2.4. Time Frame

Your author is not happy with the idea that to calculate “the change in living standards due to the Industrial Revolution”, one should start from 1770, or perhaps 1790.

The Industrial Revolution, that is, new processes, new machines, production in factories, started in the cotton industry in Lancashire in around 1780. Even then, the growth of the factory population was not impressive. In 1815, there were only 43 mills in Manchester, with a total of 13,000 workers; seven employed less than 100, fourteen 100-200, thirteen 200-400, five 400-700 (Select Committee on the State of the Children Employed in the Manufactures of the United Kingdom, 1816, p. 374; quoted in Chapman, 1915, p. 477). In 1791-1800 the production of cotton yarn in the country was 30 million pounds per year, that is, only 40 pounds per inhabitant of Lancashire or 3 pounds per inhabitant of England.       

In Bradford, the main worsted town, there was no spinning or weaving machinery before 1810, the year in which the first spinning frames were installed in buildings; the first few power-looms were installed in the 1830’s. In the West Riding, in 1805, of 300,000 cloths woven in total, only 8,000 were produced in factories. In Leeds, there was practically no spinning machinery before 1820, and power-looms started in small numbers in the 1830’s. In 1841, only from 20 % to 25 % of occupied persons worked in factories. 

In the West Midlands, although it was a more gradual process, we might say that it started in 1780 with the stationary steam engine and the increase of production of pig-iron. 

In the rest of the country, the industrial production processes did not begin until 1835-1845, with the geographical extension of the railway system:

“To turn over the pages of the early volumes of the Illustrated London News, which was founded in 1842, is to experience a social revolution. The first volume depicts an England that, apart from the capital, is mainly rural – a land of cathedral spires embowered in trees; fairs and markets; fat cattle, gaitered farmers and squired and smocked peasants. Where the manufacturing districts appear they do so as an almost savage terra incognita, with rough unpaved roads, grim goal-like factories and men and women of sullen and brutish appearance. …. 

Yet before the end of the ‘forties the scene has completely changed. It is an urban England that is engraved on the crowded page. The stress is now on paved streets, vast Gothic town halls, the latest machinery, above all the railroad. The iron horse, with its towering, belching funnel and its long load of roaring coaches plunging through culvert and riding viaduct, had spanned the land, eliminating distance and reducing all men to a common denominator. And the iron horse did not go from village to village: it went from industrial town to town.”  

(Bryant, English Saga, 1942, Ch. 3, The Iron Horse, p. 80) 

(In the film of “Sense and Sensibility”, which is set in about 1810, we do not see any industry) 

The effects on the population as consumers did not begin until about 1820, with the introduction of cheap cotton clothing. 

“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.” 

(Baines, 1836, p. 358)

The effects on the population as wage-earners, due to the general economic circumstances certainly may have started before, but to include the years 1790 to 1815 is not useful for an analysis of the major part of the country. A much larger effect on the economy and the standard of living was given by the French Wars. These increased the general price level to 200 %, took 400,000 men out of civilian production (agricultural and industrial) to fight in the armed services, required a considerable increase in taxes on the population, and increased poverty for those families who lost the father in the wars. On the positive side, the government purchased huge quantities of uniforms from Yorkshire, and millions of muskets, plus land and sea cannons from Birmingham. But also, in the years 1795 to 1815, England experienced a number of very bad harvests.

Your author is also not happy with the calculations of the economic historians, which for each year or each decade, give just one figure for real incomes, averaged over all the occupations. As the Industrial Revolution “reached” different industries in different dates, and some not at all, obviously the movements in real wages would be affected in different ways by the Industrial Revolution. The figures should be compiled and presented for each occupation. At the very least there should be separate calculations for agricultural and for non-agricultural workers and families. 

In the humble opinion of this author, these calculations should include the following effects, if they are to show the movements of income and the absolute incomes of the workers and their families:

  • they do not include the income for the agricultural families, up to 1800, from the spinning of wool (3 to 4 shillings per week); the loss of this work was the first bad effect of the Industrial Revolution; 
  • for the agricultural families, they do not include the income from harvest month, and from task-work (+ 30 %);
  • the average income of the cotton mill workers is represented as each person with a wage of i.e. 10 shillings a week, whereas it should be one family of 3 persons (father, wife, son) with a total wage of 30 shillings a week;
  • the reduction in cost of clothing from 1770 to 1860 is given as 25 %, when it should be 75 – 80 % (the Industrial Revolution started with large quantities of cheap cotton goods).   

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