Wednesday, 29 June 2011

What was the 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, is scattered widely through contemporary accounts of the working-class in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. In 1869, for example,

Labour should be elevated into an aristocracy, and if all mechanics and...An aristocracy of labour would produce merit, virtue, and intelligence...[2]

While, two decades later,

All have reached a certain level of professional skill; they are not chance comers, they form an aristocracy. Like all aristocracies, they have a desire, unintelligent it may be, for exclusiveness and like all aristocracies they form an elite.[3]

How valid are 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? [4]  It is misleading to discuss the working-class or any other class as either uniform or homogeneous or with a fixed and unchanging identity. This led historians to look more closely at the internal make-up of social classes and the diverse nature and role of different occupational groups. While workers may have some similarities of experience arising from economic insecurity and subjection to their employers’ dictates, the exact form of that experience varied within different industries and regions. The debate about the labour aristocracy belongs to this framework and suggests that divisions within the working-class were particularly marked and took particular forms after 1850. Eric Hobsbawm provided the starting-point for the modern debate when he 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. [5]

Nineteenth century industry was diverse in terms of mechanisation, scale of operation and subdivision of processes. ‘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. [6] 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?[7]

Engineering is often regarded as central to the formation of a labour aristocracy.[8] 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 gradually transformed into a distinct supervisory stratum. There were some attempts by some 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.[9]

Building is often cited as a classic case of a ‘traditional’ sector growing to provide the infrastructure of an industrial-urban society.[10] 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.[11]

A number of skilled trades such as building had a close relationship to an expanding urban market with the most skilled employment in 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.[12]

In clothing and shoemaking, the use of casuals 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 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.[13]

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.[14] The best-paid workers were the adult mule spinners who represented a fifth of the total spinning labour force and minded the machines and supervised the work of the semi-skilled piecers. Spinners were recruited from piecers and the regulation of this process 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. [15] 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 gave a degree of ‘control’ over the induction process of apprenticeship and 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.[16] 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% 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, mentioned 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.[17]

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.[18] 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, ‘pacesetting’ 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.[19] 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, did not simply to destroy skills, but created 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 this provided the basis for their bargaining power.

The 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’ 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, the persistence of craft methods in the older trades did not indicate an absence of change and adaptation to change. Some trades managed 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 and above all status. 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.


[1] The Reformer, 5 November 1870.

[2] Unsworth, William, Self-culture and Self-reliance, Under God the Means of Self-elevation, (Elliot Stock), 1869, p. 55.

[3] De Rousiers, Paul and Herbertson, Fanny Dorothea, The Labour Question in Britain, (Macmillan & Co), 1896, p. 55.

[4] Gray, Robert, The Aristocracy of Labour in Nineteenth-century Britain c.1850-1914, (Macmillan), 1981 is an excellent summary of early research on the subject but needs to be read in conjunction with the relevant sections of ibid, Reid, Alastair J., Social Classes and Social Relations in Britain 1850-1914 and Lummis, Trevor, The labour aristocracy, 1851-1914, (Scolar), 1994. See also, Shepherd, M.A., ‘The origins and incidence of the term “labour aristocracy”‘, Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History, Vol. 37, (1978), pp. 51-67, Moorhouse, H.F., ‘The Marxist theory of the labour aristocracy’, Social History, Vol. 3, (1978), pp. 61-82 and ‘The significance of the labour aristocracy’, Social History, Vol. 6, (1981), pp. 229-233 and Reid, Alastair J., ‘Politics and economics in the formation of the British working class: a response to H.F. Moorhouse’, Social History, Vol. 3, (1978), pp. 347-361 and McLennan, Gregor, ‘The labour aristocracy and ‘incorporation’: notes on some terms in the social history of the working class’, Social History, Vol. 6, (1981), pp. 71-81.

[5] See, Hobsbawm, E.J., ‘The Labour Aristocracy in Nineteenth-century Britain’, in Labouring Men: Studies in the History of Labour, (Weidenfeld), 1964, p. 272. See also, Hobsbawm, E.J., ‘Artisan or labour aristocrat?’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., Vol. 37, (1984), pp. 355-372.

[6] Harrison, Royden and Zeitlin, Jonathan, (eds.), Divisions of labour: Skilled workers and technological change in nineteenth century England, (Harvester), 1977 and More, Charles, Skill and the English working class, 1870-1914, (Taylor & Francis), 1980 provide the context.

