3.2. Monetary Income Levels

Monetary system Pounds (£), shillings (s.), pennies or pence (d.)
1 Pound = 20 shillings, 1 shilling = 12 pence 
Wage of farm labourer = 9 to 12 shillings per week
Wage of male worker in textile factory = 20 to 30 shillings per week 
Dry weight measures 1 bushel wheat = 60 lb., 1 quarter = 480 lb. 
Price of 4 pound loaf of wheaten bread = 6 to 8 pence
Energy supplied by 4 pound loaf = 4,500 calories 
Price of butcher’s meat = 4 to 6 pence per pound

The situation in Lancashire before the introduction of the fly-shuttle for the loom, was of reasonable prosperity. The spinners and weavers could sell their respective merchandises at a sufficient price. The majority of these people, apart from their textile production, also had a small farm for their food necessities.

When Arthur Young visited the town of Manchester in 1769, he found much activity in the cotton industry. There were a lot of different types of cloth made, and the men weavers earned from 5 to 10 shillings a week for “velverets”, “thicksets”, “quilts” and “petticoats”, and from 3 to 7 shillings for other fustians (mix of cotton and linen yarns); for all the “check” branch, the men earned 7 shillings. The women cotton spinners earned 2 to 5 shillings, and girls of 6-12 years received 1s. to 1s. 6d.

He was told that there were 30,000 in the families of spinners in the town, and 50,000 in the country around. The major part of the production was exported to North America and the West Indies. There was always enough work for everybody, and the master manufacturers usually had pending orders in their books. Bread (mixture of wheat and barley) was at 1 ½ pence the pound and beef at 2 ½ pence the pound, so that 7 shillings a week would buy 56 pounds of bread or 35 pounds of beef (Young, 1771, Vol. 3, pp. 186-194).    

As a general statement for the period 1770 to 1840, the incomes in Lancashire from sales of own work, piece work, and later the wages from working in factories, were good by the standards of the day. The exceptions were the low wages for the small children working in factories, the low piece work rates for domestic hand-loom weavers from 1817 onwards, and temporary reductions in weekly wages or in number of personnel, in times of recessions. The farmers, the coal miners, and the mechanics building the textile machinery had very good incomes.  

With the fly shuttle, the weavers earned more, because they received more thread from the spinners (which might be own family members), and thus had more output per day. 

With the jenny, men began to spin, as this required more strength and skill. Jennies could be worked economically only by skilled spinners; their effect was to reduce the quantity of labour for a given output, and to substitute men’s labour for that of women and children, as more strength was needed, i. e. women did not do much textile work in the cottage. 

The period from 1785 to 1805 was a “golden age” for the weavers and their families. There was a great increase in the volume of production; many barns and outbuildings were converted to loom-sheds, and many new weavers’ cottages (with workrooms for looms) were built. Some families had a total income of 40 to 100 shillings per week.

By the 1820s, all cotton was spun in mills; but this yarn went to outworking weavers who continued to work in their own homes. 

The first steam power weavers (1820-1830) were women, assisted by children, due to the negative of the men to work in the mills. Hand loom weaving had been a man’s occupation but in the mill it could and was done by girls and women. Thus the main income of a family was often that of the wife and a daughter.

The proportions of each type of personnel in spinning and weaving mills (that is, excluding hand-loom weavers working in their houses) in England in 1833 were as follows (Baines, 1836, p. 379):

It is very difficult to construct a series of wages for cotton factory workers for the years from 1770 to 1820:

  1. we have very few data;
  2. there are no series of yearly figures reported in that period, presented by one person or one authority;
  3. the net incomes for spinners, were after subtracting the wages of the “piecers” (boys who joined together broken threads), who were paid by the spinner, and we have very little data about the piecers;
  4. the gross piece rates for the spinners were contractually agreed with the masters on the basis of volume produced, so that the real net income in a given week was the multiplication of the piece rate by the production amount, i.e. the income was in function of the speed and technique of each spinner;
  5. the piece rates were different in each town;
  6. the piece rates were different for each fineness of yarn;
  7. the spinners themselves, in their arguments with the owners about general wage levels, were not consistent;
  8. the piece rates were often reduced temporarily (6 to 24 months) by the owners, when there was a “slump”.

We do have a table of earnings for a number of job descriptions in the cotton industry for the period of 1810 to 1825. These come with incomes for other types of employment in Lancashire, and the costs of food. The data were collected by the Chamber of Commerce of Manchester, and transmitted to the Board of Trade, and we also have data from 1825 to 1832 collected by Mr. Baines (Baines, 1835, pp. 438-439).

