Thursday, 31 July 2008

The middle-classes: who were they?

Though there are important differences in their approach, historians generally agree that the central features of modern British society were crystallised during the nineteenth century. Defining the beginning and the end of this process of change has proved difficult, but it would probably be generally accepted that the mid-nineteenth century marked some sort of turning-point as the new society became increasingly integrated into an effectively functioning whole and many of the conflicts that threatened its stability, especially between 1830 and 1850, seemed to have been successfully resolved.

The changing place of the middle-classes

It proved difficult for historians to establish a clear view of this change. They were often more concerned with establishing an appropriate emotional response to ‘Victorianism’. The emergence of a more detached perspective emerged in the 1960s when historians like Edward Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and Harold Perkin began to use categories drawn from the various traditions of the social sciences to develop a more sophisticated analysis of the working-classes and to ask new questions about the broad processes of social change. The central assumption of this approach was that there had been a complete break in the nature of the social order in the first half of the nineteenth century as a result of the ‘Industrial Revolution’. Because of the trauma involved in such a fundamental transformation and because of the nature of the new social classes that it produced, it was necessary to construct a new set of social relations. The independent and dispersed small farmers and artisans of the eighteenth century had been replaced by a subordinate and concentrated factory proletariat. The traditional landed and paternalistic aristocracy had been replaced by a more or less ruthless industrial bourgeoisie. Given the increase in economic class conflict and the recurrent threat of mass popular revolt that resulted, it had therefore been necessary to introduce new methods of social control. As a result the history of the first half of the nineteenth century has been written largely in terms of the threat of dynamic social revolution, while that of the second half was written largely in terms of the success of social stabilisation.

These assumptions now seem rather simplistic and it now seems that it is more accurate to see the development of British society after 1830 in the following terms. There was a greater degree of continuity in the nature of the major social classes than has often been assumed. This view questions the existence of a major social crisis in the early nineteenth century that parallels the recent revisions of the notions of a dramatic ‘Industrial Revolution’. It is, however, misleading to point only to continuity: over these years Britain was transformed from a largely rural to a largely urban society within which levels of both population and of material consumption reached unprecedented heights. It would be equally misleading to ignore the serious stresses and strains that accompanied this transformation: above all as a result of the combined pressure of all groups within the urban population for new forms of freedom and self-government. However, much of the new wealth and new power was accumulated in the same old hands, above all those of the landlords and financiers, and much of the new productivity was achieved less by heavy investment in science-based technology and more by piecemeal innovation and the reorganisation of a largely skilled workforce.

This model calls into question the traditional assumptions about the role of the middle-classes in nineteenth century society. It asks historians to re-examine their view of the rise of the industrial bourgeoisie based on their growing economic wealth from the middle of the eighteenth century and their successful domination of social values by the middle of the nineteenth century. Both contemporaries and later historians consistently refer to non-landed property as the ‘middle-classes’ implying that, however wealthy and influential they were becoming in the nineteenth century, there still remained more powerful groups above them in the national hierarchy. Perhaps equally significantly, the standing of the highest income groups within the working-classes has often been indicated by referring to them as ‘labour aristocrats’.

The middle-classes and middle ‘classness’

Who were the ‘middle-classes’? George Kitson Clark rightly counselled caution when he pointed out that ‘Of course, the general expression ‘middle-class’ remains useful, as a name for a large section of society .... (but) it is necessary to remember that a belief in the importance and significance of the middle-class in the nineteenth century derives from contemporary opinion .... They do not always say clearly whom they have in mind, and since the possible variants are so great a modern writer should follow them with great caution....’ [1] The middle-classes can be distinguished from the aristocracy and gentry not so much by their income as by the necessity of earning a living, and at the bottom from the working-classes not by their higher income but by their property, however small, represented by stock in trade, tools or by their educational investment in skills or expertise. Yet, as J.C.D. Clark commented of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the divide that was emerging was not the Marxist division between aristocracy and bourgeoisie but ‘a cultural one, between the patrician landowner, banker, lawyer, clergyman or merchant on the one hand and the plebeian tradesman and manufacturer on the other....’ [2]

There may have been considerable room for agreement between capital and labour in attacking the political monopoly of the aristocracy, an agreement that was frequently reinforced by shared local, political and religious loyalty. The alliance between capital and labour was, however, often fraught by fears of bourgeois dominance and by suspicion of ‘betrayal’.[3] Paradoxically it was often the aristocracy that provided legislative support for the working-classes against opposition from manufacturers and industrialists.

The middle-classes of the mid-nineteenth century were an extremely heterogeneous body embracing at one end bankers and large industrialists with incomes from investment and profits of over £1,000 per year and at the other end small shopkeepers and clerks with annual earnings of under £50. The middle-classes can be divided into two broad groupings. The upper middle-classes were dominated by the provincial elites, a small group of men and families controlling the growing industrial complex with merchant bankers and financiers as their London equivalent. London bankers and City merchants were among the wealthiest people in the country. Most of the largest fortunes, such as those of the Rothschilds, Morrisons, Barings or Sassoons, came from commerce or finance and not from manufacturing and industry. Factory owners were usually wealthy but not immensely wealthy. The upper middle-class was in fact divided into two fairly distinct groups: the financiers and merchants of London, and the manufacturers of the North and Midlands. The former were generally wealthier, of higher social status and closer to the landed elites than the industrialists. By 1880, and perhaps earlier, Britain was as much the Clearing House of the World as the Workshop of the World.

