The ‘Great Depression’ from the mid 1870s to the mid 1890s saw working-class real wages rise dramatically, while unemployment remained close to the levels of the mid-Victorian boom. The decisive factor in improved living standards was not money wages, even though they continued upwards, but the dramatic fall in prices most marked in food and other staples, goods that accounted for much of the working-class budget. Prices tumbled by over 40 per cent, drawing real wages up in the most substantial and sustained increase of the nineteenth century. Allowing for unemployment, the real wages of the average urban worker stood some 60 per cent higher in 1900 than in 1860.
There was considerable diversity in living standards. The advance in living standards was neither uninterrupted nor evenly spread. All types of workers had to endure economic fluctuations of one kind or another, not least in the troughs of 1878-1879, 1884-1887 and 1892-1893, but the severity diverged markedly. Shipbuilding felt the full impact of the world trace depression. Demand was highly inelastic for a product that was long in construction and tailor-made to specific requirements. There was an over supply of ships in the early 1870s and stockpiling was not an option during the ensuing depression. Although boilermakers and shipbuilders were part of the aristocracy of labour with over 20 per cent earning 40s or more in the early twentieth century, the income available for consumption was substantially less than these wages suggest. At such times of full employment, skilled workers paid off debts incurred during the last spell of unemployment and saved for the next interruption in earnings. Workers in the building trades were subject to a different rhythm, longer than the five to seven year trade and investment cycle experienced in capital goods industries. Swings in the building industry lasted twenty years or more: from a peak in 1876 earnings and work outlets were reduced until the mid 1890s, the start of the next boom that reached a double peak in 1898 and 1903. During the up-turns, full employed builders’ labourers, the elite of unskilled labour, reached economic independence and were able to live above the poverty line without supplementary income. Within the long cycles, building activity remained at the mercy of the weather, with a seasonal trough from November to February. This pushed those without savings back into poverty.
Winter remained a slack season in many other trades, bringing hardship and distress to the casually employed in the docks, on the streets and in the sweatshops. This was particularly evidence when trade continued depressed after the weather improved and, in 1879 and 1886, resulted in unemployed riots and demonstrations. Charles Booth’s survey found that it was the broken time of irregular work rather than low rates of pay that accounted for working-class impoverishment. Employment in the clothing trades was still seasonal and sweated. Female workers in the cheap ‘slop’ end of the market in the London tailoring trade worked no more than two and a half days a week at a daily rate of 2s 6d to 4s for machinists and 1s 6d to 3s 6d for button-holers. Wages were higher in the West End bespoke trade. Up to 30s per week was paid during brisk periods but the ‘season’ exerted a greater tyranny. Milliners, dressmakers and tailoresses were frequently driven into prostitution in the slack season returning to the shops with the advent of the new season’s trade: morals, contemporaries observed, fluctuated with trade. Irregular earnings and employment were the norm for other women workers like box-makers, artificial flower-makers and other sweated trades conducted at home or in small-unregulated factories. The female casual labour market reached its peak during this period as elderly single women, widows and wives of irregularly employed labourers and others sought work at any price whatever.
All levels within the working-classes found their family and life style affected by adverse personal circumstances that were aggravated by fluctuations in living standards occasioned by cyclical, seasonal or other economic factors. Family size began to fall in this period: the marriage cohort of 1861-1869 had an average of 6.16 children while that of 1890-1899 had 4.13 and the figure continued to fall down to and beyond 1914. Fertility rates, however, diverged markedly between social classes and within the working-class itself. Between 1880 and 1911 the fertility rate in middle-class Hampstead fell by nearly 30 per cent while in working-class Poplar the decline was only 6 per cent. Within the working-classes martial fertility declined substantially faster for families headed by skilled, semi-skilled and textile workers than for those headed by miners, agricultural labourers and the unskilled.
The introduction of compulsory education in 1880 Act was regarded as an economic threat and unwelcome intrusion by poor parents since they were often dependent on the supplementary income of their children. Despite this, children were still able to earn at an early age. From nine or so, boys sought out of school hours employment as delivery boys, newspaper sellers, hawkers and costermongers. Juvenile crime, oral evidence suggests, was often inspired by a sense of family duty, a moral determination to provide for the family whatever the legal consequences. Non-attendance remained high in large families where the father was dead or unemployed. The half time system proved an acceptable compromise in the textile districts though twelve-year-olds that spent long mornings in the mill were often in no fit state to be taught in the afternoon.