[7] Matsumura, Takao, The labour aristocracy revisited: the Victorian flint glass makers, 1850-80, (Manchester University Press), 1983.

[8] Musson, A.E., The Engineering Industry’ in ibid, Church, Roy, (ed.), The Dynamics of Victorian Business: Problems and Perspectives to the 1870s, pp. 87-106 and Saul, S.B., ‘The Mechanical Engineering Industries in Britain, 1860-1914’, in Supple, Barry, (ed.), Essays in British Business History, (Oxford University Press), 1977, pp. 31-48.

[9] Zeitlin, Jonathan, ‘Engineers and compositors: a comparison’, in ibid, Harrison, Royden and Zeitlin, Jonathan, (eds.), Division of labour: Skilled workers and technological change in nineteenth-century Britain, pp. 185-250.

[10] Cooney, E.W., ‘The Building Industry’, in ibid, Church, Roy, (ed.), The Dynamics of Victorian Business: Problems and Perspectives to the 1870s, pp. 142-160.

[11] See Crossick, Geoffrey, .The labour aristocracy and its values: a study of mid-Victorian Kentish London’, Victorian Studies, Vol. 19, (1976), pp. 301-328.

[12] Gray, R.Q., The labour aristocracy in Victorian Edinburgh, (Oxford University Press), 1976.

[13] See, McClelland, Keith, ‘Masculinity and the “representative artisan” in Britain, 1850-1880’, in Roper, Michael and Tosh, John, (eds.), Manful assertions: masculinities in Britain since 1800, (Routledge), 1991, pp. 74-91.

[14] Lee, C.H., ‘The Cotton Industry’, in ibid, Church, Roy, (ed.), The Dynamics of Victorian Business: Problems and Perspectives to the 1870s, pp. 161-180.

[15] See Hopkins, E., ‘Small town aristocrats of labour and their standard of living, 1840-1914’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., Vol. 28, (1975), pp. 222-242.

[16] Reid, Alastair J., ‘Skilled workers in the shipbuilding industry, 1880-1920: a labour aristocracy?’, in Morgan, Austen and Purdie, Bob, (eds.), Ireland : divided nation, divided class, (Ink Links), 1980, pp. 111-124.

[17] Ibid, Hobsbawm, E.J., Labouring Men, p. 273.

[18] Musson, A.E., ‘Class struggle and the labour aristocracy, 1830-60’, Social History, Vol. 3, (1976), pp. 335-356 and the response Foster, John, ‘Some comments on “Class struggle and the labour aristocracy, 1830-60”‘, Social History, Vol. 3, (1976), pp. 357-366.

[19] Jones, Gareth Stedman, ‘Working-class culture and working-class politics in London, 1870-1900: notes on the remaking of a working class’, Journal of Social History, Vol. 7, (1974), pp. 460-508 and ibid, Languages of class: studies in English working class history, 1832-1982, pp. 179-238.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

What was unemployment in the nineteenth century?

It is difficult to superimpose twenty-first 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 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. Industrialisation separated work from home and this reduced the wage-earning capacity of married women who were increasingly tied down by household duties. The ability of the working population to work was determined simply by physical capacity. Statutory attempts to impose restrictions on the use of child labour in the 1830s and 1840s initially proved unsuccessful. 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.[2] Larger working-class families tended to be poorer families and family size grew during the first half of the century. The introduction of compulsory schooling in 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.[3] 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 and as a result, the age at which workers ‘retired’ varied considerably. In the 1840s, Engels observed how miners’ working conditions bred chronic illness and required a high level of physical fitness and many miners were forced to stop work at 35-45 and rarely lived beyond the age of 50.[4] At the same time, Mayhew documented the case of a 70 year old London needlewoman who was refused help by a Poor Law relieving officer because she was considered fit to earn her own living.[5] In all branches of the labour market, advancing years spelt reduced earnings and 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.[6] By 1850, the name ‘pauper’ carried a social stigma second only to that of the convicted criminal. The ‘pauper burial’ was regarded by working people as the ultimate humiliation and resulted in the development of ‘penny death’ insurance to cover burial costs.  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 was less common and was largely confined to skilled men in printing, construction, engineering, metal-working, shipbuilding and some of the older crafts such as 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.[7]