A lower middle-class emerged in the first half of the century and consisted of three main groups: first, smaller manufacturers, shopkeepers, dealers, milliners, tailors, local brewers; secondly, the rapidly expanding ubiquitous ‘clerk’ in both business and government; and finally, the growing professionals schoolteachers, railway officials, an emergent managerial class, accountants, pharmacists and engineers. Middle-class ‘occupations’ grew from 6.5 per cent of the working population in 1851 to 7.8 per cent by 1871. Structural changes towards a larger tertiary or service sector in the late Victorian economy resulted in a growth in the number of clerical and administrative employees. Aware of their ‘caste’, they maintained an important distinction between themselves as salaried or fee-earning employees and wage-earning manual workers. Dorothy Marshall argues that ‘Some of these employments were lucrative, some poorly paid, but the men who engaged in them were united in the conviction that they were socially superior to the manual worker, however skilled. The struggling clerk, who earned less than the expert fine cotton spinner, underlined his superiority by his dress, his speech and his manners. These, and not his income, were what distinguished him from the working-class.’ [4] Little had changed when E.M. Forster wrote prosaically of England in 1910 in Howard’s End, of Leonard Bast a clerk, ‘The boy, Leonard Bast, stood at the extreme verge of gentility. He was not in the abyss, but he could see it and at times people whom he knew had dropped in and counted no more. He knew that he was poor and would admit it: he would have died sooner than confess any inferiority to the rich....’ While sharing the aspirations and values of the class above them, the lower middle-class was under constant pressure to differentiate itself from the working-classes whose ways of life they rejected. There was an unresolved tension between the need to maintain the symbols of status and the constraints of economic reality.

There was an obsession with religious certainty, moral zeal and purity and respectability but above all keeping up appearances at all costs throughout the middle-classes and this led the children and grandchildren of the late Victorians to accuse them of hypocrisy. But this was not the only or perhaps the most abiding character trait of the middle-classes. Their search was for security, comfort and peace of mind and above all for that social acceptance and approval denoted by respectability.[5] These were, as J.F.C. Harrison says ‘....not perhaps very noble strivings, especially when pursued in a competitive and individualist spirit. Materialism in an undisguised form seldom appears very attractive.... (Yet) in retrospect the years 1890-1914 have come to seem like a golden age of the middle-classes.... It was a basically conservative civilisation, alternately complacent and fearful.... Yet it should not be forgotten that criticism of the middle-class was largely endogenous. The brilliant collection of writers, intellectuals, socialists and feminists who exposed and attacked bourgeois civilisation in the 1880s and 1890s were for the most part themselves raised within it.’ [6] Being respectable essentially meant the maintaining of a respectable front and of course encouraged all the duplicities and hypocrisies fastened on by contemporary social commentators, in fiction and out of it. Historians will never conclusively settle the argument about ‘Victorian hypocrisy’.


[1] G. Kitson Clark The Making of Victorian England, Methuen, 1965, page 96.

[2] J.C.D. Clark English Society 1688-1832, CUP, 1985, page 71; see also his The Language of Liberty 1660-1832, CUP, 1993.

[3] This can best be seen in the agitation between 1830 and 1832 that led to the Reform Act. Those sections of the working-class that had supported reform got little or nothing. This led to a powerful sense of betrayal that led logically into the demands of the Chartists for universal suffrage.

[4] D. Marshall Industrial England 1776-1851, Routledge, 1973, page 96.

[5] The briefest discussion of respectability can be found in G. Best Mid-Victorian Britain 1851-1875, Fontana, 1979, pp. 279-286.

[6] J.F.C. Harrison Late Victorian Britain 1875-1901, Fontana, 1991, pp. 65-66.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

The working-classes: An 'Aristocracy of Labour'

In 1870 George Potter, a prominent unionist and radical journalist wrote, ‘The working man belonging to the upper-class of his order is a member of the aristocracy of the working-classes. He is a man of some culture, is well read in politics and social history....His self respect is also well developed.’ [1] His view of the ‘aristocracy of the working-classes’, distinguished from other workers by their way of life, values and attitudes and seen as a moderating influence on the politics of popular protest, can be found scattered widely through contemporary accounts of the working-class in the third quarter of the nineteenth century.[2]

This raises important historiographical questions. How valid are these attempts to identify a distinct upper stratum within the working-class? How far did these divisions affect the militancy and class consciousness of the labour movement in this period? It is certainly misleading to discuss the working-class or, for that matter, any other class as though it was a uniform homogeneous social entity with a fixed and unchanging identity. This led historians to look more closely at the internal make-up of social classes, the role of different occupational groups and so on. All workers may have some similarities of experience arising from economic insecurity and subjection to their employers’ dictates, but the exact form of that experience varied with the varying direction and timing of economic change in different industries and regions. A coherent ‘working-class’ identity was created with difficulty, through cultural and political activities that could cut across differences. The debate about the labour aristocracy belongs to this framework. The concept suggests that divisions within the working-class were particularly marked and took particular forms after 1850. Eric Hobsbawm, in his influential essay first published in 1964, said that there was ‘a distinctive upper strata of the working-class, better paid, better treated and generally regarded as more ‘respectable’ and politically moderate than the mass of the proletariat.’ [3] The continuing discussion about the existence and composition of such strata is one theme of the debate about the labour aristocracy. The discussion is more complicated than a debate between supporters and opponents of the concept of labour aristocracy; its supporters are by no means agreed among themselves, and critics of the concept would certainly not all argue that divisions within the working-class did not exist or were not historically important.

Nineteenth century industry was very diverse in its levels of mechanisation, scale of operation, subdivision of processes and so on. ‘Traditional’ unmechanised production, largely unaffected by the processes of industrial change, continued to manufacture individual items for clients. Equally features of the ‘craft’ division of labour were reproduced in large-scale mechanised production. Economic differences within the working-class have therefore to be placed in the context of the social and technical organisation of work. The heavy dependence of key sectors of nineteenth century industry on skilled labour can be seen very clearly but does this provide a case for an aristocracy of labour?

