Monday, 14 July 2008

The working-classes: Living standards 1830-1875

The subject of the working-classes in the nineteenth century is an enormous one and all that is offered here is a stock-taking exercise to assess the significance of some of the most important recent historiography.[1] These issues will be considered in three chronological periods -- 1830-50, 1850-75 and 1875-1914 -- corresponding to the main economic divisions of the period.

Discussion of living standards, especially the so-called ‘standard of living debate’ in the period before 1850, is bedevilled by a range of methodological problems. What is the meaning of ‘living standards’? Is it a qualitative or quantitative concept? What evidence can be used? Statistics, one of the main fuels in the debate, obscure much of the diversity and harshness of working-class experience. Should historians be using ‘actual’ wages or ‘real’ wages as the basis for their arguments? [2] These issues have given rise to a debate between pessimists and optimists over, not simply whether living standards fell or rose, but over the whole revolutionary experience. It is in this context that the discussion of living standards across the period must be grounded.


There was a decline in real wages starting in the 1750s that persisted through the price peak of 1812-13 and the distress of the post-war years. In London this downward trend was not reversed until the 1820s, though it was not until the 1840s that the levels of the 1740s were regained and exceeded. The national index compiled by Lindert and Williamson also situates the upturn in the 1820s but their figures are far more optimistic suggesting that real wages nearly doubled between 1820 and 1850. By 1830 therefore the worst excesses of the pessimist scenario seem to have been at an end and real wages for the bulk of the working population seem to have been rising, though whether Lindert and Williamson’s optimistic assessment is entirely valid is questionable.[3]

So what did people earn? In the 1760s most high-wage counties were in the south east. By 1850 they were in the Midlands and north: Lancashire wages stood more than a third above the level in Buckinghamshire, a differential that continued until the end of the century. This North-South divide and wage payments must be assessed in the context of family income and the higher cost of living for the working-classes, a hardship aggravated by the family poverty cycle and the devastating impact of recurrent short-term crises.

Standard of living statistics conceal important structural changes in the composition of working-class family income before 1850. The assumption on which the figures were based, especially the dominance of money-wages and of the male breadwinner, lack validity until 1850 by which time workers had been deprived of traditional perks and rights and the working-class family had been forced to redefine gender roles and functions. The imposition of monetary form of wage payment marked a fundamental change in employers’ attitudes to property and labour. What had previously been accepted as a customary right now became crime: employers could no longer allow workers to appropriate any part of the materials or product of their labour, no matter how small. What was a stake for workers was not simply a traditional source of ‘extra’ income, but the maintenance of some independence at the workplace, some control over the product and the labour process. Age was probably the most important factor in determining output and earnings. In the 1830s the youngest and fittest of the handloom weavers could earn 25 per cent more wages in the same time as a weaker person could earn on the same machine. Throughout the trades, the elderly or rather the prematurely old were often forced to give up the better-paid tasks as they fell victim to various forms of occupational disorder. The Sheffield fork-grinders killed off no less than a quarter of the workforce every five years. Differences in output and earnings were kept to a minimum where group solidarity and trade societies were strong, but these forms of mutual protection did not apply to the so-called ‘dishonourable’ trades or in the over-stocked outwork industries. Here, in the absence of day rates or ‘legal’, union-backed piece prices, opportunistic middlemen and commercially minded masters were able to exploit cheap, unskilled labour through the piece-rate system. Even in ‘honourable’ trades, few workers were fortunate enough to enjoy full-time work throughout the year.

The focus on the adult male ‘breadwinner’ in terms of the standard of living debate has diverted attention away from the notion of the family income. Earnings in this period were assessed in family, not individual, terms with the family often functioning as a unit of production. By 1830, however, the prospects for women and hence family earnings deteriorated considerably. The first victims of technological or structural unemployment were women who encountered the new prejudice and sexual division of labour and the harsh economic costs of the new male breadwinner ideal.