We see that the cotton spinners earn in the majority of the years, 32 shillings, while the carpenters, stonemasons, bricklayers, and painters (who in general were well paid in all parts of England) earned 21 to 25 shillings, and the tailors 20 shillings. This shows that effectively it was necessary for the mill-owners to pay superior wages to these people, to induce them to change to cotton spinning. Flour went down from 4 shillings for 12 pounds to 2 shillings during this period, and butcher’s meat from 8 pence the pound to 5 pence. Thus the spinners’ families certainly were able to eat well.  

In 1906, the company of McConnel & Kennedy – who had constructed one of the first large mills in Manchester – published a Centenary magazine with information about the past of the company. Included was a list of standard wages, made out by a manager in 1819. 

Page scan of sequence 95

(Note that the men spinners have to pay out of their wages, the wages of one piecer)

(McConnel, 1906, p. 51)

The amounts of food which could be bought with one week’s earnings improved considerably from 1804 to 1833:

(Taken from the Report of the Commons Committee on Manufactures, Commerce, and Shipping, 1833, p. 319)

In 1818, according to a newspaper in Manchester, the spinners had a net weekly wage of “upwards of 31s.; and for boys and girls, spinners, upwards of 17s., clear of all charges and deductions whatsoever”; “No class of people have had such constant and uniform employment, for the last twenty-eight years” (Kirby, R. G., Musson, A. E.; The Voice of the People: John Doherty, 1798-1854 : Trade Unionist, Radical and Factory Reformer; Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1976; p. 19). In 1827, according to a newspaper advertisement, spinners on numbers 110 to 200 would be earning “from 34s. to 38s. per week, clear of all expense” (op. cit., p. 44).

In 1829, in reply to exaggerated information from the owners, the spinners’ union put out a statement that “There are about 2,400 spinners in Manchester and its immediate vicinity, twenty-five, or may be thirty of these could, before the reduction was proposed, have earned 60s., 250, or perhaps 300, could have earned 40s., 600 25s., and 1,500 about 16s., some being as low as 12s.; …” (op. cit., p. 64). 

It is important to note that generally 2, 3, or 4 members of one family worked in the cotton mills; very often, the piecer for a spinner was his own son.

This means that the weekly income for the family (i.e. used to cover expenses) was often 30 to 40 shillings.

The typical incomes in 1833 for each productive activity and age/sex of the worker were:

(Baines, 1835, p. 436)

With respect to family incomes in the cotton mills in the year 1847, we have a long document from the Factory Inspectors. This was a list of interviews with male and female workers, as to their opinions about the “Ten-Hour Bill”, and their experiences up to that date with different hours of work and corresponding wage levels. We can also see in which cases the husband and the wife both worked.

Page scan of sequence 175

(Inspectors of Factories; Reports, for the Half-Year ending 31st October 1848; Appendix, Evidence of the Opinions of Persons employed in Factories respecting the Ten-hours’ Act, collected in September, October, and November, 1848, by Mr. Horner and the five Sub-Inspectors in his District; Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London, 1849)

The wages in 1839, 1849, 1859, for a number of tasks in the cotton industry were the following:

   s. d.  s. d.s. d.
Spinners Self-acting mulesMen16 018 020 0
Spinners ThrostlesWomen  7 0  7 6  9 0
WarpersMen22 022 023 0
DoublersWomen  7 0  7 6  9 0
Piecers 14 to 18 yrsBoys  5 6  5 6  6 0
Spinners Hand-mulesMen25 021 025 0
Weavers Power-looms (2 looms)Women  9 0  9 010 0
Weavers Power-looms (4 looms)Women17 016 018 0
Hand-loom weavers
Fancy fabrics (working at their 
own house) 
Men16 015 016 0

(In all cases, the hours were 69, 60, 60)

(Chadwick, 1860, Tables (N), (O), (P), pp. 23-25)

As to the destination of the wealth generated by the cotton industry, we have a calculation by the radical newspaper, “The Gorgon” in 1818, which shows that a master spinner (i.e. mill owner) would earn 4 pounds 3 shillings 4 pence from the production of 20 lbs. of cotton yarn, while the spinner would earn 18 shillings net from working this amount in one week. (However, the arithmetic of the spinner’s net income is misleading. One of the piecers is very probably his son, as the spinner could choose who would work with him, and thus the piecer’s wages go directly into the father’s pocket. The other two piecers are sons of other workers, who will also pocket their sons’ wages; the money is an income for the totality of the spinners in Manchester.) Thus the net income of an average of spinners is 2 pounds 0 shillings 4 pence.

