Monday, 28 July 2008

The working classes: Rural work and unemployment

By the early 1830s many rural areas were beginning to emerge from the worst rural distress of the agricultural depression and direct rural protest, such as the Captain Swing riots in 1830 in southern England, were not repeated, rural wages remained low and highly variable from one area to another. James Caird surveyed wages in England in 1851 and found variations from 13-14s per week in the West Riding, Lancashire and Cumberland to only 7-8s per week in southern counties like Berkshire, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. Northern wages were higher because of the greater prosperity of mixed and pastoral areas compared to the wheat-growing counties of southern England and competition for labour from industrial towns where wages were generally higher. In southern England counties close to London (Sussex, Essex and Hertfordshire) also had higher rural wages of 9-10s per week. In the second half of the century farming round London became more varied and prosperous because of the growth of market gardening, cash cropping and milk production for the urban market.

Rural industrial workers were usually rather better off. In areas like the south Pennines survival of a dual farming-weaving economy gave some protection against poverty though, as the textile industry became more mechanised and factory-based, the distress of rural textile workers became acute and well-documented. The effects of rural poverty can be seen in malnutrition and associated ill-health. A survey of 1863 showed that most English rural labourers relied heavily on a diet of bread and potatoes, with meat consumption varying from season to season and area to area. Men were generally better fed than the rest of the family. Even so, the food supply in the countryside was rather better than that available to the urban poor: it was fresher and there were more opportunities to supplement it informally or illegally from gleaning, fishing or poaching or from the cottage garden.

The social composition of rural areas also changed after 1830: selective rural out-migration removed many younger and more active members of the community, but areas near towns began to experience urban-rural movement as rich families sought houses in the countryside. Commuter villages grew around such cities as Leeds, Manchester and especially London in the second half of the nineteenth century, particularly where there were good rail connections. Rural resort areas also began to be exploited. While the reality of rural life was, for many, harsh and unpleasant, the image of rural idyll had, by the 1890s, become firmly implanted as a middle-class vision of the countryside that was increasingly imprinted on rural areas through residence, landownership and conservation movements.


It is hard to superimpose twentieth century notions of unemployment on the mid-nineteenth century labour market. There are no statistics, national or otherwise. Patterns of work were very diverse, varying not only between different industries and trades but also within the same industry in different parts of the country[1]. The enormous variation in the nature of waged work is not the only difficulty here. Industrialisation separated work from home and this reduced the wage-earning capacity of married women who were increasingly tied down by household duties. The age limits of the working population were determined simply by physical capacity. Statutory attempts to impose restrictions on the use of child labour in the 1830s and 1840s were not successful. Both employers and parents colluded in their evasion, the former because child labour was cheap and more easily disciplined, the latter because children’s earnings were vital in the constant battle against poverty. Larger families tended to be poorer families and family size grew during the first half of the century. The introduction of compulsory schooling 1880 was far more effective in eliminating such practices than anything that went before.

Equally Victorian England did not recognise a common age of retirement from working life, that was determined by the requirements of the job and the physical capacity of the worker concerned. Work was overwhelmingly manual and premium was placed on physical strength and stamina that faded with age, especially when accompanied by a poor diet consequent on low earnings. Far fewer men reached our current retirement age of sixty-five but earnings and working capacity fell off before then, except for those engaged in sedentary trades. As a result, the age at which workers ‘retired’ varied considerably. In the 1840s Friedrich Engels observed how miners, whose working conditions bred chronic illness and whose job required a high level of physical fitness, were forced to stop work at 35-45 and rarely lived beyond the age of 50. At the same time Henry Mayhew documented the case of a 70 year old London needlewoman who was refused help by the relieving officer because she was considered fit to earn her own living. In all branches of the labour market advancing years spelt reduced earnings, irregular work and, if death did not intervene, eventual reliance on children, charity or the poor law.

No respectable worker or his family would turn to the poor law in time of distress except when absolutely essential to survival. By 1850, the name ‘pauper’ carried a social stigma second only to that of the convicted criminal. This helps to explain the huge expansion of clubs, societies and associations that collected contributions from working people in order to help them cope in the event of a crisis. Insurance against unemployment per se was less common. It was largely confined to skilled men in printing, construction, engineering, metal-working, shipbuilding and some of the older crafts in leather-working, bookbinding and furniture-making. It operated through trade unions and was principally designed to prevent union men being forced to work below the recognised rate when desperate for want of work. In other sectors of the economy, notably mining and textiles, unions negotiated work-sharing schemes as an alternative form of protection against the threat of recession. In this way, the negotiation of working practices was designed to protect jobs as well as maintain wages.

By 1906 unions that did provide help for those out of work covered about 1 million workers, but did not distinguish very clearly between those idle due to strikes and those unemployed because of a depression in trade. For the vast majority of the workforce there was no automatic support to fall back on when recession struck and, in trying to maintain their self-esteem, resorted to various things. Credit played a major role within working-class families. Loans were obtained from money-menders or relatives and neighbours on the understanding that debts would be repaid when times were not so hard. The local pawnshop was a familiar resort of many who carefully preserved a Sunday suit, a pair of decent shoes, a small piece of jewellery, that could be pledged on the Monday and redeemed on the Friday when (and if) the wages arrived. The unemployment of the husband frequently pushed the wife into taking in more washing, more cleaning, child-minding, sewing and, in the last resort, into prostitution in order to supplement dwindling family resources. The only other resort for the unemployed was migration from depressed to prosperous areas within the country, or emigration to the colonies where labour was still scarce. Many trade unions subsidised unemployed members who were prepared to ‘tramp’ in search of work. Emigration was a option for the young and skilled but the colonies were not prepared to be used as a dumping ground for Britain’s surplus labour. Colonial governments had no desire to act as the repository for British paupers any more than for British convicts. Working-class households survived on a precarious structure of credit that tended to collapse when employment was scarce, debts mounted, the rent was unpaid and creditors at the door. By various strategies, the families of unskilled labourers ‘got by’ most of the time, but without any security outside the informal help that might be forthcoming from family or friends.

By the late nineteenth century urban expansion concentrated unemployment and underemployment in unprecedented fashion and rendered social distress more visible. With the migration of the middle-classes and the skilled working-class to the suburbs, those unable to find regular employment were left behind, forming the backbone of an ‘inner city’ problem. The new visibility of disorganisation in the labour market, at a time of German and American economic expansion, the extension of the vote to most working men in 1884, the growth of trade and labour organisation and the inability of traditional institutions to cope with the situation combined to promote the unemployment question as a key issue in national politics for the first time. It took over twenty years to convert emergency intervention into permanent government policy.

[1] On this issue the simplest introduction is Noel Whiteside Bad Times: Unemployment in British Social and Political History, Faber, 1991.

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