A large number of people in different walks of life left us their comments on the improvements in the long run in the standard of living of the majority of the people.
Your author has not been able to find any expressions that the general standard of living decreased during this period.
The fact that these improvements were continously visible in our period, leads us to suppose that the real wages went up by about 5 per cent per decade.
There were of course periods of recession in which parts of the population did not eat enough, and in some non-wage occupations the people suffered considerable poverty.
“This better living consists in the people consuming more food, and of a better sort; eating wheat instead of barley, oats and rye – and drinking prodigiously great quantity of beer.”
(Arthur Young, agricultural activist, Political Arithmetic, 1774, Part I, p. 32)
“The real recompence of labour, the real quantity of the necessaries and conveniences of life ….. has, during the course of the present century increased perhaps in a still greater proportion than in money price. Not only has grain become somewhat cheaper, but among many other things, from which the industrious poor derive an agreeable and wholesome variety of food, have become a great deal cheaper. Potatoes, for example, do not at present, through the greater part of the kingdom, cost half the price which they used to do thirty or forty years ago. The same thing may be said of turnips, carrots, cabbages; things which were formerly never raised but by the spade, but which are now commonly raised by the plough ….. The great improvements in the coarser manufactures of both linen and woolen cloth furnish the labourers with cheaper and better cloathing; and those in the manufactures of the coarser metals, with cheaper and better instruments of trade, as well as with many agreeable and convenient pieces of household furniture. Soap, salt, candles, leather, and fermented liquors, have, indeed, become a good deal dearer, chiefly from the taxes which have been laid upon them. The quantity of these, however, which the labouring poor are under any necessity of consuming, is so very small that the increase in their price does not compensate the diminution in that of so many other things. The common complaint that luxury extends itself even to the lowest ranks of the people, and that the labouring poor will not now be contented with the same food, cloathing, and lodging which satisfied them in former times, may convince us that it is not the money price of labour only, but its real recompence, which has augmented.”
(Adam Smith, economist, The Wealth of Nations, 1776, Book 1, Chapter 8, On the Wages of Labour)
“In Great Britain the wages of labour seem, in the present times, to be evidently more than what is precisely necessary to enable the laborer to bring up a family. In order to satisfy ourselves upon this point it will not be necessary to enter into any tedious or doubtful calculation of what may be the lowest sum upon which it is possible to do this. There are many plain symptoms that the wages of labour are nowhere in this country regulated by this lowest rate which is consistent with common humanity.”
(Adam Smith, op. cit. same chapter)
“Before I take my leave I would request you to ask your parents for a description of the country we inhabit when they first knew it; and they will tell you, that the inhabitants bore all the signs of poverty to a much greater degree than they do now. Their houses were miserable huts; the land poorly cultivated and yielded little of value for the food of man or beast, and those disadvantages, with roads almost impassible, might be said to have cut off our part of the country from the rest of the world, besides not rendering it very comfortable to ourselves. Compare this picture which I know to be a true one, with the present state of the same country. The workmen earning nearly double their former wages – their houses mostly new and comfortable, and the lands, roads and every other circumstance bearing evident marks of the most pleasing and rapid improvements. From whence and from what cause has this happy change taken place? You will be beforehand with me in acknowledging a truth too evident to be denied by any one. Industry has been the parent of this happy change – A well directed and long continued series of industrious exertions, both in masters and servants, has so changed for the better the face of our country, its buildings, lands, roads, and not withstanding the present unfavourable appearances, I must say the manner and deportment of its inhabitants too, as to attract the notice and admiration of countries which had scarcely heard of us before; and how far these improvements may still be carried by the same laudable means which have brought us thus far, has been one of the most pleasing contemplations of my life.”
(Josiah Wedgwood, An Address to the Young Inhabitants of the Pottery, Pamphlet, 1783, cited in: McKendrick, 1961, pp. 52-53)
“The Trade of Wilmslow Parish, forty years ago , was very trifling, and confined to a few petty Shopkeepers in Wilsmlow, who sold Treacle, Brown Sugar, Salt, Tobaco, Coarse Linens, and Woolens, and other small Necessaries for the supply of the Inhabitants. The business of a Butcher at that time was also in as low a state: half a Cow, and two or three Calves were a sufficient Supply for the weekly Saturday’s Market. There was one Swaler; and I do not recollect more than two Shoemakers; but to make amends, there were at least a dozen Wooden Clogg makers, who were under the necessity of procuring old Shoes from the neighbouring Towns to supply their customers with upper Leathers, such was the great consumption of this commodity; for every body amongst the farmers, Servants, labouring, and poor People, Men, Women, and Children wore Cloggs. But since that time there has been a gradual change of every thing. The number of Shopkeepers has increased amazingly; some of whom deal in a great Variety of valuable Articles in a manner unknown to former times: Tea, Coffee, loaf Sugar; Spices, printed Cottons, Callicoes, Lawns, Cambricks, fine Linnens, Silks, Velverets, Silk Waistcoat pieces, Silk Cloaks, Hats, Bonnets, Shawls, laced Caps, and a Variety of other Things, which are to be found in the well furnished Shops of rich Towns. The Butchers can now scarcely procure Meat enough for the the supply of the Market, the old useless Cow of the Farmer will no longer go down; they are obliged to fetch their Beef out of Yorkshire, for everybody eats Butchers’ Meat, which was formerly a food the Labourers, and even many of the lower Farmers tasted but at Wakes or at a Christening. There are now at least a dozen Shoemakers in the Parish, and perhaps not above two or three Cloggmakers. Joiners, Carpenters, Brickmakers, and Bricklayers, &c., are all greatly increased.”