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 and 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 pledged items on Monday and redeemed them on 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 and sewing and, in the last resort, into prostitution in order to supplement dwindling family resources. 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 of family or friends. The only other option for the unemployed was migration from depressed to prosperous areas within Britain or emigration to colonies such as Canada, New Zealand and South Africa where labour was still scarce. Emigration, whether assisted[8] or not, was an option for the young and skilled since colonies were not prepared to be used as a dumping ground for Britain’s surplus labour and colonial governments had as little desire for British paupers as for British convicts.[9]

By the late-nineteenth century, urban expansion concentrated unemployment and underemployment in unprecedented fashion and made 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.[10] It took over twenty years to convert emergency intervention into permanent government policy.[11]


[1] On this issue see, Whiteside, Noel, Bad Times: Unemployment in British Social and Political History, (Faber), 1991 and Burnett, John, Idle hands: experience of unemployment, 1790-1990, (Routledge), 1994.

[2] For the debate on the effectiveness of enforcement see, Peacock, A.E., ‘The successful prosecution of the Factory Acts, 1833-55’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., Vol. 37, (1984), pp. 197-210, Nardinelli, C., ‘The successful prosecution of the Factory Acts: a suggested explanation’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., Vol. 38, (1985), pp. 428-430 and Bartrip, Peter W.J., ‘Success or failure? The prosecution of the early Factory Acts’, Economic History Review, 2nd ser., Vol. 38, (1985), pp. 423-427.

[3] See, for example, Goose, Nigel, ‘Farm service, seasonal unemployment and casual labour in mid nineteenth-century England’, Agricultural History Review, Vol. 54, (2006), pp. 274-303 focuses of Hertfordshire.

[4] Ibid, Engels, Frederick, The condition of the working class in England, pp. 247-262.

[5] Ibid, Mayhew, Henry, London Labour and the London Poor: The Condition and Earnings of Those that will work, cannot work, and will not work, Vol. 1, 404. Millinery and dressmaking constituted the higher end of female employment with the needle; they were ‘respectable’ occupations for young women from middle-class or lower middle-class families. The number of women involved in dressmaking alone in the early 1840s was estimated to be 15,000: House of Commons, Reports from Commissioners: Children’s Employment, Trade and Manufactures, Sessional Papers, Vol. XIV, (1843), p. 555.

[6] Boot, H.M., ‘Unemployment and Poor Law relief in Manchester, 1845-1850’, Social History, Vol. 15, (1990), pp. 217-228 provides a valuable local study.

[7] Hatton, Timothy J., ‘Unemployment and the labour market, 1870-1939’, in Floud, Roderick and Johnson, Paul A., (eds.), The Cambridge economic history of modern Britain, Vol. 2: economic maturity, 1860-1939, (Cambridge University Press), 2004, pp. 344-373 and Boyer, George R. and Hatton, Timothy J., ‘New estimates of British unemployment, 1870-1913’, Journal of Economic History, Vol. 62, (2002), pp. 643-675.

[8] Howells, Gary, ‘”On account of their disreputable characters”: parish-assisted emigration from rural England, 1834-1860’, History, Vol. 88, (2003), pp. 587-605 considers Bedfordshire, Norfolk and Northamptonshire. See also, Haines, R., ‘Nineteenth century government-assisted immigrants from the United Kingdom to Australia: schemes, regulations and arrivals 1831-1900, and some vital statistics 1834-1860’, Flinders Occasional Papers in Economic History, Vol. 3, (1995), pp. 1-171.

[9] See, for example, Richards, Eric, ‘How Did Poor People Emigrate from the British Isles to Australia in the Nineteenth Century?’ Journal of British Studies, Vol. 32, (1993), pp. 250-279 and Gray, Peter, ‘“Shovelling out your paupers”: the British state and Irish famine migration 1846-50’, Patterns of Prejudice, Vol. 33, (4), (1999), pp. 47-66.

[10] On this issue, see, Harris, José, Unemployment and politics: a study in English social policy, 1886-1914, (Oxford University Press), 1972, Davidson, Roger, Whitehall and the labour problem in late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain: a study in official statistics and social control, (Routledge), 1985 and Walters, William, Unemployment and government: genealogies of the social, (Cambridge University Press), 200, pp. 12-53.