Married women’s employment was poorly paid, incurred costs and carried social stigma. Denied workplace equality, working women were condemned as unfair competition, undercutting wages and workshop practices. Antagonism was particularly acute in the Potteries where the patriarchal system of subcontracted family labour was abruptly undercut by technological innovation at the potbank that brought new opportunities for women in occupations previously defended as skilled male preserves. Paid at no more than two-thirds the rate for the job, women were set to work on the lighter, smaller ware while men struggled to maintain former wage levels on the larger, more difficult items. During the 1890s the number of male potters decreased while female employment increased by 10.9 per cent; in 1901, women made up 21,000 of the total workforce of 46,000.
Families with a skilled male breadwinner were best place to benefit from improved living standards, but illness and advancing age denied them permanent economic security. Many trades remained dangerous and unhealthy and high earnings were often interrupted by ill-health. Income and expenditure could fluctuate widely but through credit and thrift working-class families struggled to maintain decent standards. The corner-shop ‘tick book’ remained the most common form of credit and during short-term emergencies the aristocracy of labour received financial assistance from the Co-op. The easy payment check system was pioneered by the Provident Clothing Company in 1881, a rapid success that altered the traditional method of credit. Pawn broking declined from its 1870s peak after which the trade diversified into the retail business with new fashionable lines sold for check, cash or credit.
Poorer families, however, continued to use the pledge shop in the conventional way, as a cheap source of second-hand clothing and as a substitute savings bank. Expensive items purchased with seasonal earnings were subsequently pawned off one by one to tide over hard times. Pledgeable articles were the most basic form of insurance against hardship. At the other end of the scale, the friendly societies offered systematic cover against the costs of sickness, accident and death but at a price beyond the means of many working-class households. It has been calculated that the minimum weekly income necessary to be a member of a friendly society was 20s and this excluded all but the most regularly employed. Membership, however, grew: between 1872 and 1899 the Manchester Unity of Oddfellows increased from 427,000 to 713,000 and the Ancient Order of Foresters from 394,000 to 666,000. Membership was a cultural badge of status and was respected and admired throughout the working-class community.
In insurance terms, sickness benefit was the most important advantage of membership, paid at a rate of between 10s and 14s per week, a sum supplemented in some cases by trade union membership (the double cover of the aristocracy of labour). By 1900, however, the friendly societies were on the verge of crisis as an increasing number of elderly members relied on sick benefits in lieu of a pension. As well as sick pay, friendly societies entitled members to medical treatment from a general practitioner but this did not prove to be successful and many societies pooled their resources to establish medical institutes. By 1885 42 medical institutes were affiliated to the Friendly Societies Medical Alliance with a total membership of 211,000. Other forms of medical treatment depended on philanthropy, employer paternalism or the overworked services of the Poor Law. Free outpatient treatment was available from the voluntary hospitals but these were unevenly spread with a heavy concentration in London and the larger cities. Work clubs or medical aid societies were encouraged by some employers who deducted a weekly sum to fund the scheme and by 1900 it was common practice for the workers to select and appoint the medical practitioner. Poor Law medical facilities lost some of their stigma following the Medical Relief Disqualification Act 1885. The medical establishment was still, however, treated with some suspicion in working-class circles and various forms of alternative medicine were favoured ranging from homeopathy, mesmerism and spiritualism, practices based on natural remedies to the latest patent pills advertised in the press and quack commercial substitutes. Poor families without access to charity or insurance schemes were forced to rely on the Poor Law unless they could muster sufficient funds for private treatment, the much-preferred option.
With or without medical cover, burial insurance was considered obligatory, particularly for wives, children and those with no independent income of their own. The alternative was the much feared pauper burial. Much of the business was conducted by large and inefficient collecting societies: contributions were low, a penny or halfpenny a week, but expenses were high (40 per cent of income compared to 10-15 per cent for friendly societies). The industrial life assurance companies were more efficient: the Prudential kept its collectors under close supervision and the company was far more selective declining to accept Irish-born or inhabitants of certain neighbourhoods. Even in death was mattered was the judgement of neighbours and peers. Without show and display -- an ostentatious funeral -- respectability would be unacknowledged.
Food was the principal item of expenditure and considerable emphasis was placed on managing diet. In 1885 the working-class spent 71 per cent of their earnings on food and drink compared to only 44 per cent in the middle-classes. By this time, however, food prices were falling, facilitating a major advance in living standards: between 1877 and 1887 the retail price of food in a typical working-class budget fell by 30 per cent, the most significant price change of the century. Lower prices were the result of large-scale import of cheap wheat and meat, the progressive reduction of taxes on food and the belated industrial revolution in food manufacture. A whole series of changes took place in retail technology. They were not complete until 1900. Though they were not immediate and revolutionary, the end result was a radical change in the whole system.