Engineering is often regarded as central to the formation of a labour aristocracy. The expansion of the industry was certainly associated with the expansion of skilled employment, much of it highly paid. Skilled engineering workers had been under pressure in the 1840s culminating in the lock-out of 1852. Thereafter, however, the pace of technical change slackened, at least until the 1890s, and there was a spread of techniques from their narrow base in Lancashire and the West Riding. The following elements can be identified. The industry was heavily dependent on the skilled labour of turners and fitters. Management’s authority was limited by craft custom; foremen retained their trade affiliations, often belonging to the same craft unions, and were only slowly transformed into a distinct supervisory stratum. There were some attempts by ‘advanced’ employers to respond to new competitive challenges from the 1870s and introduce further technical change but these developments were more marked in some regions than others, and the entrenched position of apprentice-trained craftsmen remained intact in many engineering centres.

Building is often cited as a classic case of a ‘traditional’ sector growing to provide the infrastructure of an industrial-urban society. But, as in other sectors of Victorian industry, a focus on the absence of large-scale mechanisation can obscure important changes in the organisation of work and a resulting growth of specialisation and occupational subdivision. By 1900 wood-working and stone-cutting machines, new materials like concrete and steel and the acute depression were undermining craft controls. The piecemeal application of machines was typical of the changes occurring in labour-intensive crafts in the second half of the century, with effects on the pace of work, the versatility and initiative of skilled labour and the possibility of ‘dilution’. The position of building craftsmen depended on their ability to maintain trade boundaries in the face of these pressures.

A number of skilled trades were characterised, like building, by their relationship to an expanding urban market, the most skilled employment often being for the luxury or bespoke end of that market. There may not have been widespread mechanisation but this did not mean that there were no changes in methods of production. In printing the steam-powered press was a skill-intensive method and hand labour continued to dominate the typesetting process. In Edinburgh, a major centre of publishing, divisions emerged between the minority of compositors paid on time-rates and a larger group of less regularly employed men paid on piece-rates. In clothing and shoemaking, the process of casualisation was more marked, with a substantial sector of sweated labour working at home with no customary or trade union control of wages or conditions. Other urban crafts were more successful in retaining some control over the restructuring of the labour process, adapting to and partly shaping changes in the division of labour. Workers in such trades were often employed in very small units with rather limited application of machines or steam-power. This did not mean that they enjoyed a ‘traditional’ situation, unaffected by industrial change. Their security rested on their ability to control changes in the division of labour.

Cotton textiles were the first sector of industry to develop mechanised mass production and it remained the leading ‘factory’ industry throughout the century in its strongly localised centres in north-west England. The best-paid workers were the adult mule spinners, about a fifth of the total spinning labour force, who minded the machines and supervised the work of the semi-skilled piecers. Spinners were recruited from piecers and it was the regulation of this process that maintained the spinners’ position. Women were employed in the preparatory stage in the carding and blowing room. In weaving, that was sometimes integrated in the same plant as spinning but more often separate and localised to the northern part of Lancashire, more women were employed alongside men. The better-paid loom were generally allocated to men, creating a sex differential in wages. The structure of the labour force did not simply reflect the technical requirements of mechanised production. It was also shaped by the problems of supervision and control, the strategies of employers under given market conditions, the sexual division of labour and the bargaining power of groups of workers. In the greater economic stability of the mid-Victorian period the spinners, on the basis of their strategic role in production, were able to advance their economic position and establish tight controls over manning and recruitment of labour, excluding women and carefully regulating boys and men.

There is considerable diversity in the structure of Victorian industry. This poses difficulties for any attempt to define a common hierarchy of labour and to identify a potential labour aristocracy in its upper levels. At the heart of the problem is the meaning of ‘skill’. This can be seen from various perspectives. First, skill as ‘craft skill’ almost always meant adult men’s work and was not simply a matter of technical content but also conflict over the boundaries of skill. Skill was seen as a means of preventing ‘dilution’ either by using semi-skilled or unskilled labour or by using cheaper women. Secondly, skill as ‘control’ had two dimensions: ‘control’ over the induction process of apprenticeship into the appropriate skill and ‘control’ over the process of production within the workplace. Thirdly, ‘skill as ‘patriarchy’ through a sexual division of labour and the exclusion of women from skills was one means of policing the frontiers of craft skill. There was a tendency to regard any work performed by women as by definition unskilled and therefore requiring less payment regardless of the content of the particular job. Finally, ‘skill as monopoly’ where groups with traditions of craft organisation made the availability of special skills conditional on an employment monopoly over intrinsically less skilled operations. There is little doubt that within most manufacturing industries the work force was a labour hierarchy of varying degrees of skill and there were certainly important wage differentials between them. However, did those at the higher wage levels and with higher skill expertise and more regular employment form a separate and distinguishable group?

Who were the ‘Labour Aristocrats’? Were improvements in conditions restricted to a small upper stratum of 10 per cent of the working-classes? This may, or may not, be a critical issue but it does require some attempt to identify who this group were and what distinguished them from the remainder of the working-class. Hobsbawm, in his essay first published in 1954, mentions a number of criteria by which to distinguish members of the labour aristocracy: ‘First, the level and regularity of a worker’s earnings; second, his prospects of social security; third, his conditions of work including the way he was treated by foremen and masters; fourth, his relations with the social strata above and below him; fifth, his general conditions of living; lastly, his prospects of future advancement and those of his children.’ [4] His focus is on the persistence of craft methods in many sectors of British industry, the potential bargaining power this afforded to key groups of workers and the significance of ‘artisan’ cultures and modes of activity in the formation of the working-class.