Manchester was not only “cotton”. Less than 25 % of the adult workers in Manchester worked in cotton production, and not all of these were employed in continuous work on the machines. According to Benjamin Love, quoting a report of the Manchester Statistical Society, of 71,799 employed in Manchester and Salford in 1834, 18,353 worked in cotton factories (Love, 1842, p. 95). According to the 1851 Census, 16.0 % of males over 20 worked in cotton manufacture, and 13.9 % of females over 20 (Bolton, 28.2 / 20.9; Preston 30.6 / 28.5; Oldham 30.4 / 25.4)  (Danson, Welton, 1860, Table XXIV, p. 67). The other industrial activities were: iron foundries, construction of stationary steam engines and of locomotives, construction of machinery for textile factories (especially power looms), dye works, bleaching works, calico printing, chemical works. In these industries the factories worked six 10-hour days. The commercial activities of the town were equally important to the industrial: banking, insurance, purchase and sale of commodities, warehousing, transport.

Family budgets

The farmers in Lancashire and Cheshire had good incomes during this period, because they could sell their produce to the operatives in the cotton industry; the agricultural labourers were the best paid in England, with wages of 15 shillings cash, or bed and board calculated at 9 shillings plus 6 shillings cash. Miners earned 25 shillings, plus free coal. Skilled mechanics earned from 25 to 35 shillings.  

In each of the sections for the different occupations, we shall be showing the wages in shillings per week (numbers and graph), and in quartern loaves per week (numbers and graph). The conversion to loaves is with the intention of presenting real incomes, that is, after adjusting for price inflation in food. The choice of a quartern wheat loaf is not altogether logical, as a proportion of people in the North ate oatcakes or a loaf of mixed barley and wheat, and a number of agricultural families did not eat shop bread, but bought flour to bake their bread. But this arithmetical rule is useful, because it is comparable over all the data, and the people of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries expressed their expenses in this way. 

The “poverty line”, that is, the man’s earnings at which the family could eat just enough, but did not go to bed with hunger, was at about 8 white bread quartern loaves per week, or 6 quartern loaves equivalent, if the family did not buy white bread loaves, but wheat flour or oatmeal to make the bread at home. This is supposing that other members of the family earned money, or that the father had in addition earnings from harvest or task-wages. 

As the price of the quartern loaf oscillated strongly, such that the prices for the years 1800, 1805, 1810, ….., were not representative, the average of each quinquennium is used  (e.g. 1800-1804). But the bread prices for exactly the years 1800, 1801, 1810, were very high, so that the people did suffer hunger.

The lines of data generally are each taken from one source or authority, with the intention that there are no sudden movements due to changes in definitions.

Cotton workers (shillings per week)

Hand mule spinnerSelf Acting spinnerSpinnerWeaver
Weaver Power-
Weaver domestic
1795 33
1800 25
1805 34  10 25
1810 42 8 20
1815 32 10 14 14
1820 35 10 14 9
1825 35 20 9 13 11 9
1830 35 19 9 12 12 6
1835 35 18 9 12 12 6
1840 40 19 10 16 12 6
1845 40 16 10 16 12 6
1850 38 18 9 15 10 6
1855 40 20 9 15 10
1860 38 22 10 16 14

(Note that the men spinners referenced are the 1st class, in the finer threads; the average incomes for all men spinners were about 70 % of the 1st class)

Cotton workers (loaves per week)

Hand mule spinningSelf Acting spinningSpinningWeaving in-houseWeaving Power-loomWeaving domestic
1795 43
1800 24
1805 32 9 23
1810 32 6 15
1815 31 10 14 14
1820 42 12 17 11
1825 42 24 11 16 13 10
1830 45 24 11 15 15 7
1835 48 25 12 17 17 8
1840 54 26 13 22 16 7
1845 57 23 14 23 17 8
1850 62 30 15 25 16 9
1855 54 27 12 20 14
1860 57 33 15 24 21

Cotton workers (shillings per week)

(Spinning and weaving in mills: Returns of Wages; Weaving domestic men: Committee Commerce, Manufacture, Shipping, 1833, pp. 699-700)

This is a very important graph. It shows the changes in income for men and women, in function of the changes in the processes and machines. The men are employed in spinning on the mules during all the period. They are also employed in the self-acting machines from 1825; thus (although this is not shown) the proportion of men on hand mules decreased, as they only worked on the heavier mules for the finer threads. The women starting working on the power-looms, when these were introduced in 1825-1830; the work was not muscular, but only inspection and adjustment of the machines, which is why it was only done by women, and at 10s. to 12s. the week. Those hand-loom weavers who had a salaried contract with a mill earned a reasonable income; they generally wove the more complicated and artistic pieces. The hand-loom weavers who worked on a piece rate basis had a very low income from 1817 onwards.  

