Benjamin Shaw's family records

15th January 2016

In the best historical tradition, I came upon this document by chance while looking for something completely different. I knew immediately that it was of outstanding importance, and also of extraordinary interest – the uniquely detailed autobiography of a mill mechanic who lived during the turbulent and transformational period of the early phases of the industrial revolution, from 1772 to 1841. He not only describes his own life, but gives biographies of no fewer than thirty of his family, making this an account of an ordinary working class family which has no parallel in Britain. The text covers almost every aspect of working class life, from wages and working conditions, via courtship and marriage, serial illegitimacy and domestic discord, to sickness, infant mortality and early death. Its geographical scope is also wide: the author was born in Dentdale, the most remote of the Yorkshire Dales; he worked for some years at Dolphinholme near Lancaster, the first water-powered textile mill in England; and spent most of his adult life in the teeming, smoky industrial town of Preston. That journey is itself almost a metaphor for the lives of tens of thousands of migrants during this period, when the industrialisation of North West England was reshaping the world. Now recognised as one of the seminal published texts for late eighteenth and early nineteenth century working class life, Benjamin Shaw’s Family Records is for me, its editor, also an intensely moving and endlessly fascinating document. It was a pleasure and a privilege to be able to produce this edition.

Alan Crosby, Editor, Volume 130