“Survey of the Parish of Wilmslow” (MS), Samuel Finney, 1785, “Agriculture, Trade, and Manufactures of the Parish of Wilmslow”, Cheshire and Chester Historical Collector, edited by T. Worthington Barlow, Vol. 1, No. 2, W. Kent and Co., London, 1853, pp. 5-6,
[Wilmslow is near Styal]
“Though the manufacturing part alone, in the potteries and their vicinity, gives bread to fifteen or twenty thousand people, including the wives and children of those who are employed in it; he looks upon this as a small object when compared with the many others which depend on it, namely, 1. The immense quantity of inland carriage …. 2. The great number of people in the extensive colleries …. 3. The still greater number employed in raising and preparing its raw materials, ….. 4. The coasting vessels, ….. 5. The further conveyance …. by river and canal navegation, …. 6. The re-convoyance of the finished goods ….”
(Dr. John Aiken, A Description of the Country from Thirty to Forty Miles round Manchester, 1795, pp. 551-552, referring to the testimony of Josiah Wedgewood to Parliament in 1785)
“So greatly is the consumption of flesh meat increased, that, whereas in the memory of some persons now living, not more than one cow used to be killed weekly in Bolton, or, if two, the unsold beef used to be sent to Bury market,- before the beginning of the present war, a tanner in Anderton bought weekly thirty-five cow hides of the Bolton butchers, and yet was supposed not to take half the whole produce.”
(Dr. John Aiken, A Description of the Country from Thirty to Forty Miles around Manchester, 1795, “Bolton”, p. 261)
“In consequence of the very great price of bread-corn during the whole of 1794, the distresses of the Poor were unusually great, and the sums expended on their relief beyond all former example. If, however, we except the late period of scarcity (which was such as had not occurred for near a century before) it is believed that no period during the present reign [George III, 1760-1820] can be adduced in which the condition of day labourers was not much more comfortable than that of the same class of people in what are often called the “good old times” of former reigns.”
(Sir Frederick Eden, The State of the Poor, 1797, Vol. I, Book I, Ch. II, p. 111)
“It does not fall within my plan, to enter into minute comparative estimates relative to the progress of society in England; but there can be little doubt, that the ten years ending in January 1793, exhibit the most flattering appearances, in every circumstance that can be considered, by political economists, as demonstrative of national prosperity. The demand for employment, and a consequent advance in income, have risen in a progressive ratio: and to those who investigate the state of the nation, without a disposition to blame the present, and admire the past, which too often influences even “persons endued with the profoundest judgement, and most extensive learning”, both these and other symptoms of increasing industry and wealth must have been perfectly satisfactory.”
(Sir Frederick Eden, The State of the Poor, 1797, Vol. I, Book II, Ch. II, pp. 574-575)
“It cannot be doubted, that the increased population of the country has had its share in creating the deficiency; but I consider the great and principal cause to arise from the increase of commerce, and the decrease of tillage. The wealth acquired by our various branches of manufactures has been the means of advancing wages, by which numbers of hands have been drawn from the country into towns. The consequence of which has been the entire change in their habits and modes of life; their former frugal manner of living is abandoned; they are no longer fed upon milk, cheese, and vegetables, with little or no animal food. Less than two acres and a half was then amply sufficient for the support of a labourer.
The whole body of manufacturers (as well as most of those employed in great towns), are since that period subsisted on butcher’s meat, with the constant use of malt liquor, and, I fear, the pernicious habit of using spirits is but too common amongst them. Five and a half acres will barely suffice to furnish them with the various articles of food and liquor. ….. These combined causes have all contributed to increase the demand for animal food, and consequently to operate, with other causes, in lessening the growth of grain. The increase of butcher’s meat in country markets within fifty years is prodigious. Meat, that was provided only at particular seasons, is now weekly, if not daily, offered for sale.
Smithfield market has (taking the increased weight of the carcasses into calculation), doubled the weight of flesh sold within fifty years. If such has been the case in the capital, where luxury ever predominated, what must be the increased consumption of meat throughout the whole empire?
The increasing demand for workmen, for our manufacturies, has united with other causes to enhance the price of labour, and operated as a further check on agriculture.
It must be allowed, that agricultural wages are regulated (in a great measure) by the price of the prime necessaries of life; the late high prices of grain advanced wages forty per cent. In the years of plenty which have succeeded, it has been found impracticable to reduce them; various other articles having also advanced, over which the fall of grain has no control.”
(John Christian Curwen, Esq., M.P., Communications to the Board of Agriculture, on Subjects Relative to the Husbandry and Internal Improvement of the Country, Vol. V, Part I, On the Means of Supplying Milk to the Poor, Vol. V, Part I, Art. 1, 1806, p. 143, p. 144, pp. 148-149)
“It will, I think, be obvious to every impartial observer, that the proportion which the industrious classes obtain of the annual produce of the society, is much larger than that which they enjoyed previous to the improvements which have been produced in the country by the progress of commerce and knowledge; and their condition is become both absolutely and relatively improved. Of what still further amelioration it is susceptible, or at what point the remuneration of labour would counteract the exertions of industry, we must leave time to develop. It has, however, been supposed that incessant and continued labour is incompatible in that class, with a remuneration which is much more than adequate to the comfortable support of a family, and that a considerable desfalcation of the produce of national industry might arise from an excess of wages, if it were not counteracted by the improvidence so generally the characteristic of that class.
(William Turner Comber, An Inquiry into the State of National Subsistence, 1808, p. 279)
“Upon the whole, I attribute this great increase in population, and regular course of protracted life, to an improved agriculture, more regular employment, better food, diseases less fatal, a decreasing use of ardent spirits, and to no law-suits. And where the same causes prevail, I have little doubt the same results will be found throughout this county.”