Sexual segregation was rigorously enforced in the textile mills where women were denied access to the best-paid skilled jobs. Skill was a male preserve in the modern factory, protected by trade union organisation and internal subcontracting that gave mule spinners and their like a supervisory role for which women were deemed ineligible. Textile mills apart, mechanisation and the factory system brought few new opportunities for women: female employment was derisory in iron and steel, railways, chemicals and the expanding heavy industries. Legislation in 1842 restricted female work in the mines. Sexual segregation was by no means restricted to the factory districts and occurred wherever men were confronted with changes in the location or process of work. In rural England, for example, female participation was limited to haymaking and weeding the corn by 1830. The family income suffered as a result but most men on their own economic grounds welcomed the new sexual specialisation. They were increasingly vulnerable to seasonal unemployment with the expansion of grain product (that was less labour intensive) and they were determined to restrict cheap female competition. Yet in many cases the wife’s contribution to the family income remained indispensable but the force of the new convention against working women confined their employment to the lowest paid ‘dishonourable’ and sweated trades. Here their cheap labour was exploited in such a way as to reinforce still further the male hostility towards ‘unfair’ competition. Relations between the sexes in the London tailoring trades were at crisis point in the early 1830s when the Owenite socialists championed the rights of working women and called on the London tailors union to adopt a policy of ‘equalisation’ in order to unite all the workforce. The resulting strike was, however, a disastrous failure and led to further marginalisation of female workers in the trades.

Domesticity was probably the best in a narrow range of options for working-class married women, but for those employed in the sweated trades it was a cruelly illusive ideal. Until their children were old enough to contribute to the family income, there was no release from the double burden of unpaid housework and ill-paid waged work. Unable not to work, married women were driven lower and lower into the sweated trades or prostitution by the forces of social convention that condemned but continued to exploit their labour. The middle-classes deplored the ‘unnatural’ behaviour of young working mothers and condemned them for leaving their children with incompetent child-minders. However, recent research has shown that only a quarter of female mill workers were married and of those with children utmost care was taken to ensure that they were looked after by a close relative, lodger or neighbour. Less than two in a hundred of all infant children in industrial Lancashire were left to the mercies of professional child minders. The middle-classes imposed their views of the ‘proper’ role of women on the working-classes, a view that reinforced the economic arguments of working men that the role of working women should be reduced. Working-class family earnings seem to have declined most where market competition intensified but there were no alternative employment prospects open. In the arable east and de-industrialising south, the removal of traditional controls in agriculture and the trades led inexorably to discrimination against women and inadequate pay for men. In the north higher wages prevailed: new employment opportunities in hand-domestic and mechanised trades developed alongside the survival of traditional institutional frameworks and hiring practices in farm service and apprenticed trades.

The expenditure or cost of living for working-class families was significantly higher than for the middle and upper-classes. Food was by far the most important item, accounting for up to three-quarters of the wage packet. They bought poor quality food in small quantities for immediate consumption and rarely received value for money. This was often obtained from the Saturday nigh markets where dealers were able to off-load their otherwise unsaleable produce: Engels commented that ‘the workers get what is too bad for the property-holding class’. They were often dependent on credit and had to pay the higher prices of the obliging small shopkeepers. Provisions were dearer still were workers were victims of the truck system and the poor quality, adulterated foods of the ‘Tommy shops’. Despite stringent legislation from 1831, the truck system remained common practice into the 1850s in south Staffordshire and in much of rural East Anglia where gangmasters supplied subcontract labour at the cheapest daily rates.

As with food, so with housing: those at the bottom end of the market received scant value for money. Accommodation accounted for anything up to a quarter or even a third of a labourer’s wages compared to about a sixth of the income of the middle-classes. The nuclear family, the sacred cow of English social history, was too expensive for many families who lived with kin or in lodgings for the first few years of marriage. John Foster found that the proportion of families living with relatives ranged from a third in Northampton to over two-thirds in South Shields. In Preston in 1851 lodgers were present in 23 per cent of all households. Many workers fell victim to the ‘house trucking’ system where housing was dependent on their employers. The ‘tied’ cottage system of rural England was a logical extension of this.