[11] Gazeley, Ian and Newell, Andrew, ‘Unemployment’, in ibid, Crafts, Nicholas F. R., Gazeley, Ian and Newell, Andrew, (eds.), Work and pay in twentieth-century Britain, pp. 225-263.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Working in the countryside

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.[1] James Caird surveyed wages in England in 1851 and identified 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.[2] 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. Counties close to London such as 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.[3]

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Rural industrial workers were usually rather better off. In areas like the south Pennines, the 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.[4] The effects of rural poverty can be seen in malnutrition and associated ill-health.[5] 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. [6] 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.[7]

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.[8]


[1] On living in rural society, see below, pp. 231-237. 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. See also, ibid, Armstrong, A., Farmworkers: a Social and Economic History 1770-1980.

[2] Ibid, Caird, James, English agriculture in 1850-51, pp. 511-519.

[3] See also, Vaughan, W.E., ‘Agriculture output, rents and wages in Ireland, 1850-1880’, in Cullen, L.M. and Furet, François, (eds.), Ireland and France, 17th-20th centuries: towards a comparative study of rural history, (Éditions de l’Ecole des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales), 1980, pp. 85-97, Houston, George, ‘Farm wages in central Scotland from 1814 to 1870’, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Series A, Vol. 118, (1955), pp. 224-228 and Molland, R. and Evans, G., ‘Scottish farm wages from 1870 to 1900’, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, ser. A: General, Vol. 113, (1950), pp. 220-227. See contemporary analysis in Wilson, Arthur Fox, Earnings of Agricultural Labourers By Great Britain Board of Trade, (HMSO), 1905

[4] Chartres, John, ‘Rural industry and manufacturing’, in ibid, Collins, E.J.T., (ed.), The agrarian history of England and Wales, Vol. 7: 1850-1914, part 2, pp. 1101-1149.

[5] See contemporary analysis in Denton, John Bailey, The Agricultural Labourer, (Stanford), 1868, pp. 35-44, Wilson, Arthur Fox, Earnings of Agricultural Labourers By Great Britain Board of Trade, (HMSO), 1900.

[6] Burnett, John, ‘Country Diet’, in ibid, Mingay, G.E., (ed.), The Victorian Countryside, Vol. 2, pp. 554-565 provides a summary.

[7] Freeman, Mark, ‘Investigating rural poverty 1870-1914: problems of conceptualisation and methodology’, in Bradshaw, Jonathan and Sainsbury, Roy, (eds.), Getting the measure of poverty: the early legacy of Seebohm Rowntree, (Ashgate), 2000, pp. 255-274.

[8] Burchardt, Jeremy, Paradise lost: rural idyll and social change in England since 1800, (I.B. Tauris), 2002, pp. 67-76, 112-120.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

How did working-class standards of living rise after 1875?

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% in 1871 to 7.5% 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]

Working-class real wages rose dramatically from the mid-1870s to the mid-1890s, while unemployment remained close to the levels of the mid-Victorian boom.[2] 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%, 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% higher in 1900 than in 1860.[3]

Class17

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 in the economy in 1878-1879, 1884-1887 and 1892-1893, but their severity diverged markedly. Shipbuilding felt the full impact of the world trade depression. Demand was highly inelastic for a product that was long in construction and made to meet specific requirements. There was an oversupply 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% 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 pushing 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 evident when trade was depressed and, in 1879 and 1886, led the unemployed to riot and demonstrate. Charles Booth’s survey found that it was the irregularity of work rather than low rates of pay that accounted for working-class impoverishment.[4] 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 especially during the ‘season’ but milliners, dressmakers and tailoresses were frequently driven into prostitution during the slack season returning to the shops with the advent of the new season’s trade. Morals, contemporaries observed, fluctuated with trade.[5] 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 sections of the working-class 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.[6] Fertility rates, however, diverged markedly between social classes and within the working-class itself.[7] Between 1880 and 1911, the fertility rate in middle-class Hampstead fell by nearly 30% while in working-class Poplar the decline was only 6%.[8] 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 elementary education in 1880 was regarded as an unwelcome intrusion and economic threat by poor parents since they were often dependent on the supplementary income of their children.[9] Despite this, children were still able to earn at an early age. From nine or so, boys worked out of school hours 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 who 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 pot-bank 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 worked 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% and by 1901, women made up 21,000 of the total workforce of 46,000.[10]

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.[11] 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 & Supply Company in 1881, a rapid success that altered the traditional method of credit. Pawn broking declined from its 1870s peak but the trade diversified into the retail business with new fashionable lines sold for cash or credit.

Class 17

Booth’s Poverty Map, Brixton area, 1898-1899

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 to tide families over hard times. Pledging articles were the most basic form of insurance against hardship. At the other end of the scale, 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 an expression of status respected and admired throughout the working-class community.[12]

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 that provided double cover for the aristocracy of labour.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15] 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.[16] 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 at 40% of income compared to 10-15% 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.[17] Even in death was mattered was the judgement of neighbours and peers. Without show and display in the form of 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% of their earnings on food and drink compared to only 44% 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%, 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 and although they were not immediate and revolutionary, the end result was a radical change in the whole system.[18]

The weekly market was gradually replaced by, or transformed into, the permanent shopping centre.[19] Until 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.[20] The old core of the town, or part of it, had a mixture of land uses but in the last third of the century became more specialised especially for 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 and by 1899 he had 245 branches throughout Britain.[21] The greater demand for professional services, related to urban growth, resulted in lawyers and doctors seeking central locations. But a variety of other users also located themselves here offering services to business, auctioneers and accountants or to the public, such as lending libraries.

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.[22] 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.[23] 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.[24] 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.[25] More nutritious, but much criticised by middle-class observers, was the development of the fish and chip trade.[26] 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.[27]

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’.[28]

Health became an increasingly important issue in this period. Between 1875 and 1914, there was a transition from the age-old pattern of mass mortality occasioned by infectious diseases, poor nutrition and heavy labour to the modern combination of functional disorders, viral disease and bodily decay associated with old age. Harmful or not to people’s health, the quality of food undoubtedly improved assisted by new legislation against adulteration,[29] by higher standards of retailing promoted by the Co-op[30] 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 unsalable items knocked down in price at Saturday night markets.[31] The new diet with its excessive sugar and salt content, the consequences of which were aggravated by increasing levels of cigarette smoking, encouraged by the introduction of the penny-per-five packet in 1888.[32]


[1] See, Gazeley, Ian, ‘Manual work and pay, 1900-70’, in ibid, Crafts, Nicholas F.R., Gazeley, Ian and Newell, Andrew, (eds.), Work and pay in twentieth-century Britain, pp. 55-79.

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

[3] Ibid, Feinstein, C. H., ‘What really happened to real wages?: trends in wages, prices, and productivity in the United Kingdom, 1880-1913’ and ‘New estimates of average earnings in the United Kingdom, 1880-1913’, Economic History Review, Vol. 43, (1990), pp. 595-632 and Gourvish, T.R., ‘The standard of living 1890-1914’, in ibid, O’Day, Alan (ed.), The Edwardian age : conflict and stability 1900-1914, pp. 13-34.

[4] For Booth’s residuum, see, Welshman, John, Underclass: A History of the Excluded, 1880-2000, (Continuum International Publishing Group), 2006, pp. 1-44.

[5] The phrase originated in Sherwell, Arthur, Life in West London, (Methuen), 1897, p. 146.

[6] Garrett, Eilidh, Reid, Alice, Schürer, Kevin and Szreter, Simon R.S., Changing family size in England and Wales: class and demography in England and Wales, 1891-1911, (Cambridge University Press), 2001.

[7] Szreter, Simon R.S. and Hardy, Anne, ‘Urban fertility and mortality patterns’, in ibid, Daunton, Martin J. (ed.), The Cambridge urban history of Britain, Vol. 3: 1840-1950, pp. 629-672 provides an overview. See also, ibid, Szreter, Simon R. S., Fertility, class and gender in Britain, 1860-1940.

[8] Woods, R., ‘Social class variations in the decline of marital fertility in late 19th century London’, Geografiska Annaler, Vol. 66, (1984), pp. 29-38.

[9] Mangan, J.A., (ed.), A significant social revolution: cross-cultural aspects of the evolution of compulsory education, (Woburn Press), 1994.

[10] See, Whipp, Richard, Patterns of labour: work and social change in the pottery industry, (Routledge), 1990 and ‘Kinship, labour and enterprise: the Staffordshire pottery industry, 1890-1920’, in Hudson, Pat and Lee, W.R., (ed.,), Women’s work and the family economy in historical perspective, (Manchester University Press), 1990, pp. 184-203.

[11] Finn, Margot C., The character of credit: personal debt in English culture, 1740-1914, (Cambridge University Press), 2003, pp. 278-315 and O’Connell, Sean, Credit and Community: Working-Class Debt in the UK since 1880, (Oxford University Press), 2009.

[12] See below, pp. 286-287 and Fisk, Audrey, Mutual self-help in southern England, 1850-1912, (Foresters Heritage Trust), 2006 and Cordery, Simon, British friendly societies, 1750-1914, (Palgrave), 2003.

