How does the cooktown system work and who is at the peak of it?
The Coketown system is the factory system. This arose during the Industrial Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, so most factory settlements like Coketown were only a few decades old when Hard Times was written. The factories were highly mechanized and used industrial methods such as division of labor to mass-produce goods efficiently. There were a few mechanics and other skilled workers, but the use of machines meant that most workers could be unskilled. They were generally poorly paid and sometimes very young. This is how Coketown operates.
Factories were very large buildings, equipped with expensive machinery and sometimes employing hundreds of workers. This meant that the men who owned them had to be very wealthy. They would, of course, quickly become richer if their factories were successful. Josiah Bounderby is at the peak of the factory system in Coketown. Bounderby is continually boasting that he is a self-made-man, which is to say that he was born poor and made his fortune by his own efforts. We learn at the end of the book that this is not true. Dickens is exposing a general myth here. Factory-owners were certainly not members of the traditional upper classes, but they often had fairly solid middle-class backgrounds and advantages that allowed them to get ahead quickly.
Throughout the book, the grime, the noise, and the poverty of Coketown are continually stressed. Some real-life factory owners made efforts to provide more civilized living conditions for their workers. Sir Titus Salt at Saltaire and Lord Leverhulme at Port Sunlight built model communities with concert halls and art galleries. Mr. Gradgrind, who has retired from business sand devote himself to philanthropy, has ideas of this kind, though he pursues them in a wrong-headed and unsympathetic manner. Dickens satirizes both Bounderby and Gradgrind, but it is clear by the end of the story that Gradgrind's vision for Coketown is not nearly as bad as Bounderby's and needs only a more humane attitude to make it tolerable.
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