Corporate responsibility for industrial incidents
Corporate responsibility for industrial incidents

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Corporate responsibility for industrial incidents

2 A historical perspective: The development of business accountability from the nineteenth century

The nineteenth century is a good starting point for studying into the development of business accountability. The industrial revolution was at its height, during which time hundreds of thousands of people died in incidents in mines, mills and on the railways. Businesses tended not to value the safety of their workers. In her novel The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot captured how extensively industrial production pervaded Victorian community life:

good society, floated on gossamer wings of light irony, is of very expensive production; requiring nothing less than a wide and arduous national life condensed in unfragrant, deafening factories, cramping itself in mines, sweating at furnaces, grinding, hammering, weaving under more or less oppression of carbonic acid.

(Eliot, 2008 [1860])
Figure 1 A typical English mill town

This vivid portrait Eliot depicts of ‘deafening factories’, ‘cramped’ mines and ‘oppressive’ fumes needs to be placed in the context of life at that time: infant mortality was high and life expectancy was short. It was still generally assumed that life for the working classes would be what the seventeenth-century moral philosopher Thomas Hobbes described as ‘nasty, brutish and short’. There were notable exceptions to this rule and some industrialists such as the Cadbury brothers went to great lengths to improve conditions for their workers.


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