For working-class teenagers, clothes and accessories were the first call on income after they had paid their contribution to the family income. Many poor families, however, relied on cast-off, second-hand or stolen goods. Clothes could be easily pawned or fenced and there are many recorded cases of petty theft: in Manchester there was an average of 210 reports a year of stolen clothing from hedges or lines. Extra income was often spent on clothes since they were a highly pawnable commodity as well as providing immediate enjoyment.


Improved standards of living during the mid-Victorian boom owed more to greater stability in employment than to a marked increase in wages.[4] For some workers substantial and lasting advances in real wages did not occur until the late 1860s. The real wages of Black Country miners actually fell by a third during the mid 1850s and did not recover fully until 1869, after which there was a major advance carrying real wages some 30-40 per cent above the 1850 level. Money earnings in cotton displayed a similar chronology. Advances in the 1850s were relatively modest but some spectacular advances occurred after 1865: between 1860 and 1874 weavers wages rose by 20 per cent and spinners by between 30 and 50 per cent. These figures suggest a widening of differentials.

As a general rule in this period the wage ratio between skilled and unskilled stood at 2:1. In terms of actual earnings the skilled fared better still since they were less vulnerable to unemployment. For skilled trade unionists in the engineering, metal and shipbuilding industries, there were only two occasions, in 1858 and 1868, when the unemployment rates reached double figures. For agricultural labourers, whose numbers now fell absolutely, the mid-Victorian boom brought no real improvement in standards of living. Ironically, improvement was delayed until the 1870s and 1880s, a period of falling profitability for farming generally. George Bartley’s study of The Seven Ages of a Village Pauper, published in 1874, calculated that three out of four inhabitants of the typical village would require public relief at some stage in their lives.

In some industrial areas there was a similar lack of material advance. In the Black Country only the skilled building trades enjoyed an increase in real wages despite peak production in local coal and iron industries. On Merseyside, wage rates for skilled and unskilled workers remained stable until the early 1870s, when the general advance was eroded by particularly high food prices. Women workers in sweated trades and casual employment probably gained least from the mid-Victorian period, though there is some evidence for an improvement in day rates for charring and washing in the 1870s.

The mid-Victorian economy was characterised by high, relatively stable prices and high levels of consumption. This was, however, punctuated by spectacular inflationary spells in 1853-5 and 1870-3. Food prices rose less than most others resulting in marked increases in the consumption of tea, sugar and other ‘luxuries’. In dietary terms, however, there was no significant advance in the standard of living until the falling prices of the 1880s. Brewing apart, food remained a largely unrevolutionised industry in production and retailing until 1900. Real wages kept pace with food price rises, but rent proved increasingly expensive with particularly sharp increases in the mid-1860s.

Few working-class families rose above economic insecurity and bouts of periodic poverty, despite the greater stability of employment and the belated improvement in earnings. At critical moments in the family cycle even the differential enjoyed by skilled workers proved inadequate to prevent considerable hardship. This was particularly severe at times of general distress when a downturn in the trade cycle or a harsh winter led to short-time working and unemployment. The can be seen particularly in the Lancashire Cotton Famine of 1861-5, a protracted period of distress and unemployment: The ‘famine’ had its origins in the over-production of the late 1850s boom and the consequent saturation of markets at home and abroad. The Federal blockade of the Confederate ports after 1861 that resulted in an intermittent supply of raw cotton was not as many contemporaries believed the sole cause of the problem. During the winter of 1862-1863 49 per cent of all operatives in the 28 poor law unions of the cotton district were unemployed with a further 35 per cent on short-time. The depth and persistence of such mass unemployment was unprecedented: at Ashton the worst hit town where there was little industrial diversification, 60 per cent of the operatives remained unemployed as late as November 1864, while at Salford the unemployment rate stood at 24 per cent.