The recent debate has, however, centred on issues of work organisation and especially the continuities and discontinuities of industrial development in the early and mid nineteenth centuries. While Hobsbawm concentrated on textile workers the labour aristocracy for writers like Foster are piece-workers in engineering, spinners in cotton and checkweightmen in mining. All these, he suggests, represent new forms of industrial authority emerging in the 1850s and acted very much as the agents of capital in supervising, ‘pace-setting’ and disciplining the rest of the workforce. Stedman Jones argues that the transition to a more stable industrial capitalism with an expanding sector of mechanised production involved the adaptation of all parts of the labour force to effective employer control of production. The traditional autonomy of craftsmen was destroyed, but divisions of skills were then re-created and maintained by groups with the necessary bargaining-power. The impact of capitalist development, especially in the nineteenth century, was not simply to destroy skills, but to create the basis for new forms of skilled labour within which craft methods and traditions could assert themselves. There were attempts to rationalise production by employers but these were hampered by lack of managerial technique and experience as well as by the strength of skilled labour. This gave ‘control’ to the skilled workers and there were few groups of skilled workers whose position did not involve control of some specialised technique indispensable to their employers and that control was indeed the basis for their bargaining power.

This debate on the labour aristocracy allows four issues to be addressed. First, was the labour aristocracy simply a perpetuation of the earlier artisan traditions or was it a consequence of the formation of new skilled groupings within the working-class? This is a question of continuity or discontinuity. The earliest uses of the term ‘aristocracy of labour’ in fact referred to hierarchies within certain crafts, like coach-making, in the 1830s and 1840s and the labour aristocracy described in the third quarter of the century may therefore represent the expansion and flourishing of these groups under the favourable conditions of the mid-Victorian boom. Secondly, though there can be no doubt of the cultural importance of traditions drawn from artisan cultures of the 1830s and earlier or of the economic importance of apprenticed skills drawn from these older trades, there were newer trades, especially associated with engineering, shipbuilding and the rapid expansion of capital goods generally that altered the occupational make-up of the working-classes. Thirdly, did the persistence of craft methods in the older trades indicate an absence of change and adaptation to change? In general terms, the answer is no. Some trades did manage to stabilise their position and consequently exerted some control over the processes of mechanisation. Those that failed to do this succumbed to technological unemployment or the casualisation of employment. Finally, the notion of a labour aristocracy is not simply an economic concept. Working-class behaviour and experience was not confined to the workplace and the basis for a cohesive upper stratum within the working-class can also be sought within local communities. Labour aristocracy was not simply about ‘control’ in the workplace but about culture and community, values and life-styles. Studies have shown that the formation of a labour aristocracy or ‘artisan elite’ drew together men from a range of trades within communities that set them apart from the less advantaged sections of the working-class. Even here there are problems and, like all attempts to identify labour aristocrats, this meets with problems of generalisation. There are considerable difficulties and major limitations in all the competing definitions of the aristocratic stratum. There were certainly wide differences within the working-class and there is considerable evidence of processes of subdivision within the working-class that may have been particularly intense under the conditions of the mid-Victorian boom and the uneven incidence of mechanisation. But whether either within the workplace or the broader concept of the community there was a clearly identifiable group of working-class ‘aristocrats’ is still unclear.

As even its critics recognise, the concept of labour aristocracy has had its value in drawing attention to differences within the working-class. It has helped historians to get beyond a view of the working-class as an homogeneous entity and encouraged them to investigate the experience and activity of different groups. One of the problems of the debate has been to characterise the working-class as consisting of a small elite sitting above the homogeneous mass of increasingly impoverished labour. This is self-evidently untenable. The working-class or working-classes throughout the nineteenth century was marked by its divisions and sub-divisions on the basis of levels of skill, wages, gender, levels of control and so on. This highlights the unsatisfactory nature of any simple division between aristocrats and plebeians, between skilled and unskilled labour or between men and women. Most workers found themselves on complex wage ladders with many steps along which they generally expected to move, in both directions, at different stages of their working lives.

Rather than continue to argue fruitlessly about alternative definitions of the labour aristocracy and whether or not such a social group existed, it may be more valuable to explore the following themes in greater detail. There is scope for investigation of technology, work organisation and production processes in different industries; examining the relationship of sexual divisions to occupational hierarchies; considering the problems of language and social imagery surrounding the working-class; and, investigating behaviour outside work and the whole pattern of working-class ‘respectability’. The debate on the labour aristocracy highlights the difficulty historians face when considering and achieving agreed conclusions about the structure of the working-class.


[1] The Reformer, 5 November 1870.

[2] Robert Gray The Aristocracy of Labour in Nineteenth-century Britain c.1850-1914, Macmillan, 1981 is an excellent summary of current research on the subject but needs to be read in conjunction with the relevant sections of Alastair J. Reid Social Classes and Social Relations in Britain 1850-1914, Macmillan, 1992.

[3] E.J. Hobsbawm Labouring Men, Weidenfeld, 1964 includes his well-known essay on the labour aristocracy and other pioneering studies of the nineteenth century working-class.

[4] Hobsbawm, op.cit., page 273.

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.

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.

Unemployment

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.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

The working classes: Organising work 1875-1914

Culture and community in the factory became the concern of ‘scientific management’, a comprehensive strategy significantly in advance of the paternalism of the 1850s and 1860s. The working environment improved as employers implemented new factory legislation and extended the range of welfare programmes, but other initiatives were less benevolent. Pioneer forms of Taylorism provided new managerial techniques to raise labour productivity and curb the power of organised labour and were pursued with some vigour as international competition increased and prices fell.[1]

The design and planning of production processes became a managerial prerogative, a task undertaken by new production engineers, while shopfloor operatives were kept under constant surveillance by foremen. This challenged the skilled workers’ belief that they had autonomy in the sphere of production. Supervision was often accompanied by new methods of payment, elaborate incentive schemes such as bonus systems. Employers hoped to effect the maximum division of labour to take advantage of the technological developments of the ‘second industrial revolution’: semi-automatic machines, standardised and interchangeable parts and the increasing use of semi-skilled labour on tasks previously the preserve of a skilled elite. These managerial and technical innovations threatened to undermine skilled status and craft organisations but, in the English context at least, they were to prove remarkable resilient.

The consequences of attempts to reorganise production varied from industry to industry according to the balance of power and authority at the workplace. In general terms craft organisation remained strong where employers were inhibited by market forces, by the relative inelasticity of demand for the product or its perishable nature. Hand compositors in the newspaper industry, for example, gained control of the new linotype machines for their own exclusive ‘craft’ use, a privilege extracted from employers in the competitive market for a perishable product. Some employers decided against reorganisation when confronted by the threat of craft resistance. This was a sensible, if short-term, attitude for family-owned firms making satisfactory profits. In addition the product market for British-made capital goods was often highly individualised, a significant obstacle to the introduction of standardised mass-production techniques: ships, machines, railway engines were constructed to fulfil the individual needs of customers. It was not until the bicycle boom of the mid 1890s that a broad-based demand for a product with standardised parts emerged and at this point engineering employers began to introduce American-style machine tools and lathes. Mechanisation was implemented in the midst of workplace conflict, as employers combined in a national organisation -- the Engineering Employers Federation -- to reverse the gains secured by the Amalgamated Society of Engineers during the craft militancy of the 1889-1892 boom. In the lock-out of 1897, the EEF insisted on the absolute right to management but their victory did not portend the crushing of the union of the thorough transformation of the division of labour. The aim of employers was to boost output and reduce labour costs without major capital spending rather than the new rationalising Taylorist mode. Throughout the 1890s there were similar disputes in other major industries as employers reasserted their authority in pursuit of lower labour costs and more efficient use of labour. Between 1892 and 1897 some 13.2 million days were lost through disputes compared to 2.3 million between 1899 and 1907 when new systems of national collective bargaining, similar to those in engineering, took effect. Conflict was particularly intense in the coalfields.

The collective bargaining arrangements of the 1890s, the outcome of national strikes and lock-outs, recognised and confirmed the role and functions of craft trade unions, while also making clear the power and prerogatives of employer authority. The compromise workplace relationships of the 1850s and 1860s were reconstructed in different forms.

Skilled workers had to resolve whether they could or should retain their exclusivism. Some workers were prepared to shed some of their exclusivism to strengthen their position against modernising employers. The aristocratic boilermakers set the example, preventing a major reorganisation of steel ship production by a flexible union policy that kept the boundaries of membership under constant review. When the need arose, semi-skilled workers central to production were granted membership, an important step towards the establishment of a virtual closed shop. Attitudes to unskilled workers depended on circumstances: some were admitted, others were not. This redefinition of their boundaries of exclusion to admit previously prohibited groups of workers proved highly effective in allowing skilled workers to retain their aristocratic status in the new conditions of late-Victorian England. It helps to explain why the Alliance Cabinet-Makers’ Association succeeded but not the older Friendly Society of Operative Cabinet-Makers that withered away in narrow craft restrictionism. Old-fashioned prejudice was probably most difficult to abandon where gender was concerned. Craft organisation in the Potteries remained narrow and sectional, powerless to prevent displacement as cheap female labour was put to work on new machines.

The persistence of privilege depended on circumstances that varied from industry to industry, reflecting the interplay between ‘genuine skill’ (a necessary exercise of dexterity, judgment and knowledge) and ‘socially constructed skill’ (the specious status upheld by organisational control). Managerial control was exerted over the technical expertise previously located on the shopfloor. A distinction emerged between planning and execution, the implementation of which depended on supervisory workers, trained technicians who owed their position to knowledge acquired at night school. Shopfloor skills were increasingly limited and specialised despite the continued existence of apprenticeship that passed on knowledge of the trade. Formal, indentured arrangements in the older crafts steadily declined but apprenticeship expanded in several growing industries like building and printing, where there was considerable agreement between employers and workers over training methods. With the greater specialisation of work and skill, apprentice labour was quickly turned to profit by employers, a source of cheap labour that undermined the position of adult men in the labour market.

Despite the persistence of skill differentials, the working-class became more homogeneous in late Victorian England. The proportion of the occupied population engaged in farming fell from 15 per cent in 1871 to 7.5 per cent in 1901 as rural migrants entered the most rapidly expanding sections of the domestic economy, transport and mining marking a major shift from worse to better paid jobs and from less to more regular employment. Small units continued to proliferate in some sectors of the economy but the factory was finally established as the predominant form of organisation even in the sweated and shoemaking trades leaving some poor outworkers stranded in old centres of small-scale workshop production.

Differentials within the working-class were less pronounced than the sharp social and cultural divide that separated the aristocracy of labour from the marginal non-manual groups of the lower middle-class. There was some upward mobility into the lower middle-class, but many working-class families, particularly at the top end of the scale, did not regard white-collar employment as an attractive escape from manual labour. Clerks were viewed with derision by skilled workers proud of their transmissible craft and workplace skills. A cultural gulf between two different ways of life, the social separation of skilled workers and clerks reinforced the cultural and political identity of the working-class, as the aristocracy of labour, repulsed by middle-class pretensions, turned back to align themselves with their semi-skilled and unskilled manual colleagues.


[1] 'Taylorism' originated in the United States and represented the logical development of the concept of the division of labour. The different aspects of manufacture were identified and then applied to an assembly line structure.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

The working classes: Status, skill and paternalism 1850-1875

 

Craft-like control persisted in amended form in the mid Victorian factory, a privilege enjoyed by a new aristocracy of labour. John Foster argues that these new aristocrats derived their status from a change in employer strategy. Stripped of their former craft control, skilled workers were incorporated in a new authority structure designed to strengthen discipline and increase productivity. The introduction of the ‘piecemaster’ system in the engineering factories brought the skilled engineer into active involvement in the work of management as pacemaker and technical supervisor. In cotton factories, spinners retained skilled status as the crucial pacesetter group after the introduction of the self-acting mule. These male workers forced an intensification of labour from juvenile and female time-paid assistants, an effective adaptation of traditional gender and family roles to the factory environment

There is some disagreement on the degree to which this new aristocracy was secure. Gareth Stedman Jones insists that distinctions of status were purely formal and real control had passed to the employers with the restructuring of industry on ‘modern’ lines. Skilled workers, he suggests, became defensive and collaborationist in approach seeking to preserve their status and differentials through the goodwill of their employers. In the absence of technical expertise, employers were often forced to concede considerable autonomy to skilled workers, though they generally derived some benefit from the arrangement. Allowing spinners to appoint their own piecers relieved employers of direct responsibility for labour recruitment and discipline. Apprenticeship operated in a similar way, providing employers with a skilled workforce trained at worker expense. This pragmatic compromise between skilled workers and employers was usually negotiated locally and informally. Capital made production possible, but the actual details of production, the workers insisted, was the responsibility of labour.

Where no independence was allowed, workers were often reluctant to enter employment whatever the material advantages it offered. Domestic service, a comparatively well paid occupation largely unaffected by cyclical unemployment, was shunned by working-class girls in factory districts and urban areas. Lancashire marriage registers show that servants tended to marry husbands from a lower social-economic status than their peers, an indication of the social stigma attached to service in an area where alternative female employment was readily available. The middle-classes of the factory districts had to depend on rural migrants for domestic servants and some obtained cheap line-in servants from the local workhouse.

Factory employment offered women some independence but they seldom attained the most lucrative and responsible jobs. They were thought ineligible for the crucial supervisory tasks, the jobs that carried skilled status and workplace authority. These male preserves were jealously protected by ‘closed’ trade unionism. There was some technical and physical basis that denied women access to the well-paid spinning sector. Women were physically quite capable of operation self-acting mules but they often lacked the necessary technical skills and experience. They had been removed from the spinning factories in the 1810s and 1820s when the use of ‘doubled’ mules put a premium on male physical strength. Without recent hands-on experience, women were the victims of a cultural discontinuity in the transmission of craft skills and knowledge from one generation to another. The cult of domesticity that sought to limit female paid employment to the brief period before marriage further hindered the acquisition of workplace skills. In some parts of Lancashire, married women went out to work in substantial numbers, but not in the southern spinning belt where the well-paid spinners and engineers feared a loss of status should their wives return to paid employment.

Unable to restrict labour supply through closed organisations, the weaver, male and female, united in ‘open’ trade unionism, a development deplored by paternal employers. The Preston lock-out of 1853-1854 brought confrontation between employers and workers in an attempt to reverse the 10 per cent wage cuts of 1847. The cotton workers were starved back to work after twenty-eight weeks, a decisive defeat that marked a turning-point in union strategy. The union leadership now abandoned politics as an economic strategy and cultivated an image of moderation and respectability, a public relations exercise to secure recognition from reluctant employers. Blackburn employers granted union recognition and negotiating rights on the strict understanding that union officials would ‘police’ the agreement. Though recognition was elsewhere delayed until the 1880s, the Blackburn weavers pointed the way forward towards modern collective bargaining.

In industries that were already unionised, similar conciliation and arbitration schemes enjoyed considerable success in the late 1860s and early 1870s. They were first introduced in the Nottingham hosiery industry and were of mutual benefit to unions and employers, an institutional expression of the mid-Victorian compromise in labour relations. New sliding wage-scales were welcomes in the coal and iron trades where wage disputes had broken many unions: conciliation boards now automatically adjusted wages to product price. Some of the other schemes clearly favoured employers: in the building trade, for example, employers took advantage of mutual negotiation to reassert and redefine managerial powers thereby curtailing the autonomous regulation of the trade. Conciliation and arbitration schemes, however, came to an end with the collapse of the mid-Victorian boom.

Monday, 21 July 2008

The working classes: A transition in work 1830-1850

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 already considered: 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]

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. However, this was not a linear progression to large-scale factory production and did not necessarily entail the deskilling of labour, though there were notable exceptions.

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 1815-1835, 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.  Added to this was the development of factory-based textile production that had a significant 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 employment and the position of some skilled workers was undermined while the demand for new skills grew.

Urban workers had always been more reliant on wages than had rural labourers. Pre-industrial towns had tended to be commercial 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 often 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. The independence of their ‘aristocratic’ status was upheld through the rhetoric of custom and the invention of ‘tradition’ to sanction and legitimise current practice. This excluded employers and market calculations from the opaque world of custom, tradition, craft mystery and skill, a separate culture upheld by secrecy, theatrical ceremony and, when necessary, ritualised violence. Through these means skilled workers defended their position at the ‘frontier of control’.

Reduced to wage-earning proletarians without rights to the materials and product of their labour, skilled workers fought hard to retain some control over the ‘labour process’ and to defend their workplace autonomy against the new time and labour discipline favoured by political economists, preachers and employers. Even in new forms of work organisations, they often succeeded in recomposing skills and safeguarding their status, despite ‘deskilling’ technology and increased division of labour. But in defending or reconstructing skilled status, their actions were divisive: not just a line drawn against employers but against unfair or unskilled competition in the labour market. Skill as property became skill as patriarchy, an appropriate that left women defenceless and marginalised against the degradation of their labour.

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. Skilled workers may have been able to hold the ‘frontier of control’ in relation to their skills as property but they were unable to prevent, though perhaps delay, the inexorable march of discipline and compulsion within the workplace. None of the convivial culture of the workshop was allowed to interrupt the pace of factory work. 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. The casual labour of the old East End was trapped within an economy of declining trades. Conditions of employment deteriorated. By the early 1870s London’s shipbuilding had slumped beyond the point of recovery and by the 1880s most heavy engineering, iron founding and metal work had gone the same way. Competition from provincial furniture, clothing and footwear factories could only be met by reducing labour costs and led to the increasing importance of sweated trades.


[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 and revised in Customs in Common, Merlin, 1991, pp. 352-403.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

The working classes: housing

Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century within large towns and cities market forces were allowed free and unregulated rein in the provision of working-class housing: there was none of the planning, regulation and intervention that ensured the elegance of other fast-growing urban developments, the salubrious spa, resort and residential town.[1] Speculative ‘jerry-building’ produced a working-class landscape of inward-looking, dead-end alleys, courts and streets, what has been called ‘a perfect wilderness of foulness’.

Renting houses

Victorian cities were in a state of constant social flux. Many residents in all large cities were migrants but they often did not stay long in one place: 45-55 per cent of urban populations either died or moved from a town within ten years. Most housing throughout the period 1830 to 1914 was rented and owner-occupancy rarely accounted for more than 10 per cent of the housing stock before 1918.

Rented accommodation came in a vast array of types. In central areas most of provided through the construction of purpose-built working-class housing or was in large multi-occupied dwellings filtered down from the middle-classes who had moved to suburban villas or more spacious town houses. Profits and social snobbery produced a pattern of residential segregation -- the slum and the suburb. Within each town, accommodation ranged in quality and cost. Top of the market in Stockport at a vote-bearing rental of £10 per year[2] were houses with cellars and workshops attached; two-up, two-down cottages were available with privies for £8 per year and without privies for £6-7; one-up, one-down back-to-backs cost £2-4 per year and a bed in a common lodging house cost 1d a night or about £1 10s per year. From 1850 terraced suburbs increasingly housed the skilled working-class. The typical artisan cottage in Sheffield was brick-built, slate-roofed with a cellar, living room, first-floor bedroom and second attic bedroom. By moving to ‘respectable’ areas, artisans confirmed their status within the working-class as superior workingmen. They wished to distance themselves from the rough residuum but often had not wish to cross the class divide and join the ranks of the lower middle-class.

For those on low incomes, rent levels were crucial to housing availability. Although cheap housing had been built in many cities in the early nineteenth century, by the 1850s it was increasingly difficult to build new housing to rent at much below 5s per week, well beyond the means of those on low or irregular incomes. Such families had little option but to rent lodgings or take slum housing in the city centre. Income determined where you lived and construction costs controlled the type of housing that was built in different locations. In such areas as Whitechapel or St Giles in London or dockside areas and commercial districts of Liverpool slum accommodation could be obtained quite easily. Accommodation was confined and relatively expensive; for example a single room 12 feet square could be rented for 1s 6d or more per week in a provincial town and for rather more in London. It could be dirty and facilities were shared with the other tenants.

By 1850 construction of new housing in the central areas of towns had almost ceased, but lower-density terraced housing was expanding rapidly in new residential suburbs of all English and Welsh towns. In Scotland tenement construction continued to be the norm. A new terraced house with four rooms, its own privy and in-house water supply would probably cost 5-7 shillings per week to rent. Relatively few such properties were multi-occupied, though the family might take in a lodger. Working-class home ownership was feasible only for those with relatively stable incomes in prosperous areas because of repayments of around 10 shillings per month. High levels were found in parts of north east Lancashire, County Durham, the West Riding and South Wales. Housing provided by employers or by philanthropic organisations, like the Peabody Trust in London, were often locally significant but never accommodated more than a few per cent of the population.

The process of residential decentralisation with the construction of suburban housing estates by private enterprise gathered momentum after 1890. It was aided by the ‘tram revolution’ in the provinces and by the introduction of workmen’s trains in London. Here again it was the aristocracy of labour who gained most from the improvements. Take Ilford. In 1850 Ilford was a quite village on the main railway line from London to Ipswich, seven miles from Liverpool Street station; in 1891 there were some 11,000 people in the parish, but by 1901 the new urban district had expanded to 41,240 people and its population almost doubled again by 1911. Two London builders, W.P. Griggs and A.C. Corbett, encouraged by the good railway communication, acquired large areas of land and began to develop massive private housing estates. In 1906 on the Griggs estate a four-room house started at £260; a four-bedroom, double-fronted house at £375 and a five-bedroom house at £450. Both the builders and Ilford Council provided further incentives to move to the suburbs. Corbett gave loans to purchasers to cover some of the cash deposit while Ilford Council used the Small Dwellings Acquisition Act 1899 to give cheap mortgages. Ilford is a classic example of the ways in which improved transport, availability of land, the willingness of entrepreneurs and public bodies to invest and the demand for suburban living combined to restructure the city in the early twentieth century.

In the Housing of the Working-class Act 1890 government intervened in the free market for the first time and, in so doing, fundamentally affected the expansion and planning of towns. Though the provision of council housing was slight before 1919, some councils had begun building houses before 1890 and the Act gave further impetus to such schemes. Some 24,000 council units were built in Britain before 1914 but most were concentrated in London (9,746 units), Liverpool (2,895 units) and Glasgow (2,199 units). These schemes were too few in number to make any real impact on housing needs and, in any case, rent levels and selection procedures tended to exclude the very poor.

There was little fundamental change in housing between 1830 and 1914. Paying rent to private owners remained the norm, accounting for 80 per cent of all houses. Council housing accounted for only 1 per cent in 1914 and housing associations 9 per cent. Though all towns spawned a succession of new residential suburbs, these were mainly for the affluent working and lower-middle-class families who would leave the older parts of the city centre, and new skilled in-migrants. The poor remained trapped in low-cost, sub-standard housing. The spatial segregation of social groups was cleared structured by the economic realities, reflected in income and occupation that controlled access to different types of housing.

Rural housing

In 1830 rural housing was a mixture of poor quality decaying older properties, poorly built new houses and a minority of decent stone or brick-built cottages for the more prosperous. The nature of work was, in some part, a determinant of the nature of rural housing. Living space was more important for the domestic weaver or knitter who spent much time indoors, than for the farm labourer who toiled for 12 hours a day in the field. In contrast the single migrant who left home to seek work might have been hired at a hiring fair and either given accommodation as a lodger in the master’s house (most common in the north and west of England) or housed and fed in sheds or outhouses along with other hired hands as in the arable counties of England in the early nineteenth century.

Population growth since the mid eighteenth century had resulted in a crisis in rural housing that had several consequences. Many families were permanently overcrowded. Individual privacy was difficult and much of life, especially the development of friendships and courtship, was lived outside the home in lanes, woods and fields. Marriage was often delayed due to the lack of opportunity to set up home. Epidemic diseases such as smallpox or typhus fever spread rapidly in overcrowded and insanitary conditions. Some landowners maintained ‘closed’ villages, where accommodation was limited to keep down the size of the population, made the housing situation worse.

In 1830 living conditions could be as unhealthy and harsh as in many towns: a combination of poor housing, lack of employment and poor social prospects frequently impelled townward migration rather than any specific urban attractions. The density of occupation of rural housing was often as high or higher than that in towns. High natural increase in rural areas mostly offset migration losses and rural population densities continued to increase up to the 1840s. In many rural areas the housing supply expanded more slowly than population; indeed some large landowners demolished cottages and took less responsibility for housing their labour force. Many rural parents brought up eight or more children in tiny two-room cottages.[3] The quality of rural housing varied greatly and for the very poor it was often worse than its urban counterpart. Increasingly, urban housing had proper foundations, solid walls and slate roofs. In contrast much rural housing was severely substandard when first built. Most landowners accepted little responsibility for the provision of decent homes and, even in more prosperous areas such as north-west England, cottages were often small, cold and wet. In southern England, where there was more abject poverty, cottages often had mud walls, earth floors and neglected thatch roofs.

Such conditions persisted until the 1850s but, during the remainder of the century, housing gradually improved as out-migration lessened pressure on the countryside and sanitary and housing reforms began to percolate into rural areas. Commissioned by John Simon in 1864, the sample survey for the first national inquiry into rural labourers’ dwellings revealed that the average air-space a person in cottages worked out at 156 cubic feet, whereas the law required a minimum of 250 cubic feet in common lodging houses providing only temporary accommodation and 500 in workhouses and other ‘less eligible’ Poor Law institutions. Public concern about the ‘cottage question’ led to some new building, though this was brought to an abrupt end by the onset of the agricultural depression in 1873. Nevertheless, not all rural housing was bad: surviving nineteenth century houses include not only good quality homes of landowners, farmers and artisans, but well-built estate cottages and good-quality late eighteenth century dwellings of rural factory workers.

Conclusions

Community replaced kin as the crucial welfare network for the urban working-classes between 1832 and 1914. Settled and stable, especially after the 1850s, most envisaged a future spent within the narrow confines of the town or city in which they had been brought up, secure in the protection of the customs and mores of a particular district. Communities were not necessarily defined in territorial terms but often by the experience of social interaction among those of similar attitudes, beliefs and interests. Welsh migrants in Liverpool, for example, were bonded together by strong cultural and linguistic ties despite their relative lack of residential concentration: families travelled long distances to worship together in Welsh-speaking Calvinistic chapels; Welsh newspapers circulated in the city and the National Eisteddfod was held there on several occasions. Other ethnic communities were less dispersed: Irish and Jewish communities tended to be concentrated in particular urban areas.

For the most part, community was a mixture of spatial and social factors such as pubs, churches, chapels, co-ops and various special interest groups were locality-based serving the needs of relatively independent urban villages, demarcated districts within which the working-classes moved and married. Housewives, indeed, rarely ventured beyond the boundary lines of their particular ‘village’ within which there were strong family networks linking mothers and married daughters, sometimes supplemented by the services of relatives. Men who travelled out of the neighbourhood to work hurried back to their ‘local’ for a drink, now patronised in preference to the trade pub close to the workplace. Community meant a convivial communality of interests.


[1] On working-class housing see J. Burnett A Social History of Housing 1815-1985, Methuen, 2nd ed., 1986 and E. Gauldie Cruel Habitations: a history of working class housing 1780-1918, Allen and Unwin, 1978. R. Rodger Housing in Urban Britain 1780-1914, Macmillan, 1989 is an excellent, and brief, survey of recent research.

[2] The 1832 Reform Act gave the vote to those who rented property worth £10 per annum.

[3] W. Hasbach A history of the English Agricultural Labourer, 1908 despite its age, contains much useful information but should now be read in conjunction with  W.A. Armstrong Agricultural Workers 1770-1970, Batsford,1988. Howard Newby Country Life, Weidenfeld, 1987 is a major and readable study. K. Snell Annals of the Labouring Poor: Social Change and Agrarian England 1660-1900, CUP, 1984 is a mine of information and recent interpretation.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

The working classes: Living standards 1875-1914

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[1]. 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.


[1] S.B.Saul The Myth of the Great Depression 1873-1896, Macmillan, 2nd. ed., 1988 summarises historiography.