Friday, 27 May 2011

Standards of Living 1815-1850: Rise or Fall?

Discussion of living standards, especially the so-called ‘standard of living debate’ in the period before 1850, is bedevilled by a range of methodological problems. [1] What is the meaning of living standards? Is it a qualitative or quantitative concept? What evidence can be used? Statistics, one of the main fuels in the debate, obscure much of the diversity and harshness of working-class experience. Should historians be using ‘actual’ wages or ‘real’ wages as the basis for their arguments? [2] These issues have given rise to a debate, especially in the period up to 1850, over, not simply whether living standards fell or rose, but over the whole revolutionary experience.[3]

There was a decline in real wages starting in the 1750s that persisted through the price peak of 1812-1813 and the distress of the post-war years. In London this downward trend was not reversed until the 1820s, though it was not until the 1840s that the levels of the 1740s were regained and exceeded. The national index compiled by Lindert and Williamson also situates the upturn in the 1820s but their figures are far more optimistic suggesting that real wages nearly doubled between 1820 and 1850.[4] By 1830, therefore the worst excesses of the pessimist scenario seem to have been at an end and real wages for the bulk of the working population seem to have been rising, though whether Lindert and Williamson’s optimistic assessment is entirely valid is questionable.

So what did people earn? In the 1760s most high-wage counties were in the south east. By 1850, they were in the Midlands and north: Lancashire wages were more than a third higher than in Buckinghamshire, a differential that continued until the end of the century. This North-South divide[5] and wage payments must be assessed in the context of family income and the higher cost of living for the working-classes, a hardship aggravated by the family poverty cycle and the devastating impact of recurrent short-term crises.[6]

Class 10

Keighley, Yorkshire c1860

Standard of living statistics conceal important structural changes in the composition of working-class family income before 1850.[7] The assumption on which the figures were based, especially the dominance of money-wages and of the male breadwinner, lack validity until 1850 by which time workers had been deprived of traditional perks and rights and the working-class family had been forced to redefine gender roles and functions.[8] The imposition of monetary form of wage payment marked a fundamental change in employers’ attitudes to property and labour. What had previously been accepted as a customary right now became crime: employers could no longer allow workers to appropriate any part of the materials or product of their labour, no matter how small. What was a stake for workers was not simply a traditional source of ‘extra’ income, but the maintenance of some independence at the workplace, some control over the product and the labour process. Age was probably the most important factor in determining output and earnings. In the 1830s the youngest and fittest of the handloom weavers could earn 25% more wages in the same time as a weaker person could earn on the same machine. Throughout the trades, the elderly or rather the prematurely old were often forced to give up the better-paid tasks as they were affected by various forms of occupational disorder. The Sheffield fork-grinders killed off no less than a quarter of their workforce every five years.[9] Differences in output and earnings were kept to a minimum where group solidarity and trade societies were strong, but these forms of mutual protection did not apply to the so-called ‘dishonourable’ trades or in the over-stocked outwork industries. Here, in the absence of day rates or ‘legal’, union-backed piece prices, opportunistic middlemen and commercially minded masters were able to exploit cheap, unskilled labour through the piece-rate system. Even in ‘honourable’ trades, few workers were fortunate enough to enjoy full-time work throughout the year.

The focus on the adult male breadwinner’ in terms of the standard of living debate has diverted attention away from the notion of the family income. Earnings in this period were assessed in family, not individual, terms with the family often functioning as a unit of production. By 1830, however, the prospects for women and hence family earnings deteriorated considerably. The first victims of technological or structural unemployment were women who encountered the new prejudice and sexual division of labour and the harsh economic costs of the new male breadwinner ideal.[10] Sexual segregation was rigorously enforced in the textile mills where women were denied access to the best-paid skilled jobs. Skill was a male preserve in the modern factory, protected by trade union organisation and internal subcontracting that gave mule spinners and their like a supervisory role for which women were deemed ineligible. Textile mills apart[11], mechanisation and the factory system brought few new opportunities for women: female employment was derisory in iron and steel, railways, chemicals and the expanding heavy industries. Legislation in 1842 restricted female work in the mines.[12] Sexual segregation was by no means restricted to the factory districts and occurred wherever men were confronted with changes in the location or process of work. In rural England, for example, female participation was limited to haymaking and weeding the corn by 1830.[13]

The family income suffered as a result but most men on their own economic grounds welcomed the new sexual specialisation. They were increasingly vulnerable to seasonal unemployment with the expansion of production that was less labour intensive and they were determined to restrict cheap female competition.[14] Yet in many cases the wife’s contribution to the family income remained indispensable but the force of the new convention against working women confined their employment to the lowest paid ‘dishonourable’ and sweated trades.[15] Here their cheap labour was exploited in such a way as to reinforce still further the male hostility towards ‘unfair’ competition. Relations between the sexes in the London tailoring trades were at crisis point in the early 1830s when the Owenite socialists championed the rights of working women and called on the London tailors union to adopt a policy of ‘equalisation’ in order to unite all the workforce. The resulting strike was, however, a disastrous failure and led to further marginalisation of female workers in the trades.[16]

Domesticity was probably the best in a narrow range of options for working-class married women, but for those employed in the sweated trades it was a cruelly illusive ideal. Until their children were old enough to contribute to the family income, there was no release from the double burden of unpaid housework and ill-paid waged work. Unable not to work, married women were driven lower and lower into the sweated trades or prostitution by the forces of social convention that condemned but continued to exploit their labour. The middle-classes deplored the ‘unnatural’ behaviour of young working mothers and condemned them for leaving their children with incompetent child-minders. However, only a quarter of female mill workers were married and of those with children utmost care was taken to ensure that they were looked after by a close relative, lodger or neighbour. Less than 2% of all infant children in industrial Lancashire were left to the mercies of professional child minders.

Class 11

Female surface workers, Lancashire c1870

The middle-classes imposed their views of the ‘proper’ role of women on the working-classes, a view that reinforced the economic arguments of working men that the role of working women should be reduced. Working-class family earnings seem to have declined most where market competition intensified but there were no prospect of alternative employment. In the arable east and de-industrialising south, the removal of traditional controls in agriculture and the trades led inexorably to discrimination against women and inadequate pay for men. In the north, wages were higher: new employment opportunities in hand-domestic and mechanised trades developed alongside the survival of traditional institutional frameworks and hiring practices in farm service and apprenticed trades.

The expenditure or cost of living for working-class families was significantly higher than for the middle and upper-classes.[17] Food was by far the most important item, accounting for up to three-quarters of the wage packet. Working people bought poor quality food in small quantities for immediate consumption and rarely received value for money. Food was often obtained from the Saturday night markets where dealers were able to off-load their otherwise unsellable produce: Engels commented that ‘the workers get what is too bad for the property-holding class.’[18] They were often dependent on credit and had to pay the higher prices of the obliging small shopkeepers. Provisions were dearer still where workers were victims of the truck system and the poor quality, adulterated foods of the ‘Tommy shops’.[19] Despite stringent legislation from 1831, the truck system remained common practice into the 1850s in south Staffordshire and in much of rural East Anglia where gang-masters supplied subcontract labour at the cheapest daily rates.[20]

As with food, so with housing: those at the bottom end of the market received scant value for money.[21] Accommodation accounted for anything up to a quarter or even a third of a labourer’s wages compared to about a sixth of the income of the middle-classes. The nuclear family, the sacred cow of English social history, was too expensive for many families who lived with kin or in lodgings for the first few years of marriage. John Foster found that the proportion of families living with relatives ranged from a third in Northampton to over two-thirds in South Shields while in Preston in 1851, lodgers were present in 23% of all households.[22] Many urban workers were also subject to the ‘house trucking’ system where housing was dependent on their employers, an extension of the ‘tied’ cottage system of rural England.

For working-class teenagers, clothes and accessories were the first call on income after they had paid their contribution to the family income. Many poor families, however, relied on cast-off, second-hand or stolen goods. Clothes could be easily pawned or fenced and there are many recorded cases of petty theft: in Manchester there was an average of 210 reports a year of stolen clothing from hedges or lines. Extra income was often spent on clothes since they were easily pawned as well as providing immediate enjoyment.[23]


[1] Rubinstein, W.D., Wealth and Inequality in Britain, (Faber), 1986 and Kaelbe, H., Industrialisation and Social Inequality in Nineteenth Century Europe, (Berg), 1986 provide useful analysis of the issues.  Pollard, S., and Crossley, D.W., The Wealth of Britain 1085-1966, (Batsford), 1968 and Burnett, J., A History of the Cost of Living, (Penguin), 1969 provide chronological perspective. Floud, R., Wachter, K. and Gregory, A., Height, health and history: Nutritional status in the United Kingdom 1750-1980, (Cambridge University Press), 1990, a major contribution to the debate. Taylor, A.J., (ed.), The Standard of Living in the Industrial Revolution, (Methuen), 1975 contains articles by the major protagonists. Burnett, J., Plenty and Want, (Scolar Press), 1969, new edition, 1989 is central to the period 1832-1914. Crafts, N.F.R., ‘Some dimensions of the ‘quality of life’ during the British industrial revolution’, Economic History Review, Vol. 50, (1997), pp. 617-639 is valuable. Humphries, Jane, ‘Standard of Living, Quality of Life’, in Williams, Chris, (ed.), A companion to nineteenth-century Britain, (Blackwell Publishers), 2004, pp. 287-304 summarises the debate.

[2] ‘Real’ wages related the actual wages earned to the level of prices. Real wages will therefore increase if wages remain constant and food prices fall: the money available will go further. Crafts, N.F.R. and Mills, Terence C., ‘Trends in real wages in Britain, 1750-1913’, Explorations in Economic History, Vol. 31, (1994), pp. 176-194 and Feinstein, C.H., ‘Pessimism perpetuated: real wages and the standard of living in Britain during and after the Industrial Revolution’, Journal of Economic History, Vol. 58, (1998), pp. 625-658 and ‘What really happened to real wages?: trends in wages, prices, and productivity in the United Kingdom, 1880-1913’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., Vol. 43, (1990), pp. 329-355.

[3] Weaver, Stewart, ‘The Bleak Age: J. H. Clapham, the Hammonds and the standard of living in Victorian Britain’, in Taylor, Miles and Wolff, Michael, (eds.), The Victorians since 1901: histories, representations and revisions, (Manchester University Press), 2004, pp. 29-43.

[4] Crafts, N.F.R., ‘English workers’ real wages during the industrial revolution: some remaining problems’; with reply by Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson, Journal of Economic History, Vol. 45, (1985), pp. 139-153.

[5] On this issue, see Baker, Alan R.H. and Billinge, Mark, (eds.), Geographies of England: the North-South divide, material and imagined, (Cambridge University Press), 2004.

[6] Harison, Casey, ‘The standard of living of English and French workers, 1750-1850’, in Rider, Christine and Thompson, Michael, (eds.), The industrial revolution in comparative perspective, (Krieger), 2000, pp. 165-178 provides a useful comparative study.

[7] Voth, Hans-Joachim’, Living standards and the urban environment’, in ibid, Floud, Roderick and Johnson, Paul A., (eds.), The Cambridge economic history of modern Britain, Volume 1: industrialisation, 1700-1860, pp. 268-294.

[8] Horrell, Sara and Humphries, Jane, ‘The origins and expansion of the male breadwinner family: the case of nineteenth-century Britain’, International Review of Social History, Supplement, Vol. 5, (1997), pp. 25-64 summarises the debates.

[9] Williams, Naomi, ‘The reporting and classification of causes of death in mid-nineteenth-century England: the example of Sheffield’, Historical Methods, Vol. 29, (1996), pp. 58-71.

[10] Horrell, Sara and Humphries, Jane, ‘Women’s labour force participation and the transition to the male-breadwinner family, 1790-1865’, Economic History Review, Vol. 48 (1995), pp. 89-117 and ‘”The exploitation of little children”: child labour and the family economy in the industrial revolution’, Explorations in Economic History, Vol. 32, (1995), pp. 485-516.

[11] There were severe limitations on women’s roles in textiles; see, Valverde, Mariana, ‘“Giving the female a domestic turn”: the social, legal and moral regulation of women’s work in British cotton mills, 1820-1850’, Journal of Social History, Vol. 21, (1987-8), pp. 619-634.

[12] John, Angela V., By the sweat of their brow: women workers at Victorian coal mines, 1980.

[13] Verdon, Nicola, Rural women workers in nineteenth-century England: gender, work and wages, (Boydell), 2002 provides an overview while Ulyatt, Donna J., Rural women and work: Lincolnshire c.1800-1875, (Anderson Blake Books), 2005 and MacKay, John, ‘Married women and work in nineteenth-century Lancashire: the evidence of the 1851 and 1861 census reports’, in Goose, Nigel, (ed.), Women’s work in industrial England: regional and local perspectives, (Local Population Studies), 2007), pp. 164-181 provide valuable case studies. See also, Sharpe, Pamela, ‘The female labour market in English agriculture during the Industrial Revolution: expansion or contraction?’, in ibid, Goose, Nigel, (ed.), Women’s work in industrial England: regional and local perspectives, pp. 51-75.

[14] Clark, Gregory, ‘Farm wages and living standards in the industrial revolution: England, 1670-1869’, Economic History Review, Vol. 54, (2001), pp. 477-505, provides a valuable longitudinal study.

[15] Blackburn, Sheila, A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work?: sweated labour and the origins of minimum wage legislation in Britain, (Ashgate), 2007, ‘“Between the devil of cheap labour competition and the deep sea of family poverty?”: sweated labour in time and place, 1840-1914’, Labour History Review, Vol. 71, (2006), pp. 99-121 and ‘“Princesses and sweated-wage slaves go well together”: images of British sweated workers, 1843-1914’, International Labor and Working-Class History, Vol. 61, (2002), pp. 24-44.

[16] Schmiechen, J.A., Sweated industries and sweated labour: the London clothing trades: 1860-1914, (Taylor & Francis), 1984.

[17] Horrell, S. and Humphries, J., ‘Old questions, new data, and alternative perspectives: families’ living standards in the industrial revolution’, Journal of Economic History, Vol. 52, (1992), pp. 849-880.

[18] Ibid, Engels, Frederick, The condition of the working class in England, p. 104.

[19] On the operation of the truck system see, Hilton, G. W., ‘The British truck system in the 19th century’, Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 65, (1957), pp. 237-256, and The truck system, including a history of the British Truck Acts, 1465-1960, (W. Heffer), 1960.

[20] Verdon, Nicola, ‘The employment of women and children in agriculture: a reassessment of agricultural gangs in nineteenth-century Norfolk’, Agricultural History Review, Vol. 49, (2001), pp. 41-55.

[21] Williams, Samantha, ‘Poor relief, labourers’ households and living standards in rural England c.1770-1834: a Bedfordshire case study’, Economic History Review, Vol. 58, (2005), pp. 485-519.

[22] Ibid, Foster. J., Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution: early industrial capitalism in three English towns, pp. 125-131.

[23] Tebbutt, Melanie, Making Ends Meet: Pawnbroking and Working-Class Credit, (Leicester University Press), 1983 and Hudson, K, Pawnbroking: an aspect of British social history, 1982.

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