[13] Gorsky, Martin, ‘Friendly society health insurance in nineteenth-century England’, in Gorsky, Martin and Sheard, Sally, (eds.), Financing medicine: the British experience since 1750, (Routledge), 2006, pp. 147-164 and Alborn, Timothy L., ‘Senses of belonging: the politics of working-class insurance in Britain, 1880-1914’, Journal of Modern History, Vol. 73, (2001), pp. 561-602.

[14] See, for example, Reinarz, Jonathan, ‘Charitable bodies: the funding of Birmingham’s voluntary hospitals in the nineteenth century’, in ibid, Gorsky, Martin and Sheard, Sally, (eds.), Financing medicine: the British experience since 1750, pp. 40-58 and Waddington, Keir, ‘Subscribing to a democracy? Management and the voluntary ideology of the London hospitals, 1850-1900’, English Historical Review, Vol. 118, (2003), pp. 357-379.

[15] On these issues see, Green, David G., Working-class patients and the medical establishment: self-help in Britain from the mid-nineteenth century to 1948, (Gower), 1985

[16] Strange, Julie-Marie, ‘Only a pauper whom nobody owns: reassessing the pauper grave c. 1880-1914’, Past & Present, Vol. 178, (2003), pp. 148-175.

[17] Dennett, Laurie, A sense of security: 150 years of Prudential, (Granta Editions), 1998.

[18] Blackman, Janet, ‘The development of the retail grocery trade in the 19th century’, Business History, Vol. 9, (1967), pp. 110-117.

[19] Alexander, Andrew, Shaw, Gareth and Deborah Hudson, ‘Regional variations in the development of multiple retailing in England 1890-1939’, in Benson, John and Ugolini, Laura, (eds.), A nation of shopkeepers: five centuries of British retailing, (I.B.Tauris), 2003, pp. 127-154.

[20] Briggs, Asa, Marks and Spencer, 1884-1984: a centenary history, (Octopus), 1984.

[21] Crampsey, Robert A., The King’s grocer: the life of Sir Thomas Lipton, (Glasgow City Libraries), 1995.

[22] Fromer, Julie A., A necessary luxury: tea in Victorian England, (Ohio University Press), 2008.

[23] On the chocolate industry see, Taylor, Bill, ‘The emergence of the confectionary industry in York’, White, Eileen, (ed.), Feeding a city: York: the provision of food from Roman times to the beginning of the twentieth century, (Prospect Books), 2000, pp. 213-230.

[24] This had been recognised by the 1840s: see, Carr, Daniel, The necessity of brown bread for digestion, nourishment, and sound health and the injurious effects of white bread, London, 1847.

[25] Oddy, Derek J., ‘Food Quality in London and the Rise of the Public Analyst, 1870-1939’, in Atkins, P.J., Lummel, Peter and Oddy, Derek J., (eds.), Food and the city in Europe since 1800, (Ashgate), 2007, pp. 91-104.

[26] Walton, John K., Fish and chips and the British working class, 1870-1940, (Leicester University Press), 1992, pp. 1-40.

[27] Akiyama, Yuriko, Feeding the nation: nutrition and health in Britain before World War One, (Tauris Academic Studies), 2008.

[28] For the impact of aspects of government reforms, see Amos, Denise, ‘Child Health and School meals: Nottingham 1906-1945’, The Historian, Vol. 92, (2006), pp. 12-19, Atkins, P.J., ‘School Milk in Britain, 1900-1934’, Journal of Policy History, Vol. 19, (2007), pp. 395-427.

[29] Phillips, Jim and French, Michael, ‘Adulteration and food law, 1899-1939’, 20th Century British History, Vol. 9, (1998), pp. 350-369.

[30] See Kassim, L., ‘The co-operative movement and food adulteration in the nineteenth century’, Manchester Region History Review, Vol. 15, (2001), pp. 9-18.

[31] Crafts, Nicholas F.R., ‘Living standards’, in ibid, Crafts, Nicholas F. R., Gazeley, Ian and Newell, Andrew, (eds.), Work and pay in twentieth-century Britain, pp. 11-34.

[32] Walker, R.B., ‘Medical aspects of tobacco smoking and the anti-tobacco movement in Britain in the nineteenth century’, Medical History, Vol. 24, (1980), pp. 391-402 and Hilton, Matthew, Smoking in British popular culture, 1800-2000: perfect pleasures, (Manchester University Press), 2000.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Skilled workers and changing production 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.[2] These managerial and technical innovations threatened to undermine skilled status and craft organisations but, in the English context at least, they proved remarkably resilient.

