Phule, in the early 1880’s. He started a weekly named ‘Dinabandhu’ in 1880 and organized several labour meetings to make a demand for shorter working hours for the factory workers. He established an office in Bombay and provided free advice to mill hands. Similar activities were started by the Brahmo Samaj social reformer Sasipada Bannerjee among the Bengali jute mill-workers of Barangore. Through Calcutta suburb night-schools, workers clubs, temperance societies, and a journal named ‘Bharat Sramajibi’ (1874), he and his followers tried to inculcate a habit of thrift, sobriety and self-help among the labourers. But gradually such kind of middle-class philanthropy died away in Calcutta with the arrival of a large number of immigrant labourers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Though some Bengali intelligentsia leaders like Dwarakanath Ganguli launched campaigns against the slave labour conditions in the tea plantations, no one made a solid attempt to organize the coolies themselves25.  

After 1880, workers fought back in their own way by making assaults on overseers, sporadic riots and short-lived strikes. Several other strikes also took place in Bombay and Madras Presidencies. However, the impoverished Indian peasant and ruined artisan, who were sucked into factories, fell back upon mostly sectional ties of region, caste, kinship or religion. The new urban environment often strengthened old loyalties, as the new immigrant workers found themselves in an intensely competitive surplus labour market where unskilled hands fought each other for jobs. These jobs in those days were basically secured only through leaders or ‘Sardars’, who favoured the community or kin, and who at times acted as carriers of the separatist ideology of their communities. Further, economic tensions sharpened due to unexpected influx of up-country labour, near-famine food prices and the introduction of electric lights which immediately prolonged the working day. Such new developments occasionally led to outbursts against employers and even fratricidal riots26.  


In the second half of nineteenth century, countries in Europe, United States of America and Japan were industrializing themselves. But development of industry was grossly neglected by British government in India. In fact a process of de-industrialization had set in India as traditional Indian industries were in decay and were not replaced with modern industries to the same extent. Although jute and cotton industries made some progress, other industries suffered, thereby slowing down overall pace of industrialization. This is clear from the fact that percentage of male working force employed in manufacturing, mining, construction and trade gradually declined from 18% in 1881 to 15% in 1901. Mills were established mainly with private investments. These mills were hardly able to take care of huge unemployment brought about by displacement of peasants, destruction of indigenous industries, and series of famines and epidemics. Labour force was easily available. Therefore exploitation of mill workers was perhaps natural, particularly in absence of effective laws to safeguard the interests of the labour force. Even labour laws were enacted quite late. With small size country’s population employed in mills and government’s apathy towards growth of Indian industries, it was not surprising that condition of mill workers did not occupy much of government’s attention.



  1. F. Polyansky, An Economic History, Progressive Publishers, Russial, 1985, p.304.
  2. K. B. Keshwani, History of Modern India, Bombay, 1985 p.103.
  3. J.L. Nehru, Discovery of India, Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2004, p. 297.
  4. Arundaya, 2nd April 1876, Report on Native Indian Papers, 1876, p. 6 [Microfim from India Office Library, London, hereafter [MF].
  5. Sahachar, 23rd July 1876, Report on Native Indian Papers, 1876, p.7 [MF].
  6. Parliamentary Papers, 1879 - 80, p.33 [MF].
  7. L.P. Mathur, Lord Ripon’s Indian Administration; (1880 - 84), S. Chand and Co. (Pvt.)   Ltd., New Delhi, 1972, p. 62.
  8. Parliamentary Papers, 1879 - 80, p. 63 [MF].
  9. The Hindoo Patriot, 13th August 1877 , Report on Native Indian Papers, 1877, p. 387 [MF].
  10. F. Polyansky, op. cit., p. 322.
  11. The Hindu Ranjika, 9th February 1876, Report on Native Indian Papers, p. 4 [MF].
  12. Jame Jamsed, 16th October 1876 , Report on Native Indian Papers, 1876, p. 5 [MF].
  13. Parliamentary Papers, 1875, p. xviii [MF].
  14. Parliamentary Papers, 1875, p. xviii [MF].
  15. Ibid, pp. 18-19.
  16. Malwa Akhbar, 26th July 1876, Report on Native Indian Papers, 1876, pp. 385 – 86 [MF].
  17. F. Polyansky, op. cit., p.322.
  18. Parliamentary Papers, 1880, p. 63 [MF].  
  19. Ibid, p. 65.
  20. Parliamentary Papers, 1880, p. 65 [MF].
  21. J. L. Nehru, Discovery of India, op. cit., p. 297.
  22. F.Polyansky, op. cit., p. 332.
  23. Jame Jamsed, 5th May 1879, Report on Native Indian Papers, Bombay, 1879, p. 8 [MF]
  24. L. P. Mathur, op. cit, p. 68.
  25. Sumit Sarkar, Modern India; Published by Rajiv Beri for Macmillan India Ltd.; Delhi – 1983, p. 61.
  26. Ibid, pp. 62-63.