The weekly market was gradually replaced by, or transformed into, the permanent shopping centre. Up to 1850 the first stage was characterised by the building of a market hall. Michael Marks, for example, started in Leeds as a peddler or packman; by 1884 he had a stall in the open market that operated two days a week; from there he moved into the covered market that had been opened in 1857 on a daily basis; the next stage was to open stalls in other markets and by 1890 he had five. The old core of the town, or part of it, that had been a mixture of land uses became more specialised into retail or professional uses. Mass produced goods undermined old local craft production and the old combined workshop-retailing establishments were replaced by specialist retailers of manufactured goods. The railways enhanced this process by providing speedy transport of even perishable commodities. Part of this process was the wider occurrence of the lock-up shop to which the retailer commuted each day. By the 1880s both multiple and department stores appeared, the former especially in the grocery trade. Thomas Lipton started a one-man grocery store in Glasgow in 1872; by 1899 he had 245 branches throughout Britain. The greater demand for professional services, related to urban growth, resulted in lawyers and doctors seeking central locations. But a variety of other uses also located themselves here offering services to business, auctioneers and accountants or to the public, such as lending libraries.
The following important changes in diet occurred after 1875. Declining bread consumption is widely associated with rising standards of living as more money was spent on meat. The prosperous aristocracy of labour may have bought fresh meat but other members of the working-class bought imported meat, whether tinned or frozen. It was good value, cheap and appetising when embellished with one of the new commercial sauces. Consumption of tea and sugar rose as housewives found themselves with more money to spare. New technology and factory production led to a dramatic increase in biscuit, jam, chocolate and cocoa manufacture: Chivers, Rowntree, Cadbury and Fry soon established as household names. Jam sold particularly well and there was a huge popular demand for a sweet, highly flavoured spread that was cheaper than butter and made margarine more palatable. Some of the new developments were of dubious nutritional value. Roller-milling produced finer flour and a white loaf but the process removed the wheat germ, vitamins, mineral salts and fats. Margarine was vitamin-deficient, as were cheap and convenient dairy products, hence the prevalence of rickets among children fed on canned condensed and evaporated skimmed milk. More nutritious, but much criticised by middle-class observers, was the development of the fish and chip trade. It made an important contribution to the inadequate protein content of the urban diet. For working mothers, fish and chips were a welcome and affordable convenience, saving time, effort and cooking costs.
The extent of dietary improvement in late Victorian England should not be exaggerated. Agricultural labourers, especially in the low-wage south-western counties, seldom enjoyed meat. However, shorter working hours allowed labourers to spend more time in their vegetable allotments while the new touring vans from nearby co-operative societies offered decent supplies in rural backwaters. In urban households, gains were unevenly shared: the male breadwinner was accorded priority at the table, a practice that often resulted in the underfeeding of women and children. Women’s diets remained one of bread and tea, while almost all men consumed a main meal of meat or bacon or fish and potatoes. Despite the fall in prices, families with incomes less than 30s a week were undernourished, the consequences of which were graphically revealed in contemporary social surveys and the subsequent investigation of the nation’s ‘physical deterioration’.
Health became an increasingly important issue in this period. With the advantage of hindsight the years between 1875 and 1914 can be seen as one of transition from the age-old pattern of mass mortality occasioned by infectious diseases, poor nutrition and heavy labour to the modern assemblage of functional disorders, viral disease and bodily decay associated with old age. Two factors hastened the change. First, the increased survival rates of individuals who formerly would have been lost in infancy or childhood. Secondly, the new diet with its excessive sugar and salt content, the consequences of which were aggravated by increased addiction to cigarette smoking, encouraged by the introduction of the penny-per-five packet in 1888. Harmful or not to the bodily constitution, the quality of food undoubtedly improved assisted by new legislation against adulteration and by higher standards of retailing promoted by the Co-op, that secured its biggest advances in members in the 1880s and 1890s, and by the new multiple stores pioneered by Lipton’s and Sainsbury’s. However, those still dependent on ‘tick’ had to suffer the high prices and low quality of the small corner-shop while other poor families eked out a diet on the offal and otherwise unsaleable items knocked down in price at Saturday night markets.
 S.B.Saul The Myth of the Great Depression 1873-1896, Macmillan, 2nd. ed., 1988 summarises historiography.