2.2. Development of Monetary Income and Real Income

The question is whether the workers during the period 1770-1860 had enough income to lead a normal life, and if this changed or improved in this time. One would think that the new inventions would improve monetary incomes and living standards. But there are a number of “scenes” of poverty or of insufficient food. However, it should be taken into account, that many of the cases of bad living conditions in the modern industries were not due to insufficient wages, but due to the fact that the workers had to live in the towns where the work was.

Average non-agricultural wages increased a little from 1770 to 1790, increased by 25 % up to 1800, due to the general increase in prices, caused by the scarcity of wheat, and then remained practically constant up to 1850. The average weekly wage of the agricultural labourers increased a little from 1770 to 1790, went up by 50 % during the period 1790 to 1815, and then oscillated around an amount 15 % less than 1815, for all the period 1820 to 1860. 

The average wage of non-agricultural and agricultural labourers together doubled from 1770 to 1860, because a large number of people changed from the agricultural sector to the non-agricultural sector, and thus the weighted average went up.

There were some abrupt changes in incomes and costs with long-term effects: 

  • increases in wages of at least 50 % around 1790-1810 for the men who changed from other occupations to working in the cotton spinning mills (added to the possibility of employing also the wife/daughter and a small son);
  • the loss of income from spinning wool, starting in 1790 and reaching zero income in 1820, for the wives and daughters in the agricultural families (probably one million families), due to the mechanization of wool processing in Yorkshire, which made it impossible for persons to compete on costs;
  • the fall in incomes from 17 shillings per week to 4 – 8 shillings, for the domestic cotton hand-loom weavers from 1817 to 1833, which meant that from around 1830 many of them were starving, and by 1850 nearly all had changed to other (low-paid) occupations; 
  • the introduction of the New Poor Law in 1834, which abolished cash payments to the poor, and offered them the alternative of existence in the workhouse, thus reducing the “market minimum” of wages for poor people who could find some work;
  • repeal or reduction in 1830 to 1845 of taxes on consumption on sugar, tea, malt, coffee, beer, spirits, tobacco, soap, and salt, which had been in the worst previous years a charge of about 30 % on the labourer’s expenses;
  • repeal of the Corn Laws (tariffs on import of wheat) in 1846, causing a reduction in the price of wheat from 8 shillings a bushel to 6 shillings.

There were also industrial recessions in the years 1810-12, 1816-17, 1819, 1826-27, 1830-31, 1839-42, and 1847-48. The worst was in 1839-42, and was a large part of the cause of the strikes and social unrest in those years; some people in the North died from starvation, or from pneumonia or fever acting on weakened bodies. In all cases of recessions, there was considerable unemployment and reductions in wages in the industrial areas. 

On the other hand, there were periods of full employment in practically all industrial occupations, with increases in wages to attract labour, particularly in 1835-1838 with large investments in textile plants, and in 1848-1852 due to the great expansion in railway infrastructure. 

The pattern of consumption of cereals for bread changed from 1800 to 1850. In 1800 wheaten bread was generally eaten in the South and East of England, rye in Yorkshire and the northeast of England, oats in Lancashire, and barley in Wales, the East Midlands, and the southwest of England. But by 1850, practically all England was eating wheaten bread. Wheaten bread cost more than the inferior cereals, but the working class was able to absorb the extra cost; the agricultural field labourers insisted on having wheaten bread, as it gave them more energy to carry out their work. 

In nearly all the years from 1815 onwards, there was sufficient production of cereals to feed the whole country (obviously in some occupations and some regions, the people did not eat very well). In 1833 and 1834, there was such a high volume of the wheat harvest, that the excess could not be consumed by the population, and was given to cattle and horses as fodder. 

As to meat consumption, we do not have much data. It appears that eating meat became common in the industrial towns of the North in around 1780-1800. By 1825, the populations of the industrial towns were eating 80 pounds of meat per person per year (average of parents, children, babies, indigents), that is, 8 pounds per family per week. The majority of the rest of the population except paupers were eating 2 pounds per family per week (the poor workers ate second-class cuts of meat).

The level of real income for the field workers, measured by the amount of food which could be bought, was the same in 1860 as in 1770. But this hides the decrement of at least 15 % due to the loss of spinning up to 1810, and the grave problems from insufficient harvests in 1795 and in 1800. The agricultural labourers did have more income than indicated by their basic weekly wage, because they had double wages and free food during the harvest month, and a lot of work was done at higher, “task-work”, daily rates. In the period 1830 to 1860, the labourers in the South and South West really suffered, because they had basic weekly wages of only about 7 shillings.  

The non-agricultural workers had on average the same wage, expressed in quartern loaves (4 pounds) from 1770 to 1830, but with a lower amount in 1810 and 1815, due to the bad harvests. The number was from 15 to 20 quartern loaves in the above period, but increased to 30 loaves in the period 1830 to 1860. It was generally taken that 15 quartern loaves was just enough for a decent life.

 We shall see in later chapters that many reports of the way of life of the non-agricultural workers give us to understand that the living standards improved by more than the movements in the average wage of individuals. 

It should be noted that the main cause of poverty in the Industrial Revolution in certain regions and certain jobs, was that there were many more people than jobs, which in turn was due to an increase in population and a lack of purchasing power. First, the agricultural revolution in England added to the “enclosures”, which brought a considerable increase in the efficiency of work in the countryside, forced many peasants to seek work in the cities and in the factories (but starting about 1820), since they could not find any other work. Additionally, when the Industrial Revolution in England had started, Irish peasants and weavers – who lived in very poor conditions – emigrated in boat to England, disembarking in Liverpool (this explains the particular accent of the Beatles!), at a rate of thousands per year. Yet the number of adult people looking for work increased because in many cases the factories took first the children, who cost less. When there are much more people than there is work, this leads to high unemployment, and a general reduction of salaries to a minimum at which people have not enough to eat normally. 

There was a considerable differentiation inside the segment of non-agricultural workers, between the “modern industrial” workers and the “sweated trades”. The first group had good incomes, because the use of machinery permitted an impressive increase of production volume, and a decrease of prices, such that the consuming public could buy all these products. The second group (i.e. dressmakers and shirtmakers) could only increase their “sales volume” by working more hours, as they had no mechanical help; their prices to the wholesaler were depressed by the competition between worker and worker, and the prices of the wholesaler were depressed by the competition between wholesaler and wholesaler.


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