Class 15

The consequences of attempts to reorganise production varied from industry to industry. Craft organisation remained stronger where employers were hindered by market forces, 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.[3] Some employers decided against reorganisation when confronted by the threat of craft resistance. This was a sensible, if short-term, solution for family-owned firms making satisfactory profits. Also 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[4] to reverse the gains secured by the Amalgamated Society of Engineers during the craft militancy of the 1889-1892 boom.[5]

In the lock-out of 1897, the EEF insisted on the absolute right to management but their victory did not mean the crushing of the union or a 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.[6] 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. [7] Conflict was particularly intense in the coalfields.[8] 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.

Class 16

Skilled workers had to resolve whether they could or should retain their exclusive status. 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 while the older Friendly Society of Operative Cabinet-Makers withered away into narrow craft restrictionism.[9] 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.[10]

The persistence of exclusive status 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).[11] 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[12] and printing[13], 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, as earlier in the century, undermined the position of adult men in the labour market. [14]


[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. See, Taylor, Frederick Winslow, The principles of scientific management, (Harper & Brothers), 1911 and Hounshell, David A., From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States, (JHU Press), 1985.

[2] See, Zeitlin, Jonathan, ‘The meaning of managerial prerogative: industrial relations and the organisation of work in British engineering, 1880-1939’, in Harvey, Charles E. and Turner, John, (eds.), Labour and business in modern Britain, 1989, pp. 32-47.

[3] See, Duffy, Patrick, The skilled compositor, 1850-1914: an aristocrat among working men, (Ashgate), 2000.

[4] Zeitlin, Jonathan, ‘The internal politics of employer organization: the Engineering Employers’ Federation, 1896-1939’, in Tolliday, Steven and Zeitlin, Jonathan, (eds.), The Power to Manage?: Employers and Industrial Relations in Comparative Historical Perspective, (Routledge), 1991, pp. 46-70 especially 47-55.

[5] Burgess, K., ‘New Unionism for old? The Amalgamated Society of Engineers in Britain’, in Mommsen, W.J. and Husung, H.-G., (eds.), The development of trade unionism in Great Britain and Germany, 1880-1914, (German Historical Institute), 1985, pp. 166-184.

[6] This is evident in Smith, D.N., ‘Managerial strategies, working conditions and the origins of unionism: the case of the tramway and omnibus industry, 1870-91’, Journal of Transport History, 3rd ser., Vol. 8, (1987), pp. 30-51 and Lester, V. Markham, ‘The employers’ liability/workmen’s compensation debate of the 1890s revisited’, Historical Journal, Vol. 44, (2001), pp. 471-495.

[7] Cronin, James E., ‘Strikes 1870-1914’, in Wrigley, Chris, (ed.), A history of British industrial relations, Vol. 1: 1875-1914, (Harvester), 1982, pp. 74-98.

[8] Church, Roy A. and Outram, Quentin, Strikes and Solidarity: Coalfield Conflict in Britain, 1889-1966, (Cambridge University Press), 2002, pp. 38-58, 95-112.

[9] Betjemann, Peter, ‘Craft and the Limits of Skill: Handicrafts Revivalism and the Problem of Technique’, Journal of Design History, Vol. 21, (2008), 183-193.

[10] Anderson, G., ‘Some aspects of the labour market in Britain 1870-1914’, ibid, Wrigley, Chris, (ed.), A history of British industrial relations, Vol. 1: 1875-1914, pp. 1-19.

[11] Griffiths, Trevor, The Lancashire working classes: c.1880-1930, (Oxford University Press), 2001 is an excellent case-study.

[12] Powell, Christopher G., The British building industry since 1800: an economic history, 2nd ed., (Spon), 1996, pp. 74-98.

[13] Skingsley, T.A., ‘Technical training and education in the English printing industry: a study of late 19th century attitudes’, Journal of the Printing Historical Society, Vol. 13, (1978-9), pp. 1-25; Vol. 14, (1979-80), pp. 1-58.

[14] See, for example, Wilcox, Martin, ‘Opportunity or Exploitation? Apprenticeship in the British Trawl Fisheries, 1850-1936’, Genealogists’ Magazine, Vol. 28, (2004), pp. 135-149.

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.