Cotton workers (loaves per week)

From these data above, it would seem to be difficult to calculate an average for the whole of the cotton industry (men, women, and children) during this period, to see if the wages in general increased. Luckily, George Wood in his “History of Wages in the Cotton Trade”(1910) does give us exactly the required figures, based on his years of experience and investigation of the incomes data. We see that the nominal wages for factory workers maintained in the range from 100 pence to 126 pence in the period 1806 to 1855 (but we will show in a later section, that wages for cotton workers at the beginning of the nineteenth century were clearly higher than those for the occupations that they had left). The average of real wages went up from 10 loaves a week to 18 loaves a week. 

                Operatives                           Hand-loom                 All Workpeople

                in Factories                         Weavers                      (Cotton)

Year Number empl.Weekly wage Number empl.Weekly wage Number empl.Weekly Wage
  ‘000Shillings ‘000Shillings ‘000Shillings
1806 9010.1 18420.0 27418.3
1810 10010.5 20014.2 30013.0
1815 11410.5 22013.5 33412.5
1820 12610.3 2408.3 3669.0
1825 1739.8 2408.3 4138.9
1830 1859.6 2406.2 4258.7
1835 2209.6 1886.2 4088.0
1840 2629.3 1236.2 3858.3
1845 2739.9 696.2 3339.2
1850 3319.2 436.2 3748.8
1855 37110.0 276.2 3989.7
1860 42711.6 106.2 43711.5

(Extracted from: Wood, 1910, Table 41, pp. 127-128; pence converted to shillings by this author)

It must however be pointed out that these figures of about 10 shillings a week are for one average person. In the majority of cases in the cotton industry, 2 or 3 family members worked. Thus we might well have a man cotton spinner (average job level) with 22 shillings a week, his wife or daughter (18 years old) with 12 shillings, and a boy (10 years old) with 6 shillings, giving a total of 40 shillings.   

Thus, following we give a re-expression of “number employed” and “weekly wage” for factory operatives per family of 3 persons in the factories. 

                Operatives                           Hand-loom                 All Workpeople

                in Factories                         Weavers                      (Cotton)

Year Families
  ‘000Shillings ‘000Shillings ‘000Shillings
1806 3030 18420 21421
1810 3331 20014 23316
1815 3831 22014 25816
1820 4232 2408 28212
1825 5829 2408 29812
1830 6228 2406 30210
1835 7327 1886 26112
1840 8728 1236 21015
1845 9130 696 16020
1850 11028 436 15322
1855 12430 276 15126
1860 14236 106 15234

Graph of the above table (cotton industry):

Average wages in shillings

Average wages in loaves

The question is, why did the mill owners pay such high wages to the male spinners? From their point of view, because the spinners were the most important link in the production chain, and because they needed men with skill to guarantee the quality of the thread and the daily volume of production. But from the point of view of the men, it was because the work on the mule was physically hard, and required much stamina during the 14 hour day; many of the spinners had to leave the work at 40 years old, because they were just too tired. They needed a good income, in order to cover the large amounts of food that they had to consume.

“In its domestic industry phase, mule spinning acquired the status and characteristics of a craft. Many factors served to restrict entry into the occupation: the strength required to push to mule carriage back and forth; the skills required to draw out the yarn evenly to the required fineness, to wind the yarn properly into the form of a cop on the spindle, and to maintain (and perhaps even construct) the mule; and the capital required to buy the machine. As a high-paying occupation that required concentrated physical strength and the supervision of assistants, mule spinning remained a male-dominated craft as it moved into the factory setting. Attracted by high wages in an expanding industry, many artisans – shoemakers, joiners, and hatmakers – left their trades to take up mule spinning.” (Lazonick, 1992, Ch. 3, Minders, Piecers and Self-Acting Mules, p. 81)

“These manual operations also required a considerable amount of physical strength to push the mule five feet up to the roller beam to wind the spun yarn. In the 1830s a mule on which coarse counts of yarn were being spun had to be put up about three and one-half times per minute, or about 2,200 times (allowing for stoppages) for a twelve-hour day. In 1838 the weight of a mule carriage of 336 spindles for spinning course counts was 1,400 pounds and that of a carriage (“constructed on the lightest Principle”) of 816 spindles was 1,755 pounds.“ (ibid. p. 83). 

Domestic hand-loom weavers

The weaving of cotton by domestic hand-loom workers continued up to 1840, but was accompanied by an extreme reduction of the incomes of the weavers starting from 1817. The power-looms, which were more efficient, started around 1810, but did not take over the majority of the production until about 1830. It is not true that the power-loom took away the work from the hand-loom weavers, and thus forced them to offer their cloths at a very low price. For a long time the power-looms could not work the “fancy” weaves.

The poverty of the domestic hand-loom weavers from 1817 to 1835 is commented in a separate chapter.


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