Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Work in Victorian Britain


The advent of mechanisation and the spread of more specialist forms of farming helped changed both the nature of work and household structures. By 1800 the earning of wages became increasingly important for the survival of working class families. The process of manufacture moved outside the home though the transition had never been total. Earlier forms of domestic production, in clothing, toy-making and now even computer services, are still visible today. Employment was as diverse and the locations for that employment.  It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of work in working class life. Work helped determine two fundamental elements of working class existence: the ways in which workers spent many, if not most, of their waking hours; and the amounts of money they had to their disposal. Work also determined most other aspects of working class life: the standards of living they enjoyed; standards of health; the type of housing they lived in; the nature of the family and neighbourhood life; the ways in which leisure time was spent and the social, political and other values that were adopted[1].

A transition in work

The swing away from domestic forms of production can be roughly explained by three developments: the growth of population, the extension of enclosure with a consequent reduction in demand for rural labour and the advent of mechanised production boosting productivity and fostering the growth of new towns and cities. The result was a change in the structure of the labour market.

  1. The enclosure of common lands had a profound impact on the livelihood of rural workers and their families. It led to a contraction of resources for many workers and a greater reliance on earnings. The spread of enclosure pushed rural labourers on to the labour market in a search for work that was made the more frenzied by falling farm prices and wages between 1815-35, in the aftermath of the Napoleonic war. The result of the growth in labour supply and agricultural depression was the collapse of farm service in the south and east of the country. It had been customary for farm workers to be hired for a year, to enter service in another household and to live with another family, receiving food, clothes, board and a small annual wage in return for work, only living out when they wished to marry.
  2. Added to this was the development of factory-based textile production that had a profound effect on the other source of earned income for rural workers: outwork. Different parts of the country were associated with different types of product: lace-making round Nottingham, stocking-knitting in Leicester, spinning and weaving of cotton and wool in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The appearance of the mills damaged the status and security of some very skilled branches of outwork. Many rural households found themselves thrown into poverty as such work became increasingly scarce and available only at pitifully low rates of pay. The fate of the handloom weavers, stocking-frame knitters and silk weavers in the 1830s and 1840s, all reflected the impact of technological change on the distribution of work[2]. Textiles were not the only industry to experience such structural changes. In both town and country, mechanisation had a marked impact on a wide variety of employments and the position of some skilled workers was undermined while the demand for new skills grew.

Urban workers had always been more reliant on the cash nexus [wages] than had their rural counterparts. Pre-industrial towns had tended to be commercial centres [markets] rather than centres of manufacture and employment there had been more specialised than elsewhere. Small units of production in which worked skilled artisans, providing local services and goods rather than commodities for export operated largely on a domestic basis through frequently under the control of the craft guilds. These stipulated modes of recruitment and training and the quality of products and founded the vocabulary of the rights of 'legal' or 'society' men who worked in 'legal' shops that permeated craft unions in the nineteenth century. The nineteenth century saw the position of the skilled urban artisan increasingly under threat from semi-skilled and less well-trained workers.

The Elizabethan Statute of Artificers [or Apprentices] 1563 provided a legal framework of craft regulation but had fallen into abeyance long before its apprenticeship clauses were repealed in 1811. Under the old system of apprenticeship, the pupil was formally indentured at 14-16 and joined a master's house for a period traditionally specified as seven years before being recognised as a journeyman, qualified to practice the trade. It was also usual for journeymen to 'live in', entitled to bed, board and wages in return to work, only moving out on marriage. Often journeymen tramped the country in search of work in part to extend their experience and knowledge of their trade but also to escape increasingly uncertain employment prospects in their immediate locality[3]. To become a master the journeyman had to produce his 'masterpiece', demonstrating his mastery of the skills of the specific trade. From the early nineteenth century fewer apprentices were completing their indentures and journeymen's wages were falling, both signs that employers were no longer bothered about hiring only men who had served their time. This led to a dilution in the labour force and an increased blurring of the boundaries between 'society' and 'non-society' men, a situation made worse by the mechanisation of production that required fewer skills than handwork.

The nature of training for skilled work changed; apprenticeships were shortened and concentrated on specific skills rather than on an extensive understanding of all aspects of production. Lads worked alongside journeymen rather than being attached to a master's household with various adverse results

  • The new system bore heavily on apprentices' families, who frequently still paid for indentures while the apprentice lived at home and could expect little or no wages for his efforts until his time was served.
  • The old stipulated ratios between journeymen and boys were increasingly ignored and apprentices became a cheap alternative for adult labour thus depressing the adult labour market.
  • Such developments were resented by the journeymen expected to train recruits, souring relations and often making training uncooperative.
  • The fate of boys was instant dismissal as soon as they were old enough to command an adult rate

Such practices were more common during depressed times. This abuse of apprenticeship provoked sporadic industrial disputes as skilled workers tried to protect their position and to prevent their trade from being flooded [or diluted] by excess labour.

At the same time, new mechanised processes facilitated cheaper forms of bulk production. As a result the market became saturated with semi-skilled workers, who knew something of the trade but did not possess the full range of skills expected of the qualified man. Henry Mayhew[4], chronicling London's labour market in the 1840s, contrasted the position of the 'honourable' tradesman with the 'slop' workers whose wages and product undercut old recognised prices and reduced job security long assumed to belong to the man with an established craft.

The most obvious impact of industrialisation was found in the more intense and strictly disciplined nature of work in those industries transformed by the new technology: textiles, coal-mining, metal-processing and engineering. Early mills were manned by convict and pauper labour [mostly children] because the regularity of work was alien to the adult population used to a greater degree of autonomy in conducting their working lives. The higher wages available in factories provided insufficient compensation for this loss of 'freedom'. Impoverished handloom weavers would send their daughters to work on the power looms but resisted the prospect themselves. Hours in the early factories were probably no longer than those in the domestic trades but what made it far less acceptable was the mind-crushing tedium of the work involved, the loss of public feast days and holidays and, for middle class commentators, the physical consequences of long hours and the appalling conditions in the factory towns.

The growth of labour market conditions in the nineteenth century makes it quite impossible to make clear distinctions between the employed, the unemployed, the underemployed, the self-employed and the economically inactive. Subcontracting was rife, notably in the clothing trade where middlemen 'sweated' domestic women to earn a profit. The 'slop' end of the fashion and furnishing trades competed frantically for such orders as were available at almost any price. Casualism became more visible towards 1900 as cities spread in size. Short-term engagements and casual employment were particularly associated with the docks and the construction industries.


Variations in standards of living, wages and working conditions were at least as great in towns as in the countryside. Average urban wages were certainly higher but so were rent and food so that urban dwellers were not necessarily better off than their rural counterparts. Women's wages were invariably well below those of men and families dependent on a sole female wage earner were among the poorest of the urban population[5]. Jobs guaranteeing a regular weekly wage, with little cyclical unemployment, were rare, highly prized and jealously guarded. Cyclical unemployment was the norm for most workers and was a major factor in the urban labour market and in turn had a significant impact on standards of living, quality of housing and the residential areas to which people could aspire.

The urban population was organised in hierarchical terms, largely in terms of levels of skill[6]:

At the base of the urban labour hierarchy were the genuinely casual workers who formed a residual labour force that was often entered on initial migration to a town when no other work was available. Such work as hawking and street trading, scavenging, street entertainment, prostitution and some casual labouring and domestic work fell into this category. Below these were begging and poor relief.

  1. Casual trades were largely concentrated in large cities, especially London, and the number fluctuated considerably.
  2. Very low and irregular incomes condemned families dependent on casual work to rooms in slums, but in London they would emerge from the rookeries of St Giles to sell their goods in the cities or in middle class residential districts.
  3. Large numbers of street traders in prosperous middle class areas caused antagonism and sometimes fear so that the police were often called to control street trading activities helping to reinforce middle class stereotypes of a dirty and dangerous sub-class that should be confined to the slums.

Above the casual street traders was a whole range of unskilled mainly casual occupations in which workers were hired for a few hours at a time and could be laid off for long periods without notice. These included labourers in the building trades, in sugar houses and other factories, carters, shipyard workers and especially dockers. All towns had such workers but they were especially important in port cities such as London, Liverpool, Bristol and London and in industries like coal mining or clothing that had a partly seasonal market.

  1. Precise numbers involved in casual work are impossible to determine. In Liverpool over 22 per cent of the employed population in 1871 were general, dock or warehouse labourers, many casual. When in work Liverpool dockers earned high wages, ranging from 27s for quay porters to 42s for a stevedore but few maintained such earnings for any length of time and in a bad week many earned only a few shillings.
  2. Conditions changed little between 1850 and 1914. They were frequently in debt and regularly pawned clothes. In good times they would eat meat or fish but normally their diet consisted largely of bread, margarine and tea. Illness or industrial injury [common in dangerous dockland working conditions] would have led to financial disaster.
  3. Casual workers needed to live close to their workplace since employment was often allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. Liverpool dockers mostly lived close to the docks and this limited their housing choice to old, insanitary but affordable accommodation.

Factories provided more regular employment after 1830 as did public services as railway companies and many commercial organisations. Skilled manual labour was relatively privileged: a Lancashire skilled cotton spinner earned 27-30s per week in 1835 and a skilled iron foundry worker up to 40s. In coal mining skilled underground workers earned good wages and in key jobs such as shot-firing, putting, hewing and shaft sinking usually had regular employment although this often meant moving from colliery to colliery and between coalfields.

  1. Textile towns like Manchester, Bradford and Leeds and metal and engineering centres such as Sheffield and the Black Country tended to suffer less from poverty from irregular earnings than cities like Glasgow, Cardiff, Liverpool or London.
  2. Skilled engineering trades were amongst the earliest to unionise, along with artisans and craftsmen, particularly in London and northern industrial towns[7]. They protected their interests jealously and, despite some dilution in their position, they commanded higher wages and regular employment. This conferred many advantages: renting a decent terrace house in the suburbs thus avoiding the squalor of Victorian slums but with a long walk to work or the use of the 'workmen's trains'.

