The Industrial Revolution was not All Bad

“Nullius in Verba” / “Take Nobody’s Word for it”

(Motto of the Royal Society)

This work was originally going to be one chapter of a book about generalisations in writing history. The idea was to show how difficult it is to make a statement about the Industrial Revolution in England, giving weight to both the increases in income and the bad living conditions. The first version of the chapter did not satisfy me, as there were a number of pieces of information which turned out to be without a real basis, or were in contradiction with the real world. Particularly, it seemed impossible that people with such low incomes and bad working conditions could have had normal lives, especially if these conditions were valid for the whole of the working class.

 So I decided to investigate and document as far as I could.

The general view of the Industrial Revolution is that the people suffered from low wages, insufficient food, bad treatment by the owners, bad sanitation, and much illness and mortality of children. This is then supported by the calculations of real (inflation-adjusted) wage development, which give only zero increase from 1770 to 1830, and 30 % from 1830 to 1860. But we shall see that there were a number of positive living situations. We shall also see that the figures as to real wages are not what they seem.

It is certainly important to evaluate what happened to the people in the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution gave us machines, which allowed us to do things and produce articles, with more speed, more power, more exactness, work for longer time periods, and with less costs. It gave us stationary steam engines, the factory system, cheap textiles in large quantities, trains and reduction of transport costs, gas lighting, sheet glass, facility of work in mining and in agriculture, machine tools. It made it possible to absorb the great increase in population, and to reduce the number of people who worked out-of-doors and using their bodily strength. But for a number of decades, large parts of the population suffered bad living and sanitation conditions. Thus, the great questions are: “was it worth it?”, and “could it have been done another way?” But these questions can only be answered, if we have the answer to the question “what really happened to the people?”

Hopefully, the presentation of the large mass of data in this book, will make it possible to have a “political” discussion about the effects of the Industrial Revolution, but on a generally accepted and objective basis.

In the second half of this chapter I shall give a short history of the opinions and investigations of academics from 1880 to the present, as to the financial situation and the living conditions of the working class in the period 1770-1860. Since 1910 there has been a situation of “ping-pong” between the Optimists and the Pessimists; at this time, the Pessimists have the ball under control.

It will there be seen that the accumulation of studies and commentaries has not given us much in the way of quantitative data. It is not clear why this should be so. Following we have a list of required data in order to evaluate the reality of the period of the Industrial Revolution, and of the points actually reported.  

Average Wages: 

There is only one series of average wages per year for the period, that is, one figure per year for the average of the working class (Feinstein, 1998); but the detailed working papers have been lost, and so we cannot check if it is correct and we cannot use it to answer questions, i.e. movements of wages in agricultural labourers vs. in non-agricultural occupations.

Average Wages Agriculture: 

There is an investigation (Clark) which gives basic wages for agricultural labourers for every year; it does not show the complete financial situation of the worker, because it does not include earnings from task-work, harvest month, spinning wool (wives and daughters).

Effect of mechanization of spinning of wool, on the agricultural families (loss of income): Nothing.

Numbers in each occupation: Only agricultural workers, textiles, miners.

Wages in non-agricultural occupations: Only textiles.

Narratives of changes in working processes and social conditions in each occupation: Only textiles.

Index of cost of living per year, average over all occupations: Three calculations (Feinstein, Clark, Allen) with full documentation, and consistent figures.

Expression of earnings in terms of purchasable food quantities (can they eat enough?): Nothing.

Non-financial improvements in the lives of the working class: Nothing.

Other expenses apart from food + clothing + rent + fuel (i.e. do they have surplus income to buy other things?): Nothing.

Effect of the New Poor Law 1834 and the prohibition of “outdoor relief”, on the poor persons who did not enter the workhouse: Nothing. 

Average consumption of bread: Nothing.

Average consumption of meat: Only the number of animals slaughtered at Smithfield.

Average consumption of beer: Nothing.

Family Budgets: Some from 1780’s, 1790’s, 1830’s, 1840’s.

Percentages of infant mortality: Nothing before 1840 (apparently nobody knows that the infant mortality in the industrial towns was nearly all caused by lack of care and feeding by the mother).

Life expectancy: Nothing before 1840.

Proportion of areas in industrial towns with reasonable sanitation and housing: Supposed to be Zero.

Cultural activities of workers: Supposed to be Zero.

Literacy: Supposed to be low-level.

Identification of years with bad harvests or with industrial recessions, plus descriptions of effects on the population: Nothing.

Nearly all of these points are resolved in the body of this work.

What do we learn about life in the Industrial Revolution, from the research for this book, additional to the investigations made up to this date?:

  • the standard of living in the 18th century, as measured by wages and cost of food, was acceptable;
  • the persons who changed to employment in the cotton factories in Lancashire in 1780-1800, made their decision based on the offer of high wages, in comparison with those that they had had in their previous work; 
  • the average real incomes of the agricultural families went down in the period, and those of the average non-agricultural families went up;
  • the workers in the “modern” industries had in general good incomes and food situations, and those in occupations where they were in competition with a large number of other workers, selling the produce of their hands, were in bad circumstances;
  • the weekly wages earned by the agricultural labourers must be adjusted upwards, for the harvest wage, task-work, and income from spinning wool (wives and daughters) up to 1820; the total family wage remained basically unchanged from 2.5 bushels of wheat in 1770 to 2.6 bushels in 1860;
  • the agricultural families in many cases had additional food sources from allotments and fields that they farmed in their spare time, and their pigs;
  • the weekly wages of the average non-agricultural worker went up from 1.3 quartern loaves in 1770 to 2.0 quartern loaves in 1860;  
  • the simultaneous narrative of the technical and social advances, and the wage movements, in each industry, allow us to understand the factors which moved the wages; 
  • the use of machinery did not cause decreases of wages or losses of jobs (only in the case of wool spinning in the agricultural areas); machinery increased the throughput and decreased the costs in each industry, so that sales numbers increased greatly, and the owners and the workers could share the improved profits; 
  • threshing machines did not take away jobs in the South and South Midlands; the Swing Riots were not caused by poverty or hunger;
  • the catastrophic decrease in the wages of the cotton hand-loom weavers (1817-1833) was not caused by competition from the power-looms, but by the Government permission to export cotton thread, which then allowed the Continental cloth producers to lower their costs;
  • we do not have series of figures of production or of per capita consumption of cereals, but there was enough for everyone from 1815 onwards;
  • we also do not have series for per capita consumption of meat, but we do know that in the industrial towns, the average consumption per person (man, wife, children, babies, indigents) was from 80 to 100 pounds per year;  
  • the descriptions of the horrible life in the towns given by Engels were selected to give a bad impression; he makes this clear in letters to Marx;
  • not all of the areas of the industrial towns had bad sanitation and over-crowded housing; particularly in Manchester the “Engels description” only applied to the Old Township (130,000 inhabitants), and not to the new suburbs (230,000 inhabitants);
  • Birmingham and other cities were different to Manchester;
  • there were a large number of mills and “mill villages” in the countryside of Lancashire and the West Riding, where the sanitation and housing were acceptable; 
  • the very high infant and child mortality was not due to the bad sanitary conditions, but primarily to the lack of care and feeding by the mothers, who had to work long hours in the factory;
  • in Manchester and in Birmingham, the better-paid workers built houses through “building clubs”, to rent to other workers; in Bradford and the Potteries, one third to one half of the workers owned the houses where they lived; 
  • literacy was high amongst the workers in the new industries; many read technical journals, and some could read in French or German; 
  • there were many self-help projects, for example, the Co-Operative Society;

So now we have to ask why these points have not been uncovered or investigated by academic researchers. The following may be valid explanations:

Firstly, because there has not existed a data base of average wages per industry and per year. These numbers are very useful for understanding the living conditions in each industry or region, and for asking detailed questions about the reasons for the movements in wages.

