Tuesday, 29 July 2008

The working classes: Diversities

Class identity was remarkably strong in nineteenth century England, reinforced through networks of collective mutuality and associational culture. There are, however, some problems in whether to use the singular or plural form. Some historians argue that it is misleading and unnecessary to adopt the plural form simply to acknowledge strata of workers differentiated by income, occupations, region or some other variable. This view neglects the gulf that existed between skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers between whom there were considerable cultural as well as economic differences.

Workers in this period may well have identified themselves in terms of their common class but, as we have already seen, there were other concepts than played an significant, perhaps even more important, role. ‘Skill’ and ‘status’ were crucial concepts for male workers and the retention of skilled status was an ideal to which all workers aspired. ‘Work’ was defined narrowly and took little account of unpaid housework. ‘Community’ is another problematic term, a creative mixture of social and spatial factors, of locally-based pubs, chapels, co-ops and clubs, serving the needs of relatively independent, self-sufficient urban villages, demarcated districts within which workers moved and married.

Variations in standards of living, wages and working conditions existed in both towns and 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.[1] 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 this, in turn, had a significant impact on standards of living, quality of housing and the residential areas to which people could aspire.

The working population was organised in hierarchical terms, largely in terms of levels of skill.[2] This can be seen in rural labour where the shepherd and ploughman stood at the peak of the employment hierarchy and the unskilled ‘bird-scarer’ at its base. In urban England, however, the hierarchical range of employment was at its most extreme. At the base of the urban hierarchy were the genuinely casual workers who formed a residual labour force, sometimes called the ‘residuum’. They often moved to a neighbouring town when no other work was available in their local community. 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. Casual trades were largely concentrated in large cities, especially London, and the number fluctuated considerably. 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. 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 range of unskilled mainly casual occupations where 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. 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. 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. 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. But did these workers constitute an ‘aristocracy’ of labour? 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. Skilled engineering trades were amongst the earliest to unionise, along with artisans and craftsmen, particularly in London and northern industrial towns.[3] 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 workers 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 school teachers. White collar employment increased from 2.5 per cent of the employed population in 1851 to 5.5 per cent by 1891. 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. White-collar workers could afford not only a decent terrace house, but by 1880 could commute over longer distances by public transport, especially after 1980 when the suburban railway and tram network were established. 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] On this see Elizabeth Roberts Women's Work 1840-1940, Macmillan, 1988.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

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