Unemployment on this scale had a disastrous effect on standards of living and posed considerable problems for the relief agencies, both Poor Law and philanthropic once the independent and thrifty operatives had exhausted their savings. The Poor Law and the charities were unsuited to the needs of unemployed factory workers. They had already come under scrutiny following events in London during the harsh winter of 1860-1 when the temperature remained below freezing for a month causing severe privation for the casual work force. Across the East End, the Poor Law system simply broke down as the number of paupers increased from about 96,000 to over 135,000. To meet the emergency charitable funds had to be distributed without investigation, an exercise condemned in the investigative journalism of Hollingshead’s Ragged London as indiscriminate ‘stray charity’. The Poor Law Board, already under investigation by the parliamentary select committee, was determined to prevent similar problems by insisting on the strict compliance with the Outdoor Relief Regulation Order. However, local Guardians refused to force the respectable unemployed to perform demeaning work tasks in the company of idle and dissolute paupers. They paid out small weekly allowances of between 1s and 2s per head on the assumption that this meagre non-pauperising sum would be augmented from other sources -- short-time earnings, income from other members of the family or charitable aid.

Charity was more stringently controlled through the Central Executive Relief Committee that issued strict regulations, drawn up by James Kay-Shuttleworth. Well below normal working income, relief was to be paid partly in kind in the form of tickets to be exchanged only at certain shops to prevent squandering and misuse of funds. Recipients were to be regularly visited and there was to be some form of work in return for the relief granted. This proved very unpopular and serious riots ensued at Stalybridge and the disturbances reached as far north as Preston uniting Irish and English workers in indignant anger. As a result the government introduced the Public Works (Manufacturing Districts) Act in 1863. It was an interventionist measure in direct contradiction to the individualist premises of the Poor Law and, although it did not eradicate the bitter memories of 1863, this public works programme prevented further serious unrest.

After 1865 Lancashire operatives began to benefit from the mid-Victorian boom but others were less fortunate. Workers in the East End were hit hard by the crisis of 1866-1868, the result of an unfortunate conjunction of circumstances. The shipbuilding industry was dependent on government favour and foreign orders but it collapsed after the banking failures of 1866, a financial panic that brought an end to the boom in railway and building construction. The winter of 1866-1867 was extremely harsh and was accompanied by high food prices and the return of cholera. This added to the hardship and caused a breakdown of the seasonal economic equilibrium. The overall effect was to augment the casual labour problem.

[1] The literature on the labouring population is immense.  E.H. Hunt British Labour History 1815-1914, Weidenfeld, 1982, J. Rule The Labouring Classes in Early Industrial England 1750-1850, Longman, 1986, J. Benson The Working-class in Britain 1850-1939, Longman, 1989, E. Hopkins A Social History of the English Working-classes 1815-1945, Edward Arnold, 1977, J. Belchem Industrialisation and the Working-class, Scolar, 1990 and K.D. Brown The English Labour Movement 1700-1951, Gill and Macmillan, 1982 are good starting points.

[2] ‘Real’ wages related the actual wages earned to the level of prices. Real wages will therefore increase if wages remain constant and food prices fall: the money available will go further.

[3] W.D. Rubenstein Wealth and Inequality in Britain, Faber, 1986 and H. Kaelbe Industrialisation and Social Inequality in Nineteenth Century Europe, Berg, 1986 provide useful analyses of the issues.  S. Pollard and D.W. Crossley The Wealth of Britain 1085-1966, Batsford, 1968 and J. Burnett A History of the Cost of Living, Penguin, 1969 provide chronological perspective. R. Floud ‘A Tall Story?  The Standard of Living Debate’, History Today, May 1983 is the simplest introduction. This should now be supplemented by R. Floud, K. Wachter and A. Gregory Height, health and history: Nutritional status in the United Kingdom 1750-1980, CUP, 1990, a major contribution to the debate. A.J. Taylor (ed.), The Standard of Living in the Industrial Revolution, Methuen, 1975 contains articles by the major protagonists.   J. Burnett Plenty and Want, Scolar Press, 1969, new edition, 1989 is central to the period 1832-1914.

[4] Roy Church The Great Victorian Boom 1850-1873, Macmillan, 1975 provides a brief analyses of this critical period.

No comments: