Monday, 6 June 2011

How far did standards of living improve in the mid-Victorian period?

Improved standards of living during the mid-Victorian period owed more to greater stability in employment than a marked increase in wages.[1] The economy was characterised by high, relatively stable prices and high levels of consumption. This was, however, punctuated by years of inflation between 1853 and 1855 and 1870 and 1873. Food prices rose less than most others resulting in marked increases in the consumption of tea, sugar and other ‘luxuries’. In dietary terms, however, there was no significant advance in the standard of living until the falling prices of the 1880s.[2] Brewing apart, food remained a largely unrevolutionised industry in production and retailing until 1900. Real wages kept pace with food price rises, but rent proved increasingly expensive with particularly sharp increases in the mid-1860s. For some workers substantial and lasting advances in real wages did not occur until the late 1860s. The real wages of Black Country miners actually fell by a third during the mid 1850s and did not recover fully until 1869, after which there was a major advance carrying real wages some 30-40% above the 1850 level. Money earnings in cotton displayed a similar chronology. Advances in the 1850s were relatively modest but some spectacular advances occurred after 1865: between 1860 and 1874 weavers’ wages rose by 20% and spinners by between 30 and 50%. These figures suggest a widening of differentials.[3]

As a general rule in this period skilled workers earned twice those who were unskilled and were less vulnerable to unemployment. For skilled trade unionists in the engineering, metal and shipbuilding industries, there were only two occasions, in 1858 and 1868, when the unemployment rates reached double figures. For agricultural labourers, the mid-Victorian boom brought no real improvement in standards of living.[4] Ironically, improvement was delayed until the 1870s and 1880s, a period of falling profitability for farming generally. George Bartley’s study of The Seven Ages of a Village Pauper suggested that three out of four inhabitants of the typical village would require public relief at some stage in their lives.[5] In some industrial areas there was a similar lack of material advance. In the Black Country, only the skilled building trades enjoyed an increase in real wages despite peak production in local coal and iron industries. On Merseyside, wage rates for skilled and unskilled workers remained stable until eroded by particularly high food prices in the early 1870s. Women workers in sweated trades and casual employment probably gained least from the mid-Victorian period, though there is some evidence for an improvement in day rates for charring and washing in the 1870s.

Class 14

Few working-class families rose above economic insecurity and bouts of periodic poverty, despite the greater stability of employment and the belated improvement in earnings. At critical moments in the family cycle even the differential enjoyed by skilled workers proved inadequate to prevent considerable hardship. This was particularly severe at times of general distress when a downturn in the trade cycle or a harsh winter led to short-time working and unemployment. The can be seen particularly in the Lancashire Cotton Famine of 1861-1865, a protracted period of distress and unemployment. [6] The ‘famine’ had its origins in the over-production of the late 1850s boom and the consequent saturation of markets at home and abroad. The Federal blockade of the Confederate ports after 1861 that resulted in an intermittent supply of raw cotton was not as many contemporaries believed the sole cause of the problem. During the winter of 1862-1863 49% of all operatives in the 28 poor law unions of the cotton district were unemployed with a further 35% on short-time. The depth and persistence of such mass unemployment was unprecedented: at Ashton the worst hit town where there was little industrial diversification, 60% of the operatives remained unemployed as late as November 1864, while at Salford the unemployment rate stood at 24%.

Unemployment on this scale had a disastrous impact on standards of living and posed considerable problems for the relief agencies, both Poor Law and philanthropic once workers had exhausted their savings. The Poor Law and the charities were unsuited to the needs of unemployed factory workers.[6] They had already come under scrutiny following events in London during the harsh winter of 1860-1861 when the temperature remained below freezing for a month causing severe privation for the casual work force. Across the East End, the Poor Law system simply broke down as the number of paupers increased from about 96,000 to over 135,000. To meet the emergency charitable funds had to be distributed without investigation, an exercise condemned in the investigative journalism of John Hollingshead as indiscriminate ‘stray charity’.[7] The Poor Law Board, already under investigation by the parliamentary select committee, was determined to prevent similar problems by insisting on the strict compliance with the Outdoor Relief Regulation Order. However, local Guardians refused to force the respectable unemployed to perform demeaning work tasks in the company of idle and dissolute paupers. They paid out small weekly allowances of between 1s and 2s per head on the assumption that this meagre non-pauperising sum would be augmented from other sources, short-time earnings, income from other members of the family or charitable aid.

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


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

[2] See, Clayton, Paul and Rowbotham, Judith, ‘An unsuitable and degraded diet? Part one: public health lessons from the mid-Victorian working class diet’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Vol. 101, (6), (2008), pp. 282-289, ‘An unsuitable and degraded diet? Part two: realities of the mid-Victorian diet’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Vol. 101, (7), (2008), pp. 350-357 and ‘An unsuitable and degraded diet? Part three: Victorian consumption patterns and their health benefits’, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Vol. 101, (9), (2008), pp. 454-462.

[3] Hunt, E.H., Regional wage variations in Britain, 1850-1914, (Oxford University Press), 1973.

[4] See, for example, Williams, L.J. and Jones, D., ‘The wages of agricultural labourers in the nineteenth century: the evidence from Glamorgan’, Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, Vol. 29, (1982), pp. 749-761 and Horn, Pamela, ‘Northamptonshire agricultural labourers in the 1870s’, Northamptonshire Past and Present, Vol. 4, (1971), pp. 371-377.

[5] Bartley, George, The Seven Ages of a Village Pauper, (Chapman and Hall), 1874, pp. 2-5.

[6] Tanner, Andrea, ‘The casual poor and the City of London Poor Law Union, 1837-1869’, Historical Journal, Vol. 42, (1999), pp. 183-206.

[7] Hollingshead, John, Ragged London in 1861, (Smith, Elder & Co.), 1861, p. 244.

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