(General View of the Agriculture of Cornwall, 1808, G. B. Worgan, rapporteur, p. 177)
“Mr. Park of St. Giles, believes the state of the poor is much altered for the better within the last twenty years, and principally by the introduction of potatoes, which were scarcely known thirty years hence. At the former period, the labourers had very little beside bread and cheese and water, but at present they have the important additions of potatoes, pork, and bacon. Almost everyone keeps a pig, which is fed on potatoes, and sometimes finished with a small quantity of pease and barley.”
(Board of Agriculture / William Stevenson, General View of Agriculture in the County of Dorset, 1812, pp. 454-455)
“ ….. Larger establishments were erected, and order, system, and cleanliness in their arrangement and management, became more necessary and more generally cultivated.
This has been attended with good effects on the habits of the people.- Being obliged to be more regular in their attendance at their work, they became more orderly in their conduct, spent less time at the ale-house, and lived better at home. For some years they have been gradually improving in their domestic comforts and conveniences.”
(John Kennedy, mill owner, Observations on the Rise and Progress of the Cotton Trade, in Great Britain, particularly in Manchester and the adjoining counties, Memoirs of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, Volume III, 1819, pp. 129-130)
“ ….. But I believe the rapid growth of the trade, in this particular district, is chiefly to be ascribed to the great ingenuity and the persevering, skilful [sic], laborious disposition of the people. In these qualities I believe they surpass the inhabitants of every part of this island, or of the whole world.
We have the satisfaction of observing also, that they are gradually becoming better informed, and more regular in their conduct. Their employers see the advantage of this, and many of them take great pains to promote the welfare of the people, and the education of their families.- The people themselves begin to take a pride in this, and value themselves on the proficiency of their children in education.”
(Kennedy, op. cit., p. 133)
“In England, the lower classes now form a community of no small consideration in the state. They are great consumers both of the produce and of the manufactures of the country, and having acquired a taste for domestic comforts, and even a degree of luxury, their wants have established a home demand, superior in its extent to the market afforded by all the world besides.”
(John Kennedy, mill owner, An Inquiry into the Effects produced upon Society by the Poor Laws, Memoirs of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, Volume III, 1819, p. 438)
“It is generally admitted, that all conditions of society have been gradually improving for the last fifty years; ….
(Kennedy, op. cit., pp. 440-441)
“It was a letter he had recently received from a man of great authority in matters of this kind – Mr. Cropper of Liverpool; … The consumption of wheat in 1821 showed an increase of 7 ¼ per cent, as compared with that of the previous year; but the increase of 1822, as compared with that of 1821, was an advance of 22 per cent. This great increase of consumption was owing to the advanced wages of the manufacturing classes throughout the country; indeed, in some places, the improved choice of food had almost cast brown bread, previously so much in demand amongst the humbler classes, out of use; and he knew some friends, who in their neighbourhood in the country had been unable to procure it. In Lancashire, too, the oaten cake, so generally used by the people, was disappearing, and a better sort of bread substituted in its place. In this way the consumption was going on at a far greater rate than the growth; ……”
(The Parliamentary Debates, published under the Superintendence of T. C. Hansard, House of Commons, Corn Laws, Feb. 26, 1823, Mr. Whitmore’s Motion, p. 267)
“The population of Britain has increased, and is still increasing, yet not to such an extent as to exceed our ordinary supplies. It has increased probably about one third since the accession of George III; but the means of support have been more than doubled within the last fifty years. Every branch of industry has been greatly increased, and many new branches formed since that time, and our comforts have been greatly augmented. It had been a maxim for many years, that the wages, for one day, of a mason, or the better sort of workmen, should be equal to the current price, for the time, of a peck [1/4 bushel; 15 pounds] of oatmeal, and inferior labourers in proportion. Many yet alive have seen the price of labour for one day, and that of meal generally in these proportions. But during the last forty years or so, the wages of labour have greatly increased above the price of meal. Masons, and the best labourers, have generally been paid the price of two, and are at present receiving fully three pecks of meal for every day’s work.
The vast increase of agricultural produce has not only proceeded from any greater number of people being employed, but chiefly from the use of improved implements, better courses of cropping, the reclaiming of waste land, melioration of every species of soil, and improved farm stock. By such means farm produce has been doubled, and the condition of the soil, the occupiers of land, and every description of labourers, has been much improved during the present generation.”
(William Aiton, Remarks on Mr. Malthus’ Opinions on Agricultural Subjects, The Farmer’s Magazine, Vols. 25-26, 1824, p. 464)
“Within the last seventy years, the habits of the lower classes especially, have been rapidly improving; and as there can be no question that the moral more than the physical condition of human beings, influences the rate of mortality, we may hope for yet greater improvement in the healthiness and comfort of our population.”
(John Roberton [sic], doctor, Observations on the Mortality and Physical Management of Children, 1827, p. 77)
“The very great diminution of the mortality of infants in England is one of the most remarkable phenomena of modern times”
(T. R. Edmonds, statistician, Mortality of Infants in England, The Lancet, Vol. 1, 1835-36, p. 690)
“It is remarkable, that this superior value of life [life expectancy] in Great Britain is not confined to any particular districts, or classes of individuals. To whatever point we turn our view, the advantage is still the same: the man of affluence, the pauper-patient of the hospital, the sailor and the soldier on active service, the prisoner of war, the inmate of a goal, all enjoy a better tenure of existence from this country than from any other of which we have been able to consult the records.”
(Francis Bisset Hawkins, doctor, Elements of Medical Statistics, 1829, p. 30)
“The products of manufacturing industry are obtained at a lower price, and of superior quality; and those articles, which were once regarded as the peculiar accomodations of the higher classes of society, are now placed within the reach of all. There is not, perhaps, a more striking feature of the recent improvements that have taken place in this country, than the increased comforts enjoyed by the working classes, particularly as these are intimated by their better food and clothing, and the more convenient furniture of their humble dwellings.“
(John Kennedy, mill owner, Observations on the Influence of Machinery upon the Working Classes of the Community, Memoirs of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester, Second Series, Volume V, 1831, p. 31)
“The increased duration of life, in present as compared with past periods of our history, does not, it is obvious, bear on the present subject. The augmentation of food, the better information of the lower orders, the improvement of dwellings, and especially the advance of medical science, have effected this happy change.”
(Thackrah, C. Turner, doctor, The Effects of Arts, Trades, and Professions, and of Civic States, and Habits of Living on Health and Longevity, 1832, footnote to page 204)
“Do you remember the condition of the labourers at that time [during the war]: were they pretty well satisfied?” “They used to say they should be satisfied if they could earn a gallon of flour a day [8 pounds a day]; now they can earn two.”
(Mr. John Neve, land agent, Kent, evidence to the Select Committee on Agriculture, House of Commons, 1833, p. 250)
“From all these circumstances, do you judge that there is a greater mass of wealth contained in the houses, and the town [Stockport] generally, than there was 20 years ago?” “Decidedly so.”
“What is the comparative condition of the operatives; supposing two families, each living with an equal degree of prudence in 1814, and at the present time, what would be the comparative condition of such a family, considering the wages they receive, and the price they are obliged to pay for the necessaries of life?” “Their present condition has decidedly improved on 1814.”
“What do you consider in that period has been the alteration in prices of provisions?” “I have not any tables by me to refer to, but considering the prices of woollen cloth, and the prices of bread, tea, sugar and coffee, and all those things, I should think the price is about one-half what it was at that time.”
(Henry W. Sefton, administrator, evidence to the Select Committee on Manufactures, Commerce, and Shipping, House of Commons, 1833, p. 622)
“I have been engaged 41 years in the trade [cotton spinning], during which I have hardly ever missed the market day in Manchester. I have lately endeavoured to review my experience, and it is my firm conviction that there never was a time in which the working classes were better off than present, considering the price and quality of provisions, the extreme cheapness of clothing, and the number of charitable institutions that minister to their wants.”
(Factory Inquiries Commission, Second Report, 1833, Lancashire District Medical Reports, George Royle Chappel, Cotton Spinner and Weaver, examined by Mr. Tufnell, D.2. p. 39)
“We can state, as the result of the extensive inquiries made by this Commission into the circumstances of the working classes, that the agricultural labourers when in employment, in common with the other classes of labourer throughout the country, have greatly advanced in condition; that their wages will now produce to them more of the necessaries of life than at any former period.”
(Commissioners for inquiring into the Administration and Operation of the Poor Laws, First Report, 1834, p. 198)
“Have you paid much attention to the condition and manners and morals of the working people?” “Yes.”
“How long has your attention been directed to these matters?” “About 44 or 45 years.”
“What do you consider is the condition of the working people as to their habits and morals at present, as compared with former times, within your recollection?” “It is greatly improved with my own knowledge, as far as I have had any opportunity of observing them.”
“In what respects do you think it is improved?” “I think in all respects; they are more intelligent, they are more cleanly, they are better behaved, and they are longer lived.”
“Does your observation apply to the inhabitants of towns only, or do you mean to extend it to the inhabitants of the country also?” “Principally as to towns.”
(Mr. Francis Place, political and educational reformer, Evidence to the Select Committee on Education in England and Wales, 1835, p. 47)
“The effect of those better habits has been the prolongation of the average period of life among the working classes?” “Yes; cleanliness, their better nursing, and their better feeding of their children, better training in every particular, have produced this effect.”
“There are more children reared than there used to be?” “To a very great extent. From the best inquiries I have been able to make of everybody likely to posess information, and especially some connected with Life Insurance Offices, I have the most satisfactory assurance that more children are reared, and the term of life is prolonged very considerably. I mean that this is so independently of the extermination to a great extent of the small-pox and the autumnal fever.”
“You think their dress is improved, their habits of cleanliness and their sustenance is better?” “Yes; I remember the time when an immense number of children were bandy-legged or bowed in the front, usually called “cheese-cutters”; scald-head was a very common complaint; the hair of the children’s heads was thin and stood out in all directions; these things are seldom seen now. I have been in all the narrow lanes and courts about Petticoat-lane and Rag-fair for the last two or three years, observing the children of the poorest people very particularly, and find deformities very rare where they were very common.”
(Mr. Francis Place, political and educational reformer, Evidence to the Select Committee on Education in England and Wales, 1835, p. 74)
“The assertion that the condition of the labourer depends entirely on his earnings is false and mischevious; it depends quite as much on his expenditure. If, instead of the three shillings he received a few years ago, he now receives two, and with these two can buy more bread, meat, and manufactured goods than before with the three, his condition is, in fact, improved. That this is actually the case may be proved by accurate calculations, and may also be inferred from the general appearance of the workmen, from the large deposits in the savings-banks, and from many other facts.”
(Friedrich von Raumer, German university professor, England in 1835: a series of letters written to friends in Germany during a residence in London and excursions into the provinces, Vol. 2, p. 181)
“In Great Britain, on the other hand, the population increases, and the number of those who enjoy the comforts or luxuries of life increases in the same proportion. Nobody can prove that the masses of the people are worse off than twenty years ago, or that they have not greatly benefited by the remission of so many taxes. Nobody can believe that the lords alone, with their families, consume all the meat and bread, drink all the tea and coffee, &c.”
(op. cit., Vol. 3, p. 304)
“In England the working classes in the towns are accustomed to eat meat, if not every day, at least on most days of the week.”
(Report on the Condition of the Poorer Classes in Ireland, House of Commons, Appendix G, State of the Irish Poor in Great Britain, 1836, Introduction, p. xii)
“Subsistence and employment have never increased more rapidly than in the last forty years; …”
(John Stuart Mill, political philosopher, Principles of Political Economy, 1846, p. 159)
“It is impossible to estimate the advantage to the bulk of the people, from the wonderful cheapness of cotton goods. The wife of a labouring man may buy at a retail shop a neat and good print as low as fourpence per yard, so that, allowing seven yards for the dress, the whole material shall only cost two shillings and four pence. Common plain calico may be bought for 2 ½ d. per yard. Elegant cotton prints, for ladies’ dresses, sell at from 10d. to 1s. 4d. per yard, and printed muslins at from 1s. to 4s., the higher priced having beautiful patterns, in brilliant and permanent colours. Thus the humblest classes have now the means as of great neatness, and even gaiety of dress, as the middle and upper classes of the last age. A country-wake in the nineteenth century may display as much finery as a drawing-room of the eighteenth; and the peasant’s cottage may, at this day, with good management, have as handsome furniture for beds, windows, and tables, as the house of a substantial tradesman, sixty years since.”
(Edward Baines jr., Member of Parliament for Leeds, History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain, 1835, p. 358)
[The proportion of deaths to the population, according to Mr. Porter’s sources, reduced from 1/39 in 1700, 1/41 in 1750, and 1/47 in 1800, to 1/53 in 1811, 1/60 in 1821, and 1/58 in 1831]
“Showing in this respect a continually diminishing mortality. This effect, so strongly indicative of amendment in the condition of the people, must be attributed to the concurrence of various causes. Among these may be mentioned, the less crowded state of our dwellings; the command of better kinds of food and medical assistance; the superiority and cheapness of clothing; and probably also, more temperate habits and greater personal cleanliness. One influential cause of the diminished mortality will be found in the introduction of vaccination, which has had so powerful an effect in diminishing the rate of mortality among children; besides which, the extensive surface drainage which has been going forward in those parts of the country which, owing to the presence of stagnant waters, were once productive of intermittent fever, has added to the general healthiness of the country.”
(George Porter, Head of the Statistical Department at the Board of Trade, Progress of the Nation, 1836, Vol. 1. Section 1, Population, p. 19)
“As to the condition of the labouring classes generally, and of the operatives in particular, my decided opinion is, that with the exception of some hand-loom cotton weavers, in Lancashire, and some of the clothing districts in Gloucester, ….. the operatives of this country are quite as well, and in most cases better off, than those of the Continent, and are doing as well now, as at any former period of the history of England.”
(Samuel Sevill, clothier, Gloucestershire, letter to J. A. Miles, Assistant Commissioner for the Condition of the Hand-loom Weavers, 1837)
“With the exception, perhaps, of a few particular branches, I think it will be generally allowed that the earnings of those employed in manufactures are adequate, with prudence and economy, to provide a sufficiency of wholesome food and clothing, and to procure all the necessaries of life.”
(Dr. Richard Baron Howard, Physician to the Ardwick and Ancoats Dispensary, Manchester, An Inquiry into the Morbid Effects of Deficiency of Food, 1839)
“I shall here only observe, as to the depressing effects assumed from the admitted tendencies of an increase of population, that the fact is, that hitherto, in England, wages, or the means of obtaining the necessaries of life for the whole mass of the labouring community, have advanced, and the comforts within the reach of the labouring classes have increased with the late increase of population. This may be verified by reference to various evidence, and amongst others to that contained in Sir F. Eden’s examination of the wages and modes of subsistence of the agricultural labourers of his day, and we have evidence of this advance even in many of the manufacturing districts now  in a state of severe depression. For example, an eminent manufacturer in Lancashire, stated to me in November ultimo – “That the same yarn which cost my father 12d. per lb. to make in 1792, all by machinery, now costs only 2d. per lb.; paying then only 4s. 4d. per hand wages weekly, now 8s. 8d. or more; yet those wages amounted then to 5 ½ d. per lb., and notwithstanding the higher wages, now, to only 1d. per lb.
The prices of provisions were, during the first period, as high as now, and the cost of clothing 30 or 40 per cent higher.”
(Edwin Chadwick, health reformer, Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain, 1842, p. 188)
“That high prosperity in respect to employment and wages, and various and abundant food, have afforded to the labouring classes no exemptions from attacks of epidemic disease, which have been as frequent and as fatal in periods of commercial and manufacturing prosperity as in any others.”
(Edwin Chadwick, health reformer, Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain,1842, p. 369)
“In 1837 or 1838 Thomas Holmes, an old man of 87, born in 1760 [sic], gave to a member of the Liverpool Statistical Society his impressions of the changes that had taken place since his youth at Aldbrough (Holderness): “There has been a very great increase in the consumption of meat, wheaten bread, poultry, tea and sugar. But it has not reached the poorest, except tea, sugar, and wheaten bread. The poorest are not so well fed. But they are better clothed, lodged, and provided with furniture, better taken care of in sickness and misfortune. So they are gainers. This, I think, is a plain statement of the whole case.”
Referring to mechanics and artificers, he says, “The wages of almost all have increased in a proportion faster than the rise in the expenses of living.” When asked, “Are the poorest classes more intelligent?”, he replied, “Beyond comparison.””
(T. S. Ashton, The Standard of Life of the Workers in England, 1790-1830, The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 9, Supplement: The Tasks of Economic History (1949), p. 37, footnote 26)
“While articles of ordinary use fell in price, the rate of wages kept up. There was no diminution in the means of purchasing. Some occupations certainly suffered, and were superseded, as that of the hand-loom weavers, by mechanical improvements; the fluctuations of fashion, also, wrought partial derangements, but generally there never was a period within the experience of the present generation when employment was more abundant, and when the wages of labour, taken in conjunction with the prices of every article that forms the expenditure of a working man, were so well calculated to ensure his comfort and independence.
Over this gratifying representation it is necessary to introduce some shading to render the social picture correct. The agricultural classes did not participate equally with the manufacturing in the general improvement of condition. In the benefits resulting from the low prices of clothing and food all shared; but this cheapness was accompanied with, and partly helped to produce, a scarcity of employment in the rural districts.”
(John Wade, financial commentator, British History, Chronologically Arranged, 1847, p. 1036, referring to the reign of William IV, 1830-1837)
“The hypothesis, that an unusual abundance of wheat causes an immediate expansion of its consumption as bread, would have entitled us to expect that the surplus wheat produce of the years 1833 to 1835, or the greater part of it, would have been applied in that way. But the facts of the case did not bear out such an anticipation; for so little impression did the extra consumption, as food for man, make upon the extra supply, that wheat in 1834 and 1835 was used to a considerable extent for the purpose of feeding cattle, and sheep, and pigs, and for brewing and distilling. It is true that in consequence of the dryness of the summers of 1833 and 1834 the crops of spring corn were short, and fetched higher prices than usual, relatively to wheat. But still the fact remains, that Wheat, cheap as it was, cheaper than it had been for fifty years before, with a greatly increased population to feed, proved to be, even at extremely reduced prices, so unequivocally in excess of the demand for it as human food as to render necessary the adoption of unusual and inferior methods of absorption; …”
(Thomas Tooke, economist, A History of Prices and of the State of the Circulation from 1792 to the Present Day, Vol. V, 1857, p. 74)
“Wheat is now the all but universal bread-corn of England; and in some of the manufacturing towns, within the last few years, the use of the inferior sorts of wheaten bread has been a great deal restricted; and is rejected, indeed, by all but the very lowest and poorest classes.
The change that has taken place during the last half century in the consumption of butcher’s meat, is still more extraordinary than that which has taken place in the consumption of corn. The quantity made use of has been wonderfully increased, and its quality signally improved.
… Hence, on the most moderate computation, it may be affirmed, that the consumption of butcher’s meat in the Metropolis, as compared with the population, is twice as great at this moment as in 1740 or 1750.
In most other parts of the country, the increase in the consumption of butcher’s meat has been even greater. In thinly peopled agricultural districts, very little is consumed, but in manufacturing and commercial towns it is quite the reverse; and their vast increase, during the last half century, more than justifies the inference, that there has been, at least, a corresponding increase in the consumption of butcher’s meat.”
(John Ramsay McCullogh, economist and statistician, A Statistical Account of the British Empire, 1837, Vol. 1, pp. 586-587)
“The workmen in this town [Birmingham] drink principally beer and ale, which, generally speaking, is very wholesome and well brewed. They drink large quantities of low-priced beer sold at 2d. or 3d. per quart. Spirits are not much drank [sic] by the working mechanic. The habit of drinking foreign wines is growing among the better class of workmen.”
(Poor Law Commissioners, Local Reports on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of England, 1842, Birmingham, p. 212)
“And he can well be satisfied, at any rate the textile worker, if he compares his lot with the fate of his comrades in Germany and France. The worker there earns just enough to allow him to live on bread and potatoes; he is lucky if he can buy meat once a week. Here he eats beef every day and gets a more nourishing joint for his money than the richest man in Germany. He drinks tea twice a day and still has enough money left over to be able to drink a glass of porter at midday and brandy and water in the evening. This is how most of the Manchester workers live who work a twelve-hour day.”
(Friederich Engels, Letter written to Marx, December 20, 1842, published in the “Rheinische Zeitung”, No. 359, December 25, 1842)
“Dr. Howard gives, in his above-cited work, a detailed account of the expenditure of seven poor families, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, of which, each contained, on an average, six members. They earned from twenty to five-and-twenty shillings per week, and had each a cottage, with a little piece of kitchen garden, rent-free, from the masters for whom they worked. With this sum was purchased flour, oatmeal, meat (about four shillings-worth weekly), potatoes, tea, coffee, sugar (a pound a week), milk, soap, coals, tobacco, salt, pepper, and other spices (often six-pennyworth of these every week), rice, and schooling for the children (seldom more than six or sevenpence a week). Four shillings a week for meat! How much meat do our wealthiest peasants and labourers consume in the week? Six-pennyworth of pepper and spice! As much as for the schooling of the children.”
(Johann Georg Kohl, travel writer, England, Wales and Scotland, 1844, p. 142)
“We may mention however, that for several years the bills of mortality have exhibited a continually and steadily increasing number of persons whose death can be ascribed to no particular disease, and who are stated to have vanished from the scene of life in consequence of “old age and debility”.”
(George Porter, Head of the Statistical Department at the Board of Trade, Progress of the Nation, 1847, Vol. 1. Section 1, Population, p. 21)
“In England and Scotland agricultural skill has of late increased considerably faster than population, insomuch that food and other agricultural produce, notwithstanding the increase of people, can be grown at less cost than they were thirty years ago.”
(John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, 1848, edition of 1915, p. 704)
“The change in the price of provisions has added greatly to the comfort of the [agricultural] labourer. Within the last ten years the decrease in price of the principal articles of his consumption is upwards of 30 per cent. In 1840 a stone of flour cost him 2s. 6d., which he can now purchase for 1s. 8d; good Congou tea in 1840 was, exclusive of duty, 2s. 6d. per lb., and is now only 1s.; and the same quality of sugar which then cost him 6p. per lb., can be had now for 3 ½ d.“
(James Caird, later “Sir”, writer on agriculture, English Agriculture 1850-51, 1852, p. 518)
“It will be remembered that the year 1835, in which there appears one departure from the uniformity of this effect, was a year of great, of almost universal, excitement throughout the kingdom. Never before, perhaps, was there an equal number of public works in operation. Every man who was able and willing to work readily obtained employment at full wages. Every loom was filled, every anvil was at work, and, to crown the advantages thus enjoyed by our labouring population, the chief necessaries of life were procurable at prices lower than had been previously known by the existing generation.”
(George Porter, Joint Secretary of the Board of Trade, The Progress of the Nation, 1851, pp. 542-543)
“It will be apparent, from the examination of the foregoing tables, that although at certain seasons all those who live by daily wages must have suffered privation, yet with some exceptions their condition has, in the course of years, been much ameliorated. The exceptions here alluded to are hand-loom weavers, and other following analogous employments, conducted in the dwellings of the workmen. The diminution in the weekly earnings of other parties has been but small in any case, and certainly not commensurate with the diminished cost of most of the necessaries of life, comprehending in this list most articles of food, and every article of clothing. By this means they have acquired, with their somewhat diminished wages, a much greater command than formerly over some of the comforts of life.
It is true that the necessity under which most labouring men are placed of purchasing in very small quantities from retail dealers who are themselves, perhaps, unable to purchase in the best markets, prevents their deriving in every case the full advantage of diminished prices; but it must be plain to everybody that at least in one respect the condition of the labouring poor is greatly mended. The reduction in the prices of all kinds of manufactured goods, accompanied as it is by improvement in their quality, has been such that few indeed are now so low in the scale of society as to be unable to provide themselves with decent and appropriate clothing. It cannot be necessary to adduce any evidence in support of this fact, which is obvious to every one who passes through the streets; so great, indeed, is the change in this respect, that it is rarely we meet with any one that is not in at least decent apparel, except it be a mendicant, whose garb is assumed as an auxiliary to his profession. …..”
(George Porter, op. cit., p. 452)
“I believe it is admitted by the great mass of the intelligent working men, that their physical and social position has much improved during the last twenty years; and it is hoped that the continued progress of sanitary improvements in rendering their “homes” more healthy, will further greatly contribute to this result.
As a body they are now much better educated, and are much less addicted to the sin of drunkenness; they have much greater self-respect and intelligence; and if they have not more political privileges, they have more real independence, and are in every other respect elevated and improved as compared with their position twenty years ago.”
(David Chadwick, Town Treasurer of Salford, On the Rate of Wages in Manchester and Salford, and the Manufacturing Districts of Lancashire, 1839-59, Quarterly Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, March 1860, p. 21)
“The results of the present enquiry prove that a large proportion of the operative classes in the various branches of trade, are receiving more wages at the present time than they have done during the last twenty years; and there appears good reason to expect that the prosperity now prevailing is likely to be more than usually permament.
It may safely be affirmed that the low prices of Provisions and Clothing, together with the high rate of Wages, and the facilities for education and mental culture now existing, have placed within the reach of the working classes more physical comforts and the means of obtaining more social and intellectual enjoyment than at any previous period.”
(David Chadwick, op. cit., p. 19)
“If, however, we look back to the condition of the mass of the people as it existed in this country, even so recently as the beginning of the present century, and then look around us at the indications of greater comfort and respectability that meet us on every side, it is hardly possible to doubt that here, in England at least, the elements of social improvement have been successfully at work, and that they have been and are producing an increased amount of comfort to the great bulk of the people. This improvement is by no means confined to those who are called, by a somewhat arbitrary distinction, the working classes, but is enjoyed in some degree or other by tradesmen, shopkeepers, families,- in short, by every class of men whose personal and family comforts admitted of material increase.”
(George Porter, op. cit., p. 222)
“….. it is a satisfaction to know that the rate of agricultural wages throughout the country has increased within these thirty-five years quite as much as 20 per cent, while the prices of those provisions and supplies which constitute the ordinary food and necessaries of life have, on the whole, decreased in the aggregate about 10 per cent.”
(J. Bailey Denton, agricultural engineer, The Agricultural Labourer, 1868, pp. 16-17)
“That, on the other hand, it was a direct consequence of the Railway Expenditure of the years 1848, ’49, and ’50, that the Working Classes were provided with fair employment during a period of interrupted trade; and it was also a direct consequence of the Cheapness of Food and the low range of general prices which prevailed to the year 1852, that the Working Classes were able to command, by means of their wages, a larger amount of sustenance and comfort, than had been within their reach probably at any former period of the Century.”
(Thomas Tooke, economist, A History of Prices and of the State of the Circulation during the Nine Years 1848-1856, 1857, p. 347)
A more nuanced view is given by Sir Archibald Alison, history writer and Rector of Edinburgh University, in his “England in 1815 and 1845; and the Monetary Famine of 1847; Or, A Sufficient and a Contracted Currency”. He confirms that the great majority of the population had a great improvement in their incomes and living standards. But he also draws attention to the fact that the lowest levels of society live in very bad conditions. He thinks that this extreme differentiation has no reasonable explanation, and cannot understand how the ruling classes were so incompetent as to let this happen.
“….. While population was advancing with unparalleled strides in the manufacturing districts, pauperism even more than kept pace with it in all; and the extraordinary fact has now been revealed by statistical researches that, in an age of unbounded wealth, and general and long-continued peace, a seventh part of the whole inhabitants of the British islands are in a state of destitution, or painfully supported by legal relief. (*)”
(*) Footnote. Ireland 2,300,000; England 1,500,000; Scotland 200,000; Total 4,000,000 (pp. 6-7)
“But what we do say is unparalleled in the history of the world, is the co-existence of so much suffering in one portion of the people, with so much prosperity in another; of unbounded private wealth, with unceasing public penury; of constant increase in the national resources, with constant diminution in the comforts of a considerable portion of the community; of the utmost freedom consistent with order, ever yet existing on earth, with a degree of discontent which keeps the nation constantly on the verge of insurrection; of the most strenuous efforts for the moral and religious improvement of the poor, with an increase of crime unparalleled at the same, or perhaps any other, period in any civilized state.”
“…. Nor has the increase in opulence in cities been less remarkable than the augmentation in the number of their inhabitants. This daily display of wealth in the metropolis excites the astonishment of every beholder. It is not going too far to say, that it is double of what it was at the close of the war. Manchester, Liverpool, Birmingham, Glasgow, Leeds, Bristol, Dundee, Aberdeen, and all the trading towns of the empire, have advanced in a similar proportion, not merely in the opulence of a few, but the evident ease and well-being of a considerable proportion of the community.” (p. 15)
“The last feature – and it is a most distressing one – of society for the last twenty-five years in the British islands has been the extraordinary inequality in the condition of the working classes themselves, and the general want of those habits of foresight amongst them which are the only lasting foundation of durable prosperity. This is the more distressing, as it might reasonably have been expected to have arisen with the advantages many of them have enjoyed. It is a great mistake to say the working classes are all permanently miserable. Many of them doubtless are so; and what is very extraordinary, certain professions, or trades, are generally immersed in poverty, while others, in their close vicinity, are often rioting in affluence. Wages differ in a remarkable and most distressing degree in different places. In many of the agricultural districts they are as low as 7s. or 8s. a-week;- the piecers and female workers in manufactories seldom, save in years of extraordinary prosperity, earn more than 6s. Weavers are generally as low as 7s. a-week, in seasons of distress they sink to 4s., and even less. On the other hand, the cotton-spinners, iron-moulders, and other skilled trades, earn, in ordinary years, from 20s. to 30s. a-week; but the affluence of some professions or branches of labour affords no compensation for the degraded and unhappy state of others. It is impossible to strike an average in such cases; you might as well make an average of the happiness of some, and the sorrows of others, in private life. Perhaps, however, those of the laboring classes which are in a state of prosperity, are fully as well off as they were during any former period of our history.
Their wages, indeed, are in many cases thirty or forty per cent. lower than they were during the war; but provisions, and the other necessaries or comforts they require, have fallen in a still greater proportion, and their condition, consequently, has been in no way depressed; on the contrary, it has been rather improved by the fall.” (pp. 15-16)
“But it is this condition of the poor in this lowest grade which is the most extraordinary feature of the last twenty years, and which has now assumed such a magnitude as to have become, in every point of view, a national concern. The hand-loom weavers are everywhere at the starving point; with the utmost industry they can never earn more than seven or eight shillings a-week; during periods of commercial depression it sinks to four or five. ….. But this magnitude and condition of the destitute class itself is the alarming thing. In every great town of the empire there is a mass, about the twelfth or the fifteenth of its number, who are generally in a state of almost total penury. In periods of commercial distress this destitute body rises to double, sometimes triple, its average amount. It is from this frightful accumulation of poverty, intemperance, vice, and destitution that two-thirds of the physical contagion which ravages, and four-fifths of the convicted crime which burdens, society takes its rise. The alarming increase of offences which penal severity and lenity, uncertainty and certainty of punishments, have been alike unable to restrain, mainly comes from this class.
Close packed in the centre and worst parts of every great city – crowded together, many families in the same room – scarce knowing where they are to find their daily food – careless because destitute, often joyous because always unforeseeing, this deplorable body are retained within the precincts of contagion and vice by the iron bonds of hopeless poverty. It is impossible that regular or virtuous habits can be acquired, it is scarcely possible that those of temperance and wickedness can be avoided, in their dismal abodes. …. And all this exists unnoticed, unrelieved, within a few hundred yards of the most unbounded opulence, amidst luxury unheard of, prosperity unexampled, and in a community making a more rapid progress in material resources than any that ever yet appeared upon earth.” (pp. 16-17)
The only comment referring to a large-scale reduction in incomes, was that which Mr. John Marshall (owner of the largest flax mill in the country) gave the Hand-Loom Weavers Commission in 1833, and was a description of what had happened in the countryside from 1790 to 1820, due to the introduction of machinery for spinning wool:
“…. The census of 1831 proves that the extended application of machinery has annihilated all the domestic industry or domestic manufacture which used to prevail amongst at least from 800,000 to 1,000,000 of families, and which were carried on, not to a large extent, but to such an extent as supplied all the domestic comforts of the family. Domestic manufacture used to pervade every labourer’s cottage, every farm-house, and the habitations of the handicraftsmen. The labourers’ families were more generally employed in carding and spinning of wool, given out by the shopkeepers of the villages; and the yarn, after being taken back by them in exchange for the articles of the shop, passed into other hands to be wove; the farm-houses and the houses of the handicraftsmen, such as the smiths, carpenters, wheelwrights and persons of that description, were more generally employed in the spinning of flax, the yarn of which they afterwards sent to be wove, some for sale and some for domestic use. …. I think that the great alteration which has taken place, has been the means of placing the artizan more completely in a state of dependence upon the manufacturer. My own knowledge of the fact embraces an extensive district in the midland counties, in which I can look back upon the habitations of 50 families, whom I knew as agricultural labourers 35 or 40 years ago, living in great comfort, the mother and children of the family exchanging the produce of their labour at the wheel to the extent of 2s., 3s., 4s., or 5s. a week, all of which operation is now annihilated; and owing to its absence it is that so much privation prevails among the farm labourers in certain districts; and it will be seen, on a close investigation, that there is a greater pressure of poor-rates in all those districts where manufacturing operations were more extensively carried on, as in certain parts of Wiltshire and Hampshire, and more particularly the counties of Essex, Suffolk, and Norfolk, are found to present a far greater parochial assessment than any other district in the kingdom, notwithstanding their superior advantages in an agricultural point of view, in having the benefit of the London market.”
(Analysis of the Evidence … , Mr. John Marshall, pp. 19-20)