Secondly, because no one has made the experiment of expressing the weekly wages in terms of the amount of food/cereals which could be bought.

Third, because those data which have been used to make descriptions or to reach judgments have only been those that are findable in numerical or index/series form. No interest has been shown in reading text descriptions or collecting illustrations, which show in a general way how the people lived. The only descriptions used are those of the Parliamentary Commissions on Great Cities, Children’s Employment, etc.     

Fourthly, it appears that the historians are convinced that the present, semi-pessimistic evaluation is correct, and thus it is not necessary to look for data in new sources. This may be influenced by the calculations of “real wages” at a given date that are carried out, using the index movements of wages and comparing these with the index movements of prices of food, etc. The correct calculation is to compare the wages at a given date with the food costs at that date.

The totality of the different academic opinions since 1900 about the experiences during the Industrial Revolution, is known as the “Standard of Living Controversy”.

The “Optimists” say that there was at least no decrease in real incomes from 1770 to 1810, and a large increase from 1810 to 1860, and the “Pessimists” say that there was only a small increase during the period 1770 to 1830, and a median improvement from 1830 to 1860. It must be noted that there was a considerable decrement in the cost of food and other articles from 1825 to 1860. 

It should not come as a surprise, that the “Optimists” are political believers in the free market, while the “Pessimists” are socialists and communists.

It is not clear how there can be doubts about the conditions (good or bad) in the Industrial Revolution. One would suppose that in a country with continuous internal peace for centuries, and abundant documentation of historical situations, there would have been in, for example 1900, a consensus as to whether the experiences had been “good” or “bad”. In 1900 there were still people living who could remember the 1840’s. I have not been able to find any history books written in 1860 to 1900, which refer to the living situations of the working classes in the previous decades. I have also been unable to find books or pamphlets published by the unions or other representatives of the working classes, which might speak about horrible financial or food situations (a few in the case of the agricultural workers).

There are some situations which might predispose us to a bad general impression of life in the Industrial Revolution: the bad treatment of the children in the factories, the long hours in the textile factories, the bad sanitary and housing conditions, the high infant mortality, and the industrial injuries and bodily deformations. But these should not predispose us to a vision in which all the workers had subsistence wages and all the workers had insufficient food. The problem is that we work from some assumptions which were often not valid: 

  1. “we know that the workers had to work very long hours, to make up their wages”, but actually the cotton workers had very good daily wages, the long hours were required to have an efficient use of the machines;
  2. “the textile factory workers had to live in bad sanitary areas, because they were poor”, but really they lived in the bad areas in Manchester and Leeds because that was where the work was (*);
  3. “the small children in the factory areas died in large quantities due to the lack of sanitation in the areas of their houses”, but the fact is that the majority of the small children died because their mothers did not have time to look after them or feed them, because they were working long hours in the factories;
  4. “the workers had to struggle against the factory owners for their wage level, and thus their wages were low”, but in the cotton factories the owners had to offer good wages to attract the men from other occupations;
  5. “the real wages were stagnant, and thus the workers did not have enough income to purchase sufficient food”, but really the incomes in the eighteenth century had been of a reasonable amount, and continued in the nineteenth century;
  6. “the working classes were poor and overworked and lived in horrible circumstances, and thus did not have time and energy for anything except eating and sleeping”, but really they invested time and money to improve their education.

(*) According to M. Faucher, a French economist who visited England in 1844, and reporting on Leeds, the working-class families living in the lower class of housing, and with considerable overcrowding, earned 30 shillings a week.

There is not really much to dispute about the bad living conditions, for which there is abundant documentation from the period; there is however, room for doubt, as to whether these conditions existed in all regions and in all occupations. The difference in the controversy is with regard to the incomes of the people, that is, whether they all had wages just above subsistence level, or whether at least the total of the “manufacturing classes” had enough to eat well. The poor were certainly very poor (and poorer than in the second half of the eighteenth century).

To be sure that the figures that we have tell us everything about the finances of the workers, we have to check if they have other forms of income, and if they have expenses that cannot be explained with their incomes. On the one hand there are workers who can buy the houses in which they live; on the other hand, the amount of beer and gin drunk is suspicious!

To form a complete impression of the living conditions, that is, working hours, treatment of the children, infant and child mortality, sanitation, water supply, housing density, house rents, etc., we need a revision of these factors in the majority of the regions and in the majority of the occupations. Not all of the industries – and non-industrial occupations – and not all of the regions, and not even all of Manchester, were as bad as they are painted.

On the other hand, there were a number of improvements in daily life which should be included in the “equation”. For example, gas lighting in streets and public places, trains for transport of persons and of goods, and less physical exertion in mining and in agriculture.

 All of these points are presented and evaluated in the body of the book.

So as not to be influenced by later impressions and judgments about the conditions of the workers, I have not taken generalised expressions from twentieth century and twenty-first century authors. “Generalised expressions” are those of the form: “many people …”, “much of the time”, “were unhappy”, “were exploited”, “nearly all of them ate little meat”, and worse: “it is generally accepted that ….” Books and doctoral theses have been used, but only for copying numerical and descriptive data, or to identify sources from earlier periods.

The investigation and evaluation take place through two methods: the description of the development of the industries and of the daily life of the workers, and the arithmetical analysis of the movements of incomes and the movements of family expenditures. Visual descriptions of daily experiences, so long as we can be sure that they were generally valid, are given precedence against figures. The advantage of carrying out the analysis on an industry basis is that the individual results can be checked easily against “the real world”, and if found to be incorrect, they can be adjusted. 

The procedure for collecting monetary data and descriptions has been to use primarily data from historians, statistical societies, parliamentary reports, information from visitors to the regions, and from workers and from business owners, from the late eighteenth century and the nineteenth century. The idea of taking the data of the contemporary statisticians is because they not only could collect and evaluate the figures, but also interpret them in terms of their daily information as to the economic and social situation. The “best” information is that which is given as a series of figures for a number of years, by the same person (thus guaranteeing that the definition is consistent), or in terms of a statement, comparing the contemporary situation with some previous year. The advantage of quoting foreign visitors or visitors from other regions of Britain is that they give us an idea, as to what was “normal” and what was “surprising” to them.

The economists, statisticians, landlords and farmers, and foreign visitors were unanimous that the great mass of the working classes had an optically demonstrable long-term improvement in their earnings and living standards. The statements correspond to probably an increase in earnings of about 5 % per decade (See Chapter 1.: Contemporary Observations).

The types of input data are not only the standard wage levels and the monetary amounts of basic expenses, and the descriptions of the sanitary and health problems. The most important data are those which report on the physical amounts of food consumed. To form an idea of how the working people lived, we use descriptions of their physical appearance, and how they used their spare time and their surplus cash.

To decide if the condition of the working class and the general population improved or worsened in the period, the usual questions are not sufficient:

1.What was the percentage movement of the basic wages?
2.What was the percentage movement of the expenses of the families?
3.What were the changes in the non-monetary disadvantages in their living conditions?

The full set of necessary questions is as follows: 

1.What was the percentage movement of the total earnings, per person and per family?
2.What were the figures in shillings of total family earnings, divided by the number of family members (“mouths”)?
3.What was the percentage movement of the expenses of the people?
4.What were the changes in the composition of the expenses?
5.What were the absolute differences per person or per family, between earnings and expenses? 
6.What were the changes in the non-monetary disadvantages in their living conditions?
7.What were the changes in the non-monetary benefits in their living conditions?
8.Were their large changes in the percentages of the long-term unemployed or destitute poor?

Point 2 in the second box is crucial to addressing the apparent contradiction between the low figures of increase of real (inflation-corrected) weekly incomes per worker (0 % from 1770 to 1830, 30% from 1830 to 1860), and the observations of improvements in the standard of living made by professional persons of the time (perhaps 5 % per decade, which over 90 years compounded is 55 %). Until now, the idea among the academics has been to define the improvement in real incomes per family, as equal to the increase in wages of the principal wage-earner. But with the qualitative changes in employment in the period 1770 to 1860, this is not valid. 

The number of persons per family who had a decent income increased from perhaps 1.65 to 2.1. The total income of the family, as a multiple of that of the average wage-earner, increased from 1.27 to 2.1. The father earned in 1770, 9.5 shillings per week, and thus the family had an income of 12.1 shillings. Supposing 4.5 persons per family, we have 2.7 shillings for food and expenses per “mouth”. With inflation to 1860, this situation becomes 3.9 shillings per “mouth”.

In 1860, the average wage-earner had 15 shillings income, and thus the family total was 31 shillings. But the number of “mouths” to feed remains constant from 1770 to 1860 at about 4.5. Thus each adult and child, instead of being able to spend an income of 3.9 shillings at level 1860, can spend an income of 6.8 shillings. This is an increase of about 80 % in real incomes (i.e. corrected for inflation).

An additional dimension to this study is to attempt to fix rules as to how to formulate general descriptions of the life of the people in a given period, and which general descriptions can be formulated about the Industrial Revolution in England. For any period of rapid changes, and of much differentiation in living standards between classes and between occupations, such as was the Industrial Revolution, it is very difficult to find short and useful statements. It is certainly better to use general descriptions for a well-defined group, by persons of the era, than to present a number of individual examples. 

A first step is to see what is the validity of the “evidence” for living standards in the past. For the period 1770 to 1860 in England, there are enough figures on incomes per person to show what was the increase in nominal wages to an accuracy of plus/minus 5 percentage points, and equally there are enough figures on the costs of food and other necessities to make a good estimate of the inflation. There are insufficient data as to “typical family budgets”, and certainly very little idea, as to whether these food patterns were really “typical” or “average”. We could only make statements of the form: “the average working family ate better in 1860 than 1770”, or “the average working family ate two pounds of meat per week in 1770, and five pounds of meat per week in 1860”, if we had a large number of family budgets. 

But what really happened? If we could go back in a time machine, and take photos of the people in 1770 and in 1860, and talk to them, and see if they were thin or well-built, what would we learn? We might find some errors in our present data, or more probably in our methods of using the data. As we cannot visit the past, we might use the eyes, mind, and words of Mr. McCulloch, a prominent economist, in 1833: “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”. This is an expression based on real observation, by an expert with access to the figures, and referring to a long period of time. It cannot be brought into doubt through use of a number of figures collected 180 years later. 

We can also take note of Dr. Douglas Logan, the doctor who accompanied the Captain Swing rioters (1830) in their ship to Australia, whence they were transported: “Generally speaking, they had the sturdy build of labouring men.” The men are not thin from overwork, or from hunger. Dr. Logan describes “labouring men” as “sturdy” without any restrictions, which must mean that he held the description to be valid for the majority of these people in the country. 

Mr. George Porter, Secretary to the Board of Trade, refers to the improvement in clothing for the labouring classes, and to the clear visual evidencefor this statement (1851). “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 that we meet with any one that it is not in at least decent apparel, except it be a mendicant, whose garb is assumed as an auxiliary to his profession …”  

Which data should we use?, the statistical or the descriptive? If there is a difference between the two, we should use the descriptive, because they are/were real. More exactly, we should use the descriptive data, so long as a) we are sure that they are applicable to all the people, or b) we can state that they are applicable to a certain percentage of the population, or to a given segment of the population.           

It is important to verify that the “naked facts” represent the totality of incomes and of expenses. There were many additional factors on both sides of the equation, for example:

  • the agricultural workers and their families had additional incomes from harvest bonus, task-work (especially threshing), field work by the wife and children, gleaning, and saving the food costs in the harvest, as the farmer gave them the food in the harvest field;
  • many agricultural families had a pig, which was killed for meat at the end of the year, and many others had an allotment in which they could grow potatoes or vegetables;
  • the poorest agricultural families did not eat “butcher’s meat”, but they did buy cheaper cuts such as head, neck, feet, or liver and kidneys at half price;
  • the general food budget in the North of England was cheaper but more nutritive than that of the South, as it was based on oatmeal, which was of a lower unit price, but gave more weight of food as served on the plate;
  • many families, agricultural or industrial, had more than one person working for a wage, or in informal activities;
  • the male industrial workers spent a lot of their money on drink, but in many cases, their stated income was not enough to cover this outgoing, so that we have to suppose that they had a few shillings a week from other work.      

We must also revise if statements which appear to be generally valid, really apply to all the people and all the regions, or if they can be subdivided for different regions. In fact, the horrible descriptions of sanitary conditions and infant mortality in Manchester cannot be made applicable to all the industrial districts, and not even to the whole of Manchester. The worst parts of Manchester were where visitors were taken to observe the bad conditions (“slum tourism”), and where there were a lot of Irish and non-factory workers. By 1833, the better class of workers did not reside in the Old Township (population about 130,000), but in the new suburbs (230,000).

The figures collected for living standards of agricultural workers from 1830 onwards, if they refer to the South-West of the country, which show bad conditions, are not representative, because this area had wages of around 8 shillings, and the other regions had 10-12 shillings. With respect to the often-cited agricultural workers of South Wilts, these were only 1.5 % of the labourers in England. But they did live on average to 60 years old.

The figures of deaths at less than 12 months, about 220 per 1000 births in Manchester and Liverpool, although very bad from our present point of view, were actually only a little higher than those of small towns in England in the later 18th century, and lower than those in Germany, predominantly a rural country, in the 19th century. These figures were accepted as normal by the people at the time, as they had not known anything better.

It is further a logical requirement, that we check that the descriptions and numerical data really apply to all the years of the period being investigated. From the years 1770 to 1860, there were a number of years in which a large part of the population suffered. These would be 1795-1796, 1800-1802 and 1816-1817 with insufficient harvests, 1810-1812 in the industrial districts due to the interruption of trade with the United States, 1826 due to restriction of the money supply, and the catastrophic depression of 1839-1842, caused originally by the bursting of a bubble in plant investment and in employment. These should not be taken to be indicative of the whole Industrial Revolution, rather the treatment should be: consider how the economic/financial/social organization and philosophy of the country caused these problems in each case, and why they could not be corrected.   

The investigation will present data to show that not all of the generally accepted assumptions (negative!) were 100 % true in each case. In many cases the data and descriptions are true, but refer to only the worst parts of each city, or only to years of recession. This will help us to understand the effects of the Industrial Revolution. For example:

  1. The agricultural and textile industry regions were not poor in 1770-1790, in terms of employment, working conditions, or illnesses.
  2. The bad economic experiences from 1795 to 1815 were caused not only by the Industrial Revolution, but by the indirect effects of the French Wars, by high taxation to pay for the war, and by bad harvests.
  3. The first workers who went into the cotton mills in Lancashire were not poor/starving farm workers who needed a job, but rather artisans and other town workers, to whom the mill owners had to offer high wages to induce them to change work.
  4. Monetary incomes in the textile industry were in general good, with the exception of the hand-loom weavers after 1817, and of the years of recession.
  5. A part of each city was in horrible conditions (housing and drainage), but some parts were normal, and the authorities did take steps to improve the situation.
  6. It is not true that all the mill owners in Lancashire and Yorkshire treated their employees badly; a certain proportion rented them clean housing, paid their visits to the doctor, and schooling in the evening or on Sunday.
  7. A large part of the bad conditions of the very poor was not caused by the technological and socioeconomic changes of the Industrial Revolution, but by the introduction of the New Poor Law in 1834, and its prohibition of “outdoor relief”.
  8. The levels of poverty experienced by some sectors of the working population, were not a reflection of low contractual wage levels, but rather of the amount of unemployment, and of the people selling their production to an anonymous and highly price-competitive market.
  9. The agricultural labourers had higher incomes than usually supposed, because extra payments from harvest month and from task-work added about 70 %; up to 1790, they also had the incomes of their wives from spinning wool in the cottage.
  10. They had a decrease in their total yearly earnings in the period, and their food consumption was just enough to eat well, but they were not at starvation level.
  11. The higher paid industrial workers had a surplus in their wages against their family expenditures, which they used for: drinking, buying furniture, building a house to rent it, studying in Workers’ Institutes, or depositing in savings banks, benefit societies or building societies.
  12. Many industrial workers and artisans managed to have satisfying lives, although they lived in bad sanitary conditions.

It is necessary to give the correct “weighting” to the reports of committees, doctors, and social reformers. It is not possible to deny the truth of the sufferings and bad living conditions of much of the population. But the parliamentary committees sent out their rapporteurs exactly to those geographical regions or industries where there were problems. It is not true that the bad conditions reported upon, existed in the whole country. 

This investigation has had an unexpected by-product. It has shown that the men and women of the agricultural and industrial segments were not passive wage-slaves, but demonstrated in many situations, initiative, interest and hard work, in improving their personal situation and the political and social conditions in the country:

  • agricultural families farmed allotments or rented fields to farm in their spare time, and some of them managed to save enough money to buy a field and build their own cottage;
  • the better class of workers studied in the evenings in Mechanic’s Institutes, which had large libraries, and subscribed to technical magazines;  
  • they took part in associations to promote teetotalism, which required them to address the public from a platform;
  • they took part in the activities of their church, usually “dissenter”;
  • the Cooperative Society was founded by workers in 1842, and grew considerably;
  • there were many workers’ organizations (forerunners or disguised versions of trades unions), even in the years when these were under attack by the authorities;
  • they supported during many years the movements to reduce children’s working hours, and to reform the political structure of the country through the People’s Charter, assembling in many cases crowds of tens of thousands;  
  • women were active in the unions, especially in the north of Lancashire, and in education of the wives of the workers. 

The above paragraphs show that we have to be very careful in formulating generalisations, and in presenting evidence.

The principal point of investigation is whether the working classes in England, from 1770 to 1860, saw an improvement in the real (corrected for inflation) wages, and an improvement in the amount of food that they could buy. We will be seeing – and everyone at the time accepted this – that the “great mass” of the working-class families were in this positive condition. What we can also say, is that nearly all of the workers with continuous employment with an employer had a net improvement from 1770 to 1860 (accumulated over 3 or 4 generations!). This does not mean that they had a continuous improvement, or even that in all the years they ate well. There were a number of years of insufficient harvests or of industrial depressions. Even then, we have to remember those fathers who had two, or three or four small children, and no children over 10, in their families; for the years while they were in this situation, they had considerable expenses for food, and no income except their own wages. 

The supposed subsistence levels of income come up against “Marx’ Contradiction”. Marx supposed that in the future there would be a continuous poverty of the working class, who would be working to produce large amounts of articles, and thus produce high profits for the owning class. But the question is: “if the working class will be producing all these articles, who will be buying them, if the working classes do not have any surplus from their income?”  

Here we can consider the situation in 1800 to 1860. Engels gives us a number of pages in the Introduction to “The Condition …”, describing the large volumes of production of textiles, of metal articles, of trains and railways, of infrastructure, and of coal and iron. Thus the question is: “if the working class is producing all these objects, who is buying them, if the working classes do not have any surplus income?”

A great deal has been written about the non-financial sufferings of the people of the time, such as bad sanitation, high infant and child mortality, and bad conditions in the factory. But we should also include in an evaluation of the lives of the people of the time, the non-financial improvements. The most important was that a large part of the population in 1860 was not engaged in heavy physical labour. After the large-scale introduction of the power-loom, there was little physical labour in the textile mills (the hand-loom weavers in their cottages in 1770 had worked about 10 hours a day, sitting in exactly the same position all day in front of their loom). There were a number of changes in the implements that the agricultural workers could personally use. The miners (more exactly their wives) in the 18thcentury had to bring up the coal from the coal face on their backs; in 1860, the coal and the men were brought up on a platform, lifted by a stationary steam engine, and supported by a metal cable. 

The Industrial Revolution, defined solely as the use of machines, did not in general cause poverty. In many cases, it increased the production volume considerably, with lower unit costs, and thus allowed both the owners and the workers to have better incomes.

The incomes of the workers in each occupation had a lot to do with their possibilities (explicit or implicit) in their wage negotiations. Basically, those who had a continuous job, paid by an employer on the basis of “x” shillings per week, were in a much better position those who sold the produce of their hands to the market in general, at a price which was influenced downwards by competition against many other persons in the same situation.

The hope is that this book will make it possible to evaluate the living and financial conditions of the workers in the Industrial Revolution in England, from the point of view of calculations of real wages, andfrom the point of view of textual descriptions. As to the bad living conditions, investigations should be carried out, to define what percentage of the workers and their families suffered these situations.  Historians should also give recognition to the activities and initiatives of the members of the working classes.

Earlier Investigations

The first general description of the Industrial Revolution and its effects was made by Arnold Toynbee, uncle of the historical philosopher Arnold J. Toynbee. His thoughts are given in the posthumous collection of his “Lectures on the Industrial Revolution of the 18th Century in England” (1894). It is important to note that the lectures he gave before his early death only reach the date of approx. 1800, and we do not know what he would have said about the poverty, the long factory hours, and the over-working of the children. He is often quoted with the passage (in a chapter referring to about 1770): “There were dark patches even in his age [Adam Smith], but we now approach a darker period,- a period as disastrous and as terrible as any through which a nation ever passed; disastrous and terrible, because, side by side with a great increase of wealth was seen an enormous increase of pauperism; and production on a vast scale, the result of free competition, led to a rapid alienation of classes and to the degradation of a large body of producers”. He does not give any figures as to the changes in the standard of living of the workers during the Industrial Revolution from 1800 to 1860, because his lectures did not reach this period.

The first book in the twentieth century to present a vision of life during the years of the Industrial Revolution was “The Hungry Forties; Life under the Bread Tax” written and published in 1904 by Jane Cobden Unwin, daughter of the reformer Richard Cobden, and social activist in her own right. It is formed of a number of letters written to her by old persons, who could remember life in England in the years from 1830 to 1850, and who reported on how difficult life was for the poorer classes in certain situations. The book was designed as a propaganda tool against a possible reintroduction of protectionist tariffs, showing what the condition of the people was before the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. The expression “Hungry Forties” was not used in the nineteenth century, and was invented by the authoress of this book.

It is clear that all the descriptions are honestly given. They talk about the poverty in the countryside in the South and the Midlands, and the impossibility to live a normal life with the very low wages. Some of the people suffered hunger for the whole of their life as children. Often the father had to go out in the morning without any breakfast; barley bread and turnips were eaten, and a sort of tea was made from burnt crust in hot water. Any sort of work, even for a few shillings, was welcome. Clothing and shoes were bad. 

The first detailed work on the social conditions during the Industrial Revolution was by Barbara and John Hammond, consisting of three volumes: “The Village Labourer, 1762-1832: A Study of the Government of England before the Reform Bill” (1912), “The Town Labourer, 1760-1832: The New Civilization”(1917), “The Skilled Labourer, 1760-1832” (1919). These books were very popular and sold large numbers from 1912 up to after the Second World War.

“The Village Labourer” has to do mainly with Enclosures, the attitude of the authorities to the villagers, and the Swing Riots (“The Last Labourers’ Revolt”), and does not mention much the incomes or the living standards of the labourers. It does not much concern us here. 

The “Town Labourer” informs us about the bad treatment that the working men, women, and children received from the employers and the authorities. The themes are: long working hours, lack of education for the children, the use of the military to keep order, the “War on Trade Unions”, employment of children (“it was physically impossible to keep such a system working at all except by the driving force of terror”), children in mines and chimneys, etc. There is not one piece of good news in 348 pages referring to 30 years of history. A country like this cannot exist.

The third volume gives information about the workers in a number of occupations: miners, cotton workers, woollen and worsted weavers, woolcombers, silk weavers and frame-work knitters; a number of these trades were destined to disappear. The main theme is that of the struggles (sometimes, strikes or destruction of machinery) of the men against the masters, these last often backed up by the public authorities. The chronological narration in each case is detailed. The disagreements were in many cases about working hours, contractual conditions, legal disadvantages, and less about wages. 

The wages are noted in some of the above cases, but as these cases are exactly those that will disappear, the figures are low. The only explicit commentary about the general level of wages is in the chapter “The Economic Conditions” in “The Town Labourer”: 

“There is another fact not less conspicuous, to those who have explored even the surface of this society. The wage earners employed in these industries did not obtain any part of the new wealth. They received more money in wages when employment was good than when it was bad, but the expansion of industry did not in itself increase their share in the wealth of the nation. They were shut out from the surplus profits of an industry that earned such fortunes as to create a new and powerful rich class, besides enabling England to maintain a long war with France and pay Europe handsomely to fight by her side. Indeed, their case was worse than this. The vast mass of people working in these industries were not even receiving a maintenance from them. It is true of the cotton weavers, of the frame-work knitters, even of some of the miners, that they were supported partly by the parishes, partly by their children. The industries that were making the new wealth were not supporting their workpeople. 


Immense fortunes were made in cotton, wool, iron, and coal, but on the workers in these industries there fell degradation and distress. Not all employers grew rich with the Peels, nor did all the workmen grow poor with the hand-loom weavers, but the general feature of the times was the rise of a class of rich employers and the creation of a large and miserable proletariat.”

(The Town Labourer, Chapter VI, The Economic Conditions, pp. 95-96)

This commentary is surprising, as in “The Skilled Labourer” by these authors, the chapters on Cotton Workers mention the good wages earned by the spinners, and give an illustrative case of one spinner (assisted by three children) who earns 45 shillings weekly, and an average of 31s. 10d. for adult male spinners. They also refer to reports to the Home Office: “Weavers and mechanics are daily springing up into Manufacturers commencing Business with their accumulated Savings” (Mr. Chippendale, Oldham, 1822); “A very great evil about Blackburn and Burnley is the number of weavers who (owing to the late facility of obtaining credit and County Bank paper) have become small manufacturers … “ (Major Eckersley, 1827). 

Woolcombers and woolsorters in the 1830’s earned from 16 to 24 shillings. The workers in the iron foundries in South Wales had wages of 30 to 45 shillings. The pit-face workers in the mines of the North-East earned 20 shillings, with free rent, coal, and doctor’s services. The three previous data come from the “Returns of Wages published between 1830 and 1886”, published by the Board of Trade in 1887. Mrs. Hammond would have had easy access to this document. 

We know that Barbara Hammond, who did the research, used particularly documentation from Home Office archives. This would of course mean that a great part of the content of the books would describe situations of conflict between authorities and workers. Engels was accused by German academics of his time, of giving “a so one-sided description of only the dark side of the British industry and the workers’ world as just as untenable, as would be the case if statistics of human health were to be based only on observations in the hospitals.” Engels gave data of a level compared with hospitals, the Hammonds used files from the Interior Ministry. These were not promising starting points! 

The next author is John Clapham, with his Economic History of Modern Britain 1820-1850: The Early Railway Age, published in 1926.  

In the Preface to the First Edition (1926), he resumed the condition of the working classes with these words:

“Again, the legend that everything was getting worse for the working man, down to some unspecified date between the drafting of the People’s Charter and the Great Exhibition, dies hard. The fact that, after the price fall of 1820-1, the purchasing power of wages in general – not, of course, of everyone’s wages – was definitely greater than it had been just before the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, fits so ill with the tradition that it is very seldom mentioned, the work of statisticians on wages and prices being constantly ignored by social historians.”

These expressions were criticized by J. L. Hammond, so that Clapham offered in the Preface to the Second Edition (1930) the following precisions:

 “I only meant that recent historians have too often stressed the worsenings and slurred over or ignored the betterings.”

In the chapter on Life and Labour, he gives a slightly more detailed exposition of the movements in wages:

“In the insanitary and crowded towns – which, it is not to be forgotten, were less crowded than the great towns of other countries and not as a group more insanitary – and in industrialised rural districts, the money wages of labour, viewed in the mass and neglecting year to year vicissitudes, were almost stationary between 1830 and 1846-50. …. A great wartime rise; a post-war fall, less than the rise, often very much less; then comparative stability, is the general formula for the years 1790-1830.”

“For every class of urban or industrial labour about which information is available, except – a grave exception – such dying trades as hand-loom cotton weaving, wages had risen markedly during the intervening sixty years [net movement from 1780 to 1848].” There are a number of pages with the wages of the different occupations in a number of dates.

He makes use of a Wage Index calculated by G. H. Wood in 1903, which starts in 1790 with 72, 1810 = 120, 1831 = 103, 1840 = 100, 1845 = 99, 1850 = 100, so that the nominal amount increases by 40 % from 1790 to 1850. 

For the movements in cost of living, unfortunately he uses a calculation by Silberling in 1923, which gives 1790 = 100, 1810 = 176, 1820 = 132, 1830 = 108, 1840 = 121, 1850 = 83, so that we have a reduction of 30 % in the last ten years.  This calculation was taken as a by-product of data collected for an inflation index on wholesale goods, the majority of which were imported, and the half of the components were not used directly by physical people. It was greatly criticized by economists in the following years. 

He gives a considerable amount of space to the Truck system, child labour, and the New Poor Law of 1834.

Eric Hobsbawm was a Marxist, which certainly influenced his views of the Industrial Revolution. These views were “black”, but his ideas of the wages of the workers were not based on any quantitative evidence. 

In his “The Age of Revolution, 1789-1848” (1962), we have some expressions such as: 

  • “The exploitation of labour which kept its incomes at subsistence level, …”;
  • “In 131 Manchester mills average wages were less than 12s.; in only twenty-one were they higher.”
  • “the competition of the machine … reduced the average weekly wage of the handloom weaver in Bolton from 33s. in 1795 and 14s. in 1815 to 5s. 6d. … in 1829-34. … But there was a physiological limit to such reductions, unless the labourers were actually to starve, as of course the 500,000 handloom weavers did.” 

In two articles in professional reviews (1957 and 1963), he gives a number of his points on the controversy, and particularly attacks Clapham and Hartwell.

Professor Hobsbawm’s intention is to show, as a minimum position, that the data of the optimists are not sufficient to demonstrate that the financial standard of living improved in the period. Apparently he was the first use the nomenclatures “pessimist” and “optimist”, as he says, “for the sake of convenience the classical (Ricardo-Malthus-Marx-Toynbee-Hammond) view will be called the pessimist, the modern (Clapham-Ashton-Hayek) view the optimistic school.” 

He affirms that the figures for wages and for costs of living, which Clapham uses, are not well investigated, and thus useless: “We therefore possess nothing which would be regarded as an adequate index of money-wages today. The weakness of the cost-of-living figures is equally great.” But this makes it impossible for him to adduce data for his side of the argument.

In the whole document he does not once mention the wages or the living costs of the workers in the cotton, woollen, or iron industries. But, the experiences and work of exactly these persons were the central activity of the Industrial Revolution. 

His position as to the level of wages is as follows: “…about 40 per cent of the industrial working class in later periods lived at or about the poverty-line, i.e. at or below subsistence level on the prevailing definitions of this concept. Perhaps 15 per cent belonged to a favoured stratum which was in a clear position to improve its real wages at almost all times.” 

His first entrance into real data is to inspect those for a) mortality and health, b) unemployment and c) consumption. He says that, given the weakness of the wage and price figures, the best indication for the financial position of the workers would be that of food consumption. 

He mentions the pauperism rates, which are difficult to find on a consistent basis, and the cyclical crises which caused great unemployment and suffering (particularly that of 1841-2, where he gives the example of a report from Bolton). There is also the case of “probable unemployment”, i.e. the expectation by the workers that they would be without work for one, two, or three months a year; as an example he gives a report from Leeds in 1838, where the normative wages of from 18 shillings to 26 shillings are reduced by the missing months. 

As to food consumption, the only data input is for meat, for which he has some original documentation, Smithfield Market (animals slaughtered) for the entire period, and the whole country through the Hides and Skins Excise for 1800-1825. The numbers do not increase in step with the growth in population, and he is not fully convinced of the validity of the increases in weight per beast. He does not give the absolute figures of average consumption per head, which actually were fairly high. 

E. P. Thompson published “The Making of the English Working Class” (1963) to describe the “formative years 1780 to 1832”, so that unfortunately he does not comment the years after 1832. He is more interested in the social development of the working classes than in the financial and living conditions.

His basic intention was to bring before the reader’s eyes, the experiences of some of the workers in this period (particularly the older trades), and how they had to defend themselves against the difficult employment and economic environment. He considers “the standard-of-living controversy” through a number of pages, and is not very impressed with the academics who have taken part in it, as they usually interpret the data from their own political point of view. But the quantitative distance between the two camps is not great; both sides are of the opinion that real wages declined during the Napoleonic Wars and the following years. He quotes Dr. Hobsbawm as denying any marked general rise before the mid-1840’s, while Professor Ashton sees a “more genial” economic climate after 1821. Thompson thinks that the situation improved starting with the railway boom in 1843. “This does not look very much like a “success story”; in half a century of the fullest development of industrialism, the standard-of-living still remained – for very large but indeterminate groups – at the point of subsistence.”

He is clear about the problem of evaluating life during the Industrial Revolution, using only figures. Firstly, the historians at that time did not have enough continuous figures (“abundant but patchy”) to recreate the lives of the worker in terms of incomes and outgoings. Secondly, to understand what the workers were going through, we need to know about homes, health, family life, leisure, …; “from standard-of-life we pass to way of life”. And it may well be that although there might have an improvement in the quantitative aspects, there was worsening in the personal experiences; … or vice versa. “Thus it is perfectly possible to maintain two propositions which, on a casual view, appear to be contradictory. Over the period 1790-1840 there was a slight improvement in average material standards. Over the same period there was intensified exploitation, greater insecurity, and increasing human misery.” 

He then goes on to relate in detail (one chapter each) the histories of the agricultural workers, the artisans, and the hand-loom weavers. We note that these are not the classical “industrial workers” in cotton, woollens, and metals. The information refers to the daily work experiences; the income levels and the personal experiences are treated in the chapter following these three. 

The report on the agricultural workers concentrates on enclosures, power differences between employers and employees, the Poor Laws, the Game Laws, the tithes of the clergy, and the Swing Riots. It demonstrates that “average” wages or conditions really did not exist in a human sense, since many worker segments were unhappy and some segments were contented.

The chapter on artisans gives us the building trades, the shoemakers, tailors, cabinet-makers, printers, clockmakers, jewellers and bakers. The wages were not defined by diktats of mill-owners, by difficult economic conditions, or by unemployment rates in the trade. They were defined partly by “supply and demand” or by “custom”. That is to say, we have here a free market, in which the actors can have an income level, based on what was – and had been for years – taken as “normal” for a given description of the work. A number of these trades had some sort of “combination”, and thus could fix their general income level, and even have an emergency fund. In the years after 1815, however, the income level was negatively impacted by an increased population that could not always find work. 

The chapter on the hand-loom weavers gives the story of the descent of their wage level from often 30 shillings in the period 1790-1817, to 10 shillings in 1817-1826, and to 5 or 7 shillings in 1826-1840; equivalently, their descent from a life of luxury to starvation or near-starvation. This led to the destruction of a way of life for possibly 400,000 persons. He does accept that it was not particularly the power-loom which made impossible the use of the hand-loom. Basically, it was continuous price competition which caused the low prices; added to the impossibility of the weavers to defend themselves. 

The following chapter, on “Standards and Experiences”, gives a few pages on food consumption, about which he is negative, but does not have any evidence. The other sections are about housing, sanitary problems, life expectancy and death rate, and the bad treatment of the children. There are no new findings, but the wealth of detail does give an idea of all these experiences. 

We now come to the article “The Standard of Living” (1961) by R. M. Hartwell, which was presented as a discussion with Hobsbawm; it is included as Chapter 13 in his book “The Industrial Revolution and Economic Growth” (1971).

His position is that there was an upward trend in living standards during the Industrial Revolution, which he argues from: a) figures of national income and of wages and prices, b) consumption amounts, c) vital statistics and social changes. 

Contemporary estimates of per capita nominal income are – according to the figures that he has – consistent around a movement of + 90 % from 1800 to 1850. This increase of income is very probable, since the national income went up, the volume of manufacturing production increased, and the proportion of manufacturing employment in the whole population went up. The increased efficiency of manufacturing processes would have improved the real income of the workers, unless there had been a deliberate distribution of wealth to the richer sectors of the population. 

During this period, the prices of food and other expenses went up, but certainly by considerably less than 90 %; from 1815 to 1845, they actually went down. Those articles produced by the new mechanical process became a lot cheaper, so that the expenses of the population went down, and their real (inflation-corrected) incomes went up. Import tariffs were reduced in 1824, and again after 1840; domestic taxes on consumption were also reduced, particularly that on beer (1830), which saved one pound a year for each household. 

From 1830 onwards, the non-financial condition of the working class was improved by government legislation: factory acts (hours of work, age of employment of children), truck acts, legislation for savings banks and friendly societies. Also the municipal authorities were given powers to provide water and to clean up sanitary problems. 

Although there are few statistics (except of imported goods), there are a large number of indications that food consumption increased. The only important doubts are those of meat, for which there are no guaranteed data. He can show in general terms that farm production increased, due to Enclosure and to improved efficiency. Potatoes were introduced, although it is not clear, if they were a substitution for cereals, or an addition. He gives us an estimate of consumption in London in 1850, from contemporary data, of 5 oz. butter (per person per week), 30 oz. meat, 56 oz. potatoes, 32 oz. fruit; the figures are very close to those of the 1960’s. 

In his closing paragraphs, he does make clear his acceptance that all these financial and material improvements cannot compensate directly for the difficult situations of housing, water supply, sanitary disposal, and infant mortality.          

Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson in 1983 decided to carry out a well-structured and detailed calculation of incomes and cost of living of the English working class, which was published as “English Workers’ Living Standards during the Industrial Revolution: ANew Look”. This type of analysis was badly needed. They collected wages or incomes for a number of years in the period from 1755 to 1851 for 18 different employee classes (“blue collar” and “white collar”). Further they made some estimates as to the movements in the cost of living (food, rent, clothing, fuel) between each of these years.

The result was clearly a win for the “Optimists” school. It demonstrated that real (inflation-corrected) incomes in the period 1755 to 1810 showed no net movement, and that from 1810 to 1851, there was an impressive improvement of an exact multiplication by 2, which logically make up a 100 % total increase in real income in 1755-1851. The preceding figures refer to those of Lindert and Williamson’s text about blue collar + white collar workers, but the qualitative statement is also true for only blue collar workers.

One clear problem in the total data base of Lindert and Williamson, was that it did not include the cotton weavers and the wool spinners and weavers, who were a large proportion of the working classes in the following decades. As to the elements of the cost of living, they do not give a list of these factors, their weights in the family budgets, or their progression during the period. This is unfortunate, because a large part of the improvement against previous (less explicit) calculations is the decrease in the cost of living by 15 % from 1781 to 1850, when actually all the types of food had price increases in the period. 

The document was criticized by other economic historians, because it was not really consistent with all the evidence and information of contemporary people, as to the level of the physical life of the workers. In reaction to the comments by Nick Crafts, Lindert and Williamson made some adjustments in the cost of living inputs, with the effect of changing the movement in real wages 1819-1851 from + 84 % to + 62 %. 

Following we have a resumed version of the figures reported by Lindert and Williamson.


YearNominal WageCost of LivingReal Income
1810180.8181.3 99.6
1835157.9 94.9166.1
1851167.7 84.3199.2

(Lindert, Williamson, 1983; Table 3 p. 7, Table 4 p. 11, Table 5 p. 13)

(Data converted to 1781 = 100 index, by this author)

In 1998, Charles Feinstein presented a quite different, or “pessimistic” estimate, and which he effectively called “Pessimism Perpetuated”, which covered all the years from 1770 to 1860. The data base reflected more closely an average of all the working class, since a) it included women, and b) it added the occupations of cotton weavers, wool spinners and weavers, railway workers, engineering and shipbuilding, tailors, boot and shoe makers, female agricultural labourers, and male and female domestic staff.  These were presented as 20 occupations, covering 80 per cent of all wage earners at the level of 1851. The increase in nominal wages from 1781 to 1851 was + 65 %, very close to the Lindert and Williamson figure.

The cost of living index was constructed with much more detail, and the paper as presented shows the percentage division of the consumption budgets, and the movements of each element during the period. In comparison with Lindert and Williamson, price data for potatoes, oatmeal and beer were added. The cost of living up to 1851 is + 29 %, in comparison with – 15 % in the earlier investigation. 

The real wage, according to this paper, increased very little – about 10 % – from 1770 to the 1830’s, and then increased rapidly by an additional 30 % up to 1860.  

Unfortunately, the detailed working papers are not findable.

YearNominal WageCost ofLivingReal Income
1800174.4204.3 85.4

(Feinstein, 1998; Appendix, Table 3, pp. 652-653)

The last words of Feinstein’s paper are, at the very least, unluckily chosen:

“For the majority of the working class the historical reality was that they had to endure almost a century of hard toil with little or no advance from a low base before they really began to share in any of the benefits of the economic transformation they had helped to create.”

(Feinstein, 1998, p. 652)

With these words, Feinstein, a) decides that the living standards before 1800 were “low”, without any proof as to absolute figures of wages; b) decides that the working class had a century of hard toil without sharing in the benefits, which is an absolute statement as to real wages, when he has only investigated relative movements; c) takes the position that these calculations of real wages take precedence in the “standard of living controversy”, before any other forms of evidence.

Gregory Clark carried out two studies of individual occupations,Farm Wages and Living Standards in the Industrial Revolution: England, 1670-1850 (2001), and The Condition of the Working-Class in England, 1209-2003 (2004), giving figures of practically zero movement for real wages from 1770 to 1800, but 10 % increase (farm workers) and 50 % (skilled construction workers) from the 1800’s to the 1850’s. 

With respect to the farm workers, he reports basic day wages for male farm workers from 1670 to 1850, using farm and estate accounts, and secondary sources referring to the whole country. He gives a detailed calculation of cost of living by quinquennia. From 1770-74 to 1845-49, nominal wages + 63 %, cost of living + 31 %, real wages + 24 %. Nominal wages in the period 1845-49 in South West were 15 % less than other regions; real wages increased by only 10 % in the South West, but rose by 50 % in the north. 

“The real wage of male farm workers, measured by the purchasing power of the day wage, increased little if at all in the Industrial Revolution. Indeed workers in the southern regions may have seen declines in their real wages. These findings are in line with Feinstein’s recent pessimism about real wages in general in the Industrial Revolution.”    

His investigation of incomes of male building craftsmen and labourers in England 1209-2003 showed up to 1800 no increase in real wages. From 1770-9 to 1850-9 the nominal wage went up by 87 %, the cost of living by 23 %, and the real wage by 52 % (from 1820-9 to 1850-9, the real wages went up by 30 %) 

“Thus the Industrial Revolution is not an abrupt break around 1800 from a stagnant economy, but an acceleration of a process of modern growth that began about 150 years earlier.”

“….. from 1200 to 1800 there was no trend increase in real wages, even though by 1800 English workers were probably the best paid in the world.”

The series is much more optimistic than Feinstein; the reason is that the estimated cost of living rises much less than Feinstein’s. The real wage series suggests that Feinstein is too optimistic about the early Industrial Revolution. It was not until the 1820s that real wages advanced beyond the level of the 1760s.  

In this section of detailed calculations, we finish with a paper by Robert Allen (2007), in which he compares and evaluates the three concepts: Feinstein (1998), one chapter by himself in 2001, and Clark (2005). Allen comes to the conclusion that the truth is closer to the calculations of Feinstein and himself, and thus he gives the title to his work: “Pessimism Preserved”. The movement in real wages in the period is somewhat more favourable than in the Feinstein study, due the data of costs and usages of cereals.

The results of Allen (2007) for the same period as Feinstein are as follows:

YearNominal WageCost of LivingReal Income
1800174.4190.4 91.7

(Allen, 2007, Appendix I p. 36, Appendix II p. 37)

Converted to index 1770 = 100 by this author

“In particular, the growth of the real wage in the late eighteenth century means that the real wage in the early nineteenth century was not a “subsistence wage”. It could not have been, for it was clearly above the 1770s level! Indeed, British wages during the industrial revolution were very high by international standards, again calling into question explanations couched in terms of subsistence.”  

A further advance is also due to Bob Allen, in his The High Wage Economy and the Industrial Revolution: a Restatement (2013). The concept is the “Welfare Ratio”, which is the proportion of the income of a family to a fixed physical amount of food that they would eat. This ratio can be calculated for people of the same occupation in the same country for different dates, or for people in different occupations in the same country at one date, or for people of the same occupation at the same date but in different counties. In the sense of this book, we would be interested in an average of the workers (or a number of different occupations) in England on a number of different dates.

The advantage here is that we would not be working on the yearly movements of the real wages, which for the dates 1770-1830 are taken to be “stagnant”, but we would be able to see if the worker and his family were eating “enough”, and what was the movement/ improvement of this “enough”. This procedure has its parallel in the general usage in the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century, when the agricultural and domestic-industry wages were often re-expressed in bushels of wheat per family per week.

Allen has two Baskets of Goods:

 RespectabilityBare Bones Subsistence
 Quantity per Person per YearQuantity per Person per Year
Oatmeal/Grain  170 kg
Bread 182 kg 
Beans/Peas 34 kg 20 kg
Meat 26 kg 5 kg
Butter/Oil 5.2 kg 3.0 kg
Cheese 5.2 kg 
Beer/Wine 182 lt 
Soap 2.6 kg 1.3 kg
Linen/Cotton 5 m 3 m
Candles 2.6 kg 1.3 kg
Lamp Oil 2.6 lt 1.3 lt
Fuel 5.0 M BTU 2.0 M BTU

(each basket provided 2100 calories per day)

Allen has some calculations as examples. A building labourer in England had 2.7 subsistence baskets in 1775, 2.9 baskets in 1825, and 4.5 baskets in 1875; this is a very high level, as the family could not have eaten 4.5 times their standard weight of cereals, and thus could have paid for many additional expenses. In the North of England, an agricultural labourer had around 2 subsistence baskets for all the period 1780 to 1860 (with a maximum of 3, for a few years around 1820-1825); a worsted hand loom weaver went down from 1.5 in 1770 to 1.0 in 1800, up to 3.2 in 1815, and finally down to 1.0 in 1850. 

Unfortunately, Allen does not show a calculation of the average worker’s income, expressed in subsistence baskets, for each year or each decade of the Industrial Revolution in England. This would clarify what was the absolute standard of living in each date. For the non-agricultural workers it would probably be around a ratio of 1.5 from 1770 to 1830, and then climb quickly to 3.0 in 1860 (according to the calculations in the body of this book).  

“There is a deeply ingrained tradition among British historians that emphasizes the poverty of the working class during the Industrial Revolution. This was a theme of social critics of the period and was theoretized by the classical economists who thought wages were at “subsistence” (*). While Ricardo, Malthus, and Marx subscribed to this view, it is worth remembering that Adam Smith had a far more nuanced understanding of the world. He thought that the English and Dutch workers had the world’s highest wages followed by other Europeans and then by the Chinese and Indians. Indeed, Friedrich Engels’ description of working class diets contradicted his own theory, for it showed that all but the poorest strata ate expensive foods like bread, cheese and meat. The average Italian or Indian labourer could not afford to eat so well. Unless we base our theories of the Industrial Revolution on comparative analyses that recognize the high standard of living achieved by eighteenth century Britain, we shall never understand why the Industrial Revolution happened when and where it did.”    

(*) (Note by this author) The term “subsistence wage” is not what it seems. The classical economists did not understand it as the wage which could allow the worker to purchase just enough food to be able to work. It was “the quantity of food, necessaries, and conveniences [which] become essential from habit” (Ricardo). Expressed from the other direction, it was an income which did not include a surplus with which to buy unnecessary luxuries. 

From the above collections of observations, we see that Gregory Clark and Bob Allen judge that the real wages from 1770 to 1830 were practically constant, but that this was not necessarily bad, as they were continuing from the wages of 1770, which had permitted a reasonable standard of living. We may call Clark and Allen: “Semi-Pessimists”! 

The most recent contribution is from Emma Griffin, with her “Diets, Hunger and Living Standards during the British Industrial Revolution” (2018). This essay does not bring much new data about the movements in living standards, but does put forward some useful non-“real wage” procedures which she has started to put into practice, and others which she suggests should be evaluated. These are: autobiographies of working-class persons, prevalence of hunger situations in these writings, percentage of food in collected family budgets in different occupations, food inputs from self-provisioning (allotments, pigs), searches for data in not-investigated segmentations such as urban/rural, regions, age, gender, occupation.

Emma Griffin’s aim in the article is to “demonstrate that the evidence of stagnant living standards sustained across a large range of indicators is far more ambiguous than quantitative historians are prepared to admit. Furthermore, in seeking to interpret all results within a pessimistic framework, the possibility of a fundamental split between the experiences of different sections of the population – urban/rural, adult/child, male/female – has not been properly incorporated into our understanding of this historical transition.”       

From the totality of the preceding investigations, it would appear that a large part of the people had a difficult life from 1800 to 1833. When we add to these the reports of Parliamentary Commissions, etc., there is not much room for doubt. The real incomes would seem to have been on the same level from 1800 to 1830, and then increased significantly up to 1860. If we follow the comments of Gregory Clark and Bob Allen, the absolute values of the wages were fairly high, that is, the majority of the population could eat sufficiently well. 


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