After 1850 the number of workings in white-collar occupations increased and a lower middle class emerged among the petit-bourgeoisie of small shopkeepers and white-collar salaried occupations of clerks, commercial travellers and schoolteachers. White-collar employment increased from 2.5 per cent of the employed population in 1851 to 5.5 per cent by 1891.

  1. Such employment was found in all towns but especially in commercial and financial centres such as Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol.  White-collar workers were a diverse group: insurance and bank clerks commanded the highest incomes of over £3 per week and the greatest prestige; in contrast railway clerks often earned little more than skilled manual workers but had greater security of employment. White-collar employees certainly perceived themselves, and were perceived by others, to be in a secure and privileged position.
  2. White-collar workers could afford not only a decent terrace house, but by 1880 could commute over longer distances by public transport, especially after 1880 when the suburban railway and tram network were established.
  3. Despite long hours of work for clerks and shopkeepers, their occupations were less hazardous than most factory employment and, with more regular incomes and better housing, they were more likely to enjoy good health than most industrial workers.

Women were employed in all categories of work and in textile districts female factory employment was very significant. Single women often entered domestic service but married women who needed to supplement a low male wage or widows supporting several children, were severely limited in choice. Away from the textile districts most found work as domestic cleaners, laundry workers, in sewing, dressmaking, boot and shoemaking and other trades carried on either in the home of small workshops. Wages were always low with piece rates producing incomes ranging from 5s. to 20s per week.

  • The proportion of women in industry declined from the 1890s, except in unskilled and some semi-skilled work but their role in higher professional, shop and clerical work increased.
  • The telephone and typewriter revolution from the 1880s saw the army of male clerks replaced by female office workers.
  • The revolution in retailing provided additional employment for women and by 1911 one-third of all shop assistants were female.

The number of women in commerce and many industries increased between 1891 and 1951, but the proportion of women in paid employment hardly changed and remained around 35 per cent. But the characteristics of female employment changed substantially. Before 1914 domestic service was still the overwhelming source of employment for women and girls, though the clothing and textile trades employed more women than men. Women, however, were also beginning to infiltrate the lower grade clerical and service occupations. In 1901 13 per cent of clerks were women, but by 1911 this had risen to 21 per cent, though the higher clerical grades remained almost exclusively male. Nevertheless the employment status of women remained inferior to that of men: in 1911 52.1 per cent of women occupied semi-skilled or unskilled jobs compared to 40.6 per cent of men.

The major restructuring of the British economy brought significant changes in the working conditions and operation of the labour market after 1890. Women played an increasingly important role in the workforce, new technology and machinery created different jobs demanding new and often less individually crafted skills. Older workers, particularly in heavy industries, often found it difficult to adjust to new work practices. The years 1890-1914 were a transitional period that retained many of the characteristics of the nineteenth century economy whilst signs of the new work patterns of the inter-war years began to develop.

[1] John Benson The Working Class in Britain 1850-1939, Longman, 1989, pp.9-38 is the best introduction to this issue. Patrick Joyce (ed.) The historical meanings of work, CUP, 1987 is an excellent collection containing a seminal introduction by the editor. Patrick Joyce 'Work' in F.M.L. Thompson (ed.) The Cambridge Social History of Britain 1750-1950: volume 2 People and their environment, CUP, 1990, pp.131-194 is a short summary of recent research.

[2] See Duncan Bythell The Handloom Weavers, CUP, 1969 and The Sweated Trades, Batsford, 1978 for a detailed discussion of this issue.

[3] See E.J. Hobsbawm 'The tramping artisan' in his Labouring Men, Weidenfeld, 1964, pp.34-63 and E.P.Thompson The Making of the English Working Class, Gollancz, 1963, Penguin, 1968 and 'Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism', first published in Past and Present, no.38 [December 1967], reprinted in Customs in Common, Merlin, 1991, pp.352-403.

[4] Henry Mayhew London Labour and the London Poor, 1861-2, 4 volumes, New York, 1968 and E.P.Thompson and E. Yeo (eds.) The Unknown Mayhew: Selections from the Morning Chronicle 1849-50, Penguin, 1971 provide evidence for the 1850s and should be used in conjunction with the six volumes of his The Morning Chronicle Survey of Labour and the Poor, 1849-50, Caliban, 1980. Anne Humpherys Travels into the Poor Man's Country: The Work of Henry Mayhew, University of Georgia Press, 1977 is the most recent biography.

[5] On this see Elizabeth Roberts Women's Work 1840-1940, Macmillan, 1988.

[6] For a classification of the labouring population up to 1850 see Richard Brown Society and Economy in Modern Britain 1700-1850, Routledge, 1991, pp.323-328.

[7] On the emergence of trade unions see Henry Pelling A history of Trade Unionism, Penguin, 5th., ed., 1990, Ben Pimlott and Chris Cook (eds.) Trade Unions in British Politics: The First 250 Years, Longman, 2nd., ed., 1991 and the more specific John Rule (ed.) British Trade Unions 1750-1850: The Formative Years, Longman, 1988.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello, where did you get your information concerning the wages of Liverpool dockers? A